Teaching America to Fish

blog-china-solar On rare occasions we get a little global and a bit political in this home-focused energy blog. The photo at left shows, in minuscule scale at bottom, a house in Mongolia adorned with various solar devices: photovoltaics, solar hot water, passive window orientation, like that. It is part of a new thrust in Chinese policy which swerves sharply away from the  “let them eat soot” approach previously taken in China’s dizzying progress through the swiftest and most aggressive industrial and technological revolution the planet has yet seen. In one respect only does China fail to eclipse the industrial revolutions of, say, Britain and the US: creative innovation, and that missing ingredient has been willingly supplied by a West eager to trade its technological treasure for the privilege of having our toasters made for us cheaply and in astonishing quantity.

China has become a smokestack economy over the last 40 years, replacing farms with factories while maintaining an adequate agricultural sector and keeping everyone fed. The air, water and land in China have suffered, along with the health of the Chinese people, in predictable ways as the industrial economy has grown by leaps and bounds. Chinese air and water quality have become a global joke, something to point to when defending some environmental foolishness on the part of a  nation which should know better. But,,,, but,,,, we’re not as bad as the Chinese, they sputter. And one significant argument against an aggressive response to global climate change has been, why do our part, when the Chinese are the biggest polluters and they have no intention of changing?

    As it turns out, China, with its now-customary swiftness, is directing its attention to energy policy and global climate change. This link is to a United Nations site which records that China will meet a goal of 20% reduction in energy intensity by the end of 2010. Are the Chinese, not to put too fine a point on it, just blowing smoke at us?  It wouldn’t be the first time. But independent observers confirm that at least part of this claim is true: that China is moving toward a national energy awareness, if not independence. China is the single largest consumer of energy on the planet, and the largest importer of oil. It has its own reserves of coal and some natural gas, which it supplements with purchased gas from Russia. Small surprise: China exports coal to America, and it imports coal for special industrial use (steel production). And 70% of China’s power is generated by coal-burning plants.

To come to the point: China is now the single largest manufacturer of solar panels. The largest solar farms and panel arrays in the world are planned for Chinese locations over the next few years. The solar power production of Europe and Scandinavia, which put the U.S. to shame, are being dwarfed by Chinese installations now in operation. We will soon be unable to point to China as the dragging foot in the war on global climate change and the struggle for renewable energy dominance. By the next Presidential election the U.S. will be embarrassingly behind most of the developed nations in energy independence and renewables production.

Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist, writes in a recent column that “China has the most aggressive renewable energy deployment in the world.” He writes elsewhere that American reluctance to consider measures like a hefty gas tax, research on clean nuclear energy, and significant subsidies for renewable energy production have already caused us to lag behind Europe and Scandinavia. Soon, he says, we will be lagging behind Asia, and after that? Will Latin America also eclipse us as we move into the “Energy Century?” What will it take?

Leadership in this most miraculous of nations (that’s us, by the way— America the beautiful, in which I have implicit faith) comes from both the top and the bottom rungs of the power ladder. We respond to grassroots leadership (that was the 60s, you unbelievers, the last great grassroots movement in America) as well as to great political leadership (that would be the Clintons, pointing the way to broad-based national health care in the 90s), and even when that leadership leaves the stage, the ideas remain to sprout and grow. We are now reaping a harvest of change from Hillary’s health care efforts in the 90s, and we stop at Whole Foods on the way home thanks to a little fad begun in the 60s by some fanatics who had read too much Rachel Carson. We will be dragged into sanity in the near future by leaders like Al Gore and others who are now being shouted down by an oil-subsidized opposition, and America will become an energy leader again. I await the day. Meantime, I’ll keep blogging, installing tight windows, nailing solar panels onto my house, and trying to reduce my energy footprint. Next time we’ll get back on task with home topics.

Partial Sun no Problem for Solar Panels

blog-cloudy-solar-panelsI happened to be cleaning a boiler this morning at the home of one of my solar clients, and i checked the system over.  50 degrees out, cloudy enough so that I couldn’t tellwhere the sun was in the sky. The two Heliodyne panels were reading 95 degrees, the pump was cranking away, and the two 60 gallon storage tanks were being warmed. All in weather not normally seen as optimal for solar hot water systems. The oil fired boiler in this system only has to raise the water temperature to 130 degrees to serve the dishwasher, laundry and showers. Lots of energy was being saved by the solar equipment in that house.

I didn’t build the panels, or the heat exchanger, but I did design and install the system. It performs beyond expectations. The new optically selective coatings being used on flat plate panels will collect photons and transform them into heat much more efficiently than flat black paint or a bare surface.

This is a short post, an update on some things we’ve discussed lately. Don’t believe the dismissive comments about solar hot water being a three or four month blessing. Solar hot water, thoughtfully installed, will perform for you on sunny days twelve months a year in New England. Connected as a pre-heating treatment with an energy source configured to finish the water off to usable temperatures, solar panels can be working for you all winter long, even on cloudy days.

Phil’s 113th Energy Dream


The diagram at left teaches you more than most folks want to know about boiler internals, specifically horizontal three-pass cast iron. There are many clever variations on the theme of torturing hot fumes before releasing them to the chimney and the heavens, and this one has been used for two generations in big commercial boilers powering factories and hospitals. Only lately do we rise above the heavy, hollow cast units many of you still have in the basement.

Don’t think me smug, I service boilers performing at 75% efficiency all over the county, and the Biasi in my attic gets around 87%. There’s not a huge harvest of energy to be reaped yet from changing boiler designs until we find a way to deal with the acids and sludge condensed in boilers at lower temperatures. In Europe they’ve refined the sulfur almost entirely out of their fuel, yielding something almost as clear as kerosene. The link is to a British site listing oil boilers boasting 97& efficiency. Shame on us Yanks. I won’t delve into the technology of boilers with condensing exhaust, but just imagine something vented through a light metal tube at less than 200 degrees, with sulfuric acid and dissolved ash dripping from a draincock on the flue.

   My Biasi is among the high society of  boilers sold in the US,  but it hails from Italy. Its nearest competitors are made in Germany, Germany and Italy, respectively. There are American multipass designs being sold, but they lag behind in the critical qualities of low mass, low volume and low stack temperatures. Makes you think, don’t it? At app. 2.10 US dollars per gallon on Labor Day weekend, heating oil is as cheap as it’s been in years, and we Americans see no reason to respond, apparently, to anything but brute market forces. Price, in other words.

 The little B4 model weighs in at 300 lb. dry weight. We hauled it up through the scuttle hatch with a light comealong rigged to a single unbraced rafter. Piece of cake. Why am I in such a lather to get it up there? It doesn’t require a conventional chimney (my house doesn’t have a conventional chimney), and the vent is through a single length of capped stainless steel chimney pipe extending through the roof on the leeward side of the house. It’s also within 6 feet of the blower unit that heats my house. The water heated by the boiler travels no distance at all, losing almost no heat to the surrounding air. It sits in a metal pan piped to a nearby sewer vent pipe.

  For domestic hot water, imagine a stainless steel block heat exchanger the size of a shoebox hanging off the back of the boiler. When someone hits a switch either in the kitchen or bath, the control starts the boiler water circulating through the exchanger, heating domestic water in one pass hot enough to do dishes, shower or operate the laundry. But you have to hit the switch, otherwise the little Biasi sits there cold. Time to hot water, from a standing start? Three minutes by the stopwatch. I know, America can’t wait for its hot water, and can’t be bothered to hit a switch. But this is how it goes at my house. You get up to an hour of glorious hot water from a twist of the timer. Otherwise you wash your hands in cool or tepid water warmed a little by its passage through the house pipes.

Antifreeze protects the boiler, blower coil and heat exchanger from freeze damage, and the attic is insulated against bitter outdoor temperatures. I have to use a little pump, fashioned from an old oil burner, to lift fuel to the attic for the boiler. That adapted unit sits in the basement next to the oil tanks, pushing a dribble of oil up to a heavy steel reservoir which feeds the burner by gravity. My house, insulated through various remodeling projects over thirty years to respectable R values and tightness, will be comfortable this winter without any renewable energy resources other than some carefully planned passive solar (click to see an older post on our sunroom).

Will I put a system like this one in your house? Not until we talk. Talk a lot. Show me your old copies of the Whole Earth Catalog, or the original pulp-format Mother Earth News. Tell me you were at Woodstock, and why I didn’t see you there (I missed Woodstock, that’s why). Show me your green-friendly stock portfolio, your Energy Star appliances, your first pair of Birkenstocks. And assure me you’re willing to wait three minutes for hot water at any tap in the house, think before you hit the switch whether you really want to spend that energy, and let Dirty Phil into your house at least once a year for a boiler cleaning and efficiency check. And then, maybe. How can I be sure you’re ready to take this step? Soon I’ll be blogging about the solar hot water system that will be incorporated into my attic this fall. Stay tuned.

More Hot Water Options, and My Favorite

blog-woman-showeringThe photo is borrowed from a charming blog post dealing with gender differences in showering styles. But we’re here to wrap up, for now, the subject of domestic hot water options for energy conscious homeowners.

We’ve talked about tankless water heaters, solar water heaters, electric tanks and furnace coils. Here are a few more to round out the picture for you.

If you have a coil in your oil or gas fired  boiler, you might consider upgrading to an indirect hot water tank. There are two styles, one in which boiler water fills the tank, and one in which boiler water fills only a coil in the tank. My favorite is the former, for efficiency. This link is for an excellent design by Dunkirk. The boiler is relieved of its duty to stay hot as heck all the time, running only when a tank thermostat calls for it to warm up the tank, or when hot water is being used. You save considerable on “standby losses” and seldom experience a delay of hot water due to the tank’s capacity. The insulation of the tank makes it a better reservoir for heat, and you can over-wrap it yourself and do even better.

There is also the option of putting the oil burner right under the tank and heating it up directly. A “direct fired hot water heater” is a tank sitting over a firebox with a burner and a flue. Standby losses are a bit greater with the direct design, but the recovery rate of the tank temperature is amazing, and it’s hard to run out of hot water even with teenagers in the house.

I recommend you use the link and look at what Energy Kinetics has done with the concept of hot water production and standby losses. Their systems are pricey and require considerable expertise to install correctly, but the savings give you an accelerated payback over the classic cast iron boiler with internal hot water coil. A smart controller starts the low mass (low mass, low volume, quick heatup, small amount of energy trapped in boiler upon shutdown) stainless boiler up cold, turns on a circulator to respond to heating needs, and circulates boiler water through a flat plate heat exchanger piped outside of the boiler. domestic hot water is heated in one pass, or a separate circulator warms a well insulated storage tank to provide water that doesn’t fluctuate much in temperature (this temperature fluctuation is the most common complaint from boiler coil people, other than high energy costs). At the end of a heating/hot water cycle, the boiler circulator stays on until the heat has been “dumped” into a waiting zone or the hot water tank. Not much gets wasted. I seldom directly plug a company in this blog, but no one else is doing exactly what Energy Kinetics is doing, and I think they’re ahead of their time in a notoriously sluggish industry in a notoriously energy-spoiled culture. Good for them.

Next post I’ll talk about the system I just installed in my own house, a real pound puppy of assembled energy efficient components crafted to my own design. Stay with us……  meanwhile, if you’d like to discuss your own options for upgrading your hot water system, hit the contact link and i’ll be happy to respond.

Sunbathing, Once Removed – Solar Hot Water and You

blog-solar-water-heaterThe device at left is a self-contained solar hot water heater, featuring panels, mounting frame, and tank at the top. it requires no power for pumps or controls. Water from the tank circulates through the collector plates by convection as the sun heats it, filling the tank with water at whatever temperature the sun can warm it. The tank remains at house pressure, waiting for a demand. At night the tank cools slowly, delivering hot water until the tank is cooled completely.

You can’t take a shower at midnight with this rig, unless no one else has used water that evening. You can’t store more water than can be held in the tank. You can’t rely upon the supply first thing in the morning, or later in the morning, unless the outside temp is so high that the tank doesn’t cool much. You can’t install this system in a climate where winter temps drop to freezing or below; or, you can’t use the system more than five months a year in New England where I live, and it must be drained for the winter when hot water is supplied by another system.  You can’t supply the hot water needs of an American family of  four unless they’re all atuned to the daily cycles of water heating and time their use of hot water in zen-like harmonious balance with the (i’m singing now, in a sloppy baritone) “Cirrrrrcle of Liiiiiiffffe.” No audio available on that one….

You get the picture? The system shown is not acceptable for Americans. No system I know of is acceptable to Americans, with the exception of aging hippies with dearly held beliefs on the subject. I installed a system several years ago for clients with those dearly held beliefs about energy and independence, but the system nevertheless had to be carefully integrated with a seamless backup, sized to provide hot water for every possible demand including house guests, and separated from the house water supply by a closed-loop heat exchanger filled with antifreeze to prevent freezing. Sporting those features, it cost a small bundle, which federal and state incentives defrayed by over half  (here in CT, at the time, state rebates were generous; since then, with a huge budget deficit, those rebates have withered). But it supplies “tempered” (pre-heated)  water to their oil-fired backup system on any sunny day in any month of the year, and supplies all of their hot water needs for about six months out of twelve.

That’s what Americans require: seamless integration of alternative energy systems into an American lifestyle which forfeits no convenience to the idea of sustainable energy technology. I could sell a lot of the systems shown in the picture; they would supply the hot water needs of a couple for at least the three warmest months of the NewEngland year, saving 25% of the energy costs in a category (domestic hot water) that accounts for at least 30% of an American family’s energy bill. Yes; that’s 8% of the household’s energy costs, defrayed by a system that must be lived with a state of awareness and harmony. No, I won’t sing again. The payback period of the system would be about eight years, and it has a life cycle of perhaps 30 years. But all the caveats listed above still apply. You have to live with what the system can do, and what it can’t do. How many of my clients are willing to make those lifestyle adjustments? Hands up? I don’t see any hands. Guess what? My hand’s not up, and I’m an energy-conscious aging hippie and heating/cooling contractor committed to renewables. I’m an American, and I want my hot water without compromise.

There are other solar hot water systems, other designs that contribute to a home’s hot water needs in a more American way. This USDE site gives an overview. Costs range from 8 to 25 thousand dollars US to install, and they pay back your investment over periods ranging from ten to 25 years. Do you know how fast they’re selling in Connecticut? Not fast at all, especially as the rebates recede and the federal tax incentives age toward 2015, when they will either be renewed or not.

I always plump for low technology, low cost, modest gain energy strategies in this blog and in my business, but I haven’t found a way to put solar hot water within the reach of  average homeowners yet. The renewables train is coming slowly around the bend, and there’s a lot of hemming and hawing among homeowners who’d rather replace windows and siding than invest in solar technology, because that’s what’s being hawked on the telly. I’m a very modest salesman, with a conscience I wear upon my sleeve, and I can’t promise more than the numbers tell me when I talk up renewables. The number are still tough, but they work in the long haul. We need a national, cultural sea change, a tipping point. If it’s not on the infomercials, it’s not hot. Al Gore can’t sell this one: I can’t sell this one. The renewables movement is waiting for someone to sell it to America; perhaps only Tom Hanks is up to the job.