Thursday, December 15, 2005

Mr. Frosty

Last week, we had a pretty good cold spell come in. It was early for our part of the country. Generally, we don't get cold weather until January.

When I came home in the afternoon, I noticed that my house, which has a really super furnace in the basement, was not really very warm. I looked at the thermostat. It was set for 70, but the house temperature was 60.

So I went down to the basement to check things out. I watched the gas come on for a minute, and then I heard some clicks and then the gas would shut down and the fire would go out. Then, a few seconds later, I would hear some clicks, the gas furnace would reignite and burn like Ms. O Leary's Chicago for a few seconds, and then it would shut down.

I watched this go on for several minutes and decided to dive in and see what was going on.

I took the face plates off and saw that the washable filter was totally rediculous, so I gave it a good cleaning. Since everything was already frozen outside, I had to do this in my kitchen sink, which made a good mess. I reasoned that the temperature sensor in the stack was shutting the system down because of the reduced air flow. That would make the unit think that the blower motor was going out, and it would shut itself down before any real harm occured.

I put it in.

I watched it.

In a few minutes, it started the strange cycling again.

So, I called my trusty AC-Heating company who came out almost immediately. He did his tests, and couldn't really see anything obviously wrong. Then, we decided to see if the gas pressure was right. He took the little tap out on the gas side and attached his pressure gauge.

It was low, about a third of what it should be.

Then, I went upstairs, and turned on the fake fireplace to see what that would do.

That brought the pressure down even lower.

My unit was fine, but the gas pressure coming in was not.

So, I called the gas company and was immediately put into a service phone wait of many minutes. So I called back and asked the dispatcher if he had been receiving low pressure calls.

He said, "Yes, I believe we are having problems maintaining pressure out there."

Now, low gas pressure is a lot like not having water pressure. It is a huge big deal. Low gas pressure shuts down all kinds of things. It's very dangerous, and it's a really unusual thing to happen.

I have been reading about gas supply problems, but they weren't getting much traction in the mainstream press.

Then yesterday, I saw this story.

The Big Chill
US News and World Report
By Marianne Lavelle

Falling gasoline prices make it easy to believe the nation has seen the last of the energy woes that swept in behind this year's Gulf Coast hurricanes. But they don't fool an unemployed woman on the Crow Indian Reservation, using the electric oven to warm her house on increasingly crisp Montana nights because her natural-gas heat has been cut off.

For brickyard workers in Mill Hall, Pa., unemployment looms after the holidays, because it will be too expensive to fire the clay kilns this winter. And one retiree in a mobile home in Millinocket plans to take her asthma medication once daily instead of three times as prescribed, to save money to pay the kerosene bills that will soar in Maine's bitter cold.

With the season's first snowfall hitting the Northeast last week, it is becoming apparent that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did far more to the nation's energy equation than spoil Labor Day vacation drives. The storms upset the already precarious balance of the nation's supply and demand for fuel. So much Gulf of Mexico oil and natural gas production remains in disarray that even with a mild winter, Americans face a Big Chill: astronomical heating bills--on average, 38 percent higher than last year's record costs for natural gas and 21 percent higher for oil.

Triple threat. That means hundreds of closed factories and enormous hardship for low-income and working poor families, who can expect scant federal government help. And if bitter cold rides in on Mother Nature's coattails, extraordinary measures will be needed to keep energy flowing, particularly in the Northeast, as natural-gas shortages spill over into oil and electricity supplies. "We pray for warm weather. We have a prayer chain going," says Diane Munns, an Iowa regulator who is president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. "People are talking not just about high prices but actual shortages."

Adds Matthew Simmons, a prominent Houston energy investment banker, who has warned of a new era of scarcity: "We're headed into a winter that could be a real winter of discontent."

In the dark. The second threat is a severe electricity shortage in the Northeast--with possible brownouts or blackouts. Deregulated natural-gas-fired power generators, under no legal obligation to serve customers as the old monopoly electric companies were, can simply stop generating power.

Some plants will be interruptible customers with no backup fuel source. But in other cases, power plants that have firm natural gas contracts will stop generating electricity anyway and sell their fuel at enormous profit. That is precisely what happened during the three-day January 2004 cold snap, when more than 25 percent of New England's generating capacity went off line and the reserve margin was near zero.

"A frozen New Orleans." A winter failure could prove catastrophic, because any extended loss of heat could cause water pipes to burst in residential and commercial buildings alike. Also, the thousands of "traps" where steam escapes (and billows from manhole covers) could freeze and fail, causing distribution pipes to crack or lose pressure. Former Central Intelligence Agency chief Jim Woolsey, now active on energy issues, argues that parts of the city "could resemble a frozen New Orleans."

Whether because of cost or cold, officials are bracing for human suffering across America this winter. "Forces can come together that turn crisis for some into disaster--that's really what I think we could be looking at this winter," says Iowa energy assistance director McKim. "I hate to sound like the voice of doom, but somebody has to say this stuff. It's just like Hurricane Katrina. They knew it was coming, but little was done to prepare an effective response. And the same thing is happening here."

Where I live, our winters are never very cold.

But just that one day with low gas pressure, and my house dropping to 60 degrees, reminded me of the vulnerabilities we all face.

Yesterday, the price of natural gas was almost $15.00 / MCF at the Hub where we buy our gas.

That means that electricity will go up and your heating bill will probably double this year.

That is the good side.

The bad news would be low pressures that turn off your furnace and leave you and your house in the cold as suppliers struggle to keep their systems properly pressurized.

And they cannot do that without product.

In my house in Mexico, I have lots of candles. I mean lots of candles. They burn reasonably safely and they are pretty. They do a remarkably good job of keeping the chill out of the air. They can take a small room and make it warm and pretty.

Besides, it's the Holidays. And who knows? Mr. Frosty may come and sit on your park bench.

So, you might want to have some candles around just in case.

Lots of them.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Candles are made of paraffin, which comes from, oh yeah, petroleum. Just for fun, I investigated. Sure enough, the first supply company I came to had a note about petroleum supplies restricting paraffin supply. See The cheapest available wax is $0.68 per pound in pallet units (roughly a ton). $0.68 per pound is roughly $6 per gallon, which would probably be close to the cost of gasoline if it were not subsidized.

My thought trail is something like:
Gasoline runs out, use natural gas.
Natural gas runs out, use coal.
Coal runs out, use wood.
Wood runs out, freeze.

The real problem is too many humans. I'm guessing about four times the carrying capacity of the earth.

11:18 AM  
Blogger oZ said...

We have plenty of coal, just not enough air to burn it in.

And you are right, candles are not an energy policy.

You might really be glad you had them on a dark cold night though.

A few candles are made from Soy and some wax comes from bees, but as you say, most are made from petroleum.

I think the real problem is our (in)ability to understand our situation and to respond to it wisely and compassionately.

12:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post had me sitting up and paying attention. Low gas pressure...hmmm?

5:44 AM  

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