A Lie by Omission is Still a Lie.

Well.

It’s happening.

Those wacky kids at Tesla have solved the energy crisis (again). In April, you too will be able to order Tesla’s new solar roof tile, and then all of your problems will disappear. Even better, according to Elon Musk, these new roof systems won’t cost any more to install than a regular roof!

Now dear reader, it is a known and established fact that I am a grouchy bastard. So it should come as no surprise that my brow wrinkles in consternation and my face twists into a sneer of derision at such lofty claims from our savior. Can his words be true? Can I get a 6,8,10 kW solar system installed on my house for the same price as a a regular old roof? If I am going to retain any credibility, I need to be fair about how I approach this. If Mr. Musk had truly accomplished this feat, then honor demands that I acknowledge it.

So I suppose it is a good thing that he likely hasn’t. The Tesla Solar roof tile is sold alongside their proprietary home battery system, which will whack another 7-to-10k onto the cost of the tiles. he never mentions this in the tweets. But if that was the whole of the issue, it would not be insurmountable. Storage + Solar PV is always a good idea. Because the sun doesn’t shine at night, and sometimes I want to have power at night. But there is more sly misdirection than that to deal with.

All of Musk’s comparisons are to ceramic or concrete roofing systems’ supply chains. You know; the ones that cost more than you and I can afford?

I can put an asphalt shingle roof on a house for about $1 a square foot (if we don’t have to rebuild the roof entirely). If we use an established solar shingle cost of $3/watt installed, then we get about $59/sq foot (19.6W per 1-foot panel).  Keep in mind, Tesla really just bought out Solar City’s roof tile business, and Musk has already described efficiencies that are no better than previously existing solar roof tiles, so we are unlikely to see any huge improvements in either production costs or installation costs.

One dollar per foot versus sixty. That’s the reality. Yet Tesla had no problem with claiming:

“So the basic proposition will be: Would you like a roof that looks better than a normal roof, lasts twice as long, costs less and—by the way—generates electricity? Why would you get anything else?” -Elon Musk

Look at that phrasing. He said “normal roof.” Less than 15% of the roof real estate in the US employs concrete or ceramic roof tiles, which are the only products his tile has a prayer of competing with on price. He put real thought and effort into getting as close to lying as one can get without actually lying. It’s an intentional misdirection and the sort of bad acting that makes our industry so difficult to work in.

Now let’s talk about production. Roofs for most buildings are designed to be sacrificial. This means they degrade over time as they are what gets the brunt of mother nature’s wrath. In New England we get snow and ice for half the year. In the Midwest it will be wind and hail in the summer. The deep southeast will have punishing hurricane seasons and the southwest, well, as long as the panels don’t overheat they’ll probably be OK. The Northwest doesn’t get enough sun to make a solar panel all that interesting anyway. Do you have tall trees nearby? Which direction does your roof face? Getting good production out of a solar installation means controlling a lot of variables. Variables that you will have very little control over when you use your own roof as the array.

I’ll speak for my home region. I predict that a brand-new Tesla super-roof installed on a typical new England home will have decent production for the first couple of years (if you can keep the snow off of it), and then production will shrink fairly sharply after that. How do I know this? Because regular roofs made of regular roof stuff do this. Materials designed to survive under these conditions start to degrade year over year and pretending there is something magical about a crystalline solar panel that prevents this is just silly.

So the unvarnished reality of a solar roof looks more like this:

A very expensive super-premium product will generate passive cash flows that will very greatly with location, while following a predictable degradation and deterioration process over their rated lifespan.

My gripe here is not with solar PV. If you like it and can afford it, go ahead and get it. Sunlight is free and free fuel is nice. But by  the icy countenance of Ymir, tell the f&4k!%g truth when you sell it! Tell the customer that what they are buying is expensive and may not perform as well as one might like. Do your best to put together a fair and realistic proposal and let the customer decide what they are comfortable with.

Don’t even get me going on all the people whole will blame “Big Oil” when the costs of these roofs are prohibitive and no one buys them. “Big Green” was the one who deceived us in this case, let’s have the integrity to admit that up front. Then we can see about fixing the problems with our industry.

To Celebrities, With Love…

Celebrity speech season is upon us, and I love it. That may seem out of character for me; a man almost entirely devoid of whimsy. How could the clumsy, fumbling, mumbling, mess of inept rhetorical nonsense spewed by the vapid and tragically hip purveyors of pop culture possibly bring me any joy?

There is a common misconception out there implying that I do not enjoy stupid people. Allow me to correct it. I love stupid people as long as they follow one simple rule: Be funny, or be silent. Celebrities are beautifully, hilariously, stupid when it comes to energy and the environment, and I love them for it.

Our energy and environmental problems are big, complicated, quandaries. The solutions will require massive cultural shifts and huge technological breakthroughs. Trillions of dollars will be spent and the entire global economy will shift tectonically before we have it sorted out. It will take the mightiest minds this planet has, and the combined economic might of its largest nations to make it all work without disenfranchising billions.

But don’t worry folks, Mat Damon is on it. He has what it takes to beat “Big Oil!” For instance, he took the practice of hydraulic fracturing head on with his film “Promised Land.” I wonder if he even knows that the film was funded and distributed by the oil-rich government of the United Arab Emirates. I respect altruism, and I support activism, but the man literally took money form OPEC to attack one of their competitors. That’s showin’ ’em!

Alright. Making fun of Mat Damon is like arguing thermodynamics with a Russian Lit Major: It feels good at first but you start to feel bad for the other guy after a while. Let’s pick a tougher target.

Hey look! It’s Leonardo DiCaprio! This is the UN “Messenger of Peace with Special Focus on Climate Change” which is not a stupid thing that I made up. Technically it’s a stupid thing someone else made up. You don’t even have to believe that climate change is real to understand that a man who runs a 470-foot pleasure yacht and owns his own jet plane may not comprehend how this whole “carbon footprint” thing works. Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t have a carbon footprint, he has a carbon crater.

OK, OK. I got one more. Gwyneth Paltrow. I give you this real, confirmed quote form Hollywood’s mistress of environmental conscience:

“Because sound vibration travels through water four times faster than it does through open air. Consider the fact that your body is over 70% water and you’ll understand how quickly the vibration from negative words resonates in your cells. Ancient scriptures tell us that life and death are in the power of the tongue. As it turns out, that’s not a metaphor.”

That gem is from a woman The Guardian called the 9th most influential climate-change celebrity of 2011. I can also mention that she insists upon being driven or flown everywhere, will not eat GMO foods, and has a London house that uses forty times the electricity of a typical British home. But that would be superfluous. All the stupid you need to see is in that quote.

I’m not breaking any new ground here. I am confident the common person knows that if your contribution to the world is putting on a costume and pretending to be someone else for the amusement of the masses, then your positions on highly complicated hard-science issues ought to be weightless. What makes me laugh, is that these over-coiffed mannequins have not, as yet, received this memo.

I love Mark Ruffalo as an actor. But every time he speaks I am reminded that there are no math or science requirements at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. I enjoy James Cameron’s movies, but The Academy of Performing Arts does not have a “Scientific Rigor” category in their awards line-up. I don’t really enjoy Paltrow’s work in any medium, so I really just want the world to be rid of her brain-dead condescension.

I pose to you a question: Why do people enjoy watching a monkey dance? It’s because monkeys aren’t supposed to dance. They are supposed to climb trees and eat fruit. It’s always amusing when something does a thing that it isn’t supposed to do. It’s why we have a YouTube. I will usually laugh at a dog riding a skateboard or a an old man trying to rap when I stumble upon such.

That, friends, is why I laugh when someone with the technical literacy of potting soil lectures us on how to fix the environment. It’s just plain hilarious to me when a person with six homes, two planes, twelve cars and yacht starts endorsing LED lighting and hybrid cars. That’s just another dog riding a skateboard to me, folks. How could I not laugh? If I jumped up on stage and tried to do Hamlet, it’d be a little bit funny to you, I’m sure.

Is it too much to want the scientists to science, the engineers to engineer, and the dancing monkeys to dance? Don’t answer that. It’s a rhetorical question.

The answer is, “Yes. That is too much to ask for.”

Tilting at Windmills

I recently went to audit a facility. This is not particularity exciting, I know. Nor is it all that weird, since energy audits are pretty much what I do. But bear with me.

This facility has a 500-ton reciprocating chiller that runs all year, because they make and maintain a lot of ice and that is what chillers are good at. If you don’t know what “500-ton”means in reference to a chiller, that’s OK. Just know that his is an enormous machine. It would not fit comfortably on the back of a tractor-trailer truck and it fills an entire section of the building all by itself. It is serviced by multiple 150HP pumps and a cooling tower the size of small home in the country.

The owner of this facility has had some concerns about a rising electric bill, and requested an audit and a proposal for some improvements. Cool. That’s what I do. I arrive to find this behemoth, installed circa 1982 or so, and I immediately begin to attack it as a problem.

This chiller was easily the largest user of electricity in the place by several orders of magnitude. It was old, minimally maintained, showed multiple signs of age and failure, and was of the lowest-efficiency type and style. I figured I could knock 30% off this guys electric bill by replacing it outright. Maybe more.

Then I talked to the owner, and it got weird. All the owner wanted to talk about was his de-humidification units. They ran all the time. They blew warm air, they were inefficient, etc. He even went so far as to proclaim, “If we fixed those that would bring my bill down ten or twenty grand a year!”

This was an asinine statement. It was a statement made completely unencumbered by even the most basic understanding of how his building and equipment worked. If I had a heart, I’m sure it would break to hear him say it so earnestly. Fortunately, I am impervious to sentiment.

Now, I was perfectly happy to look at those units for him, but I was disheartened. His desiccant-wheel-style units with gas heat were not what was driving his electric bill. Not remotely. But he only wanted to talk about those, and definitely did not want to discuss the 36-year-old chiller that was essential to his business; even though it was obviously dying and costing him a lot of money.

I am not new to this, and I knew exactly what the problem was: Fixing dehumidifiers is cheap, and new chillers are expensive.

This is not a scenario that was lost on me. I get it. If it was my building, I’d prefer the problem be a cheap one to fix as well. But no quantity of desire can change reality (no matter what Gwyneth Paltrow or Oprah tell you).

You can “manifest” all you want, pal. But 75% of that bill was the chiller. Period. Until one can look at bleak reality without the rose-colored glasses of desperate desire, disappointment shall ever be thy companion. I’ll spell it out.

Here was the reality: The man had a giant piece-o-junk chiller that was dying slowly and incrementally, using more and more electricity as it went. The solution was mid-six figures worth of work and headache.

This is what his brain did: “Chillers are expensive. Therefore it must be the de-humidifiers.”

It looks kind of sad and pathetic when couched in those terms, doesn’t it? The man’s fevered, unwavering desire for his problem to have an easy solution was having no discernible impact on the objective fact that this was very much not the case.  This was just another example of a style of facilities management that has become very popular in our world or quarterly profit-and-loss statements.

I call it the “Adam Savage” method.

I remember a very funny movie I saw decade ago. It was a spoof of Shaw Brothers-era kung fu films. At one point, the hero is fighting a character named Wimp Lo. Despite getting drubbed horribly, Wimp Lo keeps asserting that he is in fact, winning.  Finally, the hero has his epiphany and proclaims:

I’m sure on some planet your style is impressive, but your weak link is: this is Earth.

Welcome to Earth, folks. Reality is impervious to your desires and “The Secret” is not that you can simply will a thing to be. I can (and will) make fun of facility operators who try, though. Because I am a bit of a jerk.

But, if I were to attach a moral to this rant; or perhaps import some sort of folksy wisdom?

How about this:
STOP DOING THAT.

I, for one, refuse to play Sancho Panza to this kind of silly Don Quixote thinking. I live here in the spinning-windmill world. It’s not so bad, once you get used to it. Think about this: If we had all of the kWh that could have been saved by a reasoned, objective approach to building energy management, we would be well on our way to securing our energy future. You wanna save energy? You want to save the world, Don Quixote?

Start by saving all the energy you waste on avoiding the truth.

 

 

Where the Devil Lives:

So, in a fit of late-winter optimism, I allowed my browser to find itself pointed at my newsfeed. Prominently up front, curated by the infinite wisdom of some mindless algorithm, was this gem of an article.

If you have ever wasted your otherwise valuable time reading the madman’s rantings I often leave here, you may already be suspicious of my motives in bringing that little tidbit to our collective attention.

In a nutshell, the article is lauding the achievement of wind power supplying 52% of the Midwest’s electrical needs.

Obviously, I am a curmudgeon and objectively speaking, a “bad person.” I cannot experience joy because the happiness module was never installed in my CPU; and I can’t let you experience joy either, because my empathy module is broken. So I am going to ruin this otherwise upbeat and hope-filled blurb.

First, I’ll burst the happy little bubble:
The moment wind power achieved 52% supply was 4:30 in the morning on a Sunday in February. Otherwise known as: “The exact time-frame where grid loads are as low as they can possibly get.”  Also, this was for the swath of the country centrally located between Montana and the Texas panhandle:
Image result for map of midwest

You know…The orange part of this map (minus Nevada). You may also know this area as “many of the least-populated states in the country.” I am going to lay it out for y’all right here, folks: Mice on tiny unicycles could have generated 52% of the grid load at that time.

This time period also corresponded with sustained 13mph winds across most of the Midwest, and gusts up to 30mph.

So what we really had was moment when strong winds coupled with extremely low loads in sparsely populated areas allowed a fifteen minute period of slightly-more-than-half of the power coming from wind.

I like to lift weights, because my court-mandated anger management program says I “need to find a socially acceptable outlet for my rage” or something stupid like that. I don’t know, I wasn’t listening. But reading this article was like all those times some guy came up to brag about how many bosu-ball pistol squats he could do: It’s interesting, I guess, but how much can you actually squat, bro?  Right now, wind power is still squatting the empty bar, while fossil fuels are hoisting like Poul Anderson.

Now, I shall point out why this article should enrage you as it does me:

I’m not sure what the point of that five-paragraph blurb was supposed to be, but it sounded an awful lot like cheerleading for wind power. Which is OK. There’s a lot to like about wind power. But if you stick around for the comment sections of this sort of article, you start to see how it damages legitimate exploration of alternative energy sources.

That may too hard to read, but I promise you, it is rife with unproductive political pontification and dearly-defended emotional positions presented as fact.

These things always devolve into a kind of rhetorical beauty pageant for the cognitive biases of the contestants, I have found. Everybody has an opinion, and that opinion is beautiful and special. All other opinions and positions are wrong, because their favorite blogger told them so.  So, they all trot them out and give them a walk in front of the judges only to find that in this contest, there are no winners, because the judges are frothing egomaniacs just like they are.

[It is bizarrely poetic to me that it is only in an internet forum does one truly get to see what a “jury of one’s peers” might actually look like. Do no turn away form that horror, child. Embrace it. We have met the enemy and he is us.]  

There are a hundred better, more objective ways Bloomberg could have presented that piece of news. Somebody chose to present it the way they did. Why? Who knows. I subscribe to Hanlon’s Razor on this one: “Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity.”

I don’t believe that the writer of that …thing… was any better versed in the intricacies of distributed power systems than the average Reddit poster. I don’t know that Bloomberg has a a dog in the renewable energy fight, either. But I do know that they like to sell ads, and I know that at least one editor took a look at those five paragraphs and said, “go with it!”

That sort of thing hurts us. If the writer didn’t understand how inconsequential that brief moment Sunday morning was, that’s fine. But don’t write an article on it, then. Make a phone call to some bored grid engineer at the local utility. The poor person will be so happy for that brief moment of human interaction that an intrepid reporter could get all the context they would ever need to to write a great article about wind power in few short minutes. One might have to endure several hours of tangential conversation to get these few minutes of relevant info, but no one ever said journalism was easy! Who knows, if you ever have to write an article about Warhammer figurines, you will have killed two birds with one stone. See? I’m helping!

The point, dear reader, is that we are never going to make the great leaps in policy and technology we need to ensure a bright energy future if we don’t stop treating it like every other social issue. It’s not a social problem, it’s  technological problem. We’d all be on renewable energy right now if the technological hurdles were gone. That’s just a fact.

We don’t have to manipulate the impressions we have regarding the effectiveness of technologies that work in an objective manner. So stop trying, please! If those turbines had handled base load at a time or place that reflected a real improvement over their current state, then we wouldn’t even be talking about them. Ten thousand new turbines would be going up right now if that had been 52% of California’s base load at four in the afternoon on a summer day.

But it wasn’t. So let’s be fair. Let’s be fair to wind power, to solar PV, to nuclear and to fossil fuels. Let’s look at the whole production and distribution portfolio objectively, because they are all bad and they are all good, depending on what you want from them.

Save the clickbait for BuzzFeed, OK?

 

 

Where Spurious Claims Are Born! (The Myth of the Intuitive)

It may surprise you, dear reader, to hear that some people have referred to me as ‘insensitive,’ ‘robotic,’ and even ‘unfeeling.’ The tone and body language of those people have led me to suspect they meant these things pejoratively; but I am a famously poor judge of such things. As it is, I choose to see these accusations as compliments, though. Naturally, I experience all of your human emotions: Rage, suppressed rage, irritation, fury, rancor, and vengeance. (That’s all of them, right? I might have missed one). So obviously, such proclamations are specious at best.

In my professional capacities, feelings are not helpful things. I am supposed to apply math and physics to determine the most advantageous outcomes for my clients, and how I feel about those outcomes is irrelevant. If some deeply suppressed part of me really wants to do a particular project or measure, but the math doesn’t support it, than I pretty much have to shove those feelings back down into the darkest recesses of my (otherwise entirely normal) psyche; where they will hopefully wither and die like my dreams of being a Navy SeAL or professional beer taster.

That’s part of my job and part of being me. What we are going to talk about is how feelings affect our industry. Specifically, I want to talk about what I call “The Myth of the Intuitive.” This is a form of confirmation bias where something just feels like it will work or that it’s a good idea, independent of any actual evidence to support that conclusion. My favorite example is Outdoor Air Reset. It is one of the simplest, most intuitive efficiency measures in the world. It. Just. makes. Sense.

Now, Go here and read this page.

Virtually everything on that page makes sense, and is presented clearly and concisely, in terms that follow logical and rational thought processes. But the fundamental premise of their rationale is deeply flawed, and the result is a savings claim that I will happily challenge in any venue one cares to present it. I have written an entire chapter on this one, but I will hit a few highlights here:

Outdoor reset is an energy saving heating concept that has been tested and approved by many governement agencies as the best way to save on fuel.

No it hasn’t and no it’s not. They didn’t even spell ‘government’ correctly! This is a made up bit of nonsense that is neither provable nor entirely falsifiable.

What the outdoor reset does, is regulate the amount of energy entering the building based on the outdoor temperature by changing the boiler water temperature.

The amount of energy a space needs to hold a setpoint is not, has never been, and will never be, a function of boiler water temperature. A space with 100,000 btu/hr of heating load will need 100,000 btu/hr of heat, no matter what the supply water temperature or outside air temperature. If the thermostats are working, the “amount of energy entering the building” is exactly the same. I can prove that.

For every 4°F the boiler water is reduced, there is a 1% energy savings. Thus, if the boiler was run based on a fixed set point of 180°F vs. running the boiler using outdoor reset at 120°F will provide a minimum saving of 15%.

Far be it from me to cast aspersions unto the veracity of a reputable vendor’s ad copy, but riddle me this, dear reader: If a boiler has to deliver 100,000 btu/hr because there is 100,000 btu/hr of heat loss, then how does altering the supply water temp make this go down? The space is the same temperature, the outdoor air is the same temperature, the insulation and weatherization hasn’t changed. None of the parameters that determine the heating load on the space have changed. In all honesty, I know how they got those (ridiculous) numbers. If you want to see more, buy my book (My publisher makes me do that, sorry!)

You may be wondering, “Wait a minute, you pretentious bastard, it takes less energy to heat water to 120 than it does to 180!”

You are absolutely right, nameless voice in my head! That’s what makes outdoor air reset so intuitive and so popular.  If you know the solution for this paradox, leave it in the comments section. (I’ll send the best answer a free copy of my book.)

All of this pedantic knit-picking is about one thing: Feelings. Outdoor Air Reset feels like it should work. It makes sense. (In fairness, there are a few highly specific scenarios where some savings may materialize. But the average customer will be lucky to see a 2-4% reduction in heating costs. Most won’t.)

Now I am being pretty mean to the company in the link. In fairness, I invite them here to point out where I am wrong. If I am wrong, I’ll cop to it publicly. I feel confident that it won’t come to that though. Other vendors of the same product have much better and more accurate ad copy. There are ways OAR can save some customers some money.

I have had customers, industry professionals, and vendors stare at me with looks ranging from blank confusion to outright rage when I go on this particular rant. Lots of smart people think these devices can save 10%, 15%, even 20% on your heating bill. The misconception boils down to one tiny omission in the thermodynamic continuity of a heating system. It’s not obvious, and it’s not intuitive (until you find it yourself).

The moral of this story? Feelings have no place in matters of energy analysis. We are supposed to be buying and selling measures based upon their individual, measurable, and objective merit. But dammit if it ain’t an emotionally charged marketplace, though! People feel strongly about any eye-catching widget with an intuitive, heartwarming narrative attached to it. We can’t stop what we feel.

But when logic becomes subordinate to intuition (feelings), the door is opened for the kinds of under-performing installations that are the bane of our industry.

So knock it off.

 

 

New Year’s resolutions: Part II

So last week I slapped some back-handed calumny unto the vendors and purveyor of our little industry. It was fun and maybe a little too on-the-nose, but I’m not sorry. People say I lack compassion. People are right.

But now I’m going to irritate an entirely different group of people in what may appear to be a stupid way. I submit to you, dear reader, Part II: Resolutions for the customers!

Resolution #1: You will abandon your ridiculous payback parameters.  If you don’t want vendors to say ridiculous things to you, then stop demanding ridiculous things. If you tell a salesguy that you need a two-year payback to get a job signed; rare is the salesguy who will shake your hand and apologize for wasting your time. Why? Because two-year paybacks are exceedingly tough to make happen. But CLAIMS of two-year paybacks are not rare; why? It’s because salesman gotta eat, too ya know… If you need a two-year payback to make an efficiency project go, then you are not ready to do a project.

Resolution #2: You will stop expecting efficiency projects to hide your sins. Here is what happens. Customer calls me because they are suddenly interested in energy efficiency. They have heard about some great utility incentives and want to explore them. I arrive and find a building so badly maintained and so neglected, that a direct hit from 500lb JDAM might actually improve the place. Stop doing this. You failed to maintain your equipment. No quantity of efficiency upgrades will fix this and the utilities are going to laugh you out of the program. Accept that you will have to invest in capital improvements and we can certainly help you get the best , most efficient equipment possible, but let’s not pretend that this has anything to do with your newfound environmentalism.

Resolution #3: You will stop ‘feeling‘ things and do the science. I cannot believe this one needs to be said, but it does. I have had a customer, after going over my calculations and hearing a presentation about measured savings look me in the eye and say, “I don’t believe you.” Keep in mind, there were no hypotheses or assumptions. It was a pure algebra problem done on measured data. He went on to state that his ‘intuition‘ (His word! Not mine.) indicated a different answer. I asked him if his intuition knew how many kWh his motors used, because I had measured it already. He didn’t think I was clever. But my mom says I’m a smart boy so I was OK. He was (and still is) suffering from a common malady called confirmation bias. It is the enemy of good decision-making. Avoid it for the sake of our whole industry, please.

Resolution #4: You will learn how your building works. It’s your building…not mine. I will have at best a few days and at worst a few hours to learn as much as I can about it, but that will never compare to living and working in it every day for years. For the love of Surtr, Fiery Lord of Muspelheim, HELP ME HELP YOU! Take the time to learn what equipment you have, how it works, and how it is configured. Make a list of your HVAC equipment with makes, model numbers, etc. so you can be an informed consumer. Count your lights and keep a list of issues. The better you know the building, the better the projects we will create together.

Resolution #5: You will have reasonable expectations. This is the big one. I have some tough news for many of my customers. Deep breath, folks: Weatherization projects won’t cut your bills in half. VFD’s won’t cut your bills in half. EMS systems won’t cut your bills in half. Projects can take a long time to complete. Not everyone will like the new lights. People will need time to learn how to use the fancy new thermostats, and then they will hate them. New windows have decades-long paybacks. I can keep going…

That’s enough of those for now…do you see my point yet? There is a lot of silliness and some little quantity of creative dishonesty in this industry, but let’s be honest. Many customers want to be lied to. Don’t be that guy. We will do better work, and make more progress, if both vendors and customers start doing a better job communicating and collaborating. That is when we will start to see the really great projects happen.

Let’s get it right in 2017!

New Year’s Resolutions

It’s that time of year again, folks. The time when we all sign up for the gym and don’t go. The time where we buy a lot of leafy greens and watch them wilt in the fridge while we order take-out. The time of year when I promise to stop hurting people who annoy me.

Yup, it’s resolution time. This year, I have decide to make two lists of resolutions. One for vendors of energy products and services, and one for our customers. As for me? I am already perfect and thus require no resolutions. I resolve to continue being awesome. Your welcome.

First up, the vendors. You know who you are. Here are your goals for 2017:

  1. You will stop selling VFD’s for systems that do not experience any variation. There is no excuse for this in 2017. The “V” in VFD is for “Variable!” No more VFD’s on constant-volume air handlers or pumping systems with 3-way valves. You will stop putting VFD’s on condenser loops unless the loop was specifically designed for one. It makes us all look either stupid or dishonest when you do it. Knock it off.
  2. No more power-conditioning silliness. Nobody’s electricity is “dirty” and we have known how to correct power factor decades, now. Stop selling this stuff with promises of increased efficiency and savings. You are embarrassing us all.
  3. You will start doing real math. So few vendors out there are really doing math when it comes to savings estimates. The “rule of thumb” has become the rule-of-law and it really needs to stop. Rules of thumb are only good if you are all thumbs. I know that math is hard, but do it anyway. Too many square pegs are getting hammered into round holes because we aren’t running the numbers properly.
  4. You will use the right words. The existing system is not “inefficient;” it is “less efficient.” How much less? Some number that can be expressed empirically (as opposed to something weasily like ‘a lot,’ or ‘significantly’). Let’s express ourselves in clear, accurate terms that refer to actual things. Minimize cute analogies. The customer can ask questions if they need clarification, but only if you use the correct words.
  5. Last, but most important: You will tell the truth. This is the toughest one of all. because no one wants to hear the truth, no matter what they tell you. The truth sucks much of the time. The truth, very often is something like, “I know you wanted a two -year payback, but it’s more than likely going to be seven years for reasons that you likely aren’t going to understand; and thus, resent me for bringing up.” Which is exactly not what they customer wants to hear. Another truth that I often find myself forced to tell is, “I know you are really interested in (product you read about in a MarketWatch article), but that item will not help you with your crumbling sixty-year-old infrastructure and that gaping portal to hell that has mysteriously opened in your warehouse.”

Not all ‘un-truths’ are bad. I get that. I’m married. (For the record, dear, you don’t look fat in anything, and you certainly are never unreasonable. All of your reactions are perfectly appropriate. I like your friends just fine. Sure, I’d love to watch “The Notebook” again!) But when it comes to the implementation of energy-saving products and strategies, we really need to resist the urge to tell convenient little pseudo-lies like, “condensing boilers are 98% efficient,” and conveniently leave out the fact that this is true only a portion of the time. Another favorite: “These windows are twice as efficient as your current ones,” which is meaningless because two times absolute garbage is still garbage.

Here is what this list boils down to:

If you can’t make a sale without fibbing, prevaricating, oversimplifying? There is a word for that.

If you can’t quantify the value of your project without resorting to rule-of-thumb or argumentum ad verecundiam? There is a word for that, too.

If you are exploiting the technical literacy of your customer to peddle something that just won’t do what you say it will? You can see where this is going…

Sound harsh? Meh. Good. Some of the stuff that goes on in the name of making a sale is just plain wrong. It’s not always the vendor’s fault, and we’ll get to that next week when I make a list for the customers! But for now, let’s just resolve ourselves to treat our customers and our industry with a little more respect this year, shall we?

 

Stop Using the Wrong Words!

 

I drink a lot of whiskey. You may have surmised that on your own at this point. It tastes good and helps keep the chorus of barking anthropoids that constitute my inner monologue from arguing too much and giving me a headache. But I digress. Sometimes, for fun, I will read tasting notes on different whiskies. I don’t do this because they are helpful (they are useless), but because I like to remind myself that the universe is full of absurdity and that all industries suffer from similar plagues.

I once read a whiskey description that went thus:

“This dram is an approachable, yet impertinent rye. Sharp on the tongue but settles on the palate smoothly, and delivers a refreshing spicy heat that also cools.”

Huh? Is it impertinent or approachable? How did whiskey get human personality traits? Is it sharp or smooth? What the hell does ‘sharp’ and ‘smooth’ mean when talking about a beverage? It’s hot and cold? None of these words make any freakin’ sense in the context of how a beverage tastes! This person has succeeded in describing something so poorly that we now know less about it than we did before.

So what does that have to do with energy efficiency? This industry loves take very complex concepts and relay them in the vaguest, lest-helpful terms possible, and then package the resulting conclusions as a nice, neat little narrative. I understand that this often serves to explain what we are proposing, and facilitate the sale of a product or service to customers who may not have a lot of technical sophistication. That’s not what gets my dander up.

What makes me angry, deep-down in the part of my soul that sympathizes with Darth Vader and Doctor Doom, is that very little consideration is given to accuracy when this is done. Trite, cutesy terms and jargon are tossed around with only cursory thoughts toward technical relevance. The goal moves from ‘delivering good information’ to ‘saying things that move product.’

In the worst cases, people intentionally misrepresent reality to hock a widget. If you want a ton of examples, go ahead and buy the book I keep schilling, here. It’s full of ’em.

Just yesterday, I fielded call from an industry partner who was getting the hard sell from a vendor pushing a power conditioning device. If you don’t now what that is, clink the link for some background.

The pitch goes like this: Electricity comes in to your building on the wire at a certain frequency. There are many things that can make this frequency not right, and thus make your power ‘dirty.’ Dirty power is not as good as ‘clean’ power. But if you buy these special magnets and put them on your wire, then the electricity will be cleaned up and you will use less power. The vendor also did a demonstration where he had the customer feel the heat coming off the back of a computer monitor, and then attributed that heat to ‘dirty power losses.’

It’s  nice, easy-to-understand little story: “Dirty power is not as good as clean power. Our magnets will make your dirty power clean. You will save money.” Sign me up!

I could say that this “takes some liberties with the science of electrical power distribution.” Or I could tell the truth and say, “These guys are wrong and lying at the same time.” Here’s the rub:

The phenomena this pitch is referencing is a staggeringly complex set of interacting electrical and material properties that are the subject of entire discreet courses of study. Any attempt to explain them in simple terms will misrepresent them horribly. Knowing this, the vendor employed a nice, easy-to-understand metaphor.

Unfortunately, it’s also a terrible metaphor. It bears little to no resemblance to reality. Calling electrical power ‘dirty’ is like calling a whiskey  ‘approachable.’ In both cases the words are just plain wrong. These are bad words for describing what is happening. Whiskey cannot have human behavioral traits and electricity can’t be ‘dirty!’

Another example is the way we use the word ‘inefficient.’ Efficiency is a property with a numerical value. Hearing a salesman call a customer’s existing system “inefficient” always makes me twitch. Whoever sold the poor bastard his current system probably billed it as ‘efficient’ at the time. Did it get less efficient in the intervening years? Not likely. It probably has the same numerical efficiency value it always had. It may be less efficient than the latest thing, but that doesn’t make it inefficient. Inefficient is the wrong word, and using it this way is disingenuous. Knock it off, please.

If you ask a group of people if a 100 lb. object is heavy, you may get wildly different answers (all correct) depending on who you ask. If you ask how much it weighs, then there is only one correct answer: 100 lbs. If a salesperson tells you that his object is “light” and yours is “heavy,” then he is creating a narrative without relaying relevant facts. He knows exactly how much the damn thing weighs, I promise. This salesperson is using the wrong words, and he is doing it on purpose. He might as well call it “audacious” for all the useful information he is spooning you.

How people construct a narrative says a lot about their goals. When a someone calls a whiskey ‘approachable,’ what they are really saying is “I can’t describe this in a manner that makes sense to you, but I want to appear authoritative, so I will use words that make no sense in this context and hope you don’t call my bluff.”

When vendors use cute analogies or metaphors to describe complex physical phenomena, it is essentially the same thing. In the case of most of the technologies bought and sold in the energy efficiency marketplace, virtually all of a customer’s pertinent questions will have a numerical answer, or a cite-able reference at least. We need to start giving that answer, and stop using fanciful analogies.

Who’s with me?

The Ballad of Deferred Maintenance

There is an old saying, tossed about by crotchety old coots and property mangers that we’ve all heard: “If it ain’t broke…don’t fix it!” This is usually said to keep some young whippersnapper from introducing newfangled whatchamawhosits into a working system and ruining it with all them pixels and pokemons or whatever kids are into these days.

Now I can stomach that line from people who really knew what they were talking about; but too often I have endured hearing that line from folks who couldn’t tell a washer from a grommet. Let’s pick on three of them:

  1. A multi-tenant commercial building with lighting from 2015 and a steam boiler from 1965. Steam trap survey? What’s a steam trap?
  2. An office building with $350 thermostats attached to a VAV system from 1985; and not one actuator in the lot actually worked.
  3. A college campus that spent a million dollars on new decorative siding, while ignoring maintenance for boilers and a distributed underground hot water system from 1964.

Do you know what all three of these customers had in common? Let’s evaluate.

Customer 1: Commercial space is sold on appearance. If you want to attract tenants, then you need brightly-lit, modern-looking spaces with fresh floors and and finishes. No one can see the boilers, and no one can see the steam traps. If all the steam traps are blowing by and the boiler belches 20 gallons of condensate every time it cycles, so what? No one can see that.

Customer 2: The office building had no ability to control the temperatures in the spaces, because all the actuators were shot. Actuators are expensive. The utility had a program that gave them the thermostats for nearly free. Now the space is still uncontrolled, but at least it looks like the controls were upgraded. Thermostats are shiny, VAV boxes are invisible.

Customer 3: This college deferred virtually all maintenance and scheduled upgrades for fifty years. There was always some ‘critical’ reason to not replace aging infrastructure; and because it all worked (sort of), no one felt it was worth looking at. Five decades of this led to a culture of ‘if it’s not actually on fire…ignore it.’ But when one of the buildings started to look run-down, getting a seven-figure beautification job approved was easy. (Trying to get new boilers and piping was akin to walking into the room and urinating on their (expensive) shoes.)

So, we now know that all three of these customers were paying for massive quantities of wasted energy. Which is enough of a forehead-slapper all by itself. But here’s something else that all three had in common: They were all sitting on big ol’ time bombs.

Ka-boom: Number 1 had massive, catastrophic failure of the boiler that destroyed the ground floor level and forced the whole building to be evacuated.

Ka-boom: Number 2 had multiple heating coils freeze over the weekend when the OA dampers didn’t close. The whole third floor with all the computers and equipment were destroyed by the water. It was almost a million dollars in damages.

Ka-boom: Number 3 had one of those big, Kennedy-era boilers go down hard, and was faced with the prospect of renting boilers for $2500/day (plus fuel) or relocating all the students to hotels for $24,000/day.

The operators of these facilities, like so many  other denizens of the fiscal world, saw maintenance and scheduled upgrades as costs without returns. The ROI on a new boiler is 10% at best, and 7.5% is more likely. But the ROI on new lights is 40%. To an accountant, that is very easy math. Keeping your facility bright and attractive to customers is an easier sell than upgrading something that no one will ever see or know about (like a boiler or an air handler). Especially if the boiler or air-handler is still running (barely).

The real sin is that these customers had two viable solutions before them and took neither because they did not understand what they were dealing with. They could have aggressively maintained the existing equipment, ensuring smooth operation for decades and and tons of warning before a big problem showed up (costs money); or they could have upgraded on a regular schedule (costs money). Nope, they all chose the third option: “pretend everything is OK and will be forever.”

The equipment may be running terribly, and it may in fact be ready to fail in a horrible and catastrophic manner. But it is running right now, and right now that accountant needs to increase the margins more than he needs a better …uh… whatever-it-is you greasy wrenchy-types keep griping about. He doesn’t know, or care really, what you are talking about when you bring it up. The average accountant can’t see the wasted energy and the wasted maintenance dollars, because they happen gradually year-over-year. (I find it sometimes helps to explain it as compound interest, except the money is leaving your account exponentially, not going into it.)

I can’t even blame them too much, the people they report to care only about quarterly or yearly fiscal performance. Dropping real money on capital improvements is money that most accountants feel is wasted. I can accept the attitude of “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but since when do we let accountants decide when something is ‘broke?’

I see about twenty-five buildings a year that heavily defer maintenance, defer upgrades, and try to limp along without anyone noticing how much money they are wasting and how precarious their building systems are. They call me for an audit and a proposal, and they subsequently ignore me when I send one. Mostly because I, like some sort of savage, continue to charge money for products and services. I’m just old-fashioned like that, I guess.

So do me a favor, property mangers, if a maintenance guy you trust says, “That boiler was here when Kennedy got shot…we really need to think about replacing it,” please just do us all (and yourself) a favor and listen to him, OK?

Or you can always step up and spin the wheel!

The Customer is NOT Always Right

Managing disappointment is one of the basic skills of navigating human existence. Mostly we learn it as small children. How many of us actually got that pony for Christmas? How many of us actually grew up to be firemen or Navy SeALs? Where are all the flying cars? Why can’t I get Salma Hayek to return my calls?

See? Life is full of disappointments.

When the universe rains crushing disappointment upon my little corner of the world, I like to be an umbrella of joy protecting the denizens of the tiny little niche industry I call my own. So when a former customer sends me an e-mail expressing their ‘disappointment’ over promised electrical savings not materializing, I like to put on my best ‘helpful face,’ dust off my project notes and calculations, and see if I can’t turn that frown upside down.

There are those who might imply that backhanded accusations of fraud and misconduct from customers two years after the job was completed might irritate me. Not at all! Every interaction with a customer, no matter how inflammatory the accusation, is an opportunity to demonstrate your desire to provide the best products and services possible. The customer, my friends, is always right.

For today’s entirely hypothetical example, I had installed an adaptive setback EMS for a hotel. Basically, it’s just a bunch of occupancy sensors that turn the heat or A/C down when a guest is out of the room. There is very little good reason to dump energy into empty spaces, and hotel rooms are actually empty most of the time. Each room automatically gets setback when they go empty, requiring no input from a squishy unreliable human. It’s a good system that is a very reliable performer.

Having installed the system (hypothetically) more than two years ago, I solicited the customer’s (hypothetical) electric bills for all the years post-installation. Remember, the customer (hypothetically) said that he was ‘disappointed’ with the fact that his electric bill had increased in the intervening years, and was curious as to what I intended to do to rectify that matter.

One can only imagine my (hypothetical) confusion when it became known that the electric consumption at this hotel had actually decreased since installation. The definite, measured, and metered savings were 13% year over year; and when I helpfully levelized the cooling loads for weather, the savings were over 25% (subsequent summers had been much hotter than baseline year). How much reduction had I initially predicted? 13%. No joke, friends; I was (hypothetically) dead-on.

My world was shaken to the core. Isn’t the customer is always right? Not in this case, obviously. This was a case where the customer was obviously, provably, and terrifyingly wrong. Not just a little wrong, either; but all-the-way wrong. There was no way to be more wrong than this. This was a new kind of wrong. It was UnRight.

It was worse than just being ‘wrong,’ because all of the information he needed to not be wrong was already available to him. The briefest, most cursory glance at his own electric bills would have answered all his questions. Those answers required no special knowledge or skills to obtain. Just look at the papers in front of you. The papers you already have. The papers with the easily legible numbers on them.

Just.

Look.

Thinly veiled sarcasm aside, that part isn’t so bad. Annoying, for sure, but that sort of willful ignorance isn’t what turns my normally cherubic demeanor into something more akin to frothing rage-monster. People get confused and mess stuff up all the time. It happens to all of us and we should all try to be patient with each other when it happens. No, I kinda (hypothetically) blacked out with fury over the undisguised implication that somehow, I had misled this poor customer and defrauded them out of a large sum of money.

It took him longer to write the insulting and snarky e-mail than it would have taken him to borrow someone’s calculator and figure out on his own that the reason he was paying more for electricity was that his rate had gone up. Yup. That simple. He was paying more because his third-party supplier had jacked up his generation rate. Took me almost 4 minutes to figure that out, including the 2.5 minutes I used to go pee.

So I was (hypothetically) pretty angry at this point. But, dear friends, I did not yield to my rage. I did not send a 3500-word memo, with charts, graphs, hourly weather data from the NOAA, and utility printouts as well as a detailed year-over-year analysis demonstrating in excruciating detail just exactly how wrong this customer was. That would have been petty.

Oh, wait. That’s literally exactly what I did.

I didn’t swear, at least. That’s gotta count for something, right? His response was polite and thankful; but certainly not conciliatory. Naturally, it was then followed by a request for about 25 man-hours of free engineering to help lower his bill more. I’m still (hypothetically) typing my response to that one.

Now, you might (correctly) point out that my self-righteous tantrum accomplished just about nothing except making me feel good about myself. Realistically, what did I accomplish? I was never on the hook for anything with this guy, he is still a moron, and the only thing I proved was that I was better at my job than he was…which I already knew.

But I have received some good advice from both my father and Teddy Roosevelt. My father taught me that if I wanted to argue with someone, I should be absolutely sure I had the facts right first. Facts cannot be debated, and engineering, at its best, is the strict application of facts. To Richard Vaillencourt, the only reason you lose an argument was because you had bad facts, and only bad engineers bring bad facts. Teddy taught me that once you are in the argument, you should win it. The victor can afford to be merciful, but victory comes first. My customers pay me to have the best facts, and I will defend them vigorously, because my reputation is my livelihood. You should too.

Also, you probably shouldn’t accuse me of fraud and stuff.