Solar: Cost-Effectiveness by Regions, Climate and Latitude

Whether rooftop solar is a sensible investment depends on:

• Details of grid power tariffs in your locale — in progressive jurisdictions, you may be paying very high rates as part of a conservation/soak-the-rich scheme to charge much more for higher use, and subsidize lifeline use (very small houses, no AC, few appliances.)

• Site characteristics, including local shading by nearby trees or buildings, the practical tilt your roof allows. Few roofs are optimally aligned with the correct E-W roofline and angle so an optimal array of panels can collect maximum solar energy. Closely-spaced panels on flatter roofs will shade each other unless tilt is decreased and spacing between panels increased.

• Weather: clouds and fog, dust and rain cut down insolation (amount of solar energy hitting the surface), and dust or snow on the surface of solar panels either must be cleaned off or lower production accepted.

Online calculators that take solar angles and local climate records into account can give you a rough idea of how much power a rooftop solar installation will produce. One of the best is the National Renewable Energy Lab’s PVWatts Calculator. First look up the approximate latitude of your site, then look up the optimal tilt of panels for that latitude here. If your roof is ideally aligned and angled, you can use the optimum fixed tilt for your location, or substitute an angle required by your roof or siting issues. I’ll go through using the calculator for the site we used near Palm Springs, which has almost ideal solar conditions, then repeat for the same house in Seattle, which has fewer cloud-free hours and lower solar intensity even under clear conditions since at higher latitudes the sun is lower in the sky and solar radiation has to travel through more atmosphere to reach the panels. Not to spoil the surprise, but the combination of lower grid rates and much less power production from panels due to much less sun will demonstrate that rooftop solar is not cost-effective in Seattle now, and won’t be until grid rates rise and panel prices fall substantially from here.

The Palm Springs Case

First, enter the site address so the calculator can pick up the nearest climate and solar data:

PVWatts Screen 1: Palm Springs, CA
PVWatts Screen 1: Palm Springs, CA

Then you enter some details of the planned installation — in this case, 66 panels generating 360W each for about 24KW total power, “Premium” type (we used the current industry-leading Sunpower X-Series panels.) “Azimuth” is set to 180° for exact south-facing alignment, “Tilt” at 15° as installed, and “Average Cost of Electricity” (from the grid) at 20c/KWh — as we’ll see later, utilities in progressive areas have complex tariff schedules that make this number hard to calculate, and even more complex ToU (Time of Use) and moment-by-moment charging schemes are on the way. Since we’re simplifying this just to get an idea if solar comes close to being cost-effective, I’ve selected 20c as an average cost for high users in Palm Springs — actual peak rates are much higher.

For our own project, a flat roof with limited area meant keeping the tilt angle of the panels less than the optimal 28° — higher angles would have rows of panels shading the next row, so a lower angle (15°) was chosen.

PVWatts Screen 2: Palm Springs, CA
PVWatts Screen 2: Palm Springs, CA

The outcome is shown below: about 40,000 KWh/Year generated, saving about $8,000 a year in grid power bills. Since this installation cost about $65,000 after subtracting the Federal tax credit, it is expected to return about 12% of its cost yearly and pay for itself in about 8 years — neglecting some minor cleaning and maintenance costs and assuming little degradation in production as the panels age, which is close to correct for these premium panels, which are guaranteed for 25 years. This is one of the highest-return investments you can make, under these almost-ideal conditions. Note less costly thin-film panels cost less but also degrade faster.

PVWatts Screen 3: Palm Springs, CA
PVWatts Screen 3: Palm Springs, CA

The Seattle Case

Now we set the calculator up for a similar installation in Seattle:

PVWatts Screen 1: Seattle, WA
PVWatts Screen 1: Seattle, WA

Now to give the Seattle case the optimal tilt angle of 39° is entered — this works well if the Seattle house has a south-facing roof at a 39° angle to start. Few real Seattle houses will be so ideal for rooftop solar., and most will have local obstacles like trees and nearby obstacles like hills and other roofs cutting down on insolation. But we’re supposing the best imaginable house:

PVWatts Screen 2: Seattle, WA
PVWatts Screen 2: Seattle, WA

Results: only 27,000 KWh/year generated, and because local power averages out to 12c/KWh (on the low end of costs in the US), grid power costs saved is only $3,200/year. Ignoring other costs, the rate of return on investment is 4.9%, and payback period 20 years — but the maintenance costs and cost of money invested, with loans for 20-year periods in the 4% range, means the panels will be nearing the end of their guarantee and producing less than we assumed. The investment is marginal at best, close to break-even even after the 30% tax credit.

PVWatts Screen 3: Seattle, WA
PVWatts Screen 3: Seattle, WA

Large areas of the US have unsuitable weather, lower grid costs, or a limited supply of houses with appropriately aligned roofs for solar installation. So when you see solar installs in those areas, it’s a result of government spending foolishly on trophy installations that make no sense, or the desire by a few consumers to sport a trendy symbol. If you look around at your neighborhood and see few or no solar panels on roofs, that means you are likely to be disappointed in the return on your investment in solar. Designing in future solar during homebuilding, on the other hand, can make sense in much larger areas of the country — having the right roof and house orientation may well be a wise choice for when panels are even cheaper and electric rates have risen further in your area.

The widespread hype for solar, including the large number of scams and fly-by-night, high-pressure solar sales companies active recently, has victimized some consumers. “Aspirational” solar purchased by wealthy homeowners because they want to signal their enlightened attitudes is just another conspicuous consumption good, like Teslas. Rooftop solar is another complicated system to maintain and is a bad investment unless it returns its costs quickly.

Solar PV on a Palm Sorings rooftop
Solar PV on a Palm Springs rooftop

Rooftop Solar: Trendy Boondoggle or The Future of Power?

Solar PV on a Palm Sorings rooftop
Solar PV on a Palm Sorings rooftop

This begins a series of posts on solar power, mostly about solar photovoltaic (PV) installations on residential rooftops. I’ll explain why it pays to install solar PV in some areas of the US and not others, with factors to consider including local utility tariffs, government and utility subsidies, resale value, and maintenance costs, as well as the total amount of solar radiation available in a locale considering clouds and latitude. As we will see, it’s a very complex subject and the cost-effectiveness of solar can depend on the whims of state utility regulators as much as technology and cost of panels. Most of the online information about solar is promotional material from advocates, installers, or manufacturers. These sources tend to oversell and underexplain the costs and benefits, which are so locality-dependent as to make general advice almost useless.

We just did a large solar install on our test mansion in Palm Springs, wiping out almost all electric bills but shelling out almost $100,000 ($70,000 after the 30% Federal tax rebate.) California’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has been applying textbook Progressive policy ideals to regulation of electric utilities for decades, resulting in very high rates (topping out over 30c/kwh) for inland users that need much more AC than the mass of voters who control state government, who live on or near the cooler coasts. The cost calculus that results almost compels rooftop solar for large inland houses, which otherwise would pay some of the highest electric rates in the mainland US. Our calculated payback period is around 8 years, while in many parts of the country with more reasonable rates (12c/kwh) solar payback periods are more like 30 years, or never if maintenance and total lifecycle costs are fully accounted for.

So we’re in the position of committing to solar for large Palm Springs homes while warning most others to avoid it unless they are wedded to the status symbol of having solar panels on their roof. In the longer run, utility-scale solar PV farms in the desert are likely more practical and cost-effective than rooftop, but as rooftop solar has grown to become a significant percentage of generation in California, electric utilities are correctly warning that grid stability and economics require more stable sources or a greater commitment to storage to hold intermittently-generated power for later use — and that is still a very expensive prospect.

Other forms of solar power, like passive solar for home heating, solar pool heaters, and solar hot water pre-heating, have completely different cost calculations and alternate fuels (notably cheap natural gas), so we won’t address them here.

[next: Solar Potential by regions — Climate vs Utility Rates]

Further topics to be addressed:

Net Metering (NM) vs Time of Use (ToU)
Types of Solar Panels – AC/DC, microinverters, amorphous vs crystal silicon, Perovskites…
Elon Musk’s Solar Roofs: Hyped?
Local Storage and Going Off the Grid: Practical?
Electric Cars as Local Storage

Video Doorbells: Doorbird Install

Doorbird 101S Video Doorbell
Doorbird 101S Video Doorbell

In the early 2000s, most large new houses came with a doorbell system that connected to the house wired telephone network — you rang the doorbell and all the wired phones inside rang with a distinctive shortened ring. Answering the phone, you’d be connected to the intercom speaker by the doorbell to talk with the visitor. Often you could then press ‘9’ or some other special key on your phone to activate a relay unlatching the door so the visitor could enter.

House wired telephone networks are obsolete now, and many features (like security system calls to central monitoring) no longer work with VoiP-based phone systems. The latest thing is video entry systems, which let you see the visitor as well as talk with them. This is overkill for a small house, but since video entry systems are now cheap and easy to install, you may want to upgrade to one.

Old box for doorbell-intercom
Old box for doorbell-intercom
For this project, there was already a cat5 wire running from the central communications closet to the outside doorbell’s electrical box — only two wires were being used by the intercom for phone protocols, but the cat5 cable was easily repurposed for Ethernet and PoE (Power over Ethernet), so we chose a brand which could use a cat5 hookup, since this promised to be more reliable than the wifi and battery combination used by others. Battery-based wifi systems are very easy to install since no connections are required, but the need to change batteries and the occasional loss of wifi are negatives.

The wifi-battery brands:

Ring Wifi Video Doorbell – Older version, easy to install and operate, sleak design.
Ring Video Doorbell 2 – Market Leader in US, 1080 HD video, new version
Skybell HD Video Doorbell – European, 1080p HD and Zoom

The brand we chose because it supports wired cat5 (as well as wifi):

DoorBird WiFi Video Doorbell D101S – German and very popular in Europe, but expensive. 720p video, IR nightvision viewing
DoorBird WiFi Video Doorbell D202B, Flush Mount – Brushed bronze/stainless and must be mounted inwall, but sleek appearance. Best choice for the most expensive homes where security and quality are paramount.

Doorbird App (iTunes)
Doorbird App (iTunes)
All of the above have apps for iPhone and Android phones which allow you to use your phone to answer the door. All support (or will soon support) Apple’s Homekit or the equivalent Android home automation interface. The Doorbirds also have circuits for unlatching doors if you have an electric latch installed. We chose the cheaper Doorbird because the flushmount version, which is superior in appearance and solidity, would have required installing a custom inwall box to hold it, whereas the surface-mount D101S could be attached directly to the old doorbell-intercom beveled steel faceplate, avoiding additional carpentry and stucco work. (The wifi-battery units are easiest of all, of course, because you can mount them anywhere.)

Doorbird Packaging - "Made with Love in Berlin"
Doorbird Packaging
The Doorbird people have borrowed a lot of their design and packaging aesthetic from Apple. As with Apple, you’ve paid a premium price and are rewarded with well-thought-out, sleek design. The printed manual is suitably German, minimalist but informative enough for anyone who’s installed networked appliances.

I also purchased a PoE (Power over Erhernet) injector to feed power into the Ethernet cable. This is installed at the cable source in the wiring closet, since normal Ethernet has no power-supplying function. The relatively new PoE standards are intended to cut down on cabling in video surveillance and other situations where network appliances are to be installed in isolated areas. Switches and injectors supplying PoE are easy to find — I chose this one: TP-LINK TL-PoE150S PoE Injector Adapter, IEEE 802.3af compliant.

Doorbird - back
Doorbird – back
The Doorbird wiring is accessed through a back panel, and the box has several adapters to plug whatever wires you are using into the circuit board sockets. the color coding made this fairly easy to figure out.

Old speaker grille
Old speaker grille
I pulled the wiring through the old doorbell-intercom speaker grille to hook up the Doorbird, then screwed the Doorbird mounting screws into it so the Doorbird was centered and covered the speaker grille.

Doorbird Installed
Doorbird Installed

Doorbird installed
Doorbird installed
First Visitor
First Visitor

This install went well and returned doorbell functionality. A a side benefit, when the doorbell is rung I get a chirp on my phone wherever I am in the world and can chat up any visitors even while I’m on the road, which is handy. The Doorbird servers keep photos from the last 90 days of visitors, so you can go retrieve them as needed.

Matterport and VR House Models

Matterport Dollhouse -- Matterport
Matterport Dollhouse — Matterport

If you’ve been shopping for houses or apartments online in recent years, you may have run into 3D virtual walkthroughs — these are software models of interior spaces you can “walk” through by clicking on a computer screen, or by wearing VR glasses (still not widely available.) After initially clumsy and low-res beginnings, these have now become quite useful, allowing you to see finishes, traffic flow, and even appliance labels far more than is possible in the 30-40 photos now standard for high-end house listings. This makes it more practical for overseas and remote buyers to consider buying a house without ever having seen it in person.

The VR model is created using a specialized camera setup. The photographer places the camera tripod at eye level in representative spots throughout the space, and software stitches the resulting high-res 360-degree photos together into a virtual model of the interior.

Local photographer Marco Carocari used his spiffy new Matterport camera to record a friend’s modern Palm Springs mansion here. It’s easy to spend ten or twenty minutes stepping through it.

A big gallery of diverse Matterport-recorded spaces is here.

Two-Stage Evaporative Cooling Project

[Originally published June 5, 2016, at]

Two-Stage Evaporative Cooler from OASys
Two-Stage Evaporative Cooler from OASys

[This follows up on the previous post, This is Not My Beautiful House. Taken from “The Globally Optimized House: AC,” written August 11, 2010.]

Most of my work (that paid) has been some form of global optimization, from optimizing parallel programs and schemes to automatically optimize parallel programs, to optimizing plan layouts in subdivision, to managing investments considering all tax and estate consequences and adverse events.

This house in Palm Springs is no exception. Built in 2003, by the standards of the time it was well-insulated and efficient. At the time it was built, electricity cost about 12 cents per kWh; currently the highest tiered rate is above 30c/kWh. The pricing scheme is hugely complicated and unpredictably micromanaged by an incompetent state legislature and regulators, and discriminates against large families as well as wasteful users. It does, however, result in such high marginal costs for larger houses that solar power, as currently subsidized, is more than competitive for the highest-tier rates.

The former owners were doing what most people do, shutting off AC in most of the house and using it sparingly in the areas they actually live in; this kept their bills down to $400/month or so, averaged year-round. With less than half the house cooled to 79-84 F, the power bill for the month of July was normally about $600. Many Palm Springs houses are only occupied during the winter season, from November to May or so, when cooling needs are minimal. But year-round occupancy calls for more efforts to save on AC.

Heating and cooling buildings is a complex global optimization problem. First note that what we want to optimize is not the temperature as shown by the thermostats (there are 6), but human comfort; if there is no one at home, there is no need to control anything (though furnishings can suffer from excess heat or extremely high or low humidity.) We want the house to know how many people are in what areas to determine how hard to work to condition the air. Also, comfort depends on many factors; temperature, humidity, moving air, radiation temperature (easily noticed in winter when it can feel cold at an apparently comfortable temperature because cold walls or windows soak up thermal radiation.) I am trying to give up hot coffee in the summer since a cup can make me uncomfortably warm for an hour when an iced coffee would not have.

The general problem of cooling can be approached using a variety of sources and sinks available in the environment. Groundwater, for example, is often at a reliable low temperature and can be used for cooling, either through a heat exchanger or indirectly by using it as a heat sink for a conventional AC compressor. In the desert, evaporating water is an energy-efficient cooling method. [BTW. don’t let anyone tell you that there’s a water shortage and that evaporative cooling will make it worse; fossil fuel power plants use more water to produce the additional power needed for conventional AC than evaporative cooling uses. One source comments that use of evaporative cooling for a typical house results in additional water usage of about a shower per day, implying it would strain water resources; but since Southwestern homes typically use many times that amount on landscaping irrigation, and generation of additional electricity for conventional AC would use as much, additional water use is not really an issue.]

Craning in Evaporative Coolers
Craning in Evaporative Coolers

In a climate with wide swings in outdoor temperatures, simple ventilation and storage can provide most of the heating and cooling in many seasons; a whole-house fan and the house’s heat storage capacity obviates the need for costly AC much of the time, but it requires constant monitoring of conditions and control of ventilation, and is most effective when outside conditions in the next 12-24 hours are known. A smart person can handle this, and until now, most whole-house fans have been controlled by a simple switch and the strategic opening and closing of windows.

There’s huge room for improvement in the technology of AC. Manufacturers have improved conventional compression-cycle refrigeration AC a great deal since energy prices started to climb; SEERs (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratios) have climbed from 10 to 14-16 in two decades, cutting power used by a third. Very expensive new AC units have reached SEERs of 25, for another third saving, but diminishing returns have set in.

The original form of cooling, used since ancient times in dry climates, passes hot, dry air over water to cool and humidify it; this is now called evaporative cooling. In its simplest form, a fan blows hot dry air over a medium soaked with water. Evaporating water cools the medium, which cools the air passing over it, which meanwhile picks up some moisture. In a desert climate, outside air at midday can be at 110 F and less than 10% humidity; the wet-bulb temperature (the temperature a thermometer registers when it is cooled by a soaked medium after air is blown over it) can be below 50 F. These simple evaporative coolers, known as “swamp coolers,” were widely used in the desert Southwest until cheap AC units and the bad reputation of swamp coolers for high maintenance and growth of microorganisms in the medium led to their replacement by conventional refrigerative AC. There are times of year, also, when the humidity levels rise enough to reduce a swamp cooler’s effectiveness, so that for some weeks of the year, the output air from a swamp cooler is uncomfortably warm and humid.

More recent development of two-stage evaporative coolers resolves most of those issues. By using outside air in a first stage to cool one side of the medium, but exhausting the now-moister air and then drawing in more outside air to pass over the already-cooled moist medium on the other side, the air can be cooled more with less addition of humidity. This is not as efficient as a one-stage swamp cooler under ideal conditions for their use (because it uses more fan power to move more air), but works in a much wider range of conditions, and can cool a space for about 1/3 the cost of conventional AC (SEERs of 40 vs AC’s 14). The fungus and microbial issues of old-style swamp coolers have been dealt with by a variety of automated purging and cleaning methods, though some disinfection and annual maintenance is still a good idea.

Many other factors influence comfort and can be tweaked to improve it; this house was not ideally oriented, with its long axis north-south and prime living areas facing west. The best designs for passive solar heating and cooling have the house laid out east-west, with a large southern overhang sized to allow in winter sun and keep out summer sun. There were 15-20 shades on the east and west sides of the house to adjust as solar incidence changes. A set of automated shades with a smart controller which can respond to conditions would handle that…. [ultimately a window technology which can be controllably tuned to allow in or block light and heat will simplify this problem, but while this has been an area of research for some time, no cheap and practical windows of this type exist.]

[Updating with a bit from Green Building Advisor, “Saving Energy With an Evaporative Cooler:”]

Whatever happened to the OASys?

Many articles on evaporative coolers mention the OASys, an energy-efficient appliance that was developed by engineers at the Davis Energy Group in Davis, California. Unfortunately, the OASys is no longer available.

For a while, the OASys was being manufactured by Speakman. After a while the production of the unit was moved to a factory in India. Because of poor sales, however, manufacturing was discontinued. The remaining units were shipped to a warehouse in Nevada, where a warehouse fire destroyed the entire inventory.

The end of an historical era

A few years ago I had a conversation about evaporative coolers with John Proctor, the president of Proctor Engineering Group in San Rafael, California. Proctor, a nationally known air conditioning expert, told me that evaporative coolers deserve wider use. “The problems with direct evaporative coolers are overblown,” notes Proctor. “I lived in an evaporatively cooled home in Colorado for many years and was extremely happy with it. It worked well. I’m befuddled by the fact that more people don’t use evaporative coolers.”

Like most GBA readers, Proctor is a strong advocate for the use of energy-efficient HVAC equipment, so his love of evaporative coolers isn’t too surprising. Although energy-efficiency advocates have been singing the praises of evaporative coolers for years, the tide seems to have turned away from these devices. Evaporative coolers are fading away.

A reporter for The Arizona Republic, Ryan Randazzo, described the trend in a 2010 article titled “Once-Common Evaporative Coolers Are Disappearing from Phoenix-Area Homes.” Randazzo wrote, “Now the metal boxes atop homes are rare, done in by a combination of cheap and increasingly energy-efficient air-conditioning and the time and expense of maintaining the coolers. Arizonans steadily have moved away from using the sometimes noisy, always drippy evaporative coolers, even though they may reduce energy bills.”

According to Randazzo, almost every Phoenix home had an evaporative cooler in 1940. In 1984, nearly half of all Phoenix residents still had one. By 2010, however, less than 10% of Phoenix homeowners had an evaporative cooler. “Most residents who still use them are either extremely cost-conscious, handy at fixing the units, or both,” Randazzo reported.

Randazzo continued, “New housing developments are limiting coolers’ use on roofs. And people are just happy to use an air-conditioner that rarely needs repairs vs. a cooler that needs rooftop service at least twice annually.”

Randazzo interviewed Mike Donley, president of Donley Service Center. Donley explained that “most people just tired of climbing on the roof in the spring to clean and activate their cooler, and getting up there again in the fall to clean it and seal it off. … ‘Coolers are a do-it-yourself project,’ Donley said. … ‘I hate to say this, but if you are going to [pay to] have us service it twice a year, you are better off buying a high-efficiency AC system,’ Donley said.”

So unless a manufacturer steps forward with a two-stage cooler that doesn’t require maintenance at all (which is possible; an automated device could clean itself, as ours did in part), people will think of it as too much trouble and move to use less efficient, overly drying AC.

Control Board
Control Board
The Air2O units had a microcontroller board to automate the cleaning cycles and run the different fans, valves, and pumps. This was a key weakness, since the software on the board was burned into an EEPROM — we were promised an update but that was never delivered. Engineering had shrunk to one key engineer, and the company went out of business soon after. The unit was constructed of sheet metal and some low-cost Chinese parts, including a motor that failed and had to be replaced at our expense. I bought a supply of colorful plug fuses since they burned out fairly often. After six months it was running smoothly and other than shutting down for winter and starting up again for summer, the units weren’t a lot of work to keep running.

This project wasn’t terribly expensive and eliminated 80% of the power used for AC, keeping most of the project house cool and comfortable at very low cost. But the next owner didn’t understand how the units worked and relied on the conventional AC units. Until the units are mass-produced by a consumer products company that designs them for ease of use, they won’t be practical for most people.

Some technical manuals and files from the Speakman Oasys – Air2O – CRS-2500 project:

Spec Sheet CRS-2500

Air2O Owner’s Manual

Air2O Installer’s Guide

Air2O CRS-2500 Specification Manual 20110101

PalmSprings [Excel document on evaporative cooling potential in Palm Springs, CA]

This is Not My Beautiful House

[Originally published June 5, 2016, at]

When I went to work at BBN Labs (a DARPA research shop, like a B-grade Xerox PARC or Bell Labs) in 1984 as a freshly-minted MIT graduate, my office was small and barren, with a desk, a VT-100 terminal, and a classic Mac. But it was still the age of the private office, and I’m thankful I never had to deal with the cubicle, or worse, the bullpen of today — I would never have been able to program with the noise and distractions.

The engineer next door had a leather couch and an oriental rug in his office, and art and geeky knick-knacks on shelves all around. Sometime during the first week, the headhunter / HR contractor who had recruited me stopped by. “Don’t get too comfortable. I mean, don’t spend a lot of time decorating.”

I didn’t know quite what he was getting at — interpreting it as philosophical advice, or perhaps practical because he had just seen the overdecorated office next door. Everything changes and ends, so best be prepared to move on as soon as you think you’ve arrived at your destination? Always have your bug-out bag packed and ready? But later I realized he meant he knew the Labs were splitting, with the part I was working for to be spun off to commercialize the BBN Butterfly multiprocessor. And in a few months we were in a new building next door, so decorating my office would have been a waste of time.

And so it is with houses. Last year we bought a large ten-year-old house for retirement. But this has me thinking of what the headhunter told me — and why I’ve spent so much time moving and fixing up places, hoping this time it would be Just Right….

College Avenue House
College Avenue House

By the time I started work at BBN I had been a landlord for five years, looking after a turn-of-the-century mansion that had been split up into four units during the Depression. It was my first venture into real estate investment — a grand three-story house on College Avenue between Tufts University and Davis Square, Somerville. I knew the Red Line subway extension would be coming to Davis Square, and at $70K the building was a good bet. I imagined doing all sorts of renovation, but while we lived in the ground floor apartment and I did do a lot of small upgrades for energy conservation and the like, I was too young and distracted to do anything major like finish the enormous attic into another glorious apartment as I had intended. And knowing what I know now, I realize I would have been stymied by the NIMBYs nearby anyway….

We had friends gutting and renovating houses in (crime-ridden, cheap) San Francisco (which is no longer cheap.) One time we were staying at their house while they had stripped their own bathroom down to the studs — which meant using a fully-exposed toilet. “Pretend there’s still a wall there.” The things we did when we were young and hungry…

I was getting into microcomputers and compilers and AI, which is how I ended up at BBN doing multiprocessor LISP for the SCI (Strategic Computing Initiative), which was supposed to be a government-funded response to the Japanese AI scare. Neither country cracked the problem, then both pulled the funding plug when no practical results happened — lots of money and effort went down the drain. This drying up of interest and collapse in AI research starting around 1986 is now called The AI Winter… which also crashed my next employer, Symbolics, when the beancounters decided to direct all researchers to buy Sun machines with Lisp compilers instead.

So because I had an absorbing job, I lost interest in the house projects, and it seemed like a good idea to free myself to move around by selling it. We got $350K for it; since we had borrowed all but $14K downpayment, that meant a profit of over $250K on a $15K investment, by the wonders of leverage and good luck. And the rents had largely paid for our own house expenses along the way, as rent controls ended, interest rates dropped, the subway opened, and investment started to flow back into the neighborhood, which today is highly desirable — Zillow thinks the building is worth $1.8 million now, 25x what we paid in 1978. Those conditions are unlikely to ever be repeated.

I entered a PhD program in computer science at Northeastern studying things like denotational semantics with Mitch Wand. A year of that was enough, and I moved to Vancouver to get away from the various unpleasantnesses of that era — escaping to a tiny apartment in a highrise tower in the West End.

First Bowen house framing stage
First Bowen house framing stage – 1992

I bought a big piece of land on Bowen Island and spent the next five years subdividing it, attacked by the Islands Trust and the antidevelopment faction on the island — which as it turned out, is retirement home to many Canadian bureaucrats. You really haven’t lived until people at a public meeting gang up to attack you as “an American developer.” The photo is of the first house being built in my subdivision, not by me — I never built my own house there, since I realized I wasn’t wanted.

Sunnyvale Eichler - 2007
Sunnyvale Eichler – 2007

I fought them to a draw and got out alive, though just barely. I ended up in California, where I picked up a new partner and bought an Eichler in Sunnyvale (photo above). That was my first real success at renovation — we updated the kitchen and baths, much of it “just enough” updating — for example, the 1969 bathrooms just needed new drop-in sinks and faucets to seem fresh, so I could do a lot of the work myself. We paid the dangerously-high sum of $600K for the house in 2000 and sold it for $1.2 million in 2007. Now Zillow claims it’s worth $1.7, showing how inflated values are in Silicon Valley….

View from Upper Market SF House
View from Upper Market SF House

We eventually ended up in the city of San Francisco itself, renting the top floor unit of a new building on upper Market Street. The developer built the largest building he could legally, and what he thought would sell — two condos in a five-story building, with the garage and entries in the middle floor.

The builder/developer made a few mistakes. First mistake: badly judging the market, which collapsed as he was finishing the project in 2008. Second mistake: the steel-framed center of the building didn’t settle, but the back end did, leaving our living room with an inch-high bulge running across the floor. Third mistake: the slate-tiled roof deck, planned hot tub and the garden box, which he never finished installing (but did fill with dirt.) The roof deck leaked. And leaked. And leaked — he rebuilt parts of it several times, while areas inside the house were soaked and had to be replaced. While it would be grand to sit in one’s rooftop hot tub watching the city lights and sipping Chardonnay, the reality never quite justified the trouble.

Market St Kitchen - Green Marble Counters!
Market St Kitchen – Green Marble Counters!

Meanwhile, the green marble countertops in the kitchen were probably chosen as a selling point — luxury! Green! Marble! But were horrible, since the slightest hint of acid — a lime, champagne, anything — etched the marble in ugly gray spots and rings. Despite our precautions, parts of it looked terrible in less than a year, and the owner had to bring in a refinisher to redo it and seal it again.

Nighttime View from Market St House
Nighttime View from Market St House

One last view from the Market Street place. The effect of the views eventually wore off, and we were left with the high rent, the leaks, the cold wind and fog that made the roof deck less than pleasant most of the time, and the steep walk up and down the hill to the gym.

Sevilla Great Hall - 2010
Sevilla Great Hall – 2010

Finally, we bought a big place in far south canyon Palm Springs. It came decorated in a sort of post-modern Beetlejuice style, not quite our taste but well-done. At over 6,000 sq. ft. it was a lot more house than we needed, but we were thinking one of our parents (or both?) might end up living with us, and of course we wanted room for guests. Neither of those really happened, so half the house was generally closed off.

The place had three dishwashers, three refrigerators, four water heaters, and six AC units. I replaced most of the ceiling lights with LED units, and since the AC bills were in the hundreds (and could easily have been in the thousands!), I looked into two-stage evaporative cooling.

Craning in Evaporative Coolers
Craning in Evaporative Coolers

Here you see one of the evaporative coolers being craned to the roof, where it was installed near the existing HVAC unit to share ducting. The concept of evaporative cooling takes advantage of the cooling effect of evaporation; the desert air is usually very dry, and under the right conditions evaporation can drive a surface down to near freezing temperature (the dew point is the theoretical limit, and that is often very cold — as I write it is 94 degrees outside, but the dew point is 37 degrees F.)

Normal evaporative coolers just run outside air over wet materials to cool and add moisture before sending it into the house. A two-stage cooler uses that effect to cool water, then expels the first stage air outside. The cold water is then sent to the next stage to chill outside air which is further cooled by running it over moist materials, but since the air is already cooled it gets a bit cooler and does not pick up so much moisture. The result is cool, clean, slightly moist air, perfect for a home in the desert. Running both units, we were able to cool the parts of the house we used most down to comfortable levels using less than 20% of the power used for AC, since all that was needed was a few showers a day worth of water and two big fans.

Control Board
Control Board

Unfortunately this super-advanced cooler was made by a pioneering company, and I soon had arrows in my back. No one knew how to install it, so I had to design the ducts myself. The computer control program would occasionally glitch, requiring a system reboot — cut the power and restart. When it was running, the air was much nicer than what you get from AC, but you had to understand how to open doors and windows just so to balance the system — air was being blown in cool and had to escape, so choice of open windows to distribute the coolth was an art.

It was no great strain for me to run it, but when our plans changed again and I was left alone in the house, it made no sense to keep the house for several more years. We put it up for sale. No one understood the coolers, since unlike solar panels virtually no one has ever seen one — the cheaper one-stage coolers, known as “swamp coolers” locally, have a reputation for being high-maintenance and the choice of people too poor to afford real AC. So that was no help at all in marketing the house, and I doubt the new owner ever used the instructions I left for him.

The Morrison, Phase 2 Construction
The Morrison, Phase 2 Construction – 2012

While waiting for that to sell, I put a deposit down on a unit to be built at The Morrison, a trendy modern development of detached houses on tiny lots, each with a small pool. One of the few developments that kept selling through the recession, and now a model for many copycat developments in Palm Springs. Above is a view of the construction site from our partly-furnished new house.

Finished Pool - 2013
Finished Pool – 2013

So again we had to move and set up a new place — change all the lighting to LED, buy new furniture, decorate. It always seems to be me that has the time and opportunity, so I do it. And years pass, and other things I could be focusing on don’t get done….

“Don’t get too comfortable. Don’t spend a lot of effort decorating,” as my HR guy told me long ago. Unless that’s what you want to do — specialization allows most of us to concentrate on what we’re best at, while farming out other tasks to people who specialize in those. When taxes are very high, there’s a big cost to hiring someone else to do something — you paid taxes on your income, and the people you hire pay taxes on what you pay them, and so on — which is why most of us try to do a lot of the work ourselves to save money. If I pay someone $1,000 to paint, I have to earn $1500-2000 more to make up for that expense. So I do the painting. And I get distracted, and do a worse job.

You can waste a lot of your life buying and selling houses, decorating and moving. I admire people who can stay in one spot for fifty years, happy with what they have — that’s not really me. We’ve moved one more time, and this time is the last! [He said, knowing it’s not true.]

Mansion Engineer

Welcome to Mansion Engineer, where we make bigger houses better.

Small houses are great for many people, but some of us want more space or have more family members than can fit into a smaller house. Mansion Engineer will report on ways to make big houses more efficient and easier to maintain. A big house doesn’t have to be wasteful, so if you own or are thinking of buying a big house, look here for projects to convert lighting to LEDs, add solar, and turn that white elephant into a green castle. You don’t have to live in a cramped house to be energy-thrifty.