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

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From Jack Wagon to Hobo

31 08 2010

A couple weeks ago, the National Academy of Sciences released a study that summarized the findings of the general public’s perceptions of energy consumption and potential savings from various end-uses in their daily lives.  You can check out the curves in the linked article above and take my word for it or risk brain damage reading the thing.  To me there are several significant findings, none of which surprise me.  These are in no particular order and are only a subset of the findings.

  • Finding #1 – When asked open ended questions about ways to save energy, people overwhelmingly selected curtailment measures over efficiency.  Shut stuff off.  Unplug it.  Drive less.  Relax and take it easy (love that one but don’t watch a 56 inch plasma while lying on the couch).  Conserve energy – so the answer to “What is the single most effective thing you can do to conserve energy?” is conserve energy.  I think I would have yelled at them like the Geico drill sergeant.
  • Finding #2 – People can reduce energy consumption by 30% “without waiting for new technologies, making major economic sacrifices, or losing a sense of well-being.”  Well I don’t know about the “making economic sacrifices” part of this.  Viewing average residential end uses of electricity, the easy stuff is lighting and… lighting.  I don’t see anything else on there that doesn’t require sacrifice, more work, or spending a lot of money.  Lighting accounts for 15% of consumption.  Assuming this is all incandescent, replace it all with compact fluorescent for about 2/3 savings, or 10%.  We’re one third the way there.  Space cooling could be reduced a couple percentage points tops without sacrifice, well, make that 0% without sacrifice.  You would have to set your temperature up all the time.  Setting the thermostat up is going to save practically nothing because heat transfer due to temperature differences outside versus inside are relatively small.  Clothes dryers?  You would have to line dry.  That is a sacrifice if you ask me.  The rest you are either going to be able to do very little or a bunch of nickels and dimes will add up to a few percentage points.The only way to get to 30% is to select efficient equipment when replacement is needed anyway.  Throwing away a working furnace and air conditioner with efficient models won’t pay for itself.  Spending extra for an efficient model when you need a new one anyway will.
  • Finding #3 – Turning off the lights when leaving the room is considered by the general public to produce attractive savings.  The paper says there is actually very little savings from this.  Hide the kids and maybe the spouse too!  I’m not buying this one.  The study is 25 years old coincidently.
  • Finding #4 – People relate to curtailment, using things less more than using efficient stuff by a margin of 5:1.  The top three items are turn off the lights, conserve energy (and call the sergeant), and drive less.  If you’ve ever thought of it, efficient vehicles are more efficient, all else equal.  The Mini Cooper get’s great mileage, comes with leather seats, manual transmission, and is one of the best resellers on the market.
  • Finding #5 – People do not understand which things in their home are energy hogs.  They are fairly accurate with light bulbs, stereos, and computers and they actually think laptops use as much as a desktop.  My laptop uses about 25W.  You can barely read the paper by a 25W compact fluorescent light.  What cracks me up is they think the central air conditioner and electric clothes dryer uses only about two or three time more energy than the laptop!  You see that huge hulking plug for the dryer?  The reality is the dryer uses about 100x more energy.
  • Finding #6 – Tuning up your car twice a year saves 100 times as much energy compared to driving 60 mph rather than 70 mph for 60 miles.  First, this is misleading.  My car wouldn’t even use two gallons in that distance for either speed.  Second, who tunes up a car?  That’s from the 1970s and earlier when engine control was mechanical.  Everything is digitally controlled nowadays.  It works or it doesn’t.  I haven’t “tuned up” my car in the seven years I’ve owned it and it gets 34 mpg now like it did when it was new.  Change air filters and keep the tires a few psi below the maximum shown on the sidewall.
  • Finding #7 – People think a truck uses as much energy to move freight as a train does when in reality trucks use about 20 times as much per ton-mile.  This magnitude surprises me.  What’s the difference?  Rolling resistance.  Trains have almost none while trucks have a lot.  The rest is mainly drag and I’m sure stop and go traffic is a killer for trucks as well.  Airplanes use roughly 200 times more than rail.  Is buying carbon credits getting expensive to buy off your guilt for taking an airplane? – Become a hobo.  And isn’t the checked-bag charge for flying stupid?  Shouldn’t people be charged or not based on their weight plus that of all their crap?
  • Finding #8 – A virgin glass bottle doesn’t require a whole lot more energy than a recycled one but the public thinks it does.  My guess is recycling plastics doesn’t save a lot of energy either.  I would also guess recycling paper saves more, somewhere between aluminum and glass or plastic.  Not generating garbage for the landfill is as important as the energy savings to me.

One conclusion out of all this is we need to do a better job of informing end users that saving energy doesn’t mean freezing in the dark or taking a shower once a month.  I would say these concepts apply at least ten times more for commercial and industrial energy efficiency.  There is all kinds of waste in these facilities that do zero to provide better anything.

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





Spring Forward Monday Afternoon

16 03 2010

I was blindsided by the onset of daylight savings time this weekend.  Wonderful.  As though I don’t already have enough work to do before I can get outside to do some badly needed yard work – hack an hour off my weekend to boot.

If I remember correctly, daylight savings time used to begin at the end of April and end on the last weekend of October.  I also believe that these dates were moved to the current dates of mid March and early November as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.  This is supposed to save energy.  I can generate as much energy to displace the savings using a hydropower generation station in my back yard.  I have a stream about four times a year: once when the snow melts, but only when there is enough and it melts fast, and three other times when it rains hard.

Folklore has it that daylight savings time was developed so farmers could take advantage of more daylight hours and/or it saved candle wax and whale blubber.  How is this supposed to save energy in modern times?  It was just starting to be light enough in the morning so I wouldn’t need my flector for my morning run starting around 6:15.  I didn’t need lights in the house.  Tomorrow (Monday), it will be pitch black when I grumble my way out of bed.  Lights are required when they weren’t last week.  Savings at night is offset by more lighting use in the morning, but in our house more lights are used in the morning for numerous reasons.

Moreover, more daylight allows people to be goofing around outside later at night using even more energy for cruising around in their giant yachts, personal watercraft, golf carts, and other evil stuff people don’t need.  They should be inside reading a book by daylight that is so graciously bestowed upon them.

At the office, our heating and cooling system shuts down at 7:00 PM, period – whether it’s light or dark outside.  I’ve seen a lot of cockamamie control sequences in my time but I’ve never seen a heating and cooling system tied to daylight.  Already last week it was light till about 6:30 in the evening.  We average only 4-5 people in the office after that time of day and we only use task lighting, but then we’re energy efficiency freaks, not normal people.  No savings here.

What else is there?  Planes, trains, automobiles, busses, and water-going vessels?  Water heaters, clothes washers and dryers, refrigerators, and toasters?  Nothing there.  Street lighting.  Ditto.

If this is such a brilliant idea for saving energy, why move the clocks with such a difference in daylight hours at the time of springing forward versus at the time of falling back.  Clocks are moved forward in the spring about one week before the equinox.  In the fall, clocks are moved back about six, maybe seven weeks after the equinox.  This is a huge difference in daylight hours.  Once again, I blame congress, this time for not only knowing nothing about energy efficiency, but they also can’t handle this symmetry thing.

There should be more engineers in congress.  Engineers are symmetry freaks.  Just put some graphics in front of an engineer to see which they prefer – one sample is curvy, eclectic, and abstract – is actually interesting – and the other is all squares with a perfect balance of ink on all sides and non threatening colors, like blue, white, gray, or black.  Anyway, engineers would vote to have clocks moved in spring and fall on days with exactly the same length of daylight.  In fact, it may even be at a precise time like the start of spring, at 8:46 Greenwich mean time, Sunday March 21.  (I don’t know when it really is, I’m just making this up – I’m ok with that)

If we can’t abolish it altogether, like Hawaii and maybe Indiana (someplace over there) my suggestion is to at least change the law to move clocks forward in the spring at 1:00 PM, Monday afternoon.

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