I’m delighted to hear that President Obama is talking about improving the efficiency of our current buildings. This is the easiest thing we can all do right now, and it’s good for business. Everybody wins.
This low-hanging fruit is all over the place and all we have to do is reach up and grab it. When you’re driving to work, check out the open windows on all those older buildings. They’re in all of our cities. People are stifling and gagging over the heat in so many American buildings, and especially in our institutional buildings because so much of this stuff is oversized and out of control. It’s no wonder our new president wants to go after the government buildings first. He can do that quickly, and I think the next candidate for improved efficiency should be our colleges and universities. I spotted this story from the Associate Press last January. You can’t make this stuff up:
“As most Iowans endure bitter cold and long for warmth, some Iowa State students have a different problem: It's too hot. One student, 19-year-old freshman Ryan Langer of Chicago, says he's spent the last two nights in a communal den in Larch Hall because the steam-based heaters in his dormitory room makes the temperatures unbearable. The heaters were installed in the 1960s and placed next to the window, which leaves students with no options. If they crack a window, the cold air could freeze the heaters' pipes. ISU's Director of Residence, Pete Englin, acknowledges the problem but says there is little they can do. Custodian Louis Lang said when students are away, ‘It's like 200 degrees in the hallways.’"
Little they can do. Beautiful.
And I know it’s a state school, and the tuition for non-residents is still less than $20,000 a year (remember to add in room and board for the communal den, however), but Iowa State has an Engineering School, and wouldn’t it be lovely if the engineering professors could teach their students about thermostatic radiator valves and lowering the steam pressure? I figure I’m safe in saying that the pressure is a tad too high. Hey, it’s 200-degrees in the hallways.
And an open window won’t freeze a steam pipe. A steam pipe contains air when it’s not filled with steam. You can’t freeze either.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if America’s colleges and universities sent their young mechanical engineers out into the world with some hands-on experience? These are the people who will be sizing our heating systems for decades to come. Let’s have them practice on their overheated dorm rooms. Mechanically speaking, a thermostatic radiator valve beats a double-hung zone valve every time, especially these days.
But maybe I’m asking too much. Even at the big-name schools, the situation is pretty much the same. In 2000, my daughter, Kelly, graduated from the University of Notre Dame in frozen South Bend, Indiana. Cathy, one of Kelly’s roommates also graduated that year, and as a mechanical engineer. The university produces its own steam for power and heating and the whole campus is not just a Catholic Disneyland, it’s also a Heating Wonderland. They’ve got everything there, both old and strange, and new and wonderful, and it’s all within walking distance. And yet, in the four long years that Cathy labored with formulas and equations, none of her professors took her to see the power plant or into any of the basements to check out the pressure-reducing-valve stations. Cathy graduated without ever hearing about the glories of thermostatic radiator valves. She never got to see inside a steam trap. And she knew nothing of hydronic radiant heating. Yet she was a graduate mechanical engineer.
But back to that low-hanging fruit. How’s the heat in your office? Too hot or too cold? I’m asking because we’re all professionals, and yet, our own homes and offices are usually the last things most of us fix. True?
I’m no different; we had this attic fan installed when we dormered our house 20 years ago. We figured this big fan would save money, but when we first turned it on, it sucked the sheets off the beds and blew the birds out of the nearby trees. We switched it off and never used it again.
The louver on this jet engine measured about eight square feet and was in the absolute worst place imaginable as far at heat loss is concerned – right at the top of the stairs and under a ventilated attic. Each winter, the louvers rattled when the wind blew, but did Big Stupid ever do anything about it?
However, last summer’s heart-stopping fuel bills finally motivated me to get up off my lazy butt and seal that canyon in the ceiling. The difference in our fuel bill has been astonishing. But it took last summer’s prices to smack me silly before I did anything.
I think lots of people are like me in this way. They’re looking at that low-hanging fruit right now, even though their fuel prices have dropped in recent months. They know for sure that the prices will rise again. You’d have to have your head in the sand not to know this. These folks are making their moves now, and this is a wonderful time to be helping them figure out exactly where that low-hanging fruit is.
Take insulation, for example. I just read that the Green party in Scotland is trying to pass legislation to have the government provide free insulation for all Scottish homeowners. Free! They figure this will save people £782 million a year on their fuel bills, even at the current prices. The government’s investment would be £100 million each year for the next 10 years, and this would also have an economic impact (those green jobs everybody’s talking about). And the best thing about insulation is that you only have to buy it once.
Speaking of which, if you’re in an area where there is steam heat, you should be chatting up the value of insulating those steam pipes. Consider how much asbestos has come off steam pipes during the past few decades. How many of those pipes remain uninsulated? Bare steam pipes give off five times more heat than steam pipes with one-inch of insulation. This is part of why those old systems are so out of balance, and why building owners have to run their burners longer to get heat to the furthest radiators.
You only have to buy pipe insulation once. It’s low-hanging fruit, and you should be selling it if you’re in an area with steam heat. Reach up and grab it.
Imagine what a program such as the one proposed for Scotland could do for us here in the U.S. Better insulation would affect the heating systems that are now in place, and that would lead to the sale of smaller, more efficient boilers as the current ones bite the dust. We’d all have to get sharper at sizing things, and that would make this business even more professional. Nothing wrong with that, right? It would also lead to the sale of better and smarter temperature controls, and that will be a very nice business for you.
Want more fruit? My friend, Frank Wilsey (a.k.a. “Steamhead”), and his business partner, Gordon Schweizer, took on a project in Baltimore, Maryland. This big building had an old steam system and an annual fuel bill of about $35,000. Steamhead and Gordon figured out how much air was in all the piping and the radiators (that’s easy to do), and then they installed a total of 25 brand-new air vents, each piped in just the right spot to get rid of the air quickly and in a balanced way so that the system could run at low pressure. They made no other changes.
When they were finished, they saw an immediate drop in fuel usage. They tracked it for a year, adjusted for the change in Degree Days, and the result after a year was a total savings of 32% on that $35,000 fuel bill.
Install 25 air vents; save 32% on fuel.
Get it? You don’t have to rip it all out and start anew. There are plenty of simple things we can all do right now. So let’s do them. Unused attic fans, not enough insulation in the walls and on the pipes, open windows in the college dorm rooms, 200 degrees in the hallways, oversized pumps and boilers – it’s all low-hanging fruit, and it’s a great business.