When writing a review, the desired state is to write positive; hopefully having had an excellent experience with, then, the pleasure of sharing that with others. Sadly, not all life's experiences are joyful.
Rik DeGunther has an empire of Energy for Dummies books. He writes well. And, it is clear that he has real knowledge. These are the sort of books that one would like to write: go out, buy, it will answer all your questions and help (us all) solve some real problems. Sadly, there are issues -- small and large -- that force a real questioning as to whether these are books that we should have on our Energy Bookshelves.
Let's take a look at one, Energy Efficient Homes for Dummies, for examples of these problems. Written clearly (often even enjoyable to read) with much advice between the covers that would be worth following. Interspersed, however, is misleading, confusing, and even out-of-place material. Follow me after the fold for some examples.
The Geek alert ...
I want to start with an example that is particularly grating, even if seemingly for the 'geeks' among us. Pages 21-22 is a section entitled "Looking at Energy Costs: Raw and Otherwise" with table 2-1 "Comparing Raw Energy Costs". What is the paragraph leading into that table:
Taking a look at the relative costs of different types of raw energy is illuminating. (By raw, I mean the cost at delivery to your home; this doesn't take into account how you may actually use the energy within the home, or how much the equipment costs to convert the raw energy into usable form). Relatively speaking, electricity is the most costly, nuclear energy is the cheapest, and a bunch of other types of energy fall somewhere in between.
Table 2-1 then supports this, with electricity at $29.30 per Million Btu and "uranium (nuclear)" at $0.00033 per Million Btu.
Notice anything odd here? "Cost at delivery to your home ..." Are you one of the households which has "uranium (nuclear)" set up for "delivery to your home"? If so, perhaps the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would like to have a word with you. What an absurdity.
And, what an absurdity to have this table comparing electricity, gasoline, coal, wood, uranium, etc without mentioning (for example) that nuclear, essentially exclusively, is simply one onf the production means for producing electricity.
Also, for a book that seeks to speak to 'dummies' (and, lets face facts, all of us are somehow 'dummies' when it comes to the highly complicated systems-of-systems relationships and implications re energy issues), what meaning does it provide to speak to delivered energy costs without directly tying it to the cost structure that the average consumer would see. (E.g., this section doesn't talk to what is the price per kWh that leads to a $29.30 per Million Btu cost for electricity "cost at delivery to your home".
And, well, of course the figure is absurd. And, the absurdity continues. The statement after the table is that "Btu stands for British thermal unit, a standard unit of energy equal to 754 kWh, or kilowatt hours (one thousand watt hours". Well, several things about this
- $29.30 per Million Btu leads to a delivered cost of electricity of about $0.000000039 per kilowatt hour (or about less than 1/2,000,000th the average cost of electricity to an American household).
- Even if we take away the "million", here, this leads to an electricity price of $0.039 per kWh (3.8859 cents) or well less than half the average delivered cost of electricity to the home.
- Amusingly, page 20 (the page before this table) states that Americans use an average of 339 Btu per person, per year and then the following page has costs per "Million Btu" (eg, about 3000 more than what DeGunther says the average person uses per year). (Note, this is for amusement, the failure on page 20 is to leave out the word "Million" in the sidebar as the 339 figure is in the reasonable range for an average, per capita, of America's total energy use when put in terms of Million Btu.)
- Finally, just to point out, let's turn to the Energy Information Kids Page (not suggesting that kids are "dummies") where we learn that "1 KilowattHour = 3,412 Btu".
Yes, the "Geek Squad" hits just one table, one item, and could spend pages discussing the problems of the discussion.
It is hard to believe that anyone else actually looked at the table like this discussion above and even just the most cursory of looks (there are nine "forms" of energy listed, this only looks at the numbers related to "electricity") reveals error after error after ...
Misleading on solar hot water ...
Turning to something that could be considered more in the line of "practical" for someone seeking to make decisions about their home, there is a section on "ten best solar investments". Putting aside the bizaare implications of putting "solar PV" as the first in the list, read this from the section re Solar Hot Water.
A big benefit of a solar hot water heater is that you never need to conserve on hot water, regardless of how high energy rates go. From a pollution standpoint, water heating typically comprises around 18 percent of your power bill, so you can save exactly that much from your carbon footprint.
Sigh ... In planning solar hot water systems, one should plan on the solar system picking roughly 60-75% of your hot water load (dependent on many factors, from design / size of system, usage patterns, etc). Essentially, unless you're willing to go without hot water at times, there are very (VERY) few places in the United States where solar hot water will pick up 100% of your hot water load. Putting aside the typical energy demands of most solar system (pumps, controllers, etc -- low demand, but an energy demand), you will need a backup system -- whether wood, electric, gas or otherwise -- and won't totally eliminate hot water demand's contribution to your power bill.
Missing a key fireplace item
Almost all Americans are ignorant about how inefficient the normal fireplace is, seeming to believe that that crackling fire is helping heat the home when the standard fireplace actually increases the heating load when in use and the heating/air conditioning load when not in use. While DeGunther cover much of the basics of fireplace inefficiencies and offers suggestions / options (such as high-efficiency fireplace inserts), he misses a rather straightforward one that every fireplace owner should consider, even if they aren't going to 'upgrade' to some form of actually efficient heating system (whether wood, pellet, corn, or otherwise) using the fireplace.
Consider the fireplace for a moment. When not in use, the damper should be closed (even though a huge percentage of fireplace owners never do so) which will reduce drafts (both heat loss winter, some heat gain summer). But, think about that damper -- it is generally a solid piece of metal that closes on a metal rim or on concrete/brick work. There is, almost certainly, pitting or buildup or workmanship errors which creates gaps. And, well, there isn't exactly weatherstripping there. Thus, while the rest of your home might (MIGHT) have some decent insulation and your doors/windows might be tightly sealed, the damper provides zero insulation and is a place where there are almost certainly air leaks.
So, why ping DeGunther? Because there are many paths to reduce this problem, from kits to buy (such as the Chimney Balloon -- for example, no endorsement) to extremely easy DIY projects. In my home, prior to installing the high-efficiency fireplace which now picks up much of my heating load, I took styrofoam from a furniture delivery, cut it to size, wrapped it in a beat-up bed-sheet that was heading to rag heaven, put on some garage door weather stripping on the top, and used this to seal the chimney below the damper for the 10+ months/year that the chimney was not in use. While not "perfect", that 10 minute, $0 cost (weather stripping was remains from a neighbor) DIY kit pretty much sealed the chimney and certainly provided more insulating value than is in most of my 50+ year old home's wall spaces.
To me, it is this very sort of practical solution to a real problem that most Americans are ignorant about that I hope to see in 348 page book entitled Energy Efficient Homes for Dummies.
The list can go on and on ...
As noted above, DeGunther has an engaging writing style. There is much of real value in this book, much of the advice is on target, and it can be enjoyable to read.
There are, however, far too many errors like those above to make this something worth recommending. And, that truly is too bad ...
I picked this book up with such hopes.
Energy is a complex, an extremely complex arena.
The energy system of the average home, its implications, and choices as to how to move forward to a more efficient and less polluting future home are complex systems-of-systems issues.
To have a meaningful, high-quality, reliable guide to "dummies" could be of real value as we seek to educate and move ourselves and each other toward an Energy Smart future. Sadly, this is not that book.