One More Reason to Hate Skinny People- They Stay Cooler

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There are no Models any more; only “supermodels” and “weight loss contestants.” The woman in the silhouette photo at left may be an expensive sweetheart in many ways, but the physics says she’s at least easier to keep cool.

It’s almost a “duh” moment to reveal that skinny people stay cool at higher temperatures, I suppose. But since I stopped being skinny, I’ve been indulging in denial about my need for greater cooling comfort. At two hundred pounds of aging manhood, I suffer a bit more in the heat and humidity than I did a few years ago. And you?

A Hawaiian blogger from Hilo cites a study exploring the relationship between body mass and the need for more cooling. Apparently larger, heavier people expend fewer calories through normal indoor activity, but they require lower AC temps even so. Ok, I get that. And there’s a twist. The study poses the question whether the popularity of largeness has itself causes our increasing dependence upon mechanical cooling, or whether THE AIR CONDITIONING ITSELF HAS CAUSED US TO GET FATTER!

As Dave Barry often says, I am sooooooo not making this up. If reducing our heat stress in summer causes us to eat more, ok, maybe. If reducing our heat stress simply permits larger people to survive summer, ok, maybe. Or if heat stress is a weight loss technique we should all be considering, well, I don’t like it, but maybe.

In the case of my embarrassing spread, I don’t think my air conditioner is the real perp. I think I did it to myself. But a guilty air conditioner may cost less to run. I can be stingier with the thermostat. I can do yoga in front of the TV. I can eat salad with almost no dresssing while i do yoga in front of the TV, occasionally glaring at the thermostat. I can work in the heat all day and come home to a cool house, drink ice water and bask in the relief from heat stress. I don’t think I should swelter until I reach my ideal weight. I think I may live longer if I don’t have to court heat exhaustion, dehydration, depression, grouchiness, malaise and unpleasant body odors when it gets hot outside.

I want my AC. Forget the study linking obesity with air conditioning. I can adjust. I’ll drink so much water I won’t even be hungry. And if the supermodel gets chilly, she can go outside and pose……..

Smell That Fresh Air! Where Do YOU Live?

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I put good filters into the HVAC equipment I install. Sometimes, on request, I install special electronic or ultraviolet purifiers that remove living thingies from the air inside your house. But that’s only inside. We can battle the pet dander, dust mites, pollen and even germs floating in your indoor air. But we can’t fight what ‘s going on outside.

The air quality where you live depends upon many things: surrounding plant life, animals living nearby, cities and manufacturing plants upwind of you, and nuclear testing in China, believe it or not. If you live just outside, say, Gary, Indiana, or on the east side of the Bronx, or in LA during smog season, you have to live with what man does to the environment in the course of American living: automobile exhaust, industrial emissions and the smoke from too many chimneys affect us when we breathe.

But I live in the country! Miles and miles of luxurious forest, hayfields, amber waves of grain, native casinos (non-emitters, they swear, very harmonious wit’ nature), placid cattle grazing in fields fenced by rubble-stone walls. I love New England. But the air quality where I live is not free of challenge. Ragweed, milkweed, conifer pollen, asters, wild grasses, oak and the cows’  behinds all emit stuff that I’m allergic to. On sultry August days I have to come inside sometimes to catch a breath of clean air. My house is not a clean-room, but it has a filtered air conditioning system that stands between me and the bad stuff outdoors sometimes when things build up and the Air Quality Index shows a high level of pollutants in the air.

If you’re not susceptible to these changes in air quality, good for you. But most people are, to varying degrees. Even stalwart smokers notice when the air gets heavy with dust, pollen and smoke particles, and breathing can be actually risky for more sensitive types like asthma sufferers.

What to do?  I’m afraid the solution, like so much of life, involves work. To start with, clean your house. Really clean. Use a good vacuum, preferably a hypo-allergenic model, or even a HEPA quality vac, move the piles in the corners, move the couch, move the dog, and vacuum everywhere. Do the walls, too. I’ll wait while you finish.

And vacuum your bare mattress to reduce the number of dust mites living there. What are they living on, you ask? Read the Wiki thing in the link. Or don’t.  Dust mites are icky. Just vacuum your mattress, under your bed, run your bedding through the dryer at high temp once in a while, or, better yet, hang it out on a hot sunny day. Dust mites are like vampires. Sort of.

And once y0ur house is clean, keep it clean. Fry your favorite greasy foods out on the grille rather than indoors. Use a non-ozone air purifier to filter one safe space in your house for you to lurk in on bad air days. Watch the weather thingie for air reports; they’re there, but barely. Don’t look for them in the shots of the weather lady’s legs.

And consider, charming as they may be, that your pets may be part of the problem. Especially if they share your furniture or your beds when you’re not looking. And they do, don’t they? Don’t lie. Of course you love your pets; but they might be as big a factor in your allergies as the ragweed pollen that’s out and bothering everyone now.

Respiratory health is not something you can take in pill form. What goes into your lungs can cause you trouble. Sometimes it comes from upwind, from the factory or the city. Sometimes it comes from the scenic fields and woods around your house. Sometimes it comes from the mattress under your sheets. Or from your dog. And if it’s coming from inside your house, there’s something you can do about it. Those fields may be best viewed through your windows until pollen season is over. Health is an energy issue, as we will see in future posts.

What’s That Smell? Quick! To the Shower!

man-in-shower-blogOne of the seasonal energy features of summer is: more showers. Not so, say you? Take as many showers in cold weather as you do in summer? Well, let me tell you about my daughters. In their salad days as teenagers they took several a day between them. I, as a hard-w0rking contractor, often find myself in the rain-room more than once a day.

And the electric tank in the basement that supplies my hot water is working overtime to supply all that hot water for extra showers. So add to my energy bill for modest air conditioning comfort the expense of extra hot water for more laundry and showers. And the alternative? EEEEEEEeeeeewwww! What’s that smell? See the guy in the photo? Don’t get any closer, or you’ll receive way too much information about that person. Wait until he’s all done and dried off.

What’s Mr. Natural’s astute, energy-conscious remedy? Well. First things first. Short, tepid showers. You’re thinking, you don’t know my kids. No, I don’t know your kids. But I know how to turn down the settings on my water heater. And you can learn, too. Right here. And be extra careful if your tank is electric; use an insulated screwdriver and don’t remove the wireshield. Just follow the directions, do the upper as well as the lower thermostat, and you can become as unloved as a beginning tuba player in minutes. And keep your teenagers away from screwdrivers. Come to think of it, I’ll bet they don’t know or care where your water heater is located.

Stronger deodorant? Doesn’t instill confidence or convey that fresh clean feeling. but you can try. Hippie housefold hint no. 206: apply rubbing alcohol to your pits as you emerge from the shower, then use deodorant if you wish. Don’t try this, ladies, after you shave under there. Be warned.

And there’s what Kinky Friedman calls the “Waylon Jennings Bus Shower,” in which you splash and swab your armpits while standing at the sink. Saves water, job gets done. No fresh, clean feeling, though. Now wipe up the floor.

Between the laundry, hot water and the air conditioning, it’s hard to save an energy buck in hot weather. But you can try. Adjust your hot water heater, adjust your air conditioning thermostat, do full loads of laundry in cold water and hang the clothes in the sun to dry. Don’t waste energy pleading with your teenagers. Tell them they smell just fine.

Ductless Split Air Conditioners – Practically Perfect

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If your home has a large open space built around, perhaps, the kitchen, dining room and den, or the newfangled Great Room concept, you can render that space comfortable without sacrificing your windows or paying big sums for some guy like me to install a full duct network for a central system. You can have a “ductless split” system installed, operate it from a handy remote, and cool the large living area of your house in respectable silence.

Window units are noisy and take up window openings. Central systems are the best, but can you afford one right now? Like the incumbent Democratic administration, I favor a considered compromise when all factors can be weighed.  I don’t favor any single brand, but i do insist that you shop for these essentals:  high efficiency, ample capacity, multiple fan speeds, and a good warrantee. Here are some links, offered without partiality for your consideration. Here’s a multi-brand site, another one, and a brand or two of the better ones

To find an installer, you may have to call around, use the Yellow Pages, and ask at the wholesaler’s, because not all techs are familiar with the subtle ways of the ductless split. Expect the job to take less than a day, and expect to be cool by dinnertime. The hardest part is tying the electric power into your panel, a process that may require a licensed electrician. Be sure to ask if your installer does the wiring himself.

The thermostat’s in the remote, the filter is the washable kind, and the condenser is as energy-efficient as the outdoor unit of a central system, and a bit more efficient than any window unit you can buy. Ductless split is less noisy than window units, slightly more noisy than central, typically.

Here in New England, we have the possible need for home air conditioning, I tell my clients, of about 100 days per year. Most folks use their air conditioning between 40 and 60 days, unless a bust of ralph nader adorns your mantel and you’re reading this while completely naked. How much will it cost to get you through the summer? Can you hide in your bedroom next to the window unit? Do you need the whole house cooled and dried to accommodate your teenagers and your expansive tush sticking to your naugahyde recliner? Or somewhere in between? If you’d like to get comfortable in the dining room and huddle around the table like millennial Waltons being cool, and if you’re tempted to break out the sleeping bags and have a camping adventure on the family room carpet, you could be enjoying your ductless split system by, say, tomorrow night.

Air Conditioning– It’s All About Water

woman-and-fan-blog      In summer, no matter where you live, you sometimes wish for a cooler house. “Sultry” is the word they taught us in school for those days of heat and humidity that sap your energy and make you feel clammy and damp. The woman in the photo is using an ancient strategy, moving air across her skin to promote the evaporation of moisture, which removes heat from her body and dries her skin to a more comfortable level. Fans are always good.

But what happens on those days when fans don’t work? When the humidity is so near “dew point” that no evaporation is possible? When the air contains so much moisture at its current temperature that it can’t receive any more? You can drive to the beach or lake or pool and immerse yourself in water to cool down, or…..  

Enter air conditioning, a technology older than you might think, which cools the air in a space and, at its best, lowers the moisture content of the air so that evaporation can remove heat from people and animals therein. Simply blowing air across quantities of ice is an ancient application. Willis Carrier devised a refrigerating device that cooled air using ammonia as a compressible refrigerant in 1902. We now use non-toxic gases in home and auto air conditioners, but the environmental impact of those gases has us looking for the next generation of refrigerants that don’t pollute nearly as much. More on that another time.

Here, as I say often, is the secret: any air conditioner that can cool room air to a temperature below its dew point in one pass across its coils will eventually render a space comfortable for people and animals. Moisture drops out of the cooled air, drains off somewhere in a responsible way, and the air now feels more comfortable, breathable, drier, and the moisture evaporating from your skin is removing just over 1000 btu per pound of sweat. Don’t think too graphically about the idea of a pound of sweat, but athletes in extremis can shed ten pounds or more from perspiration and evaporation during a game or training session, and marathon runners dread humid days for races because they will sweat just as much but not be able to control their bodies’ temperature as well in those conditions. Just like you, in a milder way, on a hot day, entering a room full of cool, dry air. Wonderful. Or unable to find a cool space and wiping away pints (pounds) of perspiration and still feeling hot and miserable.

Today in my zip code it’s only 77 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’s 95% relative humidity. That means the air is burdened with 95% of the water it can contain at that temperature, and it’s unlikely to accept that last 5% without more wind than we have. It’s uncomfortable, sticky, still and not going to improve until thunderstorms come later in the day to reduce the humidity. Good day to use air conditioning to dry out the air inside, even though the temperature is not oppressive.

Even if you air condition only one special room in your house (bedroom, tv room, basement den) as a refuge on miserable days, you can give yourself a place to get comfy and avoid the toll of heat stress (the link is a bit lurid, beware). Or you can take a shower to cool down, hug the fan like the young woman in the photo, drink lots of iced stuff, and gripe about the weather to anyone who will listen. It seems to help, somehow.

The S.E.E.R. Predicts Your Energy Future

seer-label-blog1Do you mind the bad puns in the post titles? The label at left was attached to a new room air conditioner. SEER, or Seasonal Energy Effiiciency Rating, is an industry standard meant to help you compare appliances, specifically air conditioners, as to energy efficiency. A low number means lower efficiency, a higher number means greater efficiency and better performance for less energy.

   This Wiki link explains the higher math, but you can get it this way. SEER, in reference to AC units, is the raw number of btu you get from investing one watt for one hour. If you, like me, pay almost 20 cents per thousand (kilo-) watt hours, a SEER 0f 10.5 means you get back 10,500 btu for every kilowatt hour you invest in running the unit. That capacity matches a small room air conditioner, so you can figure you spend between 20 and 30 cents per hour to run your window air conditioner at that SEER. Run it day and night for a week, you’ve spent perhaps $40 US on average to air condition that room or space. Boring? Only until the power bill shows up.

   So the numbers matter as much as the price when you go to the big box store to shop for AC units. You might pay $50 less for a cheaper unit, but how long will that $50 last when a window unit of 9.8 (minimum) EER (category for room/window units) costs 30% more to run than a better one with an EER of 13?  The payback on the difference can be measured in weeks, or perhaps a New York minute.

If you install a central (ducted, noisy parts outside, air comes out of holes in floor or ceiling) system, the minimum SEER permitted in CT is 13. And you can spend some more money and get SEER ratings of up to 23. Yes. Almost twice as efficient. And almost twice as expensive. Equipment rated SEER 16 is more reasonable in price, and the energy savings will pay you back rather quickly for your initial investment in better equipment.

If you have large, open spaces in your house (no, I don’t mean missing walls and doors, silly), you might opt for a Ductless Split System, in which a single blower unit hangs on a wall and the noisy condenser sits outside. There is no hidden ductwork in the basement and you can control the unit with a handy remote. SEER can range from 13 to 16, and total system cost can be half the amount you pay for a central system. The ductwork I and my colleagues install is efficient and equity-enhancing, but expensive.

Numbers can be so boring unless dollar (or Euro) signs are attached. When you invest in air conditioners, don’t wait until it’s hot and you’re miserable and don’t have much money in your pocket. If you can help it. Get a grip, take along a calculator, crunch some simple numbers, tax the salesperson with hard questions about efficiency and capacity, and get more for your money—- not just today, but for as long as you own the equipment. We’ll talk more about the different systems in the next post.

Earth Sheltered Living for Trolls

cave-mouth-blog In the last post we examined the elegances of Bilbo’s earth sheltered dwelling as described in The Hobbit. Careful construction and design can yield a home requiring little energy for comfort, snug and dry and spacious inside. Twelve dwarves, Gandalf and Bilbo could gather in the dining room to feast on Bilbo’s pantry without feeling cramped. Then they had a jam session and stayed up all night plotting Smaug’s demise and the division of an uncountable treasure. All carried out underground.

Living underground is not always so nice. Later in the story the travellers are waylaid by three trolls, and in due course the trolls’ cave is described. Not a nice place. Smelly, with stuff scattered about. Later, the group visit a goblin cave. Likewise, not a nice place. Wet, dark, confusing, windowless. That’s the dark side of earth sheltered living. So take care: while you’re being wooed by the fabulous energy profile of earth sheltered living, be warned about the several things that can go wrong.

  Be aware that the concept of earth sheltered building does not rest on the insulating properties of dirt. The guiding principle, instead, is the thermal mass of the concrete membrane and the earth resting on it, enhanced often these days with layers of rigid foam board. The goal is to create a well-insulated envelope much like that of a conventional frame structure, but with a huge thermal mass on the inside of the insulation as well as on the outside.

 Another unwritten but understood factor in American earth sheltered living is the electric heat added to the space by lighting and appliances. Without this incidental, or “internal” gain, the temperature of an earth sheltered dwelling would come to rest somewhere in the 50s. Call me a wuss, but I like to hunker down at home in less than a parka. And, notwithstanding the somewhat cheeky boast of earth sheltered builders that no hvac system is needed in their homes, most earth sheltered buildings feature a heat pump, furnace or stove to provide comfort as it’s needed.

   Moisture, the bane of many an otherwise well built house, will kill an earth sheltered home. A perfect membrane is important for sealing the concrete against moisture, protecting the insulation and keeping the earth mass dry, . The low air change rate in a concrete, foam and earth envelope can result in a humid, moldy cave, the kind only trolls would want to live in. Forced ventilation through heat-recovery vent systems is an excellent idea. Meticulous construction featuring approved and inspected membranes and a drainage network is also fundamental to success in below-ground living.

   One advantage modern earth sheltered builders have over Bilbo’s hobbit craftsmen is the technology that makes warmth, light, and air movement so much easier to design into a home. Skill with stone and wood will get you so far toward elegant American living, but without skylights, light wells, modern HVAC, kitchen equipment and tons of hot water, the idea of living in a well-designed cave would not appeal to most people. As it is, earth sheltered living is growing on us as a society, slowly. But that’s the pace of change in the American building industry. Slow. And cautious. I think I like it that way.

Only God Can Make a Tree– But You Can Plant One

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   Please note the music player in the sidebar at right. If you click on any track,  the music will play while you read the posts. And tell me what you think of an old man’s taste. We will consider requests for special readers.

   The image is a repro of Cezanne’s House with Trees, and in this post we move outside the box a little to have a look around outdoors for energy tactics and some long range resource management tips. The oldest passive solar building tip is leafy trees close to the house. The technical term for leafy trees is “deciduous.” Loaded with leaves all summer, they cast shade as the sun rolls over the house, and then stay up all night manufacturing oxygen and scouring your premises of carbon dioxide and other unwanted gases. Can’t beat those trees. If you think the trees worked this out on their own, I salute your limitless faith. Looks like an obvious case of Design to me.

  The shade from trees near your house shields you from intense solar heat and ultraviolet radiation, keeping the interior cooler. The rustle of breezes through the leaves is an acquired taste. So are the animal noises: birdsong, squirrel parties, cricket concerts, all that stuff that comes with nature and  might or might not be music to your ears.

  Thoughtfully placed, leafy trees can reduce sun loading of at least the exterior wall surfaces, including windows, by as much as 90%.  And in winter, the leaves fall off. The sun’s arc also flattens nearer the horizon, and the bare branches block very little of the sunlight that you now want streaming through your windows and warming up even the exterior surfaces of your house. The link says you can disregard the shading effect of leafless trees, making them a nearly perfect element of your energy strategy outdoors.

And the bad news, you already realized: you can’t have trees of the proper size and placement without thinking years ahead. Sorry. But the long view is my favorite perspective. We’ve lived in our little Civil War-era farmhouse since 1975. In those 34 years we’ve planted a privacy hedge out by the street and seen it grow higher than our roof ridge. We’ve nurtured a stunted, damaged pine sapling and seen it grow huge and wide until the neighbors on that side can only be sensed when they throw a party. We’ve lost mature trees in vicious hurricanes, replanted and seen the replacement trees now begin to shade the sunroom as well as the old ones did. We’ve planted trees this spring that will shade our south side in perhaps ten years, and I hope God lets us stay here to see them that tall.

If you rent, you probably won’t be staying for life where you are. Sorry. But you can employ potted trees inside and out(this link is actually to a local Craig’s list ad for inexpensive potted trees, just so you realize it’s possible) to gain the benefits of shade and fresher air as much as space allows; and I doubt your lease prohibits potted pets, though my ficus sheds like a retriever, I must admit. Small trees are still a bargain, and can be had by mail or at the big box home store. I’m surprised at how healthy and well-tended the plants at Big Orange can be, depending upon the branch store and its management. And when it’s time to move my giant ficus out for the summer, I just starve it for water for a few days to make it lighter, slide it to the front door on a towel, and out it goes. I have a friend who landscapes her rather large deck entirely with potted plants, and the effect is….. vernal, to say the least. You just have to water them, and check the pot to make sure it’s big enough as the plant grows.

Any deciduous plant that grows along the sunnier sides of your house is going to help you both in summer and in winter. And it’s fun to plant things, easy to tend them with water and mulch, and so much more cost-effective than residing or replacing all the windows. So if you can’t tear your house apart and do the energy thing with hammer and nails, consider using God-given equipment in an Intelligent way to control heat gain and loss in all seasons. And time is just that stuff that passes while you do one smart thing after another to improve your lifestyle and your energy profile. The plants you install this spring will reward you for many years. They’re like kids, only much less demanding.