Sorting through energy-saving possibilities

July 7, 2009
Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editor in chief, sorts through the ways you might save on energy.

A tour along the highways and byways of rural Northwest Indiana shows what seems to me to be a noticeable increase in the number and size of stocks of firewood. During the past year, one fellow along Route 30 has gradually edged his hundred-foot driveway six feet high and four sticks wide, and Sunday evening on a county lane I spotted a heap about 40 feet in diameter and 12 feet high. Numerous places along various roads sport great hoards, some with and some without signs declaring “Firewood for sale.”

Maybe it’s an indication of underemployment — there are a lot of things for sale along the roads these days — or maybe it’s some kind of rural Hoosier physical fitness program, or perhaps the woodcutters represent a growing genre of renewable energy entrepreneur. But I think it’s probably regular folks trying to hedge against the volatile cost of home heating fuel. Last fall, when the pain at the pumps was fresh and natural gas prices were predicted to skyrocket, a cord of decent firewood, delivered and stacked, was selling for about $250.

But then energy prices fell with the economy, and now natural gas is cheap. So cheap that for the first time, I took the plunge and locked in with my utility company for a year at $0.675 per therm. Knowing my luck, it’s bound to get even cheaper.

People think they can save money by heating with wood, but it’s not axiomatic, and the savings might not be worth the trouble, or even the wear and tear on your body and equipment. An energy audit on my house last year included an evaluation of the old Vermont Castings wood stove I use to burn about 1-1/2 cords each heating season. This stove is about as efficient as they get without a catalytic converter, but at its estimated 50% overall efficiency, the auditor told me the 1-1/2 cords amount to about $100 in gas savings.

Needless to say, there’s no economic advantage in buying wood to burn in my stove. I get mine for free by offering to cut up and split whatever trees come down in the neighborhood and sharing the results with the tree owners, but now I no longer imagine I’m netting any significant amount of cash. Especially after I pay the chiropractor.


At Plant Services, we’re getting lots of information on energy-saving technologies, developments and products. Not all of them make a lot of sense to us, and even the best should only be considered as part of a larger strategy. For example, one company would like us to tell you about their algae-production technology, but it uses artificial light and they won’t describe the energy balance. Until they do, we’re not passing it on.

Another just told us about their system for cooling your boiler room with a heat exchanger that preheats boiler make-up water. This could make sense — we’re waiting for their answers to some questions about the assumptions in their example — but in a given facility, the opportunity to recover low-grade heat by preheating boiler make-up water is not unlimited. If I had boiler water to pre-heat, I’d want to compare the cost-effectiveness of this approach to other alternatives before I committed.

A recent press release carried one of the most attention-getting headlines I’ve seen: “Net Zero Energy Consumption Compressor.” According to the release, “In specific design conditions, 100% of the electrical power needed to run [the compressor] can be recovered in the form of hot water.” The company is reputable, the claim is TUV-approved and the press release makes it clear that under average conditions, 90% to 95% is a more reasonable expectation, so you’ll find this one coming your way.

We saw the test results and have no doubts about the energy-saving potential of the new cooling tower fan drive system described at

We do our best to check out questionable claims and bring to your attention only the industrial energy-saving methods, technologies and products that are likely to have value, but we don’t see everything. If you have a favorite that you know really works (or an example of something that doesn’t), please don’t hesitate to bring it to our attention.

When it comes to energy savings, you can’t have too many sticks in the pile.

E-mail Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editor in chief, at [email protected].

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