Monday, January 26, 2009

-15F But Now We're Really Counting!

The exceptionally cold winter continues. But there have been quite a few brilliantly sunny days and that allows for considerable solar gain for the passive design of the Unity House.

We had a retreat here on Saturday morning for the Faculty Planning Committee of Unity College. We're undergoing a thoughtful and wonderful process of revising our curriculum to meet the needs of a new generation of sustainability leadership. Mick Womersley, Associate Professor of Human Ecology, and generalist on all things related to ecological economics, energy and sustainability, was a participant. Before our discussions started, Mick was roaming around the house with a temperature gun, checking out the floors, windows, and walls. When I first saw him pull the thing from his pocket, I wasn't sure exactly what he was doing. Indeed, he looked like some kind of sustainability ghost-buster! Maybe that's an emerging career in this field.

Anyway, he told me what he was doing, handed me the thermometer gun, and I started flashing it as well, delighted in the simple pleasure of attaching numbers to walls and windows. Mick offered to lend me the instrument (Unity College has several of them). I took up his offer and spent Sunday (another icy cold, but clear day) taking readings throughout the day at approximately two hour intervals.

Here's what I recorded. At 9 AM the temperature outside was -9 Farenheit. The south facing window, just catching a few rays of morning sun was 73 F and the north facing window at our back entrance was 43. I placed a chair in front of the south facing window. The upholstery was 89F (a nice place to get some heat on your back in the morning) whereas the other couches were 64F. I checked out the floor throughout the house and it ranged from 56-64F. The walls were 63-66. The room temperature was 63, our default setting. The Hallowell heat pump was off although it had been on earlier in the morning. Incidentally, it would not come on again until 10 PM as the house absorbed and contained so much heat during the day.

Here are the remaining readings. By the way, the cold floor spot is the only place in the house that receives no sun. For most of the day, the floor temperature is the same as room temperature, but much warmer in the sunny spots as the house accumulates sun.

10:30 AM 3F outside

Windows 49-85
Couches 71-113
Floors 54-68
Walls 65-67
Room 65

12:00 PM 19F outside

Windows 52-102
Couches 71-113
Floors 54-79
Walls 65-68
Room 68

2:30 PM 21F outside

Windows 55-108
Couches 73-104
Floors 55-81
Walls 65-70
Room 70

6:00 PM 20F outside (The sun has set)

Windows 49-56
Couches 66
Floors 53-73
Walls 65-66
Room 66

What do I conclude from all of this?

(1) The windows are doing a pretty darn good job and there isn't too much heat loss from them
(2) The walls absorb and retain sufficient heat as they are almost precisely the same temperature as the room
(3) The floors effectively absorb and radiate heat
(4) The furniture temperature reflects room temperature, but absorbs heat when in direct sunlight.

What we should do next is trace the power needs throughout the course of the day.
More importantly, interacting with the house in this way helps us better understand the performance of the house.
Yet there's something very important that's missing here. What is the relationship between how the Unity House uses power and the regional/national grid?

I'm delighted to see that Thomas Friedman's excellent new book, Hot, Flat and Crowded is a national best seller. It's an insightful and accessible plea for a comprhensive national strategy for energy innovation as a means for America to regain its leadership in the global economy. Friedman also understands the challenge of biodiversity and climate change and he provides brilliant solutions-based, practical, and wide-ranging policy suggestions. I was so impressed with the book that I gave copies to every Unity College Board of Trustee and I'm using it in a seminar I'm teaching on Environmental Security.

Back to the temperature gun and the necessity of measuring power input and output as well. Friedman describes how America needs an "Energy Internet" which will allow comprehensive monitoring of energy usage. This will not only allow us to conserve unprecedented amounts of energy, but it will allow the consumer to take part in a community/cooperative venture that brings energy usage to the most specific and tangible consumer level.

We thought about wiring the Unity House accordingly, but the cost was prohibitive, and we decided that we'd rather invest in ecological landscaping and other features. However, the technology should be available for every American homeowner to have utility-provided "black boxes" not unlike your cable or satellite TV setup that are connected to both your computer and the national grid. The whole point of the Unity House (and other sustainable energy projects) is to live experimentally, live with more energy awareness, and to take educational leadership to promote sustainable alternatives.

As we learn more about the Unity House, we will take on some of these initiatives. we'll look for inexpensive energy monitoring alternatives, and we'll report on what we're learning. We'll continue to pursue what one reporter described as "obsessive transparency."

Oh, and as you can see, our dog Paco really likes sitting on a warm couch on an icy cold winter day!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

-15 and counting

We've lived in Northern New England for the last thirty years, mainly in Dublin, New Hampshire, in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. Our small house in the hills (which we still use and own) is perched on the side of a hill so we never experienced incredibly frigid temperatures. It would be ten or twenty below in Keene (a Pleistocene lake bed), but at our house the temperature would be at least ten or fifteen degrees warmer. Indeed, the coldest temperature we ever recorded from 1979-2006 was about ten below zero, and the number of evenings below zero (in total over all those years) was surely less than twenty.

The last few days all of Northern New England has experienced some of the lowest temperatures I've ever seen. This morning at 9 AM it was -15. I went out snowshoeing for twenty minutes just to say that I experienced that temperature. I really enjoy extraordinary weather, as long as its short-lived.

But more to the point, how are things at the Unity House? Usually if the temperature is that cold it's because there's enough radiational cooling for the heat to escape into the atmosphere. We've experienced three consecutive frigid, but largely cloud-free days. By 9AM the solar gain is sufficient in The Unity House that the electric heat pump will not be needed again until about 8 PM. Yesterday it was a balmy seventy degrees. There is no draft of any kind as the house is so well insulated. Hence on brilliantly sunny days (even when the temperature doesn't rise above 5 Degrees Farenheit, there is no need for electric heat until well into evening. Also, the solar panels are generating about 4500 Watts of power. I can safely say that when the sun is shining in the middle of winter, the Unity House is carbon neutral.

Still, we have slipped behind on our scorecard. As of yesterday, we have drawn more energy from the grid than we've generated, but not by much. I fully expect that as the days get longer and warmer we will redress the balance and wind up way ahead.

It's time to leave the computer, head over to the chair by the window, and soak up some of that mid-Winter sun as I gaze over the frigid landscape.

Mitchell Thomashow