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Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

10 Energy Myths Debunked

Fear often drives purchasing decisions. It shouldn’t.

 

There is more good information – and bad – about saving energy and “going green” than ever before. How does a board distinguish between the two? It’s not easy. There are legions of misinformed and even downright mendacious people out there trying to separate you from your reserve funds. You can sidestep the most expensive mistakes by learning the truth about the following ten energy-efficiency myths:

 

1

Window replacement is a great way to save energy. Window replacement may be a great way to reduce chilling drafts and outdoor noise, but even at today’s energy prices, your children may become parents before your new windows pay for themselves with energy savings. I’ve had clients with 15-year-old double-glazed windows tell me they need to replace them, and that new super-efficient windows will pay back quickly (I’ve heard ads on the radio making similar claims). Sorry – it’s not happening. Windows comprise a small percentage of the typical building envelope, and they are relatively expensive to replace. If your existing windows are drafty, a few minor repairs and/or replacement of the balances will go a long way towards reducing drafts – the chief cause of discomfort – at a fraction of the cost of a new window.

2

Your boiler is on its last legs and must be replaced ASAP. Most people have no idea how their boiler works. As soon as the boiler starts to look a little long in the tooth, it is easy to prey on this ignorance and take advantage of the fear that it will explode if it is not replaced right away. That fear is utterly misplaced. Few boilers explode, and when they do, it’s rarely because they are old or even because they are rusty and “falling apart” (it’s usually because someone neglected or deliberately disabled some of the safety controls). I’ve had to talk some boards out of spending upwards of $100,000 on boiler replacement. You’d think it would be easy to convince people not to spend money like that – but often it is not.

“What about replacing the old rattletrap with a more efficient unit? Surely that’s a good reason?” you say.

Well, no. Most New York City buildings have steam heat, so a new boiler is not going to be much more efficient than the old one. In properties with forced hot water heat, there could be a big efficiency improvement – but the payback period will still be pretty long.

3

“Gas is more efficient.” “No, oil is more efficient.” “No, gas.” You hear these conflicting claims all the time. The truth is, it depends a lot on what kind of system you have, and what sort of condition it’s in. Broadly speaking, for steam systems, oil has the potential to be more efficient than gas, sometimes significantly so. For forced hot water systems, oil still has the theoretical edge unless you install a so-called condensing gas boiler. Problem is, most retrofits can’t really take advantage of this high efficiency.

The bottom line is, it’s almost always more cost-effective to squeeze the most you can out of your existing fuel than to switch from one to another (unless you already have dual-fuel capability).

4

An energy management system will save big money. Well, it might. But so will adjusting your existing control system, which will cost a heck of a lot less. And an energy management system, no matter what anyone tells you, will not solve the heat imbalance in your building.

I recently spoke with a client who installed an energy management system. Many building occupants complained loudly about being much colder with the new energy management system in place and the board is now considering going back to the old control system.

5

Night setback does not work. People ask me all the time, “Doesn’t it take more energy to heat the building back up in the morning?” Turns out, it doesn’t. It’s been proven time and again. Research conducted as far back as the 1970s showed conclusively that what counts is the average temperature of the building – the lower it is, the less energy it consumes. Night setback lowers the average temperature of the building. Case closed.

6

More steam pressure is better. Sorry, but no – if anything, it’s worse because it exacerbates leaks. I have a client board right now that refuses to turn down the steam pressure in its building, even though it’s an easily reversible change that will save money.

7

Parts are no longer available – you’d better get a newer model. Another scare tactic. I’ve gotten this line from contractors and then found parts sources on the web in two minutes. Don’t go for this until you’ve done some checking.

8

You’ve gotta do this – it’s code! I love this one. Whenever you hear this, ask for written documentation. Nine times out of ten, the issue will magically disappear. A few weeks ago a plumber on a job I designed kept insisting a certain item was a building code violation and threatened to hold up the job. The client was understandably concerned and did not know who to believe. I repeatedly asked the plumber to provide written proof of his assertion, but he never did. Out of frustration, the mechanical contractor did some digging and found something in a state code that seemed to confirm the plumber’s assertion. It turned out, however, that it was a provision that did not apply in New York City.

Leaving aside outright falsehood, many people are simply misinformed about the building codes, or misinterpret them, or are not up to date with the latest requirements. Sometimes, it’s the code inspector who is mistaken. Which is pretty scary.

9

Geothermal systems provide free energy. Ugh – no less an authority than the New York Times repeated this falsehood not too long ago. First of all, in my opinion, “geothermal” is a misnomer – I consider geothermal systems to be those like the ones in Iceland where natural steam comes shooting out of the ground.

A more accurate name might be “water source” or “ground source” heating/cooling systems. These take advantage of the fact that, several feet below ground, the temperature is always about 50 to 55° F. In the winter, this can serve as a heat source, and in the summer it can serve as a cooling source (a “heat sink”). A long loop of pipe filled with water is buried deep enough to harvest the energy, and the water picks heat up or discharges heat into the ground as it is pumped through the loop. It’s true that the heat energy in the ground is “free,” in the sense that solar radiation is free, but it’s not free to move it into your house. There are still pumps and compressors involved, and they require something that is very much not free, known as electricity. Would it surprise you to learn that electric utilities love to promote “geothermal” systems?

10

Solar, wind, and green roofs will save big money. I wish this were not a myth, because the survival of the planet may depend on cost-effectively harnessing these energy sources in the relatively near future. Problem is, solar systems take decades to pay back, wind is currently impractical for most buildings, and green roofs save very little energy.

It’s true that with various tax credits a solar power system can now be made to make economic sense, but you need an awful lot of collector area to make even a small dent in your energy needs. What I tell people is: do the conventional stuff first, and with the money you save, install a solar power system in a few years. Maybe by then they will be more cost-effective too.

Have you noticed a common thread running through these myths? A lot of them are based on fear. Fear that, on the coldest day of the year, the boiler is going to break down, explode, kill people, and take three months to repair after waiting six months for new parts. Relax. Even some of the most neglected and abused heating systems I’ve seen have never failed in this way. You can prepare for the more likely scenarios at fairly low cost, so that if something does go wrong, the worst doesn’t happen. Then you can get back to the business of saving the planet – and your own pocketbook – with peace of mind.

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