Why not Take the Train?

It is not always easy to come up with a topic to write about each week.  For this article, I asked a couple friends what is a topic they would be interested in me writing about.  Amidst a few different responses one friend asked, “How much coal does it take to get from here to Maine and back?”  At first this didn’t seem to really fit what I normally write about, but since I’ve tackled heating a building with firecrackers and LED Christmas lights I decided to give it a shot.

The first job is to unpack the question.  We know that our destination is Maine, but where in Maine?  I decided to use the oh-so scientific method of slowly zooming in on Maine in Google maps to see what city was the first to show.  In this case, is was Portland.  So we are going to Portland.  Where are we coming from?  Forward Engineers is based in Rogers, AR so that’s where we are starting.  The distance between these two cities by rail is approximately 1,700 miles.  Our starting elevation is 1,360 ft and final elevation is 53 feet.  For simplicity sake, we are going to ignore the hills and mountains between the two cities (that was easy!).

What are we traveling in?  I don’t know many modes of transportation that use coal besides a steam locomotive so let’s go in that.  Let’s assume our train consists of an engine, 6 passenger cars and a caboose all weighing 800,000 pounds in total.  Once our train is up to a full speed of 70 miles per hour, it will require 1,500 horsepower from the engine to keep going.

Now lets do the energy calculation.  To travel the horizontal distance, we need to convert the horsepower requirement to Btu/hr by multiplying by 2,544.  This conversion gives us an energy usage of approximately 3,800,000 Btu/hr.  Traveling a distance of 1,700 miles at 70 miles per hour, the trip will take about 24 hours to complete.  Our total energy usage so far will be around 91,000,000 BTUs.  However, overall we are traveling downhill so we will be able to use less coal because of our potential energy.  Dropping 800,000 lbs from 1,360 feet to 53 feet saves us about 1,300,000 BTUs.  Therefore, our total required energy output is around 89,700,000 BTUs.  I’m choosing to ignore the extra energy required to get the train moving and any stops along the way.

Unfortunately, piston steam engines are not very efficient.  Towards the final years of steam train travel, the typical locomotive had an efficiency of about six percent.  This means that to produce our required 89.7 million BTUs of energy, we need to burn 1.5 billion BTUs of coal!  One ton of coal contains around 28 million BTUs of coal.  Dividing our energy requirement by the energy content of coal tells us that we would go through about 53 tons of coal on our little trip.  Now, I’m no train engineer (despite what my daughter thinks I do for a living) so I am confident that I have missed enough important factors that you would probably end up on the side of the tracks out of coal somewhere between here and Maine so don’t go using this article to plan your next trip.

The point of all this was to simply show that just about anything can be broken down by its energy use and analyzed.  Forward Engineers often does energy usage calculations for our client’s buildings letting the owner or manager know where their utility money is going and where improvements can best be made.  Most of our calculations are quite different from trains and coal usage, but we still work through the numbers, making assumptions and running the numbers at every turn.  If you have a building or project that could use some extra energy analysis, consider contacting us to analyze the energy usage and to make recommendations that not only save the building energy, but you money.



Variable Speed Fans on HVAC Units

One of the most common energy efficiency measures we recommend to our clients is to either retrofit existing or install new HVAC systems with variable speed fans.  In short, a variable speed fan allows the airflow through a unit to slow down.  This allows a building to save money on energy usage and even increase occupant comfort.

HVAC systems are sized based on the worst case scenario.  Engineers use computer programs to predict what the maximum cooling and heating needs will be in a building.  As you may have guessed, the building spends most of it’s time outside of these maximums.  That is when a variable speed fan can really be helpful since it allows your system to pretend its much smaller.

A variable speed drive primarily saves energy be slowing the fan down.  As you can see in the graph below for a typical fan, slowing it down to 80% of its maximum output can save around 50% of the energy.  Additionally, all electric motors require an extra boost of energy when they start up called Locked Rotor Amperage (LRA).  This can be up to 5 times the amount the motor will require to simple stay running (which is called the Full Load Amperage or FLA).   By keeping the motor on longer but at a slower speed, the motor won’t short cycle (turning off and then quickly turning back on) near as much as it would when running at full speed.

Slowing down the airflow through a unit can also increase the comfort in the room.  Say you would like to have a room at 75 °F in the summer.  With a constant speed fan, the unit would turn on and cool the room down to 73 °F then wait for it to warm up to 77°F before turning on again (traditional systems use this strategy, called a deadband, to reduce short cycling).  Under this arrangement the room temperature is constantly fluctuating between 73 °F and 77 °F.  With a variable speed fan, the thermostat can respond to temperature increases with gradual fan speed changes in an effort to keep the room the same temperature.  Additionally, a variable speed fan can be programmed to change its speed based on the amount of humidity that needs to be removed from the air.  The slower the air speed, the more dehumidification that will occur.  This can be very useful in areas with high summer humidity.

Variable speed fans are also great candidates for utility rebates and tax incentives, further increasing their value.  Variable Frequency Drives (what controls a variable speed fan) can also be used to slow down compressors on an air conditioning unit for increased efficiency.  However, the most common usage is on the fan side of the equipment.  If you think that your building or project may be a good candidate for variable speed fans, please contact us today and we can work with you to determine if it is a good fit.





January 2017 Newsletter

With the new year, the current version of the Federal Section 179d tax deduction has now expired.  Congress will hopefully be taking action soon to extend it so any current projects are still good candidates for the deduction.  I am constantly looking for any updates to the extension effort and this month I looked into a few of the House bills that I’m keeping an eye on.  We’ll be posting any major updates on the extension to our website so be sure to check back later for more information.  Here’s a few more of our posts from this month:

  1. Refrigerant History and Nomenclature – It may seem like one of the more boring topics around, but how refrigerants can be quite interesting.  Warning: Chemistry ahead!
  2. New Method of Energy Code Compliance – ASHRAE Appendix G may now be used as a method for energy code compliance. If you don’t know what any of that means, be sure to read our article to learn some about energy codes and how engineers show that the building complies.

Be sure to check our website regularly for updates or follow us on Facebook or LinkedIn.  We wish you the best this month and if you ever have need of any of our services, please don’t hesitate to contact us.   Have a great day!

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