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