Monday, November 16, 2009

Electricity vs Kerosene

Kerosene is fuel oil. It's what we burned in street lamps back before Edison's light bulb. Gasoline is car fuel, back before batteries. The similarities are striking.

Boiled down, alternative energy really takes two forms, electrons or liquids. Liquids are represented by bio diesel or ethanol concepts to fill the vast network we already have for the distribution of liquid energy.

But, electrons also take advantage of a huge network for distribution.

But back in the day, we had kerosene lamps that we filled, lamp by lamp down the street, and lit. Similar to how a big shiny tanker truck pulls up to every gas station and deposits a few thousand gallons of fuel into a tank today. We then pull in, fuel up and light it with the starter.

Lets look at this in more detail:

  1. People drill a hole in the ground and pump up oil and put it into a truck.
  2. The truck goes to a terminal where its pumped in pipelines or loaded on ships to be sent to a refinery.
  3. There it's refined into gas or diesel and and again loaded into a pipeline, ship or truck.
  4. From there it makes its way to another terminal where it's put into truck that takes it to your local gas station.
Pretty much like a kerosene lantern on the streets of Philadelphia in the 1800's.

Now electrons:
  1. Wind mill makes electricity that travels over wires to your home where you plug in your car.
Hmmm...let's see...I get fuel for my car from a wire at home instead of driving around looking for a refueling station? I'm pretty sure that's how the kerosene lamp died. It just made too much sense to run a wire into the lamp and put in a bulb.

If you really want to simplify it:
  1. Solar panel on roof makes electrons that we convert to AC and fuel our car!
It seems kinda silly that we have been taking our lamp to a gas station for fuel doesn't it? It also seems dumb to truck the gas to the gas station. It's kinda like banking before ATMs, credit cards and online access, there were just bags of money.

So why do we still live with this antiquated fuel concept for our transportation? Two words...big oil. They are the ones who own the entire infrastructure and depend on it to generate huge profits. They need us to drive down to a station of theirs and pay the price they set. They do everything in their power to keep this status quo.

But, there will be a time when we will all laugh about the antiquated car fueling structure we hung on to for so long. We will fuel our cars at home any time we want to at a price we have negotiated or with power we have generated ourselves.

I can't wait.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Peak oil

I love stories in the press about "peak oil". They are always presented like we have no choice but to drill baby drill.

Peak oil is a simple concept, when will we burn more oil per day than we pump out of the ground? If you're today's press, a little fear mongering is a great way to develop a headline or two.

The argument, (today's press's bread and butter) is that there is plenty of oil, or, we have already reached peak. Our latest oil shock was partially attributable to the demand issues of an emerging China and India. Many felt the peak was reached and the price of oil reflected that. The press ran with that worldwide.

But let's step back for a minute. Is the real issue peak oil? Or is the real issue peak demand? When will we humans stop growing our demand for oil? Or, more importantly, when will the nation that leads the free world, the US, reach peak demand?

So, do we have to drill our way to the last drop?

That is entirely our choice. We are not destined to run out of oil, or fight more wars over it. It's not pre-ordained. We are not locked in to a peak oil economy!

So I reject the idea that it's a supply issue and I reject the notion that we are stuck here. We all know that oil in every form is bad for our environment, bad for our geo politics, bad for our image around the world, bad for our soldiers and bad for our economy. What once was the engine of our growth is now a millstone around our neck.

Before we can address this challenge let's at least get it defined correctly. It isn't how much oil is out there or who we have to fight to get's how much we use. And we have a choice about that, and, we should support every effort to reduce it. Alternate forms of energy are out there and they are becoming more competitive every day.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New mileage standards

Today's green headlines talk a lot about new aggressive mileage standards for vehicles in the US, and California.

We have had mileage standards for many years yet we are far behind the rest of the world on this front. In addition:

Our car makers are on life support.

We import a huge amount of oil.

The city of Dallas regularly exceeds its air pollution standards.

The question is...are all those things caused by the vagaries of the market or is it in fact the problem with government rule making? Is the government able to implement and manage complex market changing regulation when large scale business is involved?

The answer is no.

Our car makers are a huge industry with a lot of political clout. They are union labor which has huge political clout. The foreign car makers doing business in our markets have clout. The oil companies who depend on the car business have huge clout. All the tertiary businesses connected to cars represent a large amount of voters.

With all of that monetary and voter pressure to "do whats right " for the auto industry, what politician could do anything different than be highly sensitive to their wishes?

We now have a 650 page initial document on new vehicle mileage standards and it will surely grow as it goes through the public comment stage. Why 650 pages? Its all the "considerations" of the industry as described.

We all know that the SUV craze was caused by the government exempting this group from the lower car mileage standards. The regulation caused Detroit to focus on big cars and trucks and make more money with them because they had little foreign competition. They became dependent on that revenue stream that dried up with the $4.00 gas price. This crippled the US Auto industry.

So looking back now, what should we have done? In my view it's simple. Let the market work.

When we had an energy crisis in the Carter era we should have responded with real change...many countries did. But instead we worked really hard to get OPEC in line and get things back to "normal". We sold our independence and stability for cheap foreign oil. Why, because we could. We were huge customers that could bomb them off the map. We have been meddling in Middle East affairs ever since.

So we have artificially supported cheap oil. We spend a huge amount of money (and lives) making sure we get our cheap oil. This is a government distortion of the market...they enact the diplomacy and the wars.

Oil comes from risky places, is an environmental mess, is price volatile, pollution generating and politically and religiously charged. But does $2.00 a gallon gas reflect that? Of course not, it's an artificially low price matched only by the big oil producing countries themselves.

So a $5.00 a gallon price might be more accurate and you could throw away that 650 page document. American consumers have already shown they will eschew big cars and trucks at $4.00 a gallon and so has the rest of the world.

A pollution fee for the air we foul and a military fee on gasoline would do the trick, and be a lot less pages. Or we could just make an amendment to the constitution that we would never use military might to secure goods and services outside our borders.

Bottom Line - Cheap oil is bad because it's artificially cheap. To enact laws and complex regulations to artificially make us all use less of an artificially cheap product is silly. To spend more money bailing out Detroit because of our own artificial market distortions is sillier yet.

There is some new sabre rattling about reducing the huge incentives and supports for the oil industry. Can you imagine? We artificially support our oil companies? Just like our farmers and our auto industry? Does any of this artificial support work in the long run?

We have to artificially support renewable energy so it can compete with the artificially supported oil and coal industries?

I get the feeling that good lobbyists are way more valuable than a good product aimed at a healthy market.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Nuke or not?

It seems almost impossible that we are still having this discussion. The last Nuclear plant constructed in the US was started in 1977! That little mishap at Three Mile island? 1979. Coincidence? Not hardly. We decided, rightly or wrongly that coal was less dangerous than Nukes. (Tell that to a Virginia coal miner).

But now, with carbon reduction on the agenda, are Nukes a renewable clean energy resource? The simple answer is yes. No carbon, no soot, no mercury, no sulfur dioxide. All you get out of them is warm water discharge, steam and some nasty leftover radioactive material that lasts forever. What's not to love?

Over the years we have spent serious R&D money on Nuclear research, mostly on Nuclear fusion which is different than today's fission reactors. The difference between fission and fusion is that one is available, and the other isn't. (A few thousand nuclear scientists and researchers might disagree that it's that simple, but it is for me.)

It's worth noting that those old fission reactors provide 20% of US electricity today. We have 64 plants operating 104 reactors, all carbon and air pollution free and they haven't killed anyone yet... We are by far the largest world user with France and Japan having around 50 each. There are 436 reactors around the world currently operating. (This number does not include Nuclear ships and subs). China and India have the most under construction.

So what's the point of all the statistics? Well, Nuclear works, works well and is widespread and safe if one judges it on actual performance, not on "what ifs". But the "what ifs" are big ones.

So what if a terrorist bombs one, what if one goes rogue and melts down ala Chernobyl, what if we never find a way to safely deal with the radioactive waste?

There are 295 reactors proposed around the world with the US having 19 of those. Vietnam has 9! China has 90! So are we falling behind? Are we going to find ourselves with less cheap energy to run our economy? Can we afford the let Nuclear fall by the wayside here in the US while the world continues it's expansion? Did you know American companies Westinghouse and GE are major players in the global reactor business?

Bottom Line - After having posed all these question I only have one thought. We either should or shouldn't. This fence sitting and arguing is a ridiculous waste of time for our country. We can't accomplish much of anything meaningful if we are constantly at war with ourselves.

So let's have the largest Nuclear reactor expansion of all time to help save the earth from climate calamity. Or, let's stop all efforts and focus our energy on

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Geothermal - I want some

As we complete the cooling season here in Dallas, I am still pining for a geothermal heating and air-conditioning system. In some ways it's more compelling that a photovoltaic (PV) electricity system. Here's why....

Basically the system is a heat pump connected to holes in the ground. Heat pumps have been around for ages and are generally perceived as more efficient than regular AC compressors and furnaces. And more expensive to purchase and install.

What geothermal does is marry a high efficiency heat pump to a source for steady temperatures from the ground. We have local companies that do this by drilling deep but small diameter holes and running a plastic pipe to the bottom and back to form a ground loop (300 feet). Depending on the size of the system, (mine is five ton), they would drill one hole per ton.

They need 20 feet between each hole and they connect them all together and to a pump to circulate fluid to transfer the ground temperature to the pump. The ground is a steady 68 degrees all year round here in Dallas. This fluid is used to cool the air or warm the air in the heat pump. (It's actually way more complex, but that's the gist of it).

So on a hundred degree day the heat pump, (bad name), takes 68 degree water and uses it to cool the house rather than using a compressor to cool whatever the latest freon equivalent is... That's right, no compressor! No noise outside, no ugly box, no unreliable and expensive outside gear to make coolness.

On a chilly winter day, all the heat pump has to do is get the 68 degrees up to your thermostat setting using natural gas or electric. As a side benefit, you can also put your water heater in the loop so it isn't heating up colder water all the time.

All of this combines to save around 50% on heating and cooling costs per my contractor. Now my guess is your mileage may vary but...that's a huge amount! My AC compressor is rated at 14 SEER and the heat pump is around 27 SEER. The heat pump is a variable device meaning I could safely close off rooms and the heat pump adjusts its output without harm to itself.

50% of my heating and cooling bill would be around $1320 in electric and $450 in gas for a total of $1,770 savings a year. Now the bad news. The cost for the system is $36,000. There is a 30% federal tax credit that brings the price down to $25,200. That translates to a 14+ year payoff at today's utility rates. If I were forced to replace my current traditional system with a similiar system it would cost me $10,000, I know because my neighbor just priced out the same size system for her house.

That means the geothermal system would cost $15,200 more and that would take 8+ years to pay off at today's rates. If I financed that at 8% for 30 years it would be $110 a month or $1320.00 a year. If I could get low cost financing, like 5%, then my yearly cost would be $996 for a really good positive net effect.

It's important to note that is just the dry numbers. Reducing my carbon output 50% is a big deal as is spending less money on utility bills and spending more money on my home. In the future, the reduced electricity use would make a PV system much smaller and cheaper.

Bottom Line - This concept's time has come but we need a little maturity in the market to get prices down and make this a no-brainer. Right now its a good deal if you have the money or the equity in your home to borrow against. We all agree that energy prices will also go up, and then the deal would get even sweeter.

I hope my old system breaks down again soon...(what am I saying?)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Water savings and my city

In the great city of Dallas we have a lot of cheap water. Even when we have droughts and the reservoirs get low, the price doesn't go up.

Just three hours south we have the city of Austin and they don't have near enough water. They understand water conservation better than most, and, they are the capital of Texas. Their city hall is Xeriscaped, ours has a big fountain.

So laws and regulations that come out of Austin are often aimed at conservation but the City is responsible for enforcement. Somewhere between Austin and Dallas on I35, water conservation falls off the truck.

The City can put in place its own policies and ordinances and they have. There are limits as to when you can sprinkle...(all night every night). Unless you hand water or use soaker can do that 24 x 7. And, to really put the fear in the citizenry you absolutely aren't allowed to water during rain or freezing weather.

On the incentives side, the city has some programs to help conserve water. First, their biggest program, you can get $90 to change out your toilet out for a low flow one. From the City's web site...

"Water conservation is a major component of the City’s long-range water supply plan. Our goal is to save 3.5 billion gallons over the lifetime of the 20,000 toilets replaced in the next five years through this program. "

Now that means they are going to save 175,000 gallons per toilet. I will be generous and allow two gallons a flush savings. That single toilet will have to flush 87,500 times in its lifetime to save that much water. If you figure five flushes a day that's about 48 years. 10 flushes (twice our amount), 24 years, or, 20 flushes a day (a family of five home all day with one toilet?) for 12 years!

Of course we have to assume they won't remodel or upgrade that toilet again later.

Now take my sprinklers. I have saved 51,000 gallons in seven months. I will surpass the toilet's lifetime savings in 17 months. In fact, at that rate, in 24 years I will have saved the equivalent of 12 toilets. For us personally, we each use the toilet five times a day and flush less, with two toilets. That means my five flushes a day toilets, upgraded, would take 48 years each to meet the 175,000 gallons city target.

At that rate I will have saved 24 toilets worth of water. My savings cost around $2000. The same toilet saving will cost the city $2,160 and the homeowners around $100 each to install and another $100 average to purchase because cheap toilets don't qualify for the rebate. That adds another $4800, so $6,960 total, about three times my cost per gallon. And of course that doesn't include the administrative costs for the geniuses at city hall to run this program.

You should also bear in mind all those removed toilets are land filled.

Bottom line - upgrading your toilet is a good thing. After about ten other things that have a lot better ROI and water savings potential. The City is almost preying on unsuspecting water consumers who want to be water conscious by leading them to believe this is a good first step. It's not.

So fix your sprinklers, lower the pressure, put in new multi-stream nozzles, get an ET controller, add drip when redoing beds. Inside the home, add flow regulators to showers, change all the aerators on all the faucets, stop drips and flush a little less. You'll save a lot more water and money than calling your plumber to install a new low-flow toilet.

And, for you do it yourselfers out there. Changing out a toilet is relatively easy. A leak however from the connection to the wall, the valve, the tank, etc, can all be catastrophic. There is nothing to safeguard you from flooding your house during a simple weekend trip away. (And they always break when you're away.)

Saving a LOT of money

I just returned from Oklahoma City and an overnight stay at my brother in law's house. He installed central AC about 9 months ago and I was anxious to review their electric bills. (Is that weird or what?)

The bottom line is, going from window units to central AC will save them 55% on their energy costs and pay back the initial investment in 13.5 months. That's impressive.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

What are "degree days"?

I am sorry to say that this is important to saving energy. The reason I'm sorry is because it's so darn complex.

The reason we care about "degree days" is because our home's climate control system dominates our energy use. Everything else is secondary. So to properly evaluate our heating and cooling energy use we need to somehow establish a way to compare one day to the next, or week, or month or year. If we spend a bunch of money on conservation how do I really know I have done some good and quantify it.

Degree days was developed just for that purpose and is used by commercial building operators to compare their building's energy use. Before we move on let me make sure I have established the need.

Today, my air conditioning energy use was largely dictated by the weather, minute by minute. Just using the high temperature of the day doesn't really define the amount we use. It's the temperature ALL day that counts. Was it a hot night? Did it warm up fast? Did it cool down slow? All of these contribute to how hot a day it really was. In fact, one could look at the temperature every second of an entire day.

Degree days essentially takes the temperatures from the entire day, usually in half hour increments, and calculates the number of "units" accumulated through the day and that's the degree days. A "unit" would be a degree for a half hour which is 1/48th of a day. But of course its not that simple.

If you keep your house at 75 degrees on a 75 degree day you would have zero (nada) degree days. Why? Because the calculation is based on how much YOU would have used based on your thermostat. If you set your thermostat at 72, then the house would have to be cooled 3 degrees on that 75 degree day thus accumulating 3 degree days of cooling.

Bottom Line #1 -With degree days you have an accurate amount to determine the demand for energy for heating and cooling. This is very useful to compare July 2008 with 2009. For example...

The average high temp in June 08 was 96 degrees, and 94 in 09. So June was cooler this year right? Well actually, there were 284 cooling days based on my 75 degree thermostat setting in June 08. In 2009 June was 292. So June 09 was actually the hotter month. It made sense my June 09 bill was higher in KWH used, than last year.

But there is even another step. We can divide the cooling KWH used by the degree days and get a rough efficiency number thats useful for comparing months. Dividing the current month by the same month last year gives me a percentage improvement number.

Bottom Line #2 - When I compare the months, I can see the results of my energy saving efforts that are focused on climate control in my home. New insulation, sealing, more attic vents etc all are contributing to a higher efficiency number.

This link takes you to a handy site where you plug in your zip code and thermostat setting and it will give you your personal degree days.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Washing machine update

My old top loading machine takes 40 minutes to do a load of laundry. Compare that to 90 minutes for the average front loader.

I guess the next question long to dry?

My dryer takes 40 to 45 for average clothes and around 60 minutes for towels. The front loader takes at least 60 minutes for any load. If you're doing consecutive loads it doesn't really matter since the washer is still the pacing item.

Another "feature" of your front loading washer is that once you start a can't stop. If you push the wrong will wait for 90 minutes to start over.

Bottom Line - The new front loaders use time to get water and electricity savings. They also are easier on clothes and use less detergent. But, the expenditure of time (productivity) to go green is generally not a good idea. The manufacturers need to do better.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Climate Change update

I think the argument over climate change is fascinating. Each camp purports to have it figured out, and neither do. The press fuels this debate ad nauseum. In Washington. it's just another item split down the center aisle of congress.

But this issue is different. Mainly because we don't really have much past history to go do we deal with the possibility of real havoc and disruption to our way of life, caused by weather? Dinasaurs know what can happen when the climate goes haywire, but we don't. We did see fascism, Communism and terrorism as real threats to our way of life but only when we were slapped in the face with it...we can't seem to wrap our head around climate weirdness.

Is part of the problem that Bush (Cheney) told us that Saddam was a real global threat and then he turned out not to be? But that was just the US right, not the whole world. The whole world says the threat is real or possibly real, but nothing is really being done. CO2 concentration are going up and will continue to go up.

Cap and Trade you say? That system has already proven to be too cumbersome politically. It might be a good idea until "fine tuned" by state-by-state partisanship. But the reason why it will be ineffective is congressmen don't believe their constituents (special interest groups) will stomach change in the name of climate change. (It may serve them right that they all won their office telling voters to "vote for change".)

It may be obvious that I am very pessimistic about our government's ability to lead on this particular fight. I think this one is up to the populace. We are the ones that will have to drive climate change change. Because deep down no one wants dirty air from coal, unfriendly foreign oil, expensive to operate gas guzzlers, or to toy around with our climate.

Bottom Line - We want a clean healthy environment, no resource wars (oil), stable climate with renewable resources to grow and provide opportunity for generations to come.

We need a common enemy to call out and focus on, ie...Fascism, Communism, terrorism...climate-ism? Resource-ism? Depletion-ism?

What Pogo said was true; "We have met the enemy and he is us." Us-ism?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Frontloading clothes washer

I envied my neighbors LG front loaders. I was just imagining all the water and energy savings form the washer and the dryer. They looked pretty fancy too.

Whenever I asked her about them she would kind of grumble. It seemed like a sore subject. I of course started extolling the virtues of less water, detergent, higher spin rates so the clothes would be dryer going into the dryer. What's not to love?

Last week she told me, in a fit, with passion. "The whole thing's a scam!" "The dang things take forever to wash a load!"

I was shocked. Then I went and did some research on consumer reports, etc etc.

I found that models use 90 minutes a load and some use 100 minutes to wash some clothes. I could do better than that stream-side with a rock! An hour and a half! No wonder she was mad.

I also noticed how little anyone said about it and how hard you had to look to find that info. They really are downplaying this issue in my view. Consumer Reports doesn't even have that as a criteria for ratings.

I think I am going to go hug my old top loader and tell it I am sorry. And then time the next load.

My diswasher is an enigma

I have a fancy Euro dishwasher from ASKO. I put it in in 2001 to match all the other stainless steel stuff. I didn't really care about the energy use then.

Fast forward to today.

I call ASKO North America to get the energy use numbers on this dishwasher. I can't test it myself because the unit is hard wired in...

They don't have the numbers! Their manuals etc all talk about energy savings etc but no numbers. Hmmm, this makes me suspicious. I wonder if their proud proclamation of now being Energy Star compliant is new for the product or just new for them. I wonder if the old product I have is an energy hog. I wonder if the unit is efficient but they want me to buy a new one on the promise of more efficiency.

(Btw, I had no trouble getting energy use numbers on my old refrigerators.)

Bottom Line - I have to test the dang thing and that isn't going to be easy. These Euros are always preaching about their energy consciousness, so why can't I get some numbers?

Update: Same day.

I found a Canadian website that had old Energy Star figures for my dishwasher. It uses 1.29 KWHs per wash. That doesn't tell you how much it uses without electric heat dry. However it is interesting to note that Energy Star numbers have changed over time. It's also interesting to know ASKO "didn't have them" but Canada's Energy Star did.

Does that mean if I buy an Energy Star appliance today thinking it adds value to my home and they change the rules later I no longer have an Energy Star appliance? Or an Energy Star home?

I'd like to know how much I save by using air dry, Ill bet it's a lot. As for water use and savings, I still cant find that. Btw, the new units from ASKO use .853 KWHs per wash.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Trees and woodchippers

I was watching a show called "Extreme Loggers". Those guys have a saw at the end of a big machine on tracks. It takes about a second to cut down a tree. (Chainsaws are way too slow.) Another big machine grabs the logs and hauls them to a wood chipper a few hundred yards away. There another big machine feeds the logs into the wood chipper that dumps into a semi truck to be hauled to the paper mill.

A tree can become a pile of chips in a truck in about 15 minutes easy. They do hundreds of trees a day in a small operation.

It seems odd to me that that's the best use of a forest we can come up with. It also seems odd we cant find another way to make paper. Odder still is that we still need all that paper in our digital society. Weren't we going "paperless" 20 years ago? Did that concept end up in a scrap heap along with the idea of changing over to the metric system?

Bottom Line - I guess its like watching sausage being made, if you did you wouldn't eat sausage. Same with pulp logging. Watching these guys ruin a few acres of forest in a day makes me a little queasy.

Lumber seems different, except when we ship it to Asia. Something about our forests going to Chinese housing so they can have a place to live while they dominate global manufacturing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Saving energy a room at a time

My air conditioning unit outside recently went kaput. The compressor just overheated and locked up. I spent two days sleeping in an 80+ degree house.

First I want to say that those two days resulted in a big energy savings. And a desire to leave the state or check into a cushy hotel. But what does this have to do with green?

In my Internet travels I have run across multiple articles and advice blogs about closing off rooms in your home to save energy. I pay attention to these as I have three rooms that are seldom used. Many say it's a great idea to close the vents, the door and place something under it to stop the airflow. In fact I have a friend who is in the business of selling remote controlled dampers for your duct work just for this purpose.

In theory if you close off 1/3 of your house you could save 1/3 on heating and cooling. But of course it's never that simple.

A forced air furnace has a fan that forces the air either over a flame or heating element in the winter and over the cooling coil in the summer. That air continues to be forced, once cooled or heated, down the duct and into the room. That air came from a return duct, either one big one or lots of small ones by being sucked in by the same fan. Its just one big loop.

Now if I close a vent, that air backs up and increases the pressure on the fan to work. It also reduces the amount of air running over the flame or coil. In the case of the coil, the refrigerant doesn't properly transfer the temperature and it's sent outside to the compressor improperly. (I don't really understand this part as it is either too liquid or too gas for the compressor thus making it work too hard). But whatever the details are, it isn't good to reduce the airflow over the coil.

When the system works too hard, your efficiency goes down and if you do that long enough the system fails.

So what I have found is the green and DIY sites all say it's a good idea. The three Heating and air conditioning people I talked to all say its a bad idea for the reasons mentioned. Given my neighbors unit also failed this week, it seems that problems exist that aren't obvious and limiting air flow below the system's design is one of them.

Bottom Line #1 - If you want to close a few rooms I would have your trusted heating and air guy come out and measure the pressures and airflow as you close off the ducts. Its possible your ducts leak so much there wont be much back pressure or that there is enough flow from the returns to properly work with your coil. Or there are more ducts than system pressures can fill up, so closing a couple wont matter. The smaller the system the more likely a problem.

It's also worth noting that the room in question will not be insulated between the room and the house. You also have to be careful about letting it get too cold in the winter around water pipes.

It may be that the whole idea is fraught with enough problems or potential problems to render it more trouble than its worth. I intend to get my AC guys out in the fall when they slow down and have them do the tests I described. It's all measurable and can be quantified.

Bottom Line #2 - Heating and air guys understand how to make stuff cool or hot. However, they don't spend much time making it cool or hot for the least amount of energy used, carbon released etc. We have to encourage them to help us save energy.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Cooler House?

I just completed two days of energy saving work with my contractor, A Cooler House. We stopped some air flow and increased the money flow....out.

As I stated in an earlier blog, I had some concerns about my duct work. The tests showed I was losing at least 37% of my rated airflow capacity through leaks. Now I have the old style hard metal ducts wrapped in foil insulation. I have a vent and return in almost every room so I have a lot of duct work.

Before I go too far, can you imagine losing 37% of anything in regular operation? That's higher than taxes! In theory every dollar I spend on heat and cool I take 37% and throw that away!

Needless to say, I want the guys to focus on duct work. Initially they find a big hole. High fives all around but...that seems to relax them and they don't really find much of anything else. When we test at the end of the day, I am very disappointed. We are now at a 32% loss.

I begin to get some double talk from the contractor about how they couldn't seal everything, or they cant get to everything or there is too much duct work etc etc. Basically it's broke and they don't know how to fix it.

I throw out a few ideas that are discussed, but its too late in the day to try them so we call it a day.

Day two starts better because they get under the floor in another area of the house and they find another hole. It's become obvious to me these guys don't relish crawling under the house...progress on that part of the system is going to be minimal in my view. They also don't implement my idea of testing the supply and return airflow separately to isolate the problem.

We are however placing insulated boxes over the can lights! These are sealed down to the joists and ceiling in the attic. Except, they don't get the ones in the furr downs or close to the edge of the roof. So we seal 15 of the 30 or so I have. It will help, but we fall short of our intentions....again.

We add some more insulation and then test again. The house is now 35% tighter than it was which is decent, but we still fall short of the energy star specifications. The duct work is about 6% tighter than at the start.

Bottom Line #1 - Every time I hear a government official say that saving energy is easy and low hanging fruit, I cringe. Implementing and maintaining savings beyond 30% is hard. The contractors are inexperienced (in Dallas), the customer has little choice of contractor, the duct system is in either hot or dirty areas, and everyone has limited education on all the issues that you uncover.

Overall I am pretty disappointed. I think I was oversold and under delivered, but, the price was reasonable. I had three roof fans installed, two attic walls insulated and sheathed, 15 can lights covered, duct sealing, and 1,850 more cubic feet of insulation added to the attic for a total of $1,317.

The duct sealing was $400 of that number and they did spend a lot of time getting the 5%. It will save me around $75 a year. It's impossible to calculate a payback on everything else I spent. If it's 20% of my overall heating and cooling bills, I would be pretty happy with around a five year payback.

Bottom Line #2 - Unfortunately, this just illustrates the importance of measuring and sealing ducts. Its easy to quantify the savings and a 20% reduction in leakage would have paid back in a little over a year.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I need a new roof

My roof is cedar shakes, one of the few still remaining in Dallas today. It has hail damage and my insurance company would like to buy me a new one! Now what?

My first inclination is to bypass my normally curious self and just replace the wood shakes with...more wood shakes. But, I can't miss this opportunity to explore some green options now can I?

So I start some research...and then some more research, and then add some contractors, more research and then I go into brain lock. That's where I am right now.

Here is my criteria before green issues come into play.
  1. It must fit into the supplied insurance money budget
  2. It must look good to us, fit the house and neighborhood. (Aesthetics.)
  3. It must add value to the home.
  4. It must be durable and relatively maintenance free.
Because a cedar shake roof is expensive and I have replacement cost insurance, I have a pretty big budget, so there are lots of options.

Now the green issues -
  1. It needs to help with house cooling. (include radiant barrier or reflect more of the energy or both)
  2. It should be more reflective to mitigate heat island effect (lighter color)
  3. It should come from a renewable resource
  4. It should last so we don't fill up the landfill again soon
If that's not enough moving parts, there is the issue of finding good contractors.

Then there is the issue of my future solar panels. The opportunity to integrate solar with the roof change sure seemed to make sense but...

Bottom Line - Once you have achieved your 30% reductions through all the simple stuff, you get the the not so simple stuff. If you live in a city where the green contractors are few and far between you really have trouble getting something done right and green.

The easy decision, going back with shakes, means less durability, high maintenance, they don't add value, provide nothing green, and PV panels are going to look really out of place up there someday.

The hard decision, standing seam metal roof, is difficult because we're not sure about the aesthetics which is number two on the list. It's a good reflector, lasts forever, it's very low maintenance, adds value, and we can add radiant barrier cheap.

I refuse to sacrifice aesthetics for green. And I almost refuse to sacrifice green for aesthetics. I need a win-win here...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Can I sell you some energy?

Have I got a deal for you! I have two great energy products, one is coal and the other is oil! This is a can't miss deal.

Coal is plentiful and cheap! We mine it in areas where people are poor and the health and land problems are way less important than jobs. We either mine it, or when we can, we just dig it out of the ground or blow off the top of a mountain. We have to cut down a lot trees and use a lot of water but like I said, the people that live there are all for it...they have no other choice!

We take the coal just like it is and pile it into trains that ship it everywhere, that's why its so cheap! You build your power plant close to a rail siding and together we've got a great business! Just don't build it too close to any major metropolitan areas because of the, well, the stuff that comes out of the plant.

Burning coal for electricity has a couple of minor problems. The coal, when it's burned, emits a lot of bad stuff like sulfur, mercury, and even carbon dioxide. But who ever heard of anyone dying of carbon dioxide poisoning? But here is the beauty of coal, that stuff we put in the air, we don't really have to pay for it! No-one will charge you for all the fish with mercury in them, will they?

Bottom Line #1- Use all the coal fired electricity you want, it's cheap now and they will never trace climate change back to you!

If coal doesn't get you excited, oil will. We drill holes in the ground and pump this stuff up, send it to a plant that makes it into all kinds of stuff, but mostly gasoline for your car. What's even better is these days we don't even drill that much, we just buy if from those nice boys in Venezuela, Saudi Arabia etc. They have so much that they can ship it all the way over here and it's still cheap! That way we don't spoil the land or water around here, we let them do it to their land.

Now I know what you have heard about price instability, but look at it this way. It's still cheap. Sometimes it gets expensive but when it does we can just quit using it until the recession is over, easy no?

If we have trouble with a country who has a lot of oil, we can always get them back in line with diplomacy, and a few Marines. If that doesn't work, we will just send more Marines. But the cost wont go up that much and once we get them back in line, the price always comes down.

Now I know what you have heard about pollution and oil, gasoline, etc but hey, everything emits bad stuff when you burn it! And remember it's cheap!

Bottom Line #2 - Oil is cheap and chances are good that Iran's oil money wont allow them to build a nuclear device that can hit the US for at least ten years. So why worry?

The siren song of cheap is real. It's hard to say no to cheap energy. China doesn't want to, India either. A little cheap energy and before long your hooked. Everything becomes secondary to cheap energy... heath, economic stability, wars, environment, jobs, religion, morality, balance of trade, climate change'll sell your soul for this stuff.

We have traditionally sacrificed much in the name of cheap energy and grown to be a superpower. Why do we think others wont follow our lead into the abyss of cheap energy addiction? They have and will continue to, until...we show a better way.

Bottom Line #3 - We know the cost of cheap energy is too high. Those costs shake the very foundation of our economy and democracy. It's time for us to lead the world to new forms of energy and show them the road to prosperity isn't cheap energy, it's democracy, innovation, education, hard work, the rule of law, freedom of speech, and, peace.

Just say no to "cheap" energy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

TXU conspiracy?

Remember my post about my signing up for a new electricity provider? I now know why deregulation isn't really working in Texas.

First it's worth noting that I signed with Direct Energy. They told me they would be sending me a welcome packet and I had three days to agree to switch. No welcome packet arrived. I called, they hemmed and hawed and said they would in fact be able to send another one. It never came. My electricity switched over on the third of this month.

Now to TXU. I get a bill that includes June and the balance of July with a $200 cancellation fee. Now I have had auto bank withdrawal on the account for years but they didn't withdraw June?

I call TXU to straighten this out. After the auto system doesn't recognize the last four digits of my SS number I finally get a human. She says they have had "lots of trouble with the automated system" and she will make sure the amount is withdrawn. I then explain how I don't owe the $200 cancellation. It's a minimum one year program I signed up for in November 2006!

She places me on hold, for a long while and then the phone rings and someone new picks it up!? I explain what happened and then start over. He then transfers me to billing, I start over, they transfer me to a "specialty agent, I start over, he says he is in sales and I need a specialty agent and transfers voicemail. Not anyone's voicemail, just the general mail box. I leave a message while laughing.

Then I start the clock at 1:03. Call back, start over, transfer to Jem, boy is she. Puts me on hold and then comes back and asks me if I am still in Texas and then puts me on hold? Now can you think of a good reason for her to ask me that other than to determine if I have transferred electricity use to another company in Texas? 1:07 she comes back and says she needs to transfer me to Specialty Accounts, I protest to no avail. On hold, music, the voicemail box again.

I re-call, its now 1:12 and ask for a supervisor. Puts me on hold 1:14, music at 1:16, Alessandro answers at 1:18. By 1:30 he is getting this figured out and agrees I don't owe the $200 and says it will come off my bill, I say great, what's my confirmation number...he cant give me one. He can give me an "investigation number" and assures me it's fixed.

I mention the auto bank draft problem and he is surprised because the reason they didn't draft it was because I was closing the account. That's what they always do...

I pay the bill with him, less the $200, which he can give me a confirmation number for immediately.

Any doubts this isn't over yet?

Bottom Line - I spend years with TXU as a customer. The minute I sign somewhere else their customer service goes down the tubes...coincidence? I spent 36 minutes after the first three transfers getting this far. Any chance "specialty accounts" is how you get rid of a non-loyal customer like me?

Just for laughs I call the PUC to see if I have a legitimate complaint and get their automated system that directs me to the Electricity line that directs me to the Internet and if you push a button its puts you back at the beginning. I went to the web site and sent them an email and asked them to call me.

Any chance the PUC employs ex utility people?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Climate Change update #2

It's been an interesting few weeks in the Climate Change arena politically. Legislation for Cap and Trade and the G-8 talks have roused both sides of the issue into a frenzy.

If you have read my previous posts on the topic, I have come down solidly on the side of no one. The realities of our planet overheating in the future may or may not be exist's the two sides that now bother me...

Warmers, the people who fully believe that the planet is being warmed by man, are called alarmists. People who believe the science is wrong or rigged are called deniers. Alarmist are usually Democrats and deniers are usually Republican. Typically the deniers are described as the minority in the science world.

However, in polls of the American people there seems to be some fence sitting by many and legions for both sides who are sure their brand of religion is best and they KNOW it.

It surprises me in this day and age we can't take more moderated views and be a little more humble about what we think we KNOW. I include both sides in that concern. An AGW alarmist is just as know-it-all as a denier. Both claim the "science is on their side". Engaging in any discussion on the topic will evoke serious "know" statements from either side about the clarity of the science or the lack of clarity about the science.

The media loves a good fight so they fuel this debate for as long as they can. So, why should we care?

Because we have to take action now if we hope to forestall what is possible if all the "alarmists" are right. Man is causing the world to warm and the pace is increasing. A warming climate could cause disruption to all living things on the planet because the pace of warming is too fast for adaptation to it's subsequent climate changes.

The action required is a lot more simple than Cap and Trade and G-8 wrangling would lead you to believe. We just need to drastically reduce fossil fuel use. Don't get too caught up in discussions about deforestation, cow farts, cement plants etc. They have an impact, in fact a large one, but they aren't the real issue. The real issue is we take ancient carbon in coal and oil and turn it into atmospheric carbon in an instant, by burning it. And, our economy is totally dependant on this process.

In addition, there are very large company's and countries around the world that depend on the need for this to continue.

So all the wrangling is about changing the world's economy from a fossil fuel based one to alternative energy. The benefits of which will be enormous. The dream of running the earth on clean energy not controlled by unfriendly countries is worthy in it self. The heath and stability benefits would be an amazing boon to societies rich and poor. The world would be a better place.

And that's without the concerns about Climate Change.

The specter of rapid warming is really ugly. It's clear the effects would be significant but, what and where they are, isn't clear. So alarmists are quick to point out the latest hurricane or pine borer. And denialists are quick to point out the lack of anomaly or cause for concern. But that's not the real issue. The real issue is whether we can afford to play this out with a fossil fuel based economy? Can we wait and see who's right?

The answer is no. A rapid change in our global temperatures would threaten our way of life much more than a shift away from fossil fuel. We can't gamble and hope that the denialists are right. We are going to have to change our energy sources and while we do that, we are going to have to emit less carbon into the atmosphere by using less fossil fuel and cleaning the emissions as much as possible.

Bottom Line - The question isn't who's side is right. The question is, who's side can we afford to be wrong? That answer is clear in my view. One position protects us from calamity and improves our world. One maintains the status quo and hopes for the best.

But, back to the sides. If the sides keep arguing about "if" there is a problem then when we have a vote for cap and trade for example, how much of it is still about "if" instead of how. Does the rhetoric. or votes, reflect a senator or congressman's concerns about whether this is the best way, or if we should be doing anything at all?

I am very concerned we will end up with partisan positions, entrenched and immovable, when we can't really risk doing this wrong. It's the only thing worse than doing nothing.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Faucet fixin...

Given my continued high water use inside the house, I decided it was time to low flow the faucets. This project seemed simple enough...

First I get a two quart measuring cup and go to each sink and measured the flow. I turn on the faucet and count to ten and then multiply the amount by six for "gallons per minute". Most are around 2.2. One old one overflows the cup well before I get to ten! (Five gpm!)

I took an inventory of whether I had male or female threaded aerators on the spouts of all my faucets. And, I noted the metal finish. I then went on-line to search for the best products, and I searched, and searched. It seems this market is dominated by a company called Neoperl. And, with only a couple limited exceptions, no-one really sells these online. I found a few at Ebay and Amazon and that was about it.

Out of frustration I headed to the depot with my list. At my store, these reduced flow aerators are strategically located right above the floor in blister packs. I sit down in the aisle and start weeding through the options. And they are all made guessed it, Neoperl. I guess that's why you cant find them online...

So, I find one brass version that I needed in a 1.5 gallon. I find a spray/stream adjustable one for our utility sink that is 1 and 2.2 gallons, I don't find anything for the pewter color faucets in our guest bath but settle for chrome in the 1 gallon version. I then get two in the 1.5 gallon version chrome for our bathroom.

When I get home I install the 1.5 brass one, no problem, huge flow difference but it's plenty of water. It's in a sink I don't hardly use, but guests do, so I'll save a little. I then change out the guest bathroom sinks, one with the 1.5 and one with the 1.0 gallon to compare. The 1.0 always has a spray pattern and the 1.5 is an aerated flow. I let me wife approve the spray which she preferred, and it again was plenty of water at 1.0! She never notices they are chrome, not pewter.

I then go to our bathroom with the 1.5s but they don't fit? It turns out my Kohler faucets use the "small" all the others use the "regular". (Small is 13/16s).

I switch out the utility sink and then head back to the depot to sit in the aisle a while longer. I find the small version but only in the 1.5 gallon, (I would have taken a 1.0 without any reservations).

While I am there I notice, tucked in back in the seriously disorganized rows of blister packs, some aerator inserts so you don't have to worry about the finish! You just swap out the inserts if the ones you have have some type of insert. I consider starting over but quickly move on as the cost difference is trivial.

Bottom Line 1 - 1.0 gallons is plenty for washing, brushing etc and the spray pattern is surprisingly nice. The 1.5s have the traditional flow and again are plenty of water for bathroom sinks. Having the 1 - 2.2 adjustable is nice for filling things in the utility sink. I switched out the kitchen insert to a 1.5 and it seems fine.

As I was finishing up I decided to measure the two guest showers. Uh-oh. It seems both of these were way over the 2.5 suggested. I put in 2.5 gallon washers to limit the flow.

Bottom Line 2 - I really wasn't sure about all this low flow stuff, I just thought you ended up using the faucet longer to make up for the reduced water but...The EPA and their WaterSense initiatives are driving manufacturers to provide really high quality aerators and restricted flow fixtures. They get stuff wet with less water without compromising performance.

So this project cost me about $40 and took a couple hours including the trips to the depot. I expect to see a significant reduction in water use. It was easy and almost fun. I also learned that the EPA is currently working on standards for showers that may change the 2.5 goal...stay tuned.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

It's in the toilet?

As promised I was going to do some analysis of my water use. I looked at how often we flush (not use) the toilet. Even though my wife works out of the home we each get in about four flushes a day each. Eight total.

We split those flushes between two toilets. One is a 1.6 gallon per flush commode and one is a 3.5 gallons per flush (I measured it). That means the low flow uses 6.4 gallons a day and the high flow uses 14 gallons a day. Or, 192 and 420 a month respectively. Total is 612 gallons a month.

Most water conservation sites will tell you toilet use is 26% of indoor water use. Mine is 6.4%?? (9500 gallons a month / 612). I would have to reduce my use to 2500 gallons a month to even come close to that percent.

Bottom Line 1 - It isn't my toilets that are causing the problem. If I changed out the high flow to a newer low flow of 1.28 a flush I would save 267 gallons a month or a whopping $1.55 on my bill! I would lower my percentage of toilet use to 3.6%.

I have also concluded that men use less water than women. I wont go into the details, but suffice to say, women/girls use more water for everything. The shower longer, flush more, wash more, take more baths (I have a tub in our main bath I haven't been in yet, in nine years!). I think there is a lack of gender qualification for these "household averages". I theorize that women use 50% more water than men, until we include outdoor use.

Bottom Line 2 - A household's gender makeup will skew the averages a lot.

Its time for me to measure my housekeeper's use on her day and my wife's shower time multiplied by 3.5 gallons a minute. It's either that or the cats are using the Jacuzzi tub when we're out...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Energy Audit

I had my first energy audit. It's a prerequisite to receiving free electric company money, so why not? I felt strongly that I pretty much knew my weaknesses and strengths. But a little independent verification couldn't hurt right?

First a little background. I had contacted a "guy" who's small company (him) performed thermal imaging audits. $500 for my house! I couldn't imagine getting a return on that investment. So I bought a $100 dollar infrared remote temperature sensor and did my own audit.

As I become more home energy savvy I realized that air leaks, missing insulation etc were all interesting, but if you have a forced air furnace or AC, you really don't know how much you are losing every minute it's on through air leakage. It could be huge and you wouldn't know. So it was clear to me that having this tested was a primary need.

So I began contacting companies with that in mind that were on our electricity provider's list. Energy audits come in many forms but Oncor, our provider, has prerequisites for an audit. They include:
  • Blower door test to find leaks with a smoke stick and test the overall tightness of the house.
  • Duct Blaster test to determine the duct leakage.
  • Thermal imaging to view all of the heat (or cold) spots in the home's envelope
  • Test all the windows for low-e coating and note double or single pane
  • Inspect attic insulation levels and venting
  • Confuse homeowner with lots of gibberish
The particular auditor I chose doesn't sell anything other than audits. So they write up my audit and also fill out the Oncor forms to submit it to them. All for $399! (Oncor has up to $1500 available per home!)

Now I would argue that I pretty much knew everything I learned from the audit except, my ducts leak like crazy. I'm losing over 37% of my expensive air out of my duct system! Ouch! But it also explains why I am an Energy Star zero.

Of course it also showed me in living color how bad those can lights are, and we did test a few areas around my fireplace that were leaking that I wasnt aware of.

So my last question to the auditor was...Is there a contractor out there who can do my whole list? His answer was no...up north there are plenty, but here in Texas we make energy, not save it! (That last part was mine.)

Bottom Line - My list in order of potential payback:
  1. Seal ducts
  2. Fix can lights
  3. Add Radiant Barrier in attic
  4. Rework attic insulation, (add some and redistribute)
  5. Seal around the fireplace
I have chosen a contractor (busy week) and will cover that next.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Disposing of batteries properly

Someone gave me a published list of all the ways to properly dispose of batteries. There was so much data on it I couldn't possibly use it. I had no idea we had so many different types of batteries and disposal methods. I am going to try and make the rules simple.

We have regular throw away, regular recycle and hazardous waste. California is always different but I am excluding them.

This list has nine (9!) battery types.

Throw away -
  • Carbon Zinc, (old style standard household battery).
  • Alkaline, or rechargeable alkaline. None can be recycled, none are hazardous waste.
  • Alkaline Manganese - rechargeable, non-recyclable, non-hazardous
Recycle -
  • Lithium Ion. They are non-hazardous waste and can be recycled.
  • Nickel - Cadmium (Ni-cad) rechargeable, they are hazardous waste but recyclable.
  • Nickel Metal Hydride (Ni-li or Ni Hydride) - rechargeable, non-hazardous, recyclable
Note: These batteries are generally in your consumer electronics that use special batteries.

Hazardous Waste disposal -
  • Button Batteries (yep all those little batteries that are round and flat)
  • Sealed Lead Acid - used in scooters, some power tools, UPS's etc.
  • Silver Oxide - Consumers can throw away but non-consumers must dispose of them as hazardous waste??? These are in greeting cards!
Bottom Line - Little ones are bad, big ones are bad, the regular household batteries are either recyclable or not. Probably ought to avoid Ni-cad, as cadmium is a highly toxic and carcinogenic. Avoiding the throw aways' seems prudent (the carbon Zinc ones are the most likely to leak anyway) but the alkalines' are what we all buy in 9v, AA, AAA, D, C, etc. The Lithium Ion are also available in those sizes as "higher performance batteries" but keep them in the fridge.

Friday, June 26, 2009

My personal opinion, soapbox deployed

I am reading the green section in the NY Times this morning (online of course). There is a blog about how a large number of environmentalist groups are coming together against oil sands pipelines from Alberta Canada to the US.

The head of the Sierra Club is asked what are the alternatives and his answer is, and I quote “There’s a lot of conventional oil to buy on international markets,” he said. “We don’t need this oil.”

That's when the top of my head blew off...

There are so many things wrong with this I don't know where to start. Let see, economic security, military spending, American death toll in Middle East conflicts, huge transfer of our wealth to countries that dislike us, funding terrorists, Hugo Chaves, energy caused recessions etc.

Did you know we IMPORTED a tanker of Liquid Natural Gas from Russia?

Does the Sierra club, in light of a global problem called Climate Change, really have any business deciding where and how we get oil domestically? Where were they when the oil fields of Kuwait were burning en-masse?

Don't get me wrong, oil sands is nasty business, but you cant be an American and advocate "other sources". You're turning a blind eye to our position on the world stage. Don't they realize when we say democracy, human rights etc to all middle eastern countries what they hear is blah, blah , blah, we need oil? Don't they realize that's what makes us infidels? Our two faced posture toward oil rich countries?

It's a ridiculously expedient argument to say, "get your oil elsewhere" just so you can kowtow to your contributors all up in arms about Alberta Canada's oil business.

All right, back to regular programming.

Monday, June 22, 2009

My sewer costs are ridiculous!

I am in shock! I was just reviewing my water bill which includes sewer, storm water and garbage/recycling charges. My Sewer bill is higher per gallon than my water bill!

In my defense, my bill was artificially low last year so it never caught my attention. This year they re-rate in April and now it has my attention.

I immediately called the city to ask what's up with that? How can the sewer bill be higher per gallon than the water bill?

You may already know that the city bases your sewer use on four winter months of water usage to, in essence, filter out your sprinkler use since it doesn't go down the sewer. This is relatively new but that's why the rates change in April.

But back to the problem, this last month I used 18, 900 gallons and that cost me $61.98 or $.0032793 per gallon. My sewer is rated at 10,800 gallons which cost $45.25 or .0041898 per gallon! It's 22% higher than clean water? So which pays for water treatment? They both do because we don't treat the water from the sewer for drinking here in the US. So we pump water from the reservoirs, treat it, store it and pump it to your home and we take the sewer water, let it flow to the treatment plant, treat it and then dump it in a stream or river.

In Singapore for example, they treat the sewage water making it into drinking water again because they don't have enough fresh water.

So somehow we can build giant reservoirs, huge long pipelines, treatment plants, build and maintain pipes to all our homes cheaper than dealing with the sewer water?

Its also worth noting that storm sewer is a different thing and we get billed $10.16 for that too. Some municipalities combine the two and end up with big costs for treating the stormwater after rains.

So, why do I care? Because my water use bill is really double because my sewer bill is included in a per gallon calculation. If I can cut water use I can cut sewer costs. But more importantly, my in-home water is really twice as expensive per gallon than what my sprinkler water costs.

I also care because I was recently looking at our city budget that is 120 million in the hole and water treatment is a huge number....I now want to know more!

Friday, June 19, 2009

I have green electrictiy!

I finally did it, made the big leap. I changed electricity providers to an all wind power renewable energy plan. And I saved money!

Here in Texas we deregulated electricity. There are four (I think) non-competing companies that deliver the stuff and about a million who sell it. Given the competition etc our rates are higher than most??? I can't really explain why but I would guess that deregulation has so many regulations that each seller's costs are higher than a single large company.

But, the good news is we have clean renewable energy choices! For a long time there was one company, Green Mountain, that really touted clean energy. There wasn't much competition so they were always 3 - 4 cents higher per KWH. Their energy mix was 20% wind and 80% hydroelectric.

But yesterday I was pleased to find at least six solid companies offering 100% renewables plans. I shopped them, built a spreadsheet to consider fees added to rates for my average usage and picked a couple leaders. I called and attempted to negotiate an even better deal but couldn't. I tried competitive rates etc but everyone manning the phones didn't have any authority to match rates.

A couple of additional things spurred my decision. First, my new green plan is cheaper by far than my old "brown" plan. My rate is 11 cents a KWH and my old rate was 14.24 cents per KWH! I also fixed that rate for 12 months as I believe natural gas prices aren't going to stay this low and that also affects coal prices. So I locked in now prior to the main summer cooling season.

Being able to do pure wind was a bonus. Having seen all the windmills in western Texas I am a big proponent, and, I want my money to go to building more of those rather than more dams.

It's also worth noting that a penny per KWH for me is $165 a year, based on last year's usage.

Bottom Line - Now is a great time to lock in rates and they are low enough to go renewables and still save money!

But now I have green energy. Can I stop being electricity use conscious? I guess, in a way, I could. But my conscience wouldn't be clear. I am using electricity from the grid regardless of source but my money goes to the wind provider. If I now used more electricity there would be more demand on the grid overall and to supply that, there has to be more generation built. But what we want is to have them decommission coal plants while building more renewable energy.

If we can all just cut 30%, regardless of source, we can get there. If we use too much energy, just because its green, we actually defeat the bigger purpose of transitioning all energy to renewables.

I hope the wind is blowing in West Texas today, I have ice cream in the freezer!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A window to watch your expensive energy dissapear

Windows are bad. Sure our lives would suck with out them but were trying to go green here...

But wait, if we have lots of glass and the associated natural light I can keep my lights turned off. Just think of the savings! Except at night, or when there are temperature differences outside etc. Oh well. never mind.

Windows are bad.

If you live in a new, well insulated house, your walls will probably have a high R-value. They will perform well right up to the window. And, in newer homes we insist on lots of natural light so they have lots of windows. In fact, even in my 1965 home I have walls that are way more glass than wall.

These designs grew out of cheap energy and a "don't care" attitude about pollution, climate change etc. It will be interesting to see how architecture changes as we become more sensitive to these issues.

Or maybe we can whip this with technology. Maybe we will get to where a window is as good as a wall. Of course it will cost you more than a small nuclear reactor, but it will be greener! Or we could wait around for solar panels that are reasonably priced to generate our energy so we don't care how much the windows lose. We're 30 years and counting so far.

When you're looking at making your home energy efficient, the windows are a primary concern, but they are also a big expense if you want to change them. Generally, it's really hard to cost justify window changes, but there is lots you can do in the mean time.

It's worth noting that a window, or maybe more accurately, a piece of glass that's built into your wall that doesn't open can be replaced much more cost effectively. In fact, in my home, it was cheaper than blinds. There is no frame, locks, mechanisms etc, it's just a glass sandwich. Costs for a triple pane low-e glass unit can be pretty reasonable, they usually install easy, and they make a big difference. And lastly they are eligible for tax credits if they are certified.

But, the easy thing to do on all windows is make sure they don't leak. Weather stripping and caulk are usually the answer. Next we need to just blanket the window. Heavy curtains, blinds etc all help a lot. One has to remember to use these items when there are considerable temperature differences from inside to out. You also don't want to have openings at the top and bottom of the coverings or you will have just built an air convection heating (or cooling) machine.

One can also install clear plastic (from 3-M) to the windows inside to build an air gap and seal the whole thing. These work reasonably well and make a huge difference, for just a little time and money.

Bottom Line - Standing in any room, your likely largest energy user is the window(s). They are worth the time to make them energy efficient and there are good price options from plastic all the way up to new windows (that should probably still have coverings).

Sunday, June 14, 2009

How important is the attic to our heat and cooling bills?

I like this question, because it asks, why do I care, about something so tried and true.

If I stand in the middle of a room in my house, how much is ceiling? In a 12 x 12 room, the ceiling is 144 sq ft of area to be concerned about. If the ceiling is vaulted, it's even more.

In that room, each wall is 12 foot long, and let's say 9 feet tall. That wall is 108 square feet. If it's on the outside of the house we care, if it's on the inside, we don't. So how many walls are on the outside per room? In my house it's one or two per room typically. (Corner rooms are two.)

So if its one wall, it's 108 square feet -vs- 144 on the ceiling. If it's two, then its 216 vs 144 square feet of ceiling. No matter what, the ceiling is a big percentage of any room sitting under the attic.

Now, to be accurate, much of those exterior walls are penetrated by windows. Big chunks of square feet are actually glass. If you super insulated an exterior wall, but left a big single pane window in the middle of will have missed the point.

But back to attics. In a single story home, all the rooms have ceilings touching the attic space. Simply put, a 3000 square foot home has about 3000 feet of ceiling touching the hot attic! A full two story would be about half that.

The most important reason to focus on attic is because we can actually do something about the problem pretty easily. Attics are accessible, the inside of your exterior walls aren't, (without serious deconstruction.) Blowing insulation, radiant barriers, and venting are all pretty easy, there are lots of contractors to choose from and it doesn't disrupt our lives...much.

Bottom Line - Attic is very important and easy to deal with.

Solar attic fans

There is a new product out on the market, well sorta new. It's the solar powered attic fan that sits on your roof and draws air out of your attic for free! Well, $600 free. This is a product who's time has be left at the store where it belongs.

Many of us have the turbine fans that passively turn when we get a little breeze. They are cheap to buy and also free to run. There are also powered fans that have thermostats to turn them on and off depending on attic temperature. They require electricity to be run to them (and paid for). There are also ridge vents that run the entire length of the roof top and vent the attic passivly through convection.

Now the solar fan adds a fourth option. If you have read my previous post you may spot the problem with these fans. True they go in without an electrician and when the sun is shining and you are gaining heat in the attic, they work well. But what happens when the sun isn't shining?

First, as the sun is setting they begin to slow down because of the reduced light hitting the collector. The heat in the attic, from all the radiant heating of the stuff continues to build. As evening comes and the outdoor air cools, the fan stops, just when you need it to be pulling cool air into the attic and cooling all the stuff. So the insulation becomes saturated with heat as it sits all night baking with no cool air.

The next day, the process starts over again except the attic never cooled, so today's heat is added to what's left of yesterday's. The fan runs all day keeping up with the new heat, then shuts off again.

Bottom line - The attic needs venting 24 x 7 in the summer. Spending $600 apiece to vent only when the sun is shining on them, is very questionable.

Maybe there is some justification to adding one of these to an existing complete attic venting solution, I dont know. And for $600 plus installation, I doubt I will find out.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Attics. Advanced class in thermodynamics

Ya right, I don't even know what thermodynamics means. What I do know is heat transfer is what all this green home energy conservation stuff is all about. Trying to keep cool and warm where it belongs.

Thinking about it, your gas, oil, electricity use is all increased by various losses or waste of hotness or coolness. So what's important is how.

Heat transfers three ways, conductive, ie finger touches hot pan, convection, air above the pan rises and cooler air replaces it to be warmed etc..., and feel the heat from the pan at a distance but the air in between is a normal temperature.

It's that last one that is really tricky. Hot surfaces "radiate" heat via invisible waves traveling at the speed of light. If you have ever sat under a restaurant heater you may have noticed it warmed you although the air was still cool. That's radiative heating. So why do we care?

Well all of those radiant barrier ads on the radio and in your mailbox are about stopping the radiative effect of the sun on your roof. They basically stop the radiating of the heat into the attic. They promise huge energy savings for us Texans. But before you run to the phone to get some...lets make sure we understand the challenge.

Your attic is full of stuff, not only your camping gear you never use but also the insulation, rafters, duct work etc. The radiative heat, heats all of this stuff, just like you at the restaurant.

The insulation has a couple of jobs. First it keeps convection from taking all the cool from your ceiling and sending it out the vents. It also slows the heat in the attic from soaking through your ceiling into your living space. (Conduction).

So the air is hot, and the stuff is hot, and as long as the sun is shining on the roof the more radiative and conductive heat will be transferred into your attic. A simple shade tree drastically reduces these two heating effects. But, for those of us in the sun, where we make a mistake is thinking that some air vents and insulation are all we need.

Radiant barrier basically reflects the invisible heat energy back. Then your attic is only heated by conduction and convection. Air moves in, comes in contact with the "under roof" surface that has been warmed by the sun, heats up and rises. This goes on all day and into the night. If you have enough insulation, that heat never really gets to your cool ceiling before it cools off for the night.

So, we could keep piling insulation up in the attic. The air above it and all the stuff would be super hot. That heat will slowly seep further and further into the insulation where it will reach the topside of your ceiling and begin to warm the air in the room. The more insulation I have the longer it will take to become saturated with heat and the slower the heat transfer will be. Or, we can vent the attic and take advantage of convection to keep removing the hot air and replacing it with cooler outdoor air. If we move enough air we can keep the attic reasonable in air temp.

Combine those two and you have a pretty good system for keeping a handle on conductive and convection heat, but we are still at the mercy of the radiant heat. Add the radiant barrier and you have really cooled your attic and given your insulation a chance to do its job.

Taking this a logical step further, there are new homes being constructed with the radiant barriers and insulation under the roof with a sealed up attic and no insulation between the attic and the living area. The idea is that the attic is kept cool by the transfer of heat through the ceiling and conditioning the air. For all of us, it doesn't make sense to do that on an existing home.

Bottom Line - Radiant heat needs to be addressed, especially if your duct work runs through that space. Insulation and venting are good, but not good enough to really make a difference in your cooling bill. But you also can't believe those claims of 30% savings. The pros will tell you its 8 -12%.

It's time to call some contractors and find out what this stuff's 95 degrees today. Using a simple ROI calculation of...what's the cost of the barrier vs saving 10% on my electricity bill in the summer months should be a good starting point. If that looks reasonable then we will do the harder calculation of 10% of just the air conditioning portion of the electric bill per month.

What's normal? Average?

In my quest to know where I stand, I have attempted to measure my sustained place in this world against others. What's my level of greeness? Am I good, bad, or even the dreaded "average"?

In fact, I started my work on sustainability with a trip to the Energy Star web site to measure my energy use against others in an attempt to see where I stand. As I blogged then, my house was a zero on a scale of zero to one hundred. That's pretty bad.

Reader Mathias sent a link for Wattzon, another site with a measuring tool against all others who have filled out the simple forms. They go a step further and try and convert everything to watts to allow us to compare apples to apples.

But I suggest the flaw in all of this is us measuring against the average. Not because it isn't fun, but because it isn't useful. In fact, I think measuring at all against each other is seriously wrong headed. (It smacks of my religion being better than yours, and we know where that ends up.)

As my brother-in-law says, half jokingly, it's a personal journey.

So how do we encourage ourselves on our personal sustainability journey? How do we know when we have accomplished something meaningful? Worthwhile to our planet, kids, grand kids etc? We should measure against ourselves.

Bottom Line #1 - We need to measure our journey's successes against our own pasts.

I believe in goals, but again, setting a goal against the average, or your neighbor, isn't relevant in my view. Set a goal to achieve a 30% reduction in all things related to sustainability, compared to yourself. Measure your starting point, and take out 30%.

I think you'll find that 30% is mostly waste, not use. That 30% is the way we did things out of habit or the way we were taught. That 30% is also things that are available today to help us get there with reasonable cost and payback.

Bottom Line #2 - We need to eliminate the waste, build new habits and put to use some new products or services to help us achieve 30%.

So you might encounter someone who brags about their footprint, their journey, their rain barrels. Have them tell you me how much they have reduced against their start of this journey. If they can, that person is trying to better themselves, not compete against someone else.

If you get a long story about the effort or money spent, or how cool their new Prius is, don't take it as a challenge, they are probably hiding a Hummer at the lake house.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Xeriscape is now "Water Wise"

Due to everyones inability to wrap their head around the word "xeriscape" we are now calling these landscapes or plantings "Water Wise". Dallas just hosted their annual Water Wise home tour this last weekend and I went along for the ride.

First, there are still plenty of examples of what I now call the "English Garden" look. It's an eclectic mix of plants that smacks of way too many trips to the plant store. "Oh look, lets get one of those and see how it does."

There are also examples of Water Wise that clearly aren't. One had an artificial stream running through it! She said (since I asked) that her water bill is only $32. They must not shower in that house.

But I was heartened to see that some designers were beginning to grasp the idea without making a mess. I saw a one really nice example out of the 10 we visited, and the 10 that I viewed on-line. Unfortunately not one of the homeowners was touting a percentage of savings from the effort. I find that curious but maybe I am the only one who actually tracks the savings from my non "Water Wise" yard.

So, next year I plan on entering the event. I am going to show how to get 30% water savings and look like a normal landscape. Every time someone says "well where is the jumble of water wise plants"? I'll just turn the sprinklers on them.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Where have I been? Thinking of 30%

I have been spending an inordinate amount of time repairing my main PC, bringing up a new one and learning Vista. I'd much rather be working on green issues.

While I have been on hold for a support person, (a week at least) I have been hatching a new idea. This idea stems from my belief that a portion of going green is easy. I also know that a portion of going green is very, very hard.

The reason we care is that none of us are really capable of a zero footprint. We humans will have an impact, the only question is how much and what is proper?

So I like to think of the things that count, as GEWS. Gas, Electric Water and Sewer. We also have garbage and gasoline. If you take all these, they encompass much of our footprint. We could add jet fuel and batteries and stuff we buy but that's all a bit too complex.

So taking these six simple things and reducing them 30% is a big step. In fact, I believe it's a big enough step! If we could all do 30% it would make a huge difference to our planet!

My experience tells me that 30% is a good goal and requires some effort and ongoing vigilance, but not big life changes. We can live our lives at 30% less just by being smart, eliminating waste and sticking to that goal.

Let's look at each part of our footprint individually:

Gas (Natural Gas) - Depending on what your appliances are running on, this one may be one of the tougher ones to reduce 30%. It means lowering the thermostat on the water heater. Getting a programmable thermostat for the furnace. Insulate the water heater and the hot water pipes and seal up the house. I am at 28% for the last six months mainly because I had a recirculating hot water pump that's now on a timer.

Electricity - This is easier because we have so many things that run on electricity. Limiting the time things are on, using a small oven, and again using a programmable thermostat are the basics. I am at 26.5% and going up.

Water - I made some big changes in my sprinkler system, added a low flow washer to our shower and let the yellow mellow. I am at 32% for this item.

Sewer - This item is a reflection of your water use in Dallas. In theory, a water reduction should always reduce sewer use. I don't track it because mine was artificially low last year as I found out right before I picked up the phone to call the city and complain. So mine is higher this year, but through no fault of my own.

Garbage - Recycling/composting - I think 30% is too easy if you aren't really paying attention to what you throw in the bin. If you recycle to the letter of the law, 30%s a good number and the composting is just gravy. Mulching in all my fall leaves gets me way ahead.

Gasoline - Here I still have a problem. My car eats a lot of gas (22 MPG). But to get 30% saving means I only have to get to 29 MPG. That's reasonable for a large four door sedan.

So we can all do 30%. It's really not hard and the money saved might surprise you. My average savings per month this year is $150.58 over the same period last year.

Bottom Line - The first 30% is the right thing to do, pretty easy and has a great return on investment.

Now I am beginning to look at the second 30%. This is much harder and requires much more money with longer paybacks. It includes new sprinkler equipment, some new super windows, possibly a whole house fan, a duct blaster test, new recessed light fixtures, possibly a radiant barrier for the attic, and maybe buying less stuff, or stuff with a lot less packaging.

The last 30% is photovoltaics, geothermal heat pumps, solar hot water, hybrid small car, new windows throughout, large water cisterns and pumps, grey water recycling. landscape change to xeriscape and a winning lottery ticket.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Climate Change update

One area where I spend the most reading time is Climate Change. If you have read my prior posts on this topic, you know I haven't been fully convinced we (the world) have a real handle on the issue.

An area I recently needed to better understand was CO2 in the atmosphere. We generally hear pundits, scientists etc. all point to the idea that CO2 is put into the atmosphere where it resides for hundreds of years. Every day we compound this problem with another car, cow or human.

But that isn't really true. CO2 is a natural part of our global system of air, water, land, plants and animals. We are carbon based life forms. So in reality, carbon is a big system cycling from air to land or water etc every day. Limestone is the result of carbon trapped in sediment and shells. Trees are 50% carbon. Water dissolves carbon, even in the air, so rain washes carbon from the atmosphere.

So what's all the fuss about? We humans take a lot of long-term carbon like trees, oil, coal, natural gas and we burn them. Taking hundreds to millions of years of stored carbon and releasing it into the air to start the cycle over. Another example is making cement, it takes limestone and heats it releasing lots of carbon stored millions of years ago.

So what we (you and I) do is take long term carbon and turn it into very short term carbon in our atmosphere. There it blocks the sun's earth-reflected radiation from escaping back into space.

But it is rained out, deposited into the water and onto the land as part of the natural cycle. So, the good news is it isn't up there forever, the bad news is, the earth can't deal with it all as quickly as we can make it.

Bottom Line 1 - Atmospheric CO2 is part of a natural cycle. Some of that cycle is long term, and some is short. What's at issue is that we take too much long term CO2 and turn too much of it into short term (atmospheric) CO2.

One has to remember that our earth is a closed system. The only things that leave or enter our environment is solar radiation and the odd meteor. We, including Mother Nature, don't create any matter or elements, we just convert them. The amount of CO2 is fixed, the only question is the form it takes.

Bottom Line #2 - The older the carbon is and the longer it takes to make it into a given form, (oil is old) the more we are artificially changing the CO2 cycle.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Story of Stuff

If you are conscious about sustainability issues you become aware of all of these areas where our system needs work. Usually in discrete pockets like recycling, pollution etc.

This video tells the whole story.

It's 20 minutes, so take a break from the daily routine, you won't feel guilty at the end for taking the time...I promise.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Fuel news

I don't normally post on the news of the day but I think there might be a glimmer of direction for us consumers. Specifically in the area of transportation.

The administration announced today they they are discontinuing funding for hydrogen powered transportation! That narrows the field for other technologies.

The second bit is the recent data that suggests that biofuels (fuel from plants essentially) would probably be best if turned into electricity rather than fermented to make a liquid fuel. The preliminary numbers are impressive when termed in miles per acre. Ie, if you took an acre of switchgrass and burned it in an electric plant and made electricity to run a car.

Compare that to taking an acre's production and fermenting it to make a liquid biofuel.

The reason I thought this was significant in that it further directs us to electric for transportation. If you weren't convinced an electric car is in your future, you should be now.

Bottom Line - Electricity looks to be the winning fuel for our 21st century personal transportation fleet. Can you imagine how quiet and clean it will be?

Green cars

"Green cars" is probably an oxymoron. But greener cars? We have lots of those coming.

But that doesn't mean that you couldn't find a whole bunch of non-green cars down at our Dallas Auto Show. There is a Dodge truck dualie that tows 16,000 pounds! If I were an oil sheik, I'd get one!

But as I said, we have a whole plethora (new from KIA?) of more energy efficient cars coming this fall. Some from the brands you know and love and a few from unheard of car makers. Here is how the technologies break down.

Neighborhood electrics - Limited to 25 mph, this allows them to slip through regulations for street use without crash testing. They are like a fancy golf cart in most cases. Plug-in recharging.

Electric three wheelers - Exploits a regulation loophole by classifying as a motorcycle to go faster but without crash testing, some are available now.

Plug in electric - Recharges via household current, range is limited, cars are mostly small, a number of options will be available in 2010 - 2011.

E85 cars - Uses 85% ethanol blend in a gas engine - there are no fuel stations in Texas but models are currently available.

Fuel efficient gasoline engines - The Smart for example. There are lots to choose from now.

Diesel - They are generally more efficient and thus give more mileage per gallon. Diesels are big in Europe and are expected to grow in the US. Bio diesel use is possible but buyer beware, many manufacturers don't want you to use too much in the fuel mix. Available now from mostly German manufacturers.

Light Hybrid - Power is regenerated through braking to charge batteries and has an electric motor that restarts the gas engine to move the vehicle. Available now.

Hybrid - Uses electric motor, gas engine and regenerative braking. Both motor and engine drive the car together or it can just use the electric motor, and recharge the batteries. Most of what is available now is this type of hybrid. Many more are coming.

Plug in hybrid - Recharge batteries via household current (120 volts AC) and has a gas engine to either move the vehicle or charge batteries on the go. This extends the range of a mostly electric vehicle.

Simple right? Well there are even more choices coming including diesel hybrids, bio diesel hybrids, natural gas and we are still working on hydrogen fuel cell cars along with who knows what else.

But here is what's important: Oil, sent to us in tankers from unfriendly nations, power our transportation sectors almost exclusively. We don't use much oil for anything else in comparison. Secondly, transportation is a big greenhouse gas problem. Third, cars etc. spew a lot of other pollutants.

Bottom Line #1 - Burning lots of fossil fuel in your car is a problem on multiple levels. So the coming green car of choice will provide you either guilt free driving or reduced guilt driving. It's also very possible these vehicles will save you a lot of money. When (not if) gas returns to $4.00 a gallon, you will cherish your environmentally friendly vehicle.

Today, batteries are the holy grail of our next generation of vehicles. How much of a charge, how much they weigh, how long they last and how will they be disposed of at the end of their useful life are all challenges for engineers the world over. While we sleep at night they are trying to improve batteries on all those fronts. (Root for US engineers to win the day).

We also may want to think of our transportation as a long haul vehicle (hybrid) and city car (plug in electric). Charging your car at home will cost you around a third of the cost of gas. Renting, rather than owning your long haul car may make even more sense.

Bottom Line #2 - Buying a car will require a whole new thought process if you want a greener choice. Hybrids will become mainstream, and plug-in electrics will get a good start this year. You should be able to buy what you like, this Fall, from reputable manufacturers who will be around tomorrow.

Before you get that eco-car, consider this (my head hurts every time I read about it). When deciding if upgrading the efficiency of your vehicle makes sense, you have to look at fuel savings differently.

The problem is we perceive that fuel consumption falls in a linear fashion as mpg increases. In other words, we think that a 50 mpg car compared to a 34 mpg car is better fuel savings than a 28 mpg car compared to a 18 mpg one. The first one saves 16 gallons, the second 10, right?

Well if your car gets 18 mpg currently, upgrading to a 28 mpg one offers more than double the fuel savings over 10,000 miles, than the 34 mpg car compared to a 50 mpg one! You math wizards out there get this probably...I prefer to consider it magic.

Bottom Line #3 - The reason this is important is that trading in your inefficient car for a mildly efficient one is way more important than trading in your efficient ride for a super efficient one.