The Problem With Heat Pumps (Or Why We Won’t Buy One Yet)

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A year ago this month, Kate and I bought our first house together. Ultimately we’re planning for a very different configuration, but at the moment it’s a pretty standard single floor ranch. Though the original part of the house dates back to the seventies, we were pleasantly surprised when our inspection revealed that the property was both well insulated and included a furnace of recent vintage – albeit one that ran on expensive fuel oil.

The big problem with these two findings is that neither was true.

This past winter was hard on everyone, and compared to many, we don’t have much to complain about. So let me complain about the size of our heating bills. First, because the furnace was (theoretically) current and therefore efficient. Second, because we had locked in at a price that was $0.20 less than what heating oil eventually peaked at. Third, because we had invested ahead of the heating season in Nest thermostats to help maximize our savings. And last, and most importantly, because we keep our house cold. Not as cold as these guys, but cold. During the week, our program for the Nest is simple: we keep the house at 50 degrees except for an hour in the morning and three or four at night – when we splurge and bump the heat up to 60. Weekends are a little more liberal for obvious reasons, but we were in the top 25% of Nest users every month of the winter in terms of relative efficiency, and the top 15% for two.

While oil is expensive then, we didn’t expect to be paying hundreds and hundreds a month to keep the house just this side of a meat locker. In spite of the horrific nature of the winter.

Which helps explain why we engaged the services of an energy auditor (DeWitt Kimball out of Brunswick, whom I highly recommend). He delivered the first piece of bad news: our adequate insulation situation was considerably less adequate that we had been told. Attics, for example, have a recommended R factor of 40+. Ours was, charitably, in the high teens. Which doesn’t factor in the other various insulation failures we have in a few older windows, the basement door and so on. According the blower test, our house places in the top third of “leaky” homes. We were paying all season, therefore, to heat the outdoors. Which we’ll be addressing by insulating. Heavily.

The far more expensive problem, however, was one we discovered prior to our audit. The oil furnace we thought had been installed in 2005 actually dated – by serial number – to 1992. Our primary heat source, in other words, was 22 years older than we had believed. 22 years less efficient.

The auditor’s recommended solution for heating issue was to keep the oil furnace in place, but to complement it with a “ductless mini-split heat pump,” which are generically referred to as heat pumps or heat exchangers. Popular in both Asia and Europe, these systems are hyper-efficient because they don’t actually use energy to create heat, they simply move it from one place to another – much as your refrigerator does. If a propane furnace is 80 something percent efficient and an oil furnace 90ish (due to the nature of the two fuels), a heat pump is closer to 250% efficient. Couple that with the fact that electricity in Maine is much cheaper on a relative basis than fuel oil – and potentially can be generated on premise were we to invest in solar – and the heat pumps appeared to be a perfect solution. Oh, and you can reverse the direction of the heat exchange and use them as air conditioners in the summer.

The most obvious downside of heat pumps, the fact that they perform less efficiently as the temperatures decline – eventually ceasing to function well below zero – would be a non-issue for us as we already have an auxiliary heat system in place for the few days we see real, deep cold. For most of the winter when the temperatures are 20 degrees fahrenheit and above, we could heat the house using the cheaper and more efficient heat pump. For the day here or there that it got seriously below zero, we could fall back on the oil furnace.

The more I read about heat pumps, the better they sounded. One guy on Martha’s Vineyard heated his house for a year for the grand total of $250 – a fraction of what we paid per month. Another from Presque Isle, almost as far north as you can go in Maine without being in Canada, estimated that he’d save $1,000 a year.

And yet there’s effectively no chance we’ll invest in the technology this year. Why? Because their interfaces are entirely proprietary.

When doing the initial research, I assumed that if there was a problem integrating heat pumps into our existing infrastructure, it would be with our two Nest units. But as it turns out, Nest is more than capable of working with heat pumps as well as an auxiliary heat source like our oil furnace. Called “Heat Pump Balance,” it essentially allows you to use the heat pump until the outside temperature renders it inefficient, then kick in a backup. Perfect.

Except for the fact that, as nearly as I can determine, the best and most efficient heat pumps – manufactured by Fujitsu and Mitsubishi – cannot be integrated into existing thermostat systems, Nest or otherwise. This was the response I got from Fujitsu when I asked about whether their system could be integrated with the Nest or even a standard thermostat:

Our systems can only work with our controllers, they cannot be controlled with the Nest thermostat. At this time there is no way to connect it to the Nest unfortunately.

Essentially, these heat pumps have to be installed as a completely separate system, one entirely independent of your existing HVAC infrastructure – Nest or otherwise. The only way to control the devices is with specialized equipment supplied by the vendor. Which means that we would have two independent, unintegrated heating control systems. Honeywell customer support described the situation to one Mitsubishi customer as follows:

The MIFH1, although built by Honeywell, uses a proprietary Mitsubishi communication protocol to translate and transfer commands between the Mitsubishi equipment and the RedLink enabled products that can also be used with it.

In other words, Mitsubishi’s integration with Honeywell’s Redlink system is a one-off, non-standard connection. Unlike virtually every other piece of HVAC equipment you could buy – air conditioners, gas/oil/propane furnaces, etc – heat pumps cannot leverage standardized thermostat connections. Even if said thermostat, like the Nest, has built-in, native support for heat pumps.

It is somewhat ironic that the most state-of-the-art, technologically sophisticated heating system currently available is unable to integrate with something as basic as a thermostat, but that is the current reality. Which means in turn that as a potential customer, I’m being asked to invest thousands of dollars in a product that cannot be controlled remotely, cannot be leveraged in conjunction with other heating systems, and can’t report telemetry back to somewhere I could use it.

But maybe the real irony is that I won’t invest in these technological marvels for lack of such basic functionality. Even if I could make two independent heating systems work together, I’d be kicking myself next year, or the year after, or whenever Fujitsu, Mitsubishi et al figure out that people want their heating and cooling systems to a) be aware of one another and b) work with each other. It may cost us in the short term with higher heating bills, but it certainly beats paying for heat pumps now, and then again later when the vendors have seen the light and let them work with our Nest units.

In the (hopefully) likely event that Fujitsu and Mitsubishi eventually see the light, my message to them would be simple.

Shut-up-and-take-my-money

A Year of Steps

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A year ago last week I got a Fitbit Flex. I have worn it every day since, which means that with a few exceptions when I inadvertently let the battery die, it has tracked every step I’ve taken.

This wasn’t much of a chore, because the device itself mostly stays out of my way. The battery life is solid; I only charge it every five or six days. The fact that it’s mostly waterproof also helps. It stays on in the shower, and I’ve swum with it in both salt and fresh water with no issues.

Having a daily goal – 12,000 steps, in my case – helps incent good behaviors. Taking the stairs instead of an escalator. Walking to lunch instead of driving. And, much to the frustration of the occasional passenger, parking as far away from a store as its parking lot allows.

While the daily numbers are useful, however, zooming out to look at the data over longer periods of time is illuminating. The chart above depicts a year’s worth of steps.

Over the calendar year plus I’ve averaged 9,340 steps. Which is shy of my 12,000 step goal, but not that far from the 10,000 commonly recommended. It’s also easy to spot patterns in the data that aren’t as obvious when your focus is day to day: greater activity in the summer, with a decline in the winter and during the spring conference season. Theoretically the weather shouldn’t have a huge impact on my activity level thanks to the tread-desk I have at the office, but when the winter is bad enough that I can’t even get there – like this winter, it shows up in the data.

A third of consumers, reportedly, abandon devices like the Fitbit after purchasing them. A year in, I can’t imagine doing that. Just as it’s interesting to look back on a year to examine month to month trends, I’m hoping to be comparing year-to-year trends eventually.

For now, though, I’ll have to work on picking the activity back up so that this summer’s data looks like last’s.

I Remember Books

Stephen King: Night Shift

The last physical book I read was a well worn 1978 paperback copy of Stephen King’s short story collection Night Shift on January 2nd of this year. The fact that I can tell you this says more than I’d like it to about my changing relationship with books.

I’ve always had a lot of books. My parents, both readers, encouraged my brother and I to read at an early age first by reading books to us and then by buying them for us. Old enough to buy them on my own, I did, in volume. I’ve moved maybe a dozen times since college, and the only thing that followed me from state to state, city to city was my books. Boxes and boxes, all heavy, of books. Kate is just as bad. Between us we’ve got one entire room paneled with books, one half of another and two more large bookshelves filled with boxes left over. This is with the majority of the books from my childhood still with my parents.

My problem isn’t that I don’t love books. It’s that convenience kills.

I was an easy and early convert to digital music. I appreciate the affection that many maintain for physical recordings, particularly vinyl. But I could not get rid of my physical music collection fast enough. This was literally true: between small, slow spinning disks and anemic processors hard pressed to compress my CD’s efficiently, converting to digital music was a chore. And yet one I embraced.

Books, though, held out.

I’ve been traveling heavily for almost twenty years. For maybe nine or ten months of every year, I spend some portion of those months on the proverbial plane, train or automobile headed somewhere to do something. For the majority of that decade plus, I dragged physical books with me. One of the most important parts of my pre-flight ritual, in fact, was ensuring that I’d packed enough reading material to get me through a trip – the alternative being paying twice as much for a book I didn’t actually want at an airport Hudson News.

It’s true that for a part of the last decade my alternatives to physical books were limited. The Kindle wasn’t introduced until 2007, and the e-readers that predated it were primitive in design and limited in titles. As for audiobooks, they were both expensive and difficult to manage on the basic interfaces of the first iPods. But the Kindle has been a practical replacement for physical media for most of its lifespan, which is seven years now. As for audiobooks, I haven’t really had any excuses about avoiding them since getting my first iPhone in December of 2007.

Through 2012, however, I resisted. An audiobook here, a free classic on the Kindle app there, but most of all good physical books. Looking back, however, I’m fairly confident I haven’t read an actual book since then. There was no epiphany, no breaking point, no watershed decision that I can recall. The surrender was so gradual, actually, that I missed it.

The good news is that I’m reading as much or more than in years past. The internet and its infinite distractions notwithstanding, I’ve plowed through everything from McCullough’s 1776 to Wasik and Murphy’s Rabid to Chandler’s the Lady in the Lake in one digital format or another. I even made it halfway through Bleak House before half a dozen people on Twitter talked me out of it. When I’m on a plane, the Kindle app is open unless the Red Sox are on in-flight TV or I’ve got a deadline to meet. And while my commute is less than half of what it was before we moved to Freeport, that’s forty minutes per day that I can reallocate to a book.

The bad news is only bad news, I guess, if you appreciate physical books. The bad news, then, is that I’m is going on sixteen months where I’ve opened one once. As much as I’ve tried to reintegrate them into my life, it’s not exactly taking. Maybe it’ll be different sitting out on the deck by the river this summer, but I’m not hopeful. Which is actually the worse news. Bad as not reading books is, not being able to even project to read any for the foreseeable future is downright depressing.

There’s no getting around it: audiobooks and ebooks are simply more convenient than their physical counterparts. One of the biggest advantages they enjoyed, meanwhile, was eliminated by the FAA when the organization did away with its restrictions on phone/tablet usage during takeoff and landing.

That said, I’m not giving up on a comeback for the real thing. And I’m certainly not giving up my books. As long as they’re kicking around, there’s always the chance that I’ll find the key to getting back on that particular horse. And worst case, there’s something comforting about having them around, even if it’s just as a reminder of how life used to be.

My 2013 in Pictures

It’s been a few years since I did an annual wrap up post. Where a few years equals seven. While it’s taken me longer than it should have to realize it, however, I miss them. True, the posts are really only relevant to me, but as a sucker for nostalgia, I have always enjoyed revisiting these snapshots years later. The little flashes of memory – I remember that trip – is worth the relatively minimal effort involved.

This year, I’m doing it a bit differently. Having a smartphone has not only killed off my SLR, it’s meant that significant – and not so significant – moments are all documented. Not to mention, conveniently backed up for me online by Google. So instead of a list of links, this is my year in pictures.

Before we get to the pictures, however, a few quick numbers courtesy of FitBit and TripIt (the latter via this little tool):

  • From late May, when I got my FitBit flex, through December 31st I took 2,415,119 steps
  • FitBit translates that as ~1,170 miles
  • I flew 85,886 miles
  • 43 of my 62 flights were on JetBlue
  • I spent over 2 full days in transit to and from San Francisco
  • I actually flew out of Boston (26) 4 times more than Portland (22)

The goal for this year is to travel less than I did last. Which sadly is not likely. But anyway, on to the pictures:

January 1, 2013

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Spent New Year’s Day walking at Reid State Park in Georgetown.

January 6, 2013

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In Fort Lauderdale for work, I visited Slip F-18 at the Bahia Mar marina as a gesture of respect to one of my favorite authors. McGee would not recognize the place these days.

January 9, 2013

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My first book, The New Kingmakers, was published by O’Reilly.

January 31, 2013

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Attended the Monki Gras in London, which was excellent.

February 1, 2013

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Caught the Eurostar to Brussels

February 2, 2013

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Hit my favorite bar in Brussels with friends and co-workers.

February 7, 2013

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Got a treadmill desk. Still love it, a year later.

February 24, 2013

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Got snowed in in Georgetown.

March 14, 2013

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While house hunting, viewed a property right on the water in Freeport.

March 16, 2013

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Went to the boat show.

March 21, 2013

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As a function of their move, my parents finally sold my first car, a ’73 Mustang. It wasn’t one of the pretty Mustangs, and it had a ton of mechanical issues, but I really loved that car. It is missed.

March 26, 2013

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Did my first (and only) book signing. In a bar.

April 13, 2013

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Visited In’finiti, the newest Portland craft beer venue, for the first time.

April 15, 2013

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Had to turn down tickets to the Patriot’s Day game due to a conference in Portland, OR. Watched the bombings unfold from there. Coped.

April 27, 2013

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Approximately 24 hours before our scheduled closing on the property on the water in Freeport, our USAA-backed lender informed us we would not close, requesting documentation we had provided twice previously.

May 8, 2013

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Using local bank, closed on the property on the water in Freeport.

May 9, 2013

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Commenced second career as general contractor.

May 21, 2013

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Visited friends, and the Crooked Stave brewery, in Denver.

May 26, 2013

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First dinner of the season at the Osprey.

May 31, 2013

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My friend Alex announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer.

June 1, 2013

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With Corey’s help, ripped out two closets to free up floor space.

June 6, 2013

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For the first time in 40 years, my parents were once again residents of New England. And after a mere six months in Maine, my Dad has gone completely native.

June 15, 2013

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Unable to successfully conceal an injury from Kate thanks to some pulsing blood, was forced to go to the ER. Total stitches required? 3.

June 22, 2013

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Attended Shelton Brothers’ The Festival in Portland, ME.

June 30, 2013

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With my brother, took my godson to his first Red Sox game. He made it through five full innings. The Red Sox won.

July 4, 2013

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Spent July 4th on the Eastern Prom with friends.

July 10, 2013

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Late, but got the boat in the water.

July 13, 2013

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Visited brother/sister in law up in Chamberlain.

July 23, 2013

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Thanks to Kate, got to go on the field at Fenway.

August 17, 2013

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Weekend at Sugarloaf with my in-laws.

August 24, 2013

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Ryan and Shawn’s wedding.

August 30, 2013

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Finished tiling the backsplash in the kitchen.

August 30, 2013

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Annual pilgrimmage to Houston Brook Falls.

September 13, 2013

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Thanks to very good – and very generous – friends, had my 1000th unique beer on Untappd. The selection? A 1972 Kriek brewed by a defunct Flemish brewery called Felix.

September 20, 2013

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Removed our old front door.

September 21, 2013

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Kim and Sheila’s wedding.

October 3, 2013

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The Monktoberfest.

October 7, 2013

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Post-Monktoberfest visit to the Allagash brewery. This is the barrel room.

October 23, 2013

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Caught Game 1 of the World Series from the Connecticut Yankee in San Francisco, CA.

October 26, 2013

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Goods from the Woods at the Oxbow Brewery, Newcastle, ME.

October 30, 2013

November 2, 2013

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Took the boat around to get hauled.

December 31, 2013

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And to ring in the New Year, a marathon Hearts session.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

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I would love to tell you that I spent my vacation at places like Houston Brook Falls. But we’re homeowners now, so vacation is just another word for work. While I did take an afternoon off for my annual pilgrimage to swim under the falls, I’ve spent the majority of the past few weeks covered in some combination of grout, mastic, paint, sawdust, stone dust, wood glue and tiny shards of tile.

On the one hand, this is less exciting that than killing lazy August afternoons on the boat with a growler of Oxbow and a couple of John D MacDonald novels. On the other, a lot got done.

This, for example, was our kitchen when we moved in.

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After finishing off the tile – and for your sake, don’t look to closely at the grout lines or you’ll get seasick – this is what it looks like today.

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Even with the amateur hour backsplash, that seems objectively better.

One of the other projects was getting our brand new LG washer and dryer off the concrete floor in our basement – apparently elevating the machines extends their lifespan along with making them easier to use.

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Rather than pony up $600 for the official LG laundry pedestals, $70 worth of plywood and 2×4’s along with a borrowed miter saw produced a platform that has been charitably described as “functional.” As an aside, if any of you need to manufacture something similar, I used the plans here, modifying the dimensions slightly for our larger, heavier equipment.

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With an assist from my father and brother – my wife didn’t think I should lift the 226 lb washer by myself, oddly – they’re now elevated to a more convenient level.

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Outside the aforementioned basement, meanwhile, our walkout was a lumpy, uneven and moss penetrated disgusting slab of asphalt. Which tore out, fortunately enough, in sheets courtesy of a pick axe. Into the hole that created went a hundred pounds of stone dust and surplus flagstones my parents had left over from their front walk project.

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It needs to settle and then be edged, but as with the kitchen, it’s an improvement even as is.

Interspersed with these larger projects were the predictable volume of smaller ones: leveling the dishwasher, priming and painting unfinished bookshelves, repairing and re-caulking seals in the shower, securing loose water pipes to joists and so on.

All in all, it was a unique vacation. But undeniably a productive one. The other silver lining? Working on a computer never seems more attractive than after you’ve spend a couple of days almost cutting your fingers off with a tile saw.

Tl;dr? I’m really looking forward to getting back to work tomorrow. Vacation is hard.

So We Bought a House

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If you’re looking to buy or sell real estate, you want to pay close attention to my wife and me. Not in a good way. After we married and were comfortably settled in Maine, it became clear that owning a loft 2200 miles away in Denver was less than ideal. So we put it on the market. A new, modern apartment – with a huge patio and two parking spaces downtown, even – it should have been easy to move. Except that we listed it in the midst of the worst real estate market the US had seen in decades, and possibly since the Great Depression.

Real estate crashes too shall pass, however, and eventually we found ourselves a buyer. We even managed to eke out a profit in the process.

Free of the Denver anchor, our attention turned to finding a home of our own in Maine. There was just one problem: the real estate market had recovered. In a major way. Every day NPR had new, “thrilling” news about the housing recovery. Thrilling news that was terrifying from a buyer’s perspective. When our broker informed us that inventory was so tight that even average properties were getting upwards of four offers the same day they were listed – as if Maine had somehow become San Francisco – it was pretty clear that we were doomed.

Then one random Friday a property that we had looked at last fall, and had assumed to have been sold, hit Zillow. After debating over the weekend, we decided to schedule a showing first thing Monday morning. So obviously it went under contract that day.

In the end, however, as it so often does for me – eventually – things worked themselves out. Having struck out on one property from the fall, we looked up another we assumed had sold. As with the first, it hadn’t: did we want to take a look? It was a few weeks away from listing, but available. On the water, in Freeport, with a huge deck? Why the hell not?

Two plus months later – and a horrific secondary mortgage market disaster that will be fully chronicled in gory detail for posterity at a later date – we closed on the home, finalizing the paperwork late this afternoon.

The most immediate change as a result of our move involves our respective commutes. My wife’s is maybe ten minutes shorter; mine is almost thirty. If thirty minutes doesn’t sound like a lot, remember what an extra half hour of sleep means before a 6 AM flight. The only real downside to the location is that we moved ten miles further from the Oxbow brewery up in Newcastle, though it’s worth noting that we’re now less than three miles from the Maine Beer Company.

Longer term, we are both of us going to learn a lot about home improvement, because it needs a lot of improvement. Everything you need to know about our plans for the property – which is, to be fair, completely livable at present – can be summed up in two purchases: the ten pound sledgehammer I bought at Aubuchon Hardware two days ago, and the Senco drywall screwgun that Amazon delivered today. Oh, and the Benjamin Moore paint my wife picked up on the way to our closing.

But to be on the water, in a good town that halves my commute, I’m happy to trade some labor. Particularly because I actually enjoy working with my hands. If you have suggestions on that front, by the way – I’ve already discovered the Finehomebuilding.com YouTube channel – please sing out.

In the meantime, it’s time for me to get back to packing up our beer cellar. The new house, after all, has a corner room in the basement with no windows.

Question 1

As a rule, I do not discuss politics. Not on Facebook, not on Twitter, not here. Three years ago, I made an exception to that rule and publicly commented on a political matter. Not because it affected me personally, but because I don’t believe it to be a political matter. For me it was a matter of standing up for what I believe to be right.

In November 2009 Maine had a chance to make history, to become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage via the legislative process with a governor’s signature. Instead, the law was overturned by a state referendum, 300,848 to 267,828, on November 3rd.

The defeat was a surprise. Polls had shown support for same-sex marriage, and Nate Silver forecast a narrow victory for advocates of same-sex marriage. But the loss at the polls was more surprising because the vote seemed at odds with who we are as Mainers.

Liberal or conservative, the people of Maine have something of a deserved reputation for being private. Minding your own business is a way of life in this state, which admittedly can be an adjustment for transplants. That a majority of the population, then, felt it necessary to vote in a way that negatively affects other Mainers’ lives was as baffling as it was disappointing.

In the aftermath of that decision, however, it became apparent that much of the opposition to same-sex marriage was based upon what we refer to in the technology industry as FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt. Nor was this an accident: as the head of the campaign to overturn the law says in the first minute of this documentary, “All you have to do is create doubt. You don’t have to convince people that you’re right.”

Many Mainers believed, as an example, that the same-sex marriage law meant that homosexuality would be taught in schools, even when the Maine Attorney General had confirmed otherwise. Others whose faith prohibits same-sex relationships were concerned that their respective churches would be required to perform same-sex marriages, which was not the case.

This November, same-sex marriage is back on the ballot. It remains to be seen what difference three years have made with respect to the levels of fear, uncertainty and doubt. Certainly some have changed their minds upon further consideration. For me, however, this is still a simple matter. As an American, I – like WWII veteran and lifelong Republican Philip Spooner above – believe that “the proposition that all men are created equal” is one of the things that makes this country great, and a country worth dying for. Whether someone was born gay or straight, therefore, can have no bearing on the “unalienable rights” granted to them as an American. And as a Mainer, I believe in minding my own business. Even if I personally opposed gay marriage, I would not favor legislation that imposed my personal beliefs on someone that did not share them.

And ultimately, that’s what opposing same-sex marriage is about. It is about imposing your objections – whether those are personal, religious or otherwise in nature – on your neighbors. And that is not what this country was founded for.

If you live in Maine, then, I would ask you to please Vote Yes on Question 1. In 2009 Mainers voted to deny other Mainers equal rights. We can do better this year.

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