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.

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

Beyond Coal– What Future Lies There?

Carbon Footprint blog

Bluntly put, 23% of US energy consumption is supplied by coal. We have enough coal reserves to meet our complete energy needs for 250 years. Natural gas, a byproduct or co-recoverable resource with oil and coal, supplies 24% of our energy needs, and we increase our ability to find and recover it each year. Crude oil, about which so much political ado has prevailed in the last 50 years, is still partly a domestic resource. we only import about half of our yearly consumption. And oil supplies app. 37% of our national energy needs.

If you subtract industrial use and home heating, coal supplies, through generating plants, about half the nation’s electric power. Natural gas generation, nuclear generation, and renewables do not promise to put coal out of the picture soon. A HUGE portion of the nation’s carbon footprint, if you care about global climate change, comes from the burning of coal.

We recently lost 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, and we lost 47 miners in 2006 in the Sago mining disaster. Coal mining ranks with commercial fishing and military service as  the most dangerous professions in this society. We all listened and watched as prayers, opinions and excuses went up all over the country over the fate of those 29 men, and the question came up once or twice:  Do we have to do this? Do we have to put men and women at risk to gouge coal from the earth profitably, burn it in some of the dirtiest smokestacks to generate our electricity, deal with the effects of rapid climate change while wringing our hands or engaging in denial, and watch our hunger for energy as a society grow every year without respite?

Do we have to kill our miners at this rate to keep the coal plants burning? yes, apparently we do. Until we have an alternative, and right now we don’t, we have to keep drilling, mining, leasing offshore sites to the highest bidder and waiting for the accidents and spills. We have to have the energy. At any cost, human, economic and, apparently military. The quiet conspiracy to secure Iraq’s oil was a failure. “Clean coal,” at least so far, is a myth few of us can buy. Nukes are scary, and dirty in the long run (dangerous to all life forms for 159,000 years after disposal).
We have no choice. We will continue to put miners at risk, drill and pipe natural gas, float drilling rigs where a spill could be disastrous, and humble ourselves at foreign tables, if not spill American blood, to secure a share of the world’s oil reserves. We don’t know how long we can keep this up; but we don’t have a plan to free us from this dangerous and expensive cycle: the pursuit of more and more energy. God bless the miners, drillers, reactor jockeys and power plant workers. We need you more than we let on; and we sacrifice you at a rate that would shame an enlightened society.

Compact Fluorescents- serve me a dish of crow

blog-compact-fluorescents Guess how many of the bulbs in the photo are energy-efficient compact fluorescents?  Yes, of course it’s a trick… ok, all of them, smartypants. And that’s the point of this post: to retract my longstanding opposition to compact fluorescent bulbs, and to get you to take a fresh look at a new generation of energy-efficient lighting that saves money while still doing the job well.

About fifteen years ago compact fluorescent lights appeared on my contractor’s radar; clients were asking about them, the public utility was hawking them in discount programs, and I was the stodgy old guy telling everyone to wait, the product wasn’t really up to the challenge, and removing the fixtures people insisted on buying in a rosy glow of greenness. The dim, harsh, flickering, watery, slow-to-light fluorescents that were supposed to change the world and lower our power bills have been a terrible disappointment, as this George Will essay sarcastically details.

And I, monsieur energy contractor, installing the latest in efficient heating and cooling equipment, and the best in automated home lighting systems that turn off when not needed to save money, was the naysayer who steered everyone away from the latest trends in alternative lighting.

Until now. it’s time to retract, and I’m doing it publicly. This link is to a catalog site showing many styles and brilliances of fluorescent and LED lighting, and while there are still caveats restraining the homeowner from believing every claim that GE and Phillips make for their new bulbs, I’m changing my stance and coming out for compact fluorescent retrofit bulbs, the ones that can be screwed into an old-style socket to replace an incandescent bulb.

The quality of the light is still “variable.” If you choose the “daylight” or “soft white” color options at the home store, you’ll probably be satisfied with the color and warmth of the light, even if it’s a bit whiter than your old incandescent bulbs.

The intensity is appropriate to the fixture. Compact fluorescents are now prominently labeled for their “lumen” output, a more telling measure than the old “watts” per bulb number. Buy a bulb equal to the lumen output of your old bulb, whatever the wattage, and you’ll get enough light. Notice, while you’re doing that, that your new fluorescent retrofit bulb costs as much as ten times what you’ve been paying for incandescent light bulbs, and is rated to last as much as twenty times as long; and this time they’re probably telling the truth. Older fluorescent retrofits were shorter-lived and grew dimmer as they aged.

Are all compact fluorescent bulbs created equal? No, sorry. Beware of those not costing significantly more than incandescents, and stick to brands like Phillips and GE rather than those packages which clearly indicate their foreign manufacture and sport suspiciously lower prices. The technology you’re paying for is not cheap, and you’ll be disappointed with the cheapest fluorescent retrofits. Check this Popular Mechanics link to a shootout test. Be told, as Granny used to say.

Environmental concerns? They’re real. Compact fluorescents contain a small dose of mercury, which poses no threat unless the bulb is broken. Incandescents are also not safe when broken, so all the same warnings apply. When the dog knocks over the lamp, shoo the kids out of the room and use the vacuum; carefully. Here’s an Energy Star data sheet to help you.

And how do the numbers work out? They work. A compact fluorescent using twelve watts of power competes with an incandescent 60 watt bulb for performance, lasts many times as long, and costs five or six dollars rather than 5o cents. That’s twenty five percent of the power, with a service life that works out as a bargain even ignoring the energy savings.

We’ve blogged before about LED  bulbs, and expressed our reservations. We still harbor those reservations. Maybe we’ll visit that topic soon.. Until then, you can go to the big box store, or a good supermarket, and buy the compact fluorescents with confidence. Use them in lights you leave on a lot, not your basement or your closets. Then they’ll do you some real good. And I’m replacing the incandescents at my house, too. We walk what we talk……

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.

Low V.O.C. Paints Are Not a Food Group

paint-blog Let’s just get this over with, and I can write this post without violence. Yes, some paints are “greener” than others. “Green” paint is sometimes friendly to people and the environment. But I want no comments involving puns on green paint vs. “green” paint. Are we agreed? Ok.

Volatile Organic Compounds weren’t so scary until we began to read the acronym, VOC, attached to numbers predicting cancers, birth defects, asthma, auto-immune diseases and environmental disaster resulting from the widespread use of paints manufactured using VOCs. The worst case picture (we don’t say “scenario” any more since everybody wore it out) is you waiting until winter to paint a room or rooms with oil based paint, letting it dry without ventilation, and breathing the fumes until spring. Or using latex (water-based paint) and breathing the vapors as the paint dries. Paint can continue to release (outgas is the word, but doesn’t that sound naughty?) VOCs for over a year after it is applied. The link article is very sobering. Not for the kiddies, really.

   On the outside of your house the issue of personal health and safety while painting is changed a bit. Are you paying a pro painter to risk his/her lungs for you? Well done. Are you going up a ladder with a can of oil based primer (best stuff for durability) and daubing the house, fighting the headaches and that foul taste in your mouth that tells you something horrible is invading your svelte and harmonious body? Did you think latex exterior and interior paints were entirely safe and vegetable derived? Sorry. I used to work for Dow Chemical. I know where latex comes from, and the stork does not bring it. Your exposure to potentially harmful chemical substances is significantly increased when you open a can of any conventional paint, whether oil or water based.

   Low VOC paints have the reputation of being a compromise on quality and durability. That’s partly true. Low cost paints labeled “low VOC” are missing some things that would make them better, and they include some things that should have been taken out to make the paint not just low VOC, but actually safer to breathe and drip onto your skin. You have to spend money, at least 50% more of it per gallon, to get a good quality low VOC paint that has been formulated to be low in toxic substances. You can spend more, even. And when you’re painting the whole house outside or inside, that cost increase is noticeable.

 The truth is, you can ventilate a space, or pick a breezy day to work on the outside of the house, and reduce your immediate exposure to VOCs by quite a bit. But the months of outgassing (what’s that smell?) will still expose you to the bad stuff in the paint. If you want to paint indoors, try to seal the room off and ventilate it for some days after painting. Wait until warm weather to make it easier to do the right thing. Use oil based primer if you can on the outside of the house, because even Ralph Nader will laugh at you if it peels, but be careful, don’t bathe in it, and select a high quality latex for a topcoat. Spend your hard earned cash on premium low VOC interior paint that will protect your lungs and liver without sacrificing color or durability. And still seal off the room and ventilate if you can. Paint can have literally hundreds of ingredients, not all of them listed on the can, and you can’t be sure at all that they took out the right stuff. And if your friend Jeff comes over and asks if you used green paint, and you’re looking at a white room, chase him with a wet roller.