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August 21, 2003

Power survey
Posted by Teresa at 04:14 PM *

Okay, that was weird. I just got surveyed over the phone on behalf of the local power company. They wanted to know how many air conditioning units we have, when we bought them, when we installed them this year, during what hours do we use them, do we leave them on when we leave the house, how many computers do we have, how many electric fans, et cetera.

(Answer: One very small AC, three electric fans, two ceiling fans, and it’s hard to take an accurate count of the computers. The AC’s next to the bed, and doesn’t cool the rest of the apartment.)

As the questions went on, they were more and more about whether we virtuously and public-spiritedly keep our AC turned down during peak hours on hot summer days, whether we’ve been trying hard to use less power in general, and whether we believed that our own personal comfort and well-being were more important than the overall public good. I kept my composure until she got to the question about whether we’d been using less power on account of the unusually cool weather this year. I couldn’t help it; I laughed. Today’s predicted high is 92 F., with 60% humidity.

But all those questions did help me crystallize my own position on this, which is: Yes, I do run my AC on hot afternoons, and I intend to continue doing so. That’s what air conditioners are for.

At the end of it, I asked her to pass on a comment to the power company: Why were they asking about computers, CD players, and tabletop electric fans, and the exact BTUs of my little AC, when they hadn’t even asked whether I own a microwave oven, washing machine, dryer, or electric range? Here they are, guilt tripping me about VCRs and tabletop fans, and they haven’t bothered to ask me whether I own any of those energy-gobblers.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve been wondering why those appliances aren’t on the list.”

Any theories?

Comments on Power survey:
#1 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 04:57 PM:

1. Because the biggest loads are on hot afternoons, and it is the air conditioners that help create that peak. Managing summer peak loads means managing when air conditioners run. One theory of why some afternoon loads are so high is that people will leave their A/C's on even when they are at work, to have the home cool when they get home. (But you already knew that). What they want is to be able to remotely turn off A/C units to manage power load. But they need some numbers to back up their position. If the numbers also gave them some place to shift the blame for the blackout, so much the better.

2. For some reason, the power companies have a fixation on computers as a power draw. During the recent CA problems the power companies kept pointing the finger at computers and internet data centers as a culprit for the power problems, which never worked out when you did the math. Of course fraud, both in their representations before deregulation and in how they managed thier systems aferward, is a topic that didn't come up somehow.

#2 ::: Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 04:59 PM:

Gosh, highly-detailed yet incomplete polling questions here in America? Impossible.

Maybe its because stove, fridge, washer, dryer, microwave are considered (by some) to be essential, while CD, computer and (yes) air conditioners are considered luxuries.

#3 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 05:09 PM:

That would be my guess; they haven't got a political leg to stand on about the core kitchen appliances, but figure they can maybe get somewhere about air conditioning and certainly about computers.

#4 ::: Leslie Turek ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 05:31 PM:

I once had a setback thermostat so my heat/ac would automatically turn down at night and during the day while I was at work, starting it up again an hour before I would wake up or come home. But a couple of years ago, I signed up for a service contract with a company that was a spinoff of our local gas company. When my setback thermostat broke, they would not replace it with another under the service contract, even though I offered to pay the difference in price. I've written them every year about this stupid policy, but have never gotten a response or an explanation.

I don't have the data to back this up, but I suspect that encouraging the use of automatic setup thermostats would be a simple measure that wouldn't cause very much inconvenience and would help a lot to lower energy demand during the day.

#5 ::: Josh ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 05:57 PM:

Well, it's cheaper thaan upgrading the power grid.

#6 ::: Lara Beaton ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 06:00 PM:

Because people have had washers, dryers, and electric ranges in their houses for decades, whereas CD players, air conditioners, and computers have only recently become common in people's homes?

Or maybe, it's because those things would be known loads, with only one of each per house. Whereas some might have multiple CD players, computers, etc. in their homes.

These are just guesses.

#7 ::: Menoly ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 06:00 PM:

During the CA rolling blackout times, I heard radio ads encouraging non-peak-hours use of major appliances, particularly washers and dryers. I don't think microwaves or stoves were mentioned; the ad I recall was along the lines of "Go out for dinner early, enjoy the early bird specials, then com home and do laundry during non-peak hours." There was also one about unplugging business machines in the office overnight, so that they aren't drawing even the standby power.

#8 ::: Dave ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 06:01 PM:

Last year I had my local energy company install a regulator on my AC unit. This allows the power company to turn off my AC during peak loads if they feel like it. In exchange I get a couple dollars discount per month. Even though I live down in Atlanta, my programmable thermostat is set to come on when the temp in my house exceeds 85 F during the day, and 82 at night. Maybe other electric companies have this sort of service?

#9 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 06:04 PM:

They're planning a bloody purge of the "Intellectual Elite" -- which means people who caused (you understand this is them talking) the power outage by excessive use of internet chatrooms, probably corrupting the young and committing cyberadultery in the process! Rise up and kill them (us) all! They (we) are defiling your daughters...and sons! Excessive energy use is a thoughtcrime! And guess what--it destroys the institution of marriage.

(Exit frothing.)

Well, it makes as much sense as anything else.

#10 ::: ben ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 06:22 PM:

What Lara said, but...

The two highest-draw widgets in any detached dwelling (and most apartments) are the refrigerator, and the hot water heater.

Ex: As a senior in high school I lived in an old house (late Victorian vintage, Art Deco architecture) that had been split into two apartments (one on each floor). Near the end of the school year the entire house's electricity would periodically go POOF.

After some investigation, it was discovered that there was a bad solenoid in the refrigerator, probably of late Nixon Administration vintage, that was causing it to draw more than its design amperage.

...But then, asking customers to replace major appliances is a sure way to get some laughs (even though in many cases the purchase cost would be paid in electricity savings).

#11 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 08:02 PM:

I lived in a shared flat for several years where the electricity was supplied via a coin-operated meter. When I first moved in the system was that whenever the electricity went out, whoever was in the flat at the time put 50p in the meter. The first time the electricity went out in the middle of a document (I was the only one in the flat with a computer) I began campaigning for a change, and then what we did routinely was for everyone to put 50p in the meter every day. Except we had to add to the rule: if you were running an appliance that sucked more electricity from the meter than your "fair share", you had to put an extra 50p in.

Using a microwave didn't count: using the electric oven did.
Using the vacuum cleaner didn't count: using an electric fire did.

My computer and the various TVs and stereos never seemed to make any difference at all, but if I was the first one up and forgot to put a coin in the meter before I went into the bathroom, I could pretty much count on the electricity going out in the middle of my shower (the electric water heater).

As this was Scotland, we didn't do airconditioning: we just opened the windows on the rare hot summer's day. (We consider 29C/84F to be pretty damn hot, thank you.)

#12 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 09:11 PM:

The key questions, I think--but you can't get at them in a telephone survey--are:

1. What is the passive solar efficiency of your residence?
2. Are any spaces daylit? (Significant only if the building has regular daytime occupancy.)
3. Is there an active cooling system? What is its efficiency?
4. How is the kitchen cooled? Does it see significant solar heat gain?
5. Is gas, oil, or electricity used for heating? Cooking?

Computers...people tend to leave them on, and, unless they have good low-power modes, they can suck surprising amounts of energy.

My guess is the other odd questions had to do with marketing. They might also be using them as indicators of some correlated factor like ethnicity or income which they did not want to address directly.

Architecturally, I think most of NYC is not very well thought out from the viewpoint of climate response. It is rather a shame, really, that more of Foster and Partners WTC proposal's climate ideas were not widely discussed, so far as I can tell--that was an attempt at addressing those issues, among others.

Anyone who wants to know more of the technical issues involved with this may refer to Brown & DeKay's Sun, Wind, and Light for a discussion of passive climate and light management, and Reynolds and Stine Mechanical and Electrical Systems for Buildings, aka the "Mighty MEEB" (9 editions, 2000+ pages, and growing.)

#13 ::: nina ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 09:40 PM:

Computers...people tend to leave them on, and, unless they have good low-power modes, they can suck surprising amounts of energy.

My guess is the other odd questions had to do with marketing. They might also be using them as indicators of some correlated factor like ethnicity or income which they did not want to address directly.

Both seem plausible. Isn't there still a depressing racial disparity in computer owner- and usership? Also, fwiw, I just had my apartment rewired (the wiring hadn't been touched since, oh, 1921 97 pre-war!) and the electrician told me that computer printers are the most serious juice-sucker there is. Independent contractors, be advised.

Architecturally, I think most of NYC is not very well thought out from the viewpoint of climate response. It is rather a shame, really, that more of Foster and Partners WTC proposal's climate ideas were not widely discussed, so far as I can tell--that was an attempt at addressing those issues, among others.

Oh, bless you for bringing this up. Many of us live in a) tenements built chiefly as immigrant-storage cubicles and later refurbished, b) brownstones originally designed for airflow but since chopped into immigrant-storage cubicles and later refurbished, or c) post-war cubicles designed by people who apparently assumed we'd be leaving for colonies on Mars any day now so who cares.

All our sullen sweating really isn't dictated by the climate. My god, people, there's a Spring here! And a Fall! (At least, there has been until recently. Do we all need to move to Nova Scotia?) The Foster plan at least acknowledged the existence of an outside world, which is what made it my favorite. I'm sorry it got submerged under the 1,776-foot tsunami.

#14 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 10:12 PM:

Claude, there's something horribly plausible about this business of them wanting to be able to turn off my AC in the middle of the afternoon. I know this is probably a really dumb question, but they can't do that from a distance, can they?

Damned if I'm going to let myself be guilt-tripped by these people. If they're not asking whether I'm running a washer and dryer, or whether the reason I'm running the AC is to cool down the place while I bake bread in my all-electric kitchen, they've got no business complaining about the small appliances I actually own.

#15 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 10:42 PM:

So no one's buying my bloody-purge theory, huh? Disappointing, yet oddly comforting.

(I have a thermostat that turns my AC up (that is, down...um...raises the threshold temperature) when I'm gone during the day. I also have blackout blinds on both windows and the skylight. Don't always use that last; the plants have to eat sometime. But on really hot days I close it all up. It's really DARK in here when I do that. Saves me a TON of money on electric.)

#16 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 11:09 PM:

Not only do computers suck power, monitors and all the plug ins suck power (left your externals on? Printer? CD burner? Speakers? Wireless hub? How many things do you have plugged into your power strip?) they also generate a ridiculous amount of heat-- which means your AC has to work even harder, etc.

#17 ::: cheem ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 12:06 AM:

I never quite understood why they don't have hot water heater switches here so you can turn the heater on and off depending on when you need it. I think that would probably save a lot on the consumption side. Especially in the summer or overnight.

Your computer can suck up 300W of power if all your harddrives are running and you're doing a transfer from one CD-ROM drive to another while blasting your music. This might happen very often, but in most cases, I doubt it. If you leave it inactive that drops rather dramatically as power saving kicks in. Your monitor and printer are separate from this. Also, note that your average computer has pretty crappy power factor as does your average chiller, so you might be demanding a lot more power than you actually consume.

#18 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 02:43 AM:

"I know this is probably a really dumb question, but they can't do that from a distance, can they?" It has been proposed, so I think it's actually a pretty sharp question. It would be very very expensive to implement--every dwelling would have to be retrofitted--, so I think you're safe for a while.

Nina, my architectural comments don't usually get many responses, so thank you very much for your comments. The idea of the world's tallest green structure, with gardens as part of the thermal design (trees in the walls, even) impressed me, at least. I think those near-tropical summers are actually New York City's worst seasons; if one looks at the famous images of the city, the ones with the city at its best, they usually any other time of year.

In terms of the smaller buildings, I suspect that a better distribution of thermal mass would probably improve their thermal performance substantially, and that can be acheived through the use of steel frames. But without actual study, I am just talking through my hat.

#19 ::: Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 03:13 AM:

In good ol' sunny Phoenix, Salt River Project doesn't offer the option to turn off my A/C, but they do offer the option to charge me much more for it during the peak periods. During the summer, I pay 16.5c/kwh during weekday afternoons, and 3.7c/kwh the rest of the time. If no one is going to be in the house during the afternoon, I do turn the temperature up. Vs. their flat rate plan, I save about $10-$20 a month. (The flat rate plan is 8c/kwh at all times.) In the winter I break even. The discount is smaller, and my heat and hot water is gas, so my electric bill is very small anyway in the winter.

This sort of plan always seemed to make more sense to me, as it more accurately reflects the cost of generation.

#20 ::: J Greely ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 03:24 AM:

I'm jealous. Last phone survey I got was 20 minutes on the subject of mayo. Mostly I just get mortgage offers, about a third of them in Spanish.

I have had to turn on the air conditioner more often this year. There have been days when the temperature inside my house exceeded 75 degrees, which is simply intolerable. [California Central Coast; YMMV]

Cheem, on the subject of hot water heaters, local code required the builders to put in a recirculating pump to save energy. Allegedly it reduces energy use by pulling hot water back out of the pipes into the heater, but in reality it just produces colder hot water. If I want a really hot shower, I turn on the dishwasher or washing machine first.

-j

#21 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 05:10 AM:

I remember those "peak hours" ads here in California. They always ended with an announcer saying, "Conservation. It's a way of life." I could never stop myself from answering back, "Conservation is just a goddamned hobby!".

#22 ::: Larry Lurex ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 06:04 AM:

Reading the comments above, one said that it would be cheaper to upgrade appliances than to upgrade the power grid. Well, actually, no. Sooner or later the US is going to have to realise that there are some things that public ownership does better than private. Monopolies is one of them. More energy efficient gadgets, while they have my full approval and might even let the US approach Kyoto standards, will not overcome the fundamental problem of selling electricity between suppliers. While the present grid is glowing red-hot with energy transfers between regions, any breakdown in this brittle system will cause widespread failure. Building a 21st century grid will help ease the problems in the future.

I can recommend some very good British electrical supply companies, if you want someone to build it for you. Reasonable rates, very reliable.

#23 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 07:10 AM:

Awright awreddy, Larry. Many of us know perfectly well that the grid is the commons, and that the blackout was a failure of the system, not just the system's hardware. Did you catch that the Bush & the Republicans already intend to not do anything about it?

Cheem, we don't have hot water power switches where I live because one water heater serves all three apartments. There might be a few moments in the day when there's nobody home in any of them, but there are so few that it wouldn't be worth the trouble.

#24 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 08:27 AM:

Sounds to me like a hasty survey primarily designed for propaganda purposes.

The main strain on the power grid in this neighborhood is the increasing installation of central air conditioning. Also, and this may be a factor in the computer question, a large number of my neighbors work from home. So not only are computers on most of the day, but the AC maybe too. The neighborhood ceases to draw like a bedroom community. We have no home air conditioning, but when I'm home my computer tends to be on. And when David and I are both home, both our computers are on.

#25 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 09:42 AM:

Displaying my ignorance, here: How would a publically-owned utilities system work, in theory?

As a side note, our electric bills were ungodly last winter, as in 30-40% more than this summer. It was our first year in a ground-floor apartment. My husband is convinced that leaving the heat on 72 degrees 24-hrs/day is more cost-efficient than turning it down to say, 65 or lower during the day when we're not home. Thoughts?

#26 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 10:17 AM:

Holly --

Your husband is wrong.

If you're in a ground floor apartment, it's very unlikely that the floors are significantly insulated. (This happens, but it's not the way to bet.)

If they're not, heat escapes through your ceiling into what is effectively a large chimney, and you're heating everyone above you. The trick is to keep your heat low enough that the people above you turn theirs on often enough that they get habituated into doing so.

Public utilities work by mandating a level of service, and charging people set rates for it. They need to be watched, politically, especially to make sure their middle management gets pruned and their upper management can't compensate themselves, but it's not something that is difficult to do. Hydro Quebec is organizationally a pretty good example.

#27 ::: Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 10:18 AM:

How would a publically-owned utilities system work, in theory?

Memphis' power comes from MLG&W, a publically-owned utitility. It works just the same as anything else, except the money they make is largely pumped back into the system, not into the pockets of billionaires. A few years back, our wonderful mayor proposed that we sell it to a for-profit company and reap all the wonderful benefits. Surprisingly, Memphians rose in mass and refused to allow it. We have a love/hate relationship with our public utility - Memphis Light, Gas and Robbery - but we do have some of the lowest utility costs in the country, the best (and cheapest) water around, and I cannot recall a single extended period of blackout (or brownout) that wasn't caused by a natural disaster. It just doesn't happen here. Thanks TVA (and Mr. Roosevelt)!

During our big blackout after the 7/22 storm this year, I went to a party at a house built pre-air conditioning. They had no power, I had no power. My brand new house, even with the windows open, was like a sauna. Their hundred year old house, with the windows open, was like a spring day. Remarkable what simple architecture can do.

#28 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 12:39 PM:

Yeah Teresa, they can, but not without some cooperation from you, or if you are renting with central air, the owner. The trick is done with the proper kind of switch on the A/C unit itself that is remotely controlled by radio (no I don't know the band or the details, but tere is a lot of wireless control in the utility business). This is generally practical in a permanent installation such as a central HVAC unit. As someone else noted, this is ususally done in return for a break on the rates. With a window unit I think you are immune.

This is really a big deal for the utilities, as stated before, lots of A/C's coming on when it gets hot tends to be the "last straw" of peak power use. If the can just turn off systems for 15 minuites or so at a time, rotating across the grid, they can do a lot to manage peak power. And the last kwh is always the most expensive.

Some of you may know that commercial power rates can be based both on how much you use, and what your peak use level is. When I worked in the largest chicken plant in the world, we had consultants come through working out how we turned on all the chillers and conveyer motors and such at the beginning of a day or shift, and worked out ways of timing when each motor or compressor came on to level out the load. How much did we save. I talked with one of the consultants and found out that he gets a percentage of the savings over the first two years.

He lived in huge house with an ocean view on Kauai . . .

#29 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 12:40 PM:

Hmm, there should have been at least one more question mark somewhere in that last post . . .

#30 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 02:04 PM:

Randolph — thanks for the Brown & DeKay refefence. Poor thermal design is something that’s been bugging me about the buildings I live and work in since I was a teenager... now if I can just figure out how to afford to build my own house.

#31 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 02:04 PM:

`Central air', hm?

Bah, you should have more plants around the house and be recycling your own air. :)

(OK, so maybe you'd need several houses full of lush greenery to do *that*...)

#32 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 04:28 PM:

Power-draw features of my house include the following idiosynracies:

It is not possible to have two appliances from the set [dishwasher, microwave, toaster oven, small electric heater in the winter, the really huge backdoor exhaust fan in summer] on at once on our kitchen circuit without blowing the fuse. The refrigerator is considered 'always on' (though sometimes if it goes into its cycle while the dishwasher is running we have to pop the fuse in the power strip back in). Stove and water heater are methane-powered (because anything else is RIDICULOUSLY stupid in Illinois, where our power rates reflect the fact that we're still paying off our nine nuclear plants, even though only 6 or 7 are actually running at the moment).

Items that will make the lights flicker in the front-of-the-house circuit: air conditioner (new, only bedroom, on a combination of timer and thermostat to prevent it from being on (a) when we're not sleeping or (b) when it's less than 85 degrees, plus we physically turn it OFF a lot), laserjet printer, vacuum cleaner.

Something like eight linux boxen (and a WinPC and a mac) are on pretty much all the time, but have good powersave modes. All monitors are off when not in use, as are the TV etc, and any lightbulbs, since, gee, lightbulbs make LOTS OF HEAT.

We thermoregulate primarily by means of sucking air through the house with three fans (front window, middle of house, big honking exhaust wind machine in back door) when it's cooler outside than in, and shutting the place up like a drum and relying on insulation when it's cooler inside than out. Yay for pre-WWI construction!

We'll be moving upstairs to the third floor soon, though, and will have the roof for a ceiling, so we'll see what changes then. And since we're househunting for one of our own to own ... needless to say, one of the very very first things we will do to the poor thing is shooting as much insulation as will FIT into every cavity between outside and inside possible. I grew up in an R-49-except-for-the-windows house, and I see no reason I can't raise my kids in one. :->

#33 ::: Stuart Dimond ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 05:03 PM:

This whole discussion is taking place in the context of how we do things here in the US where we think we have a God given right to draw as much power as we want from the system. We might have a half dozen houses or so on a stepdown transformer. In Europe the the same size transformer would power 10 times as many residences.

European appliance manufacturers are going toward appliances that can communicate with each other within a dwelling. That way when you turn on the electric stove the dryer shuts down and waits for you to finish cooking. This limits the peak demand from a given residence.

If you really want to be a part of the solution instead a part of the problem you need to analyze the total energy cost of your life style. Eschewing an airconditioner in the north doesn't really make that much difference. Finding a way to save on heating the in the winter does. The system effect of the two is different though since the heat probably comes from fuel oil while the airconditioner loads our inadequate power grid.

The cooling cost of the house we are currently living in here in Texas would be helped tremendously by a couple of good sized trees in the front yard.

#34 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 06:11 PM:

(slightly offtopic comment): Eloise wrote "Something like eight linux boxen..."

I really hope that wasn't a typo. Is this a common usage among linuxians? It can be my second example of the phenomenon (plural of 'dwarf' is 'dwarfs' if it means 'human with genetic disorder', but 'dwarves' if it means 'non-human race created by Tolkein'.)

#35 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 06:16 PM:

You know, what really gets to me about this is not that they're trying to pin excessive power usage on any one appliance, but that in insisting on that kind of focus, they're trying to make the problem about the end-users, not the suppliers.

I mean, don't get me wrong... I understand that there are lot of flagrant wastes of electricity going on, that a great deal of electricity usage is due to luxuries, and think that it's probably a good idea to consciously conserve. But I think what's really going on here is that the power companies want to say "The blackout is because the grid was never meant to handle the wide-spread use of air conditioning and VCRs and DVD players, and when it was built we barely knew what a computer was!"

Which may be the case, but whose fault is it that they didn't adapt?

#36 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 06:20 PM:

Xopher: 'Boxen' is fairly standard as the alternate of 'boxes' in the various online geek communities I'm a member of. I couldn't tell you how it got started, but I can tell you I almost never type it 'boxes' when I mean computers, just like I almost never type 'porn' when I mean the online kind (that's 'pr0n'). It's not specific to Linux users.

#37 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 07:15 PM:

Thanks Tina. (I understood that 'pr0n' was an attempt to avoid coming up on searches done by people looking for porn. Does that seem plausible?) And you hit the nail on the head. You can say 'boxen' with no other qualifiers, and the geek community will know you don't mean the cardboard kind. I think this is unbelievably cool, but then I'm weird.

#38 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 07:47 PM:

Tina/Xopher: "boxen" may be derived from "Vaxen", which was in use 20+ years ago as the plural of VAX; DEC sold these with an in-house OS but many (most?) owners replaced it with UNIX, making it one of the first machines to be widely associated with UNIX. (Famous last words: "UNIX is snake oil." (Ken Olsen)) (Yes, I'm that old -- and I bet half the other people on this list remember "4.2>>5".)

#39 ::: Kenneth G. Cavness ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 07:50 PM:

I'm probably hopelessly far down on the comments list to get this answered, but Theresa: could this have been a form of "push polling," an attempt to get your power company's message out while keeping your attention?

#40 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 08:00 PM:

Christopher: Vax, Vaxen, ox, oxen, box, boxen. Makes sense to me.

Stuart, I already have appliances that communicate with each. If I try to brew coffee or dry my hair or use the microwave when the AC is running, they all agree that they should be shut down, along with the lights and the computers. Then I have to run down into the basement and re-set the fusebox.

If you think that "Eschewing an airconditioner in the north doesn't really make that much difference," you must never have been here in the summer. I don't know where people got the idea that summer cooling is an optional luxury in this climate. Sure, you can do without it; you just have to accept that a lot of people will die as a results, and even more people will drag out the summer in a state of heat exhaustion and sleep deprivation.

I don't know what it is about Northeasterners that keeps them from taking heat seriously. They should. I grew up in Central Arizona, and I'll tell you right now that it's harder to get through a summer here than it is there. I was half serious when I theorized that the reason Northeasterners don't do take their summers seriously is that they're all so brainwiped by the heat that they have trouble remembering it afterward.

My area of Brooklyn does have one smart feature: It's full of deciduous trees. That really does help. You can feel it when you go from a tree-lined street to one without. Now if only my landlord would stop panicking about having ivy growing on the building...

#41 ::: Stuart Dimond ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 09:14 PM:

Teresa, perhaps my meaning would have clearer if I had appended: in your annual energy budget. We just arrived back in Texas after three years in Massachusetts. Those people are crazy up there. The house we were in had no central air-conditioning. Ugh! During my daughter's wedding last summer the temperature in the sanctuary approached 95 degrees. With impecable timing she had scheduled her wedding on the hottest day at the end of the hottest week of the summer. Two days later it was 70 degrees.

Northeastern builders at least understand the concept of insulating a house so that it can be economically heated in the winter. Texas houses have pathetic insulation, we crank up the air-conditioner and send our paychecks to the electric company.

#42 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 11:03 PM:

David, Randolph, I've been a crank about thermal design for a long time now, as you can see if you caught my rant about older vs. newer Arizona homes in the Justifiable glee thread.

Randolph, while I adored the idea of hanging gardens, it seemed to me that the proposal would necessarily entail permanently high maintenance costs. Buildings' outer shells are usually designed to exclude and shed water. Water and plants are two of the universe's great forces for entropy. Standing water in a cold snap will split all but the strongest construction. Standing water and growing plants in warm weather are guaranteed to generate unpredictable biological consequences. And then you start having to worry about droughts, and reseeding, and wildlife. ... I'm sure some fabulously odd things would happen, but fabulously odd things are a building super's nightmare.

By the way, and just because it pleases me to throw it in here: You know all those swanky palm trees the sunbelters love so much? Rats live in them. Rats can run straight up the side of a palm tree's trunk. I've watched 'em do it. They like to nest in the crowns. They like pampas grass, too. Think about that, next time you see photos of Hollywood.

And, heck, why not mention it? The single commonest weed that grows in the Wall Street area is black nightshade, Solanum nigrum: a thoroughly poisonous plant.

Natural philosophy has much to teach us.

Tina, that thought had occurred to me. It's not as though we all got our computers and air conditioners last week, taking Con Edison completely by surprise. And demand on the power grid has been steadily growing since my Granny was a girl, so that can't have taken them by surprise either.

Kenneth, it may have been push polling. If so, I'd prefer that Con Edison find a cheaper advertising medium.

Stuart, your credibility soars to new heights with Those people are crazy up there." They are! They're out of their minds! They just can't bring themselves to take heat seriously, not even when their elderly grandparents are perishing of it.

#43 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 11:54 PM:

Teresa, Stuart: perhaps people "up [t]here" don't take heat seriously because it's so fleeting. I grew up in DC without A/C and decided Boston was my natural habitat \because/ the heat doesn't last (although I miss real thunderstorms - the front we had 5 hours ago was good, but I expected something of that class at least twice a week) and because there's so much more of the year when you have to put on layers (which is always possible) rather than take them off (which would have its limits even if this were the Ile du Levant). The Northeast has acquired some ability to cope with the unusual; I've read an account of a heat wave in 1896(?) in which Kipling in a light suit was appalled at New Yorkers in black wool at the height of summer.

Considered solely by weather, most of the U.S. isn't really fit for habitation. Mark Keller (in his what-if-there-was-no-kamikaze uchronia) quoted a comment that if North America had been settled from the west, New England would be a howling wilderness to this day; but I don't think he'd ever experienced even a borderline-Southern summer, let alone a central one. The compensations are cultural (we mentioned the beauties of the west coast at a mundane party and were told "But there's no deli between Eugene and San Francisco!"), which means we bear the heat like good Puritans and maybe even appreciate the roses it brings - something about this summer's heat and wet has driven all my wife's bushes to a continuing orgy of blooming.

I spent 15+ years proving it was possible to survive without home A/C - if your job had it. But it does make life easier now that I'm old and cranky.

#44 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2003, 12:50 AM:

Y'all do realize it wasn't as hot as it now is when New England was settled?

One of the reasons they prospered was the lack of disease; the hard cold winters kill lots of bugs and germs and suchlike.

#45 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2003, 01:07 AM:

See also the Tropical Scrud thread.

Portland's pretty nice.

The k-word is moving north, you know. Will Dubya, that mendacious fraud, still be excising remarks about global warming when we all vanish under heaps of green vines?

#46 ::: Ray Radlein ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2003, 01:44 AM:

By the way, and just because it pleases me to throw it in here: You know all those swanky palm trees the sunbelters love so much? Rats live in them. Rats can run straight up the side of a palm tree's trunk. I've watched 'em do it. They like to nest in the crowns.

We never had to worry about rats living in our palm trees down in Tampa: The palmetto bugs ate 'em.

#47 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2003, 02:08 AM:

Aaaaaaiiiiieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

#48 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2003, 03:04 AM:

So here's a modest proposal.

Standalone Solar-powered air conditioning.

Take the A/C off-grid and power it directly from big solar panels on the roof and walls (which have the added effect of absorbing a big chunk of the heat too).

#49 ::: cd ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2003, 10:32 AM:

Kevin: I don't know if you can get enough power; from my trying to read some graphs you get around 450 W/m^2 in the summer, average solar cell efficiency is less than 20%, so you get less than 0.1 kW/m^2. And the heat gets absorbed, rather than reflected...

This is all very theoretical to me anyway, living as I do in the North (and I can use that term, I live about as far north as the southern tip of "mainland" Alaska), where the houses are properly insulated and heating is more of a problem than cooling.

#50 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2003, 05:43 PM:

"Randolph, while I adored the idea of hanging gardens, it seemed to me that the proposal would necessarily entail permanently high maintenance costs. [...]"

Take a closer look at the diagram. It shows two layers of building enclosure--the trees are in between the layers. In such systems, the outer layer moderates the sun, breaks the wind, sheds most of the rain, and keeps most of the critters out; the inner layer keeps the water out. Design a good drainage system in the in-between layer (which is something that has been worked out for a very long time97the cathedral builders of Europe knew how to do it), and it can work. The diagram shows venting in the inner layer, as well; if they use window details similar to the ones they used in the Frankfurt Commerzbank those spaces will have operable windows.

It's not a free system by any means, but it can work. And it would save energy, likely enough to pay for the effort to keep it up.

For people who want to learn more about the double-layer wall design I can only refer you to current European design literature; this modern version of it is too new an idea to have made the books yet. For general information on managing water at building walls, refer to the chapter "Designing Cladding Systems" in Allen's Fundamentals of Building Construction.

#51 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2003, 05:56 PM:

"Standalone Solar-powered air conditioning"

This is extremely difficult, for exactly the reasons cd says--air conditioning, which in maintaining a thermal difference is directly opposing entropy, is enormously power-hungry. I am not aware of a technology that would work in the more humid parts of the USA.

I'd guess something could be worked out, probably a combination of passive techniques (keep as much of the heat out as possible and don't hold onto what gets in), and solar-powered systems that evaporate and condense fluids. I don't know what the the ratio of sunlit area to cooled volume would be, though; possibly more than the ratio sunlit area to volume of the surface of an NYC skyscraper. There are other techniques possible. I'm not fully aware of current research in this area; it may be that there is already a working prototype somewhere.

A final technical note--generating concentrated electricity from diffuse sunlight involves decreasing entropy and is therefore thermodynamically inefficient. It is always more efficient to avoid a step of conversion of heat to electricity and back, if that is possible.

#52 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2003, 06:13 PM:

I know it's a lot cooler to huddle in the shade of our solar panels than just outside their shade - if they're absorbing heat, it's no more than the ground would. If you stand in front of them they are hot; so perhaps, in a city, they would heat the next building as much as they cooled the one they were on. Hm.

I saw lots of new buildings covered with different vines in the Netherlands recently, but I didn't know a gardener there to talk to about how they chose the vines. My new local library, OTOH, has vine walls that look brilliant: the vines (twining, not sticky or penetrative) are going up a sturdy wire framework about two feet from the actual wall. I know I've read that leaf cover, if far enough away from a wall to allow air circulation, will probably protect more than it harms, and can buffer temperature changes. Depends on climate, building material, etc etc etc.

The vines take up much less space than would street trees providing equal summer shade, and they'll probably reach full height faster.

Another nice thing about them is that the system looks quite thrifty to build (esp. by standards of large public buildings.)

#53 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2003, 06:18 PM:

Oops, I left out a para in my post which would have made even more sense with Randolph's - IIRC solar dudes really don't think running a standard airconditioner off solar panels is cost-effective. Sensible building design for cooling is recommended instead, not that that helps much for retrofits.

#54 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2003, 07:24 AM:

I found a handy list of the electricty draw of various appliances: Energy Diet of a Stand-Alone Home. Since this list is for estimating the draw of an energy efficient, off-the-grid home rather than a McMansion or a 9th floor airconditioned apartment on a 100 degree day, the figures are low. But you are right, Teresa, the computer is not a huge draw. I think their computer usage figure is for a computer that is on and in use (not in sleep mode).

#55 ::: Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2003, 02:13 PM:

Hm, I was sure I'd posted this comment already, but: It's a push-poll, and the message is that It's All Your Fault, caused by all these new devices people are overloading the grid with, and therefore you can't complain about the coming rate hike.

The rate hike is needed to compensate for the fact that the new energy wholesalers, who have added a third party to your energy route, are eating up bandwidth like crazy. If you want the same kind of service you had before deregulation, you're going to have to pay extra for it. See here.

#56 ::: PDM ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2003, 10:46 AM:


Stuart, I already have appliances that communicate with each. If I try to brew coffee or dry my hair or use the microwave when the AC is running, they all agree that they should be shut down, along with the lights and the computers. Then I have to run down into the basement and re-set the fusebox. If you think that "Eschewing an airconditioner in the north doesn't really make that much difference," you must never have been here in the summer. I don't know where people got the idea that summer cooling is an optional luxury in this climate. Sure, you can do without it; you just have to accept that a lot of people will die as a results, and even more people will drag out the summer in a state of heat exhaustion and sleep deprivation.

I hate to sound like I'm gloating or anything like that......but we here in the San Francisco Bay Area have what they call "natural AC", i.e., unlike your Gulfstream waters, we have VERY cool ocean temps----and, between is called the Pacific High and a thermal trof spreading from the Sacramento Valley to the Moajave Desert, we get seabreazzes---and, ofttimes, cool, foggy/low overcast nights. So cool is the Bay Area that many (realtively) cheap hotels in SF don't even have AC. In fact, I've always wondered why the tourist boards of this region have never hyped the Bay Area as a refuge from East/Midwest steambath summers like Florida is hyped as an escape from the uber-freezing winters of those regions.

Nevertheless, in the immortal words of our last POTUS, I do indeed feel your pain. I kinda wonder how STUART is avoiding being the kind of energy pig he accuses you of being. I have no truck with "more eco-correct than thou" types (of which there is no shortage here in coastal California), who self-righteously condemn folks in the East/Midwest for cranking their AC's to the max in July (and heaters in January)----while at the very same time the don't think twice about consuming that latest cool home entertaimment system or Sharper Image piece of shit or SUV/Hummer---or listen to rock bands whose insturments are all electric/electronic to the nth degree. Reality check, people---the U.S. invaded and conqured Iraq every bit as much for YOUR wasteful habits as ours---so there!!!

#57 ::: Stuart Dimond ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2003, 01:10 PM:

PDM, I'm not accusing anyone of being an energy pig. What I do say is that it is pointless to hold up some symbolic energy saving effort as a virtue when what matters is the total energy consumption of your lifestyle. I have no more patience than you do with the "more eco-correct that thou" types.

What am I doing? We are going buy or build a new house in the next year or so. I'm trying to figure out how minimize the total energy consumption of our residence. This turns out not to be easy. The usual south central Texas house is an energy pig. The building codes don't facilitate building efficient houses. For instance, a dome has the least surface area in relation to its enclosed volume, we're not allowed to build one because it won't look like the other houses in the neighborhood.

I'm also trying to determine if photo-voltaics make economic sense in the long term in the face of their high initial cost. This amounts to a question of, do they save more energy in the long run than it costs to make them in the first place?

I don't drive an SUV, my Honda Civic gets 35 miles to the gallon. Hey but I remember my dad's BMW 600 back in 1963 got 50 mpg in the city and 60 mpg on the highway.

Until we as a society recognize that we can't use unlimited amounts of energy there will be no change in the systems that represent the greatest energy cost. The significant savings will be made when we can finally attack the problem at the systems level.

I would be very interested in seeing an analysis of the total energy cost of the war in Iraq. War has got to be one of the most energy inefficient activities the human race has indulged in. I've thought for a long time now that it will be the accountants who finally put an end to war. It's just not worth what it costs.

#58 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2003, 01:43 PM:

SDM: It may be true that SF proper doesn't "need" a/c, but those of us in the south Bay (and, come to think of it, peninsula) areas sure don't like to live without it. We must be less eco-friendly. :P

(I say, as someone who had to turn it on the other day to avoid bursting into flames. And whose colleagues routinely die of heat prostration -- or at least wish they had -- when the a/c goes out on their half of the building.)

I will grant you a northern California summer is fairly mild by my Chicago-bred standards -- the lack of humidity does wonders for making 100 degree days seem much more palatable -- but I'd still rather have the a/c on the days the mercury peeks into the 90s and all that relentless sunshine hits my building. I understand San Francisco actually gets, y'know, fog, so that probably mitigates it.

---

I missed this until I skimmed back through looking for the new posts: so far as I know, pron (without the 0) originated as a typo, and became pr0n because that's what us l33+ +yp35 d0 w1+h w0rd5 l1k3 +h4+.

#59 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2003, 01:45 PM:

Also, obviously, I meant PDM. Which I almost typed as PDF. *bangs head against wall* Typo Gremlins, darn it.

#60 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2003, 05:34 PM:

Stuart, PVs are nice and, especially in sunny summers, can contribute substantially to a building's electricty, but really icing on the cake--the greatest savings come from passive techniques and those depend on climate specifics, sometimes even the climate specifics of a particular site.

I believe PVs are likely to come into their own with improved energy storage technology, perhaps hydrogen fuel-cell based. If one can store summer sunlight for winter, solar electricty becomes surprisingly effective; a Boston suburb could be energy-independent year-round with PVs on the roofs.

I don't advise letting climate and formal geometry shape the entire design; a dome sounds efficient, but you would probably find the finished building had to cover considerably more ground than a rectilinear form--rooms without corners are difficult to furnish. Depending on the local climate, a dome might actually be a thermal problem, as well--long, thin buildings are preferable in humid climates if air conditioning is not used. On the other hand, if you have cool nights, a masonry dome on a square base, as sometimes found in Spanish churches, might be an excellent climate control device.

Advice on such decisions are what architects are for, of course. I suggest you engage a Texas design firm which does solar work--there's probably a few in the nearest major city--for referrals contact nearby architecture schools. There are also good designers working as carpenters and masons. I think you will find the energy savings and quality of the resulting building will more than pay the fees. If you decide to hire a designer, check references and portfolios. If you want some more specific advice from me, e-mail me directly, but you might do better with someone with more experience and local contacts--I'm a recent graduate, not licensed yet (though that's probably not required for residential design in Texas), and live far from you.

#61 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2003, 07:38 AM:

"...a masonry dome on a square base, as sometimes found in Spanish churches, might be an excellent climate control device."

I discovered while traveling in Italy during the summer that those big ol' churches are truly excellent climate control devices. The heat goes up to the empyrean realms near the ceiling, and meanwhile you've got all this heavy stone that connects with deep-sunk foundations, which keeps the floor-level areas cool.

(Of course, the other side of that coin is that high-ceilinged heavy stone structures in colder climates are not going to be cozy, which IMO is why medieval European court fashions are like a particularly elegant version of putting your overcoat on over your pajamas. Vestiges of this custom may still be observed at St. Augustine's in Brooklyn, a wonderful old heap (Randolph: Victorian asymmetrical gothic, all done in brownstone), where the parishioners don't bother to take off their overcoats during midwinter services.)

Stuart, if I were building a house from scratch in the Southwest and didn't have to contend with building codes, I'd want heavy stone or concrete foundations, with very thick adobe walls or their modern equivalent, and substantial porches all around. If energy gets scarce, you're fine. If energy gets cheap, you're still fine -- and who doesn't like shady porches and deep window ledges?

#62 ::: Temperance ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2003, 08:33 PM:

Teresa, Claude Muncey is the closest to right of all your posters, and the ones saying "Oh, it's just the utility shoving propaganda" are, er, kneejerking. I work in the Energy Efficiency Programs department of a major utility company -- in fact, I worked for a while on the Air Conditioner "cycling" program. This is where, in return for a discount on your bill, you allow them to install a radio-controlled device on your central A/C so they can turn it off if the grid is overloaded. It's not the world's greatest discount -- the one they offer manufacturers is much better -- but it has a legitimate purpose. A/C and refrigerators are the biggest energy guzzlers in everyone's home, not just because they are on all the time, but because they take a lot of energy to run. On the other hand, unless you have eight kids under the age of three, your washer & dryer, stove, etc., don't really require so much juice. It's also true that A/Cs tend to be on exactly when demand is highest, or to put it the other way, demand is highest when it's hot because everyone turns on the A/C. So ... please don't be paranoid. The utility isn't trying to spy on you, and they know perfectly well that residential users are not the big users, but (again on the other hand) it is true that every reduction in demand, however small, contributes to the reliability of the grid and the reduction of oil imports.

#63 ::: J Greely ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2003, 10:26 PM:

Teresa, how about straw-bale construction for that dream house? From the home-and-garden show I saw on the subject a few years back, it would certainly supply the deep window ledges, and it seems to meet code.

-j

#64 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2003, 10:21 AM:

Now if only my landlord would stop panicking about having ivy growing on the building...

Well, if it's the wrong sort, it can turn your bricks into little gravelly flinders. You want the kind with little suction cups, not the sort without.

#65 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2003, 04:40 PM:


During the power problems in Calif. we had some real pain. For all sorts of reasons we used very little power (no A/C, wood stove for heat, habits of conservation, clothes drying on the line, years of building all the little habits which make for minimal power use).

So the state is foaming at the mouth about how everyone needs to reduce power usage. Only problem was we couldn't. There wasn't 10 percent we could cut out. Which meant we were threatened with paying extra for being minimal users of electricity.

As for the straw bale house, I know people working on building one, for a Friends Retreat Center in Visalia. Given the nature of the weather there (eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley) it makes a fair bit of sense. Easier than adobe, almost as insulative and it can be put together without having to use a contractor, which might make a difference.

I am not sure how well it holds up in the long run; what the replacement rates are (I don't know how the straw is sealed to prevent it from slowly rotting away), but all in all it seems to have some things going for it in the energy efficiency category.

Terry K.

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