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I had a really bad week last week – nothing significant occurred to me in the world of EE, and nothing really enraged me or even made me snicker, although I could always rant about federal spending on EE and renewable energy.  Actually, if you are so inclined, Kim Strassel from The Wall Street Journal takes it to Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, if you are interested.  Who would name their kid “Mitt”?  What kind of a name is that?  Is that short for Mitchell?  Mitt for short, with two ts?  Or is it short for Mitten?  Why are there baseball “gloves” and a catcher’s “mitt”?  Because gloves have fingers and mitts, short for mittens, have none.  Wow.  I think I figured something out today, although Romney is still confusing as hell in more than one way.

In the end, I did come stumble onto this article regarding SAIC’s programs for Ameren Illinois.  Specifically, I was looking at the photo, thinking, this isn’t where the savings are!  The vegetables are pretty and attractive, although beware of listeria and e-coli.  Who’s your farmer?

But the EE-buying public doesn’t know the bok choi and asparagus are harmless passive loads for the refrigeration system.  The engineering nerd wants to see the guys standing in a room full of hunks of iron on steel racks with pipes and conduits perfectly aligned in harmonious symmetry and parallelism.

BTW, engineers cannot handle any abnormalities, curves, interesting angles, or asymmetry – in a word: art.  If you want to get an engineer to sing like a canary, put them on a stool in an empty room lined with Picassos, Kandinskys, and Miros.  This would be harsh psychological torture.  Why are so many engineers obsessed with woodworking?  In another word: square.  I’m easy.  If I were chemically influenced enough to create, say an entertainment center, I would purposely skip the squares, rulers, pencils and all that crap.  Does the end result look like crap?  No.  It’s art.

Come to think of it, this could be why it is difficult for new graduates to transition into energy efficiency.  We don’t solve problems like, “How much work does it take to empty a 16 gallon keg of beer with a hand pump?”  (Wisconsin is the only state in the union that refers to this thing as a “half barrel”) That keg question was on my final exam for my first semester thermodynamics course, and that is no joke.

We never have complete information to analyze an energy project, even when we can get everything we can think of.  One has to learn what matters and what doesn’t really matter.  We are not solving problems like a 1000 Btu of heat is added to a cylinder with water blah blah, this, that, and the other.  How far does the piston move?

Unlike design, and possibly any other profession engineers delve into, when calculating energy use/savings, we want it to be as accurate as possible with no safety factor.  Most building design, especially new construction, is performed using cookbook methods and then multiplying by 4 because this building will be warm and it will be cool – dammit!  Well, this may be fine but it costs the owner, in many cases, a fortune because stuff is grossly oversized to begin with and oversize isn’t like a quad artery bypass burger from Carl’s Junior.  Come to think of it, it probably is.  You pay more now and you will really pay the rest of its life.

Not all oversizing is created equal.  Belt and suspenders design is especially costly as entire systems are virtually redundant with EXTRA equipment.  For example, you DO NOT want belt and suspenders for an earthen heat exchanger for a heat pump system.  That is costly.  Installing an air conditioner or boiler that is 50% larger than it should be isn’t ideal but at least in most cases it isn’t going to proportionally increase the cost, like a couple dozen extra bores for heat pump well field would.

How do people think about EE for decision making and what did the designer have in mind when he designed this behemoth?  These are the things that interest me most about EE and they are encapsulated in program evaluation and retrocommissioning.  In program evaluation, we are asking, what good is this program anyway?  That is a big question to be answered with responses and answers to a thousand other questions.  Most of our work for evaluation includes determining gross savings – actual savings.  Attributes of a good evaluator include those of a good referee, judge, investigator, interrogator, psychiatrist, dog trainer, social scientist, mathematician, philosopher, priest and engineer.  To the square engineer, this seems boring, stupid, and frivolous.  To the artful or person who can’t stand wasted money, unrealized or fake savings, it is great stuff.

In retrocommissioning, it helps enormously to figure out the profile of the designer or firm that designed the systems.  Descriptions include:

  • This must have been the first of this type of system these guys designed.  It is designed with backup for everything, which for a nuclear power plant is good, but not for your building.
  • These guys paint by numbers.  There is no thought or creativity whatsoever.  E.g., they put an equipment room on a central air handling system, which will waste energy like crazy.
  • I have no idea what the hell this guy was thinking.  This is the most bizarre thing I have ever seen.
  • These guys actually did a pretty good job.

With retrocommissioning, like evaluation, one has to work with incomplete information and sometimes it requires psychoanalyst skills as well.  Being a genius and having tons of experience to recognize the fingerprints of an energy hog are both highly valued, but one also needs the social skills required to act like a schmo or a fan of whatever football, baseball, hockey team, sport, politician or car the customer wants to yap about.  Don’t worry about golf.  If the guy wants to talk golf, it’s the wrong guy.


Japan, with its devastated tourism industry since the tsunami and Fukushima meltdown, may offer 10,000 free flights to revive tourism.  Fukushima is keeping people away?  It would be an attraction to me – like seeing a volcano spouting lava.

In the OMG department this week, Bernie Sanders, self-described socialist senator from Vermont, espouses on-bill financing of energy efficiency projects consistent with a key part of my plan a couple weeks ago.  This could be described as a broken clock being right twice a day but Sanders has a digital clock.  A better allegory would be, even the Minnesota Vikings franchise will win the Super Bowl at some point if the league survives a long time, maybe 10,000 years would do it?

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

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