New Years Collage

28 12 2010

I’ve corralled a mishmash of rather preposterous short stories for the year end rant.  This will be historic so be sure to pass it on to your enemies.

Case 1 comes from Engineered Systems Magazine or ES Magazine.  I was catching up on my stack of trade magazines over Christmas weekend (is this sick or what? – but it can be about as entertaining as National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation).  September’s “Case in Point”  features an energy-saving project for Bangor Maine’s Discovery Museum, delivered by Honeywell.  An audit was followed by implementation of cost-effective measures.  The audit was completed in 2008 using the “Field Automation Service Technology” tool (FAST – I love acronyms – this is for real, theirs).  Findings included the not-so-unusual deferred maintenance like plugged air filters and heating/cooling coils among some more capital-intensive measures apparently.

One of the measures was to install a dual fuel boiler burner to take advantage of cheap natural gas as opposed to $3 fuel oil.  The results “dramatically impacted the museum’s bottom line”.  The museum paid $2,732 for fuel oil in March 2007 and only $39 in March 2008.  Well gaaaauuuullly!  (1) fuel oil is stored in tanks on site so you can spend money on fuel when and how you want and (2) they switched from using fuel oil to natural gas.  To ensure the savings persist, Honeywell was generous enough to throw in three years of service contract to maintain fresh filters.  So what were the real savings??

Case 2 begins with the opinion guys from The Wall Street Journal noting that the EPA is regulating the bejesus out of heavy industry, and in particular the utility industry.  This is to start in earnest after the first of the year, with EPA chief Lisa Jackson leading the way.

Starting in the midst of several salvos, the WSJ says utilities are being “forced to choose between continuing to operate and facing major capital expenditures to meet the increasingly strict burden[s], or else shutting down and building replacements [power plants] that use more expensive sources like natural gas. Either way, the costs will be passed through to business and consumers as higher rates, which is the same as a tax increase.”   My major problem with this is the usual case of government making things more expensive for the private sector, and guess who takes the beating?  It won’t be the government.

But even more bizarre and fishy smelling is a bunch of utility CEOs cheering on the EPA in a letter published in response to the Journal’s rant – like this will be good for their business.   They say that “Contrary to the claims that the EPA’s agenda will have negative economic consequences, our companies’ experience complying with air quality regulations demonstrates that regulations can yield important economic benefits, including job creation, while maintaining reliability.”  And throwing rocks through windows stimulates the economy and makes for carpenter and window factory jobs too.  This doesn’t pass the laugh test.

In the latest shot, the Journal points out the agenda driving the do-gooders – higher prices driven by other utilities as noted above, but the higher expenses don’t apply to certain utilities that are heavy in nukes.  This makes perfect sense.

A strong word of advice for these CEOs: play with the devil (U.S. Government) and you WILL get burned by command and control coming from Washington.  It’s only a matter of time before you will be looking down the long barrel yourselves.

Case 3, just in time for the warmer weather, airport snow removal by heated pavement!  OMG!  Of all the insane ideas, including air conditioning in 19 soccer stadiums in Qatar, manmade islands in Abu Dhabi and indoor ski slopes and ice rinks in the Marina Mall, this one tops them all.  Calculating the heat loss would melt a mortal Hewlet Packard RPN calculator.  Larger airports in cold climates, like MSP and ORD would require a small star (like our sun) to keep the concrete above freezing in worst-case weather.  And per my crude calculations, ORD has roughly 14 miles of runway that would take roughly a half million cubic yards of concrete alone (this is from me, a civil engineering / aviation zero).  This doesn’t include tarmacs or the infrastructure like underground rivers of antifreeze required for heating.  And just think of the disruption.

This is a really bad joke for an idea.  Intervention by someone with a brain may be required.  This comes from people who throw the number “trillion” around like it equals 10 million.  I forget where/who I was listening to but they didn’t use the word “trillion”.  They used “thousand billion” in it’s place – much more effective.

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





No Free Lunch

23 03 2010

A few years ago, I took my beloved Acura to the tire store for new tires.  As I was sitting on their crappy molded plastic chairs at a Formica table working away on my laptop, a cheesy 20-something sales guy approached me and asked if I would like a free alignment.  “I don’t have a problem.”  “But it’s free.  No obligation”, he goes on.  “Ah what heck, go ahead.”  He returned a few minutes later as I’m hammering away on my laptop and he says my wheels should be aligned because…whatever.  I put on a scrunchy-face look and decide that even if it’s off a little bit and they can make it perfect…ok, go ahead.

On my way out of town that evening I immediately noticed the “A” on my steering wheel is now leaning left about 1 or 2 degrees maybe.  Now I’ve seen wheels that are out of alignment, the steering wheel may shimmy, and the tires get burned off in an expected pattern, but I have NEVER driven a car that is “crabbing” down the road.  I reached over to the glove compartment, pulled out the receipt for the phone number.  I called the 20 something snaky peon and blistered him so bad, I had to roll down the windows to prevent the dashboard from melting.  They took something that was perfectly fine as far as I knew and screwed it up and charged me seventy bucks for the pleasure.  I was a complete idiot to fall for the “free alignment” anyway.  I returned and they made it right, this time getting my approval of every setting.  Funny how that works.  It still cost me time, which I don’t have, and plenty of angst.

The moral of the story, of course, is beware of free services.  I don’t even like most free software and some free news sites because of the hassle, the advertising, lack of decent content, the garbage that may come with it and the “spam” lists they may put me on.  Just give me something that works well, provides value and leave me alone.  I’m perfectly content paying for it.

Which brings me to the “investment grade” energy study of large commercial or industrial facilities.  Investment grade means it is accurate enough to guarantee savings if that’s what the client wants.  Of course the guarantee isn’t free, but that’s a topic for another day.  I count five types of study funding.

  • The low-ball study.  The consultant offers a low-ball study cost that will be made up on the much more expensive design phase of the energy efficiency project.  Essentially, they do energy consulting to get what they really want: design and even more lucrative construction management.  They may not know a low-cost, high return-on-investment (ROI) opportunity if it shot them in the kneecap, but it doesn’t matter, they just want to design equipment and system replacements.  They can spot those babies for sure.
  • The “free” study with the contract that says you customer have to move forward with high ROI (defined ahead of time) measures, or else pay for the study, which will be a million dollars – as in performance contracting.  The company doing the study does the implementation with profit on the implementation cost.  Look, a study may really cost 20% to 50% of one year’s energy savings from cost-effective measures.  Implementation may cost 500% to 1,000% the first year’s energy savings.  Now how easy is it to stuff the project with about 5 times the real study cost, plus other markup built into the cost of implementation?  Heck the study cost doesn’t even matter.  Third party verification of savings is absolutely required.  This can work fine, but many end users have been burned badly, making performance contracting a pariah in some circles – more on this in another rant.  Does this outfit want to provide the best value for your investment or sell you all the equipment they can to fit within your payback criteria?
  • The open tell-all study.  The client pays an independent consultant to do the study with everything on the table.  We are typically in this scenario and have a hard time competing with the above David Copperfields for the study.  We may have the same profit margin as the performance contractor, but their sale is 10x or even 50x our sale.
  • The cheap and crappy audit.  Somebody who’s done 1,400 studies offers to provide an investment grade study for half the price of everyone else.  How do you suppose they’ve done 1,400 studies?  You just have to be a good cost estimator to deliver these crumby studies.  Costs come in with precise bald face numbers.  Energy savings?  Not so clear.  Cost effective measures may be scattered all over the place AFTER they are done as well.  Refer to the kneecap shooting above.
  • The cheap high level audit.  We do many of these too, and we go overboard, as much as possible to explain to the customer that this will NOT, is not, and was not investment grade material.  It provides plus-or-minus-50%, hand-grenade results to assess potential.  Some measures with a worst possible real ROI that is less than 2 years may go right to implementation, but probably more than half need further investment grade analysis, unless the customer just wants to roll the dice.

There is no free breakfast here.  Our long-term clients know this because the cost of cheap can be very expensive, or intolerable, and they know it.

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





Dermal Beauty but Ugly to the Bone

19 01 2010

Attending a training session for steam systems a few years back, the class collectively chuckled as the instructor explained why he couldn’t go to the supermarket with his wife anymore.  As they would walk down the aisles he would be explaining how steam is used to make this and that.  See those potato chips, steam is used to peal potatoes rapidly and cleanly – and then he would launch into detail only a thermodynamics class would welcome.  Cheeseballs: puffed up by steam.  Carrot sticks: pealed using steam.  Chocolate milk powder: chocolate adhered to sugar using steam.  Aaaaaah!  Shut up already!  I don’t care how my Cocoa Puffs are made.  (I actually found it to be interesting)

We energy geeks have similar proclivities.  We can’t enter a building without a surface audit:

  • Jeez, these guys are living in the 1970s with T12 fluorescent lighting.
  • I bet there’s no makeup air unit for the pool in this hotel.  I can barely get the door open.  No wonder my room is absolutely freezing.  They probably think they’re saving energy besides.
  • These refrigerated door heaters are running in the middle of winter.  Typical.
  • It’s absolutely roasting in this gymnasium.  Their economizer has definitely been disabled.
  • Every light in that office building is on at 10:00 PM.  I’ll bet the cleaning guys come in and flip them all on for their entire 8 hour shift.

Last week I was reviewing American School & University’s “Architectural Portfolio 2009”, a compilation architectural masterpieces, submitted by architects and voted on by a panel of architects and facility managers to “win”, I’m not sure what.  I didn’t care.  Without even experiencing these buildings in the flesh, I found the following to be true:

  • I counted 92 spaces among these dozens of buildings that had not-so-good to very attractive daylighting designs.  The problem; 80 of them were shown with the lights on.
  • The lights were on in some spaces being scorched with direct sunlight.
  • Some entries advertised daylighting as a green feature… with the lights on!
  • One advertised as having exposed structure, e.g., trusses like you’ve seen in about 100,000 other buildings – to reduce finishing materials.  LOL
  • A gym had a great clerestory natural lighting design with fluorescent lighting – all of them burning of course.
  • One featured Low-e glazing.  Now there’s some spacey technology.

You may be thinking, the lights are on just for the photo shoot.  If that’s the case, then why are a dozen or so great photos of daylit spaces with no artificial lighting used?

These daylighting design failures or malfunctions are symbolic and symptomatic of energy efficiency in new buildings.  They are efficient on the surface only, to the untrained eye.  Once you start to dig into the heating and cooling systems, you’ll really start to see waste on a massive scale – across the board in all new buildings?  Probably not, but let me say this: we have been benchmarking buildings the last couple years and new buildings are notorious hogs.

Sadly, a substantial barrier to getting these buildings fixed up is somebody’s ego or “turf”.  That’ll be the subject of another rant but in the meantime if you think your new building (less than 10 years old) is a pig, do some benchmarking to compare it to similar buildings.

On a separate note, I found the controversy over LED traffic lights not working in snowstorms to be a bit amusing.  I see somebody in Colorado has developed a solution – something like a tube to prevent the snow from splatting on the LED surface completely covering the light.  I have another solution: hang a sign that says, “When traffic signal is covered in snow, stop, use your brain, and proceed with caution”.  Snow has plastered road signs for decades.  I’ve never heard of anyone complaining about their complete ignorance and inability to function without road signs – even critical ones like no passing or WRONG WAY – DO NOT ENTER signs.

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