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

Burnin Down the House

29 03 2011

Some things in life you have to fully commit yourself to or they will end in colossal failure, or immeasurably small success.  When I was a kid I played Evel Knievel by setting up ramps of 2×12 planks and concrete blocks.  I jumped my bike across maybe a five foot “canyon”.  Note, this was before mountain bikes.  Gary Fischer may have been developing his mountain bike in his garage but there was nothing available on the market.  I used a purple girl’s bike, single speed, no shock absorbers, no foot clips, and certainly no helmet.  Why the girl’s bike?  The consequences of failure on a boy’s bike were brutal.  Hitting the ramp at half speed would end in disaster.  I’m sure similar consequences exist for crazy stuff like ski jumping, doing flips on/with anything.  Even when you have an easy play in sports, you have to let it fly or you’re bound to choke.  There are many things you can’t half do.

Fifteen years ago utility deregulation was the rage.  Deregulation has been a boon to consumers in many industries including airlines, and telecommunications.  It’s been brutal to product and service providers that weren’t prepared for the “free market”.  Plenty of airlines went bust and are gone; Eastern, TWA, PanAm, and Braniff to name a few.  It did allow innovative companies like Southwest to enter the market and develop new niches and business models.

Electric utility deregulation had varied results, mostly in different shades of failure.  The darkest shade of failure, pitch black, was probably California where, you guessed it, they hit the ramp at half speed and crashed and burned badly.  They deregulated wholesale prices but capped retail prices to end users.  The fools who approved this are clueless with respect to how markets work.  You have to have price response to the point of use or the system will collapse.  Healthcare anyone?  Consumers kept buying relatively cheap power, while companies like NRG Energy and Enron held all the aces and could charge what they wanted to the utilities.  Result: bankruptcy across the board for the utilities, an Austrian immigrant body builder took over as the Governator in a recall election.

Deregulation didn’t work for electricity for a number of reasons in my opinion.

  • First, the system was built over many decades on a monopolistic, captive consumer, model.  The cost to enter the market as a provider is huge, at maybe a billion dollars for a 500 MW plant.  Smaller plants would be more costly per unit output. …not exactly like starting a coffee joint.
  • It’s instantaneous production and sale, which means producers can charge the same price – so who would build peaking plants, when base load plants can charge the same as plants that are used much less often?
  • The entire economy was built on consistently low-cost power and therefore the “strike price” (say uncle) would be much higher because power is THAT important to doing business.
  • Finally, generators can’t just pick up and move to where demand is highest.  If generators could package their kWh in six packs, cases, or in bulk quantities to distribute to retailers, grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores, and for consumers to take home and use as needed, deregulation of electricity would work.

Like all these half baked efforts from child stuntmen to electricity deregulation, end users can’t half do an energy efficiency project and expect decent results.  You can’t replace an HVAC system and put in crap for controls or not commission the system and expect results.  You can’t put in a completely different but proven refrigeration system, skip design review by the EE consultant, skip VFDs, skip heat recovery, and skip functional testing of the system and expect more than barely perceptible impacts.  End users may spend 20% extra to implement a new concept but skip the 1-2% needed to make sure it really works and another couple percent on enhancements to capture much of the savings.

This presents a major untapped opportunity with EE programs.  The above refrigeration case was for new construction.  Based on experience in several new construction programs providing services, evaluating programs, and doing retro-commissioning after the fact, I conclude new construction programs generate very little return on program dollar.  The “savings” are relative to essentially an arbitrary baseline.  But what is the market doing all by itself?  Actual attributable savings are relative to what the market, not a consensus reference point developed for something else (energy codes, which aren’t enforced anyway).

We will be doing a new construction market baseline study as part of a major utility program evaluation this summer.  I’ve been in this business long enough to bet a lot of money that most “savings” associated with new construction programs are happening anyway in absence of any program.

So what should programs be doing?  Burn down the house and start over.  Erase 70 years of one bad idea piled on another and start from scratch with a clean slate.  Rather than nibbling around the edges with some stupid occupancy sensors, daylighting sensors, extra insulation, and an efficient chiller (all of which are good but very limited ideas), develop means to completely raze and rebuild (pun intended) building and system designs.

Look, A&E firms are reticent to incorporate changes that make a difference.  Once an A&E team has been selected, they will want to charge exorbitant prices to make significant changes.  To some degree, I don’t blame them.  They charge double in part because of fear of the unknown and in part because they don’t want to do it.  It’s also due to the cheap and crappy market that consumers have been demanding for decades.  They don’t get paid enough to change and programs can’t afford meaningful change either.

Buildings need to be built with systems that are much simpler, low cost, and inherently difficult to dork up.  I have little to no doubt that we can develop a refrigeration and HVAC systems for grocery stores that will reduce energy consumption by about 40% compared to today’s status quo, for both gas and electricity.  The systems would be simpler, with fewer compressors, fewer condensers, fewer fans, less piping and less refrigerant loss.  It would be rugged and difficult to screw up.  If stores were built with this design en masse they would cost no more than the crap that goes in them now.  How?  Because of the simplicity.  Think of it this way.  Look at the power transmission systems built in the 1960s and earlier.  The towers are built as trusses with a bazillion small pieces of iron all bolted or riveted together with a bazillion times 100 fasteners.  What are they made of now?  One giant hunk of steel containing probably no more steel than the old ones.  They are cheaper to build, transport, install, and maintain, and they are probably stronger than the over-designed kludges of the past.  I’m saying something very similar can be done with building design.  

And you can’t develop the concept, hand it over to a contractor and not look at it again until the non-performing results start to come in.  It has to be shepherded through the design/development and commissioned.  THIS is what new construction programs ought to be doing.  But it takes a customer that wants to hit the ramp at full speed, and quit nibbling a little here and a little there with some LED lights and super duper low-e windows and a white roof.

Soon, we will be releasing a white paper that discusses the evolution, or I should say devolution of building design over the past 100 years, and what I am promoting going forward.  Get ready for that.


In an update on A Frivolous Novelty, the all-electric Nissan Leafs are flying off lots at the brisk pace of about 70 per month.  No need to check the decimal point.  That is correct.  About two or three per day, worldwide.  The average Nissan dealer probably sells two Altimas per day, by noon.  Save yours today!

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

Pregnant Snake Armpits

1 03 2011

Although I don’t appreciate talking about it, we have a black list of companies and organizations for which we will not again partner with, work with, or bid their request for proposals.  What type of activities land somebody on this list?

Companies or organizations that take our business development efforts and give it to someone else.

We are working on retro-commissioning for a major player in the Midwest grocery market.  As with most of our investment-grade studies for energy retrofit or retro-commissioning, we like to use contractors to provide us with pricing because we expect they will get the work and therefore, the pricing is going to be more accurate in addition to having accountability for the prices at implementation time.  The contractor was very reluctant to help because he was afraid he would help develop pricing and concepts and then somebody else would get the work.  I laughed out of familiarity with such shenanigans.

Unfortunately, while working on the grocer project, we were victims of just what the contractor was talking about, on a different project.  We had completed an energy study for a quasi non-profit, quasi-government outfit (Jeff, how many times do you have to get burned before you learn?) and we were moving into developing the design and provided a proposal.  We had already pretty well nailed down the scope of the project.

Inject another righteous government agency to “help” this end user.  Well, they took our developed scope of work and put out a competitive request for proposals with OUR work on it.  So now we’re faced with throwing away all the development we had already done just to be competitive with the other bidders who were handed this on a silver platter.  As I wrote last week, it’s a rainy day in hell when a government outfit takes anything but the low bid, otherwise known as the cheapest, crappiest system imaginable; one that meets only the major recognizable features, like equipment efficiency.    There are plenty of places to cut cost on the design and on the project itself.

That agency is blacklisted.

Companies that use our credentials to win a job and then dump us like a cheap date.

Last year we had “teamed” with a local architect on a LEED project for a new nearby federal facility.  I must digress for a moment.  This project was in progress when the “stimulus” was passed – you know the one that was supposed to break loose the shovel-ready projects.  If this wasn’t shovel-ready, I don’t know what was.  The plans and specifications had been lying about for year or two waiting for approval to proceed.  It drug on for months once the stimulus passed.

Come to think of it, this one too was in our hip pocket and they bid the work out again.  I’m not sure why because the design was 90% completed but I suppose some milestone had passed and federal statutes required a rebid or something.

So now that it’s competitive, once again after doing a bunch of development and front end work, we have to cut cost to beneath the cheap and crappy level.  So our client, the architect asked us to chop our down our price.  We provided a counter offer and waited.   And waited, and waited.

We already had 20 or so LEED projects under our belt compared to near zilch for the architect.  Finally, we get a hold of the scumbag, er, I mean client, and he says, oh yeah, “The good news is, we won the project.  The bad news is, you aren’t on the team.”  This is lower than a pregnant snake’s armpit.  (stolen from the aussies and modified by me).


Companies or organizations that use our proposal in attempt to beat “their” firm down in price.

This one is more difficult to nail down but let’s just say if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…  A large organization pursued by a bunch of consultants / contractors has been working with a provider for years and maybe they want a new or modified service, or maybe it’s just the same stuff they’ve been provided with many times.  Now they suddenly want a proposal from us.  This is either a Sarbanes Oxley corporate requirement (ok), process to actually evaluate invited bidders (ok), charade to fake a bureaucrat into thinking the chosen one was competitively selected (not ok), or a hammer to beat down the firm they know they are going to hire (not ok).  Essentially, we are wasting a bunch of our time to benefit only the buyer.  The other bidder(s) gets screwed too.

Blacklisted after a few of these – typically takes a few rounds of abuse to have this scam come into clear focus.

Wolves in sheep clothing.

Over the years we’ve been pursued by numerous companies that would like to partner with us.  It would be a marriage made in heaven.  Next step: an initial public offering on the NASDAQ!  Uh huh.  Sure.  These dirt bags just want access to our clients and for some reason, controls companies and performance contractors make up a substantial portion of this bunch.

Show me the money before I lift a finger or you are blacklisted.

A better way.

Recently a business partner stated it well, “What do we have in business and life but our reputations?”  And I always say to our company’s people, you best treat well everyone you work with in the company, our clients, and even the competition.  You never know who will one day be your client or supervisor, employee, or maybe someone you want to partner with, or get help from.

Everyone involved in business transactions should benefit – consultant, owner, utility, shareholders, and contractor.  Clearly and unfortunately, some entities think they can get ahead while screwing others and thinking they are getting a good deal or making extra profit.  Sooner or later these outfits run out of victims to exploit.  It shouldn’t be a fixed pie that everyone fights over.  It should be a pie from which everyone’s slice grows.


It appears Sacramento is contemplating the same fateful robbery of EE program dollars by hocking the stream of energy efficiency money.   In WI, this grab actually happened and crippled programs.  Ironically, or maybe not so, they would be both carried out under Democrat governors.

Outrage of the Week

Maybe I should start an outrage of the week?  Well here is the inaugural.  The DOE is calling it “Market-Driven Solutions” to work with behemoths like Target and Wal-Mart to develop new efficient rooftop heating and cooling units.  Is this the same Wal-Mart with $420 billion worldwide sales and $14.4 billion in annual earnings?  Chu, you have got to be kidding me.

Like General Electric, why doesn’t Wal-Mart get back to what they used to do well; innovate, rather than going to Washington with its hand out.  Time to put a “strong sell” on Wal-Mart stock.  They’re washed up.

This is a free market solution: an RFP for manufacturers of rooftop units to develop units that meet Wal-Mart’s specifications, reliably, and supply them with heating and cooling equipment for the next 100 stores.  After 100 stores, the incumbent has a huge advantage for (hopefully) proven success.

A portion of the $1.6 trillion, or as I like to say $1.6 million million, deficit is funding this kind of crap.  This wouldn’t be funny even if it weren’t true.

Oxymoron of the week: “DOE facilitates market-driven solutions”.

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

Freeloaders and Geniuses from the Universe Next Door

19 10 2010

You know what torques me off, or make that torques us off more than anything else?  I’m saving it for a future rant.  Stay tuned.

No really, it’s “prospective” clients, many times end users that have screwed up buildings beyond reproach or wasting energy as though they just want to release all the carbon locked up in fossil fuels and get it over with.  They ask for help but in no way intend to pay for it or take action for anything substantial.  We may have even demonstrated, clearly by benchmarking or other means with specific measures that they could make their utility shut down a 500 MW power plant if they would just do something.

But no!  They want to know something trivial like how much energy/money they’ll save with a system that will put unattended PCs to sleep and not mess with anything substantive.  Never mind every PC on the planet has this built in and it’s about as hard to negotiate as turning on the television.

They’ll ask how to catch a three pound shad when you have a loaded harpoon with a giant blue marlin at point blank range (just go with the metaphor even if it is totally absurd).  Take the damn harpoon and shoot the thing, man!  Well gee, I just don’t know.  I haven’t used one of those things before.  I might shoot myself in the foot.  Is that tip sharp?  And they keep coming back for more panfish advice.

You may have spotted these people in public.  They go to the grocery store around noon Saturday to eat everything available for sampling, for their lunch, and probably leave with a half gallon of milk and a loaf of private label bread.  They sample six beers in a brew pub, order a can of Pabst and leave no tip.

And then there are those who believe the utility should pay for everything, and I mean everything.   We were working a school district for retro-commissioning and I believe they have some good opportunities, but when the board discussed it, a genius said, no.  He wanted the utility to build a remotely-sited wind turbine (because their location is lousy for wind energy) paid by the utility to generate electricity for their facilities and do it on a net metering sort of contract.  I am not kidding you.  Gee, that’s a great idea.  Let me get right on that.  I almost got brain damage from oxygen deprivation.  I was laughing so hard.  I’ve heard of customer entitlement mentality but this was from another universe.  How do you calibrate a customer like that to life here on earth?

We also have to beware of death by a thousand cuts.  A client may only want a half baked high-level assessment.  No matter how loud and clear we describe WHAT the project IS NOT, after we present the results that clearly meet the contract scope of work, some start asking for details on specific measures.  Where do I buy one of these?  Do you know any good contractors?  What capacity of doohickey do I need?  Some utilities, thankfully, are offering compensation to answer these sorts of questions.

Think of it this way.  If your house is a hog, it’s probably because it leaks like a sieve.  You can’t just take a couple tubes of silicon and slop it on some windows.  I know what I don’t know, and I know there are a boat load of places for infiltration/exfiltration to occur and like life in the commercial and industrial world, if you want results, you need to hire somebody who knows what they are doing.  I’ll pay a guy $500 to do it right before using a buffoon for free, any day.

NOTE: This is not a solicitation to weatherize my house.


Wall Street Journal readers responded to the source article from last week’s column.

Commenting on the letters, the National Resources Defense Council guy projects avoidance of 300 large power plants and $12 billion in annual savings.  In an Energy Brief a couple years ago, I projected 156 large power plants (500 MW apiece) and $9 billion in savings.  Close enough for hand grenades but I’m guessing he’s a little heavy on the power plants.  Is there diversity figured into his numbers?

Osram, a German company is retooling one of its American plants to manufacture efficient lighting.  Meanwhile, General Electric is whining that it has to close its last lighting plant in the U.S.  Jeffrey Imelt is a terrible CEO for GE.  General Electric used to be an entrepreneurial innovative company under Jack Welch.  Now it is a company in search of markets for status quo products and services, and government handouts.  If you don’t innovate you die in the private sector.  It matters not what you do.

One guy argues CFLs will require more heating energy consumption.  Yawn.  Fuel oil would be cheaper heat and if incandescent bulbs are such a great source of heat, what about summertime?  The electrical engineer makes good points that CFLs are not as bright as advertised.  We’ve always recommended CFLs at 33% the power, as opposed to 25%, of the incandescent being swapped out.  This is essentially the next size larger CFL than “recommended” in the business.

Another guy plays the mercury card.  Yawn.  I dismissed that fallacy in the same Brief.

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