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Murphy's Law: Fast and Loose Energy Savings

May 4, 2009
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Mike Murphy

Have you ever wondered about all the facts and figures that are tossed around like bits of lettuce floating through the air? Can you believe everything you read? Can all the numbers be right?

One day this industry is described as being worth $35 billion, tomorrow you may hear it being touted as a $100 billion business. That is actually a fairly simple discrepancy - equipment manufacturers’ shipments do total approximately $35 billion. But if all installation sales, service, and maintenance at the contractor level is brought into the tally, the total is actually much larger, almost $100 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

However, in the current world of green initiatives, tax credits, and stimulus packages, playing fast and loose with energy savings claims does seem to be more of an art and less of a science. The following are some recent examples from non-discredited sources, telling a variety of stories in a variety of ways. Sit back and enjoy the art. Or, it may simply be the well-intentioned, but sloppy, efforts of those who would seek to create a sense of urgency among the masses.

HOME SAVINGS

• “Energy use from residential buildings accounts for approximately 36.5 percent of electricity consumed in the United States every year … ”

• “Space heating and cooling accounts for 41 percent of the average American home’s energy bill.”

• “As much as half of the energy used in your home goes to heating and cooling.”

• “With heating and domestic hot water representing 85 percent of a family household energy expenses, energy saving solutions are increasingly in demand.”

BUILDING SAVINGS

• “ … commercial buildings use approximately 18 percent of the country’s power …”

• “Buildings consume well over 30 percent of all primary energy in the world.”

• “ … HVAC systems account for about 40 percent of all energy consumed in commercial buildings.”

• “Building energy use is large and growing, it accounts for 72 percent of electrical consumption and 55 percent of natural gas consumption in the United States.”

HUH?

The variety of energy saving claims and statistics is really quite amazing, isn’t it? As Professor Withey once told me years ago, “One can do almost anything with numbers.”

No wonder homeowners, building owners, and facility managers are sometimes glazed over at best, incredulous at worst, when they are receiving education from all directions - information overload. So, what does a well-meaning contractor do knowing that your customers are nodding their heads in polite agreement all the while trying to recall how your story matches up to previous contractors whom had come calling?

Hmmm. If purchasing a new system has gotten confusing for your customer, here is a suggestion: keep it simple.

Here is a simple message from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: “Improperly installed or maintained central forced-air systems can be up to 50 percent less efficient than their rated efficiency.” In fact, EPA estimates that “more than half of all systems in U.S. homes do not perform to their rated efficiency as a result of improper installation.”

Here is an example from a building type that you probably drive by daily. “U.S. schools spend more than $6 billion each year on energy: up to 30 percent of it is unnecessary, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star® program. Part of the problem: inefficient building systems and unnecessary, unchecked usage.”

There appears to be a pattern developing here - improperly installed, maintained, or managed equipment will not deliver the efficiency as intended. It may be safe to also say that these systems probably won’t live up to the artistic energy efficiency hype that preceded them either.

In closing, pardon my fast and loose use of these February economic statistics: New Home Sales up 4.7 percent (fastest pace in 10 months); Durable Goods Orders up 3.4 percent (first uptick in seven months); Mortgage Applications up 32 percent in one week; Existing Home Sales up 5.1 percent (fastest pace in 6 years); Dow Jones Industrial Average up 21 percent in 13 days (quickest rally since 1938).

I am certainly not ready to say that the recession is over, but you really can play fast and loose, and do almost anything with numbers. Be careful how you use them.

MURPHY’S LAW: “You gotta love the numbers.” Sue Chang, analyst.

Publication date: 05/04/2009

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