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The Department of Redundancy Department

I’ve been thinking about redundancy these last few days. The power supply on my workstation computer crapped out. It was (is)a major inconvenience. For instance, all the images of the HVAC system I’d show you were on the virtual desktop, and they’ll be unavailable for a week while I wait for the replacement part to arrive. I’m sure you’ll all enjoy having someone describe a heating system, instead of seeing one. Playboy in braille has nothing on me, man.

But the computer and the heating system are similar in some respects. They’re both relying on the Department of Redundancy Department to keep on keeping on. I’ll explain.

The heating system in our house, isn’t. I heat the house, but it’s not a system.

system /sĭs′təm/

A group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole, especially.

OK, maybe it is a system, just not in the way people usually think of a system. It’s not a flow chart. It’s a Venn Diagram. There are disparate elements, and they can be interrelated, or interdependent as necessary, but ultimately they don’t have a lot to do with one another. In some aspects they compete with each other. In others, they work together as required. It’s an ad hoc kind of system.

The heat pump isn’t big enough to heat the house when it’s twenty below. So what? If I put in a unitary system that could handle it, it would cost too much and work poorly as an air conditioning unit in the summer (too big). When it was eighteen below zero last winter, we ran the pellet stove and the heat pump at the same time, and didn’t notice anything but the bill.

If you plan for a worst-case scenario, and then use that as a baseline, you’re overprepared most of the time. And while hoarding, disguised as prepping, is in vogue, it doesn’t work in a world where the apocalypse never comes. It really doesn’t work even if the apocalypse does come, because cataclysms have a tendency to be unpredictable. What exactly do you hoard? Everything? It’s not possible.

Well, you certainly can’t hoard heat. Keep firewood too long, and it rots. Pellets get moldy in the summer from the humidity. Storing electricity for later isn’t such a great idea, either. As the joke goes, electric cars are more reliable than gas-powered cars. Up to 95% of all the electric cars ever made are still on the road. The other 5% made it home.

So making huge, unitary systems and then defending them and backing them up is difficult stuff. I didn’t have a power supply hanging around that could replace the one in my ancient computer. I could have put one on the shelf ten years ago. But how would I know what to hoard? Maybe the mother board would quit. The hard drive. The fans. The RAM. Pretty soon you’re not hoarding parts, you’re hoarding a whole ‘nother unitary system in case the original goes on the blink. But then again, how do you know a stored computer will still work when you dust it off after years in storage. Better get two spares, huh?

People who live where the weather is more than an inconvenience understand the Department of Redundancy Department. Usually because they learned the hard way, like I did. You don’t want duplicates. You want alternatives. If the heat pump goes on the blink, you still have the pellet stove. If the pellet stove doesn’t work, you still have baseboard electric heat. If there’s no electricity, you can’t run the baseboard heat, or the heat pump, but you can run a generator and run the pellet stove. If the generator quits, you hook up an inverter to the car battery and run the engine with an extension cord into the house to run the pellet stove. If that quits, you can swap the extension cord over to backup backup backup backup scheme and burn wood in the wood furnace. If it’s cold enough, you run damn near everything. I’ve done all those things. You would, too, if it was twenty below.

You know everything works because you use it every once in a while. Nothing has to do everything — or else. You end up with less stuff hanging around in the long run, because while you might have two of everything, you don’t have three of anything.

So the computer didn’t work. There were standalone backup drives on the desk. The Department of Redundancy Department strikes again. There are backups held offsite, too, of course, but if you trust an internet company to be reliable forever, I have some CMGI stock to sell you. And a bridge.

The computer that quit a few days ago was the backup. I’d replaced it with something better, that wasn’t, and had to resurrect the old beast from the shelf. So the interruption was more of a nuisance  than might have usually been the case. I fished through all sorts of hardware I had hanging around, trying to cobble together a bridge to a Fedex delivery. I got sort of stymied left and right. Dongle A didn’t mesh with Jack B or fit in Case C, etc. After more than a few hours of messing about in firewalls and pressing the backup backup backup backup laptop back into service, trying to make autofill behave, and get Google to stop freaking out because I was logging in to Google things sitting three inches to the left of the usual spot, I remembered the ultimate time-saving, aggravation-avoiding backup plan of all time. I went and got a stored, eight-page printed paper backup of every login and password I needed, and dutifully typed each one into the browser as needed.

It’s easy to be impressed by companies the size of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Cisco, etc., but they still can’t compete with Johannes Gutenberg yet. Not even close. I’ll raise my hand if they manage to pass a Ticonderoga #2 on the way.

The Greek Goddess of Open Toed Sandals

Let’s get hysterical about hysteresis for a moment. If you’re new to this HVAC game, you might think hysteresis was the Greek goddess of open toed sandals or something. Or maybe hysteresis is that problem that sends your wife to the pharmacy at 11 PM on Saturday night, wearing sweatpants, because, you know.

No, hysteresis is a somewhat less interesting subject than that. Technically, hysteresis can apply to all sorts of things, like magnetism or the gas pedal in your car. In short, it means a lag between what you want, and what you get. The only place you’ll probably ever encounter it as a topic of conversation in the wild is when you’re talking to the dirty HVAC installer who leaves handprints all over your wallpaper while adjusting your thermostat. He’ll say, “How much hysteresis to you want, anyway?”, and you’ll mumble and dissemble and try to remember Greek legends to no avail.

I’ll try to explain it. Let’s say you want your house to be 72-degrees. With the panache of Canute, you command your furnace, if it’s winter, to make it so. Of course you’re a bit of a coward, and are justifiably afraid of confronting your furnace face to dial (it’s dark and scary down there), so you send an envoy instead. This envoy, your thermostat, sends a strongly worded communique via a twelve-volt DC tingle through a tiny wire or two to your furnace. But your furnace isn’t afraid of you. It knows that if given a Sophie’s Choice between the furnace and her husband, any sensible woman would choose central heating every time. So the furnace tells you to wait, tough guy, until it’s ready to give you some heat.

That’s a form of hysteresis. It’s related to inertia. In the same way your teenage boys on the couch respond to stimuli, your furnace doesn’t jump to it immediately when ordered to do things. It’s a smart policy on their part. People fumble around with the settings on the thermostat constantly, and hysteresis helps them sit shiva on the current settings until you make up your mind, or your thumb, if you have a touchpad. Some time passes, and it finally decides to trust you, and the furnace clicks on.

But you’re not done with hysteresis. Not by a long shot. Let’s say it’s 66-degrees in your dining room, and you want 72 in there. With most furnaces, they’ll hit 72 and keep going. They figure you’re an excitable sort, and if they halt the heating proceedings exactly at 72, the temperature will drop to 71 pretty quick, and you’ll start banging on the thermostat again right away. So the furnace is set to over shoot the temp you want. That’s hysteresis. By the same token, if the low temp is set for something like 66, so you can sleep at night with more than a sheet over you, it likely will not rouse itself until the temp reaches 64, and then click on. Coming or going, that’s hysteresis.

Of course the modern electronic thermostat has many, many settings that adjust hysteresis. They involve calling up fourteen menus on a tiny screen and interpreting and entering more codes than it takes to launch missiles from a Trident sub, but it can be done. In practice, whatever comes from the factory is good enough, whether it is or not. Our thermostat stops a few minutes after reaching the desired temp, before it adds an additional degree, and won’t come on again until a short while after the temp is two degrees below the desired. It actually tells you to WAIT on the screen when it hits a set point. Mighty haughty, your thermostat is. Your mileage might vary.

So hysteresis is smart and stupid at the same time. It’s smart, because the furnace hates cycling on and off over and over over minor changes in temp, so it overshoots a bit when it runs, and waits a little before it runs, or doesn’t run. That last sentence is kinda confusing, I admit, and doesn’t explain a lot, but how many chances does an author get to write “on and off over and over over” and still make the sentence parse? I couldn’t resist.

So that’s the smart part. The dumb part is that the ideal heating appliance would run continuously, so hysteresis would be out of a job. It would adjust itself continuously to the conditions and keep everything steady-state. The Amalgamated Brotherhood of United Hysteresis is a very powerful union, though, so this ideal heating device is rarely discussed, never mind invented.

Modern houses are usually much better insulated than in the past, and weatherstipped until a firefly in a peanut butter jar with holes punched in the lid has better ventilation. The heating (and cooling, of course) devices are better at doing their thing, and the thermostats are more accurate than the big clunky dial on the wall of our utes. But there’s still a fair bit of hysteresis involved, especially if you have too much money, and are the impatient sort.

Let’s say you’re building a new snouthouse and you’re determined to finally have things your way and you’re not scrimping on anything this time around. You inform the General Contractor to inform the HVAC guy to put in the HeatSmiter Megaladon furnace or the the COOLpro Ice Station Zebra model AC blaster. You’re not going to wait for the house to warm up, or cool off, ever again. You tell him you want your hair to be blown back like a biplane pilot when the thing comes on.

This is dumb. HVAC doesn’t work (well) that way. You may want a machine that does the trick, but a machine that does the trick+10 is a worse machine, not a better one. If you select a bigger air conditioner than you need, the condenser outside becomes a block of ice. The heat inside your house that you’re trying to get rid of isn’t enough to warm up the circulating refrigerant to keep it from freezing up. By the same token, if you have a ginormous furnace, the hysteresis will be notable, because it will blast way past what you actually require before it can stop. It will run a lot, just for very short periods of time. If you know anything about machinery, you’ll know that starting and stopping is what wears them out quick. And you’ll be too hot and too cold over and over anyway.

So we couldn’t afford a bigger heat pump, or to run it even if we could. Good. The bigger one would have frozen up solid when we ran the A/C, because we don’t need very much here in Maine. And the bigger heating capacity would have been nice, but bankrupting yourself to run a bigger thing less often wouldn’t help us. We were going to achieve the closest thing to steady state HVAC we could cook up.

[To be continued]

Beware RFRoT. Stick With BTNRoT

Fair warning: All my rules of thumb have a black fingernail where I hit it with a hammer. In my experience, most rules of thumb about house construction are devised by an engineer, not an architect. If you ask an engineer how strong something needs to be to keep if from falling on the occupants, he’ll tell you triple what’s really necessary. Can you blame him? He doesn’t want to get sued, and he knows that whatever he specifies is going to be installed by a guy whose lips move when he reads street signs. If you ask an architect how strong something needs to be to keep it from falling on the occupants, he’ll first wonder aloud why anyone would worry about the occupants, and then tell you to ask an engineer if you’re that interested.

I do know how to do things correctly. I can follow the building code to a T, and have. I can ladle customer money all over a budget with triple what’s necessary to get the job done. But unfortunately, I’m the customer, and a budget is some sort of bird that looks like a canary, I think. I need poor people rules of thumb. I need Better Than Nothing Rules of Thumb (BTNRoT).

Designing an HVAC system from scratch required many, many rules of thumb to be concatenated and then basically ignored. Plumbing and heating guys are maybe the most nuts about spending your money to amuse themselves. If you’ve ever watched This Very Expensive Nominally Old House That Is Definitely Not Going To Get Any Cheaper, you’ve seen their HVAC homunculus standing in what looks like the engine room of a nuclear sub, explaining why you NEED a $175,000 heating system. You know, to save money.

So while I’m forced to use rules of thumb, I’ll be shaving points off them like I’m a power forward on a college basketball team with money riding on the game. I’m going to make it work, not make it work plus 200%.

Now, the heat pump air handler says it puts out 1,000 cubic feet per minute (CFM) of handled-air goodness. The compressor is rated for 36,000 BTUs. Both of those numbers are exactly half what the RFRoT (Rich Folks Rule of Thumb) say they should be to heat a house in western Maine. And that’s after I’ve shaved off the fudge factor. I’ve seen 100,000 BTUs mentioned here and there. Yikes.

You can buy a larger versions of the heat pump/air handler we purchased. They’re terrifying. They have frightening price tags and use horrifying amounts of electricity just to increase the output from 36K to 48K. And you couldn’t lift the condenser without mid-80s Schwarzenegger to lend a hand. And even if our electrical service could handle one (it can’t), we couldn’t possibly afford to run it. So I used my ultimate rule of thumb: If I can’t afford it, it doesn’t exist.

So rules of thumb say if I have a 1,000 CFM air handler, and maybe 36,000 BTUs, I can heat half my house. I know I can do better than that using BTNRoT.

So how do we make the CFM work? By making it easier for less to do more. We’ll put the shortest possible duct runs into the house, instead of running them all over the place to achieve all sorts of weird rules of thumb that matter to the RFRoT HVAC homunculi but no one sane or poor. We won’t use anything but smooth, round, metal ducts, instead of the moderately less expensive insulated flexible duct, which is essentially a slinky with a garbage bag wrapped around it.

Everyone uses it nowadays, and everyone needs more CFM because of it. Air doesn’t like passing through a bendy, crinkled, corrugated tube, so you have to push harder. We’ll use a lot of these instead:

Speaking of crinkled, this is a photo of a delivery during a somewhat amusing interlude where the Orange Place tried sending things without boxing them first. The delivery drivers treated them pretty badly, but honestly, no worse than the average HVAC journeyman would while taking them off the truck and throwing them down the bulkhead stairs. Short, straight runs with smooth metal tubes can almost heal up that black thumbnail on your BTNRoT. And we’ll be avoiding elbows like the plague, because they slow down airflow a lot, and they cost a relative fortune.

Of course you’re going to need plenums, coming and going. If you’re not familiar with moving air in a house, you have to understand that big fans don’t matter if you don’t take as much air out of the room as the amount you’re trying to put in. That means you need cold air return ducts going back to a cold air return plenum, and a hot air plenum to distribute your warmed air back to the octopus of ducts you have serving all your rooms. Ours looks like this:

Sheet metal work like these plenums is amazingly expensive if you hire it done. I bought a return air plenum kit to cheat a little. I had to modify it a lot, but it was still a lot easier than making one from scratch. It acts as a filter box and a stand for the air handler. The hot air plenum on top I made from sheets of galvanized metal. It’s not that hard with a few cutting shears from Harbor Fraught and a box of bandaids. It’s bigger than it looks. Part of it extends out over the back to accept large pipes nicely.

In the picture, you’re looking at two hot air ducts, and one cold air return (it goes down under the air handler to be pulled through a big filter and up into the air handler to be, you know, handled). There’s another very large cold air return hidden behind the cabinet. The floor grate in the dining room floor has a filter box I built slung under the floor (the tan thing), which has a pipe leading straight down to the back of the filter box. Two big ones in, two big ones out. You know, like a date at a Sizzler.

[To be continued]

So Simple, Even a Cave Man Can Do It

I’m considered somewhat hidebound by a lot of people. That’s OK. You develop a thick hide after a while of being hidebound. I like traditional stuff more than is popular right now. As a matter of fact, more than is allowed right now. On further reflection, more than is legal right now. My family has been referred to as “The Amish” by some of our relatives, not entirely with affection. They came to our house and they couldn’t watch broadcast television. That’s all it took to earn the sobriquet. Needless to say, they only came once.

On the other hand, we’re fairly cutting edge on many fronts, although it might not seem so to many. I get asked about my heat pump heating system by people who regard us as barely walking upright, for instance. One can’t help but notice that several of my cro-magnon relatives installed heat pumps in their caves when they found out we neanderthals had central air conditioning, and they didn’t, even though their houses cost twenty or thirty times what ours did.

The true reason for this disconnect between our image and reality is a confusion about what true progress is. In many ways, our family is trying to live in the future, and peevishly waiting for technology and culture to catch up with us. It’s not our fault that society has decided that a Dickensian lifestyle of dissipated illegitimate subsidized squalor should be called progress, as long as the workhouses have a Facebook page. That’s not progress. Progress is when things get better. Period. It’s not when things get more complicated. It’s not when you need a phone to turn on your light switches or buy a cup of coffee.

So for example, we had to wait around for manufacturers to figure out how to make a heat pump that worked in our climate, make it affordable, and make it so I could install it myself. I wanted one long before they existed. Fixing the existing oil burning boiler in our dilapidated house would have been an exercise in nostalgia, if you ask me. The same people who call us Amish would understand it, but honestly, it’s a barbarous way to make heat. We bided our time and made do with firewood and pellets. They weren’t exactly cutting edge technologies, but we were selecting from the tallest midgets in the circus. They seemed less crazy than paying through the nose every month for a giant tub of black Venezuelan goo in the basement to heat our house.

So I was more than ready for another answer, a better answer, and lo and behold, it showed up. I’m skeptical of everything to the point of cynicism, but I assure you I know a good thing when I see it. I found this video:

Now, let’s call this what it is. It’s marketing. This video is made by Mr. Cool, and they didn’t make it out of the goodness of their hearts. But it wasn’t a commercial. It was very old school marketing. They wanted to convey important information about their products to A: Increase brand awareness, and B: Overcome conventional attitudes about heat pumps using factual information. It’s way, way more honest and informative than anything that’s been published or broadcast in the news media since the Maine was sunk.

They’re not stupid, and while the better angels of their marketing department might have made this video, elision is still a form of fibbing. They’re not just in Grand Forks North Dakota because it’s cold there. I get suspicious, and poked around, and found out Grand Forks has some of the cheapest electrical rates in the country. This thing will work wherever you are in the US, but your mileage will most definitely vary when the electric bill comes. But still, it is what it is.

If you’ve ever been in a position to purchase materials and equipment for a large organization, you might be familiar with this form of marketing. Big companies hire outside salespeople to visit other big companies in order to increase brand awareness and overcome price and delivery hesitancy. These salespeople were good at hail-fellow-well-met handshakes and golf. They knew good restaurants to plop your tired purchasing manager ass in, and they knew enough to pick up the check, too. They generally knew every damn thing about the products they were trying to sell. If they didn’t, they didn’t sell much. They had an effective mixture of information and personality.

I was later informed that Mr. Cool has an enormous presence on broadcast TV. They run the same sorts of information-free, aspirational sales pitches with unfunny jokes ladled all over them and women in low-cut dresses that all companies foist on television audiences. Of course I’d never see them, but everyone who called us Amish had seen them 10,000 times. They didn’t reach for their checkbooks until they heard about ours, though.

Sometimes pioneers are those skeletons you see by the side of the trail with arrows sticking out of their bleached rib cages. Sometimes they’re the guys with A/C in August. They’re never the guys who stay home and watch TV.

Even Tantalus Wouldn’t Drink That

Even back before I knew I wanted a heat pump, and a pony, I knew I wanted to handle some air. In HVAC, this is usually handled by an air handler. Duh. That’s a big cabinet-looking appliance with a big fan in it in most people’s houses. If you have a standard furnace, the unit itself usually functions as the air handler too. You burn some sort of gas or goo to heat up some air and then you blow it through some ducts hither and yon around your house. Boilers do the same sort of thing, but they heat water instead of air, and circulate that around.

Well, I was producing hot air without the goo already. I”m nor referring to blogging here. I was burning pellets in a big stove and dumping the hot air in the dining room. Luckily, the dining room was more or less centrally located, but heat takes some persuasion to get it to go to where you want it. The little 200CFM fan in the back of the pellet stove wasn’t going to spread it around 2,000 square feet of house. We didn’t (don’t) have the money for a proper central heating system, so we resorted to our default guerilla warfare approach to the problem.

Way back when, I outlined our scheme to get heat from the dining room upstairs into our children’s bedrooms in The Tin Man’s Autopsy. We couldn’t afford an air handler, but we could put some tin pipes between floors to coax the heat upstairs.

Then I painstakingly explained Eight Things That Won’t Happen in Heating, to outline why I was doing what I was doing in the manner I was doing it, but I freely admit I did a lousy job explaining what I wanted a pony for. This HVAC explanation was roundly ignored by several people in the comments, who love them some ceiling fans, and the rest of the internet, more or less. After a somewhat charming lagniappe filled with my children’s music videos and earnest pleas to my wife not to leave my sorry ass even though I didn’t get her a pony for our anniversary, I finally got around to Let’s See if Sippican Can Tie His Heating System Into His Sewer System.

Of course everyone immediately lost interest in my ersatz air handling explanations and glommed onto the Geyser of Excrement tale. I know I did. In the world of construction triage, fixing a problem with not enough BTUs floating by comes well after stopping merde floating by in the basement. You can read all about it at the link, if you like. Lots and lots of people have. It’s a testament to what’s important in this online world that the most notable thing I ever wrote was about just how full of shite my life had become.

But ignored in the scum scrum was the fact that we did actually solve our air handling problem, albeit incrementally, not exponentially. We installed ducts up high in the dining room wall, and ran them up into the second floor. It’s all achieved inside of closets, a happy accident of floor layout. The inlet pipe was up by the ceiling in the dining room. There were two outlets upstairs, one for each kid’s bedroom. We simply stood a regular tabletop fan on top of the big cabinet that once stood there, and it blew the heated air upstairs. It wasn’t a pony or anything, but the kids still liked it.

I had bought enough tin to make a cold air return as well. I planned on recovering cold air near the floors in the bedrooms upstairs, and dumping it through the floor directly over the pellet stove. It would make a nice convection loop, and make it easier to force air up the ducts into the rooms in the first place. It was a great idea that was not to be. When the geyser hit, I had to return the remaining HVAC ducts to the store to get a credit to apply to the cost of some of the plumbing supplies we were going to need tout de suite. I was Tantalus, but I wasn’t up to my knees in water, exactly.

But the seeds of inspiration were sown. I went into my closet and looked up, and saw ductwork heading upstairs. Then I looked straight down, and realized the furnace was directly below in the basement. From the inside of that closet, and the closet above it upstairs, I could picture ductwork coming straight up from the basement and serving the living room, dining room, three bedrooms, and the hallways and staircases on two floors.

It would take years of scrimping and saving, but I could see a way to heat the whole house with a central heating plenum and ducts running straight up through the center of the house, and not lose an inch of livable floor space in the bargain. It wasn’t a pony, but central heating would still be pretty good. Besides, I’m not sure a pony would taste all that good, even if we got our hands on one.

[To be continued]

It’s a Magic Show

I kinda decided I wanted a heat pump. After a decade of freezing in our hovel in western Maine, and shoveling tons of firewood into a furnace and pallets of pellets into a stove, I wanted a dial on the wall that you turned to have some effect on the temperature. I got old, or tired, or lazy. You decide which. I’m too old, tired, and lazy to figure it out.

You can, or you can’t have a heat pump in Maine, depending on who you listen to. The crux of the problem is that the people who tell you that it’s perfectly fine, even commendable to have a heat pump in Maine are wrong, and the people who say you can’t have a heat pump in Maine are wrong, too. They’re just wrong for different reasons. Don’t worry. You look worried. But don’t. I’ll explain.

The State of Maine wants you to buy a heat pump. They’ll sort of pay you to buy one, actually, in the form of rebates. Here’s a not very exhaustive list of the sort of rebates on offer, if you’re interested. I wasn’t.

What this meant in practice is you got a coupon for a discount on a ductless minisplit heat pump. Ductless refers to the way it’s set up to produce heat or air conditioning. There’s a compressor outside with a big fan and lots of coils in it. There’s a “cassette,” a large-ish plastic radiator monstrosity you hang on the wall in a single room in your house. It burps out heat or cooling using a little fan. In between the cassette and the compressor, you run two copper refrigerant lines, a plastic drain hose (because the thing frosts up like a 1940s reefer), and a very substantial electrical circuit.

Of course, to get the rebate, you’re required to hire a certified (by the government) installer for your minisplit, who would immediately add the value of the rebate to the price you end up paying, because human nature isn’t (yet) controlled by the gov. Then they’d come to your house and hang an unsightly compressor on your house wherever was convenient for them, usually right by the front door, and then snake unsightly plastic chases (to cover the piping) all over the side of your house, till they arrived at the spot where they could drill a hole right through it. That’s the other side of the wall where they’re going to hang a big, unsightly cassette in one room of your house. Minisplit installers seem to all have been trained as cable TV installers in the past, as far as running new utilities goes.

They do make minisplits that serve multiple cassettes from a single compressor. If you’re in a Captain Nemo mood and want your house to look like it’s being attacked by a giant octopus, these are just the thing for you. But for the most part, Mainers just like the rebate, and use a single cassette leading to a single compressor as a replacement for a room air conditioner, and don’t use the heating function much. Most of Maine has zero cooling degree days a year, so you can anticipate how efficient giving residents rebates to overpay for minisplits has been to achieve their stated purpose, which is getting rid of heating oil as a primary heat source in the state.

So those are the people who tell you that making 12,000 BTUs of heating and cooling and dumping it in one spot in your house is a substitute for your 75,000 BTU oil furnace and ten miles of ducts or copper pipes. They’re wrong, but they’re not the only kind of wrong. The other faction tells you it’s too cold in Maine to have a heat pump. They say they’re just for air conditioning in Tallahassee, and that’s that.

That’s a whole different kind of wrong there. When the gov banned pesky chlorofluorocarbons in heating and cooling devices because the ozone layer got a bald spot, it set the refrigeration and HVAC industry back some. But they got busy and eventually found able substitutes. They put them in heat pumps now. Do try to keep up, people.

I’m going to give away the denouement of this little jag I’ll be foisting on you for days now, by telling you I have a heat pump, and here’s a chart of the temperatures it’s rated to work at:

It produces 36,000 BTUs of heat.

Well, it produces 36,000 BTUs of heat if it’s 68 degrees out. That’s a layup, of course. It ain’t hard to raise the temperature in your house by four degrees or so, is it? Heat pumps work by capturing heat from outside in recirculating coolant, bringing it inside, and emitting it by blowing a fan over some coils. When there’s lots of heat outside, it’s easier to bring a bunch inside.

Now let’s go back to the chart. The heat pump also produces 36,000 BTUs of heat when the outside temperature is 17 degrees F. The amount of heat it produces goes down from there, but the thing still makes 18,400 BTUs at 22 below zero Fahrenheit. The efficiency goes down, (see the HSPF column) but it still makes heat. It’s interesting, but 22 below zero is the coldest temperature I’ve ever observed here since we moved in. So, it’s not too cold here for a heat pump.

You have to understand the HSPF rating, though. The Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF), is a rating that measures how much more efficient a heat pump is at using electricity compared to regular resistance electric heat. If you run electricity through a baseboard heater, it’s 100-percent efficient. That is, 100 percent of the electricity is turned into heat. It’s also 100-percent efficient in hoovering out your bank account. Electric resistance heat is the most expensive form of heat I know of. You may be burning Coach handbags in a hibachi to get your heat, I don’t know, but around here, everything is cheaper than electric.

Heat pumps don’t work like that. They use electricity to circulate coolant, compress it, and blow fans over some coils filled with the circulating coolant, both inside and outside the house. Those sorts of pumps and fans use electricity, but not nearly as much as simply heating metal fins by running electricity through them. The HSPF rating tell you how much more efficient it is compared to resistance heat. The bigger the number, the more efficient it is.

To figure out HSPF, you take the heating output in BTUs and divide it by the amount of electricity it took to make it. So to compare:

  • If I put a watt-hour into a baseboard heater, I get 3.41 BTUs out of it
  • If I put a watt-hour into a heat pump rated at 10 HSPF, I get 10 BTUs out of it

So even at 22 degrees below zero, a heat pump is still about 25% more efficient than 100% efficient baseboard heat. That’s not a heating device. It’s a magic show.

So it ain’t too cold here, but I don’t want an octopus on the side of my house. I still want to get up to 10 BTUs out of a watt-hour. What exactly do I want?

[To be continued]

Dream BIG

Burning wood pellets cost more than burning firewood. But not a lot more, honestly. Remember our chart of heating fuel costs per million BTUs? Here it is again, with info from November of this year:

Those are Maine prices, but they’re high in my experience. It might be because I live in the poor-people-land part of Maine. God knows what people with whales on their pants pay for things Downeast. They’ve usually got more money in their Ikea couch cushions than I have in my bank account, but that’s their problem. Or mine, I forget which.

Pellets are flirting with $300 a ton nowadays, even for the ho-hum brands, but you’d have to be burning some artisanal free-range pellets to spend $385 a ton. Same thing with firewood. I haven’t bought any lately, but you’d have to swallow the dealer’s buncombe about just how “seasoned” their firewood is to pay $350 a cord. Green firewood you dry yourself costs much less, and no matter what it costs, you’ll be drying it yourself, remember?

But let’s go with these numbers. You’re buying kiln-dried firewood, and pellets from forests filled with trees on the endangered species list. What would it take to produce the 800,000,000 BTU WAG (wild-assed-guess) I made yesterday, depending on the fuel, at today’s prices? Lessee:

  • Firewood: $12,728
  • Wood Pellets: $18,664
  • Heating Oil: $22,840

Rely on my experience in these matters (if you dare): The firewood number is way off, but then again, it’s not. Firewood isn’t that expensive to buy, but then again, a firewood furnace is a woefully inefficient thing compared to something like an oil burner in good working order. Lots and lots of BTUs go up the chimney. It’s the nature of the steel beast. And the amount of BTUs you get out of the woodpile varies greatly, from log to log.  But the number is wrong in two directions, so maybe it balances out.

As far as wood pellets go, I actually know how much it cost me to get 800,000,000 BTUs. We paid a total of around $12,500 for 50 tons of the stuff. It averaged around $250 a ton. No one selling it that cheaply this year, though, but you can still buy perfectly usable pellets for $300 a ton, with free delivery and no tax (heating fuel isn’t taxed in Maine). So using today’s prices, wood pellets would cost $15,000 for 8 million BTUs-worth.

The other costs to consider are what the heating plants cost to buy. The firewood furnace only cost us about a grand. The pellet stove cost about two grand. An oil burner would have cost me $10,000 to install ten years ago, and probably more now. Yikes. And that’s just the cover charge to get into the crude oil dance, remember?

So buying a pellet stove and installing it ourselves and fixing it ourselves cost about half of what it would cost to buy, have installed, maintain, and buy fuel for an oil burner.

But our pellet stove cost even less than what I listed. Here’s how to save even more on your pellet stove: Buy a domain name with “wood pellet” in it. It costs $12 a year. Load WordPress on a hosting server. WordPress is free, and hosting is cheap. Get a free theme for your website. Write 12 search-engine-optimized reviews of pellet stoves and pellet brands and publish them on the website. Slap Google Adsense on the website. Whenever any of about 300 people (over 10 years) leave a comment, whether to ask a question or simply complain about something, answer it politely. Collect enough money from Google to pay for the website and the pellet stove, and make some inroads on paying for all the pellets, too. Easy.

But I’m not satisfied. I’m never satisfied, am I? I got tired of shoveling firewood into the furnace, and only sleeping 3 hours at a stretch in the winter. I got tired of humping 8 tons of pellets into my basement every year, and then humping them up the stairs 40 pounds at a time. I got tired of vacuuming out the pellet stove. I began to dream. Not only that, I began to dream BIG. I dreamed of a dial on the wall, and if you turned it, the temperature in the house simply changed. I dreamed of a heat pump.

[To be continued]

Smells Like Teen Spirit and Wood Pellets

So we burn pellets. Lots of pellets. We installed the pellet stove I’ve been maundering on about something like ten years ago. We have probably consumed somewhere between 50 and 75 tons of wood pellets using the same machine. I know it pretty well by now. In the intervening years, we’ve had to perform the following fixes:

  • The slightly bent hinge pin on the shopper-abused combustion chamber door eventually broke off. I brought it to a welder who lives down the street and he welded it back on for a double sawbuck
  • I’ve replaced the burn pot twice. They’re made of high-temp steel but they wear out
  • I’ve replaced the combustion fan motor twice. All the hot exhaust gas exits through it, and it runs continuously when it’s on
  • I’ve replaced the convection fan twice. It sucks air out of the room, passes it over the heat exchanger, and blows it back out into the room at 200CFM (cubic feet per minute). They never quit, they just get noisy
  • I’ve replaced thermodiscs several times. They’re small, rudimentary switches that open and close when temperatures change
  • I tried to replace the auger motor. It was broke. I bought a new one. We shivered while we waited for it to arrive. The new one arrived broken. I got tired of waiting and took the old one apart and fixed it. I got a full refund on the busted one
  • There’s a rope gasket seal on the combustion chamber door. I’ve replaced that twice, maybe three times
  • There are gaskets on the cleanout panels on the sides of the heat exchanger. I’ve replaced them umpty-nine times. I started buying sheets of automotive gasket material and making my own to save dough
  • I replace the igniter, which works like a cigarette lighter in a car used to, back when people smoked and fumbled with cigarette packs in their cars when they wanted to crash into things, instead of texting like they do now.

All that together cost about a thousand dollars, spread out over ten years, and required only a Phillips head screwdriver or a single nut driver to make the repairs. You can judge if that’s a lot of money or not. We produced maybe 800,000,000 BTUs with the thing, and needed every one.

I’ll tell you right now that the machine didn’t work right out of the gate. After we fixed the hopper switch, it functioned, but it didn’t work. Anyone who’s been in the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Massachusetts knows what I mean when I say, “It functions, but it doesn’t work.” There was a minor design flaw in the machine that would have been vanishingly easy for the maker to fix, but they never bothered to try. The burn pot is too shallow.

Pellets roll down a chute and hit the bottom of the OEM burn pot and bounce out. These pellets smolder in the ash dump because it’s hot in there, and they cause all kinds of problems. The greasy soot they produce coats everything with an impenetrable dusty carapace. The flame sensors malfunction because the soot acts as an insulator, and they can’t sense the flame when they’re coated with it. The viewing window turns black in an hour or two. The flue pipes get positively furry inside, when they’re not full blocked, I mean. And when you turned off the stove to clean it, you could never wait long enough for the smoldering pellets to go out. The house would go cold, and when you couldn’t stand it any more, no matter how long you waited, you’d open the door to clean it out and your house would fill with smoke anyway. And the smoldering pellets set my shop vac on fire once. I appreciate free heat as much as the next guy, but the burning plastic smell took some of the enjoyment out of it.

The Vogelzang VG 5790 isn’t supposed to be used as the sole heating device in your home. The manufacturer puts that right out front, so you’ll understand that it’s not reliable, and don’t come crying to them if you’re cold and don’t have another heater. But you can use it for your only heat source. We did. We had to. We suffered along with it for a while. I put up a shield wall of broken refractory bricks salvaged from the wood burning furnace around the burn pot, and that helped a bit. Then I found a guy making an aftermarket shield made of high-temp steel that you stuck on top of the burn pot to nearly double its height.

That was all it took. Every problem disappeared. We poured in pellets, cleaned it out once a week, and wondered just how dumb the manufacturer could be to piss off countless customers instead of fixing the problem. You have to understand customer service a little to figure out why.

You see, customer service is considered a cost to someone who went to Wharton. It can’t be anything else. The only way (for him) to get a bonus is to cut costs. So you put the girl who couldn’t work the coffee machine properly at the pellet stove warehouse in charge of answering customer complaints. She works part time. They give her a script to read. The enraged customer calls, and between their chattering teeth they explain their problem. The girl dutifully looks it up, and asks, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” She’s not the curious sort, or she’d begin to wonder why there are seventeen pages in her script, and the reply to every question is, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”

This is usually followed by a lot of yelling from the customer, and, “I’m sorry we must have a bad connection. I can’t hear you. Please call back.” Then she goes to lunch, which lasts until Monday next. If you call back enough, they’ll eventually send you a new circuit board. The problem is never, ever, your circuit board, but it takes two weeks for you to receive it, and another week to figure out how to install it, and then another week on hold listening to Paul Anka sing Smells Like Teen Spirit until you get the same girl again, who asks you, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” A month of peace is worth a circuit board to them, I guess.

Fixing the problem would have been so much easier than making spittle-flecked customers listen to Paul Anka for hours, but fixing the problem would have been another cost. Wharton don’t play dat, homie. You can’t fire the girl who answers the phone, because you still need a customer service line, even if no one calls. She’s cheaper than an Indian call center anyway, and she’s already on the payroll. So it’s:

Hello, hello, hello hello…

[To be continued]

Galonka, Galonka, Galonka

Ah, we were entering the wonderful world of Error Messages. Now, if you’re new to new appliances, you might think that Error Messages was an actor back when movies were in black and white and well-made, instead of slapdash and in color like they are now. No, that was Errol Flynn, not Error Messages. And besides, you were thinking of Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

More to the point, error messages are a byproduct of software, in the same way that tootsie rolls are the byproduct of cats. There are sensors in you pellet stove, and your car, and your coffee maker, and your IV drip at the abattoir hospital, and pretty much anything else electronic they can think of. Your car used to function. It had three dials on the dashboard that told you, well, something, I only looked at the gas gauge. Anyway, when your car was broken you’d have it towed to the garage and sort of turn into Mel Blanc:

“It goes galonka, galonka, galonka when I turn the key, and then it makes a noise like a gerbil in distress.”

“That’s pretty weird. I’ve never fixed anything like that before,” the mechanic says while scratching his head with a wrench.

“No, you don’t understand. It makes those noises when it’s running OK. It just won’t start now.”

Well, now you get error messages. You get them whether the item is working properly or not. Your car is purring like a kitten, but the dashboard is lit up like a drunk on New Year’s. It’s spangled with icons that must make some sort of sense if you speak metric, I guess, but they don’t look like anything I recognize. Your triangle is herniated. Your ziggurat is palpitating. Your ghostbuster is flummoxed. Stuff like that. Of course when the car actually won’t work, the whole thing goes dead, and there are no error messages, and you’re back to telling a mechanic, “It wish I could get it to go galonka, galonka, galonka, again…”

So we had gone through a daunting set of challenges to get the pellet stove installed, not the least of which was finding money to buy all that stuff. We dutifully followed the directions for installation. It was deflating to press the button and get nothing for the effort. It was even more deflating than New England footballs to get weird error messages instead of real help.

You see, there are only like four error messages available on a pellet stove. They’re given inspiring names like: E1, E2, E3, and E4 rendered in 1970s digital watch fonts. You have to look up what each one means in the Chinglish dictionary you threw away with the box. Each one has to cover a lot of ground, as you can imagine, being only four of them. Each one reads like a very vague laundry list. For instance, our pellet stove was deader than Scrooge’s doornails, but lit up like a Christmas tree with error messages. The error message suggested:

  • Your moon might not yet be in the seventh house
  • Your air intake might be blocked by a wildebeest that was sucked into its maw. It’s unlikely, but I’d check if I were you
  • You might have forgotten to plug the unit in
  • Error messages don’t appear unless it’s plugged in, so make sure it’s plugged in to read the last message
  • Don’t put firewood in the pellet stove hopper
  • Use only approved pellets in your stove. You may have to wait for white smoke to appear from the chimney of the college of cardinals before they select a pellet stove pope to approve your brand
  • Jupiter isn’t aligned with Mars. Align your Jupiter with a Martian wrench (not supplied)
  • Shit’s wack, yo

It goes on like that at some length. I gave up, and sat down and gave it a long think. I have a superior thinker-upper, you know, having been raised on Dr. Suess books before they were bowdlerized.

Let’s see. This was a floor model at the Harrow Stockpile. That means an endless stream of people who stopped reading books in the sixth grade because their lips got real tired had been futzing around with this unit, until they got bored and bought another gun safe. What would they do? Why, they’d open and close the swinging door to the burn chamber enough to bend the hinge pin (I had it re-welded a few years later), and they’d open the hopper door on top, look in, see nothing but sheet metal, and slam it shut.

I opened the hopper door. There was a switch under the lid that is supposed to keep the auger in the bottom of the pellet hopper from turning if the hopper door was open. The manufacturers and designers envisioned a person dumb enough to open the lid, winnow their hand through 120 pounds of wood pellets, and reach far enough into the stove to get their finger caught in a giant screw that turns slower than a blue-hair with their blinker on. That’s not a bad bet, actually. There was a little wand sticking out of the switch, just a delicate little band of flexible steel with a bumper on the end that gets pushed down when the hopper is closed. It trips the switch to tell the machine that the owner is not currently up to his armpit in the hopper, and it’s safe to proceed.

The wand was bent. I bent it back, closed the hopper door, pressed the button, and land sakes, the beast roared to life.

[To be continued. Thanks for reading and commenting, and recommending Sippican Cottage to your friends. You can also support Sippican Cottage by using our Ko-Fi tip jar. Many thanks to Stuart for his recent generous contribution. It’s much appreciated]

William Howard Taft’s Sedan Chair Boogie

Alright, we have to get a 300-pound iron thingie into our house. That’s a given. That’s after we get the 300-pound iron thingie to our house, because the Harrow Stockpile store doesn’t deliver. But after humping the 600-pound wood furnace into the house, we’re unconcerned. Besides, we can kidnap foreigners.

Our neighbor takes in stray foreign exchange students. They want to attend the local high school for some reason. He usually ends up with an unmatched set of Europeans, with the occasional Asiatic or South American mixed in. They have been uniformly pleasant and intelligent. They’re uniformly athletes of one sort or another, too. Hmm. Teenagers who like to lift things. Maybe we can use them for more than ringers on the soccer team, which they most decidedly are.

It’s not practical to have more than four people pick up something like a pellet stove. It’s too compact and vertical to get more hands in there. So with two exchange students, my moody son, and me, I figure we should be able to carry the beast into the house. The weight split four ways is 75 pounds each. If you’re a package deliveryman, you’re expected to lift fifty. If you’re a mason tender until you can explain to your mother why you don’t want to work for her brother anymore, you’re expected to lift at least 100. Believe me, I know. So as long as everyone pulls their weight, we can pull the weight.

First things first, though, You need a place to put it. We built a dance floor in the corner of the dining room:

The cat is doing the merengue pretty well in this picture, I think, but I’ll have to refer to the judges for a ruling.

The platform solves several problems. The floor sags and dips and slopes and twists and generally isn’t flat. The Chinglish instructions for the pellet stove have all sorts of directives about installing the beast (the stove, not the cat), but they neglect to mention that no appliance works very well if it’s not sitting flat on a level surface. We built a platform out of framing lumber and plywood. It’s basically framed like a floor that sits on top of the flooring. The joists taper as the floor slopes up towards the walls. It took some fussy layout but it wasn’t hard to build. We tiled the top with Orange Place we-don’t-want-it-anymore-you-take-it ceramic tile that cost less than the plywood it’s mortared to. Some leftover thin oak boards make a toe kick.

I got the cut sheet for the appliance and measured the exhaust pipe outlet carefully. We bought an all in one package of interlocking double walled pipe that came with a fireproof through-the-wall thimble. It’s a very safe way to vent a wood-burning appliance. The exterior side of the pipe and thimble looks like this:

The little metal flap off to the left is a shield over the cold air intake that feeds the firebox. The makers understand what sort of critters live out in the wild and put a very sturdy screen over the inlet, too. You can twist the cap on the bottom of the vertical pipe and remove it to clean the stack. There’s several of these twist-lock joints in the pipe. You can take it all apart and put it back together fairly readily.

So the pipe is the correct height over the dance floor (we’ll see, it’s theoretical at this point) and the correct distance from the outside wall to line up with the outlet on the stove. Let’s get the thing in the house and see how we did.

First, off to Harrow Stockpile store. I was still driving an Econoline van back then, until the road salt did it in. I convinced (bribed) the clerk that his forklift was just the tool to insert the palletized stove into the back of my truck. It fit with some form of metric sliver of space to spare. If he had sneezed with his hand on the levers I would have had the first Econoline convertible, but he was stalwart, if a little nervous. Andrew Jackson is a fine motivator, but he falters a bit when it comes to bringing calm to a situation.

Then we drove it home. We were going to use the usual walk-it-down-the-ramp method to plop it in the dooryard, and then perform some sort of miracle to shove it up a few stairs and into the house,  but just then my neighbor and his exchange student charges hove into view.

I turned the blarney up to eleven. This will be easy with four of us. You guys look like you work out. We only have to carry it like 25 feet. I continued down the bosh path until they threw up their hands and said No habla ingles, only in German, I think. I went in the house and put four milk crates in front of the platform. That way, we could plop it on there and move it slightly downhill into its final resting place. Then I went back out front with two 2 x 4s to use as outriggers. We were going to make a sedan chair for the pellet-burning version of William Howard Taft.

We slid the lumber through the gaps in the pallet framing, each grabbed a corner, and picked it up. There was a great deal of Danish oomphing and German huffing to mix in with our Anglo-Saxon whining, but we headed off to the front steps, and into the front door.

The kids are athletes. Athletes lift a lot of weights and run around a lot, I gather. Carrying stuff isn’t covered much in gym class. They kept asking me to put it down so they could get a better grip, and I just kept saying “No, keep going.” through gritted teeth. Athlete-scholars can’t be expected to understand things that ditch diggers like me know. Never put it down. We were carrying something heavy at waist level. Our arms were just slings. You can carry a lot of weight like that, much more than we already were. But put it down, and now you have to lift it before you can carry it again. That’s a different ballgame. Keep going. Almost there.

Rasmus and Felix and my son hung in there, and we made it all the way to the milk crates. My neighbor Rich, who looks after them, absolutely forbade me from giving them any money. He explained that part of their exchange program was to do this-and-that chores for the local people they met. It pained me to go against Rich’s wishes, but the Irish uncle gene kicked in and when we shook hands, I did the Andrew Jackson card trick with each of them. I think at least one of the kids spent the whole thing on Twizzlers and ate them all in one go and got a glorious bellyache, an outcome I could only have hoped for, not predicted, because I liked them both a great deal.

So my son and I put a scrap of plywood for a ramp between the pallet and the platform, unbolted the stove, and slid it down into place. We hooked up the exhaust and intake pipes, and wonders never cease, it all lined up. We plugged it in, filled the hopper with pellets, and et voila!

It didn’t work.

[To be continued]


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