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.

Solar Panels Deemed “not Historic”—- duh.

                blog-shaded-solar-panels                          The link accesses a New London Day article covering a Ledyard Zoning Commission meeting in which PV panels recently installed on the roofs of Town Hall and the Bill Public Library were described as “ugly” and as having no place in a historic New England Village. May the day never come, but PV naysayers in Ledyard are presumably not ready to return to candles and privies, are they? No. Thought not.

An interesting contrast appears when we examine Europe’s PV co-generating industry, actively supported by governments and utilities, in which panels are being installed on the roofs of buildings MUCH older than Ledyard Town Hall and Bill Library, with no objections from architectural purists. Britain’s Prince Charles exhorts owners of historic buildings in UK to refit them with energy features that make the buildings more liveable and energy-efficient, including roof panels.

A German study finds historic buildings apt candidates for energy retrofits and the mounting of panels, particularly flat roof PVs, and indeed, much of the architecture of Europe is older, but not likely to be torn down in favor of more modern, PV-friendly design.

Even the Vatican has installed an experimental PV array on one of their buildings, and advocates more energy equipment on Vatican rooftops, excepting possibly St. Peter’s Cathedral. I can see the point.

Few New England historic buildings retain their original cedar shingle roofs, and thatch never really caught on in the Colonies, for some reason. What we find on Town Halls and other public historic buildings is mostly asphalt shingles put there not to look good but to keep rain and wind out. We’ve gotten used to these modern roof coverings, and they’re now considered not jarring to historic sensibilities.

In time, we’ll come to view PV arrays as acceptable aesthetic on our Town Halls, and indeed, concerned citizens will learn to expect such things as signs of good stewardship from town officials and echoes of New England frugality, another historic value that could stand a revival.

The DIY Network Sifts the Green Options

blog this new houseWhether you are a realtor, contractor or homeowner, the learning curve is essential, and the people at the DIY network look like good interpreters of the dizzying galaxy of options. The “Green” building movement is already full of grinning hucksters, and the consumer cannot safely pursue energy independence without a big self-education learning curve. Sorry. Or you could just follow my page. The Do It Yourself movement has become a tremendous resource for beta-testing self-styled green products and features in modern homes. Linked below, a list of green ideas is evaluated by DIY enthusiasts on a new TV show, This New House.

Green Builder Shares Wisdom

blog pepitone green builderAttended an open house/ green building discussion at 419 Norwich Road in Salem CT yesterday. Jim Pepitone, green builder, showed off the distinctive features of the home, his second in this area, for sale at 359,000 on 4 acres of land. The link below is his first green project in the area, a few miles away in Montville. The takeaway for this short post is: green features raise the price of a building by a smaller fraction than anyone would think, in this case about 10% overall. We’ll revisit this topic and point out things builders can do to inch toward energy-efficient building in a very conservative industry.

Fuses, Breakers and Meters, Oh, My

blog electrical panel

The mess at left may not actually be so bad, but it could have been neater. Your electrical service, from the rooftop attachment (weatherhead) to the bottom of the breaker (or fuse) panel, is a critical and expensive part of your house infrastructure. It isn’t beautiful, but it’s important.

Keeping this system clean, dry and free of rust is worth paying some attention to. Ensuring that the service is grounded, either to a buried water pipe or to driven rods, is vital to your safety.

If you have an old fuse panel, do not despair. Fuses are in disfavor with inspectors and insurance companies, but fuses are not intrinsically inferior to breakers. They do tend to be older and more liable to fail, though.

Here’s a link to a site that gives the dope on panels, grounding, meters and upgrades. Please take a look and cast a critical eye on that grey box outside your house, along with any suspicious wiring. If you see anything you don’t like, take a photo and send me a comment.

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.