Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Automating dawn to dusk energy recovery ventilation

Light sensitive relay control for HRV

Recently, I installed a single room Energy Recovery Ventilator in the dining area of our house because I had become concerned about interior air quality in the winter when the windows are all sealed up with interior insulating storm windows.  One of its nifty features includes a light sensor that turns it down to the slowest fan speed when it is dark.  While it is 92% efficient, there is no good reason to ventilate a room when it is very cold at night and there is no one in the room.  I was impressed by this simple automation feature.

Back in 2008 I had installed a Heat Recovery Ventilator in my well sealed and super insulated workshop in order to get fresh air into my office in the winter when the windows are also closed up and sealed with my DIY interior storm windows.  I was running this HRV on a programmable digital timer and found that I needed to keep adjusting the settings so that it would turn on after sunrise and turn off around sunset.  It just occurred to me that I could build a device that would do this automatically based on the ambient light in my utility room that has a south facing window.  Being an electrical engineer who designs products for living, it was relatively simple for me to design a circuit for this application. The device is pictured above and plugs into an outlet just like a wall power adapter.  It contains a simple circuit that reads a photocell and activates an internal solid-state relay based on the light level set by an adjustable knob. 

Now my HRV automatically operates only from dawn to dusk, keeping the air in my office fresh while I am there and saving energy when it is not needed.

For the DIY inclined, here is a link to the schematic of the circuit I built.  I am considering making a small production run of these useful light triggered switches, so drop me a line if you have an interest and I will consider making a batch of them.  This is the opposite of the kind of device you would use to turn on a Christmas tree light at night and I am pretty sure there is nothing commercially available that turns on power when the room light gets brighter.  I built everything into an AC wall plug enclosure made by Polycase, but it could be built into a standard electrical box with an extension cord spliced into it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Landfill Mining - potential gold mines

For many years I have come to feel that as we run out of natural resources it will be inevitable that we start to see our landfills as resources.   A web search on "landfill mining" turned up some interesting information, there is even a Wikipedia entry on the subject.  This article:  "Landfill Mining - Goldmine or Minefield" in Waste Management World provides a substantial overview of the current thinking.

Aside from extracting useful material such as steel, energy can be extracted from less useful waste.  Soil used as filler can be recovered and reused, either on-site or in carefully selected areas.  The economics of recovering recyclable materials has not yet been proven so buried plastics and glass are not a primary concern due to the highly contaminated nature of these materials.  Of course the health and safety issues of extracting potentially toxic materials is a serious consideration when attempting a project like this.  Processes for recovering high-value rare-earth metals have not been fully developed yet, but it is a serious consideration if these materials can be extracted in a viable manner.  Think about the hundreds of millions of rechargeable batteries from phones and power tools that have entered the waste stream that contain valuable - but toxic lithium and other rare earth metals.

Incidentally, very little material from lead-acid batteries enters the waste stream because automobile batteries have historically been one of the most recycled items in history.  The typical new lead-acid battery contains 60 to 80 percent recycled lead and plastic.  If you happen to have an old lead-acid battery laying around, you can take it to a recycling center. Other rechargeable batteries can be taken to battery recycling centers nearby.

Reasons for mining landfills include land reclamation and opening up easements for roadways and other public use.  Landfill owners are very interested in turning their assets into cash flow rather than costing them money.  The third annual Global Landfill Mining Conference & Exhibition will be held this November.  To quote their webpage "If 'waste to energy'  and metal prices are today's hot topics, then you can view a landfill as being a gold mine and a coal mine rolled into one."
That this topic is generating significant interest sufficient to support a major conference is very encouraging.

A Belgian company Group Machiels is actively mining a landfill about 50 miles east of Brussels that dates back to the 1960s and expect that 45% of its contents can be fully recycled, while the rest can be converted to electricity.  The group has formed a joint venture with Advanced Plasma Power, a U.K. based waste-to-energy company.  Advanced Plasma Power converts non-recyclable material into clean-burning natural gas. This is used to generate electricity sufficient for 100,000 homes and the residue is converted into a building material called Plasmarok.  This project is considered the first of its kind and  clearly, both companies expect to make a profit from this venture.  If this model proves out landfills may well become future gold mines!

I also found a March, 2014 news article about a landfill in Richfield, Michigan in which the town is seriously considering opening up mining rights to their landfill. 

Book review of the graphic novel: "Climate Changed - a Personal Journey Through the Science"

I just finished reading a paperback copy of Philippe Squarzoni's graphic novel: "Climate Changed a Personal Journey Through the Science".   I made a point of ordering a paper copy rather than reading the Kindle book version because I intend to donate this copy to my local library, despite my misgivings about the carbon footprint of printing and shipping paper books.

I am not in the habit of reading graphic novels, they are much more prevalent in Europe, but I felt compelled to read this particular book because the author balances a personal and well researched science perspective on the subject.  The book blends Philippe's journey to research the issue with detailed scientific information portrayed by talking heads representing climate science experts.  He uses charts, graphics and a few photographic images to illustrate his story points, but most of the novel centers around his beautiful hand rendered drawings.  This makes for a compelling read as his personal narrative involves discussions with his wife and the decisions he makes to adjust his lifestyle based on his insights into this issue.  In a sense the book reads like storyboards for a documentary film and one comes away from it feeling as if one has been watching a movie.

Philippe explores every aspect of the climate change issue, not just the climate science itself but the personal, societal, financial, and political aspects amongst others.  He creates a comprehensive perspective and struggles as I do with the disappointing lack of political will
to address this ongoing crisis on a global scale.  

He quotes a number of experts and scientists who have interesting views on potential solutions to the larger problem and ends by saying: "Just because the answer is filled with gloom doesn't mean the question was pointless.  To care how these questions are being asked shows that we care about the future.  And who knows?  I could be wrong.  The story isn't over."  

I agree with the author that humanity has not yet awoken to this issue, and by the time we do the situation will be dire.  By that point our options will be very limited and as he say's: "We will accomplish this change under the worst conditions.   Forced by circumstance.  And way too late."

This is not to say that the book is all doom and gloom, it is a rich and easy read filled with glimpses into his life and lifestyle as a graphic novelist.  He  begins by exploring his childhood as a point of reference for the way things were as a way of contextualizing the impending changes that will occur in the world.   The arc of the story jumps around in unpredictable ways juxtaposing autobiography with talking heads and statistical information so it keeps you on your toes.   Clearly, it took years to create this book and I noticed that recent events such as the Fukushima nuclear disaster are absent.  I admire the enormous effort it takes to create a graphic novel comprising over 460 pages of renderings.

Anyone who feels that they want to learn more about Climate Change will find this book offers a thorough overview of the science and thoughtful insights.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Warming oceans releasing methane = bad news

The way that I stay on top of climate change issues is to follow the Twitter feeds from a variety of sources including Grist, RTCC, Michael Mann, Climate Change and others.  Effectively these sources serve as a news clipping service for me so that I can stay up-to-date on the current science of climate change as it unfolds.  You can see who else I am following from my own Twitter profile.

Over the last year or so the news has been getting pretty bleak.  A significant issue is that while the surface temperature of the planet is not warming as much as expected in recent years, scientists have now found that that heat is going into the deep oceans.  This is really bad news because those warming oceans are contributing to ocean acidification which is harmful to aquatic life, particularly coral reefs.  As water warms it expands raising the average ocean levels.   Warmer oceans also increase the melt rate of the polar ice caps.  It is also bad news because the warming oceans in the Arctic are releasing methane in massive bursts from gas hydrates in the arctic ocean floor.  Methane is 30 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and even if less than 1% of the methane trapped in the ocean floor were released we would be in really really deep shit.  Here is a summary of the current science on this topic and its potential to cause abrupt climate change.  Add to this the massive methane gas releases from melting permafrost and we have a serious problem. 

What this means in the grand scheme of things is that most of the estimates that have been created about climate change and particularly ocean level rise are much more conservative than previously thought.  Many climate scientists are saying that we can expect ocean levels to rise by up to 10 feet by 2100, but my interpretation of all the existing science would seem to indicate that we could expect much more than that.  Many tipping points have already been crossed.

As I said in an earlier blog post (Bye-bye Beaches): 
"This means that within your lifetime you will lose what cherished memories (of beaches) you have because we have so thoroughly screwed up the planet that the oceans will inevitably rise and take away many of our favorite places."

Is this the world we want  to leave to our children and grandchildren?  While climate change may seem such a large and abstract thing that is beyond our ability to respond to in a direct way, I personally am doing everything I can and "being the change I want to see in the world" as Gandhi thoughtfully suggested.   It is up to every one of us to do our very best to reduce our use of fossil fuel and live a sustainable lifestyle.   Almost every purchase we make can be a vote for a solution to the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book review: "The Visual Handbook of Energy Conservation"

If you are reading this blog, there is a very good chance that you are concerned about energy efficiency in your home. You may perhaps have read some of my website and considered making improvements to your home to reduce your energy consumption. If you are looking for the ideal book companion to guide you through the process of improving energy efficiency in your home, look no further than Charlie Wing’s book: “The Visual Handbook of Energy Conservation: A Comprehensive Guide to Reducing Energy Use at Home“.  It is impeccable in every regard, the text is written in plain English and uses easy to understand terms and concepts.  Charlie is already well known for his beautiful illustrations and they are there on almost every page of this book. He covers every aspect of energy use, from the building envelope itself to everything in it ranging from heating and cooling systems all the way down to phantom electric loads. I cannot emphasize enough that anyone even remotely interested in energy conservation in their home should purchase this book and read every page, there is no question in my mind that you will recoup the investment.

I have met Charlie on several occasions, in fact he used to live down the road from me before I moved here and he is well known in the midcoast Maine region as something of an expert on efficient building design and construction and he co-founded the Shelter Institute.  He and I taught several workshops on how to make interior insulating storm windows, and he asked for my input when drafting the section in his book that refers to these windows. I was delighted to see that he acknowledged myself and some of my friends in the front of the book for our token contributions.

I will say it again: buy this book.  You will not regret it.
(re-posted from my old blog from December 1, 2013)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Installing a small Energy Recovery Ventilator for my home

TwinFresh Comfo HRV with remote control
Over the years I have succeeded in tightening up my home using a combination of sealing cracks and interior storm windows that we install in the colder months.  The result is I am not getting enough fresh air in the fall through spring.  It is recommended that interior air be exchanged once every three hours in residential buildings.  One of the indications that I am not getting good enough air exchange is that kitchen smells linger for over six hours after I have cooked a meal.  Lack of adequate ventilation can cause health issues and trap condensation inside the building that can lead to mold and mildew.

I have been researching Energy Recovery Ventilators for some time now and looking for an inexpensive and simple to install unit.  I found a Panasonic unit that would be ideal for new construction but not practical to put in my home.  I found the ideal candidate in the TwinFresh Comfo that is available from Home Depot for under $500.  This clever unit alternates between removing stale air and bringing in fresh air every 70 seconds.  Outgoing air warms a ceramic honeycomb core in the duct that stores heat which is then released as cold air is brought back into the room.  This device claims to be 92% efficient with exterior temperatures at 32°F with an air flow of up to 32CFM.   The fan can also be set to ventilate air in either direction, so I plan to use it as a kitchen fume hood to remove cooking odors since my home did not come with a kitchen vent.

I have posted a web page that the explores the functions and details my installation and ongoing investigations into its performance.  As someone who designs electronic products for a living, I am quite impressed by this extremely well engineered product.  After we have lived with this unit for a while I am considering installing another one in the bedroom to better balance the air flow.  They can be wired to synchronize in reverse so one brings in fresh air while the other removes stale air.

Here is a chart showing temperatures as it operates for 6 minutes with outside temperatures at around freezing:
As you can see the fresh air temperature entering the room averages only a few degrees below the inside ambient temperature.

If you have a home that you have tightened up with DIY interior storm windows and caulking etc., you may want to consider installing one or more of these units instead of installing a large central Heat Recovery Ventilation system.  Even installing three or four of these would still be significantly less expensive than a full-blown ventilation system retrofit.  If you can find someone to do a blower door test on your home and they tell you that your air exchange rate is below .35 ACH (Air Changes per Hour), then some form of heat recovery ventilation would be in order.

Monday, October 6, 2014

"Fire! Fire!"

(This is a re-post of my August 3, 2014 article.)

If someone stood up in a public space such as a theater or shopping mall and started yelling “Fire, Fire!” what do you think people would do?  From an evolutionary perspective humans are barely out of the trees and our mammalian brains are still quite primitive in the way we respond to stimuli. What we would do in this situation is look around to see if we could see any fire and then sniff the air to see if we smelled smoke. Very primitive animalistic behavior that dates back millennia.  Then we would either do nothing or possibly verbally or even physically attack the person foolish enough to have triggered a fear response - this reaction stems from an ancient fight or flight response to threat.

Climate scientists have been doing the equivalent of yelling “Fire!” for over 20 years.  James Hansen who retired from an impressive career with NASA has been speaking publicly and warning anyone who will listen that climate change is a real and serious threat to humanity since the late 1980s.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988 under the auspices of the United Nations to provide credible information about climate change to world government bodies.  This group has been collating and disseminating comprehensive reports on a frequent basis, and each one has been more and more dire with warnings about the outcome of global warming.

Unfortunately, climate change does not present itself as a clear and present danger and thus our monkey brains do not respond with a sense of immediacy.  There is no clear and present risk to life, and the concept being abstract is not acted upon in a direct way. The threat is largely conceptual until we are confronted with an extreme weather event that may or may not be directly triggered by a changing global climate. Throughout the world for the last several years there have been so many extreme weather events that it is becoming routine to hear of massive floods, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, hailstorms, tornadoes etc. This is the new normal and still our monkey brains have not correlated these direct threats to our lives with the big picture.

Climate scientists like to tell the story of the frog in the pot. If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But, if you place the frog in cool water and then slowly raise the temperature it will never notice until it has been boiled to death. So here we are swimming around in warming waters!

But we do have highly evolved brains with the capacity to extrapolate a threat into the future.  Intellectually anyone who grasps the concept of climate change realizes that it will inevitably impact their lives in some form or other. The question is what can we do about it? For myself, I have dabbled in the world of politics and years ago I supported Dennis Kucinich in his presidential campaign because he was brave enough to speak about these issues. I have also lobbied for, and testified in front of state committees in support of renewable energy legislation.  And have also worked on committees in my municipality to try to effect change. I have been so thoroughly discouraged by these experiences that I have now pulled back and I’m choosing to operate entirely within the realm of civil society.

Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying “Be the change you want to see in the world”, and that is what I am doing. By investing in renewable energy systems on my property and increasing the efficiency of my home and vehicles, I am modeling the change I would like to see in the world. By writing about it in social media I am sharing the choices that I have made and sincerely hope that in some small way I will influence other people to make similar decisions.

If you feel inspired to consider taking some direct action, I encourage you to visit the Sustainable Living section of my website where you will find pragmatic solutions that may resonate for you. I talk only about things that I have personally done to decrease my carbon footprint and live more sustainably, I make every attempt to keep my text clear and simple and I use lots of thoughtfully considered images.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

"It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)"

The caption for this post comes from the lyrics of a song by REM from the late 1980s.   This particular line has been stuck in my head for years in the context of climate change.  As I go about my daily life, I carry an awareness of climate change issues consciously.  We are foolishly trying to create a global middle class of rampant consumers all of whom create increased demand for energy, products, and waste.  This is utterly unsustainable and it seems inevitable that economies will begin to crash in the foreseeable future.  But I realize that almost everybody else does not see the world this way.  This troubles me deeply and gives rise to a range of feelings from helplessness to hopelessness, and rage.  Climate change is the single largest crisis that humanity has ever faced and yet everyone is going about their daily lives "feeling fine".  

To put it in context, anytime there is a major news event that captures the attention of the world such as a hurricane, plane crash, or major terrorist activity -  it becomes a topic of conversation in almost any social situation.  Yet I cannot remember a single conversation that I have had with anyone about climate change in which climate change was recognized as the crisis that it is for humanity.  In a sense we are at war with our climate, but this war is not a topic for conversation as it would be with any actual war in which humans slaughter each other.

I would very much like to see humanity wake up and respond to the ongoing crisis in the same way that we do after major hurricanes make landfall.  I am was somewhat encouraged by the major climate awareness marches a few weeks ago in New York and other major cities, and sincerely hope that they will have some effect on global policy.  But we need to bring this issue down to personal responsibility and direct action.  We cannot trust our willfully ignorant elected officials many of whom are in complete denial about this issue to take assertive action.  It is my feeling that we all need to have frank and open discussions with each other about what it is that we are doing and can do to protect future generations from the fallout of our actions or inactions today.  

The fossil fuels that we are burning that pump massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere took millennia to create and store underground.  Yet we have been removing and burning this stored energy over a period of a little more than a century which is an eyeblink in the context of geologic history.  We have so little time to act to prevent the worst outcomes of our actions.  Every day I learn that scientists are discovering new feedbacks that are accelerating change like the melting glaciers and ice caps and releases of methane as the permafrost is exposed to melting conditions.

So I am challenging myself and anyone reading this to go out and stimulate conversations amongst friends about this crisis.  And more importantly take some form of direct action every single day.  Almost every dollar we spend as individuals has an impact on climate change in some way or another.  Becoming conscious of how we spend our money is equivalent to voting for change.   Investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy on any scale at all will make a difference.  

For myself, I have invested tens of thousands of dollars over the last 13 years or so in improving efficiency and renewable energy systems for my property, and that has paid returns better than the stock market.   We own electric and hybrid vehicles and our home and my workshop are both extremely efficient, requiring very little energy for heating, and lighting.  I am still finding ways to improve small things.   If you need some suggestions, go to my webpage: "Some notes on living sustainably".