All posts by rantmaster

Ground Source Heat Pumps

I was listening to the radio the other day where the topic of discussion was a migration path away from using fossil fuels for heat. The guest was from a part of the world where apparently they don’t have a season called “winter”, and was claiming that geothermal heat pumps could “easily” replace all the fossil fuel burning heating systems pretty much anywhere in the world, as well as provide “all the cooling needs” you could ever need in the summer.

It would be a fascinating discussion if they were talking about another planet, but what started to cause my blood to boil was the fact that this nut was talking about making it mandatory over the next 30-50 years to remove what he called the “inefficient, fossil fuel burning, carbon-emitting natural gas furnaces” in [our] homes with ground source heat pumps.

First of all, I’ve looked into this concept with great interest for my own education. In fact, I am subscribed to a number of newsletters and online magazines aimed specifically at alternative energy and “green” building concepts. I’ve read many articles dating back to the 1980’s on geothermal, or ground-sourcing your heat for home envelope conditioning. The fact that most of these tree-huggers always seem to neglect is that in order to run a heat pump system, you need to have a PUMP, and that pump takes a considerable amount of energy to move the volume of glycol (or similar) solution through the hundreds or thousands of feet of tubing buried in your back yard to extract or dump heat from or into the ground. Often this electrical demand is actually HIGHER than that of your forced air, natural gas furnace, so your electrical need is actually higher – not lower – with a ground source heat pump system.

Second, one of my friends owns his own HVAC company and has a customer who prided themselves on using a ground source heat pump to acquire all the heat they thought they needed for a new building they had designed – a boast that was augmented by the fact that this customer deliberately did not install a natural gas connection to their facility when it was under construction. Now, after two years in operation, they have cooled their ground loop to 34 degrees Celsius, effectively draining it of all heat energy. Not only have they had to rent portable, temporary propane-powered boilers, costing in excess of $4,000 / month to maintain their operation, they are having to pump heat back INTO the ground to try to replenish their ground loop’s energy supply. The current estimates are that with the boilers running at the current rate and cost, it will take 17 years to return the ground temperature to it’s original level when they began to extract heat from it TWO YEARS AGO. Simply put, it has been a colossal failure. 

He explains the reason for this failure: All of the energy estimates that were used to design the building assumed the earth temperature was a constant, and would remain so indefinitely. In reality the energy stored as heat within the ground is also a finite resource. If you dig a well and then pull all the water out of that well, it will take time for it to replenish – and it usually takes a lot more time to replenish the water than it does to extract the water. Heat is no different – in fact – it’s almost worse. Because of the insulative properties of the upper layers of the earth’s crust, the soil and clay that ground source heat systems are integrated into are very well insulated from the surface. The daily and seasonal fluctuations that affect the surface temperature take YEARS longer to affect the ground temperature. When you extract all the heat from the ground deep beneath the surface of the earth, all that insulation now works against you in preventing new energy from the sun from replenishing it, and the ground essentially remains cold. Now the ground source heat pump is useless as a heat source. Of course, it would be significantly more effective now as a heat sink, but this customer’s needs for heat far exceed it’s ability to replenish the energy they extract, and now it is costing them even more than the original installation due to their lack of foresight and the missing natural gas connection – now prohibitively expensive to install “after the fact.”

The simple truth is that no alternative energy source is even close to being as efficient as fossil fuels. If we are ever going to get off fossil fuel dependency it is not going to be by finding alternative energy sources that provide as much energy yield as fossil fuels, but will be by drastically reducing our appetite for energy – not something many people talk about these days.

Going Postal, Part II

In light of another looming strike by Canada Post workers, it would appear that I am forced to scribble about this topic yet again. Several years ago Canada Post workers went on strike, delaying the delivery of flyers and junk mail across the country (along with the occasional parcel and bill.) The result? More Canadians realized just how little
they needed Canada Post. There are other mail delivery services which are much faster and more efficient (and yes, more expensive) – but the most significant change that many people made as a result of that strike was the conversion of their bills into electronic forms so that they no longer needed to wait for them to arrive in the mail. In other words, as a result of their last strike, far less Canadians rely on their services, further reducing the importance this crown corporation plays in the lives of the average citizen. And let’s face it, open up your mailbox on any given Sunday and what do you find? A wad of flyers, advertisements, unsolicited mail and junk. Once a month you’ll receive a bill if you haven’t already converted these to electronic delivery, and the rest usually goes straight into the garbage, recycle bin or fireplace. I once pondered the notion of subscribing to as many free junk mail services as possible to see if I’d receive enough free paper delivered to my door each day to heat my house in the winter. Unfortunately the paper that is used is not very dense so it does not produce a lot of heat, and contains a lot of dyes and chemicals that stink up the house when burned. After careful consideration I scrapped the idea.

Let’s look at another effect of the last strike. With fewer people using the services of Canada Post’s delivery service, the company was forced to make cuts to remain a viable business. One way they did this was the termination of door-to-door delivery across the country, replacing it instead with community mailboxes or “Superboxes” My neighborhood was built with superboxes already; our house does not even have a physical “mail box” on the building, which causes our weekly non-Canada-Post-flyer-delivery-guy to have to toss the bundle of paper I have to recycle onto our front step. Without having to go door to door to deliver mail, the remaining postal workers could cover MUCH more physical area in a given day, requiring far fewer of them to deliver the
same amount of mail and thus Canada Post reduced their workforce while still delivering the same amount of mail. Let’s review: Canada Post workers go on strike, and now there are less Canada Post workers. Take note, this is a pattern; If history teaches us nothing else it is that it repeats itself.

Canada Post had another cost-saving strategy they toyed with, and that was reducing the number of times in a week that delivery was made to the super boxes. Many people were behind this idea, because let’s face it – who among us actually goes to the mail box every day and checks for new mail unless they are expecting a package from eBay or Amazon? I for one, would be perfectly happy to receive mail once a week. My prediction for
this go round: Weekly delivery of mail will result if the workers go on strike again, further cutting their work force.

A Mix of Sun And Cloud

Is there any other profession with such a high level of acceptable failure as meteorology? Never before has there been such a long-standing industry based around a practice that so often gets it wrong, yet continues to exist! You’d never get away with that in any other profession.

Besides being inaccurate, I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to a weather forecast on the radio or seen meteorologists in front of a big weather map on TV  give you no more information than one might glean by simply looking out the window. Even so, weather reports continue to remain a crucial part of every news channel and station on the planet. Today’s forecast called for “a mix of sun and cloud.” How did we ever get by without such an informative service?

Going Postal

I recently had to mail a small parcel to a neighboring province. I went to our local post office and asked the lady at the counter how much it would cost to mail this package to it’s destination. She asked for the postal code, which I provided, and after clacking a few keys on the keyboard, she announced that by Xpresspost it would get there in 3 business days and would cost $17.20. “Perfect, let’s do that,” I say and present my debit card. After a few more clacks of the keyboard, she replies, “Ok, that’ll be $21.23.”


“Did you not just say that it would cost $17.20?” I turned around to check with the person standing behind me to make sure I was not crazy. “Did you not hear her say that?” “Yes,” the lady at the counter replied, “but that does not include the fuel surcharge, taxes and other fees.” Feeling my blood pressure starting to increase, I took a deep breath and asked “When I asked you how much it would cost me to mail this package, why did you say $17.20 when you really meant that it’s going to cost me $21.23? ” “I’m sorry sir, that’s just what the computer says.”

I know I’ve had rants on this topic before, but this one really does get me hot under the collar. I get that there are taxes to be paid, although on this particular transaction I was shocked to see a line item on the receipt claiming $2.44 HST. Since when did we have a Harmonized Sales Tax? And a fuel surcharge? The price of oil is at a 20 year low and you’re still brazen enough to charge a fuel surcharge? I have no sympathy for the fate of Canada Post, and it’s transactions like these that make me a little bit more understanding when I hear stories of people going postal.