Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Business Idea

I found out at a green building workshop recently that a company in Oregon sells fake solar panels--although after some procrastinating-at-work googling, I could not find such a company.  Maybe they don't want to advertise this.

Whether such a thing actually exists a not, I could see the argument for there being a (small, novelty) market for such a thing.  Solar Power is Sexy, after all, especially in places like Oregon and California.  It's also expensive, but now you don't have to let the expensive stop the sexy! 

The same person who informed me that dummy solar panels are being produced also mentioned a survey in which subjects were asked about the most effective energy improvement method they could undertake.  The answer:  solar panels.  Now, that's just hearsay information at this point, because he was going off on a tangential soap-box by then and I didn't write the details down, thus the only survey I could find lists solar panels as among the most perceived-effective energy conserving strategies, rather than the most. 

Either way, this prominence goes to show you how strong the idea of doing "something to save the polar bears" has penetrated into our conscious and conscience,  even if the implementation hasn't--because lets face it, fake solar panels are probably a heck of a lot cheaper than real ones.  Yet it's also depressing, because it confuses "reducing energy consumption" with "something that makes energy" and in terms of priorities that gets the cart before the horse so much you need a completely different metaphor.  That's like maxing out the college savings plan before having the kid.  Still a net good thing to have done, but it is a lot more prudent to take care of the things that are just as important and yet less expensive to manage first.

Now that I'm partially in the insulation and energy efficient retrofit business, my colleague and I were trying to think of how to, you know, sell this stuff.  Make people cross that chasm from interest in having us do an energy audit to acting on the areas of energy efficiency improvements we identified.  Some of the common problems we see are pretty expensive, but some of them aren't, and in general energy efficiency saves money in the long run, sometimes considerable money.  We do all kinds of number crunching:  look!  If you upgrade that old water heater you're going to save three hundred dollars a year!  You're going to spend way more money in the long run if you DON'T put more insulation in, even though putting insulation in costs some money right now!  The power company will give you $400 for doing this *in addition* to the money you'll start saving right away! 

But I wonder if throwing financial benefits at people really does much for people who aren't very money savvy.  People may want to save money, but they can do it in other ways, and they want to save energy more because it's the right thing to do.  There are plenty of eco- conscious or energy conscious people out there who would be of the mindset to see why this stuff is valuable and yet a lot of them don't bite.  Yet many of these people want to put in solar panels--that's our crowd.  Some of them actually will pony up that particularly huge investment. We just did an energy audit on a guy's house who had a beautiful collection of photovoltaic panels--and he'd never once set foot in his almost un-insulated attic.  And that's fine, that's wonderful, I'm a solar aficionado myself--but they'd all still be wasting less net energy, burning less net fossil fuels, putting less net tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, etc as their motivations for getting solar panels go, if for example they updated the shit-job insulation in their 100 year old house.  They could have put less money in on a smaller solar system (not to be confused with the solar system) if they'd invested in energy efficiency first. 

But energy efficiency isn't tangible.  You don't get a sexy solar panel to put on your roof.  It makes tons of financial sense but you don't get a wad of cash, you just part with less of it on a regular basis.  There is something to be said for receiving something you can see or touch.

So that's what we ought to do!  That's my big marketing idea.  Any insulation or air sealing job we perform will hereby come with a free fake solar panel.

(We're not really going to do this.)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Knowing Something

Sometimes at my new work I spend a great deal of time reading building code and Material Safety Data Sheets.  Surprisingly enough, I actually found that interesting, at least for a certain time span.

It used to be that things buildings- and construction- related were mysteries to me, falling into this realm of mystically un-knowable knowledge that most males all seemed to just be born with, but most females were automatically never to touch.  Not like there was anything overt about that, it was just stuff men knew about and little girls like me didn't.  Any information about these things that I overheard were all carried on by men who I was less comfortable around anyway so why would I want to join in as a shy little girl, plus they all contained references to this whole network of information I just had no access to, so of course couldn't contribute, so of course felt confused by and never particularly confident about these topics when they came up later in my life.

It turns out I just had to have somebody explain to me what the jargon means, what tools exist and how they are used, what practices are followed, etc.  The difference between knowing and not was just that:  taking the time to acquire the information, and most importantly, learning it from someone who recognized that I just hadn't learned it yet, not who assumed I didn't know because I was stupid, or a girl and thus stupid.

If we don't teach girls technical things, then of course they aren't going to know technical things, because you have to learn about something to know about it.  It's not some inherent gender difference, it's not some inborn differentiation of knowledge, it's just whether you bothered to learn or not, and somebody who already knew bothered to help you learn.

Any inborn inherent stuff that might shape this situation could come from gendered tendencies to think differently due to physically different brain wiring, perhaps leading to different levels of interest in the information.  I'm not entirely convinced that that is enough of an explanation in itself, because does interest drive exposure, or does exposure drive interest?  There's more than one way to think through any sort of problem, and while people have natural strengths and weaknesses, we've seen that the brain is plastic enough to get good at many things with practice--as long as you do, actually, have a chance to practice and not just hold the flashlight.  I didn't give a damn about cars and houses when I was little:  I wanted to run into the woods and write stories in my head--although I did also want to build forts and a tree house and I liked my lego set a lot.  So I wasn't exposed to fixing cars or building stuff because I wasn't really interested, and if my dad needed help, he asked me to hold the flashlight.  If I had been pushed into doing these things instead of just passively watching, as I had been pushed into doing other things that I am now confident in my ability to do, would I have been more interested, and thus know more than I do today about them? 

Who the heck knows, and who really cares.  The point is, like I read in a National Park Service pamphlet on communicating science:  "If you don't know how to fix a car, you're not stupid, you just didn't learn how to do it yet."  Don't assume you can't do something just because you haven't learned about it before, and just because there are plenty of other people who have and you aren't like them.  You aren't like them, in the sense that you haven't tried and they have.  So try.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Rejection and Learning

There was a period of time in high school when I wrote and polished a flurry of short stories, sending them in regularly to carefully researched fantasy or science fiction magazines, one after another and to one magazine after another, occasionally revising the stories as I realized they needed improvement, etc.

That is the process by which one becomes a writer, so they say, and even at sixteen I did my best to follow all editorial guidelines and prepare all materials in a professional matter as laid down by the standards of the industry.  I have to show for that period of my life a very thick file full of  "dear blank" form rejection letters, with about two out of fifty that bothered to say, in between the usual "did not hold my interest/does not meet our needs", that there was some good writing.

I had a dogged determination to continue no matter if I got enough rejection letters to paper my walls, which can be a flaw if the writing is truly not up to industry standard but is otherwise how, "they" insist, new writers eventually become established ones.  I still have that determination for this particular goal and doubt that I will ever let it go.   That same determination kept me going in my oft-blogged job search, amid a slue of rejections that I found far more punishing than writing rejections had ever seemed to me because in writing, at least, I already knew I was competing against hundreds or even thousands of other submissions that were probably just as good as mine in a world where being up to par is baseline.  In the local job search by contrast I was only competing against fifty or so other applicants for jobs that I had ample opportunity via a resume and interview to convey my suitability for, and so I found that kind of rejection much more demoralizing.

I recently dug into short story writing again, digging up what I felt was the best of those high school shorts, utterly gutting it and rewriting it in the space of a week into something that I am quite proud of, something that I can see--now that I have taken the time to learn and dissect what elements of plot and character make for a compelling story--is really much better than what I, in high school, believed was my best work.  I submitted a query for that story and got a surprisingly quick request for the full manuscript, and, inspired by that success, I pulled out another of my favorites from high school that a professional editor had critiqued and said was something she considered quite salable although not her personal taste, and sent that off too to the next on its list of top-tier fantasy and science fiction publications.

The turnaround on that form rejection was surprisingly quick.  And yes, a little stinging, since that magazine was one of the two which had rejected my high school work with the "there is some nice writing though" note.

That's the industry.  I am surprised that this rejection bothered me more, as an adult, than those piles of high school ones that I had always taken in stride.  But perhaps that is how it happens when one picks up the pieces from an endeavor one left off years ago (you know, in order to pursue a physics degree.)  Or maybe, fresh from the job search and trying to put my best face on those rejections, I just forgot how much it bothered me back then.

I have more to show for that pile of rejection letters than just the letters themselves, after all.  I have lessons in discipline and determination, and critically I have an improved understanding of what it will really take to succeed.  And that is solid, unabashed, unflinching hard work, both by putting in the hours and by being willing to critically analyze what is personal and mercilessly seek improvement.  Outside of the misleading world of J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, writing is the ultimate in low-paid labor, we all want it so bad we just do it and do it and one day we'll get paid a few hundred bucks for a short story if we're lucky enough and determined enough and maybe only once we've spent that much on postage.  And that's fine, because although we'd all love to actually have a writing career, money isn't why we do it.

If I had just sat there with a notebook full of finished stories and never traded them with slush editors for two-sentence form letters, I might have never even realized what I still had to do to get to my dream, and I might never have become a better writer.

Friend Chemistry

Sometimes people talk about the get-on-great-together-or-not factor in a romantic relationship in terms of "chemistry."  The term serves to remind us that how people interact has  much more to it than just how well you get along.  It makes one think of volatile reactions or the coming together to make something utterly different than the sum of the parts--depending on your level of pessimism about romance.

I like the term when describing all types of relationships with other people.  Some others and me together are toxic, I just cannot stand how that person relates to others and to the world and that person doesn't understand me either, and misunderstanding can fairly often lead to dislike.  Others I have become fast and committed friends with after just one hour's acquaintance.

The notion of "chemistry" makes it seems like no work is involved, that things just happen when you are together.  This may be a relatively decent description of that magic and fun time at the beginning of a romantic relationship, but if it is going to last, hard works is at some point going to be involved.  No two people are so perfectly aligned or complimentary in inclination, belief, goals, etc, that they won't find something about the other or what they have to give up to stay in the relationship that they must find a way to deal with.

Friendships take work too.  You can't expect your friends to do all the event planning and hosting and calling, and if you're the one who always ends up doing all of that all the time with no reciprocation, you can quickly start to wonder what the heck you're doing it for.  If you're lucky enough to have friends who invite you along on too many things that you refuse, even for good reason, even the most dedicated of friends will stop calling.

Yet going through the friend motions with people I've got no particular "chemistry" with beyond that they're nice and friends of my friends and we do seem to have a base level of superficial things such as race, class, age, lifestyle, in common, is strangely unsatisfying as well.  Even in this situation I can't define "chemistry" precisely except that when I've had it, then even walking to the grocery store together was an amazing time, then I've stayed up all night discussing science, politics and religion, then I've laughed until I cried even when our plans together involved nothing so extraordinarily exciting. People with whom I've had friendship "chemistry" have not necessarily been very much like me, and I've grown from experiencing and understanding very different views of the world.

I've had amazing boss "chemistry" before too, and co-worker "chemistry" (the same as friend, really, except we were also working together, and I can't always work successfully even with people I am good friends with) where the right level of challenge, communication and collaboration have brought enormous success to our collective professional endeavors.  A great sign about my current job is that I seem to have excellent work-together potential with my boss.  Maybe one day that can become "friend" chemistry too.

I'm definitely missing some of the friend "chemistry" of some of my past grand friendships right now.  It's easy enough to try to find friends, at work, in hobby clubs, wherever else adults who are no longer in that bountiful friendship resource that is school go to find their dinner party and night-club comrades.  But friend chemistry like that doesn't happen on command, at least for me, because friendship is work but is more, too, than just going through friend motions with whoever you can find who should work.  Great friendships for me have always been things that satisfied us because we were friends with each other for who we were, and not just because we were available to fill in the role of "friend."  Whether we saw that from the moment we met each other or knew each other for years but only really "clicked" when we had a chance to talk at a party, still, something clicked, and the click cannot be made up and cannot be forced.

*Editing note: I'm sorry the previous version of this was so god-awfully full of errors.  I admittedly don't edit my blog entries very closely, and that is bad, wrong, un-professional, etc.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Doing Passive Solar in a Humid, Sorta Cold Climate

Passive solar design is worth books full of calculations and design principles, and when done thoroughly and correctly can provide up to all of your home heating and cooling--completely and utterly dependent on where you live and how intensely you pursue passive solar design goals.

It generally doesn't provide all, unless you're die-hard about living with nature you'd want a backup anyway, and in what I call the "upper Southeast" (US) climate, you can also very easily mess it up and create a house that is way too hot in the summer.  Many customers at my job are building in this climate and have heard a thing or two about passive solar, so they stick a bunch of windows on the south side of their house and say to themselves "hey, we're passive solar!"

Which is going in the right direction, because to get some benefit you don't have to be all or nothing...but they probably don't realize they're still going to be heating and cooling their houses primarily with a conventional mechanical system, and so the delusion that total benefit requires minimal effort must be dispelled, diplomatically, by me. 

The idea of passive solar design is simply to realize that the placement of your house within its surroundings has consequences, whether you care to think about those consequences or not, so you might as well think about them use them to your benefit.  There is energy floating around out there, solar folks call it "insolation" and it is measured in kilowatts per square meter, and it exists in measurable amounts daily just because of sunshine.  If you don't have a photovoltaic panel it is generally too diffuse to do much with (although plants love it and consequently life on earth up to and including our fossil fuel driven economy can exist), but it turns out that glass too is very adept and letting it pass through in one direction much more quickly than it lets it escape in another.*  This means a glass box can hold heat for a while; indeed, this is why your car gets very hot in the summer, and this is what passive solar wants to harness by thoughtfully placing your windows.  Certain windows are specially designed for this:  two- (or even three-, four-, five-) paned and filled with inert gases to reduce conduction heat flow out, but also covered in coatings on the outside that help radiation heat, that "insolation", come on in.  You put these windows on the south side of your house and put as few windows as possible everywhere else.  Since the sun's arc is always slightly southward in the sky if you live here in the northern hemisphere, facing south gives you the most opportunity for the longest period of direct sunlight.

But passive solar is not just windows.  For one thing, the sun's out longer in the summer than in the winter, and if you got direct sunlight all day long in an already hot summer, your house would begin to resemble that hot car in which dogs and babies die every year.  I've seen a couple who wanted to go "passive solar" stick a south-facing glass room off of their living room, with glass roof as well, and they admitted that in summer that whole wing of the house was intolerable.  You want all that sunlight entering your house in winter only, and this is easy to accomplish with correctly sized overhangs.  The sun's path is much higher in the summer than in the winter--that's why it's out longer, and also the bulk of the reason why summer is hotter than winter. (The variation in our physical proximity to the sun in summer verses winter is too small to have anything to do with it.)  It turns out the more parallel to an energy source you are, the more kilowatts per meter-squared you can intercept.  Like shining a flashlight beam right at you or catching the beam at an odd angle.  In winter the sun is lower, you're not at as ideal of an angle, and you get less kilowatts per meter.  This means less of that "insolation" is around in winter, but still enough to help you heat your house.  So build longer overhangs, long enough to block out the sun when it's high, but short enough not to block the sun when it is low.  The further south you go the longer they need to be; two feet long is ample in the upper Southeast.  (Flip this if you're in the southern hemisphere.)

However, even the right overhangs and the right windows are not enough, especially when the temptation is to just throw in as many south-facing windows as you can.  Witness the couple with the glass room.  An overhang and for heaven sakes a real ceiling would have helped them, but they still might have overheated, because a lot of heat can still pour into those windows in the winter, and after a certain "saturation" point, there's nowhere for more of it to go except to keep hanging out in the air, raising the temperature.  Yet at night, all that glass, which no matter how high-tech is still is utterly pitiful at slowing heat conduction (aka insulating), is sucking the heat right out, and your heating apparatus will work overtime to make up the difference.

This does not have to be!  There are quite a few materials that are excellent at storing heat.  Water is the most amazing and crucial example, since oceans absorbing heat and releasing it at opportune times have a lot to do with the fact that our planet doesn't flip between daytime oven and nighttime ice bath like, say, Mars.  Concrete, stone, brick, or tile are nowhere near as prodigious at heat storage as water but are still much better than air; even drywall is pretty decent.  Passive solar homes will often employ concrete slab floors, either covered or uncovered with tile, build large brick or stone fireplaces in the direct path of the south facing windows.  I've heard of designs where people stick in decorative columns filled with water (just use an aquarium?), but that should be used with caution since one of those failing would have disastrous consequences for the durability of your living room.  These materials absorb the extra heat coming in from the windows and allow the room to remain a pleasant temperature, yet also release the heat back out slowly, well into the night, supplementing the work your fossil fuel heating apparatus will need to do.  You do need to get the ratios right but fortunately physics and engineering have the tools to tackle this problem:  there are formulas and rules of thumb for how much glass, how much "thermal mass", etc. for your climate and home size. 

People who are really crazy about passive solar and green building in general have built houses out of old tires rammed with dirt in the middle (tires and earth are great at absorbing and holding heat), covered their south wall with super high-tech windows, done the correct overhang thing, and eschewed any conventional heating and cooling altogether except for backup.  These "earth ships" work great in the desert Southwest where it's always sunny and huge temperature swings between night and day are a problem.  I've seen a house like that here, but it's a little harder to get right.

Another important component is good insulation in the rest of the house. This is always good anyway, because once you get heat into your house by whatever means you get it there, you're gonna lose it eventually, because conduction always happens.  The "more" insulation (the better the R-value), the slower you will lose heat.  If your heating apparatus is the sun (barring cloudy days, why you still want a backup), it "comes on" at regular intervals you can't control but can predict, and if you can use thermal mass and insulation to time your heat loss within those intervals to remain comfortable, then hey.  That didn't cost you anything in energy inputs.  Obviously there are too many variables to get this perfect, especially considering outside temperature changes and conduction happens much faster when it is much colder outside.  But more insulation pretty much always helps. 

The last important feature in passive solar, which many people don't think of, is the layout of the house itself.  If the south side of your house is warm and full of thermal mass and the whole thing is insulated above and beyond what code requires, still you're not doing much if your house is long and skinny along the North-South axis.   The heat you're gaining on the south side just isn't getting to the other side of the house.

In any climate that gets hot in the summer but cold in the winter, you have to get the balance of heating and cooling features right.  Here, I've noticed, because we must spend about four times as much energy on heating than on cooling, we tend to design to be warm in winter, forgetting that we have to think about how to be cool in summer.  The humidity of this climate makes it worse, because humidity makes even moderately warm temperatures feel miserable.  There is honestly nothing quite like an air conditioner for making a house feel comfortable because it dehumidifies, just as a consequence of how it works.  Humidity is also hell on houses, and mold issues abound in this climate in poorly designed and un-air-conditioned buildings.  There is a growing school of "green" thought which supposes that durability is the most important component of sustainable building, because however energy efficient or non-toxic something is, if it breaks in a few years and you just have to throw it away and keep buying new ones, that's still impacting the environment in a bigger way than necessary.  I agree that houses should be built to last centuries if possible and homeowners should not have to deal with their beautiful passive baby succumbing to terrible mold issues;  some form of dehumidification is critical to a truly sustainable home in this climate.  Since you ought to have a backup anyway that may well be an heat pump/air conditioner system, properly sized to your cooling load, not your heating load, and used minimally in conjunction with other methods.  There are probably ample "passive dehumidification" methods that I just don't know much about, and they might work will with proper design; I  assert that moisture around here is ubiquitous and ignoring it a serious design flawPassive dehumidification endeavors must be an extremely difficult one to get right, and in light of durability concerns an air conditioner for dehumidification isn't necessarily such an un-green choice.

*The physics of this involve the difference between conduction and radiation, but also how the molecules in materials interact with radiation and then release it again.  It's fascinating, but not short.  The thing you should know is that "conduction" is heat moving from hot to cold, as it does, through things in physical contact.  Meanwhile "radiation" is heat associated with wave stuff, which has it's own complex set of rules not immediately discernible from our interaction with the real world in the same way that conduction is.  Anything above 0 Kelvins radiates electromagnetic waves of certain wavelengths, the hotter, the shorter the wavelengths, and infrared radiation coming from both the sun and us is commonly referred to as a form of heat. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Geothermal Situation

A residential geothermal heat pump system is cheaper than I thought.

Oh don't get me wrong, it's still something like 20 grand or so at it's most expensive, from what limited research I'm been able to do, and nobody wants to just tell you a price because it is a case by case thing depending on your home size, location, if you've got the tax liability to claim the superawesome tax credits, etc, and nobody wants to get into trouble by giving misleading information.  I don't want to either, so I'll just tell you I've seen some systems priced at 20 grand but who knows what it would really cost you.

What I should say, I suppose, is that a geothermal heat pump system is comparably cheaper than I thought, because brand new conventional heat pump or furnace systems costs a lot more to install than I thought.  Up to the ten grand and even beyond for larger homes.   The DOE quotes something like a three thousand dollar difference, I suspect it is more like five or ten thousand dollars more expensive than whatever baseline you would otherwise be getting. The thing about geothermal is that is offers considerably operating cost savings over the entire lifetime of the system.

All heat pumps take heat out of the environment around them and put that heat in your house via The Refrigeration Cycle. (It's not magic, it's physics!)  On a cold winter day the temperature underground is still a pretty warm, eh, 50ish, so your heat pump works much less hard if it can take heat from there, rather than from the 30 degree air.  What's worse, when it gets much colder than that outside your heat pump can't grab enough heat to make your house warm, at which point your heating system starts working exactly the same way your electric stove-top does.  If you think taking heat from one place and putting it another is a cool bit of magic, wait till you have to start making it.  If you've ever lived in a house where a manageable electric bill inexplicably tripled during the coldest months, this is partially the reason.   With geothermal, your need to use this extremely inefficient backup method goes way down.*

Back to the money:  it is even quite possible, when building a new home and deciding between a geothermal or regular heat pump, to pay the extra for geothermal, add that extra to the mortgage you're gonna have to take out for the house anyway and thus adding a certain amount extra in payment each year, but realize energy cost savings that exceed the increase in mortgage payments.   So say adding geothermal amounts to $300 more on your mortgage per year, but your energy cost savings from having a geothermal pump are $417 per year.   Earlier today I just ran those numbers for a 1600 square foot house in Cleveland, and in oh-so-specific case you are netting $117 per year, even though you are paying more for the cost of the system in mortgage interest.   Additional things that make this better are the federal tax credit worth a whopping 30 percent of the total geothermal system price, and the fact that geothermal heat pumps and wells last longer than a conventional system.

Of course this is extremely a case-by-case analysis.  Of course that sort of financial benefit doesn't exist for existing homeowners or buyers of a non-custom built home.

But the possibility exists, and some long-term thinking person, somewhere, is benefiting from it.

*My understanding is that this limitation on heat pumps means they aren't used all that widely up north, at least not on old buildings.   Ground temperatures get colder the further north you go, too, but this is less pronounced than air temperature differences.