What masculinity issues?

Continuing the theme of 'Bats with big tools,' this is the equipment that we used in order to bore holes in the earth's crust, for sensor installation at a basement research project in Kitchener (next town over from Waterloo). We drilled down to 1 meter below grade (we could have gone farther), and installed temperature and moisture content sensors. They are used to measure exterior conditions influencing the basement wall; the insulation inside the basement is also being monitored.

The equipment is a 3" dirt auger, driven by a Milwaukee 3/4 Inch Super Hole-Shooter. Craploads of torque. One of those drills that is reputed to knock people's teeth out, when they get out of control. Managed not to hurt myself, or my coworkers. Also, we successfully avoided any gas lines, electrical cables, water mains, lawn sprinkler lines, cable TV connections, or sewer pipes.

We did not strike oil. After all, this is not a wildlife refuge, so oil was not expected to be found here.

In other news:
  • Work/School: In the past two days, we have mostly finished off the installation phase of the projects that have been stressing me out all summer. I'm pretty happy they're rolling along now... just a few more cleanup details. Chief grad student and my advisor are splitting for Europe for 3 weeks, so there will probably be a limited amount of work that we can do, in our group. Classes start on September 13th, so I have a little while before stuff starts to kick into gear.
  • Fujitsu... ummm.. doesn't quite...: Powered up my computer this morning, and it failed the same way it did before I sent it. Dammit. Tried a few more times... same thing. Grr. Then I shook it in a couple of ways. It started up. Crap. Somebody has replaced my notebook with an Etch-A-Sketch.


Truth in Advertising

This past weekend was the Waterloo Busker Carnival--a street performer fair in uptown Waterloo. As I was passing by, I noticed an ad from the local 'Lite Rock' station: 96.7 CHYM FM.

I don't know how many of you are familiar with the word Chyme:
Pronunciation: 'kIm
Function: noun
Etymology: New Latin chymus, from Late Latin, chyle, from Greek chymos juice; akin to Greek chein
: the semifluid mass of partly digested food expelled by the stomach into the duodenum

My first thought was, "What a horrible name for a radio station." Then, after thinking about it, I realized: why yes, 'Today's lite rock' has an awfully pre-digested quality, and a similarity to vomit, doesn't it? And I guess I have heard serious discussion of the use of Celine Dion as an emetic.


Holy recursive photos...

A Saturday night post; a bunch of items:
  • Fujitsu Rocks: As I mentioned earlier, my Fujitsu laptop computer died for a second time a few weeks ago. I sent a nastygram to Fujitsu Canada, asking them to take a second look at my computer, and provide either a discounted repair or something off a new machine. They told me to send it in; after looking at it for a few days, they found they could not replicate the error. The most they could figure out was that the main board was not seated properly. They took care of this diagnosis and sent my fixed machine back to me at no cost. Fujitsu now has my loyalty; when it comes time to buy BatBook III, it will probably be from them. However, I can't say the same about Mainline Notebooks, who fixed my computer the first time ($1000), and then diagnosed my computer the second time ($50, and "needs another $1000 repair"). All I can say is that they are either incompetent or unscrupulous: either way, they don't deserve your business. If you know anybody in the K-W area looking for a laptop or a repair, steer them away from those guys.
  • City Cafe Bakery: When I went out to dim sum, Dan brought me over to this cafe in Kitchener: I had actually biked by the back of it at least a dozen times (it's right off the bike path). However, I never went in, because from behind, it looks like another generic Chinese restaurant. It's a neat little bakery, in a converted gas station, with a big-ass wood fired oven five feet away from the counter. Good croissants and thin-crust pizza. A description and photo are in the local paper here. It's another place that I'm glad to know exists.
  • Depressing documentaries: I found out that the PBS documentary series Frontline is available for viewing on the web. I've always found them well-put-together, insightful documentaries; if you get a chance, check out Private Warriors (military contractors in Iraq), or Secret History of the Credit Card (just how distribution of credit cards skyrocketed in the 80's, and the repercussions). I've always found their depressing documentaries to be a good way to spend an evening; helpful for confirming that the world is as broken as I think it is.
  • Fuel prices: I realized how wonderfully I'm insulated from rising fuel prices in the life I'm living right now. I looked through my receipts, and figured out the last time I filled my car's tank was June 9th. W00t. Another two weeks, and I can make it three months. Also, high fuel prices give me the satisfaction of watching SUV drivers spent big bucks to fill their tanks [grin]. Yes, I know the overall effects of fuel costs on inflation and the economy, but it's a small visceral victory there.
  • Being a host: I had Chief Grad Student and his wife over for dinner tonight; I realized that this was the first time that I've hosted somebody for dinner since I've moved here. Cooked an Indian meal (thank you, Madhur Jaffrey): Beef do piaza (CGS's wife doesn't like lamb), Gujerati-style green beans, and carrots, peas, and potatoes with cumin seeds. It's pretty scary: I used to throw dinner parties all the time back in Cambridge, and its taken me this long to get back in the habit. I guess it has taken this long to have the time and a working kitchen. I'm hoping to do this more often: Dan and Daniel--do you have any plans next weekend?
  • One-year anniversary: It's official. I've been in this country for a year now. I crossed the border during my move on 2004-08-27. Wow. At times this feels like a short little bit of time, at others it feels like I've been here and settled for ages. Okay, if you actually count my in-country days, I've been travelling outside of Canada for about 100 days (~30% of the year).


A Home Energy Efficiency Primer

Illustration from the Building Science Corporation website Houses That Work section.

Sorry: this is a long boring ranty informational post. It’s been brewing up for a while, and I finally sat down and finished it.

I’ve been periodically consulting on friends’ houses and dispensing advice on increasing house energy efficiency and durability. This made me realize that I often miss the opportunity to tell people enough at the ‘getting starting’ phase, or that they don’t think about these aspects until they are well on their way, with a site, rough house plan, even a contractor, before giving me a call.

Considering all the news about oil prices heading towards $70 a barrel (and probably getting worse—peak oil and all that—see info from previous posts), I think that energy conservation is more important than ever, and I hope you would all agree.

This piece reflects my broad brush and philosophical thoughts on building energy efficiency. I can expound on this topic ad nauseum—after all, it was part of my job for seven years at Building Science Corporation, and now part of my graduate studies at UW’s Building Engineering Group. Incidentally, the Building Science Corporation website and Builder’s Field Guides are great resources for learning more about this stuff. But I also realize that the longer this piece is, the fewer will read it. I’ll try to keep it down to the vital points: I describe them as “I would be embarrassed to call a house energy efficient if it didn’t address these items.” But feel free to ask me questions if you want to know the excruciating details. I didn’t come up with a catchy number of points (e.g., top 10 or dozen), but I have divided them into the categories of the design stage, building enclosure (shell), and appliances/mechanical systems.

  • Design for climate: We can learn from how aboriginal people built, and take a cue from that. People in the desert once dug holes in the ground, in cliffs, or made massive stone buildings. Nowadays, we ship wood from Canada to the desert to build fake stucco houses around a golf course. Perhaps we should realize that living in Vegas is kinda like making a colony on the moon—we need to ship in water and electricity to survive—but just infinitely more tacky. But more importantly, wherever you are, you need to take the climate loads (cooling, heating, wet, dry) into account: it explains the evolution of local “architectural vernacular.”
  • Design for orientation/site: News flash: we can now predict where the sun is going to be in the sky, season by season. I wince when I see long thin buildings with the long windowed faces oriented east and west: you get the worst cooling loads all year round. Instead, in a heating (northern) climate, the classic “solar tempered” house has south-facing glass with overhangs to prevent summertime overheating. For a nice example, see the McStain Discovery House—a job I was proud to be involved in. Whenever people claim “energy efficiency costs too much,” I throw this example in their faces—how much does it cost, when the building is just ink on paper, to design it in a non-stupid way?
  • Building size (square footage): I assume all of you have seen the various news reports on how the average square footage per American is ballooning (from an average 1450 sf in 1963 to 2300 sf today, all while average family size was getting smaller). I am personally disgusted with the trend towards McMansions, using house size as a status symbol (as opposed to character and detail), and the useless space that is used once or twice a year. Obviously, the larger the house is, the more energy it takes to condition it. Sarah Susanka’s work (The Not So Big House, etc) has done a great job fighting against this trend.
  • Building type/layout: In a similar vein, think of how much “exposed skin” a house has, compared to its floor area. Buildings like townhouses, duplexes, and apartments manage to eliminate one or more walls facing the exterior; the heating and cooling load are largely a function of that metric. I’m not saying everybody should live in apartments: I’m just saying that if you decide you need the single family house with a lawn all around it, there is a price involved. Of course, this “surface area fetish” can be taken too far, as shown by the people who build half dome houses to reduce exposed area.

Building shell (enclosure)
  • Insulation: Insulation is good; more insulation is better. This is something I can spend days discussing, so I’ll try to distill it. Insulation is measured in R-value; R-13 is baseline to compare to for walls (the pink batt that goes in a typical 2x4 wall); maybe R-30 for roofs. Depending on climate location, I would say at least R-20 walls are respectable, but don’t go nuts to R-50 or anything (unless you’re building in Antarctica, where it’s called for). A fine framed wall includes foam board insulating sheathing (instead of, or on top of the structural OSB/plywood): it is great for both insulation reasons and moisture/condensation control. To use an analogy, a regular frame wall has insulation for 14-1/2 inches, and wood (R-3.5) for 1-1/2 inches. If you were cold, would you cut your blanket into strips with 1-1/2” gaps between them? There are lots of innovative building systems (e.g. SIPS structural foam panels, insulated concrete forms (ICFs), externally insulated buildings, straw bale construction), but I don’t think that any one of them is a guaranteed winner that will take over the world or anything. But they are all moving in the right direction.
  • Airtightness: Keeping your house warm or cold is all about making the air inside it warm or cold. In order to control the air, you have to contain the air; therefore, greater airtightness (eliminating uncontrolled leakage) reduces energy use. Of course you will ask: how tight is too tight, and what about sick buildings? Well, any problems I have ever seen or heard about are not just about airtightness: they had poor control of interior pollutants (e.g., smoke, mold, chemicals furniture and furnishings, moisture), and the ventilation rate was too low. That is the key: as the silly catchy phrase in our industry goes, “Build tight and ventilate right.” Also, just because a building is leaky by no means implies that it is healthy—for instance, I’ve seen houses where the biggest single leak was to the garage (with carbon monoxide, stored fertilizer and insecticides, and gasoline)—not the place where you want to be drawing your intake ventilation air. An intentional ventilation system draws air from a known location.
  • Windows: Yes, I know that windows define the personality of a house, connect indoor and outdoor space, and showcase outside views, if any. But if you look at the R-value of a window, a typical one (vinyl double glazed) is about R-2. That’s about a half inch of coffee cup white foam. A good window is in the range of R-3 to R-4. A window is an R-2 hole in your R-13 to R-20 wall: all of my geek friends should understand the analogy of resistors in parallel. So my recommendation: get good windows (low emissivity coated, double or triple glazed, with argon fill gas), and try to design realizing that the back wall of floor-to-ceiling windows does have energy consequences.

  • Mechanical equipment:. I don’t want too get bogged down in efficiencies, ratings, and other engineering trivia of heating/cooling/water heating appliances. But as a quick summary: if you are buying a 55% efficient water heater (EF=0.55), an 80% furnace (AFUE, annual fuel utilization efficiency), or a 10 SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio) air conditioner, you should probably be embarrassed if you think you’re building an energy efficient house. Technology that I would be happy to install in my own home is a tankless instantaneous hot water heater (EF=~0.85), a 90% condensing furnace, and a 12 to 13 SEER air conditioner. Be sure to think about loads and usage: a high efficiency air conditioner is a lot more important in Houston than in Ottawa. So in my list above (assuming Boston), cooling demand is low enough that I don’t think getting a super-efficient (over 14 SEER) air conditioner is economically worthwhile.
  • Efficient home appliances: Once you’ve tacked the loads of heating, cooling, and water heating, you can start to think of the electric loads of the things inside your house (a.k.a. “plug loads.”) The refrigerator is probably most important, being on 24/7/365: see this writeup in Home Energy Magazine. Get an Energy Star rated product. Next would be lighting: the best realistic technology (besides daylighting, which can be tricky) is fluorescent lighting; compact fluorescent bulbs are probably the most common way to incorporate them into a house plan. CFL technology has been continually improving; try giving the current products a fair shake, if you’ve had bad experiences in the past. You need to wait a minute or so for them to come up to full brightness: don’t judge them just after you turn on the switch. Also, an Energy Star horizontal axis (front loading) washing machine saves both water and energy (and also gets more detergent out of your clothes)--strongly recommended.
  • Enclosure vs. mechanical choices: As a side note on mechanical equipment, I want to emphasize that given a cost choice of improving the building enclosure (shell) or appliances, you should probably choose the former. A furnace or air conditioner can easily be replaced during its 20-30 year lifespan. Also, mechanical equipment is more likely to be replaced with better evolving technology. Increasing the wall insulation or replacing the windows is a difficult and expensive job. Remember that a house has a pretty long lifespan: if you build an energy hog of a house today, it will still probably be around, sucking down natural gas and electricity, in fifty years.

You might ask: but what about renewable resources and other ‘off grid’ technologies, such as solar photovoltaic panels, home windmills, fuel cells, or gas turbine cogeneration? Well, they are great, but I first would make sure that you maximized my above points: those are the more cost effective ‘low lying fruit’, and not stretching the technology at all. I have been frustrated by too many projects that ignored the body of knowledge of energy efficiency, and just threw on some solar panels to get a ‘green’ label. These advanced technologies are best when teamed to small, efficient houses: they are very expensive (per unit of power produced), so the lower you can make your load, the smaller your investment in solar panels, etc.

If you just don’t want to think about the specifics, one option is to buy an Energy Star Home--Energy Star rates houses, as well as appliances. My work at BSC involved getting a lot of houses to this level. It is pretty decent, but I’d consider it just a start, on the scale of things. As with any rating system, it can be gamed so that the improvements are inexpensive but largely ineffective, and measures that require planning might be dismissed. For instance, in a production setting, I doubt anyone would design for site or orientation.

As a final note, it is foolish to improve building energy efficiency without understanding and addressing building durability. Considering how long it has taken me to finally write this, give me… um… another six months or so to put that post together.

Being social

I was actually out on two different social events this Saturday--pretty unusual for my life up here in Waterloo. Before you bother asking: no, hooking up with cute Canadian women was not involved. Probably because (1) This is me we're talking about, (2) No single women were at these events, and (3) Duh, this is me we're talking about.

This morning was dim sum with Dan and Daniel, over at Cameron Chinese in Kitchener. That was great... the company was lots of fun, and it is nice to know a decent dim sum place in the neighborhood, even if it doesn't have rolling carts. Incidentally, Wikipedia's Dim Sum Entry is kinda neat--I always wondered what leaf was used in sticky rice balls (it's lotus leaf). That's the dish that is a package of rice wrapped up in a dried leaf and steamed; the rice also contains pork bits, Chinese sausage, mushrooms, stuff that tastes like chicken, and, um, I'm going to stop thinking about this now.

The evening was a "Murder Mystery Dinner Party" at my downstairs neighbors' place. I was actually getting bit anxious--this role playing stuff always gives me the self-consciousness jitters, plus a roomful of people I'm meeting for the first time. My role was "Dr. Thomas Blackman, trusted family physician to the Lockwood family." At least the role was a fiftysomething single alcoholic doctor, so it wasn't too big of a stretch.

The dinner party turned out pretty well. The crowd was a nice bunch of people, and even if I wasn't too good at this acting/improvising, there were people in worse shape (Yeah, Bats' goal in any given situation: don't be the worst in the room. Nice to have high aspirations). However, the gameplay itself was a disappointment. It was scriped so that in each "scene," each character has to (almost mechanically) reveal the planned plot point about him/herself, and interrogate a similar one out of another character. And think of this in a room full of people who are just meeting each other, and do not have sufficient amounts of alcohol in them yet. Even worse, the information revealed in this exchange seems pretty irrelevant to "who was the killer"--all the characters are shown to have a motive and opportunity, but nothing more revealing than that. The revelation of who the killer was ended up being a "So what" moment rather than, "Oh yes, that explanation fits all the clues... I should have seen that," which is the heart of the mystery genre. (although I have to say that I did correctly identify her). I can't say that I recommend this particular brand ("Beyond The Grave" Murder Mystery Party Game)--there might be other murder mystery games that are laid out better, but this experience was not impressive.

After that, though, we played the game Taboo. It's actually a pretty clever word game--it involves conveying a word or phrase to teammates with words (no gestures), but without using the word itself, parts of the word, or other forbidden words on the card. For instance, for the word 'baste,' the forbidden words were something like turkey, roast, gravy, and juice, so the explanation was something convoluted like "You put this tube into the rear end of a fowl..." (to which I had to yell out, "foreplay!" Sorry.)

It's actually a pretty interesting word-puzzle type game--I'd love to play it with some of my more geeky friends. I miss the comfort level and caliber of friends I have among Teps and extended community. Ah well. Another Saturday night, but definitely better than average.


Oh the glamorous life...

Back to work at the test lab. Today's job was priming the test walls. W00t. So this is what research is all about...

I was playing Pink Floyd on the computer we have set up as our MP3 server (yes, I realize Lynrd Skynyrd is more appropriate painting music, but we didn't have that), and was struck by how much this felt like Tep's work week. Except for the fact that I would have been shunted off to a higher end project, like replumbing the hot water heater or redoing the framing of the kitchen floor. The less fortunate would be doing painting, or if they failed qualification on roller and brush, drying out spackle with a hair dryer (really--there were some people one year who were useless enough that they got that job).

That reminds me, though, that although I dislike painting, I don't consider it a low-skill endeavor, and hate the fact that it is often treated that way. I've just seen too many "Well, I'm redecorating, so I'll just put on a coat of paint" jobs, which didn't include correct prep like sanding, spacking, priming, and cleaning (sorry, Jean, I still haven't forgiven you for the time that you decided we should paint over wallpaper at your old place in Arlington :P ). Check out the painting contractor who works on This Old House and other pros--basically, they say that if you're not cutting in the junctions between the trim and the wall with a good sash brush (instead of wussing out and using masking tape) you're doing it wrong. Hoo-ah.

As another rant, I hate the fact that demolition is also seen as a low-skill job to be handed off to whoever can wield a sledge. I had the misfortune of being in a house with an 'always on' television (grr), with our channel surfing beaching upon Fox's Renovate My Family, which included the completely ridiculous blonde triplet eye candy 'construction crew'. In this show, the family is enlisted to do the demolition (all with sledgehammers), which is goofy symbolic destruction, because they just bring in an excavator (i.e., backhoe) to knock the house down anyway. But I was just wincing in pain at the father hammering away at a door opening, thinking, "Five minutes with a cordless impact driver, you would have the door out and reusable, and saved your forearms some work. Instead, you've just created landfill." I also winced at people whacking away at a ceramic tile countertop without eye protection. Dumb dumb dumb. But then again, this is Fox, eh? (America's Funniest Eye Injuries, anyone?)

Remember--demolition shouldn't just be about destruction, it is de-construction. Think about how little explosives they use for controlled demolition: wrap it around the central structural elements, pack it in sandbags to direct the blast inwards, and the whole building falls into its own footprint. Then compare it to the Russian military approach: drop thousands of pounds of artillery and bombs, which gives you the rubble-strewn streets of Grozny. Please aim for the former, not the latter, in your demolition. Unless, of course, you actually are the Russian military.

In other news, the weather has just been perfect the past few days--highs in the mid 70's. Not sure how much more we'll get of that. And Fujitsu has agreed to take a look at my computer, but the best they will offer is a discount on a repair, since it's out of warranty. Considering I can get a bottom-of-the-line beater Dell for $699 CAD, I don't have my hopes up... but it's worth a shot.


What I did at summer camp...

Got back from another two weeks in Boston. From May through August, I have been on three separate trips to Boston: my former boss/mentor's birthday, road trip to Air Force Guy's wedding, and this trip to 'Summer Camp.' Counting vacation trips to Alaska, New York, and the Bay Area, I have been out travelling (for fun) for about 50 days. Man, I'm a slacker--over a third of the summer doing no research. Then again, this 'being a student during the summer' thing is rather novel after spending eight years in the working world.

There were some great highlights at the summer camp festivities--this probably stems from the fact that my former boss/mentor is one of those guys who knows everybody, so lots of people either end up owing him favors, or want to do something as a contribution to the party. One example was the Cuban cigar makers--they brought a few suitcases of Dominican (?) tobacco, and set up a table to roll cigars for the crowd. Supposedly, their next gig was to be a party at George Sr.'s ranch.

Watching the Texans make barbecue was spectacular: my former boss bought a smoker and had it shipped up, and it gets rolled out once a year for this gig. The Texans are builders who, as a hobby, go on the competition barbecue circuit. They took a stack of boxes of meat taller than me, slathered it with brown sugar and spices while wearing rubber kitchen gloves, and let it smoke all day.

You will note the racks of ribs on the lower level, as well as several chickens with beer cans up their butts, for a vertical cooking position and flavor (hey, they came out pretty well).

We also had four or five 'normal size' gas grills going at the same time--I thought it was a good comparison of the 'massively parallel' grilling strategy and 'superbarbecuing'.

Of course, I used this trip to Boston to see the local folks, including drinks on the back porch at the Roost, a combined birthday party (for U5, Morton, and me) at Amie and Guy's place in Watertown, and dim sum at China Pearl. Turns out that Chinatown was packed--I happened to pick August 7th, the celebration of the August Moon Festival (a harvest festival). Chinese opera on one street, karaoke and DJs on another, and street vendor stalls packed tight. Pretty awesome.

I love coming to Boston (among other reasons) because of the random meetings. I ended up running into two sets of people on the street--completely randomly--while walking around Cambridge and Somerville. It resulted in some confusion: thought processes like, "Oh, it's Bats." -> "Wait, it's Bats--he doesn't live here!" -> "Oh yeah, Bats said he would be in town." Basically, I filled up my whole trip with a lunch here, a dinner there--a bit of time with a lot of friends--kinda like the way the mob skims the 'take' from the Vegas casinos.

Also, I got to do two 'house consulting' gigs for friends who have just bought places. I always consider that fun; I enjoy distributing appropriate knowledge to my geeky friends who are more likely to understand it and act on it. This included a trip to Bird and Jen's mando (mansion divided into condominiums) in Dover, NH. It is huge, and the renovators did a pretty nice job of keeping the character intact. The living room is enormous: I was thinking of putting together a list of activities for the room (e.g., half court basketball games, competition ballroom dancing, crock opera revival performances). The basement is a bit scary (radon, moisture), but is fixable. After the tour, the group of us went to have dinner and hang out in Portsmouth, NH.

So overall, it was a great time in Boston. A great big thank you to everyone who took the time to see me, and another big thank you to those who offered their hospitality while I was in town.