Experience Myth

17 05 2011

Now that I’m an old man, defined as being over 40 years of age, career half over, graduated from college 20 years ago, kids of classmates are graduating from high school, kids born when I was partying in college are graduating from college, and other depressing facts, I can say experience in anything can be almost worthless and in some cases, it is worth less than nothing.

At Michaels, we have interfaced with engineers, particularly ones who were in sales and it was stunning how little they knew about buildings, control systems and how equipment and systems use energy.  It reminds me of when I was a kid; I would sit in wonderment about how automobiles were manufactured.  How do they make that dashboard, the top of which was a large as a kitchen table?  How do they make the thin auto body pieces parts?  It was like rocket science to me.  There must be some magic computer like Hal that made all this stuff happen.  I have to wonder whether this is the case with some “energy engineers”.

Likewise, these guys who had been in their industry for many years and were suddenly recruited into the energy efficiency business seem to think energy savings is some nebulous, random, stab in the dark.  In former lives they may have served as experts for their companies but anyone who could spout off the dimensions of a two square inch square would be viewed as Einstein.  For purposes of energy analyses, the savings equal the cost of what they were selling divided by the maximum acceptable payback for the customer.  (It takes somebody with 5 years of post k-12 education to do this?)

For one such real guy, the baseline, or the existing conditions are arbitrary.  That’s just the way it is.  When asked what the operating conditions were prior to implementation of the project, the response, “what do you think they should be?”  Head, meet brick wall.

In other cases, an engineer may seem to know an energy model (spreadsheet) is not meant to be used for the specific application of the technology, say a variable frequency drive, but they use it anyway because that’s all there is for variable frequency drives.  Everything is a nail as seen by the hammer.  Meanwhile, I’ve seen new graduates come in and almost immediately run circles around guys with three or more years of experience.

So what does it take to be a great energy efficiency engineer (or occupation x)?  First it takes commitment to excellence, which sounds like a bunch of crap, but what I mean is the engineer does not accept anything he/she doesn’t fully and deeply understand.  If results look weird, they have to find out exactly what is going on.  Is it an error or is it some unforeseen, non-intuitive characteristic that is driving the results to be different than expected.  This trait is absolutely essential.  And they know when enough is enough.  One can’t spend hours finding a half dozen “errors” that have negligible effect on a complex energy model.

A non-essential but very helpful aspect is having strong mentoring and being surrounded by knowledgeable engineers who know what they are doing and conform to the above themselves.

Recently while writing a proposal for a large EE program evaluation, the minimum experience requirement for key team members, constituting maybe three or four main actors directly responsible for the outcomes, was five years direct experience in evaluation.  Surprisingly, I would probably pick about the same number.  A new grad can learn a heck of a lot in a year or two and by year three or four be running some good size projects.  Not so ironically, this is about the time engineers become eligible for licensure.

Does this mean anyone over 40 should get their afghan and find a rocker and sit on the porch all day talking about AM radios, eight track tapes, VCRs, and never getting out of school for anything short of six feet of snow (almost true by the way)?  Some folks probably should but in other cases, the answer is, of course not.  Talented old people were once smart 20-somethings.  I’ve never come across anyone who didn’t have it in the 20s but later found it in their 30s or 40s.

Experience is not enough.  Firms need to demonstrate they know what they are doing with work examples, references for similar work, and lists of clients and how long they have been clients.  For many cases with big projects, one needs to describe the difficulties and challenges of the project and how they will be overcome.  That takes experience.

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

EE Ignorance

11 05 2010

A few years ago I was on a marketing visit to a hospital for non-energy related services and of course I had to work energy efficiency into the conversation.  “So, have you done any energy efficiency upgrades in recent years?”  “Yes we replaced windows in the old section of the facility and installed new boilers.  We’re all set with energy efficiency.”

Palm, meet forehead.

I could be a lousy salesman but that conversation ended with a pregnant pause.  This was a hospital, probably the most energy intensive type of commercial facility there is, and replacing windows might reduce consumption by 0.01%.  New boilers could do anything from saving some energy to using more depending on how they are controlled.

One of the major obstacles to capturing real and substantial savings in commercial buildings is overcoming ignorance of how these facilities use energy.  They use energy far differently than homes but Joe in the maintenance department or Sally the executive think the way to 10% savings is new windows, new boilers and more roof insulation.  Good luck with that.

When I talk about energy efficiency in commercial and industrial facilities I talk about controls, systems and processes, NOT pieces of equipment and components.  At the end of the presentation I say all boilers are 80% efficient.  All chillers use 0.6 kW/ton.  All lighting fixtures produce 80 lumens per Watt.  Of course this isn’t literally accurate, but the point is, the building can be operating very poorly as a system, such that plus or minus 20% on these performance metrics is dwarfed by poor operation.  The control programming is awful.  The system could use some additional control points and maybe a few components need to be added.  When added up,  the waste generated by these controls and system operations dwarf the few percentage points for the boiler efficiency or one or two tenths of a kW per ton for the chiller.  See The More You Spend The More You Save.

I was reminded of this once again this week as I read this article on the Empire State Building.  The owner says windows are “a key to efficiency”.  Even including the daylighting controls he is talking about, this won’t amount to a peanut of the 38% energy savings they plan to achieve.

Columbia University research declares green and white roofs in NYC “help prevent energy losses”.   That may be factually incorrect but the more arguable thing is, it has a tiny effect on heat transfer through the roof.  Green roofs include plants which require dirt and moisture to grow.  Moist soil has lousy insulating qualities.  The benefits of a green roof include reduced runoff into rivers, lakes, and oceans, transpiration which reduces temperature on the roof’s surface and thus reduces heat island effect, roof life extension, and possibly energy savings if building cooling system equipment is located on the roof.  A white roof will save some cooling energy but costs you some extra heating energy in winter.  See  our Energy Brief “Cool Roofs in Cold Climates“.  I’m not bashing green and white roofs.  I would use one or both on my building, but for reasons other than energy efficiency.  These other benefits pile up.

We surveyed 150 buildings in NYC about 16 months ago and believe me, there is huge potential in the city but it isn’t going to be realized with windows, boilers, and green and white roofs.  Like the Empire State Building probably was prior to this $20 million retrofit, buildings have 1960s and 1970s technologies and crappy old pneumatic controls.  There are steam-turbine-driven chillers, which have to have horrible efficiency because the steam pressure is so low.  The heat rejection would be massive.  According to my calculations, with a perfectly efficient turbine and an efficient chiller, the cost to operate a steam driven chiller would be twice that of an electric chiller at the same efficiency.  Why?  Because of the relatively very low steam pressure (compared to power plants) the steam-driven chiller uses.  If I were to use real numbers, this could easily balloon to 6x the cost.  E.g., these old chillers are probably half as efficient as a new one- tops, and the turbines won’t be perfect like I assumed.

So what is the solution to widespread ignorance of commercial and industrial facility operation, systems, processes, controls, and how to reduce energy consumption?  Send me an email and I will tell you.  jli@michaelsengineering.com.  It works really well.

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

Save Energy – Get Out of Jail

15 12 2009

Unless you were living in a cave four or five years ago, you know Wal-Mart was under relentless assault by, I’ll just call them activists.  Complaints included: They weren’t providing health care to enough people.  They weren’t paying overtime.  Their goods were manufactured in sweat shops overseas.  When unions tried to organize their meat cutting operations, Wal-Mart exited the meat cutting business.  Their executives were making too much money.  The company was making too much money.  Part of the real gripe was that Wal-Mart had saturated the rural and small town markets and they had started to impinge into larger markets.  Social elites in university towns did NOT want to sip cappuccinos across the street from Wal-Mart, or see Wal-Mart flyers in the Sunday paper, or perhaps worst of all, they did not want to attract the kind of people who shop at Wal-Mart to their enclave.

It seemed all of a sudden, the whining stopped, overnight.  Why?  I would say their green construction, energy efficiency, and purchasing muscle to get suppliers to become more efficient and green probably shot the knees out of this protest movement.  Suddenly it seems, Wal-Mart had become one of the greatest corporate forces for green business practices in the country.  This was like one of the Hatfields marrying into the McCoys – a reluctant truce between the activist crowd and Wal-Mart.  This was a Joan Rivers kind of a makeover (have you seen her lately?).

I attend a half dozen or so mid-size to major energy efficiency conferences a year.  Wal-Mart’s energy efficiency and green purchasing requirements are showcased at many of these events by keynote speakers.  Ironically, Wal-Mart was lambasted for its hardball thuggery in negotiating pricing deals with its suppliers.  I don’t hear the same for these green requirements.  Playing the green card has gotten Wal-Mart out of protester jail.

Not only has the green card gotten Wal-Mart out of jail, it has new competitors scrambling.  As one case in particular, a grocery spokesperson stated a few years ago that [paraphrasing], “We do not want to become Wal-Mart.  We do not want to compete with Wal-Mart.”  To one extent this was smart.  If you compete with Wal-Mart on price, they would crush you.  However, Wal-Mart’s green initiatives have positioned them to gain market share at the expense of these former non-competitors.  When another company is stealing your customers, it’s competition whether you want to compete with them or not.  Not only is Wal-Mart greening its business and its supply chain, it is greening its competitors.

As the skeptical engineer, I ask myself, are they really saving energy in their stores?  You can see it when you walk into their stores.  As their skylights stream copious daylight, their lighting fixtures are dimmed down to a tiny percentage of full power.  I am told that in some stores as you walk the refrigerated case isles, occupancy sensors flip on their low-power LED case lighting.  Now that is demonstrable energy savings.  Even energy neophytes can see what’s happening there.  Ok.  This is all dandy.  What’s the bottom line?  It appears these stores are not the Toyota Priuses of the grocery and retail world if you look at their “gas mileage”, or energy use per square foot.  There is plenty of room for improvement.

On a completely unrelated note, it seems the State of California is following my advice to see that stimulus money spent on energy efficiency is actually resulting in energy savings (November 17 rant).  The California Energy Commission has issued a $4 million request for proposals to verify savings occur.  I’m sure I influenced that – heyaaah, right.  Hahahaha.

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