Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Building for Earthquakes and Hurricanes

By Elaine Meinel Supkis

No building codes anywhere mandate doing what I did on my own house when I framed it out. Namely, all components are tied to each other with metal and the rafters are not held down by mere hurricane straps which are small but are attached over the top and under the bottom of the top plate and the rafter.

When high winds hit and we were narrowly missed by two catagory two tornadoes, the house doesn't even creak. The windows will flex and groan but the house doesn't move at all. We have had 90 mph winds strike us and the silence is astonishing. After living ten years in a tent, it is refreshing.

Some readers here think California has really good earthquake standards for building. I know that if one is an anal-retentive sort like myself, can build a very good house that can survive a hurricane or earthquake but since all this stuff costs a lot of time and money and is invisible, the chances of the average person or building appealing to them, doing this is around zero.

If they do have codes, they always are minimal. This is normal for governments because if it is greater, property developers complain bitterly since it ups the costs while producing nothing tangible (except on doom's day!). I went around looking for examples of the building codes but to read them, you have to pay over $25 so I thought, well, let's see what other writers have to say about all this.


Official California US Goverment site:
Homeowner’s and renter’s insurance policies do not cover losses related to earthquakes.
A separate earthquake insurance policy is one way to help protect your home, in addition to seismic retrofitting.
Earthquake insurance also helps with additional living expenses in the days and weeks after earthquakes.
A staggering 86% of California homeowners do not yet have earthquake insurance.
I do suggest anyone in earthquake territory to visit this site. Fascinating pictures. About the 86% of California without insurance: guess what! If we get clobbered again, Uncle Sam won't be able to do anything at all unless the Japanese decide to take even more of America. Sitting around, goofing off, bidding up the price of each other's possibly doomed housing is total insanity.

Banks bankrolling this insanity are criminal. I know that if you get a mortgage out in my neck of the woods, they require various forms of insurance. Yet in California, with a 100% chance that a house will be hit by an earthquake sometime in the next 50 years, having no insurance on the most expensive housing outside of Midtown Manhattan is just asking for a country to collapse.

Talking about collapsing, here are some schematic drawings of how I put my house together:

Note the diagonal cross studding and the middle pieces. This reinforces all corners including where interior walls join the outside framework. Unlike mere metal strapping, this prevents listing or shifting. I looked into some of the California building codes and laughed my head off, what little I could find.

What they consider to be a great way to strengthen the walls is to put up 1/2" sheets of plywood and then nail the hell out of it! Hahaha. I could die laughing. I used 3/4" plywood on my own house! 1/2" is significantly weaker. I can prove this by having my small draft horse walk on a sheet of that vs the heavier stuff. 1/2" will flex and break.

I couldn't find the standards for strapping but I did note that the government web sites had many references to water damage and other hazards but no big boxes with red earthquake information! It was really eerie. I went through the websites of various cities and towns and gave up. It shows how la-la people are in California.

I have lived through earthquakes there. A sister barely survived the Northridge quake. I had to rebuild my parent's house after the Pasadena quake. So I am not naive about all this.

Here is an interesting site that happens to agree with me that California isn't taking earthquakes very seriously. From Drworld:
The California Building Code offers only minimal protection from seismic damage, i.e., a structure should not be damaged in a minor earthquake, damaged beyond repair in a moderate earthquake, nor collapse in a major earthquake. However new technologies, such as seismic isolation, can mitigate both structural and building contents damage and are becoming available to government and industry. There is a need for design professionals, building officials, planners, and building owners to become aware of these new technologies, the criteria for their use, and how to incorporate them into practice.
As I said earlier, the pressure to have the government allow builders to take the cheap-o way out always trumps doing things right.

The fact that virtually no one in California has insurance after allowing builders to erect stuff that really isn't suitable is a crime because they will want us to rescue them all when tragedy hits and this irresponsibility coupled with sneering about how rich they all are thanks to bidding up the price of these uninsured structures...steams the hell out of me!

Here is another issue inhibiting builders from advertising or using interesting technologies:
Government may also set an example. The state must facilitate the use of new earthquake hazard mitigating technologies by using them in state buildings and creating a positive environment for these new strategies in the private sector.
one incentive would be liability protection for professionals who incorporate new designs into projects. In a highly litigious society, architects and engineers are now caught between two legal mandates in building design. On the one hand, any deviation from codified practices using earthquake mitigation technologies could result in a lawsuit. On the other hand, a design professional can be sued for not using new technology superior to code requirements. Most design professionals prefer to adhere to the code.
Building owners must be convinced that insurance will not indemnify all losses due to earthquakes, and that the best insurance is prevention of damage through design.
In other words, if one claims a building is better in earthquakes, then one can be sued if, say, an 8.2 quake hits and the building fails! This is why the still bare minimal building codes are such a disaster. All seems well until the Big One hits. Then all is definitely not well. Remember, the codes are not to keep the housing intact but to prevent death. Habitability is a whole different issue.

California could do the nation a favor by requiring banks loaning money to buy housing to not close the deal until the buyers get insurance that covers the loan. This would have kept the housing market sane since tacking on the extra $100 a month for insurance ($500 a month if the liability is over $500,000!) would have kept the market down and discouraged speculators. And if an earthquake happens, the government won't be asked to fork over $600 billion to the over-extended, over built, over the top California realestate market.

This coming earthquake is going to cost us dearly.
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Sunday, January 01, 2006

Examining Geo Thermal Heating/Cooling: the Natural Solution

By Elaine Meinel Supkis

The New York Times talks about geo thermal heating today but has little real information so I will fill in the gaps.

From the NYT:
Energy legislation last summer increased the financial support for these systems. The law provides for $300 in federal tax incentives and includes a provision allowing for a $2,000 federal incentive for home improvements that reduce energy costs by more than 50 percent. Geothermal systems can trim 30 percent to 75 percent of the cost to heat and cool, so many installations would qualify.

But the biggest driver is the cost of fossil fuel. With the Energy Department predicting huge jumps in residential oil and natural gas costs for winter heating - 27 percent for oil and 41 percent for gas - shipments of geothermal pumps doubled during the last three months, Ms. Commins said.

Now, "the front-end costs are within reach," said Roy Mink, director of the Energy Department's geothermal program. At the same time, he said, "there's more competition for geothermal business, and that's driving down the price of installing them by 10 percent."
The article lauds this system and it is a good system to try installing. Coupled with a large solar/wind array and one can live free of the system and stresses while still enjoying that wonderful bubble technology and civilization and cheap fossil fuels have made us accustomed to.

Explaning this system is easier with diagrams. I got some of the raw material from these sites, all of which are good places to visit: Alliant Energy Geothermal Systems or International Groundsource Heat Pump Association. Googling "geothermal heating systems" brings up quite a few websites, too.

Here is an aerial view of a horizontal system layout which is installed just like any septic system, only it is over 4' deep, 5' in the far north. It has to be below the frostline or it won't work well in winter, obviously, colder than freezing is no good. But the general idea is, the ground below a certain level (in Alaska, more than 12' down!) is fairly stable in temperature. So if you run a glyerine/water fluid through a series of pipes buried in the warmer sublayers of earth, the pumping action caused the fluid to warm up in winter or cool off in summer, in other words, you pump in opposite directions during the seasonal changes.

Where there isn't enough earth to run pipes, the more expensive way is to drill deep holes.

The water travels down and then is pulled back up and the heat exchange happens during this process. For example, since a drilling rig is quite large, one can drill in the front yard of a house, after checking for gas lines and water lines, of course, and then rig up the system that way though, of course, building with this in mind is much better than retrofitting, of course. The well we drilled on our mountain for water went down over 500' and cost us $3500 ten years ago so you can see, it isn't cheap.

Calculating how many feet of pipe one needs for either system is complicated. Square footage to heat, how well the house is insulated and type of soil/rock and even the moisture level matters and must be figured out, there are computer programs that do this available, but again, it isn't cheap because you need a geologist if one is drilling deep, for example.

I do a lot of backhoe work and know the layers and qualities of the top 10' of people's property and have dug in sand, loam, mixed rock and heavy shale, for example. Time digging and barriers encountered like digging up rocks bigger than bathtubs or Volkswagens costs more and shale, for example, is pure hell. I intend to eventually install this sort of system. My own mountain has both tons of room and is well hydrolated so it is an excellent site to use this system. I already have infloor heating tubes installed so hooking up a hot water/cold air in summer exchange system will be easy and excavation and pipe laying costs will be minimal since I can do all that, myself.

But is is a very ambitious project.

This is the inside the house part of the system, the pumps and coils and compressors. It operates just like your refrigerator. Note that airconditioners and refrigerators produce a lot of heat. The heat pumped out during heatwaves from airconditioners is very bad for the environment and should be eliminated just to save our planet if nothing else! The heat in summer isn't shoved outside to roast the neighbors, it is recycled into the earth! In winter, the evaporator becomes a humidifier, everything is in reverse, same system, just switch to the opposite pumps and away you go!

Easy as can be!

The compressor uses up a good amount of energy, of course. In my case, since I heat right now with wood from the forest, it costs me next to nothing to heat but I have to be around all the time to keep the place warm which is a major bummer. So even though my electrical bill might be $1,200 a year if I use this system, it is better than paying triple that for heating and cooling using traditional modern methods.

This system should definitely be used in the deep South. Right now, we are burning up massive amounts of fossil fuels in the form of coal and natural gas, in order to provide massive amounts of electricity to cool down everyone. And all those aircompressors are flooding the enviroment with hot air, a very bad thing indeed.

For the past ten years, we should have mandated all new multi-family buildings have this geothermal system but of course, this was put off, disasterously, in the deluded belief, there would never be an energy crisis.

From Stockholm:
Concerned with rising prices, a Swedish coop has switched to a heat pump system in a move that could set a precedent in chilly Stockholm.

Electrically driven, the system works by drawing geothermal heat from a hole drilled in the bedrock below the coop. The hole contains a pipe filled with liquid (70% water and 30% ethanol). The liquid is circulated by the pump, with the heat then transferred into the water borne central heating and hot water system.

At current prices, the coop would consume $30,000 annually in heating oil. With the new system costing only $10,500 annually, the coop stands to save hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.

A combination of high-energy prices, cold temperatures and estate values could result in more coops making the switch to heat pumps – which may not be welcome news to Fortum, the Finnish energy company that owns half of the district heating system and oversaw a 40% rise in energy prices since 2002.
Just to keep balance of payments under control it behooves us all to change over our systems today!

There is worse, just look at the agony going on tonight in Europe, thanks to a natural gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine! From the BBC:
Russian gas supplies to Ukraine will be cut at 0700 GMT on Sunday, state-owned firm Gazprom announced after last-ditch talks failed to settle a price dispute.
The row erupted after Ukraine rejected Russian plans for a 460% price rise.
A shot across our prow! After Enron reamed out California, after all the oil companies reamed us out after the hurricanes, anyone who thinks they won't get reamed out will be screwed all to hell one fine day. So investing in systems that protect oneself from this sort of energy chaos is well worth it.

In particular, schools and businesses should be required to use these systems. Right now, they are major energy wasters, many are mostly windows with nearly no walls and recapturing and recycling the heat or cold from inside as well as in the earth should be standard for all modern buildings. Most architecture is insane recklessness predicated on irresponsible consumtion of nonrenewable resources.

Geothermal is just one more key element in retrofitting America for tomorrow. Time's awasting! Look at how destabilized the world's ecosystems are thanks to human abuse of fossil fuel energy systems!
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