Engineering House Life

Energy Consumption Improvements in the House

Now that we’ve made it through a bit of the summer, I think we really need to focus on something important.

Winter is on the way!

If I recall correctly, my home is still not quite up to snuff in terms of how much money I’d like it to cost me to heat and energize my house. I realize my home will never be 100% efficient. I also realize I’m not going to plop down money to get to 100% because that’s silly and sort of impossible. Instead, I have to pick my battles with my own castle and decide what will produce the biggest returns.

  1. Insulate
    • This is the number one project for the late summer/fall for me. I have very poor insulation in my upper floor. In fact, when we bought our house we could actually see the snow melting on the roof where the heat was escaping. Talk about watching your money fly out of your pocket! Check with a local contractor to see how much insulation you’ll need to really see some energy savings. Also, don’t forget the federal credit when you’re finally cutting that check…you could get up to a $1500 tax rebate.
    • But wait…there’s more! Don’t think that whole house insulation is the only thing to focus on. Oftentimes, the biggest culprits of letting expensive, hot air out (or in really) are the small cracks around windows and doors. Spending 40 bucks on some expandable foam, a tube of caulk, a water heater blanket and some new winterizing doorstops can go a long way.
  2. Turn it off
    • There’s no denying that the most effective way to cut energy consumption is by turning devices and lighting off when not using it. This idea, coupled with using energy when it is cheapest and most abundant, is the crux of the “smart grid” idea. For devices that aren’t managed by a central management unit such as the one in the article, most devices now have a “sleep” mode that has reduced processing instructions; the device periodically “wakes up” to check to see if anyone has requested its services and if not it’s back to sleep. Devices with low quiescent current (or the current while not doing much of anything) can show large energy consumption savings.
  3. Buy/Replace
    • Even though people probably don’t relish the idea of throwing away (or hopefully recycling) their old appliances, this is sometimes the best option. Your old freezer in the basement might be saving you trips to the grocery store (good) but might be doing it at the environment’s and your expense by increasing your electricity bill(bad). Pick up a Kill-a-Watt meter to see how much power your old junker is really pulling out of the grid; if it’s considerable, think about pulling the plug.
  4. Inspect your ductwork
    • Oy, with the not-electronics already! I know, it’s not glamorous, but it’s often the simple things in houses that can really cost you. This is a big weakness in my house and something I will have to address before this winter. Back in the 50s and 60s they must have thought it fashionable (or at least cheap) to attach boards to the underside of the crossbeams of my floors. As such, the air actually being pulled down through the cold air returns is minimal, most of the air is actually pulled down through the floorboards and back into the cold air intake of my furnace. It’s a good time in the summer to check out where your ducts are leaking air so that you can save big dollars in the winter months.
  5. Junk Water Dump
    • I saw an article a while back about the waste water from your tub also wasting energy. Think about how much natural gas/electricity it takes to get your water heater to temperature. Now think about how warm the water still is when it’s washed away all the nasty off your body. Finally, think about how cold the tap water can e in the winter. If you have a reservoir underneath your tub collecting warm wastewater and then coil the incoming cold water through it on the way to the water heater, you could possibly retain some of that usually wasted energy. Check out the link and check to see if you ever have that kind of option the way your house is set up. This could be the same for the dishwasher and the washing machine while the water is on “warm”.

I know you’ll see a lot of this information elsewhere but I’d feel silly not to encourage readers here to try it out for this coming winter. As I said above, there are many different monetary incentives to do so, both in rebates and power savings. I plan on getting the jump on these updates now so I can take advantage of the energy savings for cooling my house as well as heating it later on. If I find out about or come up with any other ways to save money and energy in the future, I’ll be sure to post them here.

What about you? Have you decided to do any updates to your home (energy-wise) while the weather is still nice? Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Just leave them in the comments!

Analog Electronics Life

Happy Holidays

I’ve been a bit more of a Grinch this year than I am usually at Christmas/Festivus/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/etc. I think part of it is my worries about the economy and the rest is because I think the buying of presents is good intentioned, but kind of a waste. Once I get past my own soapbox, I often find that I end up with some thoughtful gifts from the ones I love. Let’s get to the part where I am thankful for the gifts I did get:

  1. A book — My gf was kind enough to listen to me complain about being an analog engineer and not having one of the most important books on my bookshelf. She got me Troubleshooting Analog Circuits by Bob Pease. Up until the past few months I never knew who Bob Pease was until an experience co-worker turned me onto his and Jim Williams’ writings. I admire both of them for their extensive experience in the field of Analog Engineering and their friendly, down-to-earth writing style (something I try to emulate). The “Troubleshooting” tome is well known as a guide on how to specifically move towards pinpointing issues in an analog circuit. I look forward to reading it and applying it. I also hope to post a book wishlist/review list in the near future.
  2. Tools — My parents understood that people trying to fix up a house and make it more energy efficient require tools to do so; they got me some great tools. I’m sure those tools will help me fix all the mistakes I make in the house too. I have also decided that Lowe’s/Home Depot/Etc are the Toys R’ Us of the “older kids”.
  3. A Chord Organ — This is a gift from previous owner of the house I bought to me…because they left it in the attic. It turns out this is a “Magnus Serenade”, and so far it has been pretty hard to find any information on it.  I believe that it is a simple chord organ, similar to the other Magnus models. The idea is that you activate reeds or sets of reeds with keys or buttons (respectively) and then an electronic blower forces air across them to produce a sound. Really it’s like a big accordion (without the back pain). I haven’t had a chance to pull it out of the attic to try it out yet, but if it does not work, it will give me another opportunity to work on old musical instruments. The video I’ve included below is a similar model of chord organ…not the best sound, but definitely unique.

Magnus_Serenade_1 Magnus_Serenade_2

I hope everyone had a great holiday and I look forward to continuing to post in 2009!

Economics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

A Quick Thought on the Economics of Renewable Energy

I glanced at my natural gas bill today while cleaning up the house and was a little shocked at myself. I pride myself on being better than most on conservation (at least cognizant of it) and my usage was quite high. That was last month and I can only imagine this month will get worse. And yes, I do live in a rental house right now (with an energy efficient house in my near future), but that’s the case for a lot of people, especially lower income. So I got to thinking, what will stop people from using so much energy in their frosty, great northern homes?

The answer is, of course, money. It always has been. But now we’re in a climate where the costs are beginning to rise so fast that people who sat dormant before will begin to take action. In fact, this will also likely move people in all economic groups to take action; the most important of these being the middle- to lower-income groups. Why? Because costs like heating are a larger percentage so there will be a more voluminous cry from the masses for cheaper energy (not that we don’t love our green friends, pushing the renewable energy agenda and buying recycled elephant dung paper as Christmas gifts for family). Hopefully more people clamoring for energy efficient devices and alternative fuels will push us towards a tipping point (which I incorrectly identified as a singularity), where renewables become the norm and cost of energy will drop due to the abundance of natural energy, waiting to be converted. So as prices continue to increase–and the temporary drop in gas prices is undoubtedly temporary–the push from most people will be towards a more sustainable future.

How about you? Have you felt the need to push for more conservation lately solely on energy costs? Let me know in the comments.

Photo by nothern green pixie

Analog Electronics Learning Life Renewable Energy

Buying a House and Making It More Efficient

So usually I don’t like to write about my personal life on here too much, but I had an offer accepted on a house yesterday and I think it’s relevant to topics discussed on this site. Yes, I realize that the housing market is down and that it will likely only get worse. And yes, I realize I’m young and a house is a big responsibility. And yes, I know home ownership can be a daunting experience from upkeep to sales to everything else bad that can happen. But there are some great things about houses too, namely tax advantages and being able to do whatever I want with it (within reason). Plus, I feel that every home can take advantage of advances in conservation and renewable technology, even if they are already in good shape and the energy bills are low.

  1. Insulation — A no brainer, this is a great way to reduce the amount of energy leaving your home. A friend and I were talking about older houses and he made a good point that houses built in the 50s didn’t always worry about insulation. It was decently inexpensive to just crank up the heat. Now with gas prices rising (don’t worry, this temporary lull won’t last), it becomes a necessity to conserve the energy we burn. My friend also mentioned a possible tax break that exists; if not, I would hope the next administration includes something in their renewable energy plan. Remember, conservation is the cheapest method of energy savings right now.
  2. Windows — One of the most frustrating things in cold weather is walking up to a poorly insulated single pane window; it rattles, it frosts and it let’s chilling temperatures through. Windows are one of the best ways to lose heat and waste energy in the winter, especially in the great north. It feels like it literally is sucking the heat from your house. Sure, double pane and triple pane vinyl windows are a good start and will stop 90% of your heat loss. However, A great story on NPR about legacy technology from the 70s tells about how a simple coating can stop heat loss in the winter and block heat from coming in during the summer. The low emissivity (or “low e”)coating basically just blocks out infrared radiation from getting through (think of those waves you see rising from blacktop on a hot summer day). Windows were already proficient at blocking convective heat flow (think warm air), but the radiative piece was missing. Look for the low e rating when purchasing your windows and you could see some significant energy savings.
  3. Efficient Devices — Every time the compressor kicks on for my current refrigerator, I can’t help thinking about how much electricity is being wasted to keep my food cool. While it isn’t great to throw out the old clunker fridge just to buy a new shiny energy STAR certified fridge, it might be better in the long run to get something that will save energy (even at the cost of greater consumption). If you’re really crafty, you can always turn that old fridge into a meat smoker (think ribs), a bookshelf or even a planter. Remember, don’t just throw the old fridge in the basement and keep running it for frozen goods. If it’s truly an energy vampire, unplug it from the wall and find a different use for it.
  4. DC Power Outlets — Instead of plugging in cell chargers that are burning power no matter if you are charging something or not, why not have a few lines in your house that are set to a specific voltage, say 6V (most devices are running 3.3V these days). Then when the 6V comes to the wall, you could have a “tuner” based on a buck converter that would dial down that voltage to the one you need. Delivering power from a central source could be controlled remotely, so you could close a relay at the source and no power would be delivered to the converter unless “asked for”, and there would be very low losses in the system.
  5. Solar panels — I wrote last time about GreenField Solar and their new solar concentrator, which is very reasonably priced and could pay itself off in less than ten years if it works as advertised (1500 W output). However, in northern climates, it’s often better to get more total exposure by having a larger array of panels collecting the most light possible, even if at lower efficiency. This requires more space of course, but you might be able to get lower cost panels if they are older and assumed to be less efficient. A friend and and I are talking about trying this in the backyard (which is sizable) and doing some measurements on the power we could harvest even in the Cleveland winters. The eventual goal would be enough to power a shed or outhouse for a small music studio, but that will take some work. Wind might be a better candidate, but that would require more infrastructure (AC-DC conversion) and the turbines are still quite expensive (if not beautiful and artistic in some cases).
  6. Do an energy audit — Sometimes the places where you waste the most energy are the least expected. Have an electric water heater? You might be paying out the nose for your showers and washing dishes. Air conditioning unit more than 10 years old? Maybe that’s pulling hardest at your electricity usage. Do you own a programmable thermostat (the kind that shut off heat when you’re not usually home or asleep)? This simple device will save you hundreds in electricity and natural gas savings. Energy audits are usually offered for free by your energy companies. Look them up and take advantage.

So part of me is terrified at the prospect of owning a home but the other part is pretty excited about what I can do with it. I think using it as an example for simple home fixes and ways that analog electronics projects can help to save money and carbon emissions will be good for my conscience and for this site. If you have any ideas on home projects, please leave them or a link to them in the comments.