Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Energy in Mexico

Having been given a free airline ticket to Puerto Vallarta I am enjoying the warmth of the air, water and the culture. My Spanish is improving; yet there’s lots of room for improvement!

Being an ‘energy guy’ I find myself being curious in seeing how this culture uses energy. There are lots of signs of the North American wasteful ways –the many private motor vehicles crowding the narrow roads, buildings using air-conditioning when the temperature is a comfortable 26, and others. Despite such influences, they have a vastly public superior bus system –one that is amply used. While this is likely due to many Mexicans having lower incomes, it also means that they live more responsibly and sustainably.

One personal disappointment is the absence of solar water heating systems, even in the seasonal tourist accommodations. Our winter is their sunny, dry, period. This is when tourists flock to this beautiful area. With the ample sun at a time when the tourist accommodations are full, why such an extensive use of propane heaters? Solar collectors don’t have to be expensive –even the use of black ABS pipe and a simple pump can easily bring the temperature of their ground-water (roughly 20 degrees C) to the required 35 - 40 degress using the sun’s energy found at this latitude. Such systems would likely satisfy everyone's needs all year long. Instead, they rely on propane heaters. Easy to install. Known equipment. And this solution keeps everyone dependent on the fossil fuel industry!

Here, though, the fossil fuel industry is prevented from having as much control as it tends to have in Canada. Mexicans don’t need double-paned windows and space heating. In this way they will be in a much better situation when fossil fuels resume their upward climb.

Another difference between them and Canadians is perhaps an even more profound one: here they still live in community, not the isolated, lonely, individualised lives of us North Americans. When huge changes sweep across the planet they will be far more resilient and able to help each other through those changes than will we.

Perhaps we need to rethink "wealth," as it appears that they may be better off than are we.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Winter sunshine

It is not often that the sun shines during the winter months in this part of the world. It does not often snow here, either. So it is a particularly beautiful day today with the sun shining off of the white snow. Nature seems to be rejoicing now that our deep cold spell is ending.

I love the idea of the sun providing all the needed heating requirements in our buildings, but this is much more difficult given the lack of sunshine during the time of the year that requires heating. Such is not a problem in other areas of Canada and the U.S. that have a lot more snow than do we -because these areas also get a lot more sunshine in the winter.

An acquaintance of mine builds Structurally Insulated Panel (SIP) homes. Such buildings are very energy efficient as the walls themselves are essentially made of insulation. His 1000 sq. ft. "Qualicum Series" house has an EnerGuide rating of 89, about as efficient as a home can be. The builder says that the house can be heated for an average cost of $16 a month!

Why I mention this type of construction is that such buildings are so energy efficient it is possible to combine heat storage with a passive solar design and turn off the heater, even in our cloudy climate!

Given that the cost of building a house requiring no artificial heating typically costs only 5-8% more, avoiding future escalating heating bills, adding greater comfort and energy security, one wonders why more people do not opt for this option. The higher mortgage costs would be covered by the energy savings.

All those who are currently suffering from widespread power failures across Canada, freezing in their inefficient homes, may be asking the same question.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Heat-sinking basements/slabs

I was more than dismayed to learn that a local builder, having lost its accreditation as a Built Green builder, was guiding the owners of a multi-family residence currently under construction toward non-sustainable energy ideas. It was bad enough that the manager of this project was not interested in adding solar hot water to the system, he wasn't even willing to build in the copper pipes to enable such in the future. This is typical of most builders today, and it is sad.

This week I learned that this same company had neglected to add insulation under the slab of the building, including the portion that was to have had in-floor heating. This is against current building codes.

Why? Because even in this mild climate (relative to the rest of Canada at least) the ground underneath the slabs or basements of our buildings is less than 15 degrees C. The ground does insulate somewhat. But the earth is a heat sink, one that continuously grabs heat energy from our uninsulated basements and slabs. While this heat loss is not as great as in uninsulated attics or the windows of most homes, it does make a real difference to the heating bills, and especially the comfort of its occupants.

At one time I thought, as do most people, that heat rises. This is true of convective heat energy. This is why upper floors of buildings are often warmer than are the lower floors.

However, most energy movement in homes is through radiant heat transfer. Sunlight is the best known source of radiant heat. Similarly, radiant heat moves in all directions, and particularly moves toward cold surfaces.

As a result a cold floor continually sucks heat energy out of that living space. Uninsulated floors cost us a lot of energy.

What a huge difference it made to my house when I insulated the basement floor, even with only R-10 insulation.

I can only hope that builders and architects soon catch up to this truth.

All of us will benefit.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Staying warm

With the wind howling away at my parents place in Victoria, and the wind-shield factor hovering around -10 C, I am glad that the power is still on! With this blast of cold arctic air most homes would not stay warm for very long if the power went out. Some homes have wood stoves, but life is not easy when this is the only heat source.

As the climate changes and storms become more frequent and severe, and weather patterns going to greater extremes, the subject of "energy security" is an important one. Bigger storms result in more frequent losses of electricity. Our lives rotate around the ready supply of power. Seldom do we realise just how important it is to us -until it fails.

Two years ago some homes on southern Vancouver Island were without power for a week. On the east coast of the U.S. many more people are discovering how life is without power for a week, in sub-freezing conditions in this case. I expect that it is not pleasant. Certainly destructive of the local economy, too.

Homes that are better insulated and have superior windows/window coverings are not only much cheaper to operate, and much more comfortable (especially on a day such as today!), they are also much more secure when energy supplies are disrupted. While such upgrades (or initial construction costs) do add up, where else do renovations eventually pay for themselves, contribute significantly to the value (and saleability) of the home, and make the homeowner/renter much more secure when the world is freezing in the dark?

I admire those who have the forethought to update their homes and businesses. It is time.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Energy Modelling a House

I have spent the week in a course learning how to use a computer program (“Hot 2000”) that is able to figure out roughly how much energy a new home will use. Once I’ve passed the tests I will be able to call myself a “Certified Energy Advisor” for new houses.

Why is this training important? For the same reason automobiles are sold with a government label that identifies their expected gas mileage. This is certainly helpful information, especially as fuel prices resume their upward climb. The purchase price of a vehicle is only one consideration; how much it will cost to operate it is quite another.

Because houses and other buildings have not, until recently, been given a label that offers a way to compare to other buildings, buyers have not had reliable, impartial, information about the expected energy usage –especially a house that has not yet been built.

Even existing homeowners only know how much energy they are using. The number of occupants, the temperatures they keep their home at, the blinds being used (or not used!) at night, the number of baths and showers taken, the electronic devices used and other factors all affect the end result.

So this software takes the average user profile and applies it across the board. House "A" can now be compared to House "B| in a meaningful way. Eventually all homes will be labelled.

Given the fact that a much more energy-efficient home costs a bit more to build (typically around 5% more) but that the extra payments more than make up for this through lower energy bills, energy modelling is a good thing.

But my head hurts a little. Sorting out how to measure the volume of a lower level walk-out house, or a house with all kinds of cathedral ceilings and walls at strange angles to each other is not easy!

But if it helps us to prepare for rapidly rising energy prices by greatly reducing our wasteful energy practises, it is worth it.

Both our wallets and our planet will thank us.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Getting started

While I consider the 'energy biz' to be my passion as well as my occupation and calling, by starting this blog I also hope to have some fun in it! And to find meaning in being an 'energy consultant.' You will see evidence of these in my postings.

Philosophically speaking, everything in life is made of energy and relationship. I have learned quite a bit about both; yet I am just beginning as a student of both.

What I have gained in the process is an entirely new world view. Increasingly I see beyond the mundane to what is absolutely amazing: the connections between relationship and energy.

In spiritual language these concepts are spoken of through words such as 'covenant', 'spirit' and 'life.'
In the therapeutic world these words are communicated through such ideas as 'healthy', 'differentiated', 'attachment', 'systems theory' and 'energised.'
In the engineering world the concepts include 'quantum', 'relativity', 'electrons', 'animation' and many more.
While the language is different, what is common is the realisation that life itself is utterly dependent on the relationship of various forms of energy. Matter is different than is air, for example, only because the relationships between the atoms are different.

Interestingly, the word 'enthusiasm', where relationship and energy are simultaneously engaged in a positive way, has a spiritual root: it roughly means "God's movement within."

Just as I have learned and grown as an individual because of the engaging relationships I have had, we as a society will learn and grow as we engage each other and various technologies so as to live more sustainably and meaningfully.

I hope that the ideas and tips that I share in subsequent blogs will energise you to engage in relationships -with people, with your use of non-human energy (electricity, fossil fuels, the sun), and with your life. Becoming more energy efficient and in right-relationship to the earth is not something to be done overnight. It takes considerable effort, time, money, and (yes!) enthusiasm.

But then, so does anything that really matters.