Energy Savings Fails

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Minister of Fire
Hearth Supporter
Jul 11, 2008
Northern NH
I may not be a super early adopter on all energy savings technologies and many have worked out positively over the years but some haven't.

Here is my list the energy savings approaches that have been less than a success

Compact Fluorescents - I have had mixed success with CFs. I switched over a lot of fixtures to CFs over the years and have had mixed luck. Light quality has always been hit or miss, frequently missing. Yes the bulbs put out light but are unpleasant to live with. Temperature tolerance has always been an issue. Unless they are in warm place they aren't worth installing as the lifespan seems to be short and there is a noticeable delay in putting light out. The net result is I have box of unused or lightly used CFs that will probably get thrown out. Early LEDs have had issues with color temp but an order of magnitude better than CFs had.

Cheap Cellular Blinds - My first batch of cellular blinds worked well from a heating and cooling perspective but the construction quality was poor. They were expensive up front and probably had a 20 year payback if ever but the comfort factor was a major plus. The downside is the standard design has cheap hardware and lifting cords. Inevitably the strings would break in a few years and I had choice of paying a steep fee to send it to someone to fix it or try to DIY. In the two DIY attempts I discovered that the internal hardware was just plain cheap. I finally bit the bullet and went with a newer design with heavier duty hardware and knock on wood every one of them is still operating perfectly. I also went with side tracks on the later units and that really increased their comfort level, draft free on the coldest night.

Low flow toilet - My original toilet came with the house and definitely was a water hog. Since I have a deep well and deep static water level I figured it was a major hidden energy hog. I have a septic system and so I was not really worried about treating the flow. When the internals of the old toilet failed I went with the current water savings design. As some of the early low flows had a bad rep I bought a Kohler assuming they had worked the kinks out of the design. I very quickly discovered that they hadn't. The new designs keep a very low water level and in normal operation mine needs to be double flushed often negating the water savings. It also needs cleaning far more often. I still have the old toilet and am considering replacing the failed internal components and swapping it back in. I have a spare surface water system in place from prior to my deep well going in and am considering splitting my water supply into potable and utility water to run the toilet and hoses. A toilet doesn't need high pressure so it may be a low pressure on demand with a head tank system set up with a positive displacement pump to up the pump efficiency.

My first PV system - My original 660 watt PV system was installed early on in the solar curve. The 30% federal tax incentive didn't exist although I did get a 10% credit. No state credits and expensive components ($6.60 a watt panels). It just keeps running but expect the payback would have been better in a bank. The inverter is getting on in years and its an orphan. Odds are when it dies I will take this array out of service as 1 KW inverters are pretty rare. There were a lot of intangible benefits as I learned a lot on designing and operating systems and helped a few folks with their designs. My two later arrays have benefitted from lower cost components, rebates and incentives and are a far better payback.

So what have been your fails?
We also had a cellular blind fail though for different reasons.
We have a great room that has many large, tall windows in it. We decided to invest in custom cellular blinds to add some thermal insulation to the windows. I measured the windows very carefully and placed a sizeable order. At the time, the amount paid was a very large part of our discretionary budget. Unfortunately, I did not read the fine print that said the manufacturer would cut the blinds narrower than the window opening to ensure no binding. Given that our windows were so tall (like 7ft.) they apparently thought they needed to give extra allowance in case the window frames weren't plumb.
When we mounted the blinds up there was a gap of about 3/4 to 1 in. on each side of the blinds, effectively negating much of the energy savings that we'd hoped because of air leakage around the blinds.
We've since tried the types of cellular blinds that seal at the sides in other rooms and it's clear from the feel and thermal imaging that they work much better than those with gaps at the side.
About once a week I notice the light coming in around the sides of our great room shades and just shrug internally.
Ni-Cad rechargeable batteries - I bought a bunch in all sizes on a mission to end consumable battery usage. Many ended up having a short life or too low voltage when fully charged (1.2-1.3 instead of 1.5-1.7). Most frustrating were the cells that just randomly died. I still have about 1/2 of those cells in service, but was not impressed.

Our compact fluorescents have done ok, with a service life in the kitchen of 3-5yrs. as compared to 2-3yrs for the halogens they replaced. Now testing a couple LEDs in the same location.

Solar panels - I wrote about our concerns with the Silicon Energy panels we have in our first bank. They were the only made in WA panels at the time but ended up having delamination issues. Our neighbors lost 2 panels due to this. We haven't l0st any yet, but two are showing the beginnings of delamination.

Low flow toilet - Oh yeah. In 2003 I put in an Australian super low flo toilet by Caroma in our upstairs bathroom. It was quite a change for us because instead of a large pool of water there is a little 6" diameter puddle with maybe a couple quarts of water. It took some adjusting to aim for the drop zone and at first I didn't like it at all for pooping. But it did save a lot of water (2 flush levels). But now after 16 yrs of service I have come to really like it. One gets used to the "drop zone" and on high flush it does a pretty good job of scouring the bowl before it goes down the tube. The toilet has proven to be exceptionally low maintenance. A few years ago I put in a top of the line Toto Drake in our lower bathroom. I am not as impressed by that toilet. It is only a single flush and doesn't do a great job of scrubbing when flushing.
On low-flow toilets, you guys should check out pressure-assisted toilets. They operate on the same principle as the expansion tank on a residential well, filling a bladder to your house PSI (usually 30 - 50, for most houses on a well, higher if you have public water). When you flush, it releases all that water in the tank in about 2 seconds, giving you a way more forceful flush than the ~10 PSI developed by typical gravity tank.

I remember an employer of mine installing these about 25 years ago, they’re not new tech.
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Bergey 1 kw wind turbine

I put it up on a 40 foot pole in a neighborhood with 20 to 30 foot houses.. much too low. I thought being near the shore would help, it did not. During high winds it turns the rotor axis perpendicular to the wind, to prevent over speed. Problem was, it would not turn back. I grew tired of walking out in a blizzard/hurricane and grabbing the guy wires to shake it loose. On the plus side, it killed a couple of pigeons… Torn down now

DIY solar thermal

Bought these panels second hand from the penny paper (pre Craig list) and put them on the shed. Ran the lines into the main house and installed a heat transfer coil. They would overheat in the summer, and do nothing in the winter. The system got more and more elaborate as I added control loops to dump the excess heat (water). Torn down now

Solar storage battery

Made a 24v battery bank out of 8 Walmart long duration off the shelf cells (used for trolling motors on boats with electric props).They were not bad batteries, each was ~ 1 kwh. I connected them to a set of second hand pv modules (and the doomed windmill). I could never get the hang of charging it just right. Batteries were outside in the shed (fear of fire) and eventually froze during the winter.. Torn down now

First grid connected 2x500 watt array

This was a combo solar PV module and grid tied inverter. These were provided by the electric company, then called Mass Electric. They wired them directly to the main meter, skipping the circuit breaker board. Hey.. the electric company don’t need no stinking badges ( building inspector/electric code). Back then I used the house as a cabin, and sometimes generated more energy than I used in a month. When I had net production they promised to pay me something, turns out that something was the same rate at which they purchased power from wholesale providers. As soon as I heard net metering was possible (pay back at the same rate you buy) and with the addition of SRECs ( ~$250-$450 for each 1000 kwh you produce) I tore them out and used the roof space for the current PV modules, each with its’ own Enphase inverter

Use outdoor air to cool refrigerator

I boxed in the back of the fridge to an exterior wall, and connected the cavity with the coils to the outside with a hole through the wall (~ size of a dryer vent). It worked well, and cooled the stuff on the shelves, but not the freezer. The food in the freezer all melted. Turns out the interior cooling coils are in the freezer cabinet, but the thermometer is in the food cabinet. Keep the food cabinet cool enough (which I did) and the freezer coils will never come on. … Tore it down and patched the holes
This Old House did a recent piece on toilet design. It was interesting and design is maybe more complex than you might imagine.
We switched to the American Standard Cadet dual flush units when they first came out and are happy with their performance.
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Electric water heater timers -- I installed 2 contactors and wall timers to de-energize our electric resistance water heaters during off hours. As it turns our the insulation on the tanks was pretty good and we saved little - not nearly worth the effort and expense invested.

On the flip side though. - I think our heat pump water heater may be our best single energy efficiency investment ever.
Warning this is getting close to TMI mode. :)

One of the videos I have seen is the testing of toilets with hot dogs to approximate the "deposit" of a typical American I expect. The design of my Kohler appears to have been optimized for hot dogs and other similar deposits and it works real well. Unfortunately for those of us that have had the "pleasure" of a camera up our posterior (colonoscopy), the usual recommendation is go on a high fiber diet and contrary to what one would expect, a high fiber diet makes the "deposits" considerably softer and consequently they may leave deposits on the dry part of the bowl. Given a much larger dry surface to wetted surface on the newer low flow toilets there is just is lot more dry surface that can occasionally need touch up. I have heard that adding various chemicals to the tank to dose the bowl increases the cleaning efficiency but many of those product contain chemicals that degrade the efficiency of the septic field.

I used to work at a facility with ultralow flow fixtures, they used the waterless urinals and reportedly used foam flush toilets that use 3 ounces a flush. The urinals were still there when I first visited but the foam flush units were lone gone. The Maine Huts and Trail backcountry shelters use foam flush as they have to pump all their water with solar, micro-hydro or diesel so they want to minimize pumping load and foam flush is almost as green as composting toilets that a definitely a handful to keep clean and odor free.
... energy savings approaches that have been less than a success ...

Probably the most expensive was middle-early adoption of LED light bulbs, the ones I purchased at around $10 each. The price would have been OK if the longevity was as advertised, but quite a few failures. Yet, these bulbs convinced me to keep at it, and the current offering of LED's are performing very well and cost much less.

I count the successes much more valuable and very satisfied with the results. The best success is the solar PV system, which on April 14 at 91 kWh tied the prior highest daily kWh record.