Energy generation. Primarily solar, wind and other clean energy

Can you (legally) unplug from the electric utility?

As climate change accelerates and devastating fires become more rampant and severe, building owners, like those in Paradise, CA, are asking more often, “Can I unplug entirely from the grid?”

The short answer is yes, but not everywhere. The more remote the building, the easier it is. The more densely populated, the more challenging. In general, it depends on building codes and over time, utility influence on those codes. Federal codes define regulations while state or local codes may augment those. We’ll start with federal codes then discuss California codes since it is by far the most progressive state in distributed energy installations. We’ll add other states and jurisdictions later.


Customer-generators with systems that meet the major national safety and equipment standards [National Electrical Code (NEC), Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Standard 1547 (July 2003), and Underwriters Laboratories (UL)] are not required to install any additional safety equipment. Nothing in national codes requires utility interconnection. In fact, NEC Article 690.1, clearly states, “Solar photovoltaic systems covered by this article may be interactive with other electrical power production sources or stand-alone, with or without electrical energy storage such as batteries. These systems may have ac or dc output for utilization.”

In California:

  • The California Residential Code and the California Building Code refers to the National Electrical Code.
  • The California Fire Code requires adoption in compliance with the California Building Code and California Electrical Code and states a construction permit is required to install the system.
  • The California Mechanical Code allows the permitting authority to adopt the Uniform Solar Energy and Hydroponics Code, which explicitly allows stand-alone systems, provided they comply with the Electric Code for a similar installation connected to a service.
  • California, Title 24 Energy Code assumes grid connection by inference. Section 110.10 part: (c) Interconnection Pathways. 1. “The construction documents shall indicate a location for inverters and metering equipment and a pathway for routing of conduit from the solar zone to the point of interconnection with the electrical service. For single-family residences the point of interconnection will be the main service panel.” One could argue that since Title 24 requires a point of interconnection for service that actual service is required. However, building permits do not require power to start construction. And occupancy permits check for operation of energized equipment, but typically not for proof of a utility bill. Therefore, it is left to the local Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) such as the building department.

California which has a progressive renewable portfolio standard pushing for significant decarbonization of energy use in state gets updated every three years. In remote locations like Joshua Tree, CA self-powered homes have existed for years, since building power lines across sensitive habitats is environmentally unsound and unsightly. Plus, installation is incredibly expensive at about $1M a mile (in 2019 dollars) and even more across rugged terrain.

In summary, for new construction, I would still include all the systems necessary for interconnection to the utility as a backup source. Perhaps leaving out the transfer switch and utility connection fees of course. For retrofits or unplugging from the grid, design for interconnection and make sure everything works well before “unplugging”. Then celebrate after you visit the utility to cancel your subscription!

Author’s Note. This article is not intended to be an authoritative code review or legal opinion. Contractors or homeowners should always consult qualified design professionals before starting any building or electrical project.

We’d love to hear your stories in your location or jurisdiction.



Free Money for Schools

Did your school miss out on the Prop 39 gravy train? Here’s the next best thing. 3fficient has secured access to federally backed, ZERO interest loans for energy saving upgrades engineered and implemented by 3fficient. Each district is eligible for a cap of $3 million dollars for energy projects. Here’s the catch:

  1. Applications must be submitted by May 31, 2019. Late or incomplete applications will not be considered.
  2. Half of the ranking is based on % of students on free and reduced meals. The higher the better. That’s where you shine!
  3. The other half of the ranking is based on total energy savings as provided by a professional energy audit* originated or peer reviewed by 3fficient. The higher the cost savings, the better. That’s where we shine!

*An energy audit requires review and compilation of utility meter data, engineering site visits to verify existing conditions and then professional calculations to accurately calculate energy and cost savings.

Eligible energy upgrades are as follows:

  • Interior and exterior lighting systems.
  • Heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVAC/R) equipment.
  • Energy management systems and equipment controls.
  • Pumps and motors.
  • Building envelope and insulation.
  • Energy generation including renewable energy (e.g., photovoltaic systems (PV)), ground-source heat pumps, and combined heat and power projects (co-generation) with renewable fuel.
  • Load shifting projects, such as thermal energy storage or batteries.

This is a great opportunity for schools to upgrade their district risk free. At 3fficient, we specialize in engineering energy efficiency projects that are specific to winning such competitive loans through our SmartZero Program. By crafting a project for highly qualified school’s we can help apply, win and implement the renovations and upgrades your school buildings need at zero cost and zero risk to the district with potential for zero net energy.

Application deadline is May 31st, 2019. So don’t delay? Let us do the heavy lifting! We’ll conduct the audit, complete the paperwork, and work diligently to ensure you are implementing quality solutions that will help make your district more efficient, resilient, and competitive amongst its peers. All paid from savings.

Are micro grids the answer to climate change?

Wildfires in California are tragic and incredibly expensive.  Many lives lost.  Property and homes lost.  Livelihoods lost.  Sensitive habitat and wildlife lost. At well over $9 Billion, damages from the 2018 wildfires in Northern California were financially devastating. The cause for many, as it turns out, traces directly to the largest utility in the country, PG&E.  Lawsuits held PG&E fully liable which then caused an almost immediate bankruptcy filing to avoid billions in payouts, more than the company was worth.  As in 2001, the utility may come back even stronger and more profitable for shareholders.  As utility solar prices have plummeted, the bankruptcy will allow PG&E to renegotiate their (now) overpriced early stage large solar supply contracts.  Certainly a prudent financial move for PG&E to take advantage of.

Meanwhile, towns like Paradise, CA were literally wiped off the map from fast moving wildfires sparked by PG&E’s power lines running through densely wooded communities.  Will those livelihoods come back stronger?  Doubtful.  As most disasters go, many will simply leave as they have no jobs or income to return to.  Others will rebuild with insurance funds.  But, is that even a good idea?

Environmental, weather and fire experts are quick to point out that forest fires will continue to increase in frequency and ferocity as climate change continues to warm the planet and dry out many of earth’s forests.  So what can be done to avoid future calamity? There are 3 obvious choices:

  1. Build fire resistant homes and buildings.  When you light a match and hold on long enough, you will certainly get burned since the match stick is flammable.  So how can we not expect a wood frame home to burn down from a nearby forest fire.  Most of the trees are left standing after a fast moving fire since the wood is wet and protected by bark.  Meanwhile, nearby dry wood structures almost always burn to the ground.  In reality, wood stick construction really has no business in any alpine forest.  The easy solution lies with the Counties to only permit fire resistant construction in forests.  Insurance companies will likely catch on and assign more equitable risk (and cost) to fire prone properties as well.  While that may sting (a lot) for homeowners who want to rebuild, it’s more equitable for all as having ANY grid lines running through the forest is likely to cause future fires.
  2. Hold counties accountable for lax enforcement of fire protection codes around buildings.  The results from the fires going through Paradise and other towns seem to illustrate lax code enforcement.
  3. Require utilities to reroute transmission lines around forests and new buildings or communities in forests to be off grid with 100% self generation.  Until transmission lines are removed from forests, it is simply a matter of time before the next horrific and incredibly expensive fire will happen.  For the $9 billion price tag, there would be an army of developers lining up to build off grid communities for Paradise and many other towns.  Policy makers and insurance companies should come together to assign risk to the grid, instead of looking for a bailout that so often happens.

In the likely event that status quo utility power is restored and towns like Paradise are rebuilt like before, who will be responsible for the next destructive fire?  The utility for providing power or the county for allowing it or the residents for using (and paying for) that electricity?  In brutally honest terms, the drug pusher, the cop who looked the other way or the addict?

Is the risk worth the reward?  When nuclear power or any generation source is developed, the development is never 100% risk free.  When parents let their kids drive a car, they always know there is risk – and accept that.  So, why do we mandate near 100% reliability for electrical power?  In the future, utilities will be compelled to shut off power at the distribution level during high risk wind events.  Larger transmission lines will likely stay energized.  Will that eliminate all the risk?  Not at all.  The Camp Fire that roared through Paradise was caused by a transmission line (not local distribution lines). With that in mind, perhaps the electric grid could be de-risked by allowing even lower reliability or accessibility?  Transmission lines get shut off during wind events, or power lines are removed entirely from alpine forests.  That would certainly make way for more reliance on standalone distributed energy like many in Joshua Tree, CA or smart micro grids in larger communities like Borrego Springs after the Southern California wildfires of 2007?

With massive and deadly wildfires becoming an annual event in California, will PG&E simply cut down a bunch of trees and reinstall utility poles like before, or will the local governments demand better energy architecture going forward?  As of the writing of this post, the former seems to be playing out.  PG&E crews are (understandably) busily restoring power so homeowners and business owners have electricity to rebuild with and move on.  I believe a potentially faster and more resilient solution would be for builders to be required to build off grid homes or building-integrated microgrids while requisitioning developers to build community-scale microgrids that backup or augment distributed rooftop solar and wind on the buildings and carports.  This would simply be accelerating upcoming building codes in California.  Smart energy storage would be included in all new, energy efficient homes and buildings just like an appliance is today.  That energy storage could then be interconnected as the key component of a resilient community micro-grid.  Imagine that.  A town without unsightly and dangerous power lines that has long lasting, clean, self sufficient and resilient power!  What a simple and SAFE concept.

Author’s note:  When I introduced this concept just ten years ago it was commented as heresy in online blogs.  Today, probably “meh” or “wow, why aren’t we doing that?”

Tax Depreciation

The printed IRS tax manual is literally more than 73,000 pages.  IRS agents and their teams can’t even keep up with tax changes let alone the volumes of code.  That’s why CPAs are more like general practitioners and need to rely on specialists to help maximize savings.

One such opportunity for maximizing savings is with depreciation for your buildings.  When purchasing, refinancing or remodeling a building, your depreciation schedule is affected – or should be.  Even though buildings have a typical 39 year depreciation basis, all the materials, wiring, insulation, fans lights and other components affixed to the structure need not have that looooong basis.  As you can imagine, there are a lot of materials in a building that can (and should) have a much shorter depreciation period. Segregating or quantifying and adjusting those costs can result in substantial and immediate tax savings.

How much is this worth?
Say you remodeled or refinanced your half million dollar building 5 years ago, you might be eligible for a refund of $30k – $40k right now!  Let’s say your building’s book value was $10M, you might expect to save $600k – $800k.  Would that pay off debt?  Fuel your next expansion?  Buy a competitor?  Kick start your retirment?

Is that it?
For many of our customers, we find 5x those amounts by combining other tax and utility savings!  What if your profit margins went up 30% or 50% or doubled, sustainably?  Would it change the valuation of your company?  For most, that helps vault them to “top dog” status.

What if I delay?
Unfortunately, the ability to reclassify costs from past renovations will end with the 2018 tax year.  While this method will not go way anytime soon, the ability to reach back in time will.  So, if you remodeled or even had a small upgrade in the past, you must act now BEFORE filing your 2018 returns.  Miss that window and you’ll throw away thousands in potential savings.

What if I do nothing?
If you get an email and don’t read it now or don’t reply right away, what are the chances you ever will?  In the competitive business world, delaying and doing nothing are the same thing.  Competitors are always looking for advantages to eliminate competition.  This happens every day.  One competitor quietly grows profits while others who don’t simply fade away into the sunset, never to be heard of again.

So don’t seal up the entrance to your “gold mine”.  Let our engineering and construction experts find your hidden tax savings.  For a free, no cost assessment that could change your business dramatically,

Click here to see if you qualify.

Grid (un)reliability

US utilities have traditionally been known for high reliability, but all that is changing.  Fast.

With power lines causing some of the biggest fires in US history, utilities are learning to cope with the risk by simply switching power off to large areas when it gets windy.  With wildfires consistently getting bigger and more frequent, that means grid power is already becoming less reliable.  But what if you run a business or a city or hospital or even a school is supposed to be an emergency shelter for the community?  This new variable will change your plans whether you like it or not.

Most organizations simply can’t just send people home or work in the dark or without air conditioning.  Building codes and safety regulations have a variety of requirements for occupant safety and comfort.  During natural disasters schools, hospitals and other critical infrastructure is heavily relied upon to avoid serious calamity. So, what are your options?

You actually have several options, but they all have pros and cons:

  1. Install diesel backup generators.  That’s good, except two problems.  Diesel is a very dirty and smelly fossil fuel, and is often limited to emergencies only.  For some districts, an intentional outage may not qualify.  Also, if you have a serious emergency like a wildfire or earthquake, getting a refill of diesel fuel may be impossible for quite awhile after.
  2. Install solar.  Unfortunately, many customer are finding out that their solar was required to be installed with anti-islanding features and simply will not work when the grid is down.  Those need to be retrofitted with new inverters and switches to enable “safe islanding”.  Unfortunately, solar only works during the day, so if an outage happens when it’s cloudy or at night, you’ll be out of luck.
  3. Install wind.  Small wind helps provide power for smaller loads or buildings, even when it’s dark, but it’s intermittent.  Meaning it can go off suddenly and back on, but it often works at night when the sun doesn’t.
  4. Add battery storage.  Batteries can provide backup power reliably. With time of use electric rates and demand charges, batteries make solar and wind much more economical, except the added first cost and safety.  Most chemical batteries like lithium are pretty rare elements, toxic and hazardous.  Historically, they have been relegated to small computer backup systems and mobile devices, but with demand ramping up exponentially, research and improvements in materials, capacity and manufacturing are pushing prices down really fast and safety up. But there are other storage solutions too.
  5. Add thermal storage.  Ice storage, as in frozen water, has been around for hundreds of years and is very economical for special applications where cooling or refrigeration is needed.  Since most buildings have air conditioning and many in the food sector have large refrigerators and freezers, there’s a lot of opportunities for ice storage.  Perhaps the best part of ice storage is the storage medium itself. In many cases it’s one of the most abundant and sustainable chemicals on earth – good ole’ H2O.
  6. Finally, there’s the “do nothing” alternative and hope it doesn’t affect you.  Good luck with that. Since we live in a competitive world, others will solve the problem leaving you losing business or revenue you need to pay all those fixed costs and retirement checks.  Again, that may work once or even twice, but with a prolonged outage or frequency of outages, you’ll be out of business.

So, how do you decide what is best?  It depends…

It depends on a lot of variables like your campus or building’s design, the age of your systems, your operations, safety or risk factors, utility costs, future costs, location risks (e.g. likelihood of interruptions and outages), code requirements and more.  Fortunately, 3fficient has done this analysis many times and knows how to help you decide on the best options for your business or organization.  More importantly, we can help you avoid getting “analysis paralysis” or getting wrong inputs that cost you a lot.

For a free assessment of your buildings, Click here

For a free assessment of your infrastructure’s resiliency and security, contact us >.

Solar Lease vs PPA

What’s the difference between a solar lease and a solar PPA?

In short.  Not much.  These days it’s mostly just the name, but here’s the skinny.

Solar PPA:

In a Power purchase agreement, you are agreeing to buy the power – whether you need it or not.  A third party is financing and building the power plant on your site with the deserved expectation that you will buy the commodity it produces so they can pay off the investment and make a profit.  This is basically what electric utilities have been doing for over a hundred years.

  • Solar PPA stands for solar “Power Purchase Agreement.”
  • PPA gives you a low up front cost.
  • You’re locked in for 10, 15 or perhaps 20 years to this agreement, which is transferable to a new owner.
  • They charge you a set electrical rate that is sometimes flat, and sometimes calculated to rise over the term of your agreement. So instead of paying for coal or gas fired electricity rates, you’re paying for PPA rates generated through your “local” solar panels.
  • The PPA company takes care of the maintenance and any needed repairs and monitors your system.
  • You don’t get any tax benefits or State rebates or Renewable Energy Credits (RECs).
  • You usually have some kind of option to buy later or at the end of the agreement for a set price per watt. Sometimes this is negotiable (and you should at least try since used solar panels aren’t worth much.)
  • You need to have an excellent credit rating to qualify.
  • You’re tied to the grid, so any residual electricity needs that your solar panels don’t produce is covered by your utility.

Solar Lease:

In a lease, you are leasing equipment.  A third party is financing and building the equipment (e.g. solar power plant) on your site with the deserved expectation that you will pay off the hardware over time.  When the lease is paid off you can usually “turn it back in”, buy it out at a predetermined residual value, or extend the lease term.

  • There is usually no down payment, so $0 down.
  • You’re locked into 15 years or more years, which is transferable to a new owner or home.
  • In a solar lease, vs. PPA, you do NOT pay for any power that your solar panels generate.
  • Instead, you pay a lease payment plus any extra power you need to buy from your electric company. So, solar panel power is technically free, but you have a set lease payment that rises 3 to 4% a year. That’s typically less than the 5% rate increases by your electric company. Some programs have a flat rate, so no yearly increases.  You usually have flexibility on the payment model.
  • Like a PPA, they usually take care of maintenance and repairs and monitor your system, but that’s not always the case.
  • Similarly, you don’t get tax benefits or rebates or Renewable Energy Credits (RECs).
  • Like PPA’s, you have an option to buy later or at the end of your term for a set residual price. You should try to negotiate the Fair Market Value (FMV) at the end of the lease, as used panels aren’t worth much more than the cost of taking them off your roof.
  • You need to have a good to excellent credit rating also, depending on the program.
  • Also like a PPA, you’re tied to the grid, so any residual electricity needs are covered by your utility.

So, bottom line for a solar lease vs. PPA:

  • PPA, you pay for power generated by solar panels with some money down and flat or yearly increases on your PPA electric rate. You also benefit from tiered rates.
  • Lease, you have no money down (typically) and pay a flat leasing fee that rises every year by a certain percent, plus left over utility bill. You also benefit from tiered rates.

While both these options are good for low cost financing, there’s not a huge difference when it comes to a solar Lease vs. PPA. If it saves you money and you like what you see, go for it.

Now 3fficient is offering a new option.  It’s called an energy services agreement (ESA).  This new financial model is similar to a PPA or Lease, but instead of just solar, you can get various efficiency upgrades too.  Basically, by agreeing to host our smart microgrid on site and buying power at a lower cost than the utility, you’ll also get a myriad of building and process upgrades included.   Like a PPA, you will not own the energy equipment so it will not impact your credit rating or borrowing power.  You’ll be free to use your credit for important purposes like say, growing your business.  You’ll get resilient, clean energy that will “keep the lights on” even when the grid is down.

Either way, you have nothing to lose by getting a quote from and comparing the financial pros and cons. Upon request, we’ll even give you both options, so you can compare an energy services agreement with outright purchasing.

How to Make Your Multi Tenant Buildings More Valuable

Most apartment complex owners are very limited in what they can do to stay competitive with newer properties. Lower rents, remodel or tear down and replace?  But, what if there was a better option?  An option that actually reduced the tenant’s monthly expenses while increasing rental revenues AND property values for the owner?

Well now there is.  3fficient’s Smart Zero program is now available for multi-family building owners, like apartment communities.  This comprehensive green building program provides the capital and turnkey EPC contracting for efficient holistic modernizations coupled with on-site renewable energy generation and storage.  Owners get smart energy upgrades and substantially improved property values while tenants get more comfortable and modern spaces with really low utility bills.  A true win-win!

Here’s how it works:

Step 1.  Analyze

  • Property Owner completes the Quicklook survey to see if they qualify for this unique upgrade program.
  • 3fficient Customer specialist will contact the Owner to confirm their online application and compile some additional property details, e.g. number of apartments and SF for each (typically size per floor plan and qty of each).
  • 3fficient will provide a preliminary energy assessment of indicative savings and property value impacts.

Step 2. Engineer

  • Upon engagement, 3fficient will provide engineering and a detailed, bankable engineering estimate of costs and savings.
  • Owner can use that to decide on desired rent adjustments in advance – based on projected savings per metered dwelling unit.

Step 3.  Integrate

  • Upon funding approval, 3fficient will procure necessary permits and materials, then manage implementation and commissioning of desired upgrades.

Step 4.  Enjoy

  • Tenants will enjoy lower monthly expenses and tell their friends how sustainable and great their community is.
  • Owner will enjoy the many low and zero carbon accolades, the increased rental demand, the increased revenues, profits and property values that effectively cost the owner nothing.

Great Parks Need Great Public Safety

Urban planners and architects go to great effort and expense to design fun and interesting parks.  But is your urban park safe and secure for visitors?  Pretty easy to find tragic headlines that say no.  But how do you really know for sure?  Cameras, sensors, other smart tech?  Nice to have, but without electricity, that’s been pretty much impossible.  Until now!

Check out these cool new self-powered devices that are sure to bring attractive design, modern features and public safety to any park or urban space.  In fact, they double as cost effective furniture, community art and smart tech all in one.  A virtual 3-for-1.

Civic planners, architects, landscapers and public safety officers take notice.  You now have some great new tools to activate and energize your parks and open spaces.  Learn more.

Urban Wind Making a Comeback?

About 2 years ago, I got a call from a local homeowner asking if we could help troubleshoot why his turbine was not generating electricity.  I said we typically work on commercial only, but he was very frustrated and seemed to be a genuinely nice person – and local. So, I agreed to see if we could lend a hand.

I stopped by the next day to take a look at his installation. The turbine was a 5-blade 1.5 kW Chinese model I had not seen before.  It was mounted on a heavy duty 30 foot steel pole, bolted to a solid concrete foundation.  The inverter was a legacy Power One inverter (now ABB).  No batteries – grid connected.  The connections looked good and the wire routing was decent (not up to our tidy standards, but acceptable).  The pole was located near the utility meter and breakers so the wiring run was relatively short.  However, the turbine was located directly in front of a large tree with prevailing winds coming over the single story house.  Observing the turbine in action, it seemed to always orient back to the same location.  It didn’t seem to stay oriented exactly with the wind though.  The inverter showed the system was on.  Cycling through the LCD display showed zero cumulative energy in the last several months since install.  So my concerns were the siting and if the inverter was programmed properly for this turbine.  Wind testing was apparently never done.

So, we installed a small pole mounted anemometer with data logger near the turbine.  We tested at the same elevation as the turbine, then lower to check winds there.  Going higher was not an option due to local codes.  The anemometer showed consistent intermittent winds, but at low speeds (6-12 mph) with a prevailing direction about 10 degrees different from what the turbine was observed tracking.  Armed with that, we decided to check the inverter next.  After troubleshooting with the manufacturer, we ended up modifying the inverter programming to try and match the turbine output better.  Unfortunately, there’s no elegant method for doing that on the Power One inverter, except trial and error.  So, we set up several curves and honed in on the best results.  It took a couple site visits as the wind wasn’t always cooperative with our availability.

As far as inspecting or even maintaining the turbine, we would need a lift which meant added cost.  Translation – diminishing returns for a project the homeowner was already frustrated with. So, we agreed to stop there and let the system “earn its keep” for a while.

Like many projects we work on, we are able to identify a lot of design and application improvements we would have made.  These may seem obvious, but here goes anyway:

  1.  The turbine was too heavy for an appropriately smaller pole which drives up install and maintenance costs.  A lighter weight turbine on a telescoping or pivot mount pole would have been far better.
  2.  The Chinese manufacturer had opposite hours from ours, poor telephone support, email support in broken english – overall poor service.  Too many chances of making a bad mistake.
  3. The siting of the turbine was poorly executed.  The homeowner did end up trimming back the tree which helped, but proper testing beforehand would have resulted in a much better outcome.  A bit more expensive for the longer wiring run, but far better output.
  4. The cut-in speed of the turbine was obviously too high for this (or most urban) installation(s).

From an energy output perspective, the big misnomer on small or urban wind turbines is not the rated size (max watts or kilowatts at optimal speed).  What matters most is output at the typical wind speeds for the intended location.  Case in point, the homeowner’s turbine had a “1500w” turbine (at a rated speed of 26.8 mph).  With typically 6- 10 mph winds on this project site, the expected output, from that turbine, would only be around 100w.  That’s 1/15th of what most people would expect looking at the product’s label.

As an energy practitioner and sometimes inventor, this little project prompted me to refresh my knowledge of small wind turbines in the market.  Aside from country of origin, they are all about the same design.  A little after this project, I was introduced to the CEO of a local small wind turbine startup (Primo Wind) looking to flesh out their designs and hopefully go commercial.  Interesting timing!  After doing a deep dive on the market and the company, I was really pleased.  The market opportunity is huge and the company has solved the big hurdles for small wind: i.e. makes power in a gentle breeze (4-5 mph) or gale force (110-120 mph), holds up in near hurricanes, easy install or takedown using lightweight and sturdy telescoping pole with really innovative cantilever pivot.  Install by one or two people and no heavy equipment.  Reasonably priced product cost with easy and fast installation means low cost of energy production that is very competitive with distributed solar.   Bingo.  The resurgence of small wind may be upon us.

Note:  I liked Primo’s product so much, we decided to dive in and help them scale up commercially.  Product info is available here.

GAO: Climate change now costing U.S. billions

Webster’s defines addiction as, “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance”.  “Persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful“.  Americans, strike that, Humans are easily addicted.  We know deep down that our addiction is very costly. Yet we keep at it.  Often hoping someone else will deal with our problem and just make it go away.  But, the problem is, it usually doesn’t.  In fact, it typically gets worse.  Much worse.  According to, it starts with denial, then anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In the United States and much of the developed world, we have many addictions, but one that is now showing great harm to all of humanity is our addiction to fossil fuels.  While nearly every climate scientist in the world and most natural scientists are in firm agreement, it really doesn’t take a science degree to observe what is happening over time and deduce the root cause.  Our natural world is drastically changing before our eyes.  As a species on top of the food chain, we are in clear denial.  Most business and regulatory decisions are still being made on short term economic impacts without regard to long term economics and jobs or for that matter, resources.

With the Trump administration in firm denial of our fossil folly, the implications of our addictions are swelling rapidly.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature is doing her thing and seems to be ignoring social media.  Disasters from man made global warming are continuing to worsen and become more frequent.  But finally, the major re-insurers and even the GAO are assigning economic impacts to these disasters and THAT will change business decisions in capital markets. No doubt the addicts will try to squelch the scientists and doctors trying to fix the addiction (to fossil fuels), but in the end we all have to own up to our own addictions and take actions.

We can cost effectively make our buildings incredibly efficient and smarter, especially the existing ones.  We can choose renewable energy on our buildings.  We can adding storage to eliminate “the middle man” (utilities).  We can choose to buy electric vehicles and easily charge them at home, work or on the go like we do our cell phones. Above all, we MUST defend our right to choose to end the fossil folly that is driving our planet to extinction like the dinosaurs.  In the end, actions speak louder than words.  Do more with less!  Be 3fficient.

Managing Energy Costs in Grocery Stores

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1507823430100{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]Energy costs can account for up to 15 percent of a grocery store’s operating budget.  The US average was roughly $4/SF in 2015.  For example, a 40,000 square foot store might spend $160,000 a year just for electricity.  Because grocery stores’ profit margins are so thin—on the order of 1 percent—every dollar in energy savings is equivalent to increasing sales by around $59.  In this example, let’s say energy costs are cut 20%, that would equal $32,000 in savings the first year.  That’s equivalent to ($32,000/.01) $3.2M in sales.  Kind of a BIG deal!

Grocery stores in the US use an average of 52.5 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity and 38,000 Btu of natural gas per square foot annually. In a typical grocery, refrigeration and lighting represent about 65 percent of total use (Figure 1), making these systems the best targets for energy savings.[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1507823360409{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”][/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1507823336638{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”][/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1507912524423{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]

Figure 1: Energy consumption by end use
In grocery stores, refrigeration and lighting are the bulk end uses for electricity; space heating and cooking dominate natural gas use, albeit a much smaller pie than electricity.


You’ll be better able to manage your store’s energy costs if you understand how you’re charged for energy. Most utilities charge commercial buildings for their natural gas based on the amount of energy (therms) delivered. Electricity, on the other hand, can be charged based on two measures—consumption (kWh) and demand (kW). The consumption component of the bill is based on how much electricity, in kWh, the building consumes during a month. The demand component is the peak demand, in kilowatts (kW), occurring within the month or, for some utilities, during the previous 12 months. Monthly demand charges can range from a few dollars per kW to upwards of $20/kW. Peak demand can be a considerable percentage of your bill, so care should be taken to reduce it whenever possible. As you read these energy cost management recommendations, keep in mind how each one will affect both your consumption and your demand.

Here are some fixes you can do:

Read more

How to plug those (energy) holes in your building

Taking an infrared thermograph of an air conditioned building in the daytime, can be quite alarming. Infrared thermography is the same technology in night vision goggles used by military special forces. It reveals the infrared light spectrum or “heat signature” of objects. On buildings, it reveals variations in heat flow.  The more heat flow the brighter the image.  Windows and skylights, being the least insulated are usually the biggest culprits of energy waste.  For the last 100+ years, heating and air conditioning systems have compensated or covered up the wasted energy flowing through windows and skylights.  But with high energy costs and power plant pollution, that veil is starting to be removed.

Over the last 30 years of my career, I’ve assessed energy efficiency at hundreds of buildings – schools, offices, hospitals, industrials, you name it.  The one thing they all have in common – “energy holes”.   Heat pouring into or out of “closed” windows and skylights.  That heat flow, seen through infrared thermography, translates to wasted energy and unnecessarily BIG electric bills for cooling and increased gas bills for heating.   It also means wasted capital on oversized air conditioning units.  With energy costs the first or second largest expense in most every organization’s budget, why is this still so?  Here’s the typical answers:

  1. “My windows are too expensive to replace.”
  2. “Window tint darkens the room so I’m forced to turn the lights on during the day.”
  3. “Adding tint makes my “window” a mirror at night – I can’t see out but everyone else can see in.”

Before responding, let’s first take stock in what a window is supposed to do:

  1. Let visible light through, so “free” natural light can come in and people can see outside.
  2. Insulate the building, i.e. block heat flow in or out.
  3. Block outside noise.
  4. Block UV rays to protect your carpet, furnishings and skin.
  5. Minimize glare from direct sunlight.

So, again, why are windows not more efficient?

New buildings are usually designed to meet minimum code requirements to keeps costs down.  So, “expensive” products like triple pane, low-emissivity, gas filled windows are rarely considered.  And until construction techniques change dramatically, window replacement will remain costly due to the time and labor required to replace them.  As a result, the energy savings payback for window replacements is usually way too long compared to other options or priorities.

Fortunately, repairs and upgrades of existing windows is very cost effective.  Air infiltration and to a lesser extent noise infiltration can be reduced with simple caulking and weatherstripping repairs.  But, if your window frame is in poor shape or your building is next to a noisy airport or street,  heavy shutters, blinds, double or triple pane windows may be your only option.  When it comes to the main part of the fenestration, the glass or plastic (in the case of skylights), recent material breakthroughs in nanotechnology are revealing some very promising results to reduce solar heat gains.

Before explaining, it’s helpful to understand some physics.

The first law of thermodynamics states, “energy is neither created nor destroyed, it simply changes form”, e.g. heat, light, sound.  In simple terms, the sun is a hot ball that radiates energy (in the form of light) to the earth which then heats up the earth.  After being filtered through the atmosphere, sunlight reaches the earth’s surface as ultraviolet light, visible light and infrared light.  See image below.  Ultraviolet (UV) light is invisible but we see the damaging effects in faded carpets and furnishings or worse – skin cancer.  Visible light (daylight) is the rainbow of colors we see with our eyes.  Infrared light is the intense heat we feel when directly exposed to the sun, e.g. when we come out of the shade or a cloud suddenly moves away.

When it comes to windows, the goal is to block all the UV light, let most or all of the visible light through and block or selectively control the infrared light.  Here’s why.

When the sun’s light hits a window, some is reflected off and some is absorbed by the glass (which can then be directed into, or away from, the interior space) and some passes directly through.  For plastic windows and skylights, much of the UV is blocked, little is absorbed by the material, but most of the infrared light passes right through into the space as heat.

Heat is transferred in three ways: conduction, convection and radiation:

  • Conduction is heat transferred between two objects when they touch – such as when you touch a hot skillet or a warm window.
  • Convection is the flow of a fluid like warm or hot air rising as it is heated up, e.g. when you lean down and open the door of a hot oven and feel the rush of hot air hit your face or sit next to a hot window and feel the heat. Likewise, a large window or door can feel “drafty” as air rises up even though it’s not “leaking from outside.  So, take this into consideration if this is causing you to consider replacement windows.
  • Radiation is light energy heating up an object.  For example, when you step into the sunlight you can feel the sun’s radiant energy on your skin as your skin cells absorb the sun’s radiance.

For cooler climates (i.e. far northern or far southern hemisphere), it is ideal to allow the infrared heat in during the winter, but block as much as possible the rest of the year to reduce cooling loads.   For warmer climates, where most buildings are located, cooling costs usually dominate, so reducing solar heat gain usually dominates decision making.  But, maximizing natural light (without glare) is almost always desired.

So, how do we better manage or reduce solar heat gain?

Overhangs, awnings, light shelves and best of all, deciduous shade trees can help let in the winter sun and block the summer sun.  Unfortunately, they aren’t always practical and were not considered in the vast majority of buildings in existence today.  Clerestories are usually better than traditional skylights, but they are significantly more expensive and rarely used as well.  Then, there are interior window treatments and window coatings.  Interior treatments like shade screens and blinds can help stop the heat, but isn’t the whole purpose of a window to be able to see through it or let the natural light in?  That leaves coatings and tints.

Aftermarket coatings.

  • If your goal is to block out the visible light, then any dark tint will do.
  • If your goal is to block out the light and the heat, then a broad spectrum dark tint will help.  But even that is limited.  Dark curtains, shades or even plywood will actually work better.
  • However, If your goal is to block out just the UV light and the most or all of the infrared heat while letting the VISIBLE light come through, then new nano technologies, are your best bet.

A couple notable options:

Traditional glue-on window films.  Eastman V-Kool 70, Enerlogic 70 and Hi-Lite 70 are high quality plastic films that preform very well. They each block 99% of UV rays and up to 94% of infrared heat while only allowing about 60% of visible light in.  Unfortunately, blocking 30-40% of light still means the interior lights will need to be turned on to compensate.  The materials are relatively expensive and worse yet, they all tend to crack, chip or peel over time.  If applied poorly they will bubble.

Now the game changer…

Liquid window insulation is a spectrally selective paint-on, high performance nanotechnology coating. Nano coatings are a breakthrough because the particles are so small they are invisible to the human eye while adding the desired properties to the coating.  With the small size, the molecules won’t change the optics of the visible light, but are arranged to selectively block out other desired wavelengths.  Due to its application method, it is virtually impossible for liquid nano-tech coatings to bubble, chip, crack or peel.

Available “tints” are 4%, 10% and 16% opacities.  The 4% version is virtually invisible and so clear that it can legally be used on automotive windshields*.  The 16% version has better thermal properties and a slight visible tint to help reduce glare.  The new 10% opacity is a popular “blend of the two which helps cut glare a bit, although not as much as traditional plastic window films. Like the expensive films above, liquid window insulation can block 99% of UV radiation.  But unlike the (now) old tech, liquid window insulation allows 84% – 96% of visible light in while blocking 85% – 97% of infrared heat.  The more opaque, the more infrared heat is blocked.

Liquid window insulation has outstanding performance for most applications.  Perhaps the most important metric for window films in modern “green” building design is the light to solar heat gain ratio (LSG), the LSG ratio provides a gauge of the relative efficiency of different glazing systems in transmitting daylight while blocking solar heat gains.  The higher the ratio, the brighter the room is without adding excessive amounts of heat.

The following chart is a compilation of (lab and NFRC) spectrometer test data. For a spectrally selective solar control film or coating, the LSG ratio will typically be higher than 1.2, while for other films, the LSG ratio will be smaller than 1.0.  The LSG ratio for liquid window insulation is superior to other high end films.

How to read the chart above:

  • Tint.  The opacity or percentage of natural (visible) daylight being blocked.  The lower the percentage the better, unless your goal is to darken the space. Keep in mind, dark plastic films tend to be reflective at night, blocking the view out at night.
  • Visible light Transmission is directly related to tint.  The higher the percentage the better.
  • UV rejection is the % of damaging UltraViolet rays being blocked.  The higher the percentage the better.
  • IR rejection is the % of infrared heat from the sun being blocked.  For warmer climates that need cooling, the higher the percentage better.
  • SHGC is the % of solar heat entering the space. For warmer climates that need cooling, the lower the percentage better.
  • LSG is the ratio of Visible Light Transmission over Solar Heat Gain (VT/SHGC) which measure overall efficiency of a window or skylight coating.  The higher the percentage the better.

The Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (solar efficiency) of new (dual pane low-e) assemblies ranges from 0.41 – 0.60.  However, with daily thermal and UV aging, the soft rubber seals harden and decay, allowing the inert gas between the panes to leak out over time.  As a result, the thermal efficiency is dramatically reduced, leaving the SHGC higher (less efficient) than the even the single pane NanoTint coated alternative.

To take this analysis a step further, we made up our own field test boxes with the front face all glass and faced them directly into the sun.  The results below show the mostly transparent (16%) coating matching dark “limo” tint with solar incidence at 90 degrees, but as time passed and the sun angle became less direct, the nano coating far outperformed even the darkest of traditional tints.  Since the sun is rarely at a right angle to any glass surface, one would expect the liquid window insulation to lead the pack in cumulative energy savings and comfort, such as in a vehicle or next to a window.

I think one of the most compelling applications for liquid window insulation is on skylights.  Skylights are great at bringing in natural light deep inside a building, but the side effect is a lot of unwanted solar heat gain.  Most are plastic, curved and very difficult to apply plastic films to.  This is where liquid window insulation really shines (pun intended).  Getting traditional film on an overhead skylight is very challenging.  If it’s curved plastic, it’s almost impossible.  Liquid window insulation, on the other hand, just rolls on with a special paint roller.  For opaque skylights, it can even be sprayed on.  UV rays will be blocked out and direct infrared heat dramatically reduced.

With better durability, longevity and costs at or below cheaper dark films, the liquid window insulation is a far superior value in comfort, durability, aesthetics, thermal performance, first cost and lifecycle cost.  In terms of  window “upgrades” any of the above films are good, but the liquid window insulation seems to be a consistently better in all areas.

For a more information on installation, click here.


  1. LBNL Fenestration Heat Transfer Basics
  2. DOE Energy Performance Ratings for Windows, Doors and Skylights
  3. Nano particle coatings and applications in window film, DeMeyer

*Note.  Always confirm with local vehicle code and/or enforcement authorities to ensure code compliance.

Making a better battery – CBS News

Commercial buildings use more electricity than any other building type in the US.  Roughly 65% according to DOE statistics.  But, the problem is WHEN they use energy – daytime and early evenings.  That creates a problem for the power grid which falls short throughout the day and has too much at night.  Energy storage solves that problem.

So, in the race for better batteries, scientists are re-discovering…  basic science still holds true.  The KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid).  Instead of hunting for exotic new materials that are hard to find or unsafe, building experts like 3fficient are relying on one of the most plentiful, sustainable materials on planet Earth.  Good ole’ H2O.  Ice Energy, has been making ice storage for utilities for several years now, but recently, they have partnered with 3fficient to design and install pre-packaged ice storage units that bolt directly to commercial a/c units.  After a little engineering and mechanical connections, these “ice batteries” create ice at night with their super efficient compressors and then the melted, ice cold water runs through the a/c unit coil to blow perfect cool air into the space below.  Since it’s a closed loop, no additional water is needed so the storage medium lasts and lasts and lasts.  The initial water comes straight out of the spigot.  The compressors are commercial grade and have a life at least 200% – 300% longer than Tesla and other Lithium batteries.

Daytime a/c energy use gets cut by 90 – 95% which saves a lot of costs for the customer.  More importantly, it reduces the need for more expensive solar power or (in comparison) short-lived electric batteries.  For utility customers on a time of use rate (most commercial customers and soon everyone in CA), the short term peak demand (kW) charges are a huge portion of the bill.  Most buildings have a daily power spike when everything is on, especially all the a/c units.  That 15 or 30 minute spike can cost dearly. as it sets the bill for the month or even the year. So, when you have a plug n play tool that reliably levelizes your daily power curve, you’ll save a lot of money.  Utilities will love you for it and so will your bottom line!

While exotic “invented by Nasa engineers” tech may seem cool, sometimes “old school” is even cooler!  Check out this Nova Video about it called, Making a better battery, featuring David Pogue – the gadget guy.

Can your bench do this? Here’s how solar furniture attracts visitors and makes your company look amazing.

Ah, the good old bench. It’s the background subject of affection in many movies. A couple holding hands on a park bench. An old man sitting on a bench feeding pigeons. Two strangers sitting on a bench engaging in a conversation on a beautiful spring day. Remember when you last went outside and just sat on a bench?

Some things thankfully never change. People do still sit outside and in fact, we’re outside more than ever.  On sunny days, we like to sit in the shade. Because we are so busy, when we do take time to rest, we’re usually on our smartphone and wishing we could recharge our device batteries while recharging our mental batteries.  We expect more from everything these days and even benches are keeping up with the times.

3fficient heard from cities, business building owners, and universities who all said they’d love to see a bench that charged phones using solar energy. They also said they’d like other options, like providing internet access and lighting while getting local environmental and traffic data nearby. 3fficient answered the call and is proud to present our new initiative that we call Project FreeCharge.

Working with furniture and clean tech engineers has been really rewarding.  The lowly park bench is getting a big makeover with amazing new features:

  • Comfortable resting place with shade and weather protection
  • Smart lighting that knows when it’s time to dance with the music or alert public safety
  • Power adapters and outlets for mobile and portable devices
  • Instant alert and emergency activated monitoring for public safety
  • Solar panels that transform sunlight into energy
  • Smart energy storage that works up to 14 days without sunshine
  • Daily energy and environmental reporting
  • Drop in 1-day installation.
  • Sustainable materials

Why consider new self-powered benches?  Organizations that have installed smart renewable-energy-powered urban furniture tell us they communicate a strong message of sustainability to their customers.  They are simple to install and essentially free to operate because they don’t require connectivity to the electrical grid.  3fficient benches are battery-powered and provide incredible value.

So, next time you are outside, take a look at that old familiar bench and ask yourself, what if that bench could do more?  What if it charged devices for free?  What if it could track the number of visitors to that area?  What if it provided lighting that increased security?  What if it could call emergency services with the push of a button.  That would be amazing, right?

Take a moment to visit FreeCharge and see communities can DO MORE WITH LESS.