How is the Taco SmartPlus recirc pump working in my house?

The Taco SmartPlus hot water recirculation pump is designed to push domestic hot water around a recirculation loop, so that hot water is at the taps when you want it, saving time as well as water down the drain while you wait.  It’s designed to learn your schedule, to avoid energy losses associated with pumps that run 24 hours a day, due to both the electrical energy used, and the lost heat in the loop when there is no hot water demand.

The SmartPlus pump is supposed to be “smart” in the sense that it uses a temperature sensor on the output of your water heater to learn when you use hot water, and adjust its run schedule accordingly.

So I had to find out, “is our smart pump learning?”  And so far, I have to say it’s not. (edit: I think power loss to the pump is the reason, read on) Continue reading

Could wifi thermostats coordinate zone firings?

nest_smallerAs we approach the end of the renovation project on our house, we now find ourselves with three heating zones, vs. the two we had before.  (The 3rd zone is kind of ridiculous; that’s a different story.)

Having 3 zones pretty well dashes my hopes of outfitting the house with Nest thermostats; yes, we could have the main zone on a Nest, and the others not, but that offends my sense of order.  And three thermostats for $750?  Sorry, no.

But this got me thinking.  Wouldn’t it be cool if thermostats on multiple zones could communicate in order to coordinate boiler/furnace firings, to reduce short-cycling and firing losses?  If the zones have a swing of, say, two degrees, one could opportunistically turn on even  if it’s within one degree of its setpoint if another zone is firing, thereby maximizing the current boiler firing cycle.

Or conversely, if one zone has low mass fin tube radiators, and another zone has high mass cast iron, perhaps it would make more sense to try to fire those zones separately, and coordinate that with thermostat communication as well.

I had thought about trying to flesh these ideas out into a patent, but realized I don’t have the money or the lawyers to do so.  There’s probably already a patent out there, anyway.  But if not, here’s prior art & public disclosure.  :)

Nest finally has developed an API, as the Radio Thermostat (RTCA) folks did long ago [pdf].  But I’m not sure those are flexible enough to do this kind of coordination very well; it’d work better if it were in the firmware, I think.

Hey Nest?  If you like this idea, and you implement it, feel free to send me a thermostat.  Or three.  :)

Getting into hot water, fast!

We’ve been doing a really big renovation on our house since around July; for an energy geek like me you’d think I’d be blogging madly, but quite frankly the project leaves me with little free time!

But here’s what I was looking at this week – how to get hot water to taps fast, without wasting water or energy.

We built another 12 feet off the back of the house, and as designed, most of the hot water outlets are in the back half of the house – kitchen sink on the very back wall, and all bathrooms clustered on the “old” back wall – now 2/3 of the way towards the back.  Unfortunately, the only feasible / cost effective location for the water heater is on the very front of the house – up to 40 feet away.   This wastes water, energy, and time, because 40 feet of three-quarter-inch pipe can hold a gallon (about 4 liters) of water, and running a gallon through a 2.0gpm faucet or shower takes 30 seconds.  When you’re done, a nice hot gallon of water sits there cooling off.  So depending on the time since the last draw, you’ve wasted up to a gallon of water, the energy used to heat it, and 30 seconds of your time when you bring hot water to the tap.  (With a low flow fixture, water & energy are the same, but it takes even more time for the hot water to arrive).

How to solve this?  Well, just go read presentations from Gary Klein, like this one.  Or hear what I did, which at least gets close to Gary’s goal of no more than a cup of water wasted per draw.

The standard way to deliver hot water faster is to have a hot water recirculation loop, so that hot water is closer to fixtures when you need it.  The downside, though, is that it takes electricity to pump the water around (if you use a pump), and now you have a big radiative loop, causing the water heater to cycle more often.

We did the recirc loop, with code-mandated insulation throughout, to minimize heat loss.  Rather than using thermosiphoning, a constant pump, a timer, a temp-controlled system, or a demand switch, I decided to try Taco’s “smart” recirc pump, which in theory learns when hot water draws occur, via a temperature sensor on the outbound pipe.  It then cycles the pump for 1hr either side of that “learned” event.  If it’s done well, it’ll be great.  If it turns out my pump firmware has bugs (which would be shocking, I’m sure!) it might not be great.  I plan to instrument & measure to find out once we get back to living in the house.  Taco does say that it ignores short draws, and only “learns” from draws of (unspecified) longer duration.

One thing that went wrong on the initial install is that the plumber didn’t put in a proper check valve  to prevent thermosiphoning.  So when the pump wasn’t even plugged in, water was circulating around the loop on its own, wasting heat energy.  Argh!  The plumber did put in a swing check valve which will stop reverse flow and draws from the bottom of the DHW tank, but a spring check valve is needed to prevent forward flow via thermosiphoning.  I’ve brought the issue up, and presume it’ll get fixed.

The other thing that didn’t go too badly, but could have been better – I don’t think we got the shortest possible runs from the recirc loop to the fixtures.  On one shower it’s still 12 feet to the valve, due to a strangely chosen circuitous path.  And the kitchen is 13 feet off the main loop simply due to the house layout; this could be solved by adding another return line and circulating past that fixture as well.

Here’s how it looks overall:

Seconds wait @ GPM:
Distance, ft Gal Waste Cups Waste 1.5 1.6 1.8 2 2.2
Kitchen Sink 13 0.123 1.962 4.9 4.6 4.1 3.7 3.3
½ Bath Sink 2 0.019 0.302 0.8 0.7 0.6 0.6 0.5
Master Sink 2.5 0.024 0.377 0.9 0.9 0.8 0.7 0.6
Master Shower 2 0.019 0.302 0.8 0.7 0.6 0.6 0.5
Hall Sink 7.5 0.071 1.132 2.8 2.7 2.4 2.1 1.9
Hall Shower 12 0.113 1.811 4.5 4.2 3.8 3.4 3.1

(Yellow cells are the waits for the most likely flow rates for these fixtures).

So we didn’t make the one-cup goal everywhere, but we’re under 2 (if you don’t count valve-to-outlet distances).  It’ll be very interesting to see how well this works – in particular, how well the pump learns, and what its thresholds are.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s field upgradeable.  :)  But you can turn off the “smarts” and put it in manual mode; then I’m just a temp sensor, a relay, and an arduino sketch away from doing it myself, if necessary.

Advice I’d have for anyone having this kind of work done:  State your goals clearly to the people doing the work.  “I want a recirculation loop” isn’t really going to suffice, even if all you care about is convenience and wait time.  Long branches off a recirc loop defeats the whole purpose.

If I had it to do over again, I’d have said something like “My wish is to have no more than 5 feet of pipe between any fixture and the recirc loop.”  Stating that goal clearly would have probably stuck in the plumber’s mind a bit better, and avoided the oddities like the 12-foot run to the shower.

Amazon cancels Minnesota affiliates

Well, it happened.  First and foremost, I’ve always tried to make my blog interesting to readers interested in technology & energy, and in the process I’ve sometimes linked out to relevant products on Amazon, to make me a little beer money.  I’ve tried not to be too annoying or gratuitous about it, but it did help a little to offset the ISP charges etc.  But today I got this email:

We are writing from the Amazon Associates Program to notify you that your Associates account will be closed and your Amazon Services LLC Associates Program Operating Agreement will be terminated effective June 30, 2013. This is a direct result of the unconstitutional Minnesota state tax collection legislation passed by the state legislature and signed by Governor Dayton on May 23, 2013, with an effective date of July 1, 2013. As a result, we will no longer pay any advertising fees for customers referred to an Amazon Site after June 30 nor will we accept new applications for the Associates Program from Minnesota residents.

As near as I can tell, Amazon has neatly evaded the law, which added:

(b) A retailer is presumed to have a solicitor in this state if it enters into an agreement with a resident under which the resident, for a commission or other substantially similar consideration, directly or indirectly refers potential customers, whether by a link on an Internet Web site, or otherwise, to the seller.

So: Chuck out all the affiliates, collect no tax, done and done.  The state is no better off, and the bloggers in the state are worse off.  This is exactly what has happened in other states, so it should come as no surprise to our esteemed legislators.  I get it that states are hurting from dropping sales tax from brick and mortar stores and are looking for solutions, but it should have been obvious to anyone paying attention that this law would have very little effect when it’s this simple for places like Amazon to avoid it.

I was tempted to purge all links to Amazon from the blog – why send my good readers there for free?  ;)  But going forward, I guess I’ll try VigLink, which is sort of an affiliate of affiliates, and seems immune from this kind of thing, at least for now.  It looks trivial to switch over to w/o needing to go fix up any existing articles.  Hopefully it won’t make me look too craven; I’ll fine tune it as we go along.

Update: Viglink isn’t an option; they won’t reaffiliate if you’re in a “nexus” state.  Trying out skimlinks now…

Running the numbers on Minnesota’s solar mandate

At the end of the 2013 legislative session in Minnesota, legislators passed an omnibus energy bill which included, among other things, a requirement that investor-owned utilities in Minnesota (Read: Xcel Energy) must generate 1.5% of their electricity from solar by 2020.  There were a lot of other things in there as a result of the sausage law-making process for the solar mandate, including some that I’m not very fond of, but the bottom line of encouraging more solar development is a good thing in my book.  (Also, it was signed into law on my birthday!)

Solar Panels1.5% doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but what does it really mean in terms of physical solar PV deployments?  Numbers have been tossed around that this will require 450MW of new capacity in the next 7 years.

Assuming the 450MW number is correct, and picking 250W panels as a common panel size today, that’s 450,000,000 / 250 = 1,800,000 or 1.8 million panels installed by 2020.  That’s about 700 panels installed every day for 7 years.

If commodity sized (65x39cm) panels are used, that’s about 112 acres of panels (if they were laid out flat and edge to edge, which of course they aren’t) ;)  That’s roughly equivalent to 112 US football fields.

Is this possible?  Sure.  Austria installed 230MW in 2012 alone.  New Jersey installed 415MW in 2012.  And Minnesota gave itself 7 years to accomplish this goal.

Is 450MW the right number?  According to the NREL PVWatts calculator for Minneapolis, 450MW of optimally situated, fixed solar PV could be expected to generate 578,512 MWh of solar energy in the course of a year.

According to the EIA energy data browser, all utilities (including co-ops etc) in Minnesota generated 42,586,000 MWh in 2012.  578,512MWh is about 1.3% of that number.  Xcel is by far the largest generator, so if we take out the smaller co-ops etc, 450MW does seem like a reasonable ballpark number.

There are already large companies ready to jump at this.  Geronimo Energy has submitted a proposal to provide up to 100MW of capacity at up to 31 sites ranging from 2 to 10MW.  I honestly hope this isn’t the predominant mode of development.  We have an awful lot of flat roofs which would be well suited – for example, Ikea put 1MW on their Minnesota store last year.  100 acres or so isn’t all that much land, but I’d still rather see this go up on the built environment before we start using farmland & green space.

I’m excited to see how this works going forward.  Will my friends in the small-scale solar installation business stay busy?  Will SolarCity come to town?  Will companies like Geronimo make up the bulk of this with giant installations?  Will it reduce the need for new gas peaker plants?  Time will tell, but it’s an exciting time for solar in Minnesota, for sure.

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Making it easy

belkin-conserve

(Image link goes to Amazon)

Read any collection of energy tips, and you’ll get pretty much the same thing.  Turn off lights behind you, unplug your cell phone charger, put your AV center on a power strip, etc.  The problem with these ideas, IMHO, is that you have to remember to do them, everyone in your family has to do them, and you have to keep doing them indefinitely to keep getting any benefit.  And face it, it’s hard to change behavior. Continue reading