Thursday, January 10, 2013

Heating Decision Made Easy (Epilogues)

Read Part 1 here...

Read Part 2 here...

Read Part 3 here...

Epilogue the First - You Get What You Need

The project was a learning process for me. Was familiar with the theoretical pros and cons of the alternatives, but had to test them in specific application. I had dreamed of converting my over-sized one-car garage to an "energy cabin" since I had visited the Energy Cabin factory in Austria and seen them operating on location.

But life is tough, and we can't always get what we want, as the Rolling Stones used to sing...
No, you can't always get what you want 
 But if you try sometime, you just might find  
You get what you need.
My energy cabin dream would have been great. It would have cost me about $40,000 - $50,000, and would have never paid for itself. But it would have been an altruistic venture, and I would have become a Go Wood legend in my own mind.

But with 172, 616 miles on the family Suburban, and five kids still to get out of the house, altruism had to give way to reality.  And my fallback vision of a wood or pellet boiler gave way to the original vision of the architect who built the house in the late 50's for himself. He designed a Frank Lloyd Wright-style contemporary with supplemental passive solar heating (windows completely along the southeastern-facing front, upstairs and down), and he parked the northwestern backside into the side of a hill to take advantage of natural insulation. And for primary heating, he buried a 575-gallon oil tank on the property to supply all the warmth he desired at fifteen cents a gallon.

But times and technology change. And when the cornfield in front of the house turned into a subdivision a couple of years later, he sold the house to a young professor and his wife, who raised a fine family in the house for the next 42 years. (For you Penn State alums, that young professor was Dr. John George, who established the wildlife program at Penn State. I bought the house from his widow. One of the interesting points about the property that it still has the remnants of various wildlife experiments grown into the trees. The squirrels have taken them all over now.)

The architect never considered the problem of getting wood, pellets, or coal from the parking lot up into the boiler room. And for me to overcome the inherent disadvantages of such (and the climb up the hill) it was going to cost me a lot in either money or muscle, and I don't have much of either to spare.

So, even though coal was definitely the lowest-cost solution, it didn't make sense for me to take advantage of it. And even though the cost of wood and pellets were roughly the same as natural gas in my application, my winter physical exercise workload is already slightly above my capacity. Natural gas, then, it was.

And I still have the satisfaction of the downstairs wood stove insert. I hung a 60-inch screen over it this summer, and every weekend I sleep in front of some great game while wood heat keeps me toasty. My firewood species experiments continue, and will do so until some young professor buys the house from my widow.

Epilogue the Second - Project Management

First of all, whenever a project includes the word "excavation", be prepared for the unexpected. The excavator bid $1600 to dig the line from the sidewalk to my garage with his backhoe, and another $800 to dig a shallower ditch from the meter into the front of my house with a Ditch Witch. The first part went fine. But when the plumbers arrived with the boiler, they agreed with my original thought that the gas line should go around the back and directly into the boiler room, not under my entryway steps and through a couple of closets. So I was happy, but the excavator wasn't. He tried using the Ditch Witch up the side of the hill, but no go. And the backhoe couldn't squeeze between the garage and the trees on the property line. So he had to hand dig up the hill...and when he got to the back, we found a concrete slab buried under the soil where we had planned to run the line. By the time he got there and hit that concrete, he was ready to plant that shovel in a place of mine where the sun never shines.

My experience in construction contracting served me well in the heat of the moment. I negotiated with the plumbers (who were ready to load up the truck because of the hold-up) to run the gas line along an adjacent retaining wall instead of under the ground, out to where the excavator could go straight instead of turning into the concrete. Everyone agreed, and the project got done. But it cost me an additional $1600 in excavation cost to get it done that way. $4000 bucks for a couple of ditches. Glad I didn't know that going in. I'd be out splitting wood right now if I would have.

Epilogue the Third - The Efficiency Sleight-of-Hand

Recall that I went into the project with the determination that I was going to go as high-tech and high-efficiency as I could. So when I investigated the alternatives, I always compared the high-efficiency options. And I finally decided on a high-efficiency condensing boiler as my solution.

Now that boiler required some special plumbing, but the contractor came up with a solution that worked. But while I was waiting for final bids to come in, I did a little more research. I checked out the boiler manufacturer's website and discovered a wider range of options than the contractor had shared with me. And since the technical specs and warranties were online, I got to checking them out.

It turned out that the condensing boiler I had selected, while 93% efficient, only came with a twelve-year warranty. And the manufacturer had a regular boiler, that while only 83% efficient, came with a twenty-five year warranty. Now I know that warranty science is a pretty good indicator of how long a product will last, minus one year. The contractor assured me that the condensing boiler would "probably" last a good 20-25 years, but that I might have to replace the combustion chamber or some piping somewhere along the way. Why wasn't that true of the older design, I asked? Well, since the flue gases weren't being captured and recycled, causing condensation in the system, but simply being directly exhausted, the system stayed cleaner and therefore lasted longer.

Well, that made sense to me. But wasn't higher efficiency inherently better, and pay for itself in reduced fuel cost? I had my doubts, because I had bought the most expensive German washer and dryer a few years before in order to save on water usage. (Water/sewer rates in State College are about as high as anywhere in the country, don't get me started...just think about using Perrier to flush your toilet, and you'll get a sense of my frustration.) It turned out in that case that the washer did use less water, but it didn't get a full load of clothes clean, resulting in our needing to reduce the size of the loads and thereby running more loads. And the door seal had to be replaced once a year, at $125 a pop, and the belt motor went out in year 2 at a cost of $250. In year three, I went out and bought the cheapest, lowest efficiency washing machine I could find...and our clothes are clean and fresh again.

So, I rethought this high-efficiency strategy from a cost standpoint. That's where my project spreadsheet helped me out again. I knew that at 93% efficiency my ten-year fuel cost was going to be $13,270. And that my boiler was going to cost just a little less than $13,000. When I plugged in 83% efficiency at $1.00 a therm, I found that my ten-year fuel cost was only going to increase to $14,869. So, if the lower-efficiency boiler cost was (14,869 - 13,270) $1599 dollars less than the high-efficiency boiler, it would be a better buy. Especially considering that it came with a twenty-five year warranty instead of a twelve.

Guess what? When I had the contractor re-bid the job with the lower-efficiency unit, it came in at $7,800...$5,200 less than the high-efficiency unit. So, in order to get "high-efficiency", I was about to spend $5,200 more to save $1,600 in fuel cost, and to have the privilege of replacing the boiler in twelve years instead of twenty-five. What a deal!

When I asked the contractor why the lower-efficiency unit was so much cheaper, he mentioned that they wouldn't need to do the special plumbing, and that the lower-efficiency unit was an older design that was being phased out. In fact, he said, these lower efficiency units were no longer going to be sold after 2012, the government had mandated that all non-weatherized residential furnaces and boilers had to be at least 90% AFUE starting May 1 of this year. Can anyone say CFL lightbulbs?

So, that final tidbit was all I needed to hear, and I ordered the "inefficient" 83% AFUE boiler "while the gittin' was good."

It seems ridiculous that the government is forcing efficiency standards to levels above their effective value when we are essentially floating on natural gas. But hey, the HVAC manufacturers must love it. Glad someone does.

Got to run.  Some guys in dark suits and glasses are standing outside my office.


5 comments:

Steve P said...

Phew... Glad that you and the family will stay warm, at a reasonable cost, as the cold fronts roll through this winter!

Tracking the narration of your decision process and follow-up comments have been a nice diversion from the daily rigors this week.

If you make it up to the Kane area this winter, we could enjoy a couple cold-ones infront of the big-screen TV and firewood burning stove. Don't worry, it's backed up by a natural gas furnace!

Chuck Ray said...

Sounds good, Steve. Thanks for following...cdr

Fireball Doowah said...

I've enjoyed this four part series. Fracking has resulted in an overabundance of natural gas, so I think US will be flush with natural gas for years to come. We installed an electric heatpump (Pacific Northwest) in 2009, with wood heat as a secondary source, and we've been very happy. I would have considered natural gas, particularly with the opportunity to use a tankless water heater, but no gas lines in the sticks, and electric tankelss heaters are not a realistic options... Keep up the good work.

Dirt4str said...

Several things come to mind. When I went through forestry school we were taught about economics and operations analysis. Both things that you used to help you make this "real world" decision. Unfortunately, I see so many Colleges have gutted this kind of teaching in favor of the more "altruistic values" as you described them. No one does the analysis as you have to see what the real cost of gaining that last little bit of efficiency, or cleaner air, less emissions, one more animal or whatever the issue. They focus only on the altruistic desire to be at some theoretical 100% no matter the cost. Realism has taken a back seat on the bus if it is even let on the bus. Glad to see someone can still do real world analysis. Keep up the good work.

Chuck Ray said...

Fireball and 4str...

Thanks, glad you enjoyed the series. Fireball, I looked at a couple of the gas tankless, but they couldn't deliver the volume I needed to meet peak demand periods. Big family rules out lots of options.

4str, you're certainly right to a degree. May be why the whole world seems to be in a financial mess right now. Hopefully, we're just at a rough patch in the road and we'll correct some things to get us back on the highway. Numbers are wonderful things if you pay attention to them, and a nuisance or worse if you don't.