Green4Geeks Blog

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There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Recently I came across a Facebook post that appeared to be great news - free energy from drinking water.  The premise is, by replacing a section of fresh water distribution pipes with a specially designed pipe with small turbines in it, the energy harvested from the fresh water running through the pipe and turning the turbine blades could be converted to electricity to do all sorts of things, even powering homes!  The special pipe is built by Lucid Energy.  This video explaining the process is a bit short on details, but has great production quality, and is very much a feel-good piece.  It was produced by a media company called ATTN:, and is one of a series of videos on various social and ecological topics.  The video on Facebook is can be found here.  The whole premise of this Green4Geeks site is engineering ecologically, going green because it is often the smarter long term solution, and basically just building smarter.  So when I see an innovative concept such as this, it really catches my attention.  I'm having a real problem getting behind this idea, and here is why; I believe this concept will use more energy than it creates.  

OK, so the water is going to be rushing through the pipe anyway, right?  It is fresh water that is going through water mains, that eventually makes it to the taps in our homes.  So, how does that water get there?  The answer is that it is pumped there from a reservoir.  Huge water pumps that are usually run by electricity create the flow and the pressure to keep the water flowing and under steady pressure.  Anything that is a blockage or impediment in the water's path adds to the energy it takes for the pumps to push that water through the pipe.  That includes the blades of the turbines that the video depicts.  So, while the energy appears to be free to the person downstream, something upstream is burning up energy to make it happen.  The only way I can see this working for free is if you are on a gravity system.  Most water systems here in the US are not gravity systems, they actively run pumps to keep all that water moving.  The water towers that you see around cities are actually there for mostly emergency use - when the power is out of there is an exceptionally heavy and sudden demand.

So, what i see is a rob Peter to pay Paul scheme here.  It really isn't free energy - someone is paying the bill at the pump.  The dismaying thing about this is that I observed a lot of positive comments, shares, and likes on the posting.  These are people that love the idea of free energy, but are trusting what appears to be junk science behind it.  Why does it work in Portland?  Their water source is up in the mountains and is primarily gravity fed - a rarity among water systems.  This project in Portland generates enough electricity to power about 150 homes, but it has cost $1.7 million to implement (so far).  They claim that there will be a $2 million savings over 20 years - not bad so long as there are no additional maintenance costs for the system.  I found this information here.   I'm not really sure how their math works out for the savings - I did a quick back of the napkin calculation and here is what I came up with:

Average $350/month electric bill * 12 months * 150 homes * 20 years = $12.6 million 

So, if you have saved $12.6 million in 20 years, you have more than paid for the system.  While it isn't clear whether the savings are an offset to the homeowners electric bill, the offset to construction costs, or both.  It should be noted that the savings calculations and actual energy produced and the homes powered varies widely depending upon where you read about it (the City of Portland, various reporters, and Lucid Energy) - I used the most generous figures for the calculation above.  Regardless, this works well in Portland, and two other cities are mentioned in the article, but for widespread use, not so much.  I would love to hear from any engineers that actually work on this and can correct any of my assumptions, or at least provide more detail on where the savings come in.  Either post in the comments section or email me directly.  

In short, feel good for the folks of Portland - for the rest of us, well, it is just a pipe dream.

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Practicing Energy Efficiency

I recently received an email from a reader who passed along a lot of links to sites that are the same theme as this one.  I took a look at her beautifully rendered site OurPreciousResources.org, and liked the message - ecology just one small step at a time.  The thing I like about that message, and what I try to promote, is just think about your day to day and your living environment in a critical way to see if you are doing it the most energy efficient way possible.  I like to put the engineering twist on it myself.  As an example, my front porch lights burned out frequently when I used to use incandescent bulbs.  They cost about $1.90 per bulb, and between my two fixtures, took a total of six bulbs.  I would end up replacing them nearly every year just due to exposure and burnouts (they weren't really on that much).  I tried CFLs when they became more affordable, but at at over $5 per bulb, and having no longer of a lifespan, it seemed like a foolish waste of money.  LED bulbs came along, and as an early adopter, I paid the premium price of $8 per bulb.  That was about five years ago.  They are still going strong and use a fraction of the energy the incandescent bulbs used in the beginning.  Not only have they paid for themselves by not having to replace them, they take way less energy, their eventual disposal is less harmful to the environment than CFLs.  One lesser known bonus feature of an outdoor LED light - they don't attract bugs like CFL and incandescent bulbs do; the narrower band of light (no UV and little infra-red) makes them less attractive to bugs.  

In short, switching to LEDs was a small step, but with many benefits, not just to myself, but to the environment.  

I started digging through the links from her email that I thought were the most interesting and will start sharing them.  The first one links to a good place to start if you aren't as geeky about these things as I am.  Take the energy efficiency quiz and see how you do (hint:  I gave you your first answer above).  This site is actually sponsored by an energy company, but the quiz might start you thinking over how much energy stuff around your house uses.  It might even guide your next appliance purchase.    The site is put up by Constellation Energy Resources, and the quiz can be found here.  Tip-o-the-hat to Ginger for the nice email!


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Ecobee Is Still A Winner

 Some time ago, I posted my assessment of the best smart thermostat on the market.  At the time, and without purchasing each one, I made a decision based on the best information I could find online at the time. It was difficult finding good information, but I read dozens of customer reviews and I put together a matrix of features I thought were the most important, ending in a purchase of the Ecobee3.  Fast forward to the present, and I still believe I made the best pick.  By now however, the Ecobee4 has been released, with the major new feature being Amazon Echo (Alexa) support.  While the Ecobee3 and other thermostats can use Google Home or Amazon Echo as input devices, the new Ecobee4 has it built right in.

So, when I learned about this new review at Reviews.com, I was delighted to see that in their much more thorough review, the Ecobee was still king.  The best part of this article addresses the issue with the 'C' wire.  The 'C' wire seemed to elicit the most online discussion of any feature of the individual thermostats, and was one deciding factor in the article.  If you are in the market for a money saving smart thermostat, do yourself a favor and read this article.  I sure wish it had been published before I bought mine.


...

The Best Smart Thermostat of 2018 - Reviews.com

The best smart thermostat will heat and cool your home more efficiently than a traditional thermostat.
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Tesla Trucks!

​I've have been dying to see the new Tesla truck.  I'm really interested to to see how a battery operated 18 wheeler would work out.  This article talks about what others are doing - Tesla looks like it may have some competition in the area.  Follow the link below to WIRED's article.

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Is it Less Expensive to Heat a Cold Home or Cool a Hot Home?

hotcoldhouseWhich is better?  If you live in the North part of the country, most of your energy costs go towards heating your home for the larger part of the year.  If you live in the South, that money goes to cooling instead.  So what climate is the most energy efficient?  The answer might surprise you.

First, consider that depending upon the region and the local climate, the source of the energy to cool or heat a home can be drastically different.  In the North, oil is often used for heating, but that really isn't a great solution in the South for much shorter season where heat is rarely needed.  Electricity has a higher price point in the North for heat, but it the most frequently used energy source for cooling.  The bottom line is, you have to look at regions individually, taking into account the length of seasons, whether your long season is heating or cooling, and then the cost and efficiency of your fuel type.  To do a kind of quick and dirty study, I compared a few states with different climates.  First, let's look at Maine.  Below is a graph depicting the energy usage for heating and cooling as compared to the national average:

ME heatcool

 

Here is the same chart for Florida:

FL heatcool

 

If you are to sum up the measure depicted, just for a one year period (FEB2016 through JAN2017), you get 4,371 degree days for Florida, while totaling a whopping 7,519 degree days for Maine.  Here are several states compared to the national average:

 
State Degree Days
Florida 4,371
Arizona 4,832
National Average 5,354
Kansas 5,496
Michigan 6,818
Maine 7,519

 

As shown, the relatively warm and Southern states of Florida and Arizona are below the national average, while Michigan and Maine are significantly higher in degree days.  Kansas, right in the middle, was relatively close to the national average.

In short, running that air conditioner turns out to be a lot less than cranking up the heater.  That is a win for the warmer states.  That, and you don't have to shovel sunshine!

 

Source:  U.S. Department of Energy, http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/sled/#/

 

 

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Google's Project Sunroof Can Tell You How Much Solar Could Save You

Google's Project Sunroof Can Tell You How Much Solar Could Save You

Could some new solar panels on your roof actually pay for themselves?  Is there enough direct sun where you live?  Do you have too many trees, or is your house poorly angled to take advantage of the rays you do get?  Maybe your roof is just too small.  It could be that solar panels would pay for themselves, but the payoff isn't until after you plan on selling your home.  It is tough for the average consumer to get straight answers to these kinds of questions.  If you are just curious, or actually shopping for solar solutions, give Google's Project Sunroof a try.

In short, Project Sunroof allows you to enter your address, and utilizing Google Maps and some 3D modelling, your roof shape, angles, angle toward the sun, and shading from trees or large objects, your solar potential can be determined.  The Google Maps interface you are presented with shows your home with the solar exposure highlighted with gradients representing solar intensity.

SolarRoofSelect

SunlightAnalysis

 

Once you have confirmed this is your house, use the slider tools to approximate your monthly electric bill, choose lease, loan or buy, and even pick a provider. 

SolarFineTune

 It is ridiculously easy to use, and might even provide you with a question or two when you get a quote from a solar company.

SolarSavings

 

This application does not take into account other factors that could affect your installation, such as the net-metering arrangement your local utility employs, federal or state credits for solar, taxable value of your installation or the increase to the value of your home due to a solar installation.  If only there was an app for that!

 

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Tesla Solar Without Tesla Roof

Tesla Solar Without Tesla Roof

It looks like Tesla is also thnking of the rest of us that already have new roofs, or where Solar Roof (Tesla's new solar shingle solution) is not an option.  These sleek and finsished looking roof panels are due out later this year.  It will still be obvious that you have solar panels on your roof, but these just look so much nicer than traditional panels.  Check them out here.

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Ecobee3 is the Best Thermostat for My Money

Ecobee3 is the Best Thermostat for My Money

Shopping for a new 'smart' thermostat?  My review of the Ecobee3 here: Ecobee3 Review.

#green4geeks #Ecobee3

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Solar Shingles - Part 2

If only I had a time machine.  I just put a new roof on my house last year.  I had to, the old one was hail damaged and getting a little aged; I didn't think it would get through another set of seasons.  So, what happens less than a year later?  Tesla announces a new solar shingle.  Argh! Tesla Solar

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Affordable Solar?

sunProbably the biggest barrier to more widespread use of residential solar panels is the tremendous outlay it take to get started.  For the past eight or ten years, the conventional wisdom has been that it takes about twenty years to achieve payback from your solar investment, making it hard to justify.  Sure, you will have lower electric bills, but you will also have that loan payment you took out to finance it, or for some, the out of pocket expense you are trying to recoup.  Now, there may be hope for those that are heliotrope inclined.  According to an article in Investors Business Daily, the affordability of a solar installation may be within the reach of many of us.  According to the studies written about in this piece, the payback may be as little as ten years now.  This is largely due to the dropping price of the panels, government subsidy programs, and rising electricity prices.

All that is great, but the 2013 price for a 600 square foot panel array, with inverter, electric company tie-in, and installation is still about $55,000.  The option that makes this affordable for many now is, the availability of a 20 year lease of the system.  If you can install the system, and not have to worry about maintenance or additional costs, why not go solar?  Initial studies are showing that the homeowner will benefit from the net-even lease versus electric bill ratio due to the projected rising costs of purchased energy in the future.  Watch for the next two or three years to make this even more affordable or even lucrative, as the price of the system components drop.

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LED Closet Light

The light in one of the closets in my house went out recently.  Usually, this isn't a big deal, I just go to my local home improvement store,buy a new one, and all is good.  My house is about 16 years old now, and the last closet light that went out ended up having a bad ballast in the fixture itself, so the new fluorescent tube was did no good at all.  That time, I ended up having to replace the fixture itself.  I chose to replace the aging 24 inch fluorescent fixture with a modern Light Emitting Diode (LED) fixture.  Why?  Even though it was more expensive than a new fluorescent fixture, and a new fluorescent tube, the payoff came in two ways.  First, the old fixture drew 17 watts of energy, which was not much, but I knew I could do better.  Second, over the last sixteen years, I've had to replace the tube at least three times, at about 7 or 8 dollars a pop.  The new LED fixture draws about 7 watts, and I will probably never have to replace it in my lifetime.

So, the new closet light was in a larger closet.  This fixture was 48 inches long.  Before replaing the bulb, I took a look at the ballast.  It was swollen and had leaked some tar-like substance.  I figured it had to go, with the assumption that it would not last more than a year or so, if that..  A new replaceent LED fixture was a little pricey; $60-70 depending on wattage/brightness.  I decided to try something different.  Using parts on hand from other projects, I reworked the existing fixture into an LED model.  My estimated cost was about $15-20.  Read on to see how I did it.

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How Much Energy Do You Use?

TED 5000cI don't know anyone who doesn't wish their power bill was a little less.  I often hear people talking about high their power bill is, but they don't really know how to reduce it unless it is making sure lights aren't left on all night.  Some will say that they adjust their thermostat by one degree or more to conserve energy.  These approaches are reasonable, but the problem is, the result can only be seen thirty days down the road, when the power bill arrives.  Even then, one has to think back and wonder, "Did I really save that month, or was the weather just a little milder than usual?"  

 

Where Does the Power Go?

I live in Florida, where I worry much more about the magnitude of my cooling bill in the summer than I do about the heating bill in the winter.  Typically, my monthly energy costs are about two and a half times higher in the summer than spring and fall.  Only during January and February do my winter energy costs creep up a little, and it is usually by a much smaller amount.  Since my heat comes from natural gas, and it is a less expensive source of energy where I live, the dollar amount is negligible.  This pattern makes it relatively simple to see where most of my energy spend goes - cooling my house.  This works just the opposite for my friends up North - heating their houses in the winter time.  This makes sense when you stop to think of the devices that use the most power - motors and devices designed to produce heat.  Heat pumps and air conditioners use at least three motors each to pump heat into or away from living spaces.  For houses heated by electricity alone, add in the heating elements, and you are looking at a whopper of an electric bill.

Removing heating and cooling from the equation, what else uses the most electricity?  Again, look to the motors and things with heating elements.  An electric clothes dryer employs both a motor and a heating element.  Electric water heaters are constantly cycling to keep the water a constant hot temperature.  Modern dishwashers save water and electrically heated water overall (over hand washing and rinsing), but still pull down a lot of juice.  Electric coffee pots, ovens, cook-tops, and toasters all use a lot of power for the short time they are on.  Even electric hair dryers are big users of electricity; again, they use both a motor and a heating element.  Surprisingly, lighting takes significantly less power than heating and cooling.  There are a few caveats however.  For example, if you do leave a lot of lights on, and they are of the older incandescent variety, they are less energy efficient and add to the heat load of a space you might be trying to cool.  Older appliances like old style washing machines and refrigerators can also draw a lot of power.

 

Stop Guessing!

The only way for certain, to know where your energy is going, is to actually measure it.  You could go outside to your power meter and take a reading, then go back an hour later to see the amount of energy you have consumed.   You could even count how many rotations that little disk has made in a minute.  All you really know though is, the faster that disk spins, the more electricity you are burning. Believe it or not, it is much easier to measure it than you might think.  One way to measure your usage is to install a whole house energy monitor.  There are a number of them on the market, and they vary greatly in cost, complexity, and features.  Some are so simple to install, that they literally are a ring you slip over the outside of the power meter on the outside of your house.  Some are wired directly into your power panel and may require an electrician to install.  Regardless of the type you choose, what you will accomplish is a real time read of how much power you are using right now.  Why is this important?  For one, you no longer have to wait until the power bill comes to see if you have saved any money.  Second, you can start turning things in your house on and off to see what is really eating up the juice, and see the results immediately.  Below is a listing of some of the more popular models:

Efergy Elite Whole House Energy Monitoring System

Blue Line Innovations

Simple Energy Works

The Energy Detective

The prices range from around $60 all the way up to hundreds, depending upon options, display devices, and accuracy.

 

How it Works

I chose the TED 5000c from The Energy Detective to try out.  It was about $200, and came with the monitoring sensor, a wireless gateway device, and a wireless portable monitor.  It was relatively easy to install, and I was up and running within about an hour.  This particular model has a couple of current sensing loops that clamp around the two phase power leads that come into most homes.  It can be done without an electrician, but if you aren't comfortable around electrical circuitry, it would take less than ten minutes for a qualified electrician to install it.  It should only be installed with the main power turned off, and if you have any doubts, just hire a pro.  It is a small job.

5000Cimage 2

Once you have followed the installation instructions for the other unit, which plugs into a normal outlet elsewhere in the house, you can configure it for publishing to the internet, or just to a local browser in your house.  I chose to include the display unit with my purchase, and am glad I did.  I placed it on the kitchen counter where it is seen many times during the day.  This alone has caused much of our savings as a family.  Just seeing the current spend actually makes us think more about our energy usage, and reminds us to turn off non-essential items.  

Our findings:

  • We had seven recessed can lights in our kitchen, each of which had a traditional 65 watt floodlight installed.  Even though the lights were on a dimmer, people entering the room would just turn them up all the way.  Seeing the spike in the energy usage encouraged everyone to pick a lower setting.  I have since replaced some of the bulbs with LED models, and replaced the dimmer with a digital one, for further savings.  As far as lights go, these were among our heaviest hitters.
  • Outdoor lights, on either side of our garage were often being left on.  So were the interior garage lights.  The problem is, both sets of lights are not visible from within the house, so it was not apparent when they were being left on.  The energy monitor read a little higher, showing that something was left on.
  • A glance at the power monitor before leaving the house pointed out other things that were being left on - curling irons, fans, and other items.
  • We had a lot of so-called "wall warts"  Those little plug in power bricks that power laptops, mobile phones, tablets, and all kinds of other gadgets use for recharging.  They don't draw a lot of juice individually, but all of them together over a course of a month can be costing $5 to $10 or more a month.  They are easy to forget that they are plugged in, and use electricity whether their device is attached or not.
  • The included web interface showed us trends for the day,month, billing cycle, or even just for the past few minutes.  This helped with the decision to raise or lower the thermostat.
  • Turning various lights and appliances on and off gave us a sense of how much they draw.  We found that our refrigerator was actually not the energy hog we thought it was.
  • Turning breakers on and off led us to the discovery that one of our light switches to a stairway light, was leaking energy constantly, whether it was on or off.  Replacing it saved us about four dollars a month - the price of the switch.

 

Conclusion

All told, just those items have saved us from $45 to $100 a month in electricity savings.  This easily justified the cost of the monitoring gear, and even the cost of an electrician had I used one for the install.  I'll do a product review of the TED 5000 another time, but for now just wanted to point out the benefits of any whole house monitoring system in general.  Measurement is the first step.  If you can't measure your results, how do you know if you have made any progress?  Could you benefit from one of the smaller single circuit anergy monitors that you just plug in?  I'm sure you could, but your view would be limited to one device at a time.  To get the maximum benefit, my recommendation is to measure the whole house.

 

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