Green Heating System on a Tight Budget

    blog Unico                            This week we’re retrofitting a very green heating system in a former summer cottage. Unico high-velocity low volume air duct system, low-mass Biasi boiler with Riello burner, flat plate high-efficiency heat exchanger for domestic hot water. The overall efficiency of the system should be in the very high 80s, and the best part? Our bid came in lower than another company’s proposal to install a conventional hot air furnace. Green doesn’t mean an arm and a leg. And it pays dividends for a long, long time.

    blog solar kitConnecticut Clean Energy Fund, a state-run and utility funded agency to promote the advance of renewable energy in CT, has increased rebate rates for solar hot water, in some cases as much as 60%. At $275 per thousand BTU per day, a two panel system with adequate tanks, connected to your existing hot water system, might yield a rebate of as much as 5500 dollars, over half the cost of the system. Add in federal tax incentives, and you get renewable, clean energy for about a third of the market cost, and a resulting payback under five years. The system I installed at our house has yielded free hot water from march to october, and will pre-heat hot water to save us money all winter. if you’re interested, give us a comment or a message.

Rainwater- use for plants, emergencies

blog rainwaterThe device in the photo is the legendary rain barrel of song and story, and it’s staging a comeback in conservation circles. Is your water metered? do you use that water to irrigate vegetable and ornamental plants? wash the car? wash the dog?

In the rain-starved American midwest, the rain barrel was used for many purposes, including emergency potable water. We don’t recommend any potable uses of collected rainwater, but we invite you to calculate the savings and independence of having 50-100 gallons of water at your disposal all the time to supply outdoor and bulk needs. If you’re chlorinating your pool, this water can be used. If you’re watering your plants, perfect. If you’re cleaning off muddy boots, go ahead.

   The movement to revive the use of collected rainwater will gain momentum as groundwater becomes more scarce and less pure. And whatever you’re paying per cubic foot for the municipal water supply, this water is free, and it’s rather clean, and it’s soft (minerally speaking). There’s a national association at this link.

Observe safety precautions, please. Keep the lid secured, don’t let the kids drink out of it or dance on the cover, and if it freezes in your climate, drain before winter sets in.

Passive Solar at Your House, Right Now

                                       blog sunset window                                                           Sunset through dirty windows, as shown at left, is beautiful. But it’s not efficient. Clean your windows, at least the south and west facing windows, and pull those drapes aside to let more sunight in, especially now while outside temperatures are moderate and the sun is still high and able to deliver comforting heat to your home.

   You don’t have to mortgage your house to get into the passive solar game. Figure out which windows in your house, if you haven’t already noticed, get the most sun, and put them to work for you. If you’re having trouble locating the most solar-friendly windows, follow your cat around one day. Modest-sized south facing windows can transmit as much as 15% of the house’s heat load, depending upon many factors, results will certainly vary. But the gain is always in the positive, and it doesn’t cost you anything but a little thoughtful planning.

   You can, of course, spend thousands of dollars replacing all the windows in your house with low emissivity argon barrier double glazed windows. And if you want to, go ahead. But if your budget doesn’t allow for that, substitute your brain for your credit cards and get those south facing windows working for you. When it’s colder, and here in New England it certainly will get colder as the year wanes, we’ll check in again and give you some additional strategies for covering those windows at night after they’ve worked for you all day. Be careful washing those second floor windows, please.

Point of Use Hot Water Heaters

blog point of use heaterWe solar contractors generally disparage electric tank water heaters, except when used for solar storage. But sooner or later, solar is going to let you down, in cloudy weather or when it’s very cold, and you’ll need hot water for dishes, hands, cleaning and filling the pasta pot (who wants to wait for that cold water to boil?).

Whatever backup system you use to close the gap between solar and the American lifestyle, it has to be available all the time, not dependent upon the solar equipment at all, and capable of supplying your assessed need for hot water until the sun replenishes your tanks.

Consider putting a little tank of electrically heated water under your kitchen sink. Two, three, five gallons of water, kept hot all the time (you can have a switch if you can plan those solar outages an hour in advance), ready to fill a pot, wash your hands, feed the dishwasher (yes, the dishwasher has a heater, but it lengthens the cycle by about an hour waiting for it), and even draw a mug of water for tea, almost hot enough to brew the leaves, can be had for the price of some electric power and an upfront cost ranging from $500 to $1000 US. How long will it take you to pay that investment off? Not sure that’s the right question.

   What you’re buying with your money is convenience. It’s not easy to calculate a payback on that. If you’re able, by means of two or so installed point of use heaters, to turn off your backup, whether it was a gas fired boiler, oil fired tank, or big electric tank, you may save enough energy from that idle system to give yourself a payback on the point of use heaters. But showers and laundry are not served by these relatively tiny devices, and you may need to use your backup hot water source just to keep those important services going. Go ahead. Tell me you wash all your clothes in cold water, all the time. Ok; I believe you. I don’t; and I don’t recommend it, unless you dry them thoroughly at rather high temperature. Don’t make the world a better place for all those bacteria, allergens and dust mites you want to remove from your clothes. Do you think you’re making them dizzy in the spin cycle?

   For houses with multiple baths, long piping runs, and several occcupants, point of use water heaters can be a real convenience and an energy saver. I say if your hot water source is less than thirty feet from your faucets, tank insulation and a timer are your best tactics. You can decide whether a significant upfront investment and the privilege of turning off your backup source for the day balance for you economically and energy-wise.

Generators for Peace of Mind

blog generatorThe generator in the photo is probably larger than you need to run your house, and it also probably costs more than a nice car. But you can rent one like that, for a reasonable fee, and have it hauled to your house/office/business after an event to supply temporary power. At home, though, a smaller, portable generator can keep the American convenience level high while you wait for the power to be restored after a storm or accidental event. Generators are stocked at your local home store (Orange front, Red and Black front) for as little as 250 US most of the year. But taking that power plant home and connecting it to your house is more involved and requires research and planning.

   Connecticut Light and Power requires that portable home generators be connected to your house in compliance with the National Electric Code and its own guidelines. That means a licensed guy like me has to do the work, and the equipment has to be UL listed and approved for the purpose. The importance of all this regulatory protocol is that people die from home generator use and misuse almost as often as they die from disasters.

Major hazards are: Carbon monoxide, emitted in generator exhaust, collects in closed areas seeps down stairs into other areas, and kills people. In the 2006 storm season too many people died after the floods receded because of generator misuse. After carbon monoxide comes electrical shock caused by improper hookups in the presence of water. Electricity and water kill when mingled. And another, no less important hazard from home generators is called “islanding,” when generators feed back to the grid through home distribution panels and ad hoc hookups and send power to the transmission lines. Line workers are endangered by islanding, and there have been too many fatalities. It’s hard for linepersons to guard against some joker starting up a generator while they’re working on a pole. And other homeowners or licensed electricians are also endangered by islanding when work is being done on wiring in storm-damaged homes.

   How big a generator do you need? To operate everything in a typical modern American home (air conditioning, cooking, lights, hot water, computers, television, etc.) a round figure would be 10 kw. That’s 10,000 watts. You might do ok with 8 kw.

   You might also be fine with a smaller generator and some awareness about what loads you’re using at any one time. With shrewd load  management I can run my house on my 5 kw generator, the same one I use to power remote or as yet unconnected construction jobs. We do fine that way. But we have to think about it.

   You can have a generator, and you don’t HAVE to hook it up to your house wiring. You can run extension cords to selected loads (fridge, microwave, space heater) and get by ok. And it will be safer. That’s your most cost-effective route, but it’s inconvenient, and probably un-American.

2010 Heating Oil Prices Minus Politics

        blog oil truck       This link is to an online trading chart describing the expected arc of fuel oil prices through December of 2010. Some of you who burn home heating oil have already bought, at rates from $2.oo US to $2.30 US. And you did well. What you can expect, according to the futures price charts, is steadily rising prices on wholesale fuel oil through December, topping out at about $2.30. Notice I said wholesale.

You will actually pay retail, which will range from 10% to 40% over wholesale. The difference pays for your oil company to operate trucks, pay licensing and insurance fees, make payroll, prebuy wholesale lots at the terminal (big tanks, usually near railroads or water ports), and make a living.

  Notice I said 10% to 40%. Quite a range. So-called full service oil companies keep technicians in house to repair customers’ equipment. They claim they operate this team at a loss or at break-even. Your oil will cost more because you are paying for “good service.” So-called “Discount” oil companies do not maintain service teams, or train their drivers to perform simple repairs, and you can’t get them at midnight on New Year’s Eve. And you pay less for your oil. The fact is that many companies struggle to make ends meet on the “discount” model, and the most successful oil companies in our corner of Connecticut are those that maintain service teams. And they charge more for their oil.

   You have another option. There are lots of companies: say mine, for instance, which sell no oil, only service. We work hard to keep customers’ equipment running year-round, and you can get at least some of us on New Year’s. I was out on Christmas Day last year, but it was only two hours, then back home to dinner. I don’t run my service operation at a loss, and my rates are competitive with those of the “full service” oil companies. Curious, wouldn’t you say? Maybe they really do lose money on their service. But I don’t. That’s my living.

   So ponder your options as a heating oil consumer, and measure whether the convenience of calling one company for oil and equipment maintenance is worth a premium price per gallon for heating oil. Consider the numbers, ask for price quotes, inquire about budget plans and pre-buys, and make some smart choices about how to get through this winter. I’ll be busy all fall with preventive cleanings and service, but not too busy to help you get your heating and hot water equipment ready for winter. Most of my customers see me just once a year, for the preventive maintenance. Sometimes we replace a part before it fails, and my customers trust me to make that judgment. Then they don’t have to call me on New Year’s Eve.

Offshore Oil Rigs are Walrus-Proof

blog oil rig whaleAt left are two conjoined off shore oil rigs. The whale seen venting in the foreground was cited for ruining the photo and released on his own cognizance. Hurricane Earl is headed toward us here on the Atlantic coast, and the best thing about Earl, according to those posted on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, is that Earl will be our problem, not theirs. Offshore drilling, under discussion and proposed to begin soon before BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig blew up, killed its crew, and began hemmorrhaging oil into the Gulf at a furious rate, is now suspended for the time being. Good call, DOE and President Obama.

   But what if Earl, as of this date threatening the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a prime area proposed for offshore oil drilling, were bearing down on hundreds of offshore rigs, as Katrina and Rita did in the Gulf five years ago? Over a hundred rigs were damaged or destroyed in that storm season, although no catastrophic spills were recorded on the scale of this year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. What would be the real impact of a big storm unfettered by the shore effects present in the Gulf, a storm free to go wild in the open sea?

  When my children were small, we vacationed for several years in the Outer Banks area, in a non-posh resort community I will not name but remember fondly. We swam, we waded, we walked the hot sands, we ate shrimp cooked in iced tea (a local speciality and acquired taste), we visited the dune shrine where the Wright brothers risked life, limb and their death of cold to keep a wild , Newton-defying contraption airborne for a few seconds. We carried our children out into the surf and dropped them into the roiling, emerald waves. We gazed out toward Europe across the farthest horizon and saw—– nothing. We also saw the erosive effects of recent storms and congratulated ourselves that we would soon return to New England, where we get a fraction of the storm activity of the Outer Banks, and most often weary storms that have already spent their strength on the lower Atlantic coast.

   Oil rigs offshore in the Atlantic? This link from the Christian Science Monitor of 05 describes the damage done by storms of that year to oil rigs in the  Gulf. It was scary. The two largest rigs in operation at the time were both damaged, one actually capsized. This link cites a common safety contractor and consulting firm hired by several oil companies to strategize spill control before Deepwater Horizon. The report did not go into detail about the not-yet-imagined Deepwater scenario. What it did was assure its clients that no significant impact would be felt in the indigenous walrus population. Goo goo gajoob. No walruses have been cited in the Gulf of Mexico since Rush Limbaugh fell off his yacht a while back, and not for ians and ians before that.

  If we can’t trust our energy suppliers to be governed by their better selves, then I for one am willing to let Energy Secretary Stephen Chu look into it and give me a thumbnail. As Shakespeare’s Beatrice said, I can see a church by daylight. What I don’t want to see is the Atlantic coast looking like the Caspian Sea viewed from the hills over Baku (see photo below). Or clouds of petroleum rolling in where my children used to play, and where their children will want to play, if they can. blog caspian rigs

Electric Tankless Water Heater Caveats

blog electric tanklessWe’ve posted on tankless water heaters before, but an inquiry from a client prompts us to revisit some of our reservations about tankless units. Wonderful idea, of course, good for energy, wish i’d thought of it myself, and all; but do your homework and keep your eyes open. Claims made for tankless heaters are larger than they seem in real life.

  First, flow rate. You need at least three gallons per minute of hot water at 125 degrees fahrenheit to operate a laundry machine, dishwasher, shower, kitchen sink or any combination of two faucets or appliances in the house. if your teenager is in the shower and you go downstairs to start the dishwasher, you will be cited by Family Services in this litigious society, for cruelty to a teenager. Sharing the output of a tankless electric unit is dicey. And families living in multi-bathroom houses will, sooner or later, need to share that output.

   Second, power needs. The only electric tankless that begins to fill the bill for a family is something like the Bosch AE 125 . The power requirement of this water heater is app. 125 amps at full load. Do you have a 100 amp service feeding your entire house, as I do? Fuhgeddabouddit. You can’t install electric tankless in your house. Do you have a 200 amp service? Expect to give away 60% of that capacity while using hot water, which means that you can’t operate your electric range, air conditioning, and clothes dryer all in tandem with this water heater. You have to do what we call “load management,” in which you stop to think, ok, toaster is 110 watts, dryer 4500, range is 8000 unless I only use one burner, turn up the air conditioning thermostat, and,,,, ok, now we can do hot water. And if you have electric heat, you’ll have to shut some of it off to avoid an overload, even with a 200 amp service. No, you can’t have a 300 amp service on a house, not without paying lots of money. Perhaps in the “home of the future.”

   If it’s just two of you in the house, or if the kids only come home for Christmas, this all may work out well. You can save up to 25% over electric tank hot water by virtue of  lowering your standby costs (the expense of keeping the tank hot and losing heat to the surrounding air). If your house is large, full of kids, or if you have a big kitchen and you’re always in it, beware.

    Electric tankless water heaters are growing in popularity, and they should. But i’m always concerned when a past or potential client buys one off the internet and asks for a quote to install it. My bill for installation will commonly exceed the cost of the water heater, if indeed I can even shoehorn it into the house’s electrical system. Then I’m delivering the bad news, the phone goes “click,” and the unhappy client is off down the road to a plumbing company which knows not-so-much about electrical loading and is willing to take the client’s money for installing an inadequately sized unit. Happens several times a year.

  Other technologies are more practical. Oil, natural gas, LP gas, almost any fuel other than electric power makes for a better performance in water heating, due to the ability of those fuels to deliver larger amounts of energy instantaneously to the water, exceeding electricity by far in the critical category of  “recovery rate.”  Watch your loading, watch your pricing, beware of claims made by salesmen bearing gifts, and consider all  your options. Sometimes a heavy insulation blanket and a simple timer can turn an old electric tank into a lean, mean green machine, for a lot less money.

American (Wind) Technology Will Save the World (?)

blog honeywell turbine The device in the picture looks like a hubcap, I know. Is what it is is, it’s the single most encouraging breakthrough in small-output wind-powered electrical generation since, I don’t know, maybe Ben Franklin. The engineering genius of the Honeywell Wind Turbine is a bit over my head, but I’m an old electrician, and I know a superior motor when I see one: replaceable vanes for easy maintenance, vane orientation works with off-angle winds (obviating pivot bearings), weighs app. 170 lb. with six foot diameter, threshold generating begins at two mph wind speed, and the field windings are in the rim, out where turbine speed produces the greatest possible inductive force. Recommended minimum mounting height is 33 feet (the roof of a two-story American house with attic, roughly) and the retail package is self-contained, with inverter, charge controller and safety switches right in the box. Suggested retail price $6495 US. I found them being marketed at $4500 US, plus shipping. The Honeywell turbine will be marketed, initially, through Ace Hardware retail stores, and its output is estimated at app. 2750 kilowatt-hours/year in winds ranging from 2 mph to 42 mph. Depending upon your local utility rate, that probably means $$300 US or so in energy savings, all put back on the grid, operating, unlike solar PV, 24 hours a day, whenever the wind blows. Service life is estimated at twenty years, with a manufacturer’s five-year warranty. This technology didn’t come from China, it didn’t come from Europe, locations where energy is a higher priority socially and politically. It came from Honeywell’s R&D in the great USA, where innovation has for two hundred years been only one of the things we offer to a hungry global economy. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys, Willie Nelson sang. For heaven’s sake, encourage them to be engineers and researchers.