Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Over-Engineering Your Life


You can spend a lot of money trying to over-Engineer your life.   Simple and inexpensive solutions are often the best ones.


The hydronic faithful are at it again - and they are a religion, not a science.   And I guess as a minority religion (representing only a few percent of the entire population) they feel persecuted and feel the need to lash out.  And since I am an hydronic heretic (more like an ex-Scientologist who spilled the beans!) they are lashing out at me - literally.  Not having any technological or economic grounds to stand on, they quickly have devolved to personal attacks.  They are invested in this technology, and feel threatened that someone might wonder if a basement full of thousands of dollars of pipes and pumps is worth "warm floors".

But this is part of an overall trend in our society - among a few, mostly male adults - to try to Engineer their way out of trouble, by making their lives as complex as possible, instead of simplifying.

As an Engineer, I understand the attraction.   I mean, who doesn't want a bank of solar panels on the roof and an array of nickel-iron batteries in the basement to tend to?   Going "off the grid" sounds like such an appealing thing to do!   And you can tell the utility company to "stick it" for good!   No more paying them $250 a month for electricity!

Instead, you pay thousands to your solar cell supplier, your battery supplier, and all the other people who sell products for people crazy enough to want to go "off the grid".

If you live in the northern reaches of Canada, where roads don't even exist, yes it might make sense to go this route.   Then again, it might make more sense to just buy an old Dietz kerosene lantern and a gas refrigerator, and learn to live without electricity.   Simpler is better.

But if a utility pole is less than a mile from your home, well, it is a lot cheaper and easier to buy power "off the grid".   It also means it is easier to sell your home (no one other than a nut like you wants to buy some hippie-house with solar panels and battery banks).  It also means you can leave home without having to attend to these esoteric systems.

But I am sure there is a website, a discussion group, and more importantly, a company with an online catalog devoted to going "off the grid" and such ideas are shouted down soundly.   And I discussed this before - no one wants to hear that maybe they've made a huge financial mistake by investing a lot of money into rapidly depreciating technology.

I wrote before about outdoor wood furnaces.   These are another example of "chasing technology" instead of chasing simplicity.   These furnaces are astoundingly expensive, and expensive to install (you need to dig a ditch to your house, install insulated water lines, and tap into your hydronic system or install a water coil in your air handler).   Are there big savings?   Assuming you saved $100 a month on your heating bill, it would take about 12 years to just recoup the cost of the furnace - not including installation, cost of firewood, and cost of wood-related expenses.

In the 1970's, after the first energy crises, they used to circulate a fax (before the internet) with a humorous story about how you can "save money" by heating with wood.  The poor sap who does this, spends thousands of dollars on a wood stove, ceiling fan, chainsaw, log splitter, pickup truck, etc.   And then he has a chimney fire, trip to the emergency room, etc.   It was pretty humorous, but also reflected a level of truth - that people were spending a lot of time, effort, and money to "save money" and maybe not really saving anything.

They did, however, have some fun toys to play with (wood stove, chainsaw, pickup truck) and all that chopping and stacking wood kept them busy.   And of course, they kept their houses at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a form of status.   I can't tell you how many wood-heated homes I have been to, where they kept the house like a sauna, and everyone walked around in their underwear.  Wearing a sweater, I think, is cheaper.

Solar hot water heaters are another example - one that I investigated and discarded.   While there might be some energy savings after a decade of use, the added complexity and maintenance and worry isn't worth the small amount of savings.

Boats are another example.   We've had three.  Our first boat had a Volvo Penta outdrive which was very simply designed and never gave trouble.   The boat had a pump sink and a porta-potty - not very luxurious, but simple to maintain.

Our second boat was a good balance between complexity and amenity.   It had a Mercruiser Alpha I, Gen II outdrive - far more complex that the Volvo, but most of the bugs worked out of it.   It still gave some troubles, though.   It had a real head and an electric water pump and electric hot water heater - none of which gave trouble, or if they gave trouble were fairly easy to fix (a new head is about $100, I replaced it twice).

Our third boat was a nightmare of complexity.   The previous owner had installed a Raymarine Radar/GPS that never quite worked right (it would  lock up) and was not as useful or fast as the $500 Garmin we had in our old boat.  He decided to "upgrade" to a vac-u-flush toilet that didn't really provide a better toilet experience, but created maintenance issues.   It had a generator and air conditioning, both of which were nice to have, but additional maintenance items and expensive items to fix, if they broke.  But worst of all was the Bravo II drive, which Mercury Marine redesigned in the late 1990s so that no parts from earlier, more robust Bravo II drives would fit.  Many a mechanic would tell me, "Oh, I know how to work on those!" only to emerge from the engine compartment scratching his head when none of the parts he bought would fit.   It was a miracle of engineering - fuel injection, high-speed water intake, self-draining fresh water cooling system (which would sink the boat if you forgot to turn one valve before starting).

As it turned out, Boat #2 was the best of the lot - providing the best amenities at the lowest cost and least amount of maintenance.

RVs are another example.  The fancy ones were expensive to buy and expensive to repair (generators being a particularly nasty bit).  After owning four, we found that less is more and our simple Casita - which is now 15 years old and looks like new - has been the most enjoyable.

And as with hydronic heating, the "faithful" lashed out.   Spending $100,000 on a class-B motorhome wasn't a bad move, right?  When compared to a $20,000 trailer and $25,000 truck?   People who invested in ideas and hardware often don't want to hear contrary ideas.  No one wants to hear that maybe RVing itself makes no sense - or that living "full time" in a motorhome is not "saving you money" but rather squandering your nest egg.   But hey, if you just spent $300,000 on a "motorcoach" you don't want to hear that - and neither does anyone else in your echo-chamber discussion group.

The same pattern holds true for fancy refrigerators and washing machines - the cost a lot more, but provide little in the way of energy savings or other ancillary benefits to justify the costs.

The hybrid car is another example, and I have written about this before.  The Toyota Prius is a very complex car and a miracle of modern engineering.   And after a decade, the jury is in, and they are reliable cars.   Like most Japanese cars, they run for 15 years and 150,000 miles and then fall apart all at once.  Or put more succinctly, the cost of repairs exceeds the resale value and there reaches a point where even putting tires on any car isn't a value proposition.

Now, whether this bodes well for other hybrids, I don't know.   Automakers with lesser quality reputations might be more problematic.  Is a Chevy Volt going to be as reliable as the Prius?   We'll see.  And as I noted before, in order for a hybrid to make sense, financially, you have to drive at least 12,000 miles a year.  People who speed in a Prius end up missing all the energy savings.

It turns out that yea, the technology works, but the payback takes a long time, and it is only theoretical if you don't drive a lot, or if you drive like a jerk.   A small conventional car driven carefully could be a better overall value.

NEVs or Golf Carts (other than for golfing) are a similar problem.   Yes, it might be "fun" to drive around in an NEV or a Golf Cart (if you are not very bright and things like motion still excite you) but in terms of cost savings, there are none, and when these toys break (the batteries being particularly problematic) they are expensive to repair.   As it turns out, it is a lot cheaper and easier to just drive your car a few more miles a year than to park it and drive a golf cart or NEV.   Adding the complexity to your life of yet another vehicle just isn't cost-effective.

Fancy sprinkler systems and drip irrigation systems are another example of over-engineering your life.   I had a very fancy system in our house in Virgina, with six water circuits, including two just to water plants with drip irrigation.   I was able to get the parts cheap when Builder's Square (remember them?) went bankrupt.  And it was "fun" to play with, initially.  But every spring, I would have to repair the system (no matter how well you blow the water out, some freezing occurs) and all sprinkler systems need new heads, head adjustments, etc. over time.   If you have hard water, eventually even the pipes need to be replaced, as they clog with scale.

And of course, let's not talk about our water bill.   Was it fun to have?  For a while.   But it added no value to the house, and it eventually just became "one more damn thing" to repair and maintain.   Once you start to add "one more damn things" into your life, they add up exponentially over time.

Sure, you can have three, four, or even six cars, and a few boats and an RV and all this fancy stuff in your life.   And when it is all brand new it seems like it is no hassle to maintain it.   But unless you can afford to keep buying new stuff all the time, eventually these things get old and break down and it seems like everything at once in your life is broken, and you've lost interest in even repairing them.   And that is why, I think, you see people with boats and RVs and cars in their backyards or garages.  They don't want to "give up" but at the same time they have been overwhelmed by technology.

The problem with complex technology can be broken down into two parts.  First, there is mid-life-cycle failure modes.   Second is catastrophic failure and ancillary damage.  Let's examine these and illustrate why complex expensive technology is often not the best answer to everything:

Mid-Life-Cycle Failure Modes:   If you buy a cheap washing machine and the motor burns out after seven years, you just chuck it and buy a new one.   These machines, like all major appliances, are designed for a 15-year design life.  As a result, there is little point in fixing a $399 washing machine, as the cost of parts and labor would approach $399 and it is cheaper and easier to just buy a new one.

However, if you spent $1000 on a stainless-steel front loader and another $250 on the pedestal, you might be more inclined to spend $399 to repair it, as it represents only a fraction of the overall replacement cost - and more over, since you are "invested" in this expensive machine, you feel you need to make it work again.  

And since you have the matching dryer to boot (in a "look at me!" laundry room) then you might feel you'd have to replace both at the same time so they match.   As a result, you spend more in repairs (or extended warranties) that you would just replacing a cheaper machine.  Any potential energy cost savings are wiped out by one mid-life-cycle repair.

Mid-life-cycle failure modes are heartbreaking, if you bought an expensive piece of technology.   And they occur pretty often, particularly with more complex and esoteric machinery.   For example, BMW had problems with sulfur in our American fuels causing engine block erosion in some mid-1990's 5-series sedans and wagons.   The only way to fix this was to replace the engine block.   For original owners, BMW did this, under hidden warranty.   But second owners of such vehicles were out of  luck - having to spend thousands and thousands of dollars for new engines.   And since the car was so costly, well, you couldn't just afford to junk it and walk away.   If this happened with a cheaper car, well, you'd just junk it and never buy that brand again -  and still come out ahead, financially.

For cheaper technology - or complex technology that has come down in price - life is far easier.   At the "Wal-Mart" level of technology, things are so cheap that if they don't work, you just toss them and start over.   I noted that I replaced the toilet on my second boat twice.   The toilet was about $100, while the "rebuild kit" which would take two hours to install, was $89.   When technology is cheap and easily replaceable, it just makes sense to replace.

The other advantage of more plebian technology is that since more of it is made they tend to work the bugs out.   A $25,000 Chevrolet is often more reliable than a $50,000 BMW - but this mystifies most folks, who equate cost with reliability.

The big problem is labor.   Labor costs in the USA are staggering - even as wages have stagnated.   to have an appliance repairman come to your house usually costs $75 to $100 - just to have him knock on the door.   If there is more work to be done, parts to be ordered, or a return visit, costs can escalate greatly.   It isn't worth repairing most appliances anymore as a result.   Why spend $75 to have a microwave repaired when a new one can be had for $99?

Or put more succinctly, why buy a $599 microwave that is no more reliable (and perhaps less so) than the $99 one?    A mid-life-cycle failure will surely make you weep.

Catastrophic Failures and Ancillary Damage - With our third boat, the issues with all the technology were bad enough.  What makes them worse is the ancillary damage.  If the outdrive fails (as it did, twice) and you are five miles offshore, with a storm coming, you are in a world of woe.   We were fortunate that in both instances, the outdrive failed on the ICW.   But because of these failures, we were not confident enough in the boat to take it far from shore.  That sort of defeats the purpose of a boat.

The fancy-shmancy auto-drain system for the engine (that drained salt water from the heat exchanger and other parts) was a nice idea.   The problem is, if you pulled this valve and failed to close it, the next time you start the engine, you would start pumping the bilge full of seawater.    The catastrophic end result could be sinking.   Is it worth it for a fancy drain valve (that previous versions somehow did without?).  Why not just use stainless steel instead?

Hydronic heating has the same problem.   When ours leaked, we dodged a bullet as not too much water leaked before it was discovered by our neighbor.   It still warped the engineered hardwood floors, however, and fortunately, the damage self-recovered to some extent (but still left a wrinkled finish on that section).   Is the advantage of "warm floors" sufficient to justify the risk of your whole house flooding?   And what about jack-hammering up concrete if pipes fail in there?  It may be a small risk, but the potential damage is huge.  Panel leaks are a big issue with insurance companies - some of which may charge you more for homeowners insurance if you have one of these water-bombs ready to go off in your home.

If the potential ancillary damage is huge, there had better be a huge justification for the technology.  In most cases, however, it is better to have simple, robust, inexpensive, and easy-to-use and easy-to-maintain technology with failure modes which don't result in any ancillary damage at all.

And that is why stern drives are falling from favor, and large outboards have replaced them.   No holes in the hull to let in water (if a stern drive bellows, made of rubber, starts to leak, it can sink the boat!) no esoteric technology and complex drive trains (with not one, but two rotating couplings!).   The jury is in, and stern drives are out.

And similarly, despite the hyping of hydronic heat on "This Old House" the idea never really took off.   Most Americans don't want laboratory experiments in their basements, just a switch they can turn on and off.  When the market walks away from a product - be it stern drives or hydronic heat - that should be speaking to you in volumes, if you are willing to listen.

* * *

Does this mean that simple technology always wins over complex?   No, but it means that complex technology has to be reliable, proven, and inexpensive in order to succeed in the marketplace.

Take hydronic heating.   Originally, these systems were made up of a number of components - a boiler, valves, control pumps, control panels, and miles of tubing.   A plumber would solder together a "manifold" for all of this, connect it to the boiler, and then an electrician would wire in the control panels separately.  The system was basically custom-built and assembled on-site by a number of different tradesmen.  It was staggeringly expensive to install.

A heat pump or gas furnace, on the other hand, comes pre-packaged.   A furnace is ridiculously easy to install - the hardest part being taking it out of the carton.   Attach the gas line, attach the power wiring, and you're done.   And since it is done so often, well, there are contractors who can do this cheaply.

If Hydronics are to succeed, they need to go this packaged route - with the boiler, pumps, valves, and controls all in one box - just hook it up to the piping and go.  But even then, there are the miles of piping to run all over the house, so the labor cost - and material cost - will always be high.  And the ancillary damage from a failure mode will always be high.   The system could stand improvement, but physics will always be a bar to its wider acceptance.

Similarly, solar panels are making inroads beyond those who want to go "off the grid" or just save money.  My neighbor leases panels from a company that took care of installing them and wiring them into the grid.   If a month is sunny, his energy bill can sometimes be zero or even negative.   Unfortunately, this type of system depends upon two subsidies.   First, there is a tax deduction subsidy for the panel costs.   Second, the utility is obligated to buy this power at retail value not wholesale and as such, loses money on such solar installations.   If either of these legal loopholes were closed, even these leased solar panels might end up being more complex than they are worth.

Where I live, we have too many trees to make solar panels work.   It is not a matter of the sunlight getting through, but that the pine trees regularly drop branches on the roof, and would damage or destroy the panels on a regular basis.  It is a nice idea in theory, but in the practical world, it doesn't pan out.

Plus, I just don't want to deal with it.   You see, age is the other factor.   As you get older and older, you have less and less interest, ability, and inclination to screw around with esoteric technology.   And even if you do, there will come a time when you physically cannot deal with it and have to simplify your life.   The second half of your life is spent unwinding the first half and frankly, you don't want to spend your waning days in a basement full of water, with a soldering torch and pipe wrenches.

My neighbors who have the solar cells also were doing the biodiesel experiment, the urban chickens, and so forth.  They have the elaborate garden with drip irrigation, a vacation home, and an RV (no word on a boat - just yet).   Sadly, the husband has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.   So now, all this complex shit is going unattended and is breaking down - or will have to be disposed of, over time, while they have more important things to attend to.

And that is the problem right there.  Before you invest a lot of time and energy in some complex engineering exercise, ask yourself this:  How could I unwind this if I had to?   If you go "off the grid" that might be fun and all, but if you had to sell your house in a hurry, you'd have to reconnect to the grid in order to sell it.   How much would you get on the open market for your battery bank and solar panels?


Because, like so much else, these engineering solutions to problems that don't exist are not lifelong commitments - nothing is.   Technology fails, over time, it is as simple as that.  The less technology you own - and the less complex your life is, technologically, the cheaper and easier you will have it.

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