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.

Wrong.

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





B.A.N.A.N.A.S. – Go Bananas

12 04 2011

This was a dopey high school cheer of my older brother’s and sister’s sporting days in high school.  “Go bananas.  B-A-N-A-N-A-S.  Go bananas!”  How lame.  What does it mean?  I much preferred, “Watermelon.  Watermelon.  Watermelon rind.  Look at the scoreboard and see who’s behind.  You! You! You! You!”  This was always led by the rowdy crowd after the opposing team’s cheerleaders would do a dopey skit, like the banana thing.

One of the first posts I wrote was Renewable NIMBY, that people purport to be in favor of renewable energy unless they have to look at it or pay for it.  In case you’ve been cryogenically frozen since the 1950s, NIMBY means “not in my back yard”.  People really like renewable energy so long as somebody else pays for it and it’s installed in North Dakota, where not so incidentally citizens are experiencing a booming economy by exploiting energy production, mostly on private land.

Last week I became mentally unglued upon reading about environmentalists blocking a paper mill in Port Angeles, Washington, from using wood waste for its strong appetite for thermal energy (steam).  Nippon Paper has reduced its fossil fuel consumption by 88% and virtually eliminated the need for petroleum since 2000.  What a smashing success.  This is beyond President Obama’s wildest dreams for clean energy, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and dependence on imported energy.  Yet environmental groups including the Sierra Club are fighting to shut it down and send 200-plus decent people to the unemployment lines.

Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?  If you’re like me, the answer is, yes but I’m not in the whacko, nut-job category like these Port Angeles protesters are.

Port Angeles is of interest to me as I have visited there several times and I like it.  It’s the last substantial town on the Olympic Peninsula on the way to the Pacific Ocean.  It sits at the base of the Olympic Mountains and rain forests and other fantastic natural beauteous places abound all within an easy day-trip.  It has a fair amount of tourism, but also industry as well and real people.  Like many other industrial cities along the northern tier of states, it is struggling, and this sort of whacko “environmentalism” makes up a good share of the decay.

And consider sustainability, for which I recently read a good definition [paraphrasing]: leave the environment in as good or better condition than you found it, for future generations.  This Nippon case seems to be a poster child for this.  There is much logging on the Olympic Peninsula, from a renewable resource – trees.  They plant seedlings by the square mile growing into beautiful new forests absorbing tons of carbon dioxide.  Nippon uses the remains of local waste rather than fossil fuel to operate its paper plant.

One local whacko, a psychologist which seems to speak for itself, says the biomass plant is for pure greed at the expense of public health.  News alert: she has no idea what she is talking about.  What would she prefer?  Close the plant and landfill the logging waste?  I can all but promise you the emissions from wood waste will have less impact than using any other reasonable energy source.  It will not be like burning a pile of wet twigs and leaves like we used to for roasting hotdogs and burning our eyes out.  It will be clean.  It’s carbon neutral.  Emissions are regulated by the EPA.  Do you think the EPA, which puts carbon dioxide you are producing right now and every minute of the day in the threat category, is going to allow this or any other manufacturer to emit one billionth of the hazardous emissions required to give a mouse a headache?  I’ll let you know when I think the EPA is getting too slack.  That will happen when I return to earth as a Labrador retriever.

Some carpers on the same side of the political spectrum whine about greedy corporations sending jobs overseas.  Hmm.  I wonder how these Nippon-protesting whackos and their ridiculous protests play into this?  Consider how far into nutland this is.  At the UW-Madison, we just spent millions of dollars to convert a district steam plant from burning coal to biomass – the same sort of thing these people on the Olympic Peninsula are protesting.  If it’s good enough for Madisonians, trust me, it’s good enough anywhere.

NIMBY in some precincts is giving way to BANANA – “build absolutely nothing anywhere, near anything”… by whining halfwits and cretins killing our society – WHACKOS©.

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





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





Feral Cat, What Say You?

30 11 2010

Back in August I came close to posting a blog “Enough of the Empire State Building Already” but that one faded away.  In case you never read anything about energy savings and sustainability, the building is undergoing a $20 million renovation to improve energy efficiency.  The project would shave the facility’s $11 million energy bill (a cool $4 per square foot) by 38%.  Johnson Control ran ads in every trade magazine I get and various publications, including major newspapers, ran articles by the dozens.

Coming in a close second to the Empire State Building was the Northland Pines High School in Eagle River, WI.  Apparently it was the first LEED Gold certified High School for New Construction Version 2.1.  Ok.  It seems everybody associated with the project ran an ad for their greatness: manufacturers and vendors of stuff used for construction, contractors, service providers, congress people, the governor, priests, rabbis, dog catcher, and the feral animals themselves.  This went on for months.

Well it all hit the fan.  As I was flipping through my stack of trade magazines this long holiday weekend, I saw in HPAC (short for Heating Plumbing and Air Conditioning but they actually go by HPAC – HPAC.com) in their August issue that a group of stakeholders including the building committee, a couple licensed professional engineers, and other taxpayers are appealing the certification with the USGBC.  They claim the design does not and cannot meet indoor air quality standard ASHRAE 62, minimum energy performance, ASHRAE Standard 90.1, OR the minimum commissioning requirements.  Ouch!  What do you feral animals have to say for yourselves now?

I’m not going to do a ton of investigating of this crime but I have no reason at all to believe the appellants are not standing on firm ground.  What is interesting is the firestorm of HPAC reader comments, which read like blog comments of far left and far right cutting each others’ livers out.  Jeezo, the comments are still swirling three issues AFTER the first mention of it in August.  Comments include the following, each of which I respond to:

  • One of the points I raised concerned legal liabilities and the USGBC’s refusal to accept responsibility for advice about guideline compliance.

o   The USGBC shouldn’t have responsibility for advice it gives.  It’s up to the design and construction teams.  The guidelines are available.  If they can’t read, find new firms to do the job.

  • The USGBC seems to prey on undereducated, uninformed owners and the public.

o   Nice.  There are certainly uninformed folks, but I’m sure the USGBC is a deceitful money grubbing outfit headed by Gordon Gekko’s offspring.  The guy would probably dump a five gallon bucket of used motor oil in the lake if you paid him $100.

  • LEED is a standard of relative greenness, not a contract for overpaid lawyers and underemployed engineers to litigate.  …the LEED process has been a powerful force bringing green design mainstream.

o   Agreed.

  • LEED is bogus.  Let common sense prevail.  Why can’t you simply tell the architect/engineer firm(s) to design the most EE building you can without a third party intervening?

o   Because cheap and crappy always wins the bid and the average firm doesn’t really know squat about REALLY producing an efficient, comfortable, and code-compliant facility.

  • I agree [not me – the next guy reader/commenter].  USGBC does not check if equipment is installed per drawings.

o   If it did, it would cost a fortune and no one would do it.

  • [in response to the previous statement the next guy says] Get a life.  LEED is a standard of relative greenness… blah blah.  [The exact same statement as above by the same guy, published two months in a row]
  • [in response to the previous]  Mr. Perkins just doesn’t get it.  Building green just to get LEED points, rather than building a building that will improve the health of occupants[with minimal] lifetime costs, is total BS… Too many folks just care about LEED certification, not if a building really works.

o   In my opinion, LEED actually improves the odds that a building “really works”.  It requires somebody to at least fake their way through commissioning and at least think about designing for efficiency and healthy environments.  To say LEED diverts designers and contractors away from these things is irresponsible.

I mentioned before in this blog that our MO is to fix immediate problems first and take corrective action later.  Too frequently building owners/stakeholders go after the party they think is responsible and meanwhile the building festers away.  The second too-frequent approach is to hire the same fools responsible for the kludge to fix it.

Owners and stakeholders should first fix the problem by hiring somebody who knows what they are doing.  This does two things, both of which they want to fix a screwed up building: (1) gets the building working optimally as soon as possible and (2) by doing so gives them leverage with the responsible parties for some sort of settlement.

Attacking USGBC for establishing green building methods and metrics but not enforcing them with an iron fist is ridiculous.  Why not go after ASHRAE for not coming down on people like a ton of bricks for not following ASHRAE’s standards?  Energy codes that are state law in many states aren’t even enforced in some of them.  I’m not sure about the rest of the parties involved with LEED projects but engineers have codes of ethics.  I would say blowing off owner desires, cutting corners and lying about what was or was not done probably violates these ethics.  How about attacking these losers and scoundrels and running their underwear up the flagpole instead?

Tidbits

I would guess you haven’t heard but the Chicago Climate Exchange is shutting down.   At one point in this blog I explained I think that trading something that has no value in and of itself is unprecedented.  Currency is only thing I can think of that has no intrinsic value but currency is actually a means to put value on things.  I can buy groceries with currency.  I can’t buy anything with a carbon credit.

Numerous corporations were buying carbon credits and even “supporting” the legislation in the event some sort of cap and trade passed.  The legislation disintegrated and there remain only a few ashes of political will to even whisper the phrase.  The carbon value that existed was 100% speculation.  The value that remains is 100% nothing.

As I mentioned in a recent post, if cap and trade didn’t pass during last congress with unstoppable majorities in both houses and the White House, I don’t see it happening.  This does not rule out the EPA creating their own laws to put a price on carbon dioxide.

In “The Nebulous Green Job” I ranted about Green Jobs, of all things.   As it turns out the green jobs stimulus portion of the stimulus has not been too stimulating.  The Washington Post reports that the recently green-educated graduates are having difficulty finding work in solar energy installation, green landscaping, recycling, and green building demolition.  Well, heeeyeah!  Electricians and plumbers are on the prowl for PV and solar water heating systems.  There is already a live and well recycling and building demo industry.  I just burned up “the tube” in my microwave oven this weekend and the nice local do-everything, small but mighty superman store otherwise known as Coon Valley Dairy Supply replaced it.  I asked what they did with the old ones.  A local guy picks them up and strips them down into piles of materials to be sold to buyers – no government green-job intervention included.  Cool!  If there is a market people will find it and fill it.

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





LEED and Immortality

22 06 2010

I was recently reading a letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal where the reader blasted ag biotech companies like Dow Chemical and Monsanto for creating “superweeds”.  Monsanto transformed crop farming with the development of Roundup herbicide, which kills practically anything with roots but is otherwise quite benign (oxymoron alert).  They later developed genetically modified seeds for plants that are immune to the weed killer.  But weeds, like bacteria, have morphed to become immune to Roundup.  The letter goes on to compare the superweeds to antibiotic–resistant organisms.  Except, nobody is going to be killed by a superweed.  So I finished reading that and thought, “yep, we should just surrender to the weeds.”  The guy proposed no solutions.

The bottom line: there are tradeoffs with just about everything.  Likewise, LEED is not without flaws due to a nuisance called reality.  This recent report by Environment and Human Health, Inc. seems to indicate LEED certified buildings are as dangerous as catching a falling knife while standing on a mixture of burning coals and broken glass in a cloud of radon and asbestos dust while bathing in beams of UV and high energy gamma radiation.  Good grief.  What do they expect?  LEED buildings to be as safe as surgery suites with massive air changes of fresh air, positively pressurized and filtered to 0.1 micrometer (that’s 3x better than required)?  LEED is not intended to be the fountain of youth and anyone who thinks it is will have buyer’s remorse because LEED will not make you immortal.

These people are whining that the tight buildings promoted by LEED lead to higher concentrations of “toxic” chemicals indoors.  Anything can be considered toxic. A year or two ago a woman overdosed on water for a stupid radio contest to see who could down the most water in a short period of time – all to win some concert tickets or something.  It was lethal.  Dead.  The EPA has declared CO2, a vital gas we cannot live without, to be dangerous enough that they must regulate it.  The Supremes obliged.  Peanuts can also be lethal.  Should we have a credit for a peanut-free facility?  What about fire?  We have fire codes, alarms, strobes, exit signs, multiple egresses, emergency lights, sprinklers, and extinguishers.  People still die in fires and explosions.  What should LEED become? A specification for a bomb-proof rubber room with no sharp objects, electricity, or natural gas with 20 air changes per hour?

Study finding: There is no federal standard or regulation of green building standards.  Thank God!  One of the reasons LEED has been spectacularly successful is it’s directors are primarily engineers, architects, developers, and manufacturers – people who live in the real world, want to make the world a better place, and they need to get things done and move on.  If this were turned over to the feds, count on the price of certification to triple.  The whole thing would become politicized and the companies with the deepest pockets will turn Washington into their primary delivery channel for their products and services.  NO THANK YOU!

Finding: Energy efficiency has priority over health.  Note to EEHI: The two Es in LEED stand for energy and environmental (design).  The primary objective is sustainability, which means something different to everyone but everyone would agree it includes elements of resource preservation and minimal impact on environment due to garbage, water runoff, energy and water consumption, transportation and a bunch of other stuff.  The objective is to minimize these impacts while improving indoor environment by promoting the assurance of ventilation levels, air filtering, minimization of volatile organic compound emissions (paint and adhesive smell), and in fact there is a credit for extra ventilation over and above the minimum “required”.

Finding:  The Green Building Council’s award of “platinum,” “gold”, and “silver” status conveys the false impression of a healthy and safe building environment.  What?  How is this?

Finding:  Energy conservation efforts have made buildings tighter, often reducing air exchange between the indoors and outdoors.  It is becoming clear, these people haven’t gone beyond the list of credits.  Ventilation is governed by ASHRAE Standard 62, which states “This standard is intended for regulatory application to new buildings, additions to existing buildings and those changes to existing buildings that are identified in the body of the standard”.  So there you have it – regulation!

Finding: Tens of thousands of different building materials and products are now sold in global markets. Many of these products contain chemicals recognized by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, the CDC, or the World Health Organization to be hazardous.  And the point is….?  Gasoline is explosive, therefore, LEED is bad.  OH, I get it.  Sorry for being so slow minded.

Finding: No Level of LEED Certification Assures Health Protection.  Tell me.  Does ANYTHING assure health protection?  Answer: NO.  Why?  Because somebody is doing something really stupid somewhere every second of the day and if they get hurt the “assurers of health protection” get sued out of existence.  These people should look on the back side of their sun visors in their cars.

Finding/conclusion: LEED Credit System—Something For All, Guarantees for None.  That is correct sir!  If LEED guaranteed anything, it wouldn’t exist.  There are a thousand reasons for no guarantees, starting with the main one: the design and construction team responsible for LEED certification cannot prevent the owner from doing stupid things from day one.

Academic “experts” can blast anything to bits from the ivory tower.  Perhaps they should consider the cost of living by their creed and what the market will bear.  LEED, even when done poorly reduces resource depletion, pollution, and improves indoor environment compared to the status quo, on average, all else equal.  Maybe they should start their own LEED on steroids and just sit and wait for the phone to ring before assaulting the next advancement in comprehensive sustainable design and construction practices.

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





Beer or Air

22 12 2009

Last week these columns featured Wal-Mart and its silencing of critics via green and sustainable business practices.  Are they really saving energy compared to their peers?  Skylights, dimming fluorescent lights, and LED refrigerated case lights triggered by occupancy sensors – but what’s the totality?

Lexus makes hybrid vehicles.  One is a $110,000 sedan with a 5 liter V8 with fighter-jet horsepower weighing in at 20 miles per gallon.  A Caterpillar earth mover may get that kind of highway mileage.  The point is, a facility / organization can be green in name only.  Note that in no way am I inferring Wal-Mart stores are Caterpillar earth movers.

I think to a large extent the sustainability of many facilities and organizations are like those presents under the tree in the food court at the mall that I used to go to in the 1980s.  It looks good, but you know there’s nothing in there.  Conversely, a wrapped present under our office tree that looks like a 12 pack of beer is a 12 pack of beer!  Believe me when I tell you that when a guy whose name is drawn has a choice between a concealed package that looks like beer and one that could contain clothing or worse, like some knickknack, the beer-looking one will be snapped up like my dogs on cheese.

This one always cracks me up: “We are going to follow the LEED® method, but we’re not going to pay for the certification”.  This is foolish.  If an organization is honestly going to follow LEED, the price of registration, documentation, and certification is minimal – like less than buying the custom mats for the new car.  The LEED wannabe process is toothless.  Anything that is worthwhile has a high risk of getting dropped: energy modeling, efficient design, and components that achieve efficiency, and commissioning.  Decent commissioning costs 75 cents per square foot depending on the type of facility.  You’re going to spend $75,000 on commissioning and jump through all kinds of other hoops but skip the few thousand dollars for certification?  This is like getting enough credits to graduate but skipping the degree.  Try explaining that one to the state examining board when you try to get your professional engineering license.

LEED isn’t flawless or bullet proof, but it does serve as a hammer to get people to move and it forces the owner and other stakeholders to make difficult decisions rather than just throwing things out if they are too expensive or difficult.

For energy efficiency, a good rating system similar to the EPA gas mileage ratings is the ENERGY STAR® Label for Commercial Buildings.  Why?  Because it is based on actual energy consumption comparing to peer facilities (on a square foot basis) in the same climate zone.  Earning the ENERGY STAR means the building uses less energy per square foot than 75% of peer buildings.  In addition, ENERGY STAR requires a building inspection by a licensed engineer to ensure the owner isn’t cheating by not providing sufficient ventilation or enough light for required tasks or by letting air conditions drift out of the comfort zone, which believe it or not is well defined.  Registration is free.  The only cost is for the engineering services.  If energy efficiency improvements are needed, there are extra costs for that of course, but there is a return on that investment.

Finally, we at Michaels have developed a custom energy efficiency program that uses actual savings demonstrated by energy bills before and after implementation.  Rather than just doing studies, assisting clients with implementation and moving on to the next project, we monitor savings once after a few months and again after a full year of post-implementation operation.  We don’t run away from results, sweep it under the rug (watch the hand), or just hope for the best.  We embrace real results because we want to know things are working right, and demonstrated success sells more success.  If I’m buying, I want facts and references, not a dog and pony show where promises are made with no follow through on comprehensive savings.

Salesman, get away from me, and no, I don’t want your dopey maintenance plan.

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





Ah, the Energy Rant

6 10 2009

My mother used to tell me I ought to be a lawyer because I would argue and/or complain about everything.  I think I still get under her skin sometimes, even as she has passed her 75th birthday.  She SAYS she still likes me to visit anyway.  The thing is, my brain is hardwired to make everything as efficient as possible.  Perhaps this is due to my growing up on a large farming operation where there was always more things to do than time to do it.  Let’s see…, sounds like my present job.

Some past and present obsessions:

  • Save as much energy as possible, in the car, house, for clients
  • Time the approach to the red light and hope the dolt waiting at the red notices it turns green before it turns red again
  • Fill it as full as possible, but don’t spill!
  • Streamline office processes to save time
  • Load machinery, equipment, and engineers as full as possible to maximize productivity
  • Do email during meetings, waiting at red lights, standing in the grocery line
  • Fix causes of client complaints, like yesterday if I could
  • And don’t let a little snow on the road slow you down (mom really hated that one)

I cannot stand things that do not work reliably and well, and/or waste my time.  My computer, car, garden tractor, refrigerator, chain saw and so forth have to work well or they’re gone.  In general, you get what you pay for.  My cheap and crappy chainsaw is one exception.  I cut my dogs some slack once in a while.  They respond like West Point Cadets when there is food on the line.

I like to see people to do the right thing or better yet, convince them to do so.  I like to remove barriers to allow it to happen.  When policies or stonewallers get in the way, I like to go around or over them.  If that doesn’t work, there are plenty other lakes to fish.

In the world of energy efficiency and sustainability, there is plenty fodder upon which to rant.  So that’s what we will do.  Feel free to participate, unless you disagree with me.  No, really feel free to disagree.  I will respond to questions and requests for clarification, but there will be no cyber shouting matches and food fights.

There will be a weekly rant until I run out of things to rant about – which may never happen.

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