Friday, November 21, 2014

Chasing Technolgy (Programmable Thermostats)

You probably own a programmable thermostat.  Do you program it?

Quick Question:  How many of you have a programmable thermostat in your home?  1..2..3... - about 80% of you.  They are pretty standard on most home heating systems these days.

Second Question:  How many of you have actually programmed it?   A lot less, I see.  Maybe 10%.

This technology was popularized during the first energy crises in the 1970's.  The idea was, during the day, you could program the thermostat to a lower temperature, to save on heating costs, and then have it heat up during the evening hours - perhaps dropping off a bit a night.

But a lot of people - myself included - found that programming the thing was a pain in the ass, and often it would lose its programming during power failures, or if an internal battery went dead.   When we lost the program we stopped programming it.  It was just too much a pain in the ass, and it didn't seem to accomplish much, anyway.

Do they save energy?   Well, if you cold-soak your house during the day, you have to re-heat it at night.   Arguably, the savings in energy are pretty slim - for a well-insulated home that retains heat anyway.   Also, during the day, the house picks up solar heat, and if it is a well-insulated house in a temperate climate, may heat itself anyway.   Programming the furnace to shut down may be redundant, as it may not come on during the middle of the day when the weather is warm and the sun is shining.

Want to save energy?  Turn it down to 65 or less and wear warmer clothes.  Explore insulating your house and/or replacing your windows (on tap for 2015!).  Simple things like that will save more energy than complicated pieces of technology will.

Today, we are being offered Internet thermostats, such as that offered by Nest.  We are told that in the near future, we will be able to control all of our home appliances via the internet, or even by voice commands.   While part of me admires the Buck-Rodgers Sci-Fi aspects of this, another part wonders if this isn't just more unnecessary chasing of technology - for technology's sake.

For example, I have one of those $1200 three-door refrigerators with all the bells and whistles.  It has digital displays and will beep if you leave the door open.   And that is a good thing, because these fancy three-door latch mechanisms tend not to latch, and if they don't, all your food gets warm.   Progress, it seems.   Meanwhile, the basic two-door no frills refrigerator costs about $250 at the big-box store, and you can add an icemaker to it for not a lot of money.   No digital displays, no gee-whiz-bang features (and fancy crispers whose doors break - or at least my neighbor's did).  No nothing.  Just a reliable, inexpensive refrigerator.    You could buy two of them and put them side-by side, for about half the cost of the gee-whiz-bang model.

We spend a lot of time chasing technology for technology's sake, it seems.   We want gadgets and gimcracks that all are supposed to make our lives easier, but often end up consuming more time - and certainly more money.   Dishwashers, for example, I think are basically worthless appliances.  It takes only seconds to wash off dishes and put them in the rack.   It seems a major chore to empty the dishwasher.  Fancy dishwashers with membrane switches just break down expensively.

Clothes washers are another area where complexity seems to offer no real advantage other than to empty your wallet.  The basic GE top-loader hasn't changed its design in 40 years, and can be had for cheap and then thrown away when it breaks.  These $1000 side-loader jobs are a nightmare to repair (and you spent so much that you feel you need to repair them).   And let's not talk about the mold issues. And tell me, do you really use all those esoteric cycles they offer?  Delicate?   Or do you just toss in your clothes and soap and let 'er rip?   Are you getting four times as much washer for $1000 than you are for $250?

Unnecessary complication just makes our lives more costly and more difficult.   When I bought a house with a hydronic heating system, I was at first impressed with the gee-whiz-bang aspect of the technology.  It had so many shiny copper pipes that people thought I had an organ in the basement!  But when parts - expensive parts - started to fail, and I realized that the limited number of suppliers, dealers, and mechanics meant repairs would be far more expensive than conventional systems, I realized I was merely chasing technology for technology's sake, without getting any real reward in terms of efficiency, comfort, or convenience.

Or take condensing furnaces.   They were all the rage, as they were 99% efficient.   But they have a whole secondary system to condense furnace gases, which makes them more costly to buy, and also more complex and costly to repair when they break.   When it came time to replace furnaces, at our home or a rental property, we chose to go with conventional equipment that was "only" 89% efficient.  The payback, in terms of energy savings, just wasn't there.   The reduced hassle was, however.

We like to complicate our lives, thinking we are simplifying them.  We think machinery will make our lives easier, but instead it just makes it more complex and puts us into debt.  But simple, basic machinery costs a lot less to own and lasts a lot longer in the real world.   When I was a kid, you'd see a lot of basic stripped Chevies tooling down the road after 10 or 15 years.  Their fancier brethren with electric windows and more chrome trim, on the other hand, seemed to go to the junkyard sooner.   And you see this today with expensive cars.  No one wants to buy an old 7-series BMW as they are a nightmare to repair.   But old Chevy Colbalts can be seen cruising around still. 

This is why I sold the BMW X5 and bought a Nissan.   No, it doesn't have heated leather power seats.  But let me ask you this - have you ever had to repair a heated leather power seat on a BMW?   I have, and it isn't too bad, but it is just one more damn thing - and you might not be able to repair such things yourself, as I could.

Computers, cell phones, cordless phones, televisions, DVD and DVR players, laptops, pads, cameras, and all sorts of junk clutters our lives.  And much of it is obsolete within a few years.   VHS players, tube televisions - even CD players - are all deemed junk today.  We own so much technology these days - and much of it is just a pain in the ass.  I am not sure I need to add an internet thermostat to the list just yet.

Our lives become more technologically complex by default.   You can buy the simplest car made today, and it is a nightmare of wiring and control systems compared to the cars of the 1960's or even 1970's.  You can't escape the increasing amount of technology in our lives and the increasing complexity of it.

However, you do have choices as to how much of this technology to consume.  Buying complex or "top of the range" appliances, cars, and machinery, just for the sake of having the best or for status may be short-sighted.   Your life is complicated enough as it is - why complicate it more?

And here's a dirty little secret of the appliance business (and computer business):   A lot of these esoteric features often simply don't work.   Manufacturers put them on in order to "me too!" the competition.   But often, they are underdeveloped features, as the manufacturer knows they will be little used by the end customer.

So no, I don't need or want to access my refrigerator via the Internet.  I don't want my refrigerator to make shopping lists for me and text them to my smart phone.   It really is just easier to jot down some things on a piece of scrap paper.

* * *
A Reader writes:

 "You may not know this but in most other countries people do not prefer to buy top loading washers for the following reasons:

- They use a lot of water and electricity
- The agitator wears out clothing more easily
- They hold less capacity than equivalent front loader due to the absence of an agitator taking up space in the washing bin.

Front loading washing machine on the other hand:
- Uses less water and electricity.
- More efficiently distributes washing powder through the tumbling action, which allows clothes to rub against one another and actually clean the clothes, as opposed to a front [sic] top loader if you overfill, the items of clothing at the top of the washing bin may not ever get sucked into the water and agitated.

If they were inferior why are they used in industrial laundromats? 

The mold issue you refer to only applies to a number of front load washers in production before around 2004 i believe. People just leave the door open when the washer is not in use anyway. 

I have an Miele front load washing machine which is tested to the tolerance of 20 years and has no LCD display or membrane buttons. 

You are right about the fridges though."
All that is true - and when we had our house in NY with a very limited well water supply, we had such a washer and it worked well.

BUT IT WAS THREE TIMES THE COST of a regular top-loader (it was about $1000).

And I would have rather had a better well (or city water) than an expensive washing machine, quite frankly.  And no, it didn't wash clothes better than a regular one and the capacity wasn't larger.  If you fill those front-loaders with clothes, they will not wash well.

The arguments about soaps and the agitator "wearing out clothes" are non-quantifiable.   We've had top-loading washers for more than half-a century now, and well, I am not seeing "clothes wearing out" as being a major issue over the last 50 years.  It does sound a lot like an argument a washing machine company would use to sell a washer to you, though.  And it is an argument than cannot be refuted, due to its nebulous nature.  So I think we have to throw that one right out, along with the "overloading" argument. 

As with anything, you have to look at overall cost and effectiveness.  The cost-savings in Energy and Water usage are not offset by the increased cost of the machine.  In the US, water is very cheap, so that is almost not an issue at all.  As for energy?  We are talking  pennies, if that.

This GE toploader is $399 on sale.    Its ENERGY STAR rating says it uses $22 of electric a year.
This Samsung front-loader is $799 on sale ($400 more). Its ENERGY STAR rating says it uses $10 of electric a year.

Over a 15-year design life, that's a savings of $180.   Whoop-de-freaking doo. The "plain" washer saves $220 up-front!  In order to just break even, you have to find a front-loader that is only $180 more than a top-loader.

Yes, you can even buy a cheaper toploader washer at $299.   That model has an EnergyStar rating of $52 a year, and no doubt that is the model the front-end loader people want you to compare to, when making the decision.  However, even with that energy-guzzler, you are talking about a savings of $630 over a 15-year design life, and a cost delta of $500.  The payback in energy costs is a staggering ELEVEN YEARS.   And for $100 more, you can buy an Energy Star compliant model that will actually save money.

And the big problem is this:  When they break down after five years, the cost of fixing them exceeds their value.  So many folks don't end up getting a full 15-year design life out of the machine.

A friend of mine bought one five years ago and it broke.  Cost to repair was more than the value of the machine.  She bought a new top-loader for $300.  Problem solved.

I think you are "invested" in the idea of the expensive washing machine you bought, and thus feel the need to "defend" your investment.  It wasn't just an expensive toy, right?  No, it made financial sense!

And yes, people do show off their fancy washing machines to their friends.   I know I did it when I had one.   But that was pretty freaking stupid!

Sorry, but no sale to unnecessarily complicated appliances.  I guess if I lived in a place where water was expensive, or I was on a well that ran dry a lot, maybe it would "make sense".   But then again, a better approach is to ask yourself why you are living in places where water is expensive and wells run dry.

Sorry, but no sale.  It is chasing technology for technology's sake.   Our lives are complicated enough as it is....