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





Taking on Parmenides

23 09 2010

We do a LOT of energy efficiency program evaluation and measurement and verification work all over the country; make that North America.  Program evaluation consists primarily of process evaluation (process) and impact evaluation (impact).  Our work is almost entirely in the impact side and I know just enough to talk dangerously about process.

Impact is the analysis of what energy savings are really attributable to the program.  This includes verifying the physical installation and determining the actual savings using some sort of engineering analysis.  This actual savings is known as gross savings in the business.  It also includes determining whether the program actually influenced the project to happen.  For example, some would do a project or buy an efficient piece of equipment regardless of the program and just take the money because they can – and hey, they are paying into the program so there is nothing wrong with this in my opinion.  These program-influence factors are applied to the gross savings to determine net savings – savings the program can take credit for.

Largely, evaluation teams consist of economists (impact and process) and engineers (impact) although there are many people with liberal arts degrees in the business as well.

Many times in determining the gross savings we get into spats with program implementers and sometimes utilities regarding what the actual savings really are.  Many times for large custom projects, the energy analysis we have to evaluate varies from pathetic to essentially non-existent.  “We installed a control system.  Savings = 15%.”  That’s it.  Analyze that!  Other times we will have an actual analysis and just plainly an incorrect application of engineering and physics or the operating conditions are much different than originally assumed.

Last week we were preparing to do impact for a huge low income weatherization program.  Past evaluations for that program have turned up results that are only a fraction of what the utilities think they ought to be.

Consider how to estimate heating savings in this case.  A house is heated by natural gas, which is also consumed by other appliances including possibly a stove and a water heater.  The analysis is easy.  You can see on the monthly billing data (gas consumption) how much gas is used to heat the place.  It’s everything above the June through July average.  Savings in this case are more or less proportional to the consumption for heating.  It is as plain as the nose on your face.  But the utilities think otherwise.  While I certainly don’t want to arm them with any arguments, they could use Parmenides, the 2500 year old and dead philosopher.

I took a four credit philosophy course as an undergrad.  The discussions in class seemed bizarre but definitely thought provoking.  If you haven’t studied or read philosophy, you would most likely think it bizarre.  But I am far, far, far (way far) from an expert on the topic.

One thing I remember discussing at length was, what does it mean for a being to be?  Is there really anything that exists other than your mind?

I had to do some “research” to find philosophical terms.   I’m talking about idealism.  Idealism is the argument that your mind is all that exists and that the world is mental itself or an illusion created by the mind.  Sound bizarre?  Not so much if you think about it.

You’ve probably seen the HDTV ads that have stuff jumping out of the screen – like the picture is so real viewers purportedly see footballs flying out of the TV, right at them.  Consider a person comes into my office and I ask him what he sees out the window.  After a looking around to make sure he’s not on candid camera, the answer is: Coney Island hot dog joint and Deaf Ear Records.  “Really?”, I respond.  How do you know?  I can see it.  How do you know it’s not just an illusion?  How do you know it’s not the world’s most expensive and lifelike television?  Good God!  I can go downstairs, cross the street and touch it.  What more do you want?  I can prove motion is an illusion and that you won’t really go anywhere, much less get out of this room, but that’s beside the point right now.  So go ahead and touch it.  What does that tell you?  Why do you call it Coney Island?  It says so.  Really?  How do you know?  I can read it.  Read what?  By touching it?  Why don’t you ask that guy who just got off the plane from Moscow what it says?  You can’t prove anything.  It’s all an illusion formulated in your mind.

The sky is blue.  OK.  But what if blue in your figment-of-imagination world would be green in my world?  Who is ever going to know?  We can both look at the same color and declare it to be the same thing – yeah sure, it’s blue.  But a color is a color only because somebody told you so way back when and you correlated it to what you saw and it has been as such ever since – in your fantasy world.  What is the definition of blue anyway?  My dictionary defines it in part as the color of a clear unclouded sky.  Great.  That doesn’t explain anything.  What color is a blue car under a clear unclouded sky… AT NIGHT?  Why don’t you ask that color-blind 100 lb rodent that is eating the seedling I just planted what color his snack is.

This brings me back to the illusionary energy savings.  Now that we know energy savings like everything else is all an illusion anyway, we can fool ourselves and put any number to it that we want.

Quite possibly, the program evaluation industry may be a gold mine for out-of-work philosophers and theologians!  Utilities could have a team of philosophers to take on the evaluation team’s philosophers.  Engineers and economists on the evaluation team would argue with their counterparts on the implementation team regarding the illusionary savings and the philosophers could duke it out over… something.  See what I’m sayin?  If so, it’s just a figment of your imagination.  These people only exist in your mind.

Epilogue

For more on Parmenides, see this article, and in particular the Achilles and Tortoise paradox.  Since learning that we still earn vacation while taking vacation (eons ago), you never need to return to work.

I earn roughly 3 hours of vacation every week.  So if I take a week off I’ve used 40 hours but earned another three.  I’ll take those three Monday morning, but I’ve earned 0.225 hour during those three hours.  While I take that 13.5 minutes of vacation, I earn another minute.  And it goes on forever, like eternity.  Now do you think this philosophy stuff is stupid?

Contest

Above I said I can prove motion is an illusion.  That was a lie, at the time.  Since I’m telling you it was a lie, it isn’t, is it?  On “The Big View” website, number 3 from Zeno attempts to prove motion is an illusion.  For $10, explain why his hypothesis is wrong.  The best answer wins, unless they are all horrible.  Prize money will be split in case of a tie.  If there are 10 or more correct answers, it wasn’t difficult enough so no prize.  Contest ends September 30, 2010 AD.  Send responses to kjk@michaelsengineering.com.  There is a 50 word limit.  Responses that are too long will be rejected.

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