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Widgetitis: Obsessive compulsion to build canals with teaspoons – or meet program goals with showerheads.

A short story about economist Milton Friedman from The Wall Street Journal sort of sets the stage for effectively meeting program/portfolio goals in big chunks:

Milton recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: “You don’t understand. This is a jobs program.” To which Milton replied: “Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”

Widgetitis is a term I “coined” this week for the title of my ACEEE paper to be presented in August at the Summer Study for Energy Efficiency in Buildings.  The context is obsession with products and stuff which have evolved to the point of diminishing returns, total free ridership, and grasping for rather absurd widgets to get savings goals.  Meanwhile, Rome burns with buildings hemorrhaging energy like a severed jugular in a Freddy Krueger movie.  Some examples, Jeff?

My favorite: the programmable thermostat.  We have evaluated these things all over the country and the savings are abysmal for numerous reasons which I explained in a past brief.  If the customer gives a damn and would program the thermostat, they would already be manually controlling their old fashioned thermostat precisely per their occupancy patterns.  My mother, for example, turns the stat down when she goes to bed or leaves the house for whatever reason.  She may leave the house for her grandson’s evening ballgame or a weekend away, or she may spend the night watching TV and the weekend hosting guests.  Do ya think a programmable stat is going to save anything here?  No!  It will waste energy and make Mom angry.  The person that doesn’t give a damn will put it in override all the time.  The person that does give a damn will override it for manual control.

The occupancy sensor for lighting.  For reasons similar to the programmable thermostats, savings for these things can run in the red.  People who care turn the lights out when they leave the room.  For these applications, occupancy sensors waste energy when they replace manual switches as the controller leaves the lights on for a while after the room is vacated.  This delay is necessary.  Otherwise, lights would turn off every time an occupant sits or stands still.  Which brings me to the next point; the damn things turn the lights off while you work studiously.  You have to move about four feet to trigger an infrared sensor.  Blinking your eyelids will almost trigger an ultrasonic sensor.  When I walk into our supply room controlled with an infrared occupancy sensor, I’m 5 paces into the room before the lights come on.  Good thing I know where the X-Acto knives are stored or I may hemorrhage like that Freddy Krueger victim.

Computer control software.  This is software that is installed on a network server and shuts down or puts corporate and school computers to sleep.  The problem again is, many/most people shut down their computers normally at 5:00, but to be safe, these systems don’t shut them down till 7:00 resulting in longer run times.  And who uses a desktop computer now days?  People use laptops, tablets and iPads that burn an incredible 23 Watts max and they take them home at night!

Server farm virtualization.  Technology moves so fast that those suffering widgetitis weren’t able to catch this virus.   Whoa, that’s like a quadruple pun – like a double eagle, a 75 foot swish, a 109 yard kickoff return, back to back perfect games, or hitting for the cycle twice – in one game!  I know as much about body embalming as I know about computer networks, but server virtualization includes loading up machines and making them work at full(er) capacity rather than have five times as many partly loaded machines.  The objective is to reduce the number of servers required and energy savings come along for the free ride.  Virtualization saves money by requiring less hardware and is therefore, an undisputed free rider – not to mention that it would crash benefit/cost tests.

Dishwasher pre-rinse heads.  I know less about this technology than embalming.  Obviously it reduces water (presumably hot water) consumption for commercial dishwashers.  I don’t know about you, but to me cleaning dishes is like fighting fires.  You can dribble water forever or blast it for a second.  This may be a perfectly viable measure, but Rome continues to burn.

The most recent case of widgetitis came to our attention recently – a doozer: tight sealing damper blades for a skyscraper to reduce infiltration.  Rome burns.  I’m sure everything else in the building is running in tip top shape, milking every bit of value from every Btu consumed.

The crux of my ACEEE paper is to eradicate widgetitis in new construction programs.  When I see new construction reports that only include occupancy sensors, daylighting controls, energy recovery, efficient this that and the other, more insulation and better windows, why bother?  Ok.  There, this provides some benefit cost information for decision making but does it bring innovation to the table?

All these criteria and specifications can be legislated – meaning they can all become part of the code and there is an end of the road for this across the board.  Two examples that have reached the end of the road: motors and exit signs.  Then what, Widgetman?  There will still be plenty to do in new buildings and even more for existing ones.

Innovation: the creation of something in the mind.  Widgets, while vast, are limited. Applying, assembling, and controlling them to minimize energy consumption is not.

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

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