Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Foam Catastrophe

This summer, we decided it was about time to investigate some leaks we had in the roof. Water stains showed up on the front bedroom closet wall again, after I rinsed down the solar panels thoroughly, in a place where we had them three years ago. I thought we had the leak fixed, but it was just the drought, there hasn't been enough rain to really show up. So we had the drywall taken out on the front and back bedroom closet. The back bedroom closet was smelling of mold, as was the front, though there were no visible leak stains.

After finding and fixing the leaks, and having the mold treated, we were left with two open ceilings. Previously, they had been packed with fiberclass insulation, but I had some closed cell foam left over from the solar hot water closet installation, so yesterday I decided to try foaming the back closet ceiling. Since the temperature at night has been below the recommended temperature, I put on an electric heater for four hours in the morning to heat up the closet. After it seemed warmed up enough, I donned the foamer's Tyvak suit and went to work. Here's me in the suit.

 If you've ever done foaming, you know that these suits are absolutely essential because the foam goes literally everywhere and especially where you'd rather not have it, like in your hair and clinging to the hair on your arms.

I had two sets of tanks (2 tanks per set, one with the resin and one with the setting agent). I took the first tank and foamed up about three quarters of the ceiling before it started to run out of pressure. When pressurized foam dispensers run out of pressure, it's hard to get them to the target without actually being up against it, not possible on a high ceiling. In addition, the foam started peeling off the ceiling at the high side, possibly because the ceiling didn't get heated enough by the electric heater.

In any case, I shut down the first tank set and started up the second. This set was nearer the heater. Right away, I knew something was wrong. Instead of expanding out into billows of foam, the mix came out as a blue fluid that didn't blow out much. I tried it a while, thinking that maybe it was a startup transient, but the fluid started dripping down on the ladder and the tarp covering the floor. So I shut down the tanks. Here's what the tanks looked like after the ceiling had about stopped dripping;

You can see the blue fluid (kind of like the water in a toilet that has one of those sanitizers in it) dripping off the shelf. I think the problem was that the tanks were too warm. These foam systems have a relatively small temperature range over which they will set.

At any rate, there were small pools of fluid on the floor and the ladder was dripping with it. Trying to figure out what to do, I read the instructions and it suggested sopping up spills with sawdust. Seeing as I didn't have any, I decided to try kitty litter (works for oil spills for example). I went to the hardware store and got a box of kitty litter, a plastic trowel, and a couple of large plastic containers in which to put the refuse.

The kitty litter worked fine, sopped up the fluid, and I used newspapers to wipe down the ladder. Then I took the ladder outside on the driveway, washed it down with a mixture of ammonia and detergent (as recommended in the directions), and hosed it off. The chemicals in the foam are water soluable and nontoxic, so there was no problem with washing it outside. I disposed of the tanks in the plastic containers along with the kitty litter and the rest, but left the tarp on the floor to catch any remaining drips. Today, it looks as if it is done dripping.

The result was not what I had expected, but about three quarters of the ceiling is foamed up. Here's a picture:

The bluish color at the upper end of the rafter bay is where the second tank failed to foam.

I think I'll probably talk to a professional about finishing the ceiling. Closed cell foam is the best insulation available (R-6 per inch, 2x the R-3 of fiberglass batting and much better for moisture and air sealing) but it is a difficult material to work with which is probably why these larger two component systems aren't available through Home Depot. I've done a couple of major foam projects now, and I use it a lot for small touch ups, like around electrical outlets. I think there is a lot the manufacturers could do to make the dispensers easier to use and less likely to waste foam by spraying it everywhere, but I'll probably keep using foam (though not for a large job I do myself) since it is convenient and the best insulation for the price.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Outline of A Solution

Is it possible to take a slightly atypical boomer couple (we don't have any kids) living a typical suburban lifestyle in a typical California suburban house and achieve radical carbon reduction in a short amount of time? I set out to answer this question in the affirmative when we bought our 1976-vintage, 2800 sq. ft. single family in 2003. Prior to that, we lived in a 1500 sq. ft. townhouse that shared a wall with another unit, vintage 1979. Achieving carbon reductions there was relatively easy. Would it be possible (if not easy) with a large suburban single family? And could we do it without having to fall back into an overly ascetic lifestyle, and within an amount of time that would have some hope of bending the global carbon curve downward enough in the next ten years (if everybody could do it), so that the planet doesn't fry?

The graph above shows our progress so far. It contains the annual carbon emissions measured in metric tons CO2 for each of three categories of suburban living: electricity, natural gas (space and hot water heating, cooking) and two cars, from 2002 to 2009, 7 years. Before going into details, a few words about how the graph was generated. Since we are obviously not yet at the end of 2009, the figure for 2009 is an estimate based on usage so far. Likewise, the figures for 2002 and 2003 are estimates. We bought the house in fall 2003, and the estimates of gas and electricity usage are based on 9 months of data for 2002 and 2003 given to me by the previous owners, and the last month in 2003 from our own usage, before we introduced any energy saving measures. Other than that, the gas and electricty figures from 2004 through 2009 are as accurate as PG&E can get it to me.

Likewise, the figure for the car in 2002 and 2003 is based on our cars and not that of the previous owners, so the numbers for those years are a composite. They are what we would have used had we lived in the house with our cars. The car figures are based on the approximate measured miles per gallon of the cars we owned,  a milage of around 10,000 miles per year on the higher mpg car and 8,000 miles per year on the lower mpg car. Again, this is an estimate but one I've found to be fairly accurate for our family.

As the figure shows, we've managed to reduce our carbon footprint from over 12 metric tons to just under 6 metric tons in 7 years! That amounts to a 55% reduction. The graph below shows our year by year percent reduction.

Our experience shows why talk of postponing radical carbon reductions until after 2030 is such nonsense. The Waxman-Markey bill proposes a mere 17% reduction in 10 years, by 2020. Even people involved in green remodeling have proposed a 25% reduction in 20 years for residential buildings, and that based on buildings from the 1950's where the building codes for insulation were nowhere near what they were even in the 1970's when our house was built. These are timid, half hearted proposals that are not going to solve the climate problem. We need massive reductions, and we need them soon.

A few high level observations about our experience (but details to come in future posts):

  • Renewable energy and alternate energy cars are a vital and important part of the mix. They get reductions on the order of 20, 30, up to 100%. The massive reduction in our electric emissions between 2003 and 2004 was due to installing a solar PV system, and we are currently undergoing a similar but smaller reduction in gas usage due to a solar hot water system installed this year.
  • But changes in lifestyle and operation are also quite important too. For example, we originally sized our PV system to replace 2/3 of our electric bill. Then in 2004 we took out a pool and put in an energy efficient electrically heated hot tub. The pool had two large electric pumps which went on minimum once a week. We keep the hot tub at 80 degrees until just before we use it,  it's on 220V so it heats up in about an hour. The solar PV system subsequently covered around 115% of our electric use, so we now have some spare capacity. Likewise, setting the thermostat to 68 degrees in the winter and turning off the furnace pilot light in summer reduced the gas bill by about half between 2003 and 2004.
  • Electrical efficiency improvements like Energy Star appliances, CFLs, etc. seem to help but heating efficiency improvements like double pane windows don't. We had double pane windows installed in 2004 and saw no difference in our gas bill, though the house is less drafty and quieter. On the other hand, the electrical efficiency improvements we installed in 2004 resulted in a modest additional drop in our electrical usage, which added to our PV surplus.
  • Natural gas emissions seem to be more difficult to reduce than others. Auto emissions can be reduced by simply not driving as much. And PV is a really simple way to reduce emissions from electricity. But there doesn't seem to be a renewable energy technology for the uses to which natural gas is put that is as easy to install in an existing home and as cost effective as PV.
Now, this carbon footprint doesn't include airline travel. Anybody who has done a carbon calculation knows that airline travel dwarfs any other source of carbon. More on this in later posts. It also doesn't include embedded carbon, such as from food, products we buy, etc. Getting an accurate measurement on these sources of carbon is difficult, to say the least. Maybe that might be a theme for another post too. And I've not said anything about costs, I'll talk about this in future posts too (though one of the themes of this blog is that people make too much of the costs of carbon reduction, the cost of the planet frying is certain to overwhelm that but nobody cares to put a number on it in comparison).

We are clearly on the way to 80% and maybe even to net zero!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Scope of the Problem

So today is Blog Action Day and the topic is Climate Change. Since that is mostly what this blog is about,  I signed up to write something.

What I want to talk about is the scope of the climate change problem. My feeling is that much of the discussion in the media about climate change is really quite superficial and underestimates the depth of the commitment we are going to have to make as a civilization in order to solve it. The noise made by "climate change deniers" is quite evident and also, in the face of the scientific evidence, quite ludicrous. Most people realize that by now. But there is a more serious problem with the bulk of the population. I think most people truly believe there is a problem but they don't rate solving it as very important, or maybe they believe that the solution requires minor changes, like putting in a couple CFLs as in my last post (not to say that CFLs aren't part of the solution, but they aren't the full solution). Tom Friedman, in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, discusses this problem in some amount of detail. It is easy to see reasons why this might be the case: general media laziness that seems to have crept in over the last 20 years, a desire not to alarm people by disclosing the depth of the problem, perhaps a lack of understanding of the underlying science.

To illustrate the scope of the problem, consider the graph above. This graph shows the yearly increase in CO2 concentration measured at the top of Mauna Loa from the start of measurements in 1959 until 2008. The first thing to note is that the yearly increase, itself, is increasing, especially since around 1998-2000. Now, we all know that the base level of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing, but what this graph is saying is that the *rate* at which the CO2 concentration is increasing is, itself, increasing. So it's like a car which is accelerating, going faster and faster. The problem would be bad enough if the level of CO2 was increasing with the rate of increase being constant, but the fact that the rate of increase is increasing means that we are likely headed for serious changes in the climate much sooner than most people expect. Most media reports on climate change don't talk about this problem.

The next thing to note are the blue rectangles. These rectangles are the approximate locations of economic recessions. In every case, an economic recession is accompanied by a decrease in the rate of CO2 increase. Sometimes the effect lasts for a couple years after the recession is officially over. As we all know from the recession of 2001-2002 and the current recession, the date that a recession is declared "officially" over often precedes by a considerable amount of time the date when people actually feel economically well off enough to declare that it is psychologically over. This effect does seem to have been picked up by the media, I've seen estimates that U.S. CO2 emissions have decreased by around 6%  year over year since 2008. The reverse correlation - i.e. that decreases only occur with recessions - can't be maintained though. There are decreases in 1964, 1996, and 1999 that don't correspond to recessions.

These two observations, in a nutshell, describe how serious the problem has become. The increase since 2000 is most likely due to India and China. These countries are building coal fired power plants, their people are buying cheap cars, and they are, generally, behaving like Americans did in the 1950's, Europeans in the 1960's, and Japanese in the 1970's - becoming more and more prosperous and thereby generating more and more carbon emissions as a byproduct. Unlike other pollutants, CO2 is an inescapable byproduct of prosperity (hence the decrease noted during recessions). At least, that is so given our current economic system - which needs growth for people to feel happy and well  off - and our currently affordable energy generation technology - which is based on fossil fuels.

The Indians and the Chinese rightly complain that it is our fault that the atmospheric capacity is used up, and why should they suffer because we hogged all the goodies? In a sense, they are right. And I would not put it past the Chinese to become the first industrialized society that bends their carbon emissions curve downward. With their authoritarian government, all it would take is a serious commitment, and, lately, they seem to be getting serious about carbon reduction. In the Western democracies and India, however, the evidence has been a sad lack of ability to act. The most environmentally aware societies on the planet are in Europe, and the Europeans have been consistently unable to bend their carbon emissions curve downward while maintaining economic growth,despite the appearance of political will since 1990. Their attempt at cap and trade ended up in political horse trading. Something similar is happening in the US. The Waxman-Markey bill is a joke, neutered by coal-state representatives. Most of the carbon credits are given away free to polluting industries and the emissions goal for 2020 is ridiculous. The Senate bill - should it ever happen - will probably be even worse. And the prospects for any kind of treaty in Copenhagen in December are slim (not to say that the US Senate would ever ratify one). Today I even read that the Saudi Arabians are brazenly demanding that they be compensated if the world's oil usage goes down!

These goings-on are what one would expect and what typically happens when people try to solve a problem: jocking for advantage, trying to blame the problem on someone else, trying to avoid having to do anything oneself, etc. It's just politics. The problem is, this is not a problem that can be solved by the usual political horse trading, we simply can't bull***t this problem anymore. We have run out of time. It is a basic scientific fact that the more carbon and other greenhouse gases we dump in the atmosphere, the more likely there will be serious changes in the climate. And if we dump in greenhouse gases faster and faster, the day of reckoning will come even sooner. Today, I saw a report that the Arctic is likely to be ice-free in 10 years. When the IPCCC did their first report, they estimated it would be 2100 before that happened.

The fact that I'm so pessimistic about solving the problem on a political level is one reason I'm writing this blog. What it will take - and I really want to be clear about this - is a fundamental change in what people value. I think we need to start in the US, Europe, and Japan, because the bulk of people in China and India are still quite poor and we cannot expect them to bear the brunt of solving this problem (though I do believe they can benefit from our efforts and will). The kinds of changes in lifestyle I will be talking about later in the blog, like renewable energy technology, are not cheap, but I believe the US, Europe, and Japan are prosperous enough that we can really afford them. Somehow (and I don't underestimate the difficulty of this), people need to value carbon reductions and other environmental measures enough that they would rather take out a HELOC on their house for a solar thermal hot water heater than  for a trip to Maui or a plasma TV. Maybe that's expecting too much, and of course the government needs to help with incentives, but I don't think we can solve a problem of the scope of climate change in any other way.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

On Lighbulbs

The New York Times says that CFL purchases have been falling off. People don't like the color, the price, that the bulbs contain mercury, that they often can't be dimmed, that they take a while to come up to full brightness....

Well. I've been using Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) since the early 1990's, and I have a bit of trouble understanding what all the fuss is about. When I first started buying them, they were around $12-$15 apiece. I put them in all the major lights in our house that were on often. Lights in closets and such that rarely were on stayed as incandescents. In the late '90's, I had a guy come in and look at my electric consumption to install solar. He told me our house was one of the lowest consumption houses he had seen, and that it didn't make sense for us to get solar (we did a bunch of other stuff to save electricity too). The CFLs I bought around 1994-1995 lasted until we moved into the new house in 2003. I don't recall ever having replaced any. I did replace some of the CFLs I bought in 2003 last year though, since they were getting dimmer.

Nowadays, CFLs run about $1.50, and most of the problems people seem all worked up about are solved. The light quality is definitely different than incandescents, but it is quite acceptable. The picture below, from Wikipedia, shows a group of 4 bulbs. The second from the left is an incandescent bulb, the rest are all CFLs. The only CFL that looks "cold" is the one on the far left. That's a 6000 Kelvin bulb. The other two on the right are around 3000 Kelvins and are indistingushible from the incandescent to my eyes.

Most CFLs these days come up to full luminosity within around a minute, some even right away. As for dimming, well, do you really need to dim all the lights in your house? Use incandescents in the bedroom or dining room if you must. My chandelier has incandescents, as do the hall lights, but they are low wattage (around 20 watts) and we  rarely use them anyway.

The mercury is a problem, but it is manageable. I put my used CFLs into a box for toxic waste disposal. We did have a CFL break, but it was cleaned up and the room aired out. It broke on a tile floor so there was no problem with the mercury being absorbed into a carpet. Fortunately, because CFLs wear out so infrequently, they rarely are thrown away. All that said, I think the manufacturers and local municpalities could do more, for example, have recycling bags specifically for CFLs like they do in my town for batteries. And fluorescent tube lights have been in use for years without mercury being a problem.

So what about LED lights? The blogs and green news sites are all aflutter with reports about how LEDs are going to replace CFLs.

I had looked at LEDs a couple years ago when we remodeled our kitchen, but had decided in favor of fluorescents (tube model) because the amount of energy savings was not up to what fluroescents provide, and the cost was about 40x as much. A couple weeks ago, I saw a news item about a new LED light, the Pharox from Lemis Lighting. They were offering a 60 watt bulb replacement for $40. Admittedly, this is still 26x the price of a CFL, but I consider myself an early adopter, and one of the tasks of an early adopter is to try new things out despite the price (as long as it isn't too exorbitant). So I ponied up $90-odd (including tax and shipping) and got back two bulbs. Here's a Lemis bulb in front of it's widget-like packaging (which I think is supposed to make you feel good about the price):

What a disappointment. The light was much too dim for reading in the living room. I had to put them into a nightstand table in the bedroom and in our hall bathroom. These are areas where we don't have the lights on much and fine details (like 10 point type) are not important. If I had to rate the wattage, I'd say it was more like 40 watts. Of course, these LED lamps could be dimmed, but so could CFLs at 1/20 the price.

In the New York Times Green, Inc. blog article, Lemis conceded that the light output might not be equivalent to 60 watts after all. They gave a typical, weasel-worded marketing explanation that "it depends on how the bulb is used" (sure, and if I put a mirror behind it, it will look like a 100 watt bulb). Their ostensible 60 watt bulb puts out 336 lumens, a 60 watt-equivalent CFL puts out 800 lumens. A 40 watt incandescent puts out 400 lumens, so the Pharonx is actually about equivalent to 40 watt bulb. Not only that, but if you look at the energy efficiency, it's around 60 lumens per watt. That is exactly the energy efficiency of the CFLs that you can get today, at 1/20th the price!

So I guess LED lighting has made some progress in the last couple years. Now the efficiency in terms of lumens per watt is about the same as CFLs instead of less. The price is still way out of line. The lifetime of the LEDs is much longer, something like 20 years, but if CFLs last 5 years, as mine have, then I would buy only 4 in that time and still save over the cost of an LED light. Plus the fact that the light output from the LEDs is too low for reading. I wonder how much a decent LED for reading would cost, probably over $100.

Anyway, I guess I'll just stick with CFLs for now,  and deal with the mercury by recycling my bulbs back to the toxic waste pickup.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Buying Cars

So the other week I had a conversation with a colleague at work about why people buy hybrid cars. He maintained that people mostly bought hybrid cars because they expected to save money on gasoline, but given the price premium for hybrids and with the price of gas at around $3.00 per gallon (what it is currently in the Bay Area), they would be sadly disappointed.

Most studies of consumer behavior show that, paradoxically, the more expensive the purchase, the less likely a person is to rationally do a cost/benefit analysis. If you are buying a mobile phone, for example, you'll likely go through a pretty thorough comparison of the feature set with the cost, even if only mentally. With houses and cars, on the other hand, people are more likely to go with their intuition. And, even more paradoxically, most people are happier with purchases that they approach intuitively, or maybe its just that they don't mind suffering buyer's  remorse over a $200 iTouch while for a $20,000 car it would be too much.

At any rate, I pointed out to him that most people bought hybrid cars largely for the same reasons that people bought any car, though of course saving on gas was definitely a factor. These are (in order of most important to least important):

  1. Because the car's image fit the image they wanted to project to the world,
  2. Because they liked the styling, technology, comfort, ride or some other physical characteristic of the car,
  3. Because the car had a reputation for reliability and efficiency.
So people buy a Lexus because they want to advertise they've made it, it has a comfortable ride and the latest in automotive technology, and like all Toyota products, it has a reputation for reliability.

And people buy a Prius because they're concerned about saving the planet and want to show it to their friends and neighbors, the hybrid technology is the latest in drivetrain technology and the car has a nice ride (though of course not as cushy as the Lexus), and in addition to the standard Toyota reliability, it near the top of the charts for vehicle efficiency (some diesels are higher).

As another data point, consider that the only hybrid which has sold really well is the Prius, which is a brand specifically identified with hybrids. Toyota tried to turn their hybrid drivetrain technology into a brand ("Hybrid Synergy Drive") but the hybrid Highlander, Camrey, and Lexus which have the drivetrain brand haven't sold nearly as well as the Prius. Similarly with the hybrid Honda Civic (the Insight doesn't count, it was too small to really be competitive for most people). People buy a Prius because they identify with the brand and they want others to know it.

As an engineer, rationally, I find this a little puzzling but then I think about my own auto purchasing behavior. My Plug-in Prius (converted by adding an A123 Systems booster battery) has milage up to 110 mpg with all-city driving, cost about as much as a Lexus, and has a ride more like a BMW because they had to add special shocks to handle the extra battery weight.  It's also got a lot of decals on it identifying it as a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). I got the decals put on so that people would know that, despite all the delay (especially at Toyota), PHEV technology could be here today if the auto companies just put in a little effort. OK, so maybe I wanted to project a particular image to the world a little too. :-)