Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Conserving the Differences

As I write these words, smoke is rising from burning oil storage tanks at Ras Lanuf, one of Libya’s main oil ports and a battle zone in what Western media are still trying not to admit has long since crossed the line into civil war. The price of Brent crude oil, the international benchmark grade, is currently on the upside of US$115 a barrel, ticking nervously upwards whenever anybody in the industrial world remembers that this Friday has been announced on anonymous websites as a day for mass protest in Saudi Arabia. What was that old joke about living in interesting times?

I suppose it’s probably unnecessary to point out that this is the sort of thing that happens when a civilization runs up against the limits of its resource base. About 1.3 million barrels of oil per day that usually flow into the global economy from Libyan fields is shut in at the moment, due to the fighting; that sounds like a lot, and of course in objective terms it is, but it’s less than 2% of the world’s total daily oil production. Not that long ago, a 1.3 million barrel a day shortfall would have been a minor issue for the world’s economies, easily covered the moment one of the world’s other oil-producing nations decides to cash in by turning open the tap a bit further. This time, it’s driving a drastic price spike and sending gaggles of panicked US congresscritters to the nearest microphone in order to insist that the US ought to draw down its, ahem, Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The difference, of course, is that since 2004 global oil production has flatlined but demand has continued to grow, and at this point there’s very little slack left. You can draw your own conclusions about what’s likely to happen when global oil production begins to decline, as it will within the current decade. It’s not likely to be pretty.

That, again, brings us back to the need to use energy less extravagantly than we’ve been encouraged to do by the rock-bottom prices and purblind optimism of the last thirty years or so. It’s useful to keep the wider context in mind, because this week we’re going to talk about one of those cheap, simple, grubby tasks that most people know they ought to have done a long time ago, and a surprisingly large number of people never get around to doing: wrapping your pipes and ducts.

Here’s how it works. Most American homes have a furnace and a water heater stashed away somewhere out of sight. Hot water from the water heater flows through pipes to wherever it’s wanted, which may be on the far end of the house; depending on your heating system, there are most likely either pipes taking hot water from a boiler to radiators, or ducts taking hot air from the furnace to registers, and either way they’re going all through the house. That’s straightforward enough.

Look at it from the point of view of thermodynamics, though, and it’s a little less simple. You’re trying to get a certain amount of heat from the water heater to the taps, and from the furnace to the rooms you want to keep warm in winter. To do it, you’re sending a heated fluid, either water or air, through pipes or ducts which, for a variety of reasons, are normally made of substances that transfer heat very readily. If there’s a heat differential between the fluid inside the pipes and the air outside them, in other words, you lose heat.

The standard approach to dealing with this in conventional American housing is to get the working fluid of your system hot enough so that, even after it flows through those cold metal pipes or ducts and gets to wherever it’s going, you still get enough heat out the business end. That’s the way Americans have learned to think about energy: the solution to every problem is to crank up the thermostat and burn more fuel. That might be a plausible approach if you’ve got so much concentrated energy sources that you don’t know what to do with them all, and there was admittedly a time when that was more or less the case here in America, but nowadays? Hardly.

Nowadays, in a world where energy is no longer cheap and abundant, and is going to get a lot less cheap and abundant over the decades and centuries to come, we need to learn a new way to think about energy. Recognizing that energy is scarce and expensive is a good start, but it’s possible to go a bit further than that, and recognize that what you need to do if you want to work with energy – especially scarce, expensive energy – is to conserve differences in energy concentration.

Your hot water pipes make a good example of this principle. The water that flows out of your water heater into your pipes is at 120° F, let’s say. The air in the basement where your water heater is located is around 50° F. The second law of thermodynamics says that heat always flows from a hotter substance (i.e., a higher concentration of heat) to a cooler substance (i.e., a lower concentration), and the rate of flow depends partly on how easily the materials in question transmit heat, and partly on the temperature differential between the two substances. In other words, when hot water flows through a cold basement, what you tend to get is lukewarm water and a basement that isn’t quite so chilly. You haven’t conserved the difference between the two, and the result is a chilly shower.

Insulation is one of the standard ways to conserve the difference. Wrap your hot water pipes in a good thick layer of insulation, and the heat in your hot water has a much harder time moving from the water to the air in your basement. That means, of course, that you get your hot shower. It also means that you can get the same temperature in the water coming out of the tap while using a smaller amount of energy to heat the water in the first place. That’s valuable when it’s a matter of decreasing the amount of fossil fuels you use, as it is for most people nowadays; it’s absolutely crucial once we’re talking about renewable heat sources.

As I’ve mentioned here repeatedly, one major difference between the energy you get from fossil fuels and the energy you get from renewable resources is concentration. Lukewarm sunlight simply doesn’t pack as much punch as burning coal. You can heat water with sunlight, but the process is never going to be as efficient as heating water with fossil fuels or electricity because the heat you get from sunlight is much more diffuse. Of course there’s the additional problem that it’s a bit difficult to turn up the sun twenty degrees or so to give yourself a hotter shower!

This is why “weatherize before you solarize” was one of the mantras of the 1970s-era energy conservation scene. Inefficiencies you can shrug off when you’ve got plenty of concentrated fossil fuel energy will cripple your attempts to make use of the diffuse heat that you can get from the sun; fix the inefficiencies first – that is to say, conserve the differences – and you’re in a much better position to begin using renewable sources. You may also save enough on your energy bills to make a solar water heater a bit more affordable.

The same logic can be applied in other ways. We’ve already talked about weatherstripping, caulking, and various kinds of insulation, all of which are ways of conserving the difference between the temperature inside the house and the temperature outside. Equally, if you live in a climate with hot summers and appreciate a cool shower now and then, insulate your cold water pipes as well. If you go down into the soil more than a couple of feet you get a relatively stable, cool temperature year round; water pipes that run underground keep the water fairly close to that temperature, and if you can conserve the difference between the place your water pipe comes out of the ground and the place where it connects to your shower head. you get cold water out of the tap at, say, 60° F. rather than 80°, which on a sticky July day on the nether side of the Mason-Dixon line makes all the difference in the world.

Still, it’s possible to take conserving the differences in a much broader sense, and when you do so, some very interesting possibilities unfold. Information, to return to Gregory Bateson’s useful definition, is a difference that makes a difference. The capacity for energy to do work is also a function of difference – differences in temperature, pressure, electrical potential, or what have you – and so, in yet another sense, is the capacity of material substances to fill their various roles in the biochemistry of a living thing, the nutrient cycles of an ecosystem, the exchanges of goods in an economy, or the equivalent processes in any other system. In all these cases, the conservation of difference plays a crucial role, and there’s a sense in which the degree of conservation of the various kinds of difference is a measure of the health of the whole system.

This is all the more interesting in that for some decades now, modern industrial civilization – and in particular its American expression – has become very poor at conserving differences. To cite only one example, American farmers used to be legendary for the facility with which they bred new varieties of any crop you care to name, specially suited to local conditions or to particular purposes. These days, by contrast, American industrial agriculture is more notable for its obsessive use of a very small number of varieties of any given crop. Plenty of factors feed into that flattening out of differences, to be sure, but that’s exactly the point – the structures that shape everyday life in contemporary America do not conserve difference. Thinking over other examples of civilizations in decline, it occurs to me that a case could be made that the failure to conserve difference may just be a useful sign that a society has started to unravel in a serious way.

All this is grist for the speculative mill, and might be worth following out in detail. In the meantime, though, if you haven’t started conserving difference in your own home hot water and heating systems, get busy and wrap your pipes! Your local hardware store can provide you with a variety of materials, from foam tubes slit down one side that you can pop over your hot water lines, through fiberglas wrap that will do a good job on pressurized hot water heating system pipes, to the slightly more expensive but very effective rolls of foil-backed foam, which you can use on pipes or ducts equally well and will save you a chunk of heat. None of it’s that costly, all of it can be installed by unskilled labor, and any of it will cut into your energy bills and make your home a good deal more suited to the renewable energy projects we’ll be discussing in the weeks immediately ahead.


Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

Another way to think of conserving the difference is the oft expressed preference in these weekly missives for the culturing of a diversity of options. There is no one magic solution to our collective predicament. There are however many relatively simply implemented practices that can reduce our individual exposure to the risks inherent in an economically destabilized society. I read JMG for the comfort of those reminders and for guidance in the practice of conservation of the diversity of our considerable ecotechnic heritage.

Steve in Colorado said...

An important point to remember in all this is to be aware of how the heat from your uninsulated pipes may have been serving you, before you eliminate it.

It is fairly common in older homes in cold winter areas, to see cold water lines freeze that never used to, after the hot water lines were insulated. This is because the heat given off from the hot water pipes was keeping the cold water lines above freezing. Once the hot water lines were insulated, the cold water lines cooled below freezing.

This is not to say you should not insulate your water lines, you should. Just be sure that rest of your plumbing will stay warm enough without that lost heat that you are about to save. Make sure there is no outside air coming in on the pipes anywhere. In extremely cold climates, it may be better to build an insulated box around both the hot and cold water lines, rather than insulating them separately.

Cathy McGuire said...

Ah... you keep adding to my ToDo list! ;-} I've got all the pipes that I can reach insulated, and plan to have the crawlspace pipes (and the underside of the house, if I can)insulated this summer... by someone else! That's one job I can't even think about doing...

sofistek said...

I get a bit uneasy when I read bloggers write about a plateaued oil production since 2004. This is true, but only for conventional crude oil, which has been on a (bumpy) plateau since about that time. I realise that conventional crude is the easy cheap stuff and, of course, it's very significant that such production has effectively flatlined. However, there are other classes of what is called oil, such as natural gas plant liquids, condensate, heave crude, and so on. When all of these are added in, production in 2010 looks like being about 3.3 million barrels per day higher than in 2004. Production is still having trouble keeping up with demand (globally, at least) but I don't think it's correct to try and paint a picture that is different from the reality that most people live in (in which they think food comes from supermarket shelves and gasoline comes from a filling station) where there doesn't appear to have been any shortage (which one might expect from 6 years of rising demand but no rise in production).

It also doesn't require declining production to cause severe problems, only an inability for production to keep up with demand. We're certainly in that window now and it remains to be seen whether the big talk from Saudi Arabia, about their spare capacity, amounts to anything more than hot air. Personally, I don't think OPEC will make up for Libya's shut-in production and I expect OPEC to announce that there is no need for a special meeting, as the world is adequately supplied, or that they will have a meeting and then announce that supply is adequate. I think that's pretty much what they did in 2007/2008.

sofistek said...

Most of our water pipes are plastic. I assume they will need wrapping, also (I must get in the roof space when hot water is flowing to find out). But what amazes me, though perhaps it shouldn't, is the apparent heat loss overnight, from what is a fairly well insulated hot water tank. The insulation is inbuilt and it looks just like a metal cylinder but it is always fairly cool (certainly not warm) the the touch. But overnight, the temperature appears to fall by a good 5-6 degrees celcius. So our solar panels do a good job, when it's sunny, of raising the temperature to, say, 75 degrees but in the morning, it has dropped to 70 or 69, with no-one using the hot water.

Now, it might be that the reading I'm seeing on the control unit is not entirely representative of the average tank temperature as it simply takes a reading from the centre of the tank (from the looks of it) and the water slowly mixes more thoroughly overnight. That explanation doesn't work for me, though. An alternative is that there are two pipes coming out of the top of the cylinder (one is an relief pipe and the other is the draw off pipe). Even though they are not hot to the touch, first thing in the morning, the point where they are fixed to the cylinder is very warm. I guess I'll just have to figure out how to insulate those joins to see if they are the culprits.

Bill Pulliam said...

Steve -- having lived most of my life in places where pipe freezing is a widespread and chronic problem, I have to say that I have never seen the phenomenon you describe. There's one big reason for this: uninsulated hot water pipes are only hot when the water is running through them. They cool off very quickly when the flow stops. Most pipe freezing happens overnight when the water is not running. At these times, hot water pipes are just as cold as cold water pipes, freeze just as quickly, and do nothing to warm the cold pipes. If you leave the hot water running enough to keep the pipes warm, you are using up a lot of energy. Better to use low-wattage electrical heating tapes than to leave the hot water running!

What does happen, is that when people insulate the floors of their living spaces (insulate between the living space and crawlspace or basement), then they do cut off a source of heat that formerly kept the pipes from freezing. This can lead to frozen pipe troubles. The answer to this is to insulate the pipes, insulate the basement or crawlspace, etc.; not to continue to waste heat by letting it flow from the living space or out of the water pipes! You can even build an insulated pipe chase surrounding the water lines as a unit, if they are placed strategically enough and travel through accessible places.

Ward said...

I have been quite enjoying your blog, and you are starting to cover topic I spent quite a bit of time studying before we built our own house.

When we built, we solved the problem of heat loss from the hot water heater by using a tankless hot water heater. Since there are only 2 of us in the house and we don't use a lot of hot water, it makes sense for us. If you have a large family, it becomes less economic. We also use a woodstove for most of our heat, with radiant infloor heat as a backup, so no ducts to lose heat. Also the basement is a walkout and is used as primary living space. It has the advantage of little heat loss during the winter and little gain in the summer due to the thermal mass of the soil surrounding it on 3 sides. The fourth side is south facing in order to collect passive solar gains.

One thing to consider is that if all the ducts and pipes are in the conditioned part of the house, any losses end up heating the house anyway and so are not truly lost. If there are any pipes or ducts that run outside the conditioned space, they should be heavily insulated, as those areas are true losses.

It makes more sense to ensure that the house is losing (or gaining) as little heat as possible by fixing the air infiltration, which is where most of the heat loss (or gain) occurs.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


you mean I actually have to go down in my basement?

Seriously, hadn't thought about the pipes and ducts. I see quite a few summer projects ahead. And I thought I was just going to watch my vegetables grow and sit on the porch and read!

What you say about the flattening of differences is, I think, what many of us in many different fields have struggled against for a long time.

Unfortunately, if you've grown up in flatland, you don't understand dimensionality. This adds another huge element to the re-education process people will have to undergo in the future: I'm assuming catabolic collapse will involve some severe re-differentiation? Starting now.

Just last night I was introducing to my students the idea of generalization of habitat (and its deleterious effects) owing to suburbanization. First, many had to understand that the urban/suburban landscape is not how things have always been. Mind bending in itself! The few who had spent time "out in nature" got it more easily.

So, I suppose these energy conservation projects are a form of re-education to difference.

@Steve--good point for us cold-winter folks in old houses.

GHung said...

JMG: "Thinking over other examples of civilizations in decline, it occurs to me that a case could be made that the failure to conserve difference may just be a useful sign that a society has started to unravel in a serious way."

A sense of urgency has been quietly growing in my sub-psyche; the unrest in the middle east, the attempts to make the Muslim witch hunt official in the US Congress, rising prices of things that matter most to the most people.....even the buzz on the street and the way folks greet me upon a chance meeting....people are becoming aware that things are amiss.

Last week's post and comments brought out something that struck me as small, but perhaps critical. Many of the strategies being espoused here are tactics designed to conserve resources and soften the blow of collapse, yet they may be viewed as survival strategies as well. Taking steps to heat or cool one's home for less now could make the difference between being relatively comfortable, and dying from cold or heat stroke.

Bill P. (last week) mentioned that whole house exaust fans, while effective at cooling a structure, can/do bring pollen and dust into a home. Such are the choices we will be faced with in an energy constrained future. Depending on the rate of decline, folks will be in competition for limited materials to not only implement their comfort strategies but also their survival stategies, should things unravel much faster than they expect. Prioritize and get going now. Seems like a win-win to me. Well insulated pipes will save energy costs and could also mean not having frozen pipes for an entire winter in colder climates. Insulating and sealing your home may well be the difference between running out of whatever your fuel source is in late February and making it through the winter while others are scrounging (fighting?) for what's available. Affording comfort and not freezing to death are different degrees of the same problem, with the same simple solutions.

Some tips:

If you have a tank type water heater make sure you have an anti-siphon device installed.

Install a water heater timer.

Look for ways to save on materials. I bought several cases of swimming pool toys, marketed as "fun noodles", at a flea market for a fraction of what similar pipe insulation would have cost. I suspect they are made using the same machines/process as 1/2" thick-walled pipe insulation. While not UL listed, they seem to be identical. I used them in the ceiling where they are surrounded by fire retarded cellulose (concern about flamability/fumes). The red and blue colors are nice indicators of hot and cold. Look for these at dollar stores and compare price to actual pipe insulation sold in hardware stores. You may be able to save some $$.

Two handled faucets can save hot water/energy. Folks tend to turn on single handeled faucets in the center position, using hot water when they don't mean to.

Form an insulation/caulking group. You may be able to buy in bulk, and these projects tend to go faster when done as a team. It increases social capital as well, and your team could volunteer to help less fortunate folks with their energy upgades.

Shalom (and Thanks, JMG)!

Harry J. Lerwill said...

One of the first things we did when the sub-floor was removed for remodeling, was to go down under the house to strip out the existing duct insulation, tape up all the joints, and re-insulate everything with modern, more efficient materials.

I took a look at the job and thought, Oh hell. Luckily, we have a teenage boy. He loved crawling around down there. What’s a dirty job to an adult is an adventure to a teenager. If you need to get them out to do other chores, just shake a child’s rattle outside near one of the air vents.

Growing up in a colder clime, insulation on the pipes was mandatory, particularly since our toilet was in a brick ‘outhouse’ at the far end of the garden. I can remember once having to pour a kettle of hot water into the bowl to melt the ice before using it, then wishing I had poured it over the seat when I sat down.

Living in Central California, what I want to figure out is how to take advantage of the heat removed via air conditioning in the summer. We’re taking energy and pumping it outside. It seems such a waste.

Ryan said...

Regarding hot water, we purchased a 1987 Aquastar on-demand water heater from a friend and installed it in our newly built straw bale home. With a couple of minor repairs, it has worked beautifully providing us with scalding hot water for the last 10 years. When we designed the house we placed all of the "wet" zones adjacent to each other, thereby reducing the length of the hot water runs to a minimum. We have no energy loss from maintaining 50 gallons of water at the temperature we expect at the faucets. Well placed on-demand water heaters can do much to reduce energy demand.

Richard Larson said...

Hmmm, I never did get at those air ducts...

I would like to temper the enthusiasm of insulating over solar heating. The situation in New Mexico just a short time ago, when there was no natgas in the pipeline, had all the insulation in a building rendered useless without alternative heating.

The increasing number and intensity of earthquakes, in the areas where the shale fracturing is happening to extract natgas, is getting the attention of the authorities. Moratoriums may just stop enough of the flow of gas to mean somebody is going without. Here in Wisconsin, we are last to receive natural gas...

All the money in the world will not make a difference.

jnaegele said...


I hadn't even considered heat loss from my pipes. Thanks for pointing that out.

Steve or anyone else with freezing pipes,

I have an older home in Nebraska and my pipes always froze at 0-5 degrees outdoor temps and stayed frozen until it warmed up to 25-30 for several hours outside. To fix the problem I got some stretchy aluminum dryer venting and slit it down one side similiar to how the pipe insulation is made. I enclosed the pipes that always froze with that, taped the slit shut with aluminum foil tape, then attached one end to the dryer and the other to the outside vent. The plumbing along that section is now inside the dryer exhaust vent. Drying a load of clothes thaws the plumbing in about 15 minutes and it doesn't freeze up as much anymore either.


artinnature said...

In this rental house that we currently occupy, the water heater and forced air furnace (both gas) are in the unheated garage. The uninsulated hot water pipes and warm air ducts run first through the unheated garage and then through the unheated and uninsulated crawl space. The inefficient furnace and appliances were chosen by the landlord because they were cheap to buy, not operate. There is no caulking or weatherstripping anywhere. The windows have no insulated drapes, and so on (and on).

But we are nearly debt free. So my question is, JMG: At this point in the descent, do we stay debt free and live in an energy hog rental house where we cant fix anything because we don't own anything or go into mortgage debt in order to do all of these wonderful Green Wizard projects?

I know there is a ternary, stay debt free and do a few projects in the rental that aren't too expensive, but it is frustrating, I feel vulnerable from a energy point of view.

Kevin said...

JMG, as regards Libya, what with all the media pussyfooting and obfuscation it's refreshing to see you calling a spade by its proper name.

Artinnature, my situation is similar to yours, except that for me purchasing a home and going into mortgage debt is not an option. I'm going to try some stealth caulking and hanging portable interior insulation, as the Archdruid has suggested, if I can scrape together a few shekels.

Cherokee Organics said...


You're spot on again. So much energy is lost through hot water pipes and hot water services. I'm not exactly sure what a boiler is though.

In Australia, a lot of homes have a hot water service, which is basically a tank of water which is kept hot 24/7. It's heated by electricity, natural gas or LPG. Bit wasteful... They're often located on the outside of the house because of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide gases.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and all,

Another shameless plug for the continuing series of articles I'm writing on solar power. Very relevant for readers here.

Even if you don't read the text, have a look at the pictures as they tell quite a story in themselves.

Please feel free to drop a comment.



John Michael Greer said...

Lloyd, exactly. I decided not to flog that particular point this time, as I've discussed it often enough in the past, but it's certainly relevant.

Steve, that's also a good reason to insulate your cold water lines -- since the water coming into them from the system is well above freezing, all you have to do is keep the heat in and you're fine.

Cathy, while you're at it, have 'em put in insulation; it'll make things much more comfortable come next winter.

Sofistek, the problem with counting "all liquids," as you suggest, is that a great many of them are produced by burning large quantities of other fossil fuels. Corn-based ethanol's the poster child here; it takes a lot of diesel to grow the corn that gets turned into ethanol, and nobody's subtracting that diesel from the total production -- thus its energy output gets counted twice. All other nonconventional liquid fuels have similarly high energy subsidies from other fossil fuels. Thus the rate of production of conventional petroleum is still the best measure for where we are in the energy curve.

Bill, that was more or less my experience as well.

Ward, a tankless heater is also an option; I'm stressing the other approach partly because I'm focusing on low-cost options, and partly because solar water heating requires a tank.

Adrian, I spent years longing for a basement where I could put a workbench and a lab and pursue messy projects of the sort you don't want to do in the living room! (Fortunately I have one now.) Of course you should go down into your basement, and make good use of the space.

GHung, good. You're quite correct, of course: what are ways of saving energy and maintaining comfort from one perspective are ways of survival from another.

Harry, if you can find a use for that kind of very diffuse heat, you'll probably get a statue raised to you by some future civilization.

Ryan, fair enough.

Richard, er, you seem to think that I'm encouraging people to insulate instead of using solar power, or other renewable energy sources. Not so! The mantra, again, is "weatherize before you solarize." Once your house is well insulated, caulked and weatherstripped, and your hot water system can hold on to heat, it's time to get to work on bringing in energy from natural sources -- we'll be getting to that starting next week.

John Michael Greer said...

Jnaegele, okay, you get today's Green Wizard Award for Ingenious Kluge Jobs. That's highly clever.

Artinnature, it depends on your circumstances. If you have a secure income and live in an area where the cost of real estate has already crashed, it may be time to start thinking about buying; otherwise, it's probably best to stay put, and do as much as you can with the property you've got. You can surreptitiously caulk, weatherstrip, wrap your pipes and ducts, and (if the landlord's willing) swap out the existing curtains for something better insulated; you'll make back enough on your energy bills to make these worth doing on your own nickel. A solar oven and a fireless cooker are also good options!

Kevin, it baffles me that the media can't just suck it up and say the words "civil war." Those do happen now and then...

Chris, Australia may not get cold enough for anybody to use pressurized hot water or steam systems for heating. They're fairly common on this side of the globe, and a boiler (the device that heats the water) is part of such a system.

sofistek said...


I realise that some of these other liquids will expend energy, in some form, during their creation and that some biofuels is effectively a cause of double counting. But you were saying that demand for oil is rising whilst production has flatlined for the last 6 years. So we're talking about oil (not other fossil fuels) production and oil consumption. So to say that oil production has flatlined whilst consumption continues to rise seems to be a case of comparing apples with oranges. Conventional crude has flatlined but consumption of all liquids has continued to increase. I would assume that consumption of conventional crude has also flatlined over the last 6 years, since it is not magically being produced to meet that extra demand. Consequently, Joe Public may not care (though he should) that conventional crude has flatlined if his consumption is being fuelled by other types of oil.

I understand what you mean and what you're getting at but a new reader might think, "hold on, how can production flatline but consumption increase? This guy is not making sense."


idiotgrrl said...

You don't even have to get your landlord's permission to put up insulated drapes. Buy them yourself and keep the receipt in the "for when I blow this dump" file, take down the landlord's cruddy curtains, and hang your own. Think he'll mind?

I say "keep the receipt" in case he tries to claim they're his.

Better yet - a week before giving notice, switch back. He won't have a single complain coming.

As for stealth insulating - there is always the medieval tapestry suggestion. Wall quilts. "It's my collection of American folk art, doncha know?"

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks for the explanation. I don't think our systems here are pressurised. I know the tank for solar and wood heating at my place is a low pressure unit. You're right though about it not getting that cold here though. I looked up the metric to imperial conversion tables and it wouldn't get colder here than about 32 degrees farenheit. Some of the cold temperatures your readers are subject to sound pretty unpleasant.

You touched on the conservation of Diversity and I thought that it might also be worth pointing out that diversity in natural systems also equates to resiliency and the two are inseparable.

This growth season with all of the La Nina weather some sub species of fruit trees flourished, whilst others limped along. For example Moorpark Apricots (both early and late) tanked, but Tilton Apricots were prolific. Next season it will be different again, but I can't help wondering how it will all end up with our diesel fuel reliant and mono-culture agricultural systems. Probably not good.

I've always reckoned that it's basic infrastructure and access to energy that lends Industrial society it's civility. I've travelled to places where they burn dried dung as fuel for cooking fires and they'd think hot water on tap at any temperature was pretty good.

PS: The baby wombat is doing quite well.



John Michael Greer said...

Sofistek, I think you may have missed the point I was trying to make. In the past, production stayed comfortably ahead of consumption most of the time, leaving a comfortable reserve of petroleum and distillates and plenty of spare production capacity to deal with localized shortfalls. At this point, supply is struggling to keep pace with demand -- even with all the additional liquids thrown into the mix! -- and the result is that, when a situation like the Libyan civil war happens, the market panics because there's no slack left in the system at all.

Grrl, true enough; if you have a good relationship with your landlord, though, it doesn't hurt to tell him.

Chris, glad to hear about the wombat! 32 degrees F. is pretty mild -- a cool April night around here. We get winter nights in single digits; people in the Midwest, where it goes double digits below zero, consider people in my corner of the world to be temperature wimps.

Chris said...

sofiesk, it sounds like you are having thermo-syphoning problems. GHung mentions an anti-syphon device. You might benefit from one. Hot water rises and cold water falls. An extremely well insulated hot water tank (most aren't BTW) that has vertical pipes coming out of it will still have the hot water rise out of the tank and through the pipes until something stops it. Either an anti-syphon device or a bend in the pipe "against gravity". (Think of the drain under your sink) Kind of hard to describe here, but the idea means all your hot water will migrate out of your tank and into your house to dissipate.

If your tank is truly well insulated, that might be your culprit.

I have a radiant under floor heating system with a big circuit of 1 1/4" iron pipe full of the 120-180 deg H20. They make pre-made fiberglass insulation to easily snap around it, but the price was astronomical. You'll have to excuse the non-renewable aspect, but my solution was dirt cheap. I used standard unfaced fiberglass rolls/batts made for 2x4 walls and wrapped it around the pipes. I held the insulation together with duck tape until I wrapped the whole thing with Walmart heavy duty aluminum foil for cooking. The aluminum foil gives a great radiant barrier and the fiberglass insulates against convection and conduction. Without the aluminum foil, the stone basement wall 6" from the pipes was still being warmed by radiant heat through the fiberglass. After the aluminum foil was quickly wrapped, the wall stays much cooler! Same fiberglass, just wrapped with cheap aluminum foil. Its messy, and itchy, but its a great cheap alternative.

As for foam pipe wrap. It's a big improvement over nothing, but the foam is noticeably warm to the touch, so I don't think it's enough by itself. A great start though!

Harry. There are companies that are starting to make closed systems with the air conditioning and hot water tank. Not sure how far they are, but its been driving me nuts that the new 'heat pump' hot water heaters try to pull heat out of the room (air-conditioned in summer) and the air conditioner is pulling the same heat out and spitting it outside. Same with the fridge/freezer. Waste… it all needs to be connected. But that's not a viable business plan for products in todays America.

I also like systems that scavenge shower heat that goes literally 'down the drain' by running the cold water feed to your hot H2O heater through a coil around your shower drain pipe to pre-heat it. I'd love to have some 1st hand reports on the effectiveness of this solution!

Chris in PA

sofistek said...

OK, JMG. I didn't miss your oil demand/supply point at all. In fact I stated pretty much what you did. I fear, however, that you've missed my point. We agree on the situation but your form of words just wasn't quite right and I tend to pick up on those things.

Cherokee Organics said...


People think it's too cold living where I do, some of my friends consider me an extremist of sorts because of it! I couldn't imagine them in a colder climate at all.

Hey Sofistek,

You never shy away from an argument do you? I appreciate the debate myself.

When I think of fossil fuel subsidies, I think of the generation of electricity from coal. The subsidies in this process is the diesel fuel used in mining, transport and maintenance of the generators. People never seem to remember these uses and they are covered in the final cost of the supply.

Generally electricity is not used in the transport and mining of coal because as an energy source it is not portable and just doesn't pack enough punch, unlike diesel fuel. The two are inseparable and cannot occur without the other.

I hope you checked out my articles on solar, because I don't think solar is a good solution for our current transport fossil fuel woes.



Jim Brewster said...

Right now I'm sitting in an office surrounded by people who insist that if we open more public land to drilling all our energy and economic woes would be over. It's all the fault of Democrats and environmentalists, they say. I feel I have better uses for my energy than arguing with them, but it is frustrating to hear from otherwise fairly sensible frugal folks (engineers and accountants) who actually do practice some conservation measures if only to save $, but who are so invested in BAU they can't see the writing on the wall.

@Steve in Colorado: If you insulate both hot and cold water lines as well as the basement, that may take care of the freezing pipe issue. Insulating hot and cold together though seems like it will just diffuse the heat so instead of hot and cold you'll have warm and cool!

Ward said...

The tankless hot water heater works very well with a solar hot water tank, as during times of low solar input (most of the winter around here) the tankless heater can finish heating up the water that has been tempered by the solar heater. When the solar heater can heat the water to a usable point, the water just flows through the tankless heater without it coming on.

John said...

Tangentially related point:

The best way to conserve hot water is to use less of it.

Something your readers may not be aware of is the vast increase in effiency of new clothes washers. When ours bit the dust last week the spouse and I went shopping for a new one. I had heard of the new generation of high efficiency washers but assumed that most of it was marketing hype and that any energy savings would be incremental at best.

I was surprised to find that, according to the energy use tags that the government requires on these things, the worst of the new machines uses about one quarter the energy of my 10 year old one (the best, about one sixth!). Most of this savings comes about because the new machines use one half to one third the hot water of the older ones for the same size load. This, combined with other tricks like higher spin speeds so the energy hog electric dryer doesn't have to work so hard, makes for dramatic decreases in overall energy use for the laundry.

The thing I find really encouraging about this is that while most consumer products are designed without much regard for energy use, at least in this area things are changing. Hopefully other manufacturers of consumer goods will get on the energy saving bandwagon and give us some well designed products that will allow us to get by with a good deal less energy.

Our refrigerator is about 10 years old too. I think my next project will be to check out what those guys have come up with.

sekenre said...


I came across this article that shows that the price of fuels is not necessarily due to lack of supply. It looks like this is the sign of another speculative bubble.

Why Gas is so Expensive today

Karen said...

I went to the basement to check the pipes and was pleasantly surprised to find they are all insulated.

It is part of the building code where I live, one less thing to do but there is still those curtains I need to sew and additional caulking to do....

Ruben said...

@ Chris,

Re: Drain heat recovery. I don't have first-hand experience, but I do have friends in green building work, and they think these things are really worth it in the right situation. If I had a basement with easy access I would do it myself.

If you have moderate comfort with soldering I would consider making it yourself. The recovery devices are simply three tubes of copper soldered together, soldered into a manifold, and wound around your drain.

In my town the scrap yard frequently has coils of brand new copper tube, so I think a good savings could be had. A roller to flatten the tubes somewhat would be ideal.

Kieran O'Neill said...

@GHung The term used quite a bit these days (especially among the Transition folk), is resilience. It's milder than survival, and hearkens to past responses of people to adverse circumstances. Home growing of vegetables and conservation measures have a long and venerable history, especially in situations where resources are scarce.

@JMG Going through the first steps in getting a small container garden started for the season has drawn out some old memories of my next door neighbours when I was growing up back in South Africa. A retired couple, they had dedicated about half of their 50m x 25m plot to neat rows of vegetables. What I recall most, though, is that they had a rainwater collection tank filling up from their roof gutters. I suspect, looking back, that this was a necessity for maintaining the vegetables through the nasty drought of '85/'86 and its accompanying water restrictions.

So far much of the Green Wizardry material has talked about heat and energy conservation, as well as home food production, but in quite a few parts of the world (including parts of the United States), water is an important prerequisite to both food production and life, and likely to become scarce with climate instability, aquifer depletion and energy decline. Will you be looking at this in later posts?

Interestingly, most of the Google results that come up while searching are from Australia, though I did chance upon a few useful documents:

The Heirloom Troubadour said...

You know, the whole tiptoeing issue around Libya seriously reminds me of a Monty Python Skit. I can just imagine the Knights Who Say Ni cowering in fear if media pundits spew forth the word which shall not be said, civil war! I hate to bust the industrial world’s collective bubble, but the fact of the matter is that the tensions boiling over in the Middle East will eventually reach Saudi Arabia where the disenfranchised Shiite minority in the Eastern Province will eventually rise up, regardless of how many security forces the aging and ailing royal family have at their disposal. The Arab Street is an interesting and powerful place these days and people in these countries could give two hoots about what the West thinks and wants. But hey, as long as Charlie Sheen is still getting high and buying hookers, why should anyone care?

In other news, I stopped by my local hardware store this afternoon and found 8’ lengths of pipe insulation on sale for .50 cents each! I was able to get enough material to completely insulate my hot and cold water pipes for about six bucks! It is amazing how much energy savings can be yielded from such a small investment of time and resources. My plumbing setup is fairly straightforward, so I will be working on installing them this weekend after I finish leveling a spot for the new beehive since the new honeybees are due to arrive in Frederick, MD sometime around April 15th. So many projects, both inside and outside, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rich_P said...

I was reading a tattered copy of The Best of Bertrand Russell earlier today when I came across this prophetic passage from 1951's New Hopes for a Changing World:

"I cannot be content with a brief moment of riotous living followed by destitution, and however clever the scientists may be, there are some things that they cannot be expected to achieve. When they have used up all the easily available sources of energy that nature has scattered carelessly over the surface of our planet, they will have to resort to more laborious processes, and these will involve a gradual lowering of the standard of living. Modern industrialists are like men who have come for the first time upon fertile virgin land, and can live for a little while in great comfort with only a modicum of labor. It would be irrational to hope that the present heyday of industrialism will not develop far beyond its present level, but sooner or later, owing to the exhaustion of raw material, its capacity to supply human needs will diminish, not suddenly, but gradually. This could, of course, be prevented if men exercised any restraint or foresight in their present frenzied exploitation. Perhaps before it is too late they will learn to do so."

Frank Hemming said...

I am at present working on a new Passiv Haus and we have taken great care to insulate the cold pipes with thick industrial type insulation. It's fibreglass with aluminium foil as an outer casing. All joints in the insulation are sealed with aluminium foil tape. This is important to prevent moisture condensing on the pipes. Condensation on cold pipes is another heat loss.
Hope this is useful.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Kieran O'Neill,

Down under has water tanks everywhere. My house has 3 tanks for a total supply of 90,000 litres. It is my only water supply and I watch the water level gauge everyday. Everyone around here has water tanks of one sort or another for their house supply.

The poem by Dorothea Mackellar says it all quote "of droughts and flooding rains"



sofistek said...


Thanks for the comments on thermo-syphoning. I don't think that's my problem, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the tank was installed new two years ago. It was actually designed for multiple heat inputs, though I'm not sure if that indicates that more thought on efficiency went into it, but if an anti-syphoning device is common now, it is likely to have it. Secondly, the pipes above a junction are cool to the touch in the morning. The junction is common, here in New Zealand. It has a cold water inlet and a hot water outlet. The cold water is there to ensure that water doesn't come out of the tank hotter than 55 degrees C. Anyway, in the morning, the piece of pipe below the junction box, to the tank, is warm but the pipes above are cool.

I've been looking for something to wrap around the pieces of pipe and fittings - the ones that are warm in the morning. But it's hard to find much insulation material at all, except in mega stores - perhaps that's indicative of the general mindset here.

sofistek said...

Cherokee Organics,

I didn't think this would develop into an argument. I merely pointed out what I thought was a mistake. I have to say that on the few (very few) occasions I've tried to correct JMG, the outcome has not always been pleasant. I can't figure that out. 99.9% of the time, I can't fault what he says.

I agree that solar is not a good solution for our transport fossil fuel woes. Indeed, I think most people miss the point of fossil fuel problems. They are indicative of a finite planet and the problems we face aren't going to be fixed by switching to another form transport energy, even if that were possible. We have much broader problems than that.

Though we have solar hot water, I've actually shied away from solar PV. I just can't shift the feeling that it's the wrong approach altogether in a collapsing world, because one could easily simply become dependent on another unsustainable source of energy when batteries, possibly damaged panels, controllers, etc., need to be replaced and there are no replacements.


Ward said...

One idea that I have been toying around with to generate electricity with solar power, without needing large industry (ie solar panels) is to use a parabolic mirror, created by putting mirrors on an old satellite dish an putting a stirling engine at the focus and using it to generate electricity. It could be built almost entirely from salvaged parts with some simple machining. Energy storage is still an issue, but battery manufacture is fairly low tech. Now to find a bunch of DC appliances to avoid the inverter.

Bill Pulliam said...

Cherokee -- "When I think of fossil fuel subsidies, I think of the generation of electricity from coal. The subsidies in this process is the diesel fuel used in mining, transport and maintenance of the generators. People never seem to remember these uses and they are covered in the final cost of the supply. "

...AND the manufacturing of the mining and transportation equipment, and the mining and refining of the ores etc. from which the equipment is made, and the construction and maintenance of the roads and rails of the transportation grid, same for the power grid, and the production of food to feed all the engineers designing this stuff and the workers manufacturing and extracting and maintaining it, and and and and and...

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that virtually everything in the modern economy is fueled by petroleum, including the extraction and processing of fossil fuels and alternative fuels. The petroleum flame drives the engine. Snuff it out and the whole system grinds slowly to a halt. And I do mean petroleum in the narrow sense -- the stuff that comes right out of the ground, liquid already and full of cheap energy, needing only some fractional distillation to be useful for just about any application.

As for an argument between JMG and Tony, I saw more of a discussion about some conceptual and rhetorical points, not a full-on argument. And, I have to say, I have rarely seen anyone (including myself and JMG) concede a major, substantial, conceptual point in any argument on any blog about anything. Such is the way of the blogosphere.

Mike said...

Here's another sign that others are perhaps beginning to understand the word limit. Capitalism's Dismal Future. From the Chronicle of Higher Education no less!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey sofistek,

No stress bro! As I said, I don't mind a bit of healthy debate.

I reckon you're right about PV, but for me it's a buffer and a resource. I don't pretend that it hasn't come at anything other than the end of a long process from development to manufacturing to distribution to installation (my part). I know how the individual components are meant to be wired together, but how they actually do what they do is not that different from magic! It's kind of a bit like Issac Assimov's Foundation series.

Still how many things do we use each day that can be put into this category, and I'd reckon there'd be quite a few. I used to perform the servicing on my vehicle back in the early 90's (Suzuki Sierra 1 litre 4 speed), but nowadays with the complexities I wouldn't think of doing anything to them.

Pretty scary how dependant we've all become without noticing. Still, it's only a point in history anyway at the top of a bell shaped curve.



Kevin said...

Rich, I've seen a TV interview of Aldous Huxley from 1958 in which he observes that oil is running out.
It appears we've had warning of the finite character of fossil fuel energy and its ultimate implications from a variety of farsighted people for many decades.

The main topic of the video is Brave New World, but it's well worth watching in any case.

Huxley also foresaw the problems of population overshoot. It's a pity so few people ever listened to his and others' sensible advice.

HumbleAuthor said...

Exactly what a financial advisor will tell someone who's running out of money... quit smoking, drinking, and eating out! Clean up the outflows and the inflows will balance.

This makes me sorry that I own old houses, because it's tough to do a lot of this work, and they are so inefficiently built. It makes me want to sell them and put up something efficient from the ground up...

K.M. said...

Mister Greer,

A relevant bit of physics dealing with heat loss is Newton's Law of Cooling. As you say, heat in a medium flows from hot to cold at a rate dependent on the thermal conductivity of the medium.

There are two effects at work, too, which Newton discovered -

1. Say you have something warm, and you want to keep it warm. The rate at which it will lose heat depends on the difference in temperature between it and the environment. So the hotter it is, the faster it will want to cool down.

As always, the rate of heat loss is also dependent on a heat transfer coefficient, so you can reduce the rate of heat loss by insulating / &c. But it is generally true that hotter things "want" to lose heat fast than cooler things.

The second phenomenon Newton's Law of Cooling deals with, is surface area. The greater the surface area of thermal contact, the faster you will lose heat. Hence, long runs of hot water pipe are not good.
And thus heat exchangers do have long distances of coiled or snaking pipes to maximize the surface area over which a warm medium contacts a cold medium - on purpose.

So, to store heat effectively, store it in a bulk material with minimal surface area in contact with the environment. This is intuitive though.


Bill Pulliam said...

Humble Author --

"This makes me sorry that I own old houses, because it's tough to do a lot of this work, and they are so inefficiently built. It makes me want to sell them and put up something efficient from the ground up..."

This is like telling a 64-year-old to just throw away their entire lifetime's retirement savings and start from scratch because if they did they'd get a better interest rate and lower maintenance fees. Would that financial advisor recommend to the same people that they send their old car to the junkyard and buy a brand-new $30,000 hybrid vehicle just to cut the monthly gasoline expenses a bit?

JMG, these sorts of comments make me wonder if it is time for a refresher lesson on embodied energy and the false economies of sending "working but inefficient" to the landfill and replacing it with "new and improved."

wackystuff said...

It's not a joke, it's a old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times"

GHung said...

I posted on Drumbeat last night that we need to do a Campfire (conspicuously absent from TOD recently) on faith based energy. A discussion of faith based economics and politics would mesh nicely into such a thread.

On the role of faith and incantations:

Somewhere around my 50th birthday I began to reluctantly admit to the important role that faith plays in our societies; the engineer/scientist in me previously insisting that 'reality based' societies could (or should) be more successful going forward. While it was evident that we humans are experiencing a failure of faith, it occured to me that it is actually faith that is failing us.

JMG: So we’ve got technological crises, economic crises, and political crises, all driving a variety of feedback loops that intersect with other dimensions of the predicament of industrial society in ways that are hard to predict.

I submit that we have a faith crisis; an incantation crisis. Misplaced faiths and a plethora of incantations designed to support them have led many astray, as has been discussed above.

Joseph Campbell discussed how, when the myths, the foundations of faith, were written down, frozen in time, a crisis began to unfold. Until that point, the codes of living, attitudes really, were preserved in art, song and story, passed on in a non-literary fashion, remaining fluid over time, adapting to changing needs of societies. My feeling is that the age of reason, the age of machines, is incompatible with our ability to understand ourselves, en mass; the gifts that keep on taking.

I find it ironic that the fruits of our intellect and creativity will be the drivers of our return to more useful incantations, the bones we cast seeking a return to the Garden.

Thanks for the Post, JMG, and the great comments, all. I return to the chores of my Solar based faith, surrendering to its intermittancy, assured of its reliability.

KevinHHood said...

Back around 1980-1981 I was visiting a work colleague and good friend living in a small town in Italy not far from Parma. I remember their 'shower'. Just before the shower head was a small device with an electric cord coming from it and it heated the water as it came out of the pipe. It did not use much energy. How do I know? Well, you could have a low-flow tepid shower or a very low-flow warm shower.

Such an option would not fly in the average home these days but perhaps in a future world with water, fossil fuel and electricity scarcity it'll make sense again. Of course, our expectations of what it means to take a shower will have to change a little too.

Kevin said...

Ouch! Personal responsibility: that's the hardest thing to take. I must plead guilty to playing the blame game, having laid much of our troubles at the feet of corporations. I do have the impression that many of them have played a significantly blameworthy role in helping us to produce our current dire situation. But as you observed in last week's post, we let them do it when could have stopped them. We did indeed wimp out. And they could well argue with some cogency that they were merely serving our demands: for we bought their rubbish. Now it's up to us to palliate the consequences as best we can.

I sympathize with Cathy's point of view. I feel as though I'm paying the price not only for my own dumb mistakes - significant as those may be - but also footing the bill for other people's stupidity, which is really annoying.

I think Mr. Frith's laundry list of obsessions is very telling. Evil space lizards and Satanic sex abuse have important characteristics in common: both are essentially demonological theories of the world and both tend to generate alienation which can only make it more difficult for people to pull together into communities and solve their collective problems. Zero point energy is likewise a reality-optional theory that no one is actively developing: unless Mr. Frith is busy at work on it in the underground lab he's doubtless built himself while tunneling under the McMmartin Day Care Center in order to elude observation by space lizards.

I find Jason Heppenstall's remarks on corruption in democratic polities like (apparently) squeaky-clean Denmark to be very illuminating, and conducive to a suitable alteration in my world view.

Mark said...

@JMG, Based on your comment, I think you missed my point. And since I wrote it, that's my fault, not yours. Sorry. Allow me to try again.

People want to blame people (like the rich elites). When they don't have people to blame, they blame gods. (It's even in contract language as "acts of god").

I'm suggesting that it is the systems we live in that are the problem not the people. The people are just doing what the system dictates. How does the system work? That is the $64,000 question. The systems are made up of written and unwritten rules, rewards, punishments, etc. People respond to these rules, rewards, punishments etc. and we get what we've got.

Here is yet another example. In our town, they instituted a $25 fee to throw out an old television. This makes sense right? TVs are hazardous waste and it cost money to dispose of them. The owner should pay for that. Unfortunately, shortly after the fee was imposed, I would notice dead TVs showing up on one of the less traveled dirt roads near my home. The person (or organization) who imposed the fee either didn't think through how people would behave or figured that cleaning up TVs from the side of the road was a good use of taxpayer's dollars.

Most of us are good at seeing the big or obvious consequences, but not so good at seeing the small ones or the connections between cause and effect (the unintended consequences). A systems thinker, on the other hand, attempts to see the all the moving parts and tries to understand how they interact. Once the moving parts are understood, then adjustments to these system are more likely to have their desired effect while minimizing the undesirable or unintended consequences.

Unfortunately, understanding human systems is exceedingly difficult. It often takes years of studying the systems just to learn all the moving parts let alone understand the cause and effect relationship between those moving parts.

So back to the original point - there is no one to blame, it is just the system doing what it does. Fixing the system is the problem. So understand the moving parts and how they work together. Strategically adjust. See what happens. Adjust some more. Rinse and repeat.


Footnote 1: There are wonderful (but expensive) tools out there for modeling systems (some of your readers are likely familiar with "iThink" System models help in the understanding and are a great way to document a system. But remember what the mathematician George Box said, "All models are lies, some models are useful."

Footnote 2: For those of you tired of Blogger killing your long and well thought out comments, there is a Firefox (Chrome and Safari too) Plug-in call Lazarus that captures (encrypts, and saves) what you type in web forms.