Letters: September/October 2008

September/October 2008
A version of this article appears in the September/October 2008 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more letters.

Who Will Build Them?

You have a great magazine and a great blog on your Web site. You frame the question well in a recent editorial, “Who is Going to Build the Zero -Energy Home?” (May/June ’08, p. 2) when you ask who is going to design and build these energy-efficient buildings. If we ignore for a moment the regulatory, economic, policy, and cultural barriers standing in the way of high-performance buildings, the “who” conundrum still looms over the building industry. Does this army of young designers you mention precede or result from updates to policy, cost, and public opinion? I suspect that the “who” will grow as part of changes to the rest of the building industry—changes that will likely be more and more rapid as momentum is gained. But for now the “who” are not yet available. Most green projects are great examples of greenwashing and not much else.

On the optimistic side, I was privileged to meet a really talented group of designers at the Carnegie Mellon Center for Building Performance that included architects, mechanical engineers, and computer programmers among others. It really showed me that there are pockets of designers searching for an integrated design process. Hopefully more will come.

Jonas Risen
Ziger/Snead LLP, Architects
Baltimore, Maryland

Examining Vinyl
If Home Energy Magazine is concerned about truth and facts, you will want to correct a few inaccuracies published in the “One House, One Planet” article by Gary Goldblum in your May/June ’08 issue (p. 10).

Mr. Goldblum states that polyvinyl chloride (PVC) windows “leach plasticizers.” Since PVC windows do not contain plasticizers, they cannot leach them. Plasticizers are a group of additives sometimes used in nonrigid PVC items that include cable jackets, medical tubing, and notebook covers. The formulations for these flexible PVC products are markedly different from the formulations for rigid PVC products. Furthermore, not all plasticizers are toxic.

Mr. Goldblum goes on to say that PVC (in windows) “outgasses additives.”  Outgassing can occur in some flexible PVC products, but it is negligible in rigid PVC window frames. With 30 million vinyl windows sold each year, it would seem that there would be more data and evidence to substantiate the allegation of toxic outgassing.

And lastly, Mr. Goldblum claims that PVC (in windows) “releases poisonous dioxins when it is produced or burned.” PVC production is contained in a totally closed processing loop, and total U.S. dioxin emissions have actually fallen over the past 10 years, while PVC production has grown. And as for burning, Mr. Goldblum should consider that nearly all materials produce toxic gaseous products when burned. The products produced by PVC are no more toxic than those generated from wood, fiberglass, or aluminum when burned.

The generalization, “There are better choices for windows,” really depends on a combination of factors. The thermal performance is a key parameter. PVC and wood are the most efficient framing materials. The National Fenestration Rating Council Certified Products Directory contains the ratings of approximately 7,000,000 products. Discouraging the use of vinyl windows eliminates about 60% of those products. This also fails to take into account that vinyl window frames do not require coating, whereas wood and fiberglass frames do. This opens up the possibility of VOC emissions during the periodic maintenance required to restore the surface.  

The American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA) testing and certification program has generated extensive comparative materials data. If you ever have a need for product performance data, please let me know. As a trade association, we never promote a manufacturer, product, or material. We do take it very seriously, however, when the performance of an entire class of products is misrepresented.

Richard G. Walker, President and CEO
American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA)
Schaumburg, Illinois

Author Gary Goldblum responds:
The production, recycling, and fire hazard (release of toxic hydrogen chloride gas) of PVC windows poses a threat to humans and the environment. WalMart, Sears, Kmart, and Target are shifting away from PVC packaging and products. There are safer and healthier alternatives.

Here are some references:

In fact, this commonplace plastic is one of the most toxic substances saturating our planet and its inhabitants. PVC contaminates humans and the environment throughout its lifecycle: during its production, use, and disposal. Few consumers realize that PVC is the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics. Since safer alternatives are available for virtually all uses of PVC, it is possible to protect human health and the environment by replacing and eventually phasing out this poison plastic.

… PVC poses dangers to human health and the environment throughout its entire life cycle—from production through use to disposal—making it one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created.
National Geographic’s Green Guide

When heated in a building fire, PVC releases toxic hydrogen chloride gas, forming deadly hydrochloric acid when inhaled by firefighters and building occupants.  Firefighters face harmful occupational exposures when battling fires laden with PVC building materials and consumer products.  Building occupants may be killed from inhaling toxic PVC fumes before they are able to escape.  After September 11th, the EPA measured the highest ambient air concentrations of dioxins ever near ground zero, likely due to the combustion of PVC and other chlorinated materials.
Center for Health, Environment and Justice

The Healthy Building Network is leading the campaign to accelerate the transition away from PVC building materials in favor of safer, healthier alternatives that offer equal or superior performance at comparable prices.
Healthy Building Network

Where Does the Energy Go?

The comments by Jim Tenhundfeld, CEM, in the May/June ’08 issue are puzzling to me (Letters, p. 4).  Jim claims that if kWh load on a fossil fuel generating plant is reduced (say by using CFLs), the generating plant still uses the same amount of energy, creates the same amount of pollution, and produces the same amount of electricity.

If this is so, then why does an ordinary portable generator lug down for a moment when some power tool plugged into it is switched on?  I believe that the momentary speed reduction of the engine/alternator combo causes the governor to meter more fuel to the engine to compensate for the increased load of the power tool.  The result is more fuel burned because of increased load.

I just read an article in the June issue of QST (a ham radio magazine) about the new inverter generators like the Honda EU2000i.  These units use electronic management of the engine to vary its power output to conserve fuel usage based on load amount.  The specs in the article indicate that on a full tank of gas this unit will run 4 hours at full output and 15 hours at 1/4 load.

These two examples lead me to believe that conservation of energy is taking place in these systems, and I would think that the same would be true in a fossil fuel generating plant.  If the generating plant is still cranking out its full kWh and using the same amount of fuel when the load is reduced, where is the unused energy going?

I’m not an engineer, so it is likely that I am missing something.  Just thought that other readers might find themselves sitting in the same boat and also scratching their heads!

Garry Nichols
Manlius, New York

Efficiency First

The article about the energy improvements in the Manhattan co-op in your July/August, ’08 issue (“Energy Savings in a Manhattan Co-Op,” p. 24) describes the process of obtaining funding for and installing PV panels for the building, but says nothing about the cost of the system or the amount of electricity the system produces.

PV systems cost approximately $9/watt these days. That is, per noontime watt, and a system installed in New York City that is properly angled and oriented and never shaded will produce about 1 kWh of AC power per noon watt. Because of high electric rates in New York City, about $0.18/kWh for “commercial” customers such as apartment house owners, the payback is relatively fast: $9.00 ÷ $0.18/year = 50 Years.

Unfortunately, the panels are not installed at the optimum angle. They are laid flat on the roof, which will significantly reduce their output. After dust and dirt collect on them, and snow can’t slide off, the output will be reduced even further. But that hardly matters when the building throws a shadow on about half of them, as the photo on page 24 clearly shows. With these problems figured in, the payback is probably longer than 100 years. This strikes me as a tragic waste of good PV panels and taxpayer money.

The article goes on to say that installing thermostats in overheated apartments would allow the building to realize “approximately $5,000 per year in savings.” The overheating is obvious—the photo clearly shows numerous open windows in the building (at right in the photo on the cover) at the same time the solar installers are wearing jackets. A 300 hp-horsepower boiler burns 90 gallons of oil per hour or the gas equivalent, so saving $5,000 on fuel requires reducing the boiler runtime by less than two 2 hours per year. I suspect that getting those windows closed will reduce burner run time by much more than that. Perhaps the modeling software used to make that projection needs a little tweaking.

The building across the street, shown on the left in the photo, has no open windows. Perhaps the software could be abandoned in favor of finding out what the building across the street is doing to prevent overheating.

I can’t help but think that if less attention was paid to getting money from taxpayers, and more to saving energy, the experts involved in the project would have paid attention to mounting solar panels in the sun, and at the correct angle, or perhaps choosing energy-saving measures that are more effective.

Henry Gifford
Architecture and Energy Limited
New York, New York

Author Andrew Brooks replies:
I just want to clarify that it was never the intent of Cabrini residents to install PV in lieu of more conventional and cost effective energy measures, but rather in addition to them.  Because the PV project was the most challenging, from a financing perspective, they chose to tackle that project first.  Prior to our engagement in this project the co-op board had hired a leading and reputable contractor for the design and installation of the PV system.  We were not privy to the feasibility study that was performed, so I am not in a position to defend any of the technical design issues associated with their array. However, I believe that the residents at Cabrini were made aware of the various technical challenges and were still determined to find financing mechanisms that would result in a PV system that would pay for itself over the course of its lifetime. Payback was clearly not the only driving factor for the residents; they believe in the technology and are hopeful that they will have contributed to its expanded use in the existing multifamily building market.  I agree that the cost of PV still needs to come down to make it truly cost effective, but if there aren’t people out there, like the residents of Cabrini, who are willing to install these systems for reasons other than a typical quick payback, then we can rest assured that the cost of PV will never come down.

With regards to the savings estimate for thermostatic radiator valves (TRVs), it is a conservative number, but that estimate was for a very limited number of TRVs in targeted overheated units. Overheating was occurring in select apartments on the lower floors (evidenced by which windows are open in the cover photo), so the analysis factored a conservative temperature reduction in a select number of apartments.

The intent of the article was not to spotlight the wonders of PV, but rather to show how an apartment building with an informed and proactive leader and a motivated and determined group of residents can accomplish complex long-term energy efficiency projects.

On a personal note, I am happier to see my tax dollars going toward the proliferation of PV (cost effective or not) than the myriad other bureaucratic expenditures, and bridges to nowhere that most of our tax dollars currently go toward.


I just want to let you know that I thought the article by Danny Parker, David Hoak, and Jamie Cummings on evaluating energy use feedback devices in the July/August issue of Home Energy was excellent (“Evaluating Energy Use Feedback Devices,” p. 36). The article was very well written and the graphics were very clear and easy to understand. Energy feedback is a very important

topic and will be getting increased attention as more policymakers and program managers seek to obtain deeper energy savings from existing and new energy technologies. I am always glad to see how behavioral
issues are addressed in Home Energy. Keep up the great work.

Edward Vine
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Because of a proofing error, some important information was left out of the “For more information” section of the article “Efficient Dwelling—Small is Beautiful” in the July/August 2008 issue (p. 18).

To purchase author Shay Salomon’s book, Little House on a Small Planet (The Lyons Press, 2006), and for helpful information about building smaller, go to www.littlehouseonasmallplanet.com.

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