Are we accepting plumbing-heating-cooling technology blindly?


I interviewed the iconic Canadian engineer Robert Bean, R.E.T., P.L. (Eng.) for a story I’m writing on the Internet of Things and smart/connected/communicating controls. Calgary, Alberta-based Bean, one of North America’s foremost experts on radiant heating and cooling, is calling B.S. on a lot of this technology and I think he’s right on many points.

Robert believes that the dollars are misdirected. He has a distaste for the technology because it diverts spending from creating better buildings. A better building has a better building shell, better insulation, better glass, better mechanical systems, better comfort, better indoor air quality, and better interior finishes (think natural materials such as wood and stone). Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on a thermostat, Robert says, why not spend that money on a high MERV filter for better indoor air quality? Robert’s personal preference for mechanical systems combines radiant for comfort with some forced air for IAQ.

“When you build a high-performance building like Passiv Haus,” Robert points out, “there’s no reason to put a smart thermostat into a Passiv Haus. It becomes dumb because it has nothing to do; there’s no load to begin with.”

The data is more valuable

The one advantage of smart/connected/communicating controls, he says, is that they gather data on how a building is being used and what the thermal and electrical loads are like. That helps him, as an engineer, to design better buildings. The data is more valuable, he believes, than whatever other function the control performs.

Robert and partners once owned a high-tech distribution company that sold all the bells and whistles like variable frequency drives and connected controls. It was staffed with really smart, well-trained people and they installed most of the technology in their own building, so they knew exactly how it worked. Once the products were out in the field, 99 percent of the problems were external to his company, Robert says, and 75 percent of those were related to wiring issues.

Now, in 2018, we’re introducing new technology at a dizzying rate while the supply of skilled labor is going down. What could go wrong?

So, Robert has gone back down the technology ladder. “Our first recommendation to our clients is to use thermostatic radiator valves,” Robert says. They’re bullet proof, they’re accurate, there’s no batteries or wiring, and the operations manual is about two pages long, with most of that being pictures. Better yet, if a service technician has to replace one of them 25 years from now, they’re available at your local wholesaler, just like they were back in 1993.

The reason the industry has gotten so wrapped up in smart/connected/communicating controls, he believes, is because everybody else is. Robert says his clients are not clamoring for him to design the most complicated building that he can. If, hypothetically, a client asked him for a really complicated building, he knows it would become his problem for at least a year, even if all the problems were installation errors by subcontractors.

Speaking of contractors, Robert believes that smart controls create headaches for them too. A really good contractor — Robert uses Dan Foley, Foley Mechanical, Lorton, Virginia, as an example — figures in plenty of commissioning time to muck around with the controls. A less experienced contractor, who doesn’t know that, would bid lower and the commissioning time would eat all of his profits.

The ideal structure

Robert’s ideal structure, a Passiv Haus design, can be heated with fluid temperatures of 75°F-77°F, about 20°F cooler than core body temperature. That’s so low that most heating appliances are overkill. Robert notes that natural gas burns at 3,400°F, an awful high temperature if you only need to make 80° water in a radiant floor. It would be best to heat water with a small heat pump, preferably powered by some sort of renewable energy.

Robert is absolutely right about all of this, but here comes the big but. We don’t live in a perfect world and most structures need a lot of technological help to make them comfortable. Those are the ones that can benefit from condensing boilers and smart thermostats, although added insulation and new windows should be included in the retrofit.

And some people really like all the gadgetry involved in controlling everything in their house with their phones.

Not Robert, though. “I don’t want a relationship with my fridge,” he says. “I want a relationship with my guitar. I want a relationship with my fishing rod.”

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