Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Environmentalists & economists: being useful or useless?

The Nanaimo Daily News has sometimes put the "environmentalist" label on me. If they mean by this that I care about the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the future of employment (if not humanity), then I think they are right.

Too often, though, that "environmentalist" label, especially when used by the commercial mass media, suggests that such persons are unconcerned about "the economy", are anti-corporate, naive to how the world actually runs, etc. Many environmentalists counter by saying that economists are out of touch with reality since a finite planet cannot possibly support an infinitely expanding economy.

I am a pragmatist. I know that employment cannot be supported when businesses and governments continue to support short-term profit margins at the expense of the future, policies that degrade the planet and undercut the very foundation of economies and work, and that continue to develop non-renewable energy. I am reminded of the man who wanted to fly and who did so by jumping off a high building. On his descent he was heard saying "so far so good!"

So while I fail to see how current economic models will serve us much longer, I am also critical of "environmentalists" who fail to walk the talk. If they have such a good message to give, are they showing us the way to sustainability? Or are they more interested in complaining, protesting and being victims?

Not long ago I was invited by an environmental student body to display my energy and water-saving devices at an event they were hosting. This made sense, as my company's products offer concrete measures that can help to "save the planet" as well as our pocketbooks. Very few of them bothered to come around to see what was being displayed. None of them bought a $15 "pop flush" device that could save up to 50% of the water their toilet uses, a device they could have taken with them to their next home (if they so wished).

Sadly this is not unusual. I have seen this scenario repeated in many ways and in different locals.

Thus I conclude that as many economists display a very small grasp of the longer term consequences of their policies and theories, so many environmentalists fail to champion positive ways of getting ourselves out of the mess we've created.

While there are plenty economists and environmentalists who are pragmatic, do offer a more positive vision for our collective future, and who "walk the talk", their numbers are not great enough to make the changes we need to make.

This, it seems, it is up to us "normal" human beings to make the difference. We who wish to embrace a positive, practical, sustainable future, and who are willing to talk by doing.

Maybe we are the true "environmentalists" and "economists."

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Heat pump follies

While it took only about 25 years for homeowners (and others) to begin to appreciate the benefits of heat pumps to heat and cool their buildings, not all is well in this industry.

First the advantages: heat pumps move heat, not create it. Unlike one's baseboard heater, heat pumps simply concentrate and move heat from outdoors to the indoors. This exactly how refrigerators work: they remove the heat from inside the fridge and put this heat into the kitchen. Moving heat is usually 2 - 3 times more efficient than is creating it (out of electricity, natural gas or oil). And the efficiency of heat pump technology keeps on improving. This is the good news.

The bad news is that there are lots of companies installing these units without the full certification required by plumbers and heating specialists. In addition, many of these companies try to undercut their competitor's prices by installing inferior equipment, pumps that are undersized, lacking sufficient ducting (heat pumps need more duct work than do the mid-efficient furnaces they often replace), and are often noisier. Too often, too, these units need more maintenance and/or earlier replacement.

Cheaper is certainly not better!

There is one additional area that bears mentioning: North American's are so sold on forced air heating (and cooling) systems that we are too quick to go to heat pump technologies, even when more efficient heating and cooling systems are available! Too often the government-sanctioned Energy Advisors tell homeowners who already have hydronic (water-based) heating systems to replace these with air-air heat pumps. Air is an insulator, and requires a lot more energy to push it around than does water. In addition air easily leaks out of buildings (expect to have between 3 and 14 full air exchanges every hour!). Water is totally contained, and is a far superior energy-transferring medium than is air. So by going to a forced air system the homeowner is taking a huge step backward!

More good news: slowly but surely air to water heat pumps are finally moving into the Canadian market. While they can not get the water as hot as the old furnaces do, it is possible to modify the hydronic system, and the building envelope, to make them work -especially on our mild coastal area. A qualified (and experienced) plumber and envelope specialist can make this happen.

One last word on the subject: the most efficient way of transmitting hydronic (water) heat is via radiators or in-floor heating. Unfortunately most windows are mostly clear to radiant heat and so they quickly transmit that heat directly into the outdoors! This is why I sell the Inflector radiant see-through window coverings, as the aluminum in the product reflects that radiant heat (from whatever the source) right back into the room, while absorbing the solar heat in the heating season (and reflecting the excess heat back outside in the summer). The best of all worlds.