I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to tools. The right tools let me do things that most tradespeople shy away from. Part of my “luck” in knowing about the right tools is that I enjoy looking into the past. Our forefathers came up with some wonderful tools, but we seem now to have forgotten about them, or never learned.
Interestingly, a similar thing applies when it comes to materials. We have so many materials to play with now that it’s fun to imagine what Leonardo DaVinci would come up with, if given the full range of things we have to build with. His helicopter might actually fly if built with the right lightweight modern materials, and with stronger motors!
One goal is simply to understand the properties of all common materials. The other goal is to see how things can be used effectively for something other than their intended use. With these understandings, it becomes possible to use things “wrong” and get away with it! In building my house, I used coat-hooks instead of standard knobs on the cabinets. Why? To start, they are easy to use with only one finger. Over the years, I’ve seen how the finish around cabinet knobs has deteriorated from the oils on our hands. Using a coat-hook prevents touching the wood finish, so the cabinets will need to be refinished less often. Mine show no signs of damage after about fifteen years. Coat hooks cost less than knobs. And lastly, I can hang things on them!
Understanding that you’re not (usually) breaking any laws by using things in a way they were not designed to be used, teamed up with an understanding of materials can really open up the choices you have for problem solving and designing things. I used roofing materials on the exterior walls of my house. There is no code saying you cannot use more durable materials than is normal. I understand why gold plumbing is rare, but in the right circumstances, roofing material can be less expensive, more durable and fire resistant than conventional siding. Done well, it’s also far less upkeep. One final example of using things wrong is that I was looking for a way of getting heat into my house, radiantly, through the walls. I thought about the finned copper tubes that you see in solar collectors. They collect heat from the sun and put it into the water. Why can’t this process be reversed? I use warm water flowing through the tubes to put heat into the copper fins and into the house. Just because it was designed to have heat flow one way, doesn’t mean it can’t flow backwards. Understanding material properties lets you re-envision how things can be used, successfully!
A bit more about misusing tools… Those old tools our predecessors made are generally made of better steel than what you can buy now. That means you can work them harder. I’ve collected lots of old pipe wrenches and many were designed to encourage you to put a “cheater” on them. A cheater is usually just a length of pipe that fits over the handle of the wrench. If you do that with some modern tools, you’ll break the jaw at the head of the wrench. How do you think I know this 😉? Old tools can withstand much greater force without damage. Old tools came in a variety of patterns not seen today and this allowed you to easily get the tools into places a modern wrench wouldn’t fit. A good example would be tight quarters where the normal wide jaws of a modern wrench simply don’t fit, like in between screwed fittings. You get around this problem using a smaller old pipe wrench and a cheater. The higher quality steel in the old wrench lets it take the force needed and the cheater lets you exert the force without undue strain on your body. Knowing the properties of materials lets you do this successfully.
I really enjoy ideas. Ideas can come from the past. They can come from different fields of experience; like how plumbing helps inform medicine and visa-versa. Ideas come from using different perspectives than is normal. An example of this is building your home for what energy will cost towards the end of the home’s life. Energy seldom gets cheaper, so what will it cost fifty or one hundred years from now when your home is in middle or old age? Thinking about these things will likely encourage you to install much more insulation than you would have done just to meet code. Insulation is cheap, yet people find excuses to use as little of it as they can get away with. This makes places more expensive to heat and less comfortable to live in. It also tips the scales towards needing to rehab the place sooner than later.
Ideas are surprisingly easy to collect, sift through and put to use in ways that can make life nicer in all sorts of ways. Misusing tools and materials in creative and effective ways is just one way of putting some unusual ideas to work. It only requires understanding the material properties and getting into the habit of asking “What if …”.
The title is sort of a trick question as the answer will be different for different people and their differing needs and skill sets. Looking up the definition of investment, the broadest one is “an act of devoting time, effort, or energy to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result.”
There is an investment guru, Garrett Gunderson, who talks about finding your investor DNA. To me, this is about knowing your own strengths, and weaknesses. Knowing what makes you uncomfortable because it feels too risky, and what drives you. And, what do you want to accomplish in this life? Here’s a link to more detail on just what this is: https://5dayweekend.com/keep-more-money/investor-dna-worksheet/ I like it in part because it’s not the same old stuff we’ve been given all our lives… essentially scrimp and save, which people seldom do well. Clearly, financial literacy* and street smarts about investing are not taught in most schools. We as a nation, have a pretty dismal understanding of how money works. That may be why the top one percent of Americans have roughly the same net worth as the entire middle class. Here’s an article about it: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-11-09/one-percenters-close-to-surpassing-wealth-of-u-s-middle-class
Mr. Gunderson is looking at things using a different perspective and I’m a fan of having multiple perspectives! I don’t know for sure that his methods work, but no doubt how well they work depends a lot on the student.
Using his DNA worksheet, it becomes clear that real estate is a good fit for me because I’m comfortable with it. Also, being a contractor, I can fix it up, and give it value, both with my hands and what I know about building and efficiency. I can take something that was thought to be a tear down and make affordable housing from it, so there is a social goods piece as well. I get to help people. My father was a lawyer, but he did well with real estate because he was able to fix up legally distressed properties. So, what are you good at? What do you like doing? Can you bring those talents to an area that needs them and will reward you for using them?
Back to the title, have you considered that investing in yourself is probably the finest investment you can make? That investment has the possibility of paying back for the rest of your life! I’ve had the same Skilsaw for over forty years. It probably cost $40 way back when. I’ve built homes with it, and a lot of other stuff. I’m pretty sure it was a good investment! Even more important is that I’ve been lucky with mentors. Good people have been willing to teach me some of what they know, and those lessons continue to pay me back for the time I spent learning. My mentors invested their time in me and I’m not about to let that time be wasted.
So, what is a good investment for you? If you think about what matters to you, what you’re good at, what you want to learn, and what can help you reach financial independence, it should become pretty clear where your investment energy should be put.
*Financial literacy is a study unto itself and an interesting one. Here’s a quick definition: “Financial literacy is the ability to understand and effectively use various financial skills, including personal financial management, budgeting, and investing. The lack of these skills is called financial illiteracy.” If you do a search for “financial literacy training”, you’ll see some good info to, at a minimum, help you ask good financial questions.
I write this from the desk in my house. A few days ago, it wasn’t at all clear if this desk and the house it’s in would still be with us now. I took the photo you see here from the deck of my house in the evening. Smoke lit up by fire, and not far away at all! That night I was up every half hour to monitor the fire’s progress. This all happened during a heat wave as well. I couldn’t open windows at night to cool things off because of how thick the smoke was. Some nights, it got down to 88 degrees F inside. Heat, or smoke to breathe, your choice. I chose heat. The cats were non-plussed!
I finished building this off-grid house fourteen years ago. Knowing it was out in the sticks, I did a lot to make it fire resistant. Much of the roof is cement tile, on top of rolled roofing. It has Hardi-Shake for siding. There are no vents for embers to get into and cause problems. Handrails around the house are made of steel. The house is sprinklered inside and has a fire hydrant and hose outside. When testing out a four-inch hose, I had to point it up. Pointing down would lift me off the ground! I even have decent clearance from vegetation around most of the house.
I used a hot Mapp-gas torch to test materials. FYI, Mapp burns at 3,670 F in air! Even the Trex decking sample did not sustain flame very well at all, so that’s what I used. In those fourteen years, we’ve had a lot of experience with fires and have learned some things. I was just told yesterday that firefighters are bypassing homes with Trex decks because they are considered too difficult to protect. Ug! When I built the house, keeping vegetation from being right up against the house was thought to be good, now people are saying they want 100 feet of clearance. Big ug! I think I did a pretty good job of making the house fire resistant, but I’m not emotionally detached enough to be able to look forward to seeing how well it does in a real fire. I also didn’t factor in what mandatory evacuations would be like. Law enforcement and the firefighters just don’t want you around! Someone trying to protect their home is considered a liability, or someone that probably will need to be rescued. What’s the point of having a mini fire station if you can’t/shouldn’t stay to use it? And I hadn’t considered the pressure from family and friends to get out. Knowing what’s really the right thing to do, gets harder in a fire. Consider your escape route. If you stay behind to protect your home, but eventually find that the fire is winning, do you still have a clear way out? I have a long driveway through the brush and trees. I imagine it’s no fun staring down a life or death decision like that.
Fortunately, the fire stayed away, and I can sit here with only a faint smoke odor and write. But now I have a new task, which is to figure out how to make this place even more resilient and able to defend itself from fire. I suppose I’ll be cutting some trees further back, whacking down some weeds, and figuring out how to “harden” my plastic water tanks so they are able to survive a fire. Perhaps there are shutters, like they used to use in California’s gold country, that can go over windows to secure those weak spots. Maybe exterior sprinklers? And???
Our climate is changing these days, and now in California, fire season is thought to be year-round. Fires have changed also. I’ve heard firemen describing them as hotter and faster. And it’s not just the wildland fires, but fire in towns with little vegetation, have jumped from house to house to house. Seemingly resistant houses, like those covered in stucco are no longer immune. With big or fast fires, the fire crews can do little but try to get people out safely. Maybe it’s time to consider underground houses again! Whatever, we need to understand the changing science around fire and buildings so we can create truly safe, long lived and resilient homes and other structures. Fire is not going away. We are challenged to learn how to live with it.
Here’s a statement that likely won’t cause much debate: “Nobody’s going to believe something they think is not true”. Easy, right? Conversely, they will believe something they think is true. To me this raises the questions of “What is the truth”, and “Is it affected by beliefs?”. Is truth something solid and unchanging or does it depend on your perspective… what you believe?
These days, people believe whatever they want about the corona virus and it’s spread, regardless of what “science” tells them, or how many people have died. Those who don’t want to believe the science or numbers we’re given (or those who have a different agenda, like dollars over lives) tell us that it’s all a conspiracy using fake science. But think, unless you did the research yourself, how can you know any “facts” to be true? Then, why do people choose to believe anything at all that they didn’t experience, research and learn on their own? These days, how does one justify believing only the “facts” that agree with their position, while dismissing the rest?
I believe we all have the nascent ability to communicate with animals, but most people are blind to this gift. Does that make it a lie? Many people believe the pandemic is a hoax, perpetrated on all, in order to control us. Those who like to theorize about conspiracies “know” that most of the media in the US is owned by people who want to control what we think, to their own greedy and possibly evil ends. It’s all such a conflicted muddle, how do we get to the undeniable truth?
Here’s a little thought experiment to find what truly is true. Look for things that cannot be disputed. Does the sun come up for you in the morning? Does it rise even if there are clouds in the way? Is the sun rising an undeniable truth? You might think the Earth is actually flat and in the very center of the universe, so everything else revolves around it. I’m not questioning any of that… only whether the sun rises each day. I’m guessing we all agree it does, though I actually haven’t gone around asking people. I can imagine their entertaining reactions if I did! What other things are unmistakably true? I’d be willing to bet a cup of coffee that you can find many more truths. I’m always on the lookout for them. After all, we know that “The truth is out there”! :~)
After the “Black Death” in Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which killed between thirty and sixty percent of the population, it seems the people remaining desperately needed to know what was true. They needed an anchor. In the town squares, they put markers, showing the four points of the compass. This was an unarguable truth for them.
Now, back to the thought experiment, round up every truth you can and make it your foundation. These are your unmistakable, undisputable truths. Others may disagree, but as you have met with and lived these truths, they can be your sun rising and your points of the compass. Some truths, like animal communication is for me, are your individual truths. They probably aren’t provable by normal scientific means at this point, so it’s not our job to be perturbed if others don’t believe these personal truths. Others just aren’t working from the same set of facts that you or I am. Simply, for me, my experience is different. It’s been fun over the years to be told some plumbing things cannot happen, when I’ve seen and worked with exactly the thing I was told was impossible. If such different viewpoints can happen with physical reality, imagine what divisiveness can happen with the rest of our universe!
This brings us to an old question. How do you vet your truths? How do you know beyond doubt that they are actually true? Here we must take ego out of the equation. You cannot choose to believe something just because it aligns with what you feel is correct. Well, you can, but that doesn’t make it an undeniable truth, the sort of truth you expect others to see and believe!
Is something true because a majority of sources, or the powerful say so? Nicolaus Copernicus was at odds with the Catholic Church in the 1500s because he thought Earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around. The Church was a powerful organization and going against it was worse than fighting city hall is today. That’s because they could condemn your soul to eternal hell! Still, most people today believe Copernicus was correct, because of the mountain of evidence telling us so. If something matters a lot to you, it’s best to study it and really do the research so you can know beyond doubt that it is true… or not! It’s OK to accept what others say as long as you make sure they are credible and have no agenda other than telling the full results of their research.
Put another way, look for the motivations of those proclaiming their truth. “Follow the money” is an old saying that applies here. If you deign to believe them, what do they stand to gain? Is it money, power, loyalty, fame, or simply the knowledge that they have helped? And yes, I know that this divining out the truth is a lot of work, but ultimately, it empowers you and opens doors for you that you may not even have seen before.
One of my favorite quotes: “The inquiry of truth, which is the love-making, or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it is the sovereign good of human nature.” Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
Let’s give truth the same respect that Francis Bacon did. The benefits of doing so will elevate all of us, and benefit everyone and everything living on our little planet.
All modern buildings are made up of many different systems, all put together somehow. When they’re put together well, the results can be wonderful, combining comfort in various forms, like good temperature, proper humidity, low noise, appropriate light, very low pollutant levels and an easy to live with cost. Certainly, there are other comforts too, like long building life, and low maintenance.
I’ve been on jobs where the “systems thinking” concept didn’t get thought about much. It’s the classic, the framer does his work and then the plumber or electrician comes and bores holes through the framing that are too big and structurally weaken things. Or the plumber does his work first and the framer has to figure out how to put the wood in its proper place.
Donella Meadows wrote the book “Thinking in Systems”, which is “offering insight for problem solving on scales ranging from the personal to the global “. Linda Wigington, who founded the Affordable Comfort Conference, (now the National Home Performance Conference) has made it part of her mission to apply systems thinking to buildings and help others to understand the value in doing so. Part of her thinking on it is that each part of a building affects other parts. A good and snug building shell reduces the size of the equipment needed for heating and cooling. Putting in less South facing glass reduces cooling needs and room overheating. Installing “way too much” insulation future-proofs the building and gives greater comfort with lower utility bills right away.
I deal a lot with hot water. On the face of it, installing a low flow showerhead is a good thing, right? It should save water and energy, but let’s look at what really happens. If, you could find a showerhead that gave you exactly half as much water as a conventional (2.5 gpm) head, and did nothing with the piping serving that head, it would take roughly twice as long to get hot water, because the volume of water in the line hasn’t changed. So, if it used to take one minute, now it will take two. Actually, it gets a bit worse. Because hot water is spending more time in the line, it will lose more heat and make you wait even longer for hot water to arrive at the showerhead. Low flow fixtures serve their purpose best if supplied with low volume plumbing, so if you can replace the old ½” lines with 3/8” PEX piping, you’ll cut the volume of water in the line in half, making it so you don’t have to wait longer for the shower to be useful! With hot water, it’s clear that one will be better served by looking at all the parts of the system together.
It works the same way for the whole building. Buildings work best if they are designed to relate to factors in the environment where they are built, such as the sun’s path, prevailing winds, level of ground water, ambient noises and such.
Then there are the challenges of building the building so that there are no conflicts between the trades; and also, owner, builder and architect are all aligned in their goals, so that conflict between them doesn’t happen either.
Building from scratch is a big, multi-faceted endeavor, and is something that shouldn’t be rushed. It’s a bit of an extreme example, but in building my own home, it took eight years to get county approval. The upside to it was that I got to think through the many parts of the job in detail and really understand how it all fit together. This resulted in almost no changes being made during construction, which is rare.
To sum up, everything affects everything else in a building. It’s often not too easy to see the inter-relationships, but you’ll likely be better off assuming they exist and doing what you can to help them all get along harmoniously.
The image that goes with this post is the mind-map I drew for my house. I had a short list of main goals I wanted to make happen. They were, quiet, low upkeep, very energy efficient, and easy to live in affordably. Never forgetting those goals during design and construction made them fairly easy to reach. Mind-mapping is a great tool for organizing complex things so you can actually practice systems thinking.
Perspective is such a deceptively simple word, yet there is enormous power in the application of it. Put the other way… “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This is the exact opposite of having multiple perspectives. One becomes stuck in only one way of seeing the world. So, nearly everyone else becomes wrong and the inability to agree on things and get stuff done becomes normal. And I’m not even talking politics!
Fortunately, the more tools (perspectives) you have, the greater the odds that you will accomplish what you want to do, whatever that is. As a little thought experiment, let’s take the concept of time. We all get that an hour is an hour long and a day is twenty four of those hours, though as I get older, years seem to get shorter. Now, what is an hour to a mayfly (where the adult lives from ½ hour, up to two weeks), or to a redwood tree (which can live up to 2,200 years)? I suspect that redwood couldn’t even blink in an hour if it had eyes. And what does the billion-year-old igneous rock think of the concept of an hour, or even time itself?
Coming back to a more practical application of the benefits of looking at things in different timeframes; imagine you are trying to fix a recalcitrant hot water system. You look at things and all the right parts are in place and seem to be working, but the system still isn’t working correctly. Hmmm, no clue what’s wrong! Now look at the system and imagine what will happen to the various components over time. Oh, now you see that the pump will tend to freeze up with hard or gritty water. You notice de-zincification at brass valves, you find scale build-up at the mixing valve that is above the water heater and “sees” hot water all the time, and finally you notice rust building up at dissimilar metal connections, like between brass pipe and steel at the tank or dielectric unions filling with rust and restricting flow. Those are a few clues you can actually work with!
See how many more possible problems come to light with the application of just one different perspective? Now you can add the perspectives of where that hot water system lives and what conditions it experiences, both inside and outside. Imagine how the equipment might function in varying weathers, hot, cold, dry, windy and wet. Think about water quality and how very hard, or acidic or corrosive or high/low pressure water could affect things.
You could also look at the system with different eyes; ones that see heat! These days there are inexpensive thermal cameras like the Flir One that simply plug into your cell phone and let you see even minor temperature differences. Now you can see if the pump is overheating, or if the pipes that should be hot actually are. You can “look” under sinks and find cross connections in the plumbing.
The power of having multiple perspectives is probably the finest troubleshooting tool available. It can allow you to see things not only in different time frames, water qualities, and thermally, but also through the eyes and ears of those living with troublesome equipment. Know that they will respond differently than you might depending on their knowledge and comfort level with the equipment. But they live with the system and can describe just how it misbehaves. That’s useful info for the troubleshooter!
Here’s another one… expectations. Having expectations is pretty normal, but when things don’t happen as expected, we usually aren’t too happy about it. Expectation ties in closely with judgement, often negative. Is it possible to go through life with fewer expectations? Perhaps a better question, is it possible to suspend our expectations for a while and simply see how things play out without an emotional response? I have had to imagine I was from a different planet (particularly useful around some relatives) and just try to take in what was happening around me, rather than being frustrated or annoyed with it. It’s surprising how much easier relatives (and others) are to deal with if you bring little in the way of expectations. Rather, bring open ears, and just listen. A readily available sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.
Being able to tap into multiple perspectives probably comes from having an active imagination. Kids usually have good imaginations, and we were all kids once. Can you call up that no-holds-barred imagination when you need it? Think of it as a gift from your past. Maybe as you grew up, you were told it was silly, or a waste of time, or just childish, but it’s none of those. It’s a doorway to be opened when you would benefit from using the power of multiple perspectives.
Perspectives are formed from our experience. A seventy year old will have vastly different points of view than a child, yet if the grown-up is lucky, he or she will remember the youthful perspectives and not have to think that a child is silly or misbehaving when that child acts goofy. The kid who can turn into a tree or superhero in nanoseconds is someone to appreciate, not correct.
Having perspective is different than tolerance. For example, it’s easy to be tolerant of someone who has suffered, but understanding their perspective requires sitting down with them and learning (and feeling) just what they’ve been through. Feeling others’ pain isn’t a fun experience, but it will make you a more compassionate and understanding person. Perspective employs our imagination to “see” the world and its parts in a more comprehensive way. It helps us to find a balance between right and wrong; pretty and ugly; confidence and fear. All that leads to a richer life!
Maybe I should have titled this, “The Philosophy of Perspective” ;~)
In rehabbing old beat up houses, we do three things. 1) Don’t buy in a bad neighborhood. 2) Make the perimeter fencing continuous and strong. 3) Use good doors and windows to help make the house secure. (We likely do more than just these three things, but these are the early defensive steps.)
1. Social distancing is like staying in a good neighborhood. It helps keep the virus away and prevents you from giving it to someone else. We cannot really be sure we don’t have it, or that others who look just fine don’t have it, so why take those risks. Also, masks are fine but for the most part, they only work on bigger water droplets that will fall to the ground anyway. The small stuff we exhale in normal breath can stay airborne for three hours and is far too small for all but the best masks to catch. Here is a document from The National Academies Press that goes into detail: http://nap.edu/25776
2. A strong fence equals all the steps we take to keep the virus from entering our bodies. Unfortunately we must assume anything that has been touched by any hands is contaminated. Letters, packages, anything from a store, produce... everything! It all needs to be wiped down with alcohol or washed. The counter it gets put down on needs sanitizing. The bags or boxes it comes in are suspect. Clothes and hair can carry the virus. Soap is needed as our hands can’t take the 140 degrees needed to kill the beast. I spray my hands with alcohol when I enter and exit my car. I spray the handles and steering wheel. And of course, I’m spending a LOT less time in the car. This virus has a lipid shell, so alcohol or soap work to break it down and deactivate the not-really-alive bug. And, OK, a mask won’t hurt, just don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s making you virus-proof!
3. The final protection (strong windows and doors) is your own immune system and overall health. I’m trying to stay healthy and have added antivirals and immune system helpers. You might want to look into things like cat’s claw, lemon balm, garlic, echinacea, olive leaf extract, Arabinex, chaga, zinc, licorice, ginger and mullein extract. There are lots more to research and learn about as well! Here’s a good place to start: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/antiviral-herbs
One more interesting bit that just came out is how air pollution affects health. Here’s a quote, “The study, from researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, examined 3,080 U.S. counties. A small increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate pollution – of just one microgram per cubic meter – is associated with a 15 percent greater likelihood of dying of covid-19. This stark difference may be explained by the lung damage such pollution causes over time.” https://tinyurl.com/verv23z
Half of this all is for you to stay well, and half is to prevent giving it to others. The trajectory of the virus right now is threatening. We need to do more than seems to make sense, just to avoid being part of the problem. And here’s a little more reading to round things out: http://nap.edu/25765
This is no different than being in a war. We all have a common enemy so must work together, each in our own way to make it through this interesting time. Still, one can’t miss noticing all the people who are stepping up and doing what they can to help out in so many different ways. It’s very nice to see!
In 1966, Robert F. Kennedy said the following:
For the fortunate among us, the fourth danger is comfort, the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. There is a Chinese curse which says "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. And everyone here will ultimately be judged-will ultimately judge himself-on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.
There have been many interesting times in the history of humanity. Plagues, wars and social revolution come to mind. We certainly live in one of those times right now, and should we survive, it makes me wonder what we’ll think when we look back on this time through the lens of how we will judge ourselves on “the effort he has contributed to building a new world society”. Will we see ourselves as having been useful in helping to put the world back on track? Will we have done our part? Might we be able to use this pandemic to re-evaluate where we’re headed as a society? Will we be able to find and tap our “creative energy” to help our world emerge intact from this interesting time?
I have a friend who “sees” a “luminous blue web” covering the globe. It may be visualized by imagining many points of light, all connected to nearby points by glowing blue filaments. Every point of light is somebody doing their part to protect, nurture and energize; each in their own way. Each does “good” in the way that they have the skills for and works best for them. The filaments represent the many individuals “holding hands” and working together to help their community. Their energies combined, breathe new life and hope into our very existence. In my own little way, I’ve tried to make us all more energy and water efficient. Others contribute in vastly different ways. They may grow food, or work in animal shelters, or simply share what they’ve learned in life to make the lives of others a bit better. The list of how each of us can be useful is bigger than imagination! Simply sharing a smile or a good thought is a step in the right direction. When we all play and you add up all the steps, it becomes a force that cannot be stopped.
In interesting times, it’s easy, almost expected that we will be fearful and want simply to protect ourselves and what we have. But if we allow ourselves to descend into fear or greed, we are not living up to our potential for helping humanity and our world get out of this dark time. Of course, you need to remain strong to be of use to others, but that’s different than circling your wagons. One thing I’ve found over time to be true, is that if you help others, you will be helped. You can’t know when you’ll get that help, but over decades, this “help and be helped” has without fail, always been true for me.
In 1962 Robert’s brother John made it a priority to put a man on the moon. We were all amazed at the concept, but the US got behind the idea and made it happen. It’s a practical lesson to us all, that we can make the “impossible” happen when we collectively have the will, and decide to row in the same direction.
Now is one of those times where we all need to be throwing our energies into helping our world, so I’ll suggest that we each consider how we may use our own individual talents to make it so. Even a simple act of kindness can have a tremendous impact. I’ve been told that in difficult times some years ago, some simple acts of kindness I did, gave hope and prevented four suicides. You create ripples with what you do. Let’s “join hands” virtually and create that luminous blue web right now. It’s needed!
In the beginning there was cold water, and people didn’t bathe much. They masked body odor with perfumes and oils, or just went around smelly. Even as recently as the turn of the last century, running hot water was a luxury. It was available only to those who were well off. These days, in the United States, a personal supply of hot water is thought of as a necessity, right up there with food and shelter. Just try going without it!
Over time, people have heated water in a great many ways. A brief look at some of these methods can give perspective, and you will see how some of these older and now unused techniques could have application today.
From Stove to Storage tank -- When wood and coal were the prevalent fuels, water was usually heated in a pot over the fire or in a kettle over the cook stove. Some stoves had a reservoir lined with tin, copper or porcelain. This would be filled with water for heating. Heating enough water for a bath was a time-consuming ordeal. Much of Saturday was spent getting cleaned up for church on Sunday.
Later, when running water came indoors, a chamber or pipe loop called a water back (or water front) was installed in the firebox of the stove. Heated water would move by convection through this chamber to a storage tank. For reasons which can only be guessed at, these tanks were called range boilers, even though it was the stove which did the heating. Some of these old systems are still operating out there today. The oldest water-back/range boiler we’ve seen (pictured above) still hooked up and in use dates back to the early1920s.
A variation of the stove/storage tank idea was the “scuttle-a-day” heater which used coal. This was a small cast-iron device. Short and squat, with a rounded top, it looked more like Star Wars’ R2-D2 than a water heater. Hooked up to a storage tank in the same way as a water back, it used one scuttle (bucket) of coal per day to keep the water hot, more or less. Using the scuttle-a-day eliminated the need to fire up the kitchen stove when hot water was needed. It saved fuel and avoided turning the house into a sauna during hot weather. This heater had damper controls to adjust the rate of burning, but fully automatic water heating was yet to come.
Another interesting type of heater was the side-arm. It usually had a gas burner placed underneath a copper coil. These were commonly “holstered” in a cast iron shell. Water would be heated in the coil, and then convection would drive the heated water to a storage tank, just as it did in the water-back and scuttle-a-day coal burner.
Originally, side-arm heaters simply had a gas valve which operated by hand. The gas was lit with a match when you wanted a bath. Forgetting to shut if off when done with the bath “triggered” a potentially explosive situation. Later, automatic controls and safeties were developed which made the side-arm heaters easier to live with. One advantage of the side-arm heater was that if its storage tank rusted out, you could simply replace that one component. You’d transfer the burner and other pieces to your new tank, keeping costs down. Planned obsolescence had not yet become a way of life.
It’s interesting to note that one of the most efficient water heaters (no longer available) was the Marathon gas fired heater. It was an updated side-arm heater. One of the main reasons it was so efficient is that the burner was separated from the storage tank. Because there was no flue running up through the stored hot water, standby heat loss form the heater was greatly reduced.
Hot water in an instant -- Up until the 1890’s, all forms of water heating both heated and stored the water. Kerosene, gasoline and a variety of gasses have been used to heat water. Some gasses, such as acetylene and producers gas could even be made on site. With the advent of high-energy liquid and gaseous fuels, instantaneous heating became possible. These fuels were much easier to regulate automatically than wood or coal.
The bath heater was one of the first instantaneous types. We find one variety particularly interesting. Once a pilot was lit, turning on the water would also turn on the gas burner. Water flowed up through a pipe to a sprinkler inside the top of the unit. As water sprayed out through the combustion gasses, it collected heat (and combustion byproducts). From there the water cascaded over metal that was being heater by the flame, collecting more heat. The water then travelled around to a spigot and into the tub.
Ad copy in the 1906 Sweet’s Catalog boasted that this method utilized “92 units of heat out of a possible 100, a feat never before accomplished in heater construction”. This heater was extremely efficient, though it did result in slightly tainted bath water. Perhaps the somewhat acidic water cleaned better! Today, the most efficient furnaces and boilers also condense flue gasses.
As the century turned -- At present, only three manufacturers produce most of the water heaters in the United States. In the early 1900s there were over 150 manufacturers. Many types of heaters were competing for business. The two major camps were automatic instantaneous and automatic storage heaters. You already know which type prevailed.
It may have to do with how people bathe. For many reasons, precise temperature control has always been difficult with instantaneous heaters. That didn’t matter when filling a tub, which is what most everybody used to do. As toes tested the water, hot or cold was added until the bather was satisfied. When the “rain bath” or shower became more common, if the water temperature fluctuated, it was noticed … and not much appreciated. Tank-type heaters seemed to gain in popularity around this time.
Galvanized steel tanks were common, but longer lasting copper, bronze and Monel (a copper-nickel mix) were available also. Performance was improved dramatically when insulation was added to the tank. Surprise! What seems obvious to us now was innovation back then. Like the side-arm heater, some of the early tank-type heaters were designed so you could replace just the tank and re-use the rest of the components, even the insulation.
Because tankless heaters could produce hot water as soon as the pilot was lit, we imagine tank-type heater makers felt at a competitive disadvantage. They came up with some innovative ways of getting hot water from a tank within a few minutes after heating had begun.
One method placed a coil of pipe in the combustion chamber. Water was fed into the coil from the bottom of the heater. A tube ran from the coil up the flue and connected to the hot outlet pipe. Water was heated in the coil almost immediately; it could either be used right then or go to storage.
Another method wrapped a jacket about an inch away from and completely around the flue, surrounding it inside the tank. This jacket was open both top and bottom, creating a rising current of heated water. Like the previous method, hot water, although limited in quantity, was almost instantly available for use.
These heaters still took just as long as ever to heat their entire contents, but they could provide a small amount of hot water quickly for chores. That meant the heater could be turned on briefly and then kept off most of the time, greatly cutting standby heat losses.
Early solar -- Solar water heating started catching on around the turn of the century (end of the 1800s). Originally there were batch heaters, now called internal collector and storage (ICS) units. These heaters had one or more tanks placed behind glass, in an enclosed box. They are very simple with no moving parts and little risk of freeze damage. Their main drawback is substantial overnight heat loss.
Thermosyphon systems were an improvement. This method placed the tank above the collector and used convection to move heated water into the tank (just like the side-arm heater). One manufacturer was Day and Night, so called because their heaters provided hot water both day and night. Their insulated tanks kept stored water hot after the sun went down, and that was a solar first.
The company suffered when unusually cold weather caused freeze damage to many of their collectors. Their remedy was to install a heat exchanger between the tank and collector and fill the collector with alcohol and water. We personally feel this was one of the most elegantly simple and efficient solar systems ever devised.
A second problem occurred as solar tanks aged and began to leak. A major cause of leaks then, as now, was using different metals together in water. When metals are mixed in this way, one of them always corrodes to protect the other. One metal turns bodyguard to the more “noble” metal, and it sacrifices itself. Thus, steel rusts away to protect copper. When these metals were used together, plumbing corroded and holes developed. Water leaked out and caused havoc. Today, plastic lined steel nipples and dielectric unions can be used effectively to separate the metals and prevent this problem.
These solar tanks were usually installed in attics, up under the peak, so thermosyphoning with the roof mounted solar collectors could work. When tanks leaked, it was always a major headache. Even if they had not been packed in boxes with cork bits all around, access to attic tanks was difficult. Replacement would have been a nightmare, and it probably was seldom attempted. Instead, tanks or their plumbing failed, houses flooded, and solar developed a black eye. If only solar system owners had been informed about galvanic corrosion and the use of sacrificial anodes to protect their tanks!
At this time, gas was becoming more widely available, and its price was very attractive. Utility companies even got into the business of selling water heaters (free bath towels included) to build demand for their product. Solar was not able to compete against low cost gas prices or the freedom from involvement that abundant utility energy offered. Solar water heating slowly disappeared.
Tank evolution -- In the meantime, tank-type heaters had become dominant. Various methods and energy sources existed, but electric and gas tank-type heaters took over the lions’ share of the market. Tank building technology was changing, and some interesting things happened. As gas prices started going up, attempts were made to make tanks more efficient.
One such tank was the “U” tube heater. It’s enlightening to compare it to present-day heaters. Modern gas heaters have a flue, usually three or four inch diameter pipe running from the combustion chamber right up through the center of the tank. It also acts like a chimney, and heated air is constantly flowing up and out. This is all lost heat.
In the “U” tube heater, the flue went up, inside the tank, until it got near the top. Then it made a 180 degree turn and headed back down. It exited near the bottom and connected to an external vent pipe. This inverted U created a heat trap. It would vent only when the burner fired and so lost much less heat. Also, since the U doubled the surface area of the pipe inside the tank, more heat was captured by the water. It was very efficient.
Another change in manufacturing was the advent of glass lining. This glass coating is similar to ceramic glazing. Baked onto the inside of a steel tank, it provides a very good defense against rusting. Because a perfect process for glass lining tanks has yet to be developed, sacrificial anode rods are used to protect the steel at any “holidays” or imperfections in the lining.
This system worked so well that manufacturers eventually stopped making tanks of expensive metals such as copper and Monel. Instead, their better tanks were made with extra-heavy steel lined with a double coating of glass. With such good protection and thick steel, a tank could last decades after its anode was used up. In fact we recently ran across a 42 year old heater that is still in good condition.
As the business of making and selling water heaters grew ever more competitive, ways were found to cut costs. Tank quality began to deteriorate as tanks were made of thinner steel and double glass lining was no longer offered. Metal drains were replaced with plastic.
Experience has shown us that modern tanks are more delicate than their predecessors, but with maintenance, their service lives can be greatly extended. More expensive tanks today may have a second anode, or they may have a plastic lining or be entirely plastic to prevent corrosion. Still, glass-lined tanks make up the vast majority of tanks in service and sold today.
Safety and energy upgrades -- Efforts have been ongoing to make water heaters safer. The results have been so successful that at one point, it was suggested we didn’t need to install relief valves anymore because tanks had quit blowing up! Tanks do explode less often today precisely because relief valves DO get installed and because heaters have better controls.
Manufacturers have also been fine tuning heaters for better energy performance to meet stringent federal energy codes. This has pros and cons. Yes, plastic drain valves lose less heat than brass ones, but very often they simply don’t work. Yes, some small amount of heat is lost through the anode’s exposed hex head. However proposals to insulate and cover the hex head may do more damage than good. Unless they specify that access to the anode remain, anode replacement and water heater maintenance will become much more difficult.
One area which is likely to get even more attention in the future of water heating is conservation. Once the heaters themselves have been tweaked for every BTU of performance, it will make sense to zero in on the antiquated distribution systems where many of those BTUs are being lost. Other areas for improvement include heat recovery and reducing consumption of hot water.
Because they work so well, water heaters are generally the least thought about piece of equipment in most homes. But it’s useful to take time to understand them, learn a little about their past, and guess at their future. That way we’re in a good position to do what’s needed to get the best performance and longest life from our water heating systems. It’s the best way to stay in hot water!
PS. I originally wrote this article in 1995. It’s interesting just how much remains true.
I live in Northern California where PG&E has recently been shutting off power to large areas and populations because of the fire risk PG&E’s infrastructure poses, particularly when the weather is dry and windy. This has been causing all sorts of trouble for people. What if you are on medical equipment that must not be shut down? What if everything in the fridge/freezer in your restaurant spoils? Does your business need electricity to function?! There are so many what-ifs.
There is uncertainty and even fear around the concept of going off grid, yet with our ageing, inadequate and poorly maintained grid, now is a perfect time to make yourself immune from grid troubles like outages and rising rates. Many people fear that going off-grid is prohibitively expensive, but with planning the costs can be quite manageable.
Energy efficiency is the key! The less energy you need, the less equipment you’ll have to buy and the lower your initial costs. With a thoughtful approach, cutting 50% of your usage is not too difficult, while more aggressive measures can get you an 80% reduction.
The best way to begin is to measure your electrical loads and use that to guide you in cutting down the demand. There is a range of equipment for doing this, but a simple Kill-A-Watt meter is an inexpensive way to measure plug loads. The other load you want to know about is your base load. With everything turned off, what power use do you have? I keep mine under 15 watts, while it’s not uncommon to find homes with a steady 300-watt draw. This comes from things like cable boxes and TVs with a remote control (power strips can help here). With 50% or 80% savings, filling in the remaining need with homemade power doesn’t have to be particularly hard or expensive. Even if you live in a city, as long as you have some solar access, unhooking from the grid need be no more difficult than it is in a rural setting.
There was actually a time before the power grid! Maybe a look back in time could help us to better understand what has already been done to better inform our becoming more independent now. Things like water wheels and gas generators existed for creating your own energy. Bypassing the need for energy came from items like windmills for pumping water and appropriate building design--think shady porches in warm climates. People going off grid in rural settings could actually help utilities manage their systems better if the many power lines in forested areas could gradually be eliminated rather than going through the expense of undergrounding them for safety. Locally made and distributed power, often referred to as a microgrid, is another way of getting power for you and your neighbors. Going off the big grid could even benefit those who remain on it, as it helps reduce peak loads, which the grumpy old grid has trouble with.
One interesting idea for being immune from power outages is to drive an electric car than not only charges from your (or other) system, but can also put power back into your electrical system. The energy stored in a Tesla could easily power my efficient home for nearly a month!
Cost does not have to be a barrier to having a substantially more efficient home. Retrofitting existing homes to use far less energy is not simple, but has been done many times and in very different circumstances, and using different approaches. True efficiency is not pie-in-the-sky! When I built my own off-grid home, which I designed around the necessity of being very efficient, the going cost per square foot for new construction was about $250. My house came in at $100, yet uses only about one tenth the energy of what conventional housing does--without any discomfort or freezing in the dark. This demonstrates that efficiency does not have to cost more, but in fact can be much less. Amory Lovins once described it as “Tunneling through the cost barrier.” Of course, new construction is far simpler to make efficient, but we are unlikely to tear down all those existing homes in the name of efficiency.
Managing my home’s power system takes on average, just a few minutes per week. With more modern batteries, even that number would go down. If I looked at what I would have to pay out in energy bills and compare it to the time I spend on managing the system, it’s a well-paying job!
There are lots of grids we’re part of, like food, transportation and the economy. These are difficult or even illegal to separate from, but ultimately, getting and living off the power grid is manageable, and can be cheaper and safer than staying on it.
Looking back over my working life of 50+ years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.