Smart Thermostats: Control is Key to Heating Efficiency

When speaking of energy efficiency of heating a space, the focus is often placed on the efficiency on one component or another. If we look more deeply, we realize that the efficiency of the least efficient part of the system dictates the energy of the system. This is the limiting factor.

For example, if a solar panel came on the market tomorrow that could turn 60% of the sunlight falling on it into useable electricity, it would be heralded as a significant breakthrough, and it certainly would be. It would mean that the same square footage of rooftop could produce over three times what is currently realistic from contemporary panels. However, the sun does not shine at night. So, the efficiency and capacity of power storage (or return to the grid) is likely more important to the overall efficiency of the system than that of the panels.

And it’s one thing to be able to provide more power throughout the day and night, and yet another to power inefficient appliances and devices. Therefore, how efficiently the power is used yet another candidate as the limiting factor.

Other parts of the system need to be considered as well: the quality of the insulation and windows, the volume of space above head height, the overall square footage per occupant, the orientation of the building to the sun, the proximity of heat generation to the space being heated, the type of ventilation, etc. There are so many things that could be the limiting in the efficiency of the system that constructing a truly accurate model of any given approach is exceedingly difficult. Nevertheless, most of these values can be quantified and assessed within the overall context.

This brings us to the one factor that does not get enough examination and is, indeed, difficult to quantify without specific, ongoing data for an individual case: the patterns of control and use of the system by the occupants. Certainly, in the case of heating a home, the temperature we set our thermostats to has a major effect on how much power we use, regardless of the efficiency of the rest of the system. Heating rooms not currently in use is analogous to leaving the lights on in an unused space. Heating the house to comfortable temperatures when entirely unoccupied can be a large factor.

There is an evolving technology that help mitigate some of the underlying causes of inefficiency in this area of how well the heating system uses electricity: the smart thermostat. And, especially for room by room heating systems, such as infrared radiant, this allows for fine-tuned control of getting heat where and when you need it, and not where you don’t. If you are chilly in the living room, you don’t have to turn up the temp only in that room without even getting up. Just ask your smart speaker or use your smartphone app.

Or, maybe you’re on vacation and then wonder if you’re still running your bathroom heater, or on your way back from work and want the bathroom warm and ready for a well-deserved soak in the tub. With the smart thermostat, this is no longer an issue. You can control your heaters from as far away as your smartphone can reach.

This option has been available for a while now. But the better-known versions, such as NEST and EcoBee, were developed with more centralized HVAC systems in mind. Each thermostat is expensive. And, because they are low voltage, low-wattage devices, they nee transformers to step down the power to run them, and relays (automatic switches) that they control, which, in turn, do the actual work of turning the heat on and off.

Now, smart thermostats like the MYSA are line-volt. This simply means that they are self-contained and are wired as part of the circuit, just like a standard thermostat or light switch, which brings the installation cost down considerably. And they are far less expensive than the better-known smart thermostats, without the need for other accessories.

Once again, convenience and efficiency have been brought together, offering the opportunity to save time, money, energy, and effort with one simple system.

Cooking with Gas?

Cooking with Gas?

By now, anyone paying serious attention to what is happening to our climate and ecosystem (global life-support,) as well as to the economic nature of finite extraction resource supplies being played out, knows that we must move away from burning things for energy. Poor air quality, catastrophic climate change, and peak resource availability are all major downsides to our reliance on fossil fuels. This includes burning natural gas.

In January of 2019, the city of Berkeley California became the first American city to ban gas lines going into new construction. The City of Seattle followed suit, in a more limited way, banning gas lines going into commercial buildings and apartment buildings taller than three stories. These regulations are a response to the obvious truth that we must stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible.

So why are we still cooking with gas? This is, in part, because we don’t yet have the clean energy capacity to simply stop. The renewable energy infrastructure required needs to be built out, even in the Northwest which has had clean hydropower for around 130 years. Also, since so much of our built environment is hooked up to sources of natural gas for heating, hot water, and cooking, the transition will be daunting. However, at least we can begin to stop adding to this latter issue even as we move to solve the clean energy supply challenge.

Natural gas is mostly extracted now – largely because it is becoming scarcer and scarcer – using the technique of fracking. This process is well-known to contaminate water supplies with undisclosed chemicals, produce earthquakes in areas with little natural seismic activity, and release massive plumes of leaking gas that are barely even monitored, let alone mitigated. It is delivered through pipelines that can leak (or even explode) or transported in vehicles that can crash and, at best, are burning even more fossil fuel in the process – including driving back empty to get more. And methane is notoriously a more powerful (though shorter-lived) greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide by an order of magnitude.

Natural gas emits carbon dioxide when used as intended. This is the best-case scenario. And in buildings, except largely for the use of outdoor grills and patio heaters, this is happening inside. It’s clear that burning natural gas not only adds to our carbon emissions, but also to the degradation of our indoor air quality.

With the efficiency and affordability of mini-split ductless heat pumps, infrared radiant heat, and heat pump water heaters and dryers, putting a central gas furnace, boiler, water heater, or dryer into a new building seems an obvious mistake. This is especially true as they are rapidly becoming obsolete. But because of a popular perception (not sufficiently substantiated by fact,) that cooking with gas is best, people still want gas ovens and ranges.

It’s true that gas ranges supply precisely controllable heat. So, people continue to want the gas line coming into their homes. And, if you have a gas line coming into your home, the options of using gas water heaters, heating systems, and dryers remain on the table.

However, new electric induction cooking technologies provide more precise control of heat than gas. They heat food up faster. They heat more evenly. They heat more efficiently. And they are a natural fit for the all-electric home. And the all-electric home becomes cleaner and more efficient automatically as the energy infrastructure becomes cleaner and more efficient.

We need to take natural gas off the table and out of the kitchen entirely.

Repair or Replace – how easy can it be?

Firsthand Experience

As General Contractors, it wasn’t their first installation of infrared heaters in a space. But, when Mighty Energy Solutions’ co-founders, Laura and Doug Elfline, got sick and tired of replacing parts in the electric furnace that was the only source of heat in their West Seattle rambler, they saw it as an opportunity to make their home more energy efficient and more comfortable at the same time.

They chose to upgrade to the two most efficient (and all electric) heating and cooling solutions available: a mini-split ductless heat pump in the open concept space at one end, and infrared radiant heat in the rest of the home. Mini-splits are great for the main space they are installed in. However, without ducting, the architecture becomes the path for the forced air to travel through. Cool air travels low and easily reaches all the spaces. Hot air, on the other hand, rises into the unused space above everyone’s head as it moves into the space. The further away from the mini-split, the colder the rooms become. This makes an infrared radiant solution in the rooms down the hall a perfect addition. And the advantages didn’t stop there. There was no need to heat the bedrooms during the day when they were not in use. And it was never necessary to turn the heat up in the whole house when it was chilly in one room.

From this firsthand experience, it became clear that one major advantage of the infrared radiant products Mighty Energy provides is just how easy it makes replacing an inefficient, ineffective, or broken down heating system.

 Avoiding Future Headaches and Expense

One customer already had infrared radiant heat and loved it for years. It was the kind that was installed above the sheetrock in the ceiling. But then a tree fell on the house and ruined it. The home was repaired along with the ceiling. The homeowners could have opted to have the system they loved replaced in the process. Instead, they chose Ducoterra‘s  SolaRay II ceiling panels. Why? Because they provide the same cozy, direct, silent heat, are super thin, paintable, and almost as unobtrusive as their previous heating system. Plus, they offer the additional peace of mind that a lifetime warranty combined with simple process to uninstall and replace the panels in the event of failure for any unexpected reason.

Another Disaster Mitigated

Twenty years ago, a high-rise condo went up in Bellevue, WA. The units, which now sell for over $750,000, were fitted out with a hydronic heating system. Hydronic systems provide radiant heat from hot water. Recently, some of the units experienced major failures. In this case, this entailed large volumes of water leaking into the unit and, in some cases, into the unit below. In at least one case, the damage was over $10,000 just to clean up and repair. The heating system in that home was now defunct and the home owner had no intention of trying to repair it only to have it catastrophically fail again.

Had the systems been properly installed, this may never have been an issue. However, it became clear that, since the system was installed by the same outfit in every unit, the risk of more failures throughout the building was mounting. There is no space in the units for a ducted system. There isn’t even the proper space outside the units for a mini-split compressor. The ceilings are covered in can lighting and the tops of the walls house a sprinkler system. This ruled out the Ducoterra ceiling panels and even Radiant System’s Comfort Cove heaters that Mighty Energy also offers. However, BioSmart‘s in-wall solution turned out to be the perfect fit – literally.

These 1000 watt, whisper quiet, infrared radiant heaters fit perfectly into the existing cavities that housed the hydronic heaters. And the risk of flooding is gone for every unit that chooses this option. In addition, in the event that a heater should fail – either in the five year warranty period, or decades down the road, repair and/or replacement will not be complicated or overly expensive. And, in the brief interim waiting for repair, the other heaters will still radiate warmth rather than leaving the homeowner to tolerate an entire home without heat.

Some Solutions are Great – Until They Aren’t

It’s true that our infrared radiant heaters warm up the floor in the rooms they are installed in. They take off that cold edge, which is especially nice in the bedrooms and bathrooms where people are most likely to be barefoot at night and in the morning when the temperature is the lowest. That said, we would be the last people to claim that underfloor radiant heat in a bathroom isn’t awesome. Getting out of the shower onto warmed-up tiles is a simple luxury that is hard to beat. Still, what happens if it fails. Improper installation, the occasional factory flaw, etc. can mean the system stops working or, perhaps, never works properly. There is always the possibility of installation errors or factory flaws with any system or device. With underfloor radiant heat, if this happens, you have to tear up the floor to get at the problem.

Other Solutions are Simply Great

With the installed infrared solutions Mighty Energy offers, many repairs are a simple matter of a part replacement. And if any of our products happens to fail, removing a few screws and wires is all it takes to get at and resolve the issue. And, did we mention that there are no filters to clean, no moving parts, and little to no maintenance whatsoever for decades?

So, when you are choosing a method of heating your home, consider how much of hassle you want to deal with when it comes time to fix, upgrade, or replace it. We doubt you’ll find a great solution that is also as easy to live with as our products.

Geo answers: Sustainability – Part 9: Social Equity and Justice

Social equity and justice are issues that are least talked about in the context of sustainability, yet they are likely the most important factor in actually mitigating the effects of artificial threats to the environment such as climate change and pollution. These two things are true for the same reason – almost at any scale, the poorest, most oppressed people produce the least pollution per person while suffering the greatest from the effects. And it is an unfortunate state of affairs throughout history that these populations receive the least consideration in ostensible solutions to challenges that humanity has faced and is now facing.

The people with the least power – political, economic, energy, resources, etc. tend to live in the least desirable areas at high density (though poverty certainly exists in more rural areas, this principle still applies in a relative way.) As we have discovered during the pandemic, these populations can also make up much of the most ‘essential’ workforce. They work under the least safe and most toxic conditions. And, ultimately, no amount of money or power will protect anyone from the worst effects of our environmentally damaging behaviors if we don’t pull together as people. The poor and disenfranchised are simply getting the earliest effects.

The vast majority of these vulnerable populations are the first to be made refugees by war, political turmoil, and environmental degradation. This, in turn, puts pressure on those areas that are less affected (or not affected yet,) causing more turmoil and greater pressure on existing infrastructures, etc. The knock-on effects from this dynamic only exacerbate the underlying issues. Imagine if we had healthy communities living sustainably in what are now slums, ghettos, and warzones. Surely more affluent areas would be better protected from the worst effects of a deteriorating environment and climate. However, if the affluent areas simply try to hold on to their currently and relatively livable conditions without applying the solution to those in greater need, those areas are only forestalling the inevitable demise of their living conditions.

So, even if simple fairness and compassion isn’t enough to put the plight of these people in the forefront of our concern for our fellow human beings, it behooves us to realize that they are simply ‘first in line’ to experience what we all will have to deal with if we don’t all work together for a sustainable future.

Once again, these populations are essential in any efforts, writ large, to stop the runaway train to an unlivable future we are all currently aboard as passengers. We need new infrastructure and we will need to maintain it. We need everyone to help build it and keep it working, just as we did in the Great Depression in the New Deal and the Works Projects Administration, and during the World Wars where Rosie the Riveter rolled up her sleeves, and people everywhere planted Victory gardens . And we must reduce general strife as much as possible in order to reduce pollution, carbon emissions, the spread of disease, the migration of refugees, the endless tragedy of war, etc.

It isn’t just a platitude to say that we are all in the same boat. And we can’t just throw people overboard to prevent the whole thing from sinking. As the saying goes – there is no Planet B. And we need all hands on deck to weather this storm.

see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms Part 2: Environmental Impacts | Part 3: Embodied Carbon | Part 4: Installation Impact
Part 5: Operational EmissionsPart 6: Installation Impact | Part 7: Resilience | Part 8: A Cradle-to-Cradle Approach

Project Spotlight – Tacoma Furnished Monthly Rental

Project Spotlight – Tacoma Furnished Monthly Rental

Back in the fall of 2019, we visited an in progress project in Tacoma, Washington that was initially intended as off-campus housing for Pacific Lutheran University students. The project involved an extensive expansion and full renovation of an existing single-family home. The first floor’s larger, shared amenity spaces were covered by a mini-split, ductless heat pump. However, because the airflow properties of the floorplan causing ‘cold spots,’ and the fact that each private room needs its own thermostatic controls, the developers chose to use Ducoterra’s Solaray II ceiling heat panels – provided by Mighty Energy Solutions – for the majority of the space, including the entire second floor.

However, since the project completed in early 2021 (during the pandemic,) it was decided to make the project available on Furnished Finder – an online service used mostly by traveling nurses who need temporary accommodations when they are in town.

Park Ave. Tacoma, WA Bedroom w/ceiling heat panel

Independent Control

Since some units go unoccupied from time to time, and each person staying here are on temporary assignment with no lasting connection with their fellow occupants, the feature of the infrared heating panels (up near the ceiling light in the photo) that allows each room to be independently heated was perfect for this application. Rooms not in use can be kept at a minimal temperature, saving energy and money. Meanwhile, each occupant is able to control the temperature to their own comfort levels with no effect on the preferences of other occupants.

As you can see, the panels are unobtrusive and completely out of the way. The infrared radiance they produce that warms the room and its occupants is entirely invisible, and total absence of moving parts means that they are completely silent and do not stir up the air and any particulates in the room. This healthy, practically invisible approach is appreciated by health professionals. And no one needs to hear a loud bang when the heat comes on  – especially people who may be experiencing jet lag.

Complete Cozy Comfort

While the mini-split ductless heat pump in the great room does an efficient job of heating that space, the developers chose to augment this solution with additional panels for increased comfort and even distribution of heat in the shared amenity spaces.Park Ave. Tacoma, WA great room and kitchen using mini-split, dutless heat pump and infrared radiant ceiling heat panel

This efficient hybrid approach that takes advantage of the two types heat creates more flexibility of control and is a common means of providing additional heat the less than perfect coverage of the mini-split system, which has the added benefit of providing air conditioning in the increasingly hot summers in the area.

And, in terms of property management, the life-time warranty and 100% maintenance-free aspect nature of the infrared radiant heating panels was very attractive for the owners. And they won’t have to replace the panels for decades.

Park Ave HallwayPark Ave - kitchenette

Project Amenities

  • Nine private, fully furnished bedrooms
  • Secure remote access to the main entry and your personal room
  • Bathroom shared with only 1 other room, which may be empty at any given time
  • Weekly housekeeping to keep everything spotless
  • All utilities including WIFI and cable included
  • All basic toiletries provided and restocked weekly
  • Outdoor patio with BBQ and entertainment space to enjoy with new friends
  • Kitchen fully stocked with all appliances and items you may need
  • Kitchenette outside bedroom for quick and convenient access
  • Security System and cameras in common areas for additional sense of security
  • New laundry facilities
  • Air conditioning in common areas
  • Reserved parking space
  • Less than a mile to the freeway
  • Less than 15 minutes to all local hospitals and medical centers
  • 5-10 minutes from 3 major shopping centers

Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 8: A Cradle-to-Cradle Approach

Nothing lasts forever. Even with the up to 40 year life-expectancy of infrared radiant heating devices, like nearly everything, eventually they will wear out. And it might not be the heaters that fail. It might well be that the building itself needs to be demolished, or a major renovation results in a great deal of interior demo. Salvaging still useful parts of a building is a great new trend. This aspect of demolition may be more precisely called “disassembly,” where anything reusable or recyclable is kept intact and used elsewhere, or transformed into new things, rather than just packed into a landfill. This is referred to as  ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach. And Ducoterra infrared radiant heating panels have been way ahead of the cradle-to-cradle curve.

Ducoterra infrared heating panels are easily dismounted from the ceiling by removing a maximum  of eight bolts or screws (depending on panel size,) and three wires. Once removed, the panel can be easily broken down into four readily recycled components: the aluminum ‘box,’ the steel back, and the sheet of aerogel insulation and wire element inside. So, either decades after, or when the building or some part of it is being demolished, it will take very little time, effort, and energy to return a panel’s materials back into usable components for new, useful items going forward.

What this means, in terms of sustainability, is that a cradle-to-cradle product remains sustainable even after it is no longer useful in its current form. This mimics what nature itself does. Rather than producing waste as an ultimate end product, it produces resources in a closed loop cycle where there is never any actual waste. A dead leaf, for example, becomes food for small organisms, which, in turn, become food for larger organisms and the cycle continues.    

see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms Part 2: Environmental Impacts | Part 3: Embodied Carbon | Part 4: Installation Impact
Part 5: Operational EmissionsPart 6: Installation Impact | Part 7: Resilience