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When writing a review, the desired state is to write positive; hopefully having had an excellent experience with, then, the pleasure of sharing that with others.  Sadly, not all life's experiences are joyful.

Rik DeGunther has an empire of Energy for Dummies books. He writes well. And, it is clear that he has real knowledge. These are the sort of books that one would like to write: go out, buy, it will answer all your questions and help (us all) solve some real problems.  Sadly, there are issues  -- small and large -- that force a real questioning as to whether these are books that we should have on our Energy Bookshelves.

Let's take a look at one, Energy Efficient Homes for Dummies, for examples of these problems.  Written clearly (often even enjoyable to read) with much advice between the covers that would be worth following. Interspersed, however, is misleading, confusing, and even out-of-place material. Follow me after the fold for some examples.

The Geek alert ...

I want to start with an example that is particularly grating, even if seemingly for the 'geeks' among us.  Pages 21-22 is a section entitled "Looking at Energy Costs: Raw and Otherwise" with table 2-1 "Comparing Raw Energy Costs".  What is the paragraph leading into that table:

Taking a look at the relative costs of different types of raw energy is illuminating. (By raw, I mean the cost at delivery to your home; this doesn't take into account how you may actually use the energy within the home, or how much the equipment costs to convert the raw energy into usable form). Relatively speaking, electricity is the most costly, nuclear energy is the cheapest, and a bunch of other types of energy fall somewhere in between.

Table 2-1 then supports this, with electricity at $29.30 per Million Btu and "uranium (nuclear)" at $0.00033 per Million Btu.

Notice anything odd here?  "Cost at delivery to your home ..."  Are you one of the households which has "uranium (nuclear)" set up for "delivery to your home"?  If so, perhaps the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would like to have a word with you.  What an absurdity.

And, what an absurdity to have this table comparing electricity, gasoline, coal, wood, uranium, etc without mentioning (for example) that nuclear, essentially exclusively, is simply one onf the production means for producing electricity.

Also, for a book that seeks to speak to 'dummies' (and, lets face facts, all of us are somehow 'dummies' when it comes to the highly complicated systems-of-systems relationships and implications re energy issues), what meaning does it provide to speak to delivered energy costs without directly tying it to the cost structure that the average consumer would see.  (E.g., this section doesn't talk to what is the price per kWh that leads to a $29.30 per Million Btu cost for electricity "cost at delivery to your home".

And, well, of course the figure is absurd.  And, the absurdity continues.  The statement after the table is that "Btu stands for British thermal unit, a standard unit of energy equal to 754 kWh, or kilowatt hours (one thousand watt hours".  Well, several things about this


  1. $29.30 per Million Btu leads to a delivered cost of electricity of about $0.000000039 per kilowatt hour (or about less than 1/2,000,000th the average cost of electricity to an American household).

  2. Even if we take away the "million", here, this leads to an electricity price of $0.039 per kWh (3.8859 cents) or well less than half the average delivered cost of electricity to the home.

  3. Amusingly, page 20 (the page before this table) states that Americans use an average of 339 Btu per person, per year and then the following page has costs per "Million Btu" (eg, about 3000 more than what DeGunther says the average person uses per year).  (Note, this is for amusement, the failure on page 20 is to leave out the word "Million" in the sidebar as the 339 figure is in the reasonable range for an average, per capita, of America's total energy use when put in terms of Million Btu.)

  4. Finally, just to point out, let's turn to the Energy Information Kids Page (not suggesting that kids are "dummies") where we learn that "1 KilowattHour = 3,412 Btu".


Yes, the "Geek Squad" hits just one table, one item, and could spend pages discussing the problems of the discussion.

It is hard to believe that anyone else actually looked at the table like this discussion above and even just the most cursory of looks (there are nine "forms" of energy listed, this only looks at the numbers related to "electricity") reveals error after error after ...

Misleading on solar hot water ...

Turning to something that could be considered more in the line of "practical" for someone seeking to make decisions about their home, there is a section on "ten best solar investments". Putting aside the bizaare implications of putting "solar PV" as the first in the list, read this from the section re Solar Hot Water.

A big benefit of a solar hot water heater is that you never need to conserve on hot water, regardless of how high energy rates go. From a pollution standpoint, water heating typically comprises around 18 percent of your power bill, so you can save exactly that much from your carbon footprint.

Sigh ... In planning solar hot water systems, one should plan on the solar system picking roughly 60-75% of your hot water load (dependent on many factors, from design / size of system, usage patterns, etc).  Essentially, unless you're willing to go without hot water at times, there are very (VERY) few places in the United States where solar hot water will pick up 100% of your hot water load. Putting aside the typical energy demands of most solar system (pumps, controllers, etc -- low demand, but an energy demand), you will need a backup system -- whether wood, electric, gas or otherwise -- and won't totally eliminate hot water demand's contribution to your power bill.

Missing a key fireplace item

Almost all Americans are ignorant about how inefficient the normal fireplace is, seeming to believe that that crackling fire is helping heat the home when the standard fireplace actually increases the heating load when in use and the heating/air conditioning load when not in use.  While DeGunther cover much of the basics of fireplace inefficiencies and offers suggestions / options (such as high-efficiency fireplace inserts), he misses a rather straightforward one that every fireplace owner should consider, even if they aren't going to 'upgrade' to some form of actually efficient heating system (whether wood, pellet, corn, or otherwise) using the fireplace.

Consider the fireplace for a moment. When not in use, the damper should be closed (even though a huge percentage of fireplace owners never do so) which will reduce drafts (both heat loss winter, some heat gain summer).  But, think about that damper -- it is generally a solid piece of metal that closes on a metal rim or on concrete/brick work.  There is, almost certainly, pitting or buildup or workmanship errors which creates gaps. And, well, there isn't exactly weatherstripping there. Thus, while the rest of your home might (MIGHT) have some decent insulation and your doors/windows might be tightly sealed, the damper provides zero insulation and is a place where there are almost certainly air leaks.

So, why ping DeGunther? Because there are many paths to reduce this problem, from kits to buy (such as the Chimney Balloon -- for example, no endorsement) to extremely easy DIY projects. In my home, prior to installing the high-efficiency fireplace which now picks up much of my heating load, I took styrofoam from a furniture delivery, cut it to size, wrapped it in a beat-up bed-sheet that was heading to rag heaven, put on some garage door weather stripping on the top, and used this to seal the chimney below the damper for the 10+ months/year that the chimney was not in use.   While not "perfect", that 10 minute, $0 cost (weather stripping was remains from a neighbor) DIY kit pretty much sealed the chimney and certainly provided more insulating value than is in most of my 50+ year old home's wall spaces.

To me, it is this very sort of practical solution to a real problem that most Americans are ignorant about that I hope to see in 348 page book entitled Energy Efficient Homes for Dummies.

Sigh ...

The list can go on and on ...

As noted above, DeGunther has an engaging writing style. There is much of real value in this book, much of the advice is on target, and it can be enjoyable to read.

There are, however, far too many errors like those above to make this something worth recommending. And, that truly is too bad ...

Sigh ...

I picked this book up with such hopes.

Energy is a complex, an extremely complex arena.

The energy system of the average home, its implications, and choices as to how to move forward to a more efficient and less polluting future home are complex systems-of-systems issues.

To have a meaningful, high-quality, reliable guide to "dummies" could be of real value as we seek to educate and move ourselves and each other toward an Energy Smart future. Sadly, this is not that book.

Originally posted to A Siegel on Sat Jul 18, 2009 at 08:37 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Uh, "cost at deliver to home" means ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Plan9

    The cost to get that portion of electricity into your house, regardless of what originates it into the grid. Don't fall into misleading implications.

    •  RIght ... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pattyp

      how am I misleading, here ... it is deGunther's misleading, which is conflating multiple energy production and energy delivery.

      And, I read "cost at delivery at your home" to be the price one pays ... no?

      •  In the SE, where nuclear power is most prevalent, (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Mcrab

        electricity bills are lower than the rest of the country.  So people appreciate the fact that their electricity rates rarely go up, thanks to uranium being cheap and available in abundance.  And since uranium is the most compact of energy sources you do not have to ship it to the plant in mile-long trains all day and all night.

        If we ever decide to include external costs of power, as is done in the EU, then nuclear is by far the cheapest in terms of public health and environmental impact.

        Amory Lovins: "Coal can fill the real gaps in our fuel economy....." IPCC: Anthropogenic greenhouse gases will cause extinction of up to 70% of species by 2050.

        by Plan9 on Sat Jul 18, 2009 at 11:02:37 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I could have sworn (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mem from somerville, EeDan, A Siegel

    I saw Amish plutonium fireplaces advertised on TV this month.

  •  Uhhhh, and people buy this stuff? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    A Siegel, 1BQ

    Thanks for the expose, Siegel.  There's a lot of stuff out there that's really crappy but hopping on the bandwagon of green.

    I'd like to see what it looks like to have nuclear power in my home.  Maybe it would like like Mr. Fusion in Back to the Future.  Maybe deGunther knows something we don't...

  •  Watts and Horsepower and BTUs, Oh, My! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    A Siegel, 1BQ

    1 horsepower=746 Watts, which is probably where the confusion came from number wise.

    This is really frightening. It is bad enough that the conservatives are actively engaged in a War on Science, and this crap just fuels the fire, the highly carbon-positive fire, with it's misinformation.

    Live Free or Die-words to live by

    by ForFreedom on Sat Jul 18, 2009 at 09:19:35 AM PDT

  •  Editing problem (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    A Siegel, 1BQ

    This is really an editing problem and points out a failing with many of the popular technology books - the publishers have cut out the good editors with knowledge. I have seen this much more recently in computer tech books. There is horrendous editing. Really I think there is actually none, in the sense of actually editing for content.

    Now I think there are actually better things in the pure science books.

  •  Thanks AS, for reading so we don't have to (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    A Siegel

    because it sounds like this book would be destined for the fireplace if I bought it.

    I like practical solutions like your styrofoam chimney blocker.

    This is not a sig-line.

    by Joffan on Sat Jul 18, 2009 at 04:22:13 PM PDT

  •  Just read your diary of the high-efficiency (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    A Siegel

    fireplace inserts ...

    I wonder if you ever thought to put in instead a "Kachelofen"
    hundreds of variations have heated European houses since centuries or a woodburning stove out of "Speckstein" there are many, many modern styles available and they work too

    Unfortunately I haven't found any here in the US. I think it would make a good business to distribute those in the US as well.

    Though I think one major energy inefficiency of houses here seem to be overlooked and that is the thinness of your outside walls. One really should start with walls and windows.

    •  Couple things ... (0+ / 0-)
      1.  Of course my walls are inadequate -- I've written elsewhere of the gradual upgrading of insulation levels. For a Passivhaus, would be talking in range of R-40 in walls rather than code R-13.
      1. Well, some beautiful stoves, but I worked with what was on market and worked with existing masonry fireplace.
      •  What if........... (0+ / 0-)

        Just for grins, how would you feel if the insulation police came to you and made you upgrade to R-40?  And wanted you to close up your beautiful fireplace?  And threatened you with fines or tax penalties if you declined or didn't respond in their timeframe?  In the interests of doing your part in combating AGW, of course.  

        Ostriches have survived for a long time. So can you.

        by Tom 11 on Tue Jul 21, 2009 at 06:24:17 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Love to put out strawman that not on the table? (0+ / 0-)

          And what if the police could give tickets for driving without seat belts or could give a fine for dumping cancer-causing chemicals or ...

          What if building inspectors could keep a building being used because it failed to meet code?

          What if the utility offered free home energy audits and low (zero) interest loans for executing the recommendations?

          •  Ahhh, got me. (0+ / 0-)

            Fair enough, won't try that again.

            I just have a gut aversion to regulation and intrusion by the "authorities" into my personal space.

            You've heard, I'm sure, about the smart grid ideas that would allow utilities (or more likely, utility regulators), the authority to regulate electricity consumption within individual homes.  I don't want that.  But it's a fact of history that governments will tend to attempt to regulate more and more rather than less and less.  Where does it end, and how does it feel?

            Ostriches have survived for a long time. So can you.

            by Tom 11 on Wed Jul 22, 2009 at 12:18:50 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  RE Smart Grid ... (0+ / 0-)
              "regulate" is not a term that I would suggest make sense ... more appropriate would be 'help manage'.

              This would, basically, be a buy-in program -- you choose to be or not be a participant. And, most of the controlling from external would be essentially invisible to the homeowner.

              •  Regulate/manage (0+ / 0-)

                But I don't want them to help manage my life. I can manage it quite well by myself, thank you very much.  They are already helping me by mandating EER numbers, by mandating appliance efficiencies, by regulating water usage with shower heads, toilets, etc. All of which I think are good things in the long run and I really haven't minded paying the extra costs associated with those mandates.  But I'm I don't like it when I'm hot, I don't like it when it's stuffy, I can't sleep at night when I'm too warm, and I am willing to pay for my comfort.

                The only reason controlling/management is needed is because regulatory bodies have thwarted the ability to increase the supply of power that is desired by the public.  (Problems assoiciated with increased power availability are another topic, for this post let's just assume that new power sources are problematic in and of themselves...)  So, without new power sources, and given increasing population and business and demand, some sort of rationing ends up being needed.  'Til now, rationing has been implemented by rolling blackouts and selective regional blackouts.  Witness LA and Arizona.  The only good thing about rolling brownouts is that at least they affect everybody the same.  But if rationing could be affected by selectively regulating individual consumption based on individual addresses, well who do think will bear the brunt of the rationing?  Is Beverly Hills going to suffer the same as East LA?  Is East Manhattan going to suffer the same as Hoboken?  Even within Manhattan, are the public projects going to endure the same kind of control as the upper east side apartments?  There is sooooo much opportunity for deviltry and political favoritism.  I don't trust any committee, bureaucrat, or department to be immune from political pressure.  

                But, of course, none of that is true.  They only do what they do for everyone's benefit. Because they know best.  We should trust them because we're morons.  And they would never do anything that wasn't in our best interests.  Would they???

                Ostriches have survived for a long time. So can you.

                by Tom 11 on Thu Jul 23, 2009 at 05:45:33 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  You are wrong on so many levels here (0+ / 0-)

                  ideological, fiscal and technological.

                  1. Note: policies almost certain look to have choice as to buy-in or not.
                  1. When said "invisible", "buy-in" probably would have levels. Let us take two refrigerator examples: (a) right now defrost cycles are, in essence, random. Would you notice if there were a grid control that put that defrost at 2:30 am rather than allowing it to be random at 4 pm?  (b) potential future efficiency measure for refrigerators in having a tank for cold storage: e.g., off-peak hours refrigerator/freezer would chill that section (think make ice) and then use that during high cost/peak demand periods for cooling the refrigerator & thereby lowering the peak demand/high cost electricity use.  Are those two examples so dangerous.
                  1.  There are tremendous fiscal costs to building out to peak demand requirements. For a few percent (of that) of annual requirements, you end up with a high cost of capital expenditures. If there can be flattening of demand, basically everyone except those who build power plants wins.

                  Get it: government is evil.  Since government is evil, global warming better not be real. Because, if global warming is real there are things government needs to do. Since you don't want government to be involved in "your" life, therefore global warming isn't real.

                  •  Well, partly right, mostly wrong......... (0+ / 0-)

                    First of all, you have accused me of using strawman arguments to support a point, I'm afraid your defrosting example is just as egregious.  You're right, nobody would care much if their defrosting schedule were regulated.  I don't think I've ever defrosted mine.  I wouldn't care.  But to cite that as an example of benign regulation completely misses the point, and you know it.  It's the other kazillion things they could and would regulate that are troublesome.  

                    How long would buy-in be permitted? Only until the crisis atmoshphere is ratcheted up to whatever degree needed to more or less satisfy the alarmists.

                    When  "choice" is granted from above, and not owned from below, tyranny inevitably results.    More and more controls and fewer and fewer freedoms will be allowed, all in the name of saving the planet.

                    Sure, to get started, let's make everything voluntary.  Once they have the technological means for the Global Warming Czar to edict how we are to live, it will only be a  matter of time before the Hansen's of the world will be in  charge of everything.  Insulation, gas mileage, how many cars you are allowed to own, transportation networks, everything.  Maybe Hansen will even be the Czar.  I shudder at that possiblity.

                    No, government isn't inherently evil.  Too much government is evil. Bureaucracies sustain themselves.  Politicians' number one objective is to get re-elected.  The only thing on this earth that prevents tyranny is the continuous and enthusiastic questioning of "their" policies, laws, and proposals.  

                    If AGW is real, prove it.  I'm sorry, but there are too many smart people out there that are not in the pockets of Big Oil, or Big Coal, that disagree.  The models just don't survive all of the credible critical analyis.    I would be all for the government doing whatever is necessary to protect us from danger, if the danger could be properly assessed.  Sorry, but the AGW models have too many holes, have too many assumptions, that don't correlate well even with what little we know of history.  And my own feeling is that the conclusions are agenda driven.  I am not yet willing to cede power to Jim Hansen on that basis.

                    If reuction/elimination of CO2 production from fossil fueled power plants is so critical to control in order to save the planet, why the anti-nuke position?  Why not divert power production to nukes at least for a while to give "the scientists" time to figure out to do with the waste?  At least the CO2 comes down.  If that's the thing that's going to kill us in the next several decades, well, isn't any sort of reduction in CO2 worth it?  But, no, I'm not hearing any sort of support for nukes.  Seems to me that if smart grid in order to regulate refrigerator defrosting times is a good idea, well nukes ought to be up there as well.  Certainly the implementation of nukes has a far better chance of replacing power production in a meaningful way than does wind or solar.  The main problem with nukes is the NIMBY problem, but the GWC (Global Warming Czar) ought to be able to just mandate where they should go, right?  In the best interests of all of us?  A tiny price to pay if it helps solve AGW.

                    Ostriches have survived for a long time. So can you.

                    by Tom 11 on Sat Jul 25, 2009 at 09:28:31 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  Well ... (0+ / 0-)
                      1.  The refrigerator defrost cycle, which is something that most refrigerators do automatically, actually is a meaningful issue. Go look for the data -- sort of surprising.
                      1.  Your "prove it" is a game. You are unwilling to accept material -- and the call for 100% certainty before action is a destructive stance.
                      1.  Hmm ... "anti-nuke" Show me where I've been that?  And, as well, there is a cost-effectiveness issue. New nuclear power looks, globally, to be quite high cost -- certainly far higher cost than efficiency investments.  Wind and CSP are, at this time, less expensive new power options.  (A major nuke program could change that, but that is uncertain.)

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