New Blog Location!

21 06 2011

The Energy Rant has moved!  Michaels Energy has launched a new website, and the Energy Rant is now part of that site.  To view the most recent post to the Energy Rant, please click here.  For more information about Michaels Energy, please check out our new site at www.MichaelsEnergy.com.

Thanks for reading!  We hope you continue to enjoy the Energy Rant.





No Brazil Syndrome

23 03 2011

AAAAAAAAHHHH!  Turn it off!  Turn it off!  Turn it off!

Disclosure: I am not a nuclear physicist but I do have the equivalent of a MS degree in nuclear engineering from a classified (as in secret) U.S. nuclear laboratory.

A week ago I was sitting here writing my blog in the aftermath of the Japanese devastation: Billions of dollars of damage, at least 10,000 fatalities, and parents finding their deceased children or elderly parents in smashed vehicles and destroyed buildings.

What is the media absolutely obsessed with?  Why of course, something they know absolutely nothing about.  I have never seen such an onslaught of talking heads blathering about things for which they have no expertise.  Zero.  A woman on TV, a “nuclear industry journalist” talks about “nuclear fire”.  What the hell is that?  There is no such thing.  A common fire is carbon and/or hydrogen getting together with oxygen to form the diabolical carbon dioxide and water vapor, and heat.  This DOES NOT HAPPEN in nuclear anything.  Note some pure metals burn, as in colorful fireworks, but a damaged reactor core is not fireworks.

In another broadcast, one talking head called the Fukushima incident a national security issue, to the United States.  You have got to be kidding me.  I’ll tell you what a threat to national security is: ethanol.  That’s right.  Nothing will turn out rebellion like food shortages, which sparked the Egyptian chaos.

Other sensationalizing includes talking about the nuclear danger while showing pictures of natural gas explosions at an oil refinery.  Nice.  One hundred percent, no connection and no comparison.

How many people have died as a result of the boogeyman, direct nuclear radiation at Fukushima?  Zero that I am aware of.  Nobody died from Three Mile Island either.  Even Chernobyl, the most massive nuclear power plant disaster ever only caused about 50 deaths per The Guardian (UK) and Time magazine.  More on Chernobyl later.

Even if you are an intelligent but nuclear-ignorant reader, you have to ask yourself, what are they talking about?  For instance, the Wall Street Journal reports that at one point radiation levels at the gate of the nuclear complex in Fukushima was 11,000 microsieverts per hour equivalent to what a person receives in 11 years.  What?!  They are comparing a rate (in units per time), to units.  It’s like saying I drove 90 miles per hour to work today, the equivalent of what I would drive in a week.  What?

It goes on to say the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s dose limit is 10,000 microsieverts “per nuclear event”.  What is that?  The reader doesn’t know but it sounds scary and sells.  The average person gets 6,200 microsieverts per year from background junk – by just being alive and on planet earth.  People working with radiation on the job are limited to 50,000 per year.  Add all that up and tell me what you get.  It’s all hype.

Although I have not heard because the press knows nothing, it sounds as though the Fukushima nukes are boiling water reactors.  Although I believe most nukes in the U.S. are not boiling water reactors, the Fukushima and U.S. reactors are thermal nuclear.  A thermal nuclear reactor simply means the fuel Uranium isotope U-235 will absorb a “thermal” neutron and become unstable.  When it becomes unstable, it fissions, splitting into two daughter products; an array of atoms from all over the periodic table.  With daughter products come other radiation, namely alpha and beta particles, gamma rays, neutrons, and of course, a lot of heat (E=mc^2 stuff).

A thermal neutron is one that has given up most of its kinetic energy after it was emitted from a fission or puked out of an unstable daughter atom of some sort.  They lose energy by bouncing off water molecules like billiard balls.  The water serves as the moderator, as in, lessening the intensity of something – and it is also the coolant that takes heat from the reactor to generate steam.  Once neutrons are released, they are either absorbed by the fuel to make more fissions, leak out of the reactor core, or get absorbed by control rods or “poisons”.

A nuclear reactor is a highly stable system.  If it weren’t, it would be a bomb.  Therefore, a reactor WILL NOT EXPLODE!!!!  So what were the explosions at Fukushima then?  I’ll get to that.

Nearly all neutrons released are instantaneously released upon fission of U-235.  These are called prompt neutrons.  A tiny fraction are delayed neutrons that have an average of seven seconds (roughly) delay between a fission and their release.  Without the delayed neutrons, a reactor would be unstable, it would go prompt supercritical – boom.  The delay provides just the right balance so the system can have feedback and self correct.  How does it do this?  Fluctuations in water density.  When heat transfer is reduced (less turbine power and electricity production), the water moderator/coolant gets hotter and less dense.  Fewer water molecules in the reactor mean fewer collisions for neutrons.  More of them leak out of the reactor.  Fewer are absorbed by U-235 to fission and produce heat.  The coolant cools, gets a bit denser and the fuel starts to give off more energy again.  Beautiful.

What about those explosions at Fukushima?  Spent fuel is not like a half burned log.  It essentially looks the same as fresh fuel but its composition changes slightly after all the U-235 fissions occur.  But it is radioactive, which simply means daughter products are still puking out alpha and beta particles, neutrons, gammas, and relatively low levels of heat.  At Fukushima, spent fuel is kept in a pool above the reactors apparently.  Why?  No idea.  But the radiation ionizes the water that keeps it cool and shields radiation.  Ionization of water produces hydrogen, which is explosive, and takes practically nothing to set off.  This caused the explosions and release of low level radiation to the atmosphere.

How about the fuel?  Both the spent fuel and the fuel still in the reactors need to be cooled because of the decay heat.  Otherwise, they will melt, sort of like a pillar of wax.  The fuel will NOT explode.  Remember, to maintain a chain reaction, to remain critical, requires water to moderate neutrons.  If there is no water, the neutrons all get away BUT there is also no cooling.  If there is no water and there is not enough air cooling, fuel damage (distortion) may occur, but I don’t know if it would melt.  It would have to exceed 3,300F – pretty hot – ~600F hotter than the melting point of steel.  Regardless, it isn’t going to melt through to the core of the earth like Doctor Evil’s subterranean nuclear-tipped Vulcan drill, and explode.

How about the radiation?  Radiation is given off by physical matter.  It isn’t a mysterious uncontrollable cloud of cancer.  Direct radiation from the nuclear plant falls off with the cube of distance from it.  For example, to reduce exposure in half, one would have to move from 1.0 mile to only about 1.25 miles away.  At 2 miles you would only get about 12% of the radiation compared to one mile.

This radiation hype reminds me of the lead-tainted toys from China.  While there is no excuse for having lead contaminating toys, it is harmless, unless you grind it up and mix it in Johnnie’s oatmeal or he snorts it like cocaine.  Similarly, a person almost has to come in physical contact with or ingest radioactive material.  Radon, which Iowa has more of than any other state, has to be inhaled and by chance the radon has to release a harmful alpha particle while it’s in your lungs.  The radon isn’t harmful.  The particles it spits off are and they have to be spit out while in your lungs.

Practically anything will stop alphas and betas; skin for example will.  Alpha and beta damage typically requires ingestion.  Neutrons are more penetrating but water will knock these down quickly, which is why water is used outside the reactor to shield neutrons from getting away.  Gammas can have a lot of energy and may take thick lead or concrete to stop – hence lead shielding around reactors.  Damage can occur just by being in close proximity to gammas.  Just don’t carry things like Cobalt 60 in your pockets.  So like the powdered lead, for the general public danger from Fukushima is really only going to come from radioactive air-borne contamination.  How do things get air borne?  An explosion is a good way but explosions occurring at these plants are due to hydrogen as discussed above.  It is nothing like a bomb where all daughter products are released and air borne.  Radioactive daughter products are likely well contained in the fuel at Fukushima.  Daughter products, many of which are gaseous, would first need to blister and rupture the fuel pellets and THEN get out of the fuel’s cladding.  However, blisters are not going to grow when the reactor is shut down as these were.

Get a grip.  The chance of adverse health effects from nuclear power plants is less than being attacked by terrorists, which is much lower than dying in a plane crash, which is much lower than being struck by lightening, which is much, much lower than dying in a car crash.  If you are concerned about nuclear plant health effects, you ought to also be on the lookout for man-eating chickadees, and certainly bananas, which are radioactive by nature.

Lastly, the only time “Chernobyl” should be used in reference to this Fukushima incident is, “Fukushima bears no resemblance to Chernobyl, whatsoever.”  Chernobyl was a carbon, not water, moderated reactor.  When carbon gets too hot, unlike water, it ignites – go boom.  Chernobyl had no containment vessel either.  The reactor actually blew to bits.

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





The Unholy Holiday Tree

21 12 2010

If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog you must have disagreed with something or maybe more strongly taken exception or offense to something.  In this week’s post, maybe I can pick up everyone else.

Christmases were great when I was kid.  It was by far my favorite holiday.  I couldn’t wait for my mom to put up the same crappy artificial tree every year.  It consisted of a broomstick like trunk with holes drilled to support the “branches”.  The branches consisted of twisted No. 9 wire with plastic pine needles that I guess may be best described as like bristles in a brush.  The ends had a cluster of bristles.  The branches and twigs looked like spiral pipe cleaners.

“It’s like martinis.  A couple at a time is perfect.  Twenty is a little messy and painful.”

We were able to pile enough tinsel rope and ornaments on it to make it look respectable.  In a way it was better than most trees, real or fake because we had lots of one-off ornaments made by us kids, or given as gifts for this or that.  There were almost no box collections of glass balls, which typically broke one by one as we played football on our knees in the living room.  My knees burn and back hurts just thinking about it.  This was the football version of Nerf basketball.  Somebody would inevitably get tackled into the tree sending ornaments flying.  It wasn’t a good time until something broke or mom came tromping in with the wooden spoon.

Well that burned off as the years passed and the holiday break just became an over-welcome break from school and time to play holiday basketball tournaments in high school.  In college I had a chance to get together with friends for more robust celebration.  Now as an old man, it’s a nice break to get a reprieve from email and fire fighting and a time to catch up and actually take a couple days off for real.  The only downside is we have to drive to my mom’s with a house full of siblings, their kids and extended family.  It isn’t as though I don’t like people in my family.  I just don’t like being trapped in a relatively small house with all of them at once.  It’s like martinis.  A couple at a time is perfect.  Twenty is a little messy and painful.  But this is the greatest thing in the world for Mom so it’s worth it.

We get a Christmas tree for our office every year.  At one point the clean up crew got fed up with the needles so we converted to a fake tree.  Now we’re back to real trees probably because we now have a hardwood floor rather than crappy carpet, so cleanup’s a breeze, I think.

This year our tree arrived and I thought, wow what a spectacular tree.  I spend many hours, many, many hours trying to grow trees like that on my wooded lot.  Growing trees on my lot is like fish fry making it to spawning age.  Only about 2% of them make it without getting mowed off by 100 pound rodents others call whitetail deer.  I have a hell of a time getting the trees above munching height.  It’s difficult to grow tall trees when they get munched off every year.  An electric fence and individual fence barriers are installed for protection.  I’m sure my neighbors think I’m a whack job but we know them quite well and they know I don’t have horns and a pointy tail.

Then once trees get above munching height they become targets for the damn bucks that do their antler scraping on them and in probably two minutes they can destroy a beautiful 5 year old tree.  I usually refer to hunting as killing defenseless animals, per my former boss’s definition, but at my house it’s pest eradication.  When I was a kid I hunted all the time for everything that was fair game, but now I beg my neighbor to eradicate the varmints but he’s too sportsman like – too much of a hunter.  It has to be a clean shot, the right size varmint, the right gender and all that kind of crap.  Just take them out.  I’ll pay the butcher.

So at Christmastime people are out chopping down perfect trees that I’m trying to grow.  Our office tree like most others is blocking views to outdoors in our office and lights are deployed up the wazoo.  It (was) surrounded by many frivolous gifts wrapped in goofy wrapping paper or fancy bags that when burned only are half consumed as the rest is some combination of non-combustible clay and other paint residue (not that I’ve tried this).  All this flies in the face of LEED and sustainability.

For the office Christmas party, we are encouraged to get $10-15 gifts for a random gift exchange.  Guys this is the rule: 12-packs of damn good beer only.

So my green solution is this:  Chip in for a reusable keg (otherwise known as half barrels in this goofy state) of damn good beer.  We drink our limit of 24 ounces with our reusable glasses (real glass ones).  Use one of the potted plants for the Christmas tree.  At my house, we use our fig tree and in fact, I liked it so much last year, we left the lights (LED of course) installed all year.  The lights are on a timer.  The wrapping paper for the keg can be one reusable bow used annually.  We don’t need no stinking wrapping paper.  The women can either partake in the beer consumption, get a box of wine or even a barrel, or a bulk tank of floral hand lotion.  Whatever it takes; just no cluttery knickknacks.

The tree growers can bring their skills to my house.  I would gladly pay $30-$50 a pop for these perfect trees that are currently being massacred and I’m not talking about buying the big trees.  Plant seedlings and tend them until they get above munching and scraping size.

Now that my friends, is a sustainable Christmas.

Tidbits

After our tree was installed in the office this year, I asked where are the candy canes?  Get some candy canes so I can get my sugar fix.  So Deb, our receptionist kindly populated the tree with candy canes.  I ask, why can’t somebody patent a candy cane wrapper that is easy to remove.  Getting the wrapper off a candy cane is like skinning a frozen earth worm.  After a while of biting and clawing at it, just eat the whole thing.  Same thing goes for compact disc wrappers.  Good grief, what is it about these things?  It says lift here but that peels off a tiny sliver of super sticky tape.  So you have to work for five minutes to get the thing open.  Think of the lost GDP.

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





Flash Cards, CFD, and Jujus

14 12 2010

I just finished plowing out after probably a foot of snow fell over about 18 hours Saturday afternoon into the wee hours of Sunday morning.  My wife suggested I go blow out the neighbor’s driveway.  He’s had heart problems but he does have a blower so I said give them a call to see if it’s ok because if somebody blew my driveway out I’d be pissed.  It would be like watching somebody else reel in my trophy fish for me – especially with the virtually unstoppable John Deere at my fingertips.  A few years ago, I first added a couple suitcase weights.  Last year I added two more and finally broke down and got chains.  With the wheel weights, it probably has close to 400 lbs for added traction but there’s room for one more suitcase weight and I could fill the tires with fluid – probably not necessary!

Anyway, I was thinking once again that as of Thursday, the forecast for this weather system that dumped a foot on us was for “snow showers”.  I don’t know what a snow shower is but it doesn’t bring to mind belly-deep snow for our Labrador Retrievers.  Two days before we got hit with an awesome storm and a foot of snow, the forecast was “snow showers”.  Other times the forecast is for six to eight inches and we get flurries instead.  (Flurries incidentally are snowflakes that only exist in the air or in your mind in which case you would be a Parmenidean airhead)  Anyone living in the Midwest away from areas susceptible to lake-effect snow has experienced this grossly erroneous forecasting at least a dozen times a year.

We have what, 70, maybe 80 years of practice forecasting weather?  It’s essentially a two-dimensional turbulence problem over this short two-day term.  Thousands of people, including the almighty federal government, have spent their entire lives “learning” to predict weather, now with the most powerful computers known to the human race.  Yet they still hit this forecast so poorly that if it were a golf shot, it wouldn’t even be a worm killer.  The ball wouldn’t make it off the tee box.  The forced draft of the club head would be just enough to knock the ball off the tee.  Foink.

So I ask, isn’t a little bit or completely naïve, ignorant, pompous or something to think computer models can predict the earth’s temperature over the long term?  Beyond the relatively simple two-dimensional weather model, the global temperature model would have only about 8,000 additional variables, some huge ones like turbulence in the oceans which are giant heat sinks, (and I mean giant and they spin tangentially and vertically relative to the earth’s surface) the heat source’s (sun’s) output variance, volcanoes spewing grit and CO2 shutting down continental air traffic for weeks, and I could list at least 500 additional ones but don’t want to bore you further.

Or take the relatively simple subject of economics.  Projecting what will happen next in the economy may be easier than predicting the weather.  Still, nobody has come close.   One guy says we can never forecast the economy with any accuracy.  I think he should try modeling the planet.

It isn’t a question of whether CO2 affects global temperatures.  It does, (as do cucumbers) all else equal, but does it match a single eruption?  I would say anyone who emphatically says it does should try their graces at forecasting the weather a while.  Even if we could predict with 99% accuracy (whatever that means) what the weather will be one week from today, it would be the equivalent of first grade flash cards compared to Ph.D. level computational fluid dynamics that would be the global model.  But even that would be oversimplification because sooner or later the first grader can learn CFD.

Further comparing weather forecasting to climate modeling, with weather forecasting we have instant and absolutely positive feedback in a very short period of time – an instant comparatively.  Modelers examine what may have went wrong with their model such that it predicted snow showers and the next thing you know, the Vikings with their new coach and geriatric quarterback are playing in Detroit – as their home field against the NY Giants.  The parameters are few.  The outcome variance is huge and the feedback is instant.  The lessons learned should fill the library of congress, yet in 80 years (whatever) we still can’t even predict the weather a couple days out.

I don’t pretend to know the answer.  I know enough via academic background and experience, and the obvious, that I, nor can anyone else project future climate patterns with any sort of certainty.  Or, as Rummy once eloquently said, “Reports that say something hasn’t happened are interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Tidbits

This guy is bringing a class action lawsuit against the USGBC because he isn’t participating in LEED and he thinks LEED is a farce giving others an unfair advantage.  I didn’t see anyone else in the class.  It must be him and the mouse in his pocket.

This is entirely unproductive and as I suggested just a couple weeks ago in Feral Cat, What Say You, if he goes after USGBC, why not go after ASHRAE and all the state reviewers of code compliance.  Rather than getting on board and getting involved tear it down.  This scorched earth does no good for anyone, the plaintiff in this case as well.  It is the opposite of the way we choose to do business.

Secondly, PC Magazine published an article reporting that Pike Research completed a study indicating cloud computing would reduce worldwide data center energy expenditures by 38% in the next few years.  Back in April in my rant about Greenpeace, I confessed to being ignorant with respect to IT but I put my credibility on the line essentially betting cloud computing would save energy.  Touché.

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





ACEEE Summer Camp 2010

24 08 2010

Well here I am again – a prisoner in the penitentiary that is the Minneapolis Airport.  Northwest Airlines now part of Delta Delta Delta can I help ya, help ya, help ya (YAH! – you can get me the hell out of here) can’t fly through a swarm of mosquitoes without being delayed.  This is the burnt crust on the dessert that was otherwise a great week.  And as usual, I can’t help but sit here and ignore the MASSIVE amount of energy gobbled up by this place.  It’s a bowl of hot soup outside.  It is about 68F inside and the baseboard heaters are roasting away.  Typical.  If we couldn’t cost effectively save 2 million kWh and a hundred thousand therms per year in this place, I would be ashamed.

OK.  That’s a lead-off mini rant.

This past week I attended the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s Summer Study (i.e., summer camp) at Asilomar (a-SILL-oh-mar) conference grounds in Pacific Grove, CA.  It is quite a massive conference with about a thousand energy efficiency professionals from all over the country and a few international attendees.  The Aussies always seem to have a contingency there.

The conference features 11 panels (which I would call tracks) on residential and commercial issues including (1) residential technologies, design, performance and analysis and (2) residential program design, implementation, and evaluation.  Then there are the same two tracks for commercial facilities and programs.  There is one for utility programs, market transformation, human and social dimensions (behavioral issues and programs), and four others.

It’s a great conference featuring many great presentations.  Each track features six papers per day for five days: 11 x 6 x 5 = 330 papers, roughly!  Most of the ones I attended were at least partially interesting to me but on average were very good.  But this is the Energy Rant.  There has to be something wrong or what’s the point?

There are two comments / complaints that I had generally for many of the presentations.  First, I thought the military, followed by engineers, were the worst offenders of overusing acronyms.  No.  There were plenty of acronyms flying every which way.  I’ve been in the industry 15 years and there were many that were new to me.  If you’re like me, as soon as somebody says something and I’m thinking to myself “what the heck does that mean”, I’m stuck there trying to figure out what HIM means while the presenter drones on.  HIM is not the opposite of HERS in case you were wondering, but most people in the industry I am sure don’t know what HERS is either.  Some examples (and these are just the tip of the iceberg):

  • One presenter was talking about RCAs.  Somebody in the audience asked what an RCA was and the response was, “it’s a diagnostic tune-up”.  What?  How do you get RCA out of that?  As it turns out it’s a refrigerant charge and airflow maintenance program for residential.  We’ve been evaluating those for the past two summers but I hadn’t heard this term before.
  • HIM = high impact measures.  I might file a gender bias charge here.  Why not highly efficient retrofit?  Does NOW know about this?
  • EEPS = energy efficiency portfolio standard.  In case you’re still wondering, this is the guide for soup to nuts energy efficiency programs – plan, design, develop, promote, implement, and evaluate.
  • MHP and how it integrates with CHP and RTP.  OK.  I know CHP = combined heat and power so MHP is something like that.  Maximum heat and power?  No.  Mandatory hourly pricing, which is a tariff or billing method used in the state of New York.  RTP = real time pricing.  As I understand it, MHP is the same as day ahead hourly pricing, which is just what it sounds like – Hourly prices are set for the next 24 hours so large customers that this applies to can plan rather than get charged in “real time”.
  • CPP-D.  While I sat in this one I figured out most of this – critical peak pricing –  fairly early on.  What the ___ is the D for?  Never figured it out until I got home and read the paper.  Default, as in critical peak pricing default rate.  Is this a default like defaulting on bond payments or default like the automatic standard value?  Neither.  It’s a rate, as in tariff.  And by the way, if they had used CPP-DR for the whole thing it would really be confusing because DR is “default” for demand response.  The acronyms are getting used up, folks.  Coin ‘em while you can!
  • CRC.  This one relates to the CPP-D above.  It is customer reservation charge.  This is the 50% of the customer’s summer peak protected from CPP rates.
  • CEAC.  This one cracks me up.  It is clean energy application centers.  What the ____ does that mean?  This was used in the presentation but does not appear in the paper.  The paper also fails to even explain what it is.

Ok.  That’s about enough of those things.  This is only a small fraction of the acronyms found in the presentations and papers that I attended/read, and by definition, I attended less than 10% of them even though I went to all that I could.

Another thing I noticed is that many of the presentations/papers were analyzing the bajeebas out of the finest details like air handling systems and daylighting.  This included what every terminal (zone or room) unit was doing every minute of the day versus what the controls was telling the stuff to do and how to model venetian blinds in a daylighting application.  Five minutes into these presentations I’m thinking, what on earth are you going to do with these data?  I’ve contended before that using ice cores and tree rings to determine what the climate was doing a million years ago is like measuring your garage with the car odometer.  Whatever you say!  These studies, however, are like measuring the distance from San Francisco to New York with a ruler.  Just the opposite.

Lastly, I can’t help but beat on government again, because it’s so easy.  The EPA was a platinum sponsor.  Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) were silver sponsors.  Sponsorship is for advertising.  Why are these federal agencies spending my money and their competitors’ money to promote themselves?  All they have to do to stay in business is be sure to always spend at least 100% of their annual budgets and keep asking for more.  And results?  Fuggedaboutit!  Vinnie and Joey take care of that.

To end on a high note, California is a great and beautiful state.  It’s just too bad Sacramento, which is also a great city, has it so screwed up to the point that industries are fleeing left, right and sideways.

I conclude everything causes cancer in CA.  My motel room contains materials that are proven to cause cancer and birth defects.  No kidding.  This was posted right outside my motel room door.  If you read the literature that comes with your car, that too causes cancer and birth defects.  I would say the driver is more likely to cause severe injury or death than the upholstery.  These are symptoms of a psychotic state government.

So that wasn’t a high note.  If you haven’t visited California’s central coast, do it.  From Big Basin (ancient redwoods and sequoias) to Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Big Sur.  There are sandy beaches, unbelievable forests, rocky shores with tide pools with all kinds of wildlife, and some of the best farmland in the world – strawberries, artichokes, and garlic to note a few.  There is very little syrupy crappy tourist pits along the way too so it keeps the riffraff out – or maybe there are no tourist pits because there is no riffraff??  It is colder than most people imagine, this year more than average per the locals.  It never got above 65F and mornings featured fog and about 52F.  Perfect weather in my world.

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





Of Car Dealers and Bathroom Tissue

17 08 2010

Is there anything as mysterious as the price of a car, especially a new one?  I’ve heard the various prices so much, long ago, that I’ve pretty much blocked them out of my mind.  There is the sticker price, dealer cost, factory invoice cost, blah, blah…blah, blah, blah.

Sooner or later the dreaded haggling begins.  I’ve heard that the buyer should always have the seller make the first offer.  I don’t think it matters.  I think the last time I bought a car I scrounged about on Kelly Blue Book’s web site, which has dealer suggested retail, private party (for used) and trade in values or something like that.  I figured if I could get the private party price from the dealer I’m doing well.  I set a price in my head and once the dealer gets to that point I’m ready to go.  You do have to be willing to walk away.  Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever given a “bid”, now that I think of it.

At Michaels, we’ve had several proposals for engineering services in the past year where prospective clients have asked for “discounts” if we were to get all parts of a multi-part request for proposals.  Or maybe they want a discount if the contract is extended from three to five years.  For one we even had to provide the salaries we pay our people and overhead factor so they can essentially negotiate a profit – not negotiate the price but the profit!  Personally, I don’t really care how much profit the seller makes.  I don’t care if he’s losing money.  I don’t care if he’s making 50% profit.  What am I getting for my money from dude #1 versus dude #2, is the question.

When I bought the Acura seven years ago, the price was practically the same as a Chevy Monte Carlo, depending on options.  Are you kidding me, I thought?  Chevrolet was probably making less profit margin (if any at all) than Acura/Honda but am I going to buy the kludge because they have a 1% margin, or my car for probably 10% margin?  It took two or three offers and Zimbrick Acura met my strike price and I was off and driving.  Like my previous car, a Mazda I bought in 1990 and drove for 14 years, the Acura has never seen the dealer again.

We have a modest profit built into our hourly rates.  We are not car dealers with a manufacturer’s suggested retail billing rate that that would be 10% more than the price it takes to make a decent profit.  Or, it isn’t like summer apparel come August and we can clear it out by chopping prices in half to make room for fall/winter stuff.

Here’s the problem with the “discount” – it isn’t equitable.  (I hate “fair” because it’s too often used by whiners).  You may remember 20-30 years ago, there was no such thing as the double or quadruple roll of bathroom tissue or paper towels.  Don’t you find it interesting that the new double roll is the same as the ONLY roll there was 25 years ago?  Today’s regular roll is about 1/3 the size of the rolls back in the day.  See what I’m sayin?  If we’re going to play this game, we’ll build bargaining slop into our rates.  The inequity comes when the client who just wants a great project for a decent price doesn’t ask for the “discount”.  What are we going to do?  “Oh, we didn’t really mean that fee.  Here is a 5% discount because we love you so much.”  Then they think what kind of scam artists are these guys?  Or we leave the rates stand and they get ripped off.

We are not a sleazy car dealer, not that every last one of them is.  We are not going to artificially increase our rates by 10% so we can tell our clients we are giving them a 10% discount.  We also don’t slash our rates by 25% because we’re desperate, because we are not.

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





Oil Slick Musings

1 06 2010

It’s been about a month since I prognosticated and reflected on the BP disaster in the golf.  Let’s see how things have unfolded.  My predictions:

  • Political food fight
  • Underestimated disaster
  • Lack of “what if” on BPs part
  • Where is the outrage?

First, I said politicians would engage in a political food fight while Rome burns.   Sure enough, less than a week after that post, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee assembled a dog and pony show to poke executives of BP, Transocean, and Halliburton with a stick in the eye.  Actually, it was like a dog show alright – a dog fight that is – putting these three executives in a pen and let them go after each other.  Fortunately no one was hurt, physically.

This was purely for show.  They wanted to know how this happened.  What good does that do at this point or certainly at that point a month ago?  These senators probably don’t understand how hot dog cart works, let alone hyper complex deep sea oil drilling and the fluid dynamics involved.  At that early point in the game, the executives probably didn’t even know what exactly happened 5,000 feet below the surface.  They were probably lucky to have time to determine what happened on the rig.

Senator Sessions piles on by describing the spectacle had a lack of candor coming from the corporate execs.  How about this: there was a lack of KNOWLEDGE at that point, you bonehead.  Senator Murkowski said this will affect energy policy going forward.  More on this later.

Second, there would be a tendency to underestimate the enormity of the disaster.  The greatest sin of the federal government is not following their own laws.  After the Valdez disaster, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was signed into law to have the federal government equipped and ready for the next disaster.  You can guess what happened as a result of this law: pretty much nothing.  The feds had no fire booms to corral spilled oil and set it afire.  The US went begging around the world for equipment the federal statutes said we were supposed to have on hand.

For the first month, Washington just crossed its fingers and hoped for the best – like shooting the rapids in a canoe.  The worst thing you can do is freeze with the oars out of the water.  That will get you capsized.  Finally, Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, bolts onto the scene declaring the feds will “keep their boot on the neck of BP”, to make sue they “giterdone”.  Now THAT is one thing the feds can do well: put their boot on your neck alright.  What an idiotic thing to say.  He later spews from his oral orifice “if we find out that they’re [BP] not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way appropriately”.  LOL!  Then what?  We send our fearless congress down to take over?

Senator Nelson of Florida says the administration should “completely take over” the mess.  Colin Powell says the federal government should move in “with decisive force”.   Whadayou talking about man? The government can take over a whacko cult compound somewhere in Texas, but an oil leak? With decisive force?  It seems to me a “decisive force” put the oil rig on the ocean floor.  I think the feds should remove some of their own agencies with decisive force – like the Army Corps of Engineers that has to do an environmental impact study before allowing the construction of berms to protect wetlands from the oil.  How stupid is that?

Lack of “what if” thinking on the part of BP; that water is already far down the stream.  On the flip side of this being such a careless error in design, it will be corrected such that this will never happen again.  Before Valdez, there were hardly any double-hulled tankers.  They are nearly all double-hulled now, with the exception of China, which seems to have trouble keeping lethal quantities of benzene out of its rivers.  Back to my Nuclear Navy experience; Why is the organization so hyper anal about safety?  Aside from the obvious reasons of getting people hurt or killed, if there was a nuclear accident, it would end the program.  Now that is WHAT IF foresight.

Where is the outrage?  It’s starting to grow exponentially.  I believe what held initial outrage down is that the president is Mr. Obama, the guilty private sector company is based overseas, and the great Satan, Halliburton, was actually trying to direct BP away from the course events on the rig that lead to the disaster. The usual villains weren’t present.  If it was Bush, Exxon-Mobil, and Halliburton…hoooo.  Hellfire and brimstone before the thing even sank.  However, this disaster is outliving the politics.  The Democrats are starting to eat their own with Exhibit A, James Carville.

Do I criticize the administration’s performance?  Not so much but they ought to shove federal bureaucrats out of the way and lock them up till this is over; or better yet, maybe lock them up until they are eligible for retirement.  A major problem with the country is people think the government should ride to the rescue for everything that goes wrong.  If we want the government to handle everything well, it will do nothing well.

Another thing that will be a mistake at best and a fiasco at worst is turning Eric Holder loose on a witch hunt in the region before the oil stops flowing.  Who is he going to pursue?  Probably engineers and their supervisors who know more about this particular situation than anyone on planet earth, which incidentally may not be Holder’s home.  This is just what we need – the people who need to spend every waking hour working to find a solution will be harassed by Holder, who has the demonstrated competence of Barney Fife and the subtle charm of a rabid bat.

Unfortunately my next prediction, actually a guarantee, is the feds will of course impose more regulation on the oil industry.  You may be thinking “damn right”.  But wait a minute.  We already had an entire agency (Minerals Management Service) with two missions (1) oversight to prevent disasters like this from happening and (2) to make sure the feds get their cut of the oil revenue.  Well guess what, these guys were going to ballgames and taking gifts on the largess of the companies they are supposed to be regulating.  And while they’re not at the ballgame, they were watching porn at work (not making this up).   So I ask, do we just need more of this, or another agency to look over the agency who’s supposed to be policing all this?  Oh wait, we already have that.  It’s called the Department of Interior.

One solution already has been to split the MMS into two: (1) a fee collecting arm and (2) a safety arm.  Why?  Because collecting money and safety are at odds with one another; it’s a conflict of interest.  Think about that.  What private sector business doesn’t have the same “conflict of interest”?  Go to nearly any manufacturing or labor/machinery intensive facility or even retail and you will see signs of xx days without a work-related injury.  As visitors, we have to even sit through safety training courses prior to going on site at some places.  Aside from caring for workers, injuries are just plain expensive and money losers.  And since when do these vagarious chums care about federal revenue?  What is in it for them?  Are they getting kickbacks?  Does the mafia control MMS?  Safety is number 1 out here.

Like the “solution” to this disaster, we will get laws that punish everyone but the guilty, ala Sarbanes Oxley as a result of Enron.  Nevermind that Enron broke a million laws already on the books.  But like doctors who fill prescriptions, legislators write bills, and a lot of really bad ones, because after all, they have to do something.  Innocent bystanders who follow the rules pay for the sins of the guilty to what end?  In this case everyone who uses transportation or buys things gets hit.  I.e., everyone but the Amish.

What will prevent this particular accident from ever happening again:  (1) BP pays for the cleanup, (2) determine what failed and/or failed to work, and (3) develop a method that is 99.9% assured of killing a well, with five more backups of equal probability of success in series.  This type of disaster will not happen again, if for no other reason, it will take billions out of shareholders’ hides to clean up this colossal mess.

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