Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 6: Durability and Reliability

How long something continues to work properly and efficiently is practically synonymous with the concept of sustainability. Using durable shopping bags instead of one-use paper or plastic is a simple example of this concept. The more use we get out of things generally points to those things being more sustainable as they don’t have to be replaced as often. That being said, keeping an old, gas guzzling car around isn’t sustainable in a number of ways. And, as long as homes generally last, failing to upgrade the insulation, appliances, windows, etc. is problematic in this sense as well.

However, when you have a system in your home that works efficiently and well for its purpose for decades without the need for repair, that reliability and durability is not only one less thing to worry about, but it is one less thing adding to the waste, embodied energy, etc. that is choking our landfills, and heating up our planet in production and transport.

Motorized fans, heat pump compressors, valves and piping, and many components of forced air heating systems are subject to inevitable failure because of the friction and pressures involved. These systems don’t work if they can’t blow air around, or if they spring even the smallest leak. That tiny leak in a pressurized pipe, for example, represents dangers such as carbon-monoxide poisoning, the risk of fire or explosion, or a release of toxic refrigerants.

Using gas to heat air is a further example of how, even if the system were to last forever, the inefficiency and impacts of burning fossil fuel means the system fails, in the environmental sense, well before it ceases to function. Upgrading to an electric or geothermal solution is the only way to increase the sustainability of your home heating solution in this respect.

On the other hand, far infrared radiant heating is a great example of the type of sustainability associated with a solution that is truly built to last. Because the technology uses no moving parts, it is not only silent and unobtrusive, the opportunities for failure are small. And, since the basic technology used in infrared radiant heat has been around for decades, its durability and sustainability have been proven over and over again in actual use around the world. Finally, since it is converts electricity directly into heat, upgrading the source of the electricity automatically upgrades the system itself.

This is why Ducoterra, maker of the SolaRay II infrared radiant heating panel have established a lifetime warranty. Most people will have to upgrade or replace the insulation in their walls, and install new windows before they have to replace their infrared radiant heating system.

The more we can apply this simple principle of sustainability to how we design and build the things we use every day, the greater the overall sustainability of our society will become. When something works efficiently and effectively for a long time, it’s hard to see the downside.

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

 

Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 5: Operational Emissions

Generally, calculations of the impacts of using a machine only take operational emissions into account. As we have seen so far in this series, these negative effects are only part of the sustainability equation. However, given a durable application like heating your home, operational emissions represent the most significant portion of the environmental impacts over time.

Basically, the carbon emitted when using any machine depends on a few factors:

  • What form of energy does it use?
  • If that energy is electricity, how is it generated?
  • How efficiently does the machine put that energy to work?

As we move toward a decarbonized world, electricity is one of the best forms of energy for the point of use: electric vehicles, electric lights, electric ovens and stoves, and electric climate control, etc. Electricity is safe, clean, and highly controllable. There is no pilot light, no toxic and potentially explosive gas lines snaking all over town and into your home, and it can be switched on and off for any specific use and location. But how clean electricity is depends on how it is made.

The great news about electricity is that its sources can supply many applications and locations. So, even if the supply isn’t as clean as desired at the moment, as soon as it is made cleaner, everything that uses it instantly becomes cleaner. So, for example, when a coal-fired power plant is replaced by solar or wind power, every home and business powered by that source instantly goes from dirty power to clean power. And, even when electricity is generated by coal (since power stations are huge and super-efficient) it is far cleaner than, say, burning wood in a fireplace.

The final component in reducing carbon emissions is energy efficiency.  Energy efficiency simply means using less energy to do the same work. This is a critical part of the decarbonization and sustainability equation because requiring less power for the same amount of work is equivalent to generating more power. This not only increases the overall supply capacity. Machines that work less hard tend to last longer. And the more energy efficient machines that are put into service, the faster the supply of clean energy can take over the demand.

All of Mighty Energy‘s solutions are electric, highly controllable, and energy-efficient for their purpose.

 

see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms | Part 2: Environmental Impacts | Part 3: Embodied Carbon | Part 4: Installation Impact

     

    Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 4: Installation Impact

    When installing any important, durable system in your home, such as a heating solution, it is important to consider that there are environmental impacts associated with this as well.  The largest concern is, usually, the resulting waste products that have to be dealt with such as product packaging and construction waste. No matter what, whether you install a new or upgraded system for an entire home, or just need to get extra heat into those problematic ‘cold’ spot’ areas, some waste products will result. This may not be much from smaller projects – maybe some small bits of sheetrock and pieces of wire. Or it could involve larger quantities of old sheetrock, wiring, insulation, etc.

    First, it is important to note that sheetrock is recyclable. In some respect, the resulting recycled product is superior to brand-new. So, if you recycle the old sheetrock and use recycled sheetrock to replace it, you will likely save money and reduce the impact of this exchange. Old copper wiring that may no longer be safe and needs to be replaced can readily be recycled as well as it is in high demand. Fiberglass insulation is tougher in this respect. There aren’t a lot of options for recycling fiberglass and there is a good discussion of this you can find at Recycle Nation. Still, while there is likely at least some recycled glass in the fiberglass insulation in your home, recycling it when you are replacing it is, currently, not easy. Even disposing of it is more difficult than ordinary construction waste.

    This leads to another consideration when doing any project that may require replacing or adding insulation. When it comes time to recycle, at the end of its useful life, what you are installing, how hard will it be? Staying away from fiberglass would be good, although recycling this should become easier in time. However, while it is relatively inexpensive and effective, spray foam insulation should be avoided whenever possible – which is usually always. Why? Because not only is spray foam not recyclable, it basically encases everything in the walls with a toxic, unrecyclable mess, making the sheetrock, the framing, and even, in some cases, the wiring impracticable to separate – so it will all go into the landfill.

    As is becoming clear from this series of articles, every stage of getting products from raw or recycled material, through its lifespan, and either disposed of or recycled, there are environmental costs involved. And to increase sustainability means decreasing the impact as well as moving to a circular economy where most materials are not disposed of at the end of their life, but made into useful materials for new products.

    (see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms | Part 2: Environmental Impacts | Part 3: Embodied Carbon

     

    Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 3: Embodied Carbon

    Often, when we think about the energy we use, we  only consider the energy it takes to run our tools, appliances and devices. However, when examining the sustainability of a product, we need to also include all the energy that went into making and transporting it to where it will be used. This ‘built-in’ energy is called embodied energy. And the carbon emitted generating that embodied energy is the embodied carbon of the thing. Embodied carbon represents a specific type of environmental impact as it contributes to all the negative effects of Climate Change.

    In a globalized economy with its extremely complicated supply chains, the embodied carbon of a thing can rapidly become high regardless of the energy efficiency involved in using it. Often, garnering the raw materials, transporting them to be refined and made into component parts, and assembling the product itself happens in places where labor is cheap,  regulations are weak, and the distances involved to get the finished product to the end-user are great. All of these things tend to vastly increase something’s embodied carbon.

    For this reason, Mighty Energy Solutions only sells products where everything from the basic materials, to the component parts, to the end products are made in the United States. This means everything is manufactured under US regulations. They are transported shorter distances than products that may involve several overseas facilities, etc. This policy of US only supply and manufacture of our products means keeping jobs in the US, and the embodied carbon low – even for replacement and repair. As a result, yet another factor of sustainability is supported. 

    (see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms | Part 2: Environmental Impacts

    Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 2: Environmental Impacts

    The products we use impact the environment at every stage: from manufacture to use to dealing with the ‘waste’ at the end of that usefulness.

    Manufacturing, in most cases, means extracting and harvesting raw materials followed by refining those resources so that they can be made into components that are assembled into useful products.  Extraction (mining, drilling, and fracking,) and harvesting (especially trees or crops grown using petro-based agriculture) are extremely harmful to the environment. Whole mountains have been torn down in South Africa to obtain diamonds, and in West Virginia to obtain coal. The Amazon and the Olympic rain forests have dwindled drastically in size, destroying natural habitat and watersheds in the process. There is a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi because of all the farming chemicals that drain out there. And, of course, energy is used throughout all of these processes including transport, waste products that need to be disposed of are generated, and carbon is emitted into the atmosphere.

    Now landfills, garages, and even the ocean, are full of ‘stuff’ that no longer has any productive purpose and, often, represents ongoing environmental damage. Repairing, recycling, reusing, and repurposing are all ways to reduce the impact of gathering materials to be made back into useful items, or to extend the life of these products. These approaches all help mitigate what are, often, the worst causes of negative environmental impacts in a product’s lifecycle. So, any products that are designed to have a long, efficient, useful life, be readily repaired, and/or easily recycled when that useful life is over can be said to be deliberately sustainable.

    Beyond being highly energy efficient during operation, Ducoterra infrared radiant heating panels are made from only four basic component parts which are all sourced as close to the factory as possible. This greatly reduces the energy (and emissions) needed to transport them. They have a steel plate on the ceiling side, which is already a highly recycled material.  Aerogel, a high-tech insulation made from silica originally found in sandstone and other common rock, comes next and is non-toxic and completely recyclable. The heating element, (moving down from the ceiling-side,) is made from specialized wire which is, again, recyclable. And, finally, the whole thing is enclosed in a unibody (one-piece) aluminum box that closes in the sides and front (room-side) of the panel.

    So, not only do Ducoterra infrared radiant heating panels have a lifetime warranty because they will last for decades of effective use, the materials to make them are not transported across oceans, they are energy efficient, and are easily recycled. And even the process of taking them apart and separating the materials for recycling couldn’t be simpler. When measured over time, the environmental impact of the panels is extremely low, and they represent a new and necessary approach to sustainability called cradle-to-cradle, which mimics natural cycles in how products are made and remade.

    (see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms)

     

    Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 1: Definition of Terms

    There are a lot of terms out there relating to technologies and techniques designed to help reduce the effects of climate change and environmental harm: green, ecofriendly, energy efficient, etc. They range from vague to specific. And there is the opportunity for some marketers to muddy the waters with what is known as ‘greenwashing’ – a practice that involves exaggeration or even false claims in order to cash in on people’s concerns about climate change. Even the term ‘climate change’ really ought to be ‘climate chaos’ or ‘climate catastrophe.’

    The overarching term ‘sustainability’ is also bandied about, usually in more serious circles, but it also can be vague in the way it is applied. So, I am writing a series of short articles to help clear it up and examine it in depth. I’ll start with an overview of the terms and concepts that sustainability encompasses.

    • Environmental Impact: Everything we use has an impact on the environment when it is produced, used, and dealt with after it is no longer useful. Even the energy of installing something can have environmental impacts. In fact, it’s possible to look at environmental impact as the other side of the coin. Lowering somethings environmental impact increases its sustainability.
    • Embodied Carbon: This is a specific form of environmental impact since everything we use requires energy before it is even in use – from garnering the raw materials to manufacture to all the transportation involved. This is called embodied energy. How much this carbon is released into the atmosphere making and using that energy is a thing’s embodied carbon. In some cases, this includes greenhouse gas emissions such as methane leaks from fracked natural gas, for example.
    • Installation Impact: When something is installed, it takes energy and can often result in waste products that have to be dealt with, energy to install such as all the equipment it takes to build a building, and even the energy it takes to get the installers to the site.

    • Operational Emissions: This is the amount of carbon and other pollutants released during the normal operation of something. The more energy efficient something is, the less energy it takes to operate it. The less pollution emitted when producing the energy in the first place, the less pollution is emitted per unit of energy. There are additional impacts involved as well. Even carbon-free hydroelectric power has environmental impacts associated with its production.
    • Durability and Reliability: Many times, we fail to consider that, since the environment does, over time, ‘repair’ itself, the longer something reliably works and remains in use, the lower its overall environmental impact. This includes how much energy it takes to maintain and repair something’s functionality. Repair trucks, new parts, etc. are all part of how reliability can contribute to something’s environmental impact over the lifespan of that thing.
    • Resilience: This is related to durability and reliability but includes how well something continues to operate, recovers, or otherwise remains useful after unforeseen disasters, changes in land-use, and upgrades in technology.
    • A Cradle-to-Cradle Approach: Once something is no longer useful, as all things become, it has to be dealt with. Perhaps it ends up in a landfill. Perhaps it is recycled, reused, or repurposed. Or, often more likely, it ends up in a landfill. And of those things that cannot be put back into use, there will be further impacts. Something that is biodegradable and is industrially composted is much more sustainable than something that contains toxins and has not further use.
    • Social Equity and Justice: Finally, it is critical to point out that the whole human carbon footprint must shrink, and this cannot happen if large populations at the poorer end of the socio-economic spectrum, are not included in the solution.

    Ultimately, sustainability refers to a large, complex, systemic picture that relates to effects of what we make and use on the environment over time, and that, in turn, is largely measured in something that nature does not, generally produce without our help: waste. In the subsequent articles in this series, I will explore each of these concepts in depth.