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.
I’m just out from crawling around under a seventy year old house where the space is tight and obstructed with plumbing, ducting, low hanging beams, piers and of course broken concrete bits to crawl on. This reminds me in part why I decided to focus on hot water… Water heaters usually live in nicer places! Anyway, part of what I’m doing under the house is replacing some of the old steel water and drain line with ABS drain and PEX water service.
Some would say this is “just plumbing”, but I feel it deserves a bit more respect. Let’s think about what goes into installing new or making repairs in difficult to access places, or any places. The technician needs to know what work is to be accomplished, how to make sure it’s efficient, what parts will be needed, what the codes and physics are around doing the work, what order the work is best done in, and importantly, how to improvise successfully. Safety and durability matter too. Doing “just plumbing” just might involve multitasking!
The way I prefer to begin work is to simply stare at the job to be done and ponder the approaches and variables until a clear picture comes to mind showing me the cleanest and simplest way of making it happen. It’s helpful to know what the “fixed points” are. These are the bits that must be a certain way, or material, or in a certain place. Knowing these gives you places to build from and to. I’ve learned over time that if I just start plumbing without that clear picture in mind, I wind up unhappy with the result as there inevitably will be something I missed taking into consideration. I’ve mostly learned that if I don’t have that clear picture, don’t start the job! Sometimes it’s not so simple. Other people around the job may wonder how you’re earning your keep when you are just sitting there, but don’t let them distract or hurry you. Show them a copy of this blog post! Get that clear picture in your head to work from. You’ll actually be working smarter and faster this way. A tight crawl space is hard to just sit and stare at, so I must try to imagine the job without that visual help. Toting a big pile of fittings and tools around under a house isn’t much fun, as you can imagine, so I aim to have only what I’ll need. Actually knowing what you’ll need for this sort of job just may be an art form. One of the most frustrating things for a tradesperson is to have to make multiple shopping runs in a day for a single job.
This is where improvisation can be a good thing. Imagine you’re under that house, with limited fittings. You run pipe and find that you don’t have the right fitting to complete the job. Ug! I was bringing a drain line down but found I had only one correctly sized 45 degree bend and needed two. What I was able to do was cut the main line and install a coupling so the pipe could be rotated 45 degrees. This allowed me to get things hooked up using just the one 45. It actually made the flow path a little easier by eliminating one bend. That might have been a combination of good luck and lots of field experience, but I’ll take it!
Plumbing frustrates and scares many people. I believe that if we slow down and recognize the challenges in doing good plumbing, we’ll be giving it the respect and consideration it deserves. By doing this, the plumbing task at hand will become easier and much more manageable. Sometimes respect is in doing good prep work. For example, if you’re not too confident in your soldering abilities, practice some first. It’ll make doing the soldering under a home, much less threatening. Breaking jobs down into manageable pieces and finding ways to always stay in control of the job will make life nicer too. Just imagine cutting into a pipe to learn the water wasn’t turned off. That’s when the plumbing is controlling you! Additionally finding a mentor, or someone willing to share tips and tricks won’t hurt either.
I think you know by now that it seldom is “just plumbing”. There is so much more to it! Knowing what I know now still doesn’t make crawling under houses any more physically comfortable, but it does give me reason to believe that I won’t need to spend any more time down there than is truly necessary and that is comforting!
I was just listening to news on the radio while driving around. There was a short discussion of tankless water heaters, talking about how they save energy compared to tank-type heaters. There was no mention of the cost of installation compared to tank type. No mention of the extra service a tankless needs to perform well and maintain warranty. No mention of how one can expect “different” hot water delivery, depending on flow rate. Nothing on condensing efficiency vs non-condensing. And lastly, they said tankless last twice as long as tanks, with no mention of maintenance. It seemed to this hot water nerd to be poorly informed news.
I used to be on a crusade to correct and educate the media about all the mis-statements and half-truths concerning hot water that I learned of. Turns out that’s a never ending job! (Just because, I did write to the radio station. We’ll see if they respond.) Mostly I seemed to upset media people and their writers, though some got into the habit of contacting me about hot water stuff. The plumbing industry is full of “old wife’s tales” and “that’s how it’s always been done” sorts of thinking. With good reason, plumbers are slow to change as there is a long history of new ideas being thrown out there for plumbers to try and then these things fail. The plumber is often left to deal with it.
Sadly, much of what the media gives us is simply a rehash of the old tales. Plenty of engineering and physics is involved in getting hot water right, and the sound bites we get from the media can’t give us the detail we need to make good decisions. No doubt the radio mention today will help with tankless sales, but there will be plenty the happy new owners of this technology will have to learn on their own in dealing with unexpected problems, and that won’t make the news.
Clearly, education is the key. If there were only, say one thousand people in North America who learned and became expert in hot water, all the mis-information wouldn’t go unchallenged. Also, when more than one person is telling a magazine that they missed some points, the magazine will probably notice and attempt to make things better and more accurate, at least in the future. As the field of hot water is big and complex, it’s tricky to put universally useful information down in a way that truly works for all. Understand that there are many thousands of different waters around the world and different waters affect plastics, metals and mineral build up in different ways. Heat alone is a game changer as it can speed up chemical processes and affect how and when metals corrode. I have only a plumber’s understanding of the chemistry, based on personal study and what I’ve met in the field. To me, it’s easy to understand why becoming a master plumber can easily take ten years. I’ve been doing plumbing for over fifty years and still there is something to learn (or re-learn) most every day.
I suppose it all boils down to the phrase “knowledge is power”. We need to educate ourselves and from there can educate the media and anyone else who cares enough to listen. For me, the education has come from mentors, old and new books, old and new equipment, manufacturers and people with different points of view. Sometimes it comes from simply looking at a question from a different perspective. Thanks for bearing with me!
There are, or should be some guiding lights to follow when designing and building good plumbing systems. The basic concepts are simple.
The first point sounds simple, but did you know that over 70% of the hot water draws in most homes do not deliver hot water? Who is willing to wait for hot water when rinsing hands? Most of us aren’t, but we turn on the hot tap anyway and finish before the hot water arrives.
And, have you ever heard of or done the “shower dance”? That’s when you are showering and somebody flushes a toilet, unbalancing the system and giving you a jolt of hotter or colder water than you were using, causing you to do the limbo away from the shower water. Extrapolating from this article: https://blog.aarp.org/healthy-living/beware-the-most-dangerous-room-in-the-house there are about 188,000 injuries in the US requiring an emergency room visit each year from falls in the bathroom, many around bathing. If you have to do the shower dance, now is the time to install a pressure balancing shower valve! So in addition to being inconvenient and unpleasant, unsteady temperatures can lead to life threatening falls. That’s rather unhealthy and it leads us to the second point about safety.
Uneven temperatures can lead to falls, but also scalding. Old and very young people may not be able to sense or communicate it when they are getting burned. Another thing that plumbing can give us is bad bugs, like legionella or ultimately Legionnaire’s disease. The balance between scalding and bad bugs is something the plumbing community has been struggling with for decades. Temperatures over 130 F effectively deal with most bad bugs, but that temperature also can burn people in not very many seconds. This problem can be helped with anti-scald shower valves and mixing valves, but ultimately, education of the populace in general is probably the best defense, so people don’t unknowingly put themselves in harm’s way. This leads me to the next topic, being energy and water efficient.
Probably the first thing to keep on top of mind when looking for efficient plumbing systems is to keep the volume of water between heater and end use as small as possible. Why? Well, if there isn’t a lot of cooled water in the hot line, you don’t need to run as much water or wait as long for hot water to arrive. Also, you haven’t spent so much money to heat water that simply cooled off in the pipes. One can reduce volume by having shorter or skinnier pipes, … or both! Shorter pipes means putting all the wet rooms close together and keeping the water heater close by as well. That’s best done in new construction or when a gut remodel is being done. Skinnier pipes can happen when it’s time to re-pipe or just because you’re tired of waiting for hot water. A rule of thumb is that for every size up in piping materials, you roughly double the volume of water in the line. So, if you go from ½” to 3/8” pipe, you’ve cut the volume in half. That means you’ll wait half as long to get hot water :~) This also means you will have needed to heat only half as much water for the plumbing. So, there is a 50% savings in the plumbing without even mentioning insulation. But now that I’ve used the “I” word, let’s think about what that can do for you. Here is an article written by my friend Gary Klein: http://www.garykleinassociates.com/PDFs/15%20-%20Efficient%20Hot-Water%20Piping-JLC.pdf He goes into some detail on insulation and the benefits of having it. The main point to me is that good insulation will slow cool down of the piping (and water in it), so after the first draw of hot water you will get much more time where the water in the lines remains at a usable temperature, essentially giving you hot water immediately on subsequent draws. This also saves water, which actually matters in some places…
It seems most plumbers don’t carry a pressure gauge, but they should! If you know what the static water pressure is, you can size the piping appropriately to the use. Now, should you install a really low flow showerhead and you know what the water pressure is, you’ll know just how small the piping or tubing to the shower valve can be. I would not be surprised to find lots of places where ¼” tube would be sufficient to supply a shower with good pressure if you had a not-too-long run of tubing. One health benefit of smaller tubing is that water flow in it speeds up and this scrubs off bio-films that can harbor those bad bugs we don’t want. There are lots of benefits from using right-sized plumbing including lower cost to buy and install. How does that relate to my next topic, being simple and durable?
Every piping material is good for a certain flow rate through it before any damage happens to the pipe. With copper it’s about four feet per second and with cross-linked polyethylene or PEX, it’s more like ten feet per second. With copper if you exceed that rate, erosion corrosion begins to happen.It’s like running sand through the line. The pipe gets worn down internally, getting thinner over time. Eventually you start to get pinhole leaks. PEX, which is particularly smooth on the inside, gives you two and a half times that flow rate before damage starts. So, if there is adequate pressure, using small diameter PEX tubing can give you good flow without affecting the life of the tube. Also, it’s much easier to run than rigid pipe as it can be snaked through walls much like wiring. Another thing about using resilient PEX is that it helps with the problems of water hammer and also freezing. It can expand slightly when necessary to take up some of the shock of water hammer or enough to allow ice to form. When the hammer or freezing is done, PEX returns to its original size with no damage. PEX is still not freeze proof, but is much more tolerant of freezing than copper. Good design can help by keeping the piping away from areas more subject to freezing. That sounds pretty durable to me! Good design will also keep the system simple so there are fewer moving parts to get stuck or fail.
The four categories listed above each influence the other. When thinking about good plumbing it helps to take your time and make sure you have enough information to be able to meet all four goals. Then you can think about other important things, like cats!
I’ve been thinking about housing much of my life. Simply put, one of the big problems with housing is that most people in the US cannot afford to own it. We are not given much that’s useful in school about how to manage money or how to think about it, so the majority of us have little stashed away for emergencies or retirement and cannot come up with even the down payment on a conventional home. That’s sad as it makes us slaves to the lack of money. For most folks, a home is the biggest investment or indebtedness they will ever take on. So, I’ve been thinking about how to “do” housing in a way that costs far less yet still meets our needs. We have lots of expectations around housing, but to drastically reduce the cost of it, we’ll need to adjust some of those expectations. The “standard” expectation is to have a nice, stick built home on a nice lot. What I’ll propose here is to have some sort of manufactured housing in a small development. There are many other ways to chip away at the cost of housing, but this way has so many benefits, I thought I’d start with it. The recent interest in tiny homes just might be helping to do that.
I just did a search on my local Craigslist for Recreational Vehicles, (RVs) at up to $10,000. There were lots of them! I imagine it will be pretty much the same across the country. Certainly many will need work, but even if it doubles the cost, things could be worse. Mobile homes are another place to look. It’s not uncommon that people owning mobile homes in parks fail to pay their space rent for any number of reasons. One main reason is they up and die and no relatives can be found or the relatives have no interest in the mobile home. These homes can sometimes be had for free or just for the back space rent. Another thing that happens with mobiles is they sit on private land which gets sold or changes in some other way and the home needs to go. These homes will be cheap or free. The costs of ownership are in having a place to move one to, and then moving it.
If you step back and think about it, these two types of dwellings (RVs and mobile homes) are the tiny home of yesteryear. But think about the cost. These homes may be had for very roughly $40 or less per square foot and in livable condition. Note that the $40 number comes from one of those $10,000 RVs, that looked to be in great shape. It’s easy to find older mobile homes for ¼ that amount per square foot. Tiny homes are often over $500 per foot.
None of those costs include land. The normal approach of owning a lot and putting utilities on it isn’t cheap. How about changing things up a little and following the cohousing model? Here’s an interesting primer on cohousing: https://www.aarp.org/home-family/your-home/info-2018/cohousing-community-fd.html And, here’s another link that will take you much deeper: http://www.cohousingco.com/ A good cohousing development has up to about 35 homes. Let’s imagine something between a mobile home park and co-housing. If the development were designed following cohousing guidelines; like being people-centric rather than car-centric and if it had a main building that housed a kitchen, room for gatherings, laundry facilities, maybe a shop and even some guest bedrooms, that building would get a lot of use and help eliminate the need for those functions in the private homes, which could then be simpler and smaller (read less expensive!). Buying into a development like this could cost far less than your normal single family home. Also, you get a community where people know and learn to care for each other, making things safer and potentially far more enjoyable. It’s normal that when a cohousing community is built, property values around it go up, so neighbors are happy too. Splitting infrastructure costs 35 ways does help cut the individual cost of owning. I’ll add that if the “tiny home” idea just sounds too small to be comfortable in, there are ways to create inexpensive transitional spaces that bring the outdoors inside and give you more real living space that can change with the seasons. It’s a fun and interesting approach that blurs the line between inside and outside. I hope to discuss this more in a future post. But back to the benefits of cohousing; other things like a community garden, playground, teaching classes based on the skills of the residents, and sharing responsibilities, like child-sitting or elder-care could be woven into the fabric of life at such a place. These things all add up to the potential for a richer life than the usual, semi-isolated single family home can give.
Unfortunately, many of the biggest hurdles to overcoming expensive housing are baked into our regulations and how they are enforced. Many places discourage manufactured housing of all sorts because they think it’s substandard or will bring adjacent property values down… or will not yield as much property tax as conventional construction! Still, public officials decry our lack of affordable housing. Perhaps they need to encourage, rather than put up barriers to novel thinking about low cost housing, so that we can test and learn what really does work in the real world.
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.