Hannibal, Max and Me

3 03 2010

I hate electricity.  I love what it allows me to do but I just don’t understand it.  I sat through an in-house safety training session on arc flash, which I actually understood – there is a huge burst of energy through a “fault” that melts and actually vaporizes the copper conductor, which expands 7,000 times at Mach 2 and 1 million degrees F (made up numbers but the premise is correct).  It’s one heck of an explosion.  During a break I was asking our electrical engineers what the difference between a neutral and ground was, the flow of electrons, the consumption of energy.  They may have just as well been explaining how to play “Teenage Wasteland” on the synthesizer for The Who (my entire musical career consists of 2 weeks of saxophone lessons in 5th grade and then I broke my arm – game over).

Typically, electrical systems are explained in terms of fluid systems.  Voltage equals pressure. Current equals flow, etc.  I interviewed one guy with my normal mechanical engineering quiz and he was explaining mechanical systems with electrical ones.  I had to laugh.  A couple questions downstream I asked my question – without using an electrical analogy, I said!

I’ve done a few electrical things in our house – changed a couple switches to the mechanical twist timer thingies and I replaced one crappy fluorescent fixture with and incandescent fixture – so I can see my clothes in the morning!  It’s on for 30 seconds per day.  Ok.

My electrician career ended earlier this winter.  I was trying to install one of those push button timers – 5, 10, 15, 30 minutes and it turns off – to save 25 kWh/year on my garage lighting.  I pull out the instructions.  Attach the black wire to the black one, green, red, white, etc.  Ok.  I pull my switch out of the wall box – I have two blacks and a white – great, just great.  I gave it a shot, replaced the thing, went downstairs to throw the breaker, came back up – nothing.  Let me try again.  Downstairs, upstairs, screw, twist, cram, throw the switch.  It works!  The timer is clicking through its settings.  Before stuffing it all in the box and buttoning it up I go outside to make sure the lights are on, just in case.  Hell no!  I’m done!  I give up.  I’m wasting my precious weekend.  Downstairs, upstairs…zzzzzt.  I was shocked.  Somehow I had gone downstairs, gotten sidetracked and didn’t open the breaker.  So I almost got barbequed.  Never again!  I should have taken a hint from the timer switch package.  It looked like it had been purchased and returned about a dozen times.  At least I’m not the most electrically ignorant guy on the planet.

I didn’t try this to save money.  I’m just never home during the week so it was really to save time and hassle, but this is beside the point.  The point is, some commercial and industrial end users think, why do a study?  Why hire somebody who knows energy efficiency?  “We know what needs to be done.  Why not just hire a contractor and get it done.”  Why not just have Hannibal and his pal Max Cady to drop by to check on my house while I’m out of town?

First, contractors sell stuff.  I find it interesting that the vendor’s answer to compressed air system problems is always a new compressor set to operate at just a little higher pressure.  Nevermind the capillary tube they have for a header.  Could that be a problem?  A contractor’s path toward a more efficient heating plant is a new boiler – a conventional non-condensing shiny unit beside the dingy old one that can be tuned to achieve as good or even better efficiency.

Second, on the flip side, if they can’t make money on it, they wouldn’t spot an inferno of cash if it singed their eyebrows.  Last week I was getting an explanation of a boiler plant I have never seen.  It was from a facility manager who thinks they’re paying excessively for energy in their new 200,000 square foot facility.  They want retrocommissioning (RCx).  They have condensing boilers running 190F water.  Ok.  Turn a screw and save $6,000 per year.  Not a new boiler.  Not new controls.

I’m probably roughing up vendors and contractors a bit excessively.  I’m sure some of them understand some things about energy efficiency beyond the sales brochure.  I know one such excellent contractor, personally.  We on the other hand revel in polar opposite – reducing energy bills in a big way for practically no cost.  When a significant capital expense like a new control system is warranted for long-term value, we will recommend it.

Our challenge is our product, a service, is a complete unknown to a facility owner.  You buy it and wait to see what happens.  Wait a minute.  This sounds like buying mutual funds.  However, unlike the broker, investment in expert RCx has a very high probability of saving substantial money.  You might as well fling darts at the mutual fund tables as opposed to spending money on a mutual fund advisor.  Since they ARE the market, their odds of being right are 50% no matter what they say.  Conversely, paying a decent RCx guy is like finding money on the ground.  Just squat and pick it up, and move on to the next pile.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

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