Machete to Sustainability

7 06 2011

This Geography guy really needs to get out of the classroom and the city for that matter once in a while.  Modern agriculture is probably demagogued and more poorly understood than energy efficiency, and since this opinion piece addresses both I will dispense with its shredding.

I grew up on the farm 30 years ago in southern MN and northern IA, and I stay in touch spending a week each year reliving my childhood farming days.  My elder brothers still run the place.  They grow maybe 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans and raise and market maybe 25,000 hogs per year.  To the ignorant, they would be perceived as ecology-destroying corporate/factory farmers.


When I was a kid, farm chemicals were more dangerous, less effective, and more heavily applied.  Yet since they were so ineffective, noxious weed and grass control was largely provided by tillage which is environmentally unsustainable in two ways.  First, it takes a lot more diesel fuel, obviously.  Second, erosion was rampant.  If there was one thing I always pressed my father to do as a kid it was to reduce tillage to leave more crop residue on the surface to reduce erosion – from both rainwater runoff and wind.

Back in those days, everything was plowed black – as in, all crop residue buried.  Why?  To bury grass and weed seed along with it.  The spring snow melt would leave three inches of topsoil in our grove (where the snow drifts / dirt dunes were) and road ditches.  Who knows how many tons per acre landed in Indiana or Tennessee?  Moreover, in the spring, we would typically have to scramble out to the fields to run rotary hoe to stop blowing dirt from sand blasting the young crop that just broke ground.

In total, we would make about seven or eight trips over the field to till, plant, cultivate (weed), harvest, and plow.  For soybeans, we would actually use machetes to chop weeds during the mid-summer heat.  Find a fourth grader who would do that nowadays.  Parents would be hauled away in handcuffs for child abuse and maybe reckless endangerment.  This one looks just like my Grandmother’s.   My father would sharpen them every morning before we took to the fields.  No sheaths, guards or any of that kind of crap either.

For livestock, we used to raise hogs and cattle in more “humane” ways in the open field.  This makes for a nice image to the Geography professor but in truth what would happen is the sows would root holes in the soil for a nice cool spot in which to snooze.  Soon they would give birth to a litter of pigs.  Then the rains come.  After having lain on and crushed two or three pigs, the remaining ones would be freezing in the cold water and mud.  Ninety degrees is perfect for these little guys – not 60F and mud.

The good old days weren’t so good.

Fast forward thirty years.  Unlike the Geography professor claims, farming has changed, hugely, and in the direction of sustainability AND increased productivity.  Most crops are now Roundup ready, meaning they are genetically modified to withstand Roundup, which otherwise kills everything rooted in the ground.  This may sound horrible but it only kills what it lands on and is benign to soil, doesn’t drift, and doesn’t run off.  What are the implications?  Fuel use is drastically reduced and the minimum soil tillage results in practically no soil erosion, which brings other benefits in addition to being intrinsically sustainable.

First, when I was a kid and everything was plowed black, soil erosion continuously uncovered rocks on hills and hillsides.  We used to spend weeks before and after planting hauling rocks off the fields – more child abuse.  Have you ever had your foot run over by a rock wagon?  Neither have I.  Rocks are not kind to expensive farm equipment.  It would beat the crap out of tillage equipment, planters, and god help you if you ran one into a combine.

Second, water erosion destroys crops.  First, as it washes down from highlands it takes crop along with the soil to the lowland.  In the lowland, crops will survive in standing water from the runoff for just a few hours.  With modern minimum tillage made possible with Roundup, erosion is practically nil.  In addition to preventing runoff, erosion, and associated crop destruction, residue, otherwise known as stover or trash, helps soil retain moisture to carry crops through dry spells.  It would be common to have 10-15% of our crop land flooded every year; now there is practically none.

The Geography professor claims 107 gallons of fuel are burned to produce an acre of crop.  This is crazy.  First, recent conventional thinking was that to break even a Midwest farmer needs about $500 revenue per acre.  That covers seed, rent or farm payments, chemicals, fuel, overhead, this, that, and the other.  Well 107 gallons is not far from $500 alone.  Second, it probably takes about a half gallon of fuel per acre each to plant and harvest and maybe another couple gallons for tillage (minimal) spring and fall .  That’s about three gallons per acre, direct.  Chemicals and fertilizers?  I have my Roundup booklet right next to me and that says it takes about 20 ounces per acre.  That’s a British pint, give or take a spit, per acre.  Does the fertilizer take the other 102 gallons per acre?  I don’t think so.  A ballpark estimate is 100 lbs per acre.  That’s probably in the 10-15 gallon/acre fuel equivalent, ballpark.  So, I’m seeing 20 gallons equivalent, maximum.

Note however, many modern factory farms produce their own fertilizer for free.  The Geography professor may think the factory farmers are ruthless dingbats, thriving on tortured, cramped, sick livestock, quietly dumping manure in the creeks because it’s cheap and easy.

The modern confinement barn where livestock is mass produced is always portrayed as a hellish inhumane place for livestock.  Wrong.  Sick, stressed, uncomfortable livestock does not eat or grow.  Growing is the key to making a profit.  It’s that simple and irrefutable.  The modern farm is as productivity centric and competitive as Wal-Mart is with its supply chain.  Adapt or die.  Everything revolves around keeping livestock healthy, dry, cool/warm, and frisky.  They even get lots of natural ventilation and daylight – how is your work station in this regard, by the way?

Back to the fertilizer.  The manure produced by the confinement barns provides nearly all fertilizer for the corn crop needed to feed the hogs.  Let me clarify this: the waste displaces an enormous amount of “artificial” petroleum-derived fertilizer – and it’s produced and applied locally.  It is knifed into the soil in the fall in precise quantities to maximize value of all fertilizer needs: potash, phosphate, and nitrogen.  Its nutrient content is better known than it is for a Snickers bar.  Typically, just enough is applied to satisfy the most abundant one of these so as to not over fertilize or waste any of it.  The remainder, which is hardly any, if any is made up by petroleum or natural gas derived fertilizers.

Fields are mapped for soil nutrient levels with GPS positioning systems.  “Fertilizer” application is adjusted continuously as it is spread to provide just enough per the specific needs of each location.  Resources are leveraged to the maximum extent possible.  Like any other business, sustainability, energy efficiency and profit are not exclusive competing interests in Midwest agriculture.

Did I mention, an acre of land today produces about 50% more crop than when I was a kid?  And another thing – crop genetics have improved such that grain drying, often provided by propane, a petroleum derivative, has declined significantly.

Is it perfect?  Heck no, but it’s a world better than most people realize and I could go on for several more pages regarding how much more sustainable and less abusive things are today compared to the “family farms” of the 1970s and earlier.  The only digression I see is the absence of machete wielding 4th graders earning a few bucks for college.

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

Atmospheric Cooling = Strong Tornadoes

31 05 2011

We interrupt this rant for this special announcement.  Our cold spring in the northern plains is wreaking havoc in the form of tornadoes in the southern and middle parts of the country.

I think the weather phenomena had a lot to do with my interest in mechanical engineering.  Growing up on the farm in the flatlands, I had seen a great many black clouds approaching on the horizon.  As they drew closer, they would either brighten to a lighter gray and rain, or they get ugly.  If the approach is led by a dark band of clouds followed by blue-green solid color all the way to the horizon, there would be some serious energy release.  If there is continuous rumbling, it generally means hail – tornadic-type winds aloft.

Weather should marvel any mechanical engineer with interest in the thermal fluids side of the curriculum.  All weather conditions are driven by temperature differences in the atmosphere and it’s influenced heavily by ocean temperatures to the west from which prevailing winds and jet stream flow, at least in the northern hemisphere.  It’s a massive thermodynamic, fluids, and heat transfer model.

What is causing this year’s massive tornadic outbreak?  Unusually cold mid and upper atmosphere derived from cyclically cold Pacific waters.

The two best weather guys I’ve seen in the business are Tom Skilling from WGN and Joe Bastardi from  Bastardi is a historian and doesn’t get whisked away with the hype.  He states the mid levels of the atmosphere have cooled very rapidly in the past year as it did 60 years ago.  Did you know this?  No.  Why?  Because nobody is reporting it.  This makes sense because powerful storms, which are like engines, are driven by great temperature differences; NOT an overheating atmosphere.

Tornadoes form when warm air from the southeast plows into cold air from the northwest.  The warm, moist air rises into the cold mid levels of the atmosphere, and of course what goes up, must come down.  Condensing water vapor turns to rain and if cold and turbulent enough develops hail falling to the ground cooling the air as it falls.  This air flow can become strong enough to cause straight line downdrafts that can flatten buildings and trees like a tornado.  When the warm air channels, it can become like the vortex in your bathtub or sink.  It will start to rotate to form a tornado.  For a great cartoon of this, click here.  For the real deal, see this minute-long video from National Geographic – devastating.

Fortunately, the pattern that set up these storms in the south just broke over the weekend.  Hopefully, we won’t get our turn in the north but it’s certainly possible.  The jet stream, or line between cold and warm air has lifted far north, hence the warmer weather we are experiencing in the north.

All engines, including power plants, your car’s engine, jet engines, are driven by hot and cold sinks.  The greater the temperature difference, the greater the power, and efficiency.  A tornado is an engine. It is driven by temperature differences in the atmosphere and the “load” is the destruction it wreaks on the ground.  When towns like Joplin, MO appear to be run over by a giant lawnmower, the giant lawnmower requires tremendous power, delivered by an F4 or F5 tornado.

This presents an opportunity to generate electricity.  No; not from tornadoes, but from waste heat being dumped from power plants.

I would guess that when anyone thinks of a nuclear plant, they think of these cooling towers.  These towers work on a very simple concept.  Warm water from the power plant is pumped to the top and showered down through the tower.  Openings at the bottom let in cool dry air from the surroundings.  The warming and humidifying of the air causes it to rise and a natural draft occurs.  Therefore, fans are not needed.  Towers need to be tall enough and shaped like they are to generate sufficient air flow via “stack effect” to provide required cooling capacity.

This presents an opportunity to generate electricity.  Not just from the vertical rise in the tower, but all the way to the upper atmosphere.  If rotation were induced, an engine could be developed between the hot exhaust and the always very-cold upper atmosphere – a standing tornado, essentially.

Don’t laugh.  I first came across this in one of the power industry’s trade magazines a year or two ago, and it made a lot of sense.  It’s called an atmospheric vortex engine.  Here is a good paper on the topic from the Canadians, ay?

So I ask, why is the DOE not pursuing something like this, rather than the STUPID electric car?  Silly me.  This is potentially cost effective energy efficiency with huge potential from a ubiquitous plentiful source of free waste energy; not an ALICE IN WONDERLAND pipe dream.  If we can build nuclear reactors and sophisticated huge steam turbines, surely this simple concept can be harnessed.

Seventy percent of energy required to fuel a thermal power plant (natural gas, coal, nuclear, fuel oil) is dumped to the surroundings.  Think of the potential – and nothing extraordinary is required.  Nature takes care of the vast temperature difference to drive the engine.  The efficiency of this second heat engine would be approximately 30% per the above paper.  This could take conventional power plant efficiency from the standard 30% to roughly 50%, roughly a 70% increase.  This is enormous.


I’ve always considered global warming to be driven by politics and self interest, knowingly or unknowingly – as in, I can make money from this.  It is fanned by sensational films like that described in the aforementioned Dumb Bear post, Al Gore (who’s film the UK banned from its schools) and even National Geographic – it sells – see how it works?  It’s easy.  More below.

The very cold spring and gobs of snow this winter have been devastating.  Dude!  Aspen reopened for skiing over the Memorial Day weekend – with more base now than it had on New Years Day!  This is normal?  It’s insane!  Mammoth Mountain in the Sierras still has 200-plus inches of snow – plan to ski through July 4!

How does paranoia void of logic and reason perpetuate?  The Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia Business School did a survey of 1,200 in-duh-viduals, “Those who felt that the current day was warmer than usual for the time of year were more likely to believe in and worry about global warming than those who thought it was cooler outside. They were also more likely to donate the money they earned from taking the survey to a charity that did work on climate change.”  Even if INDOORS is hotter, people tend to fear global warming more!

In other findings: if you eat soup frequently, check with an emotional counselor; want that job, wash your hands in hot water just prior to interview; worried about crime, get out of dodge when it’s hot outside.

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

Don’t Mess with the Stapler

5 04 2011

We, as an industry, have our work cut out for us in coming years.

Months ago an industrial energy efficiency consortium that puts on training events held a two-day workshop on motors.  Motors!  Talking about the common Swingline stapler for two days would be more interesting.  The efficient motor uses less energy in the amount of the difference in the reciprocals of old minus new.  I.e., (1/eff – 1/eff).  Multiply by nameplate horsepower then by 0.5 (don’t ask, just do it) then by annual hours of use.  Bingo!  There are your savings.  Two days!

There are more complex issues that may not be addressed.  One of these issues is, what is it that makes a motor more efficient?  Tighter windings and closer tolerances – I think.  I don’t care because the impacts are infinitesimally small compared to what end users ought to be doing.  This results in less slip, which means the efficient motor actually runs faster.  Here is the dirty secret:  An efficient motor may be three percent more efficient but as it runs faster on a constant speed fan or pump it would increase shaft power – power transferred to the impeller / fan wheel by 9%.  Increasing the load by 9% but doing it more efficiently by 3% does not save energy.  Quite the opposite, actually.  If one changed sheaves, which isn’t going to happen, or if the equipment is properly controlled by a variable speed drive, it may actually save energy.

On the whole, it is highly possible that efficient motors result in greater energy consumption.

Recently, we were meeting with regulatory staff and the topics of lighting and motors surfaced.  Apparently, the investor owned utilities are clinging to, and concocting ways to hold onto savings for efficient motors and lighting; minimum efficiencies for which thanks to the benevolent federal government are being ratcheted up by fiat.  Clinging like Milton and his beloved stapler.

Give me a break.  If programs are still relying on savings from motors, there is a major problem in Denmark.  How about considering what the motor is turning?  The load on the motor could probably be reduced by 50%, while they are going to “save” 3% with a stupid new motor that runs faster and uses more energy.

I can see what is going to happen.  Some utilities are going to whine to the regulators that all their savings opportunities are going away because the feds have ratcheted up standards.  Regulators should respond with the equivalent of “Gee, that’s really unfortunate.  Since you’ve installed all these motors that use more energy over the years, I think we will raise your savings target by one additional percentage point.”  Ironically, I learned that negotiating tactic from a utility.  “You think the penalty is too harsh?  I’ll add 50%.  Would you like to counter that again?”

Ironically, on the same day as the meeting with the regulatory staffer, I received information I had asked for purposes of evaluating the potential for retro-commissioning of a mid-size high school just over 250,000 square feet.  I had asked for the energy records.  The facility is using at least 50% more electricity than it should and 50% more natural gas than it should – easy.  It is using as much energy off peak as on peak.  The power factor is lousy.  With these symptoms, I bet I can call three top, major energy saving opportunities given the types of systems they have.  I’ll just leave it at that because it’s intellectual property available for a price.

I’ll bet my house that we can reduce their energy consumption by at least 30% with well under a five year payback.  It could be one year or three years, depending on what needs to happen to fix the causes of the waste.

Trust me when I tell you, efficient motors and new lighting will not be part of the 30% solution.


On the nearly useless EE front, see which internet browsers are most efficient.   However, the impact on battery life is worth noting.  If you don’t use the overpriced internet during air travel, kill the browser.

The president says federal vehicles will all use “clean” fuel by 2015.  What does that mean?  One percent of the fuel will come from reconstituted plastic grocery bags recovered from a landfill?   Meanwhile, the federal vehicles excluding military, guzzled 7% more gasoline than the previous year, using 322 million gallons of gasoline.  Congratulations.  I’m always pleased to be told how to live by hypocrites to whom no rules apply.

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

Dumb Bears

15 02 2011

A senior sales director for MXEnergy, “the fastest growing natural gas and electricity retail provider” states, “As we observe the unrest in Egypt and other parts of the world, we recognize the volatility of the natural gas market.”  What?  He like many others “on both sides of the aisle” use the Middle East and our real dependence on foreign to twang the audience’s emotional strings.

The goings on in Egypt will have nearly zero affect on natural gas prices here in the mainland, U.S.  Why?  Because nearly all of our natural gas is produced here and we import from hostile regimes like Canada.  LOL!  The guy is using Middle East unrest and the threat of rising oil prices to translate to high gas and electricity prices here at home.  I think renewable energy at maybe 1-2% of our electricity supply may produce more electricity than oil does.  C’mon.  Don’t feed me this bull dung.

Then there is Al Gore’s movie the inconvenient truth, lower case on purpose.  The movie is one giant tug at the heart strings with flooding, starvation, cuddly polar bears dying.  In reaction to the movie, the president at Veriform, a steel fabricator, was so moved by the film he reduced his energy bills by 58% by investing $46,000 to save $90,000 annually.  Something tells me there is a little bit of number manufacturing and/or trickery going on here.  This leads the reader to believe that $90,000 is the 58% but it’s a little hard to fathom a steel fabricator with a $160,000 annual energy bill.  And what was the guy doing before?  Heating his facilities with electricity with all the doors and windows open?  He saved this with lighting, heating controls (e.g., thermostats?), and insulation?

One time we had a coworker of my wife’s over for a cookout and he was describing a program on Discovery Channel, if I remember correctly, that chronicles a polar bear that starves to death.  So I mentally roll my eyes and think, I’ve got to see this program.  The next day or next week I tuned in watching the polar bear swimming around in open water, jumping in, climbing out, jumping in, swimming, and at the end he’s on an island with nothing but gigantic walruses, the things with 18 inch tusks.  These things are too huge for a polar bear to take down.  They have skin an inch thick and about three feet of blubber.

The bear is after the cub, calf, pup, piglet, baby, squab or something like that – the little ones.  But the five ton adults are pig piling the little guy like a loose ball at the line of scrimmage in an N.F.L. game.  The bear is jumping on the backs of these school-bus size blubber bags – like a guy trying to tackle a Clydesdale.  He of course gets nowhere and walks away with a dejected look with sad music and depressing voice over.  Who knows if the bear actually died or they just made up the whole story fabricated from lost footage of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, with Marlin Perkins.

The conclusion: global warming was destroying the habitat of the bear’s favorite food, seals, and therefore, the gasoline you are releasing into the air when driving your car, killed the bear in the film.  My conclusion: assuming the bear really starved, what a dumb bear that doesn’t know how to hunt.  What about the seals that were spared?  Somewhere a bunch of seals that would otherwise be dead are basking in the sun.

Back to Al Gore’s film.  When I first saw the film’s promotional poster (you can get an eleven by seventeen keepsake for fifteen dollars) I immediately thought this is fitting and wonderfully ironic.  If you know anything about the weather at all – anything, you know low pressure systems, hurricanes, snow storms, rainstorms, and tornadoes spin counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere.  Yet the hurricane cartoon on the movie poster spins clockwise.  Chances this was intentional to represent a storm in the southern hemisphere: 0%.  All credibility: gone.  If this had one bit of “scientific” “peer review” (aka like-minded conspiring), why couldn’t anybody see this?  Al Gore won an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize, while the U.K. has all but banned the film for being full of bull dung.

We don’t need these convenient lies.  Get it?  To sell energy efficiency.  Exaggerating, embellishing, and just plain manufacturing facts catch up with you.  This, like climate gate, does our industry no good.  Just the facts ma’am.


Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator, is convinced ever increasing regulation is going to be an economic boom.  Did you know every dollar the EPA levies in regulation returns $40 to the economy?  Wow!  What is the ticker symbol?  I’ll margin my account to the max.

Saying these regs will be a net job generator is ludicrous – like the breaking windows to put people to work parable.  That’s exactly what this is.  Just look at this report, and specifically page 7.  Where is the higher cost of energy factored into the equation?  Somebody has to pay for all this stuff.  Higher energy prices are like higher taxes.  The more that is spent on energy, the less there is left to buy goods and services – that are provided by workers, formerly located in the United States.  This doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

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

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

Cool Milk, Raisin Bran, and I’m Fine

23 11 2010

I stay in hotels/motels probably 40-50 nights per year, at least it seems so.  If lodging facilities were in a league of teams competing to be the greenest facilities, these guys would be the Detroit Lions.

Most franchise motels, those not located in downtown high rise buildings, are built with the cheapest, crappiest stuff possible.  The only thing that is decent in them is the TV but sometimes even that is a junky 19 inch CRT clunker.  Who has spent a night in room with through-wall air conditioner/heater with a temperature control knob that spins round and round like the fake knobs on a Fisher Price toy for a 2 year old?  They fit as tight as clown pants and leak like a small fishing boat with a cannon ball hole in the hull.

At least they’ve gotten rid of the “Styrofoam” comforters that were once ubiquitous lodging fixtures.  I believe Styrofoam comforters were made of some sort of synthetic material and I think they may have been fireproof, like children’s fireproof pajamas.  (do they still make those things?)  Anyway, they could probably survive in a steel melting furnace.  They were scratchy and stiff like snuggling up under a cozy hunk of cardboard or yesterday’s newspaper at best.

Ventilation and exhaust in most lodging facilities are terrible.  A year ago I stayed in an older hotel in suburban Chicago.  They had the room temperature set way back to 55F and this was mid-January, about 15F outside.  Good thing?  NO!  I turned it up to around 70F.  I worked on my computer in the room for a couple hours before our client/colleague arrived from O’Hare for dinner.  In two hours the room struggled to get to 65F.  I never took my coat off in that time.  Why was this happening?  Exhaust fans somewhere, kitchen or swimming pool were sucking the building negative, big time, as I noticed with the blast of incoming wind when I entered the building.  So these guys probably thought they were saving energy by setting back room temperatures but instead, they were heating their makeup air coming in through the cheesecloth walls with crappy guest room electric resistance heaters, rather than much less expensive natural gas that they probably had somewhere on the rooftops.  At the same time they were freezing their guests.  This is the polar opposite of the Iowa State University removal of kitchen trays.  They are wasting energy like crazy and shooting their feet with terribly uncomfortable guest rooms.

Later last winter I stayed in a motel in Phoenix.  Ironically, this place was suffering from moisture problems.  The bathrooms had no exhaust whatsoever.  After a reasonable shower there is a stagnant fog bank until the door is opened.  The fog condenses on the cooler room surfaces.   The metal stuff around the ceiling was discolored by rust and the wallpaper was sagging and also discolored.  So let’s take a space that has plenty of cooling load, in Phoenix, and add a bunch of latent (moisture) dehumidification on top of that, and rot the bathroom to rubble at the same time.

In a motel in near the Minneapolis airport, they lacked ventilation/exhaust.  Entering the building, it smelled like a high school football locker room in August.  Again, I’m sure somebody thinks their saving energy while they are driving customers away with their raunchy environment.

Some lodging facilities still use incandescent light bulbs and there doesn’t seem to be a correlation with lighting type and facility age, nightly rates, or facility size.  Needless to say, these places deserve to go out of business because if there is one easy thing to do to save energy in a lodging facility with no adverse effects…

Another thing that always cracks me up is the location of ice and vending machines – typically in a small almost enclosed space.  The ice machine is hammering away as it bathes in its own waste heat at about 100F that hangs around like a cloud.  The soda machine and ice maker are working overtime to keep their contents cold with excessive heat gain in 100F heat while their compressors are working harder with higher condensing pressure.  Then there are those stupid ice machines that dump a pound of ice into an acrylic hopper thingy that dumps into your ice bucket.  The ice sits there and mostly melts before the next guest comes by.  They empty what’s left and need more.  Push the button for more ice and it dumps about 3 pounds into the hopper again.  They only need a handful so they either take 3 pounds or leave it there to melt – melt in the room or melt in the 100F cloud – take your pick.

With the bucket of ice in hand, go back to the room and take a crappy tiny plastic glass out of the crappy plastic liner.  It holds about a thimble’s worth of fluid.  You almost have to bite the ice cubes in half to fit them in the glass.  Nothing shouts cheap and crappy louder than these plastic thimbles.  A nice glass tumbler is probably worth paying at least $5 more per night.

And then there is breakfast which runs from reasonably sustainable to pornographically wasteful.  I’m very easy to please for breakfast, like Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times and Ridgemont High, “All I need are some tasty waves, cool buzz, and I’m fine.”  All I need is some cool milk, raisin bran and I’m fine.  Last week’s raisin bran feast featured two of those tiny jokes for boxes of cereal, a half pint carton of milk, plastic bowl and spoon.  I eat a tiny simple meal and have more garbage than I can carry in two hands to the waste bin.  What’s wrong with a big dispenser of bulk cereal, some porcelain bowls, metal silverware, and bulk milk?  What would that be, like 95% less landfill waste?  Bulk cereal and milk must cost about ¼ of the hokey kiddy boxes and cartons.  Somebody is short a few cards of a full deck.

Towels.  I think every motel/hotel features reuse of towels with a cheesy door hanger thingy with a white owl on it.  Help us save the planet (while we commit every environmental sin in the green bible).  It says simply hang your towel up rather than throwing it on the floor in heap if you want to reuse it.  I have found this to be more challenging than changing a tire with my bare hands.  The housecleaners take it no matter where I put it.  You almost have to hide it between the mattress and box spring but you would have to remove the mattress and lay it perfectly flat or they would notice the lump and take it.

I think the most sustainable motel I’ve stayed in was in Monterey (CA) last summer.  My room had no air conditioning.  Actually, I didn’t need cooling all week in mid-August so this was actually a pretty smart thing.  The room also had all CFL lighting of course and the bathroom had wall-mounted occupancy sensors – impressive!  Breakfast featured bulk everything, and no disposable dishes or utensils.  But no raisin bran!


I was pointed to this video on YouTube by a reader, regarding Playing With Fire.  A bit humorous, but scary.

And by the way, not only is this gamble risky and won’t work, it already isn’t working.  Interest rates have gone up since this was announced – the opposite of what was supposed to happen.  Could it be that people aren’t rats after all?  Supply and demand – when markets move in the opposite direction the puppet master would like, you know which is going to be right.

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

Get a Grip

10 08 2010

As you may have heard, this year China powered past (cheesy pun warning) the United States in total energy consumption.  Apparently, back in 2007, they surpassed the US in carbon emissions.  This makes sense as almost 70% of China’s electricity is derived from coal as compared to just under 50% in the United States.  In the U.S., nuclear and natural gas make up most of the other 50%, roughly split evenly with renewable energy rounding out the 100%.

In recent years, or especially since President Obama moved into the White House, there have been multiple verbose incomprehensible cap and trade policies drafted, but they are dead for now.  By the way, I maintain my position that substantial nationwide carbon limits are not going to happen in my lifetime.  If it didn’t happen since Obama took office with a filibuster-proof senate and a large majority in the house, it ain’t going to happen anytime soon.  Why?  Democrat senators from Midwestern states where coal is still king (not that this is a good thing) and coal producing states like West Virginia result in filibuster, if not an outright minority.  E.g., Jay Rockefeller will vote party line on everything but carbon caps.

There remains one possibility, however – that carbon caps may be legislated through the courts, which of course is not how things, especially major things like this, should become the law of the land.  In one example, the EPA in 2007 was handed the power to regulate carbon dioxide because it is a “pollutant” per the clean air act.  Again, this is like declaring water, another vital molecule that makes biological life possible, a pollutant because water kills.  Recall, I wrote on the blog a few weeks ago you can die by drinking too much water.  People drown, to the tune of 400,000 deaths worldwide each year[1].  Floods devastate communities – at least $3 trillion per year[2].  Water causes lightning, which kills about 24,000 per year[3].  And heat wave deaths – always have a large component of high humidity.  Aside from illegal activity (human smuggling), when was the last time you heard of heat related deaths in Arizona?  You don’t.  It’s Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, Kansas City, Little Rock.  Water is dangerous.

You may be thinking, there’s nothing we can do about water.  Really?  How about banning swimming in rivers, lakes, and oceans and slapping $1,000 fines on people for not WEARING their floatation devices?  Move everything out of the 500 year floodplain.  Mandate air conditioners for every household and if you can’t afford one the federal government will provide one.  Sound familiar?  Thousands of lives would be saved per year.

The bottom line is, 98% of legislators are too cowardly to vote for the right thing, or wrong thing I guess, if it threatens their political career.

Sorry.  I got way off track.  I can’t help but railing against the preposterous.  Life has risk.  Is there anything, ANYTHING, worth doing if there is no risk?  There are costs and there are benefits.

Back to China.  China’s energy consumption has DOUBLED in the past 10 years while the United States’ energy consumption has decreased slightly.  For all intents and purposes, it’s been flat.

Here is something that will knock your socks off – since 1999, China has installed 416 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants.   “So what?”, you may be thinking.  A gigawatt is like a trillion dollars.  To give that perspective, a trillion dollars in $100 bills wouldn’t fit in a three car garage, tightly packed and stacked to the rafters Likewise 416 gigawatts can be generated by 832 large 500 megawatt power plants or 208,000 wind turbines by nameplate capacity.  This is eighty giant coal-fired power plants per year!!  And they have 330 more giant power plants on the drawing board.  Over the same period, the United States has built coal plants totaling 12 GW, or a measly 24 giant power plants.  China is averaging 80 per year, while the U.S. is averaging 2.4 per year.  GET A GRIP!

This is like giving Lance Armstrong a two day lead in the Indy 500 with his bicycle (he would be the US) but China has just taken the lead with the typical 225 mph Indy car.  It’s actually worse than that. It’s more like me running the Indy 500 versus the 225 mph Chinese Indy car passing me by.

In 2006, China generated as much electricity from coal as did the United States.  At the time they had 484 GW of operational coal plants.   Very roughly, they’re adding 10%, at least per year.  This blistering pace will fade with time, but it is fair to say they will have double the coal-fired electricity generation compared to the U.S. within 5 years.

Conclusion:  If we are truly concerned about carbon emissions and climate change, China has to do something.  The reality however is that whatever the U.S. can stomach will be of zero consequence considering the Chinese Indy car.  Unlike the floating continents of garbage that is choking the mighty three gorges dam and the 100 tons of benzene spilled in the Songhua River, carbon dioxide makes its way around the globe.  It doesn’t matter where it comes from.




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