I have recently seen a couple of vendors offering phase-change materials (PCM) to be embedded in the fabric of buildings as a way of stabilising internal temperatures and thus (according to their claims) saving energy. Are such claims likely to have any merit?
The concept of a PCM is that as a material melts (or solidifies), it absorbs (or releases) heat without a change in temperature. PCMs for use in building elements such as walls or ceilings are usually either salts or waxes that change phase at the building’s internal set-point temperature.
One argument goes that when daily outside-air temperatures swing above and below the internal set-point, heat stored during the hot part of the day is released during the cold part, avoiding the need for artificial cooling or heating. However, such circumstances are rare. What would happen in a more realistic scenario where, say, the weather is cold and the space needs heating? Firstly, if the space needs heating continuously, the PCM will never change phase and will thus be redundant. It will either be permanently solid or permanently liquid, depending on which side of its melting point the space is being held.
Now suppose the space is heated intermittently. If the internal set-point is below the PCM’s melting point, it will never melt, so again it will have no effect. But if the heating set-point is above the PCM’s melting point then it will absorb heat during the warm-up part of the heating cycle. The problem with this is that it arrests the rise in space temperature, delays the achievement of set-point, and thus calls for a longer pre-heat period — which incurs an energy penalty. At the end of occupation the heating will go off and the heat stored in the PCM will dissipate, to no effect, into unoccupied space.
Similar considerations apply to cooling. If the PCM is effective it will retard the effect of the room air-conditioning system. In a setting such as a hotel this would result in complaints.
This article may upset some of my friends in at energy publications and associations, but we have a problem which people need to be aware of. It is that we can no longer trust awards for energy-saving products as indicators of merit.
I get asked for advice about dubious products by my newsletter readers and often they’ll say “I smell a rat but it has an award from [insert name of prestigious body]“. How can something bogus get an award that it does not deserve? To answer that you have to understand how award schemes work. In particular you need to appreciate that their promoters are driven by profit. The commercial imperative is simple: get as many bums on expensive seats as possible at a gala-dinner awards ceremony. To do that, they need to have a lot of short-listed candidates, because those are the people who will pay on the off-chance that they get to pose as a winner with the celebrity host. Having a big shortlist means putting an awful lot of entries in front of the judging panel (44 for one panel I sat on). But these judges are unpaid, and as volunteers they simply cannot spare enough time to scrutinise entries thoroughly, even though some do take it seriously and try to be diligent. They aren’t helped by the fact that candidates often submit little more than rehashed sales blurbs full of unsubstantiated claims — a short-cut which promoters condone in the interests of maximising the number of bums on seats.
Some judges, moreover, will have been selected more for their celebrity than their knowledge (celebrity judges equals more bums on seats), and will lack the ability to spot snake-oil propositions or even to understand counter-arguments from more knowledgeable fellow-judges. The majority of any panel will be easily swayed by the plausible nonsense in the entries, will not question the credibility of testimonials, and will naively assume that no competition entrant could possibly have criminal intent.
It is asymmetric warfare. The snake-oil peddler just needs to keep plugging away with award entries because the spurious credibility that they get from their first award is too valuable to forego. Once they have landed one award, they are effectively immunised against rejection by judges for other awards and probably even have their chances boosted.
I don’t want to tar all awards with the same brush: in an honest world they would all work to everyone’s benefit, and no promoter is knowingly complicit in the occasional fraud that slips through the net. But sadly a few bad apples have devalued energy awards and my advice would be this. If you have doubts about a product, seeing the phrase ‘award-winning’ should put you on alert.
My client in this case is an international hotel brand. Individual hotels get approached by people selling questionable energy-saving products and rarely if ever have enough knowledge to defend themselves against bogus and exaggerated offers.
The company has established a core group of engineers and sustainability staff to carry out centralised vetting. My job is to provide technical advice during the initial filtering phase and to join a twice-yearly meeting to interview suppliers who are being taken further.
And the winner of the Pants on Fire Award is… DB2 Management OÜ who sell a product called ‘Ecovolt’. This device, which plugs into a standard 13A wall socket, is claimed to cut 30-50% off your electricity consumption. What makes it a stand-out candidate for the Pants on Fire Award is the advertisers’ invocation of conspiracy theory::Their web site includes a short video purporting to prove the device’s energy-saving effect. It shows a pair of electric hair clippers on an extension adaptor drawing 0.28 A. When the Ecovolt device is plugged into a neighbouring socket, the current falls to 0.08 A. Electrical engineers will recognise this as an example of power-factor correction and nothing to do with reducing the real power drawn by the appliance; like the EPS Energy Saver which I reported on a couple of years ago (pictured below), the Ecovolt probably contains a big capacitor and not much else.
The visitor to the web site sees continual pop-up notices saying that Tatiana, Sara, or Phillip and so on have just ordered Ecovolt. Keep your eye on those alerts for more than 70 seconds and Tatiana, Sara and Phillip appear again followed by six other repeated names. That’s the kind of loyal customer we all want.
The firm operates out of a Post Office Box in Tallinn, Estonia, and sells a diverse product range including night driving glasses, dash cams, and non-stick frying pans. I ought also to mention that Ecovolt is someone else’s trade mark.
In situations where it is necessary to keep a building’s outer doors open, you will sometimes find “air curtains”, fans which blow a sheet of air down across the width of the doorway. These are an effective way of preventing dust and insects getting in through the door: they are entrained in the outer layer of airflow, and where the jet hits the floor it splits, with the outer layer discharging the contaminants back outside.
Some suppliers of air curtains claim that they conserve energy as well. The basis of this claim lies in what would naturally happen in an open doorway in still conditions, namely convective circulation in which warm air at high level flows out to be balanced by cold air flowing inwards at low level (right). This effect will be especially marked with high doorways. The claim for air curtains is that they disrupt the flow of escaping warm air, forcing it down to floor level where the jet splits, with the warm inner layer returning inside.
However, even in still conditions there is a problem here, because the fan is drawing air from high level inside and at floor level only half of it returns inside. 50% of the internal air drawn into the fan is diverted outside when the jet splits at floor level (left).
A further problem with pedestrian doorways particularly is that the air curtain usually needs heating to prevent the perception of cold that the air’s velocity would create. If the building actually doesn’t need that heat, it is all a waste of money. Even if it does need the heat, half of what is put in goes straight outside.
In windy conditions the argument for air curtains as heat barriers really breaks down. A moving sheet of air is simply not as effective as a door. If there is any differential pressure whatever, that sheet of air will be displaced, and the problem is exacerbated if there are open doors or windows on the far side of space – or extract fans. In one instance I visited a restaurant that operated an open-door policy. Their air curtain had a 20kW heater that ran continuously, but the downjet did not reach the floor: about 60cm above the floor it turned inwards along with a layer of cold air at floor level, thanks to the kitchen extract depressurising the space.
The exhaust from a natural gas appliance contains about 0.15 litres of water per kWh of gas input, and about a tenth of the thermal output is lost because that water is emitted as vapour. Condensing boilers are a good idea in theory because they can condense the vapour and recover latent heat from the products of combustion, boosting output by around a tenth.
In practice, too few condensing boilers achieve their potential because they cannot cool the flue gas below its dew point (around 59C ). Result: plumes of vapour outside. This one resembles what you’d see boiling a 2-3 kW kettle in the open air, and that’s a measure of how much energy is being wasted.
The truth is that so-called condensing boilers need to be installed in heating systems with low return water temperatures. Underfloor heating, or systems with oversized radiators for example. Only then will they get sufficiently-low temperatures in their heat exchangers to get the exhaust vapour to condense.
A recent issue of the CIBSE Journal, which one would have thought ought to have high editorial standards, recently published an article which was basically a puff piece for a certain boiler water additive. It contained some fairly odd assertions, such as that the water in the system would heat up faster but somehow cool down more slowly. Leaving aside the fact that large systems in fact operate at steady water temperatures, this would be magic indeed. The author suggested that the additive reduced the insulating effect of steam bubbles on the heat-exchanger surface, and thus improved heat transfer. He may have been taking the word ‘boiler’ too literally because of course steam bubbles don’t normally occur in a low or medium-temperature hot water boiler, and if they did, I defy him to explain how they would interfere with heat transfer in the heat emitters.
But for me the best bit was a chart relating to an evaluation of the product in situ. A scatter diagram compared the before-and-after relationships between fuel consumption and degree days (a proxy for heating load). This is good: it is the sort of analysis one might expect to see,
The chart looked like this, and I can’t argue that performance is better after than before. The problem is that this chart does not tell quite the story they wanted. The claim for the additive is that it improves heat transfer; the reduction in fuel consumption should therefore be proportional to load, and the ‘after’ line ought really to have a shallower gradient as well as a lower intercept. If the intercept reduces but the gradient stays the same, as happened here, it is because some fixed load (such as boiler standing losses) has disappeared. One cannot help wondering whether they had idle boilers in circuit before the system was dosed, but not afterwards.
The analysis illustrated here is among the useful techniques people learn on my energy monitoring and targeting courses.
When this “kinetic plate” was installed in 2009, the Guardian published an article which suggested that it would harvest up to “30 kWh per hour” of “green energy” from the traffic passing over it. Rubbish, of course. Firstly (as was acknowledged in a muted disclaimer at the foot of the article) it wasn’t free energy; it was energy taken from the passing vehicles (and thus paid for by their drivers). But what about the 30 kWh per hour claim? That’s the equivalent of harnessing the output from engine of this Peugeot and running it flat out for 15 minutes in the hour.
Really? We can do some quick sums on this. Say the car, with its driver, weighs about 1,400 kg. Suppose that it depresses the plate 10mm (0.01m). If we take gravitational constant as 9.8 N/kg, the energy imparted by the car as it drives onto the plate is 1,400 x 0.01 x 9.8 = 137.2 joules (watt-seconds). That is only 0.000038 kWh. In other words, you’d need getting on for eight hundred thousand cars an hour to achieve 30 kW output, even if the mechanism were 100% efficient, which it won’t be.
Along similar lines the IMechE published an article about a kinetic pavement in 2015. This related to a system for capturing energy from pedestrians, and rather usefully it included some statistics: that 54,267 footsteps had generated 217,028 watt-seconds. I hope all my readers can confirm for themselves that this equates to a mere 0.06 kWh.
The BBC’s Watchdog programme (series 38, episode 1) did an excellent job exposing the activities of a company called Energysave, which was caught training its salesmen to use high-pressure sales techniques on vulnerable customers. They were claiming, outrageously, that their product, a water-repellent coating for masonry, cut heat loss by a third. (Although their website says conductivity “decreases enormously with dampness”. Whoops)
You can catch up with the episode on BBC iPlayer. The relevant material is in two parts at 16’04” and 32’53” with the final confrontation scene at 51’52”, but the episode also includes stuff on defective smart meter installations.
Thanks to newsletter reader Istvan Sereg for the tip-off.