Hurricane Sandy and Energy Lessons Learned

20121102-162939.jpgHere I sit in an office with no power, phones, Internet or ROOF for the past 5 days, banging away on an iPad through a slow cellular hotspot to extol the virtues of hurricane preparedness. We saw it coming, but none of us really did anything about it. Now we are paying technicians to sit on gas lines and fill up trucks and empty gas containers so that we can run generators for our office and get service vehicles out to customers who have no heat and hot water. Off course, we have none either and it’s 55 degrees in our homes and offices and the temperature continues to drop. How can this be avoided in the future and what can we do about it now?

First of all, if you are reading this now, then you are better off than most. You have communications and possibly power. Power is the first thing you will need to get your heat back on, whether it be in the form of restored electricity or a generator. The Long Island Power Authority has estimated it will be 7 to 10 days before power is restored, but they have not even finished repairing the more than 50 area substations damaged, so they aren’t even starting on your neighborhood power infrastructure yet. Unfortunately, I think we are looking at another two weeks. Those of you lucky enough to have a gas fired hot water heater with a pilot light and no electronic ignition are the luckiest because you have hot water. Neighbors of ours let us shower at their house while they use the phone and Internet at our house (we have a generator, but not big enough to power an oil fired boiler with 6 circulators). Now I extol the virtues of geothermal, but would need an even bigger generator to power the heat pump and flow centers. Unfortunately, the only form of heat that does not require some form of electricity is that fireplace of yours. Even wood stoves have a fan system for the firebox heat exchanger that distributes the heat to the space. Fire that up without the fan for too long and you can damage your system. However, even those with fireplaces must be careful. My nextdoor neighbor found this out after they started a fire in their fireplace and smoked themselves out because the chimney cap had been crushed by a fallen tree during the hurricane. We fear the incidence of carbon monoxide poisoning will be the next deadly killer as others seek warmth by firing up gas heating appliances in their home that are not meant for home heating, including stoves, portable BBQs and the like. Not to mention the threat of fire hazards from all of these appliances and the generators being operated by those who have no clue as to safe operation.

After fireplaces, your next best heating source in this situation might just be if you have a forced air gas furnace. Just a simple electric hook-up to your generator can get you going again because their has been no gas interruption. Those with gas fired boilers may have the added problem of multiple circulators which must be powered. This can somewhat be circumvented by backing off the flow check valves to allow mono flow of thermal back through the piping without circulator distribution. It depends upon which side of the system your installer has put the circulators, of course. Here on Long Island, more than 60% still have oil heat because National Grid and their predecessors, Keyspan, Brooklyn Union and LILCO never really expanded the gas main infrastructure into many neighborhoods. This makes your situation a bit more difficult as you must also power the oil burner and circulators as well as a fan if you have a forced air furnace.

We are open here and ready to help you restore heat as soon as you have some form of power. Perhaps it is time that we take a good lesson from the Europeans who were smart enough to bury their transmission lines after the devastation of World War II.

As always, to keep up to date with what’s new in HVAC technology, visit our website at airideal.com and follow us on Twitter @airideal and at our Facebook page!

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Northeast US Feels the Economic Crush of Home Heating Oil

It seems my last blog post was timely indeed as the New York Times did a piece this weekend on the high and ever-increasing cost of home heating oil and how it mostly affects the northeastern United States. The poor infrastructure for access to natural gas pipelines in our area is a testament to how poorly northeastern utilities are managed, how often they change ownership and what little oversight both the Public Service Commissions and state governments have provided over the last few decades. New England and New York State gas utilities have been reticent to extend natural gas pipelines into many neighborhoods.  I tried for years to get the gas main pipeline extended down our cul-de-sac, but was told this can’t happen unless all of my neighbors agree to convert.  During the two decades I have lived in my home, the gas utility ownership entity has changed hands at least five times.

Welcome to the northeast, the oldest area of the United States with the most dilapidated infrastructure. At times it seems that our world is crumbling around us and every public works project is a patch job. We have the highest concentration of the oldest bridges, tunnels, roads and buildings. Many of them were civil engineering wonders and the pioneering projects of their time (the NYC Subway, the Brooklyn Bridge, The Verrazzano Narrows Bridge, the Empire State Building), but for those that are not designated landmarks, not much has been done to keep them from crumbling. With that in mind, the extension of underground gas mains in the northeast will probably not become a major focus for Federal or State government until our transportation infrastructure has had its first overhaul since the New Deal nearly 80 years ago.  Of course, it will take a well-managed public utility with a stable plan for expansion and the trust of ratepayers before the Public Service Commission will allow an increase in gas rates to include significant extensions. The price of natural gas has plummeted over the last few years because of the discovery of increased reserves created by shale hydrofracturing in the northeast. This graph shows that the average oil customer pays nearly $2400 per year to heat their home, while the average natural gas customer pays only $951. With this in mind, why isn’t now the right time to keep the price of natural gas at a stable plateau by adding an excise tax or rate line item to help pay for the extension of gas mains into additional suburban areas?

This map of the United States shows how dependent the northeast is on home heating oil. The rest of the US (with the exception of Alaska) has much greater access to natural gas or inexpensive electricity. The high cost of home heating in New York and New England is one of the main reasons so many northeasterners are flocking south and west. They just cannot afford the high cost of living here, especially in retirement. Utilities (including home heating), housing costs and property taxes are the main culprits. The mass exodus of the northeastern population also increases the burden on those who stay in hopes of a brighter economic future here. Its time for the state governments and the public utilities to come up with a master plan to provide lower cost natural gas and electricity to all who want and need it. Until then, the best bet for anyone who can’t get natural gas and plans to stay in their home for the next 5 years is to install a geothermal heating and cooling system. The 30% Federal Tax Credit will be available until 2016 and this combined with utility rebates makes it your best return on investment for the long term. However, 2016 isn’t that far off and it is best not to wait for the crush that will ensue in 2014 and 2015 when the price of oil is even higher and the threat of the sunset of the 25C Renewable Tax Credits is upon us.

As always, to keep up to date with what’s new in HVAC technology, visit our website at airideal.com and follow us on Twitter @airideal and at our Facebook page!