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Still Transitioning


I'm slowly getting the hang of this new blog software thing....This morning I finally discovered the comment moderation queue (so that's where all the comments went!).  I'm still fiddling with the site design, and plan to get a custom favicon up soon.

There was one complaint about the site design--I'm not sure if it's a browser issue, or someone complaining about my nonexistent graphic design skills.  I basically took the stock Drupal theme and added my "cosmic finger" banner and snow-covered font from the old site.  I tested it under Safari and Firefox, but I don't have easy access to a current version of IE (I have a ten-year-old copy, and this site sucks with that, but I'm not going to lose sleep over that).

The other thing I want to get working again is the live feed from my home weather station--which is only useful if you happen to live in my home, but cool nevertheless.  So expect to see some more tweaks of the site design: this is a work in progress, and I welcome all comments.  I'm even going to turn off moderation, at least for the time being.

So, How 'Bout That Economy?

I've been optimistic that we're near the bottom of the economic downturn since the beginning of 2008.  I'm starting to understand that I don't have a clue when this will end (but neither does anyone else).  To give myself some credit, however, I was also early in calling the start of the recession (back in February 2008, I wrote that I thought a recession started between November 2007 and January 2008, which was dead on and months before the Conventional Wisdom said we were in one).

In retrospect, what I wrote a year ago ("....the recession began sometime between November and January....we're probably close to the bottom right now....") seems hopelessly optimistic.

All of this is a way of saying, don't believe my opinions about the economy, I don't have a clue.

But I do have some observations:

  1. This is already the worst economic downturn since the early 80's, and there's a good chance it will be the worst since the Great Depression.  But we're nowhere near as bad as the Great Depression and I see no reason to assume it will get that bad.
  2. As bad as the recession of the early 80's was (and it was the only one on par to what we're going through now), it also ended surprisingly fast.  At least surprising for the people in the middle of it.
  3. The Great Depression capped a whole series of Depressions in the 1800's and early 1900's, some of which were almost as bad as the Great one.  The economy really is different (more stable) now, as compared to the Gilded Age.
  4. Therefore....we will come out of this recession, and maybe sooner than the Conventional Wisdom thinks.  Right now the Conventional Wisdom is that the recession won't end until the end of 2009, and some are pushing it into 2010 or further.  The CW will always see the end of the recession 6-12 months in the future, even when the recovery is already beginning.

Fred Wilson wrote yesterday that he sees a fundamental shift in the economy going on: the big old "blue chip" companies are often the ones who got themselves overleveraged and in trouble, and the younger, smaller companies are taking over.  I think there's a lot of insight there: over the past 20 years many mature companies (GE, GM, etc.) turned themselves into "growth" companies by developing financing arms, which essentially goosed their growth with leverage.  The real growth companies (ones whose core businesses were growing) saw no need.  The new "blue chip" companies are ones like Google, Microsoft and Cisco, with dominant market positions and cash-rich balance sheets.

In my own business, I've observed that the world is definitely not coming to an end, and in fact innovative companies are taking market share (a statement which--fortunately--describes our biggest client).  There is still consumer demand, especially if you have a product or service which people like at a good price.  There is still room to compete, especially on value and no-gotcha services.

So while I'm still optimistic that we may be nearing the bottom of the recession (and I'm going to stay optimistic no matter how long it takes!), in practical terms I'm keeping my head down and focusing on business.  If enough people do the same, this recession will be over, and sooner than we all think.

The Dorkmobile Arriveth


Following up on the article from last November about my recumbent trike, I did get the Velokit installed in the hopes I could keep riding in the winter.  But I made two mistakes.

First, I was too optimistic about the cold weather advantages of having a full fairing.  Keeping the wind off is nice, but I didn't think of the problem of the inside windshield frosting over.  When the trike is moving this isn't a problem, since there's enough air movement inside to keep the window clean.  When stopped, however, my heavy breathing causes instant fog, and if it's much below freezing the fog freezes almost as fast.  Once frozen, it won't easily come off, making for a hazardous situation.

Second, we had some early snowstorms this winter followed by an extended period of very cold weather.  This coated the side streets around my home with a very persistent layer of ice and made it impossible to get up the hills on the trike.  Had I planned ahead I would have gotten studded tires, but I didn't think of that in time.

So I pretty much stopped riding between Thanksgiving and mid-February.  Now that we're getting towards spring, we've had a higher sun and enough days of above freezing weather to clean the ice off the roads, and I've completed one and a half round trips to the office on my trike this year--a total of 25 miles so far in 2009.

I've set my goal for this year at 2,000 miles.  I think that's do-able, if I'm diligent about riding to work whenever possible and get in a few extended trips on the side.

Our Geothermal Adventure (Chapter 1)


A year ago my parents replaced their relatively new natural gas furnace with a geothermal system (or for the purists, a Ground Source Heat Pump, GSHP). They wanted to save energy and the environment, and saw this as a way to cut way back on their carbon footprint. They combined this with "windsource" electric service (which, at least in theory, supplies your electricity from wind farms at a slightly higher cost) in order to reduce their CO2 emissions from heating their home to effectively zero.

A geothermal (GSHP) system uses a heat pump (essentially a refrigerator which can be run in reverse) to extract heat from the ground in the winter, heating the house and cooling the ground. In the summer it runs the other way, extracting heat from the house to cool the house and warm the ground. A series of water-filled coils, the ground loop, act as a heat exchanger and turn the ground under the yard into a giant heat sink. The net result is heating and cooling 3-5 times as efficient as a traditional furnace.

My parents are happy with their system, but I had a hard time seeing how it made financial sense. Even with the higher efficiency, drilling a bunch of deep wells for the ground loop is a very expensive proposition, and natural gas is quite a bit cheaper than electricity.

Nevertheless, we decided that when the time came to replace our own furnace we would at least investigate geothermal.

That time came this winter, when the main furnace in our house (we have two) died on a cold night. It's 25 years old and past its expected lifetime, and when the technician looked at it his first question was whether we actually wanted to spend any money fixing it. We got it working again (at least for now) for a couple hundred dollars, and immediately started researching replacement options.

And so began the first chapter of Our Geothermal Adventure.

The Energy Equation

My first step was to call Dad and get some hard numbers from him about his geothermal system. Fortunately he keeps good records of utility bills, and was able to give me actual electricity and natural gas usage both pre- and post-geothermal. I could match those records against the records I kept of our bills from the same month to see how their heating costs compare to ours (answer: my parents' house uses about the same amount of heat as ours).

A little analysis showed that in my parents' home, the geothermal system heats their house for about a third as much energy as natural gas. This is as expected. However, at the rate we pay for electricity (about $0.11/kWh right now), electricity is two to three times as expensive as natural gas per BTU.

So in a year when gas is cheap (like this year), geothermal would cost about the same, and when gas is expensive we might save a third of our heating bill. That hardly seemed like enough of a difference to justify the huge upfront costs of the GSHP.

We decided to keep exploring anyway, since the environmental positives were appealing, even if the financial equation wasn't coming together.

Excelobama To The Rescue

About that time we learned that a geothermal tax credit was in the 2009 Stimulus Bill, as it was then going through congress. That would mean that the feds would pick up nearly a third of the cost of our installation if we decided to go down that route.

Then, at the first meeting with a geothermal salesperson, we learned that our local power company, Excel Energy, has a special "dual fuel" rate for people who heat with electricity (including geothermal) but have a fossil-fuel powered backup. The deal is that you let Excel turn off your electric heat as needed (an hour at a time, up to 24 hours over the course of the season) and they cut your electric rate in half for the power used for heating. This lets the power company better manage their load during the peak of heating season, and the backup furnace runs only a tiny fraction of the time.

The combination of these two factors--the Obama rebate and the Excel price cut--changed the math radically. Even compared to a year with cheap natural gas, our heating bill would be cut in half. If gas goes back to $1.50/therm (as it did after Katrina), we save 75% or more. And with the feds picking up 30% of the upfront cost, the payback for going geothermal got much faster.

In fact, when you look at the price difference between a geothermal system and a conventional furnace (remember, we have to replace the furnace anyway), we figure the geothermal will pay for itself within 7-10 years. That's actually before the warranty runs out from some manufacturers.

So it looks like we'll be getting a new geothermal system this summer. And this article can only end with....

To Be Continued....

Welcome to the New Frozen North


Welcome to the new Dispatches from the Frozen North! I've migrated from iBlog to Drupal, an open-source content management system. iBlog was good for what it was, and a good choice back in 2003 when I first started writing this blog. Sadly, it has not been maintained in recent years and has become almost non-functional as the operating system has changed and iBlog has not kept up. That (and generalized life business) is a big reason why I haven't been writing much the past six months or so. iBlog was simply too painful. I'm hoping that Drupal will be useful for many years to come. It's far more powerful than iBlog ever was, and has a lot of features and extensions for all sorts of amazing new capabilities. For now, I'm still stretching my wings. Expect the layout and features of the site to change a lot over the next few months as I try things out. With luck I'll be able to avoid the temptation to overload the pages with gizmos and gadgets: one of my goals is to keep the site clean and usable. Comments, as always, are welcome. And now supported natively.