Water Heaters: More than you wanted to know

David D. left a long comment to my post from August about fixing Paul & Debbie's water heater, which got me thinking... I've never done a post covering the basics of keeping a water heater running. So here's my post on the subject, as a service to my friends, and to the intarweb-at-large (if it's useful to anyone). I find it frustrating that gas water heaters are pretty much a throwaway item--they pretty much last as long as the warranty period (6-12 years), and then fail spectacularly, flooding your basement, possibly geysering all over the place. Also, I'm including some information about water heating technology better than the standard $200-300 tank, such as instantaneous water heaters, and boiler sidearm tanks.

Water Heater Longevity

General Disclaimer: If you're doing some of this work yourself, be sure to keep in mind that you're dealing with 40 to 100 gallons of water at 140 F, inside a gas-fired appliance. This can be dangerous (duh); please behave accordingly.

First of all, I should give credit where it is due: a lot of the knowledge that I have about water heaters comes from the website www.waterheaterrescue.com--they have a wealth of information, and they also sell retrofit kits to increase the lifespan of your heater. I've bought lots of items from them, which are probably installed in half a dozen water heaters around the country.

So you can check out their full story on water heater longevity... t'sokay, I'll wait. However, let me see if I can summarize the story for those of you in a rush. I'll cover two important topics: tanks rusting out, and sludge/scale building up at the bottom.

A gas water heater is conceptually simple--check out this cross section. There's a burner at the bottom of a tank of water (the burner's a bit like a turkey fryer burner; there is a hole through the middle of the tank of water, so the exhaust gases can rise up, heat the water, and escape out the flue.

The problem with a big tank of 140 F water is that it really wants to rust out--think of the acceleration of chemical reactions with temperature, the Arrhenius equation, all that. A "normal" tank deals with this in two ways. First, the inside of the tank is glass-lined; I believe they put on powdered glass and then bake it on. Second, there's something called a "sacrificial anode"--it's a bar of magnesium or aluminum, installed from a threaded fitting at the top of the tank. If there's a nick in the glass coating, rust preferentially starts on the anode (the more reactive metal)--similar concept to zinc anodes used to protect boat propellers from corrosion. The problem, of course, is that as they protect, the anode gets eaten away. When the anode is entirely eaten, the tank starts to rust--see below for an anode that ain't doing anything no more.

This shows a comparison between a brand new and dead anode (there's a steel wire running down the middle of the anode; that's the "skeleton" that you see there).

So, makes sense to replace anodes when they wear out (maybe every six years or so), right? Well, hellsyeah. Unfortunately, I've never met a plumber who does this. This would also require a buying public who realizes that this procedure is necessary. So instead, we just landfill our water heaters every few years.

It is also unfortunately annoying to replace anodes (requires a 1-1/16" hex socket and a 1/2" breaker bar. 1-1/16"?! WTF? Is this the manufacturers trying to make it a "no user serviceable parts inside" situation, to increase their sales?). But I've done it a bunch of times--with the right tools, it's not too bad, depending on overhead clearance space. 1/2" breaker bar shown below, with 3/8" socket, 1/4" socket, and dollar bill for scale.

The second thing: tank sediment and sludge. When you heat water, certain minerals (such as calcium) become less soluble--I know that is counterintuitive to our everyday experience (sugar dissolves more easily in hot tea than iced tea), but that's the chemistry. As a result, when you heat a tank of hot water, some minerals start to plate out (forming "scale")--solidified calcium carbonate or others. Why does this matter? Well, it all falls to the bottom of the tank (where the burner is), forming a great layer of insulation between, uh, your burner and the water (see that cross section from before). That's why when you drain a water heater (with that valve at the bottom), you often get "sand" or "pebbles" coming out of there. In addition, if it hasn't been drained for a while, you end up with sludge (reddish--iron/rust based, maybe?) at the bottom. Similar problem.

So, what to do? A curved dip (water input) tube, to stir up the sediment and get it out of the tank, and regular flushing of the tank. Flushing the tank maybe every six months is a good idea--shut the burner down to "vacation," leave the water on, and flush out water from that bottom drain (use a short length of hose and a bucket, or a floor drain).

Instantaneous Water Heaters

So, moving on to other technologies: tankless/instantaneous (or "on demand") water heaters--why should you care about these newfangled things?

First, I need to explain water heater efficiency; it is rated in something called energy factor (or EF). This measurement rates how much of the fuel’s energy comes out of the tap in hot water, under "average" conditions. It takes into account heat lost up the flue, heat lost from the water sitting in the tank (standby losses), and how much of the fuel’s energy gets captured in the first place.

The common gas tank hot water heaters have EFs in the region of 0.50 to 0.55. You can get gas storage tanks with much higher efficiencies (American Water Heater Polaris, 0.86 EF)--but they're up in the $2000-3000 purchase price range.

Why are tank water heaters so inefficient? First, they're holding a tank of water at setpoint 24/7/365. Second, even though they have insulation on the outside, check out that cutaway again--the inside of the tank is an uninsulated chimney, so any air that is rising through that flue pulls heat out of the water (you can't insulate it, otherwise, the heat wouldn't get into the water when you fire the tank).

So instead, instantaneous hot water heaters have a burner big enough that it can heat the water in a single pass, without any storage. In order to do this, the burner needs to modulate (ramp up and down), to match the burn rate/input to the temperature and flow of the incoming water. With this change in technology, you get EFs up in the 0.80 to 0.86 range; they cost about $400-1000, depending on size and manufacturer. They have been a pretty typical technology in Europe and Asia; they are gradually catching on here in the US. The big water heater manufacturers are starting to take notice, and resell instantaneous water heaters under their own brand.

The savings might be a function of your hot water usage patterns--but considering that many of my friends are couples that are not at home for the entire day, that schedule would make sense.

Also, instantaneous water heaters have better combustion safety than a typical ("naturally aspirated") tank--they are "sealed combustion" (draw air for burning gas from outside)--next to no chance of carbon monoxide backdrafting into the house.

So what's the downside? As a California report (PDF) on this technology notes:

Interviewing contractors, manufacturers, and building officials identified installation challenges and market barriers. High cost was identified as the predominant market barrier, since installed tankless costs are typically two to three times the cost of tank-type heaters. Increased installation costs result from higher equipment costs, larger gas line requirements, more costly venting, and the need for an electrical outlet required for the ignition controls and combustion air blower. Incremental costs are much lower for new construction because gas line upsizing and venting issues are more easily handled when a home or apartment is being built.

Also, there are a few quirky behavior issues--if you have really a low flow (slow trickle) of hot water, the modulation might not be able to keep up--so it might run cold instead. The heater takes a few moments to catch up with demand--it has to sense, "Ok, water's flowing... let me see, the flue pipe is clear... now we can fire things up." One result is that if two people take showers back to back, with a pause in between, the initial water out of the pipe will be hot (the residual water in the pipe)... then you get a slug of cold water (the unit firing up), and then it's hot.

I've been recommending that folks try out this technology for a while, but frustratingly, I have not had any takers yet. However, Paul and Debbie are considering getting one as their replacement water heater. They have run into a bunch of obstacles from the plumbing community:

The first guy we spoke to did everything he could to try to talk us out of it. He brought up the cost, the calcium buildup, etc etc. We ignored him and looked around some more. Then another guy approached us and we asked him what he thought of the tankless water heater. He was much more knowledgeable and encouraged us to consider it and schedule a time for the installer to come in and give us an estimate. So we went to the service desk, but they'd never heard of anybody installing a tankless water heater. Ugh. It was already after 5 by then, and whoever they tried to reach was gone for the day.

It was very interesting that everyone who was against the tankless was old (over 55 at least), and the one guy who was energy conscious and recommended it was our age.

If any of my readers have one of these, please let me know how your experience has been. My former coworker who is building his own house had one in his previous house, and had no complaints whatsoever.

Hot Water and Boilers

New England is the home of boilers and radiators (either hot water or steam), so I would be amiss if I didn't mention how that option works out--after all, that's what's in my basement (as well as A & Guy, U5 & Rebecca, Air Force Guy & wife, tEp, my office...). This system is called an "indirect water heater"--you have a hot water storage tank, and a loop of pipes connected to a boiler (typically used for heating the house as well). The controls are set up so that the hot water tank is another "zone"--when the water is cool enough, the boiler fires up, and the pump circulates the boiler water through a heat exchanger in the tank.

One advantage is that a typical indirect tank (HT Products Superstor Ultra) is stainless steel--lots more longevity than a regular tank. Also, the heated surface is that coil (not the bottom of the tank)--so when scale builds up there, it eventually cracks off, and falls to the bottom, where it is mostly harmless.

So what's the efficiency? Well, despite the fact that I work in this field, I've never found an actual EF rating number. One problem is that it depends on how efficient your boiler is. Second, the amount of piping also has an effect. As a ballpark, they should probably be a bit more efficient than typical gas tank water heaters--maybe up in the 0.60 to 0.70 EF range, when using a typical 75-80% efficient boiler. It might be much better with high efficiency condensing boilers... but that's a topic for another time.

Note that an instantaneous hot water loop through a steam boiler is a pretty bad idea--I did some work on an apartment building that uses this system. You basically have to keep the contents of the boiler hot enough year round (including the summer) that it will heat up your hot water in a single pass. They were looking at $80-100 worth of oil per month in the summer, just for hot water (in comparison, a sidearm tank runs us about $50-60 in Arlington). The hot water is provided by that pair of pipes in the black plate on the side of the boiler.

Finally, as a reward for any of you who have read all the way down to the bottom--be sure to check out The Mythbusters video clip on overheating a water heater and making it explode, making it into a rocket. It had me giggling uncontrollably for repeated viewings.

Tep Alumxi Event Report

For those of you non-locals (and you lamer locals) who missed it, Saturday was (as per the announcement):

___________________ ____....-----....____
(________________LL_) ==============================
______\ \_______.--'. `---..._____...---'
`-------..__ ` ,/
`-._ - - - |

(Right after Peldge Mission 1)
Saturday September 27th at 6:22pm (at tep!)

FEATURING Special Star Guests: U-Boat and Christy!

They changed their plane tickets to do this, people -
so if you're in eastern Mass then move that ass!

Not only did U-Boat and Christy make dinner (included an awesome cilantro chutney/pesto-like sauce, multiple roasts, and apple cobbler with ice cream), but we had random drooling alumni guest appearances! Included Dave Root (!), Ephraim Vishniac, Moose, Richard Kramer...

...and Love 22! Da man!

Also, we got to meet some of the new shiny peldges. Always a good thing.

If you're interested photos are posted to Flickr here.

Bicycle Brake Adjustment

Yes, I know--an exciting post about installing replacement cantilever brakes on my beater commuter bike. The operation involved far too many trips to the bike store, but was ultimately successful. Hopefully, it will be useful to some reader, sometime--and save them some trips.

After riding my Dahon Jack folding bike around for a bit, I realized, "Man... the brakes on my normal commuter bike are really crappy in comparison." I figured it was high time to tune up the brakes on the vehicle I use for 80% of my commuting. So, first trip to the bike store:
  1. Bought a new set of pads--I figured the old ones were worn.

Then, I started reading Sheldon Brown's article on adjusting cantilever brakes. A wealth of information there--but what was really informative was the section on centering the brakes. For most of the time I have ridden bikes, it always seemed like one brake shoe would end up closer to (or even dragging on) the rim. So in order to make the brakes not drag, I'd have to adjust the brakes "open" enough that it really diminished braking power.

It turns out that you ought to be able to adjust the spring, so that the two brakes pull evenly, with the wheel centered between them. Went to check out my front brakes, which definitely had the problem described above.

Multiple adjustment holes: nope. Adjustment screw: nope. Huh. Turns out that I have old-and-cheap brakes:

Non-adjustable springs are found in older or cheaper cantilevers. If these need adjustment, you must physically deform them. You can sometimes increase the tension of the spring by unhooking the transverse cable and forcing the cantilever out much farther than it would normally go. If that doesn't work, you may need to slide the shoe in or out of the eyebolt to adjust clearance.

So off to more trips to bike stores:
  1. Bike store A: "You should be able to adjust the springs." "I checked, I can't." "There should be an adjustment screw." "No, it's not there." "There should be a few holes you can choose from." "Nope." "Try cleaning off and regreasing the brake pivots, to even out the friction." Already did that. Can I get a replacement spring, to try it out?" "You can, but it won't make a difference." [Leaves]

  2. Bike store B: "Can you sell me a new spring?" "Um, sure... don't think it will work though. $1 from the spare parts bin. You should probably just buy new brakes."

    Tried it out--no dice. Another trip to the store.

  3. Bike store B: "New brakes? And returning the unused brake pads and spring?" "You got it. With those returns... $5.25."

    Started the installation... looked pretty good; the new brakes have that adjustment screw. But then I realized I was changing from a straddle cable/yoke to a link wire. Which requires a new brake cable. Arrrgh!

  4. "New brake cable? And a crimp anti-fray cap?" "You got it... $4.19"

Finished off the install... front and rear. Both brakes nicely centered. Stops on a dime; no brake squealing (that's a toe-in adjustment). Yay!

You can see the adjustment screw (the one sticking out the side of the cantilever body, upper photo), which changes the spring tension. Man... it's embarrassing that I've been tinkering with bikes for so many years, and I only figured out that adjustment now.

Hey--no wisecracks making analogies to my social life! Not nice.


Ask Intarwebs: DVD-R Failures?

I'm having some problems with my DVD writer, and I've tried all the fixes I've found to date on the Intarweb. Just thought I'd solicit my friends for any ideas they might have.

I've had a TDK IndiDVD AID-440N DVD burner installed in my computer (P4, Windows 2000 SP 4) for a bunch of years (maybe 2003?); it's worked fine up until now. I have had good success burning Maxell DVD-R's, both data and movies.

I recently burned through a spindle pack, and started on a new pack of DVD-Rs; same brand, looks the same. I try to burn the DVD, and immediately get this error:

I thought, "Huh, maybe a bad batch?" I bought a new spindle pack of Memorex DVD-Rs at MicroCenter. No dice still--same error message. What's weird is that it seems to pop up this error message immediately after hitting "Start Burn"--before the disc would have time to spin up.

Through all of this, playing DVDs (both factory and DVD-Rs) has been no problem.

I've tried doing a few measures. Uninstall and reinstall the DVD burning software. Reinstall the driver. Tried from a few programs (my original software, plus iTunes--same error). I have downloaded and flashed the firmware with the most current version. I'm holding back from one more step (uninstall and reinstall the hardware from the system)--it sounds annoying and unpleasant. Also, I am worried about the risk of going from a partially working DVD drive to a non-working DVD drive.

Any ideas?

Oh wait... any ideas besides, "Get a Mac?"

Edit: Tried the last few steps I had on my list--uninstalled and reinstalled the device from my system: nothing. And then took the drive apart, blew off the lens with compressed air (in case dust was reducing laser power enough to prevent burning): nothing.

I think I'll go with Jofish's comment below--time to buy a new DVD burner.


LED Lighting: Ready for Prime Time?

I know that I should be blogging about something of greater import, such as Sarah Palin or the current economic implosion. But I can’t really think of much to say that hasn’t already been bouncing around the media echo chamber. Anyway, several folks on my f’list and James Howard Kunstler have done a pretty awesome job on the latter. JHK’s take:

Last week's ripe moment turned out to be the Thursday night Washington photo op when Treasury Secretary Paulson and Fed Chief Bernanke emerged from a huddle with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and just about every other legislative eminentissimo in an attempt to reassure the nation that its financial system had not turned into something like unto a truckload of stinking dead carp. I don't know about you, but I got two distinct vibes from the faces in that particular tableau: 1.) abject fear, and 2.) a total lack of conviction that they knew what they were doing.

Anyway, I wanted to write about light emitting diode (LED) lighting—it’s been touted as “the next thing after CFLs” for a while now. Last time I checked, they weren’t that much more efficient than CFLs, and really pricy. So I wanted to chew through the current numbers, look at the current prices, and see if I’ve been giving them a fair shake. One of the things that prompted me is that I saw a Department of Energy document “LED Basics”: LED technology continues to develop rapidly as a general light source. As more LED products and light fixtures are introduced on the market, what do retailers, energy efficiency advocates, and consumers need to know to make informed buying decisions?

As for background: I’ll assume my readers need no technical introduction to LEDs; I did a primer on lighting efficiency in my blog in 2006. In that post, I talked about efficacy (how lighting efficiency is described)—measured in lumens per watt (light units per electricity units). The Wikipedia table on efficiency ranges is worth repeating:

Incandescents: 12-18 lumens/Watt
Halogens: 16-25 lumens/Watt
Compact fluorescents: 45-60 lumens/Watt
Fluorescent tubes: 60-100 lumens/Watt
Light-emitting diodes: 60-100 lumens/Watt (with prototypes up to 150)

So what’s actually out there, on the market? Well, the Cree LR6 is about as perfect of a light as you can imagine. A writeup from Environmental Building News (”LED Downlight from LLF—Most Efficient on the Market”) has a pretty good description. It screws into a normal Edison base, works as a can downlight, gives equivalent light output of a 65 W incandescent for 12 watts, can be dimmed, and has a 92 CRI (color rendering index). For reference, incandescents are 95-100, most CFLs are hitting 82 nowadays; here are some typical values. And it’s available on the market now. Also, I’ve played with one of them—it looks good, and if you drop it on the floor, you’ll just dent your floor (it’s a great big aluminum heat sink with some solid state electronics inside).

Oh, and, it costs $90 to $150. Youch! Also, has an efficacy of 54 lumens per watt. For comparison, the CFLs that I am running in my house right now have an efficacy of 50-60 lumens per watt (light output declines with bulb life; lower end is the “average” figure).

To put it another way, the DOE document tries to put a good face on it, under “Are LEDs cost-effective?”: Costs of LED lighting products vary widely. Good quality LED products currently carry a significant cost premium compared to standard lighting technologies. However, costs are declining rapidly. In 2001, the cost of white light LED devices was more than $200 per thousand lumens (kilo-lumens). In 2007, average prices have dropped to around $30/klm.

For reference, 1000 lumens (or 1 klm) is about equivalent to a 75 W incandescent, or a 20 W compact fluorescent. I can get latter at Tag’s for about $5 (or $1, if you’re dorkily taking advantage of a sale)

A few more examples from Energy Federation Inc.--both of these are 12 V, so they don’t include the transformer needed to go from 120 V to 12 V:

Everlumen MR16; 45 lumens/watt, $55 (pin base—not screw base;12 V system)
Philips Color Kinetics MR16 8 lumens/watt, $59 (12 V system)

Now I’m not out to do a hatchet job on LEDs here—I really wish that this technology would take off. They have a better lifetime than CFLs (30,000 to 50,000 hours, vs. 8,000 to 10,000 hours), and they don’t have mercury. Why isn’t this technology kicking ass for general lighting yet? It appears that part of it is that while LEDs can make light very efficiently, making white/high color rendering index light is a bit more difficult:

The best white LED products can meet or exceed the efficiency of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). However, many white LEDs currently available in consumer products are only marginally more efficient than incandescent lamps. The best warm white LEDs available today can produce about 45-50 lumens per watt (lm/W). In comparison, incandescent lamps typically produce 12-15 lm/W; CFLs produce at least 50 lm/W. Performance of white LEDs continues to improve rapidly.

Anyway, I’ve seen LEDs used in specialized applications that make a lot of sense: exit signs, and traffic lights. After all, exit lights are typically running 24/7/365, which makes the energy payback that much faster; also, they’re typically in commercial buildings, where you have to factor in lamp replacement cost into your overall lifetime cost. Similar for LED traffic lights—although the Car Talk guys talk about one unforeseen consequence in a puzzler (answer here).

Aha—here’s a description from RPI’s Lighting Research Center: Primarily, these applications have taken advantage of the characteristics of LEDs that have made them most suitable for indication, not illumination. What is the difference between indication and illumination? Indication refers to the use of a light source that is to be viewed directly as a self-luminous object, such as in signs, signals, and indicator lights on electronic equipment. Examples of successful LED indication applications include exit signs and traffic signals. Illumination refers to the use of a light source to view other objects by the light reflected from those objects, such as the general lighting found in most rooms, or task lighting found on many desks.


LEDs are quite effective and efficient for colored light applications. Unlike conventional signs and signals which use a nominally white light source and a colored glass or plastic filter or lens to create the sign or signal, colored LEDs require no filtering. The light absorbed by the filters in the conventional products is essentially wasted, and because of this waste, the luminous efficacy of LED signs and signals is often higher than those using conventional white light sources.

Well, anyway, here’s hoping for the future.


Strangely Addictive

Now I know that plenty of people are addicted to various TV shows—some of them serious shows, and others, well… guilty pleasures. I have to admit that in between The Wire, Battlestar Galactica (the current series), Frontline and Mythbusters, I suffer a strange addiction to the Discovery Channel show How It’s Made. As the Wikipedia article puts it:

The show is a documentary program showing how common, everyday items (including foodstuffs like bubblegum, industrial products such as motors, musical instruments including guitars, and sporting goods such as snowboards) are manufactured, and is filmed to simplify overdubbing in different languages, for example largely avoiding showing a narrator or host onscreen, and most often also not having employees of featured companies speak on camera. An offscreen narrator explains each process, making heavy use of puns. Each half hour show usually has three or four main segments, with each product getting a demonstration of about five minutes, with exceptions for more complex products.

I’m not quite sure I can explain its appeal to me, but I think I’ve always been fascinated by factory tours… understanding the process (say it with the long “O” sound-- it’s originally a Canadian show) is really entertaining. Little, “Aha… that’s how it’s done!” steps are always rewarding. For instance, candy canes are bent after being placed in their wrappers. I find the choreography of the assembly machines pretty mesmerizing, for some odd reason. Some parts of the show take me back to my materials science undergrad roots (“…oh, cool, lost wax casting!”)

As examples of what they cover—see the YouTube clips of curling stones, bacon, and aluminum cans.

Also, it is about as utterly dorky of a show as you can imagine. While watching the show and hearing the cheesy Casiotone synth pop soundtrack (as the product rolls down the assembly line), I find myself sitting on the couch, bopping my head along with the beat, getting down with my bad self. Yeah, it’s about 1970’s porn soundtrack level music.

One somewhat disturbing episode, though, was hatchery chick sorting--it’s the same familiar type of big industrial machines, except that the items on the assembly line are these little yellow fluffballs falling all over each other.

I realize, though, that as dorky as I am for liking the show (and even worse, blogging about it), there are people with even less of a life than myself: for instance, whoever spent time writing the Wikipedia episode guide to the series (tone: note that this is delivered with mocking affection, not full-on derision).


Down the Drain...

As I was washing my hands last night, my iron ring fell off my pinkie, and slid into the drain. Ack! I pulled out the drain plunger, and tried to snag it with a hook first... [ploop] down into the trap. Crap. Then I tried to see if I could fish it out with the drain snake. Nothin', except for the slimy black buildup recovered from the pipe walls. Crap... time to break out the heavy artillery:

The next step was to try to get the P-trap open (the thing that catches rings on the way out to Deer Island, and keeps the sewer gases out of your house). I first managed to pull out the plug at the bottom of the P-trap. Just doing this first step has made me realize that pedestal sinks are utterly evil. Yes, they're fucking pretty. And they're also a gawdawful pain to work on, especially if the installer carefully hid the supply valves behind the pedestal base, so that there's no room to work on the drain line. Grr!

After much gripping-with-pliers-at-bad angles, I got the plug out (and a trapful of water for my troubles). But no ring. Grr!

Okay, time to remove the entire trap (that U-shaped thing in the picture above). Again required way more effort than it should... and... wha?--nothing. Aw crap. I searched the various slimy arterial plaques that I removed from the pipes, and then re-snaked the various pieces I had open. WTF?!

Aw crap. Looks like it's gone. I guess I must have pushed it down the pipe while snaking the drain or something.

Man... I don't want to have to go back to grad school for another degree! (kidding--you can get a replacement, if you pay the fee and supply the proof of attending the ceremony).

As I was dejectedly heading to sleep, JMD shook me awake. "Hey Bats, check out what I found on the bathmat!" Whoah. There it was! If you look carefully at the photo above, you can see that it was sitting on the the bathmat during much of the work I was doing!

I'm guessing that either (1) I pulled it out using the drain snake, but didn't realize it, or (2) it came out of the P-trap without me noticing, and landed on the bathmat, so I didn't hear it.

Anyway, I'm glad to have it back.


More Architectural Follies

I was recently reading a publication we get at work (Energy Design Update), and they had a news snippet a Harvard building that's failing spectacularly--Werner Otto Hall, which is an addition on the back of the Fogg Museum.

CAMBRIDGE, MA — Plagued by saturated walls and persistent condensation problems, a multi-million-dollar Harvard University museum, Werner Otto Hall, is scheduled for demolition only 17 years after the building opened. The museum’s HVAC system was designed to pressurize the building, in spite of the fact that the interior relative humidity was kept at 50% year round. During the winter, moist interior air was driven into the building’s walls, leading to extensive condensation. Explained architectural consultant Jim Collins, “You’ve got an engine pumping moist air into the wall.” Charles Gwathmey, the building’s architect, counters that the wall design was “just fine.” Gwathmey blames condensation problems on the builders, speculating that they failed to install an airtight vapor barrier. According to the Boston Globe, “There were times when the walls were soaked through.… Harvard sued the architect and the contractor in 1996. As usual in such legal matters, neither side will talk for the record, but word on the street is that the parties split the cost of repairs — repairs that proved, in the end, not to make any difference.” The building now awaits the wrecking ball.

Awesome, spectacular failures, right down the street! What could be better? BTW--I have given the warning before on my blog (see The Good, the Bad, and the Moldy):


There's additional detail in a Boston Globe article: "Falling down: As it faces demolition, Harvard's Otto Hall provides an object lesson in the perils of museum design," if you're interested in more detail (as well as a picture).

I have to strongly object to one of the lines in the story, however: "It's important to understand that this kind of sophisticated climate control was still fairly new at the time Otto was designed. Art curators were making demands that neither the world of architects nor the world of engineers and contractors had quite caught up with."

Actually, an assembly that handles these conditions very well is shown in the published literature--done by Canadians, from goddamn 1964 (actually, it is written by my mentor's mentor's mentor. Great-grand mentor?). This is the exact type of wall you would want to use in challenging conditions like this (50% RH, cold climate, pressurized building)--you can see a more contemporary write-up of this same assembly.

Of course, with a building failure like this just down the street, I had to go check it out myself. I biked over on the way to Micro Center and took a few photos.

Nothing too spectacular to report--the only visible damage was all of the rust stains of the caulk joints of the metal panel system on the outside. Oh, BTW--that panel system is essentially functioning as a perfect vapor barrier on the wrong side of the building. Woohoo!

I definitely need to get a chance to check out the exhibits (and the building) inside, before it gets torn down: "The museum owned world-class works by such artists as Joseph Beuys and Max Beckmann"--but not Zombie Joseph Beuys, I assume.


Progress, Perhaps?

Back on a 2007 visit to New York City, I had the following observation:

As we wandered around the neighborhood, we passed one designer store after another that was air conditioning with the front door open (to entice customers, etc.) This is a clear sign that energy is still far too cheap.

Remarkably, New York City has started to do something about it:

Walk certain streets in Manhattan in the sweltering summer, and you could pass a gauntlet of cool air... flowing out wide-open storefronts.

It's a not-too-subtle psychological trick to entice customers to step in out of the heat. So is this a business right, another opportunity for owners to get an extra competitive edge, or is it an environmental affront that affects us all?

This week New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a first-of-its-kind law that takes aim at the practice in the name of energy conservation. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which helped the city prepare the legislation, hopes the law will serve as a model for other cities, helping the fight against global warming and air pollution, and relieving pressure on over-stressed power grids.

All right! Time for a donation to NRDC.


Boiler Geekery & an Evening in Providence

I spent Wednesday and Thursday this week at a class in Warwick, RI run by a high-end German boiler manufacturer. They make incredibly high quality, high reliability (and commensurately high price) equipment--basically, German-level engineering does boilers (If Porsche made boilers, this is what they would be like). Just check out their headquarters--they built the same identical building seven times around the world--all white interiors, same plan, even with the same abstract paintings on the same spots on the walls.

They make high efficiency boilers, conventional boilers (up to big apartment building size units), and solar hot water panels. They actually have a bigger product line internationally (solar electric/PV panels, refrigerators, etc.), but the boiler market in the United States is small enough (~7% of the market--the rest is forced hot air furnaces) that they don't bother bringing in their full line. Also, they make some products specifically for the American market--typically lower price point items. But there are many things that I can imagine the German engineers scratching their heads, asking, "Why would you want to do that?" (much like the line about when German engineers were asked to put cupholders in their cars: "You are driving. Why would you want to be drinking coffee?" For those who don't know, Germans actually pay attention when they drive--thus they can have 100 mph speeds on the Autobahn without huge numbers of accidents).

The class was actually free--I only had to make a reservation--and they treated us to meals, and put us up in a hotel. It seems like a lot of money to throw into training, but I figure that they sell a top-of-the-line product, with a much higher cost. Therefore, the only way people will specify or buy their equipment is if they are trained and know what the advantages are.

But they did live demos in their boiler showroom--which was the most gorgeous boiler room that I have ever seen:

As my boss ribbed me, "Some folks have the ambition to get their picture taken with the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. Other folks...." Well, yeah...

I got away for one evening to see Providence, after dinner. I parked the car, and wandered up and down near the river, and then towards the arts district (Westminster street, I believe).

I passed by RISD's campus--I definitely have to go back there sometime to see their museum, and other parts of campus.

The RISD museum has an outdoor sculpture area; the picture above is
Jonathan Bonner's sculpture Mirth; one that makes you smile with its whimsey (the link has more images). His other work provides a similar type of amusement--check out this one, where he superimposes a big dotted line on the outside elevation of a wall.

After more wandering up and down streets, I ended up at a local bar where there were four guitarists playing. I sat at the end of the bar, ordered up a drink, and spent a few hours just listening to music and contemplating life. I tried to decide, as I was sipping my martini, whether my evening was a bit pathetic ("... I'm sitting here by myself, at age 38, in a bar filled with hip out-for-a-weeknight twentysomethings, listening to their friends' band..") or not ("... but then again, at least I'm not back at the Courtyard Marriott watching TV...").

Anyway, I definitely need to schedule another trip down there sometime--it seems like a city worth exploring and hanging out in. Anybody up for Gallery Night Providence? (open door gallery tour with free shuttle buses, third Thursday of every month). Looks like it runs through November.