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...