Monday, April 30, 2012

Facing Challenges vs. THE APOCALYPSE

 I've spent some time here observing and ruminating on the challenges we face, particularly energy supplies (peak oil, fracking etc.) and climate change.  The flip side to denying these issues is the apocalyptic doomers who use these issues to declare the imminent end of civilization of human extinction.  I've always felt the doomeres are as much a problem in the denialists, so I was pleased to see this article by Matthew Gross and Mel Gilles in The Atlantic, How Apocalyptic Thinking Prevents Us from Taking Political Action:
How to make sense of it all? After all, not every scenario can be an apocalyptic threat to our way of life -- can it? For many, the tendency is to dismiss all the potential crises we are facing as overblown: perhaps cap and trade is just a smoke screen designed to earn Al Gore billions from his clean-energy investments; perhaps terrorism is just an excuse to increase the power and reach of the government. For others, the panoply of potential disasters becomes overwhelming, leading to a distorted and paranoid vision of reality and the threats facing our world -- as seen on shows like Doomsday Preppers. Will an epidemic wipe out humanity, or could a meteor destroy all life on earth? By the time you're done watching Armageddon Week on the History Channel, even a rapid reversal of the world's magnetic poles might seem terrifyingly likely and imminent.
Gross and Gilles continue:
The danger of the media's conflation of apocalyptic scenarios is that it leads us to believe that our existential threats come exclusively from events that are beyond our control and that await us in the future -- and that a moment of universal recognition of such threats will be obvious to everyone when they arrive. No one, after all, would ever confuse a meteor barreling toward Earth as anything other than apocalyptic. Yet tangled up in such Hollywood scenarios and sci-fi nightmares are actual threats like global warming that aren't arriving in an instant of universal recognition; instead, they are arriving amid much denial and continued partisan debate.
For example, annual climate-related disasters such as droughts, storms, and floods rose dramatically during the last decade, increasing an average 75 percent compared to the 1990s -- just as many climate models predicted they would if global warming were left unchecked. Yet this rise in natural disasters hasn't produced a moment of universal recognition of the dangers of climate change; instead, belief in climate change is actually on the decline as we adjust to the "new normal" of ever-weirder weather or convince ourselves that our perception of this increased frequency is a magnifying trick of more readily available cable and Internet coverage.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

New blog: What the Frack Pennsylvania?

I've started my long-threatened blog on Marcellus Shale news for Pennsylvania. Still on blogspot for now and it's where you'll find the twitter feed.

First news update around noon today, Joe permitting.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The story of the Old School House II: What was behind the walls.

Prior to any work being done, I had to perform demolition on the basement walls. Now again, this basement in the old school house is only partly below grade and is used for living space, specifically my office, the dining room, the kitchen, a bathroom and the laundry/utility room.  As I mentioned before, the dining contained an alcove directly below a tub in the master bathroom, this alcove was created by removing part of a double supporting wall.  When I removed the drywall I found extensive mold, in part due to water from a burst pipe the previous owner reported.  I also found that the floor for the master bath was new from an ’03 renovation.  Not only had the contractor not noted the missing support below, they ran pipes in a haphazard manner and needlessly cut into joists while not adding adding reinforcements.   

As I removed more wall and ceiling I found more mold, double layers of drywall and found further evidence of poor support.  This was due to the old joists have irregular thicknesses, some rested directly upon the supporting walls, while others had gaps that allowed movement and settling.  This included the kitchen, which was also recently renovated and the contractors should have noticed the problem.  I have had to install shims and other supports to ensure each joist distributes its load to the supporting wall.
Our main contractor and myself found many junction boxes and dead-ended wires when we removed the walls and ceilings.  Our electrician fixed these and other problems, including crossed circuits, extra wiring and a bad main breaker.  

Finally there are the bathroom walls. This is an old bathroom, with tile surrounding a tub/shower and half covering the wall behind the sink.  This tile is mounted on ferro-cement (cement or plaster on a wire mesh) making it impossible to remove. The problem here was that the plumber needed to access the pipes to the sink. I need to backtrack here and explain that we needed to replace all our copper plumbing while the walls were open.  The problem is that we have acidic well water, we plan to get a neutralizer but there had already been a burst pipe so we knew that some were weakened.  Anyway I resolved that I could at least remove the upper drywall portion of the wall. We couldn’t go in from the kitchen side since that would render it largely unusable.  I removed the drywall and saw studs and another layer of drywall, no pipes.  So I assumed that was not the kitchen wall itself and began cutting. I discovered that this layer actually consisted of two layers of drywall! The pipes were now revealed on front of another set of studs and the back of the kitchen wall. So this wall between the kitchen and bath consisted of four drywall layers!  There is also a built in cabinet in the bath, above two feet of wall. Since water had leaked from the bath into the utility room and cause mold there I assumed the same was occurring beneath the shelves. Sure enough it was all moldy, in fact there was an enclosed unventilated space of about 4 cubic feet, doing nothing but breeding mold.

In short, there had been multiple changes since the school house was converted in to a residence in the late 50s. Much was probably done by the homeowners, but some of the worst was done by a contractor in the last decade.  And in all cases instead of removing the old, they just tacked on another layer of walls, wires and pipes.  So in a way in was fortuitous that we had our sagging issue, because we would have no idea of these problems lurking down below.

Next: fixing and future plans. This installment will be late in the summer when the work is done.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Our energy toothpaste tube.

Mornings for me involve dealing with the domestic world (Joe, the dog and starting the day) and checking up on the world. Sometimes totally unrelated things from each world collide in my mind and I had one of those crashes this morning.  After checking the fracking issue I've been following (and will start a blog on I promise) and an ad I saw for heavy oil extraction experts I read this Oil Drum piece on the global oil supply. Shortly after I saw that the toothpaste was getting low right and voila, I realized the toothpaste tube was great metaphor for the oil and gas situation.

Let me backtrack a moment.  Petroleum and natural gas form from the remains of marine algae deposited along with marine muds to form what will become black shale source rocks.  These shales have to be cooked at the right temperature and pressure in the crust to form petroleum. Too much you get only natural gas, too little and you get a waxy precursor called kerogen (the oil is so-called oil shales).  Now shales are made from tiny silt particles and thus have very small pore spaces that are poorly connected to each other.  Any gas or liquid or gas in the shales must travel very slowly and in small quantities.  The petroleum and gas we traditionally extracted came not from the source rocks, but more permeable reservoir rocks that the fluids slowly migrated into over millions of years.  The oil and gas must also be trapped somehow in this reservoir otherwise they'll continue to the surface where the gas escapes to the surface and the oil turns to bitumen or tar.

Now the goal has always been to find the oil still trapped in the reservoirs because such crude oil is the easiest to refine.  More specifically the best crude is light (flows easily and has lighter fractions we can readily use) and is "sweet"or low in sulfur.  And of course it is cheaper to extract on dry land than offshore, particularly the deep continental shelf.

Now think about the sources that are currently being promoted: oil sands, heavy oils, deep offshore drilling and fracking. These sources were traditionally the "trash fish" of the fossil fuel industry.  The first two are not readily refined because they have lost the light fractions we need for diesel fuel, aviation fuel and gasoline and a heavily contaminated.  Thus they need a lot of processing to just get to the crude oil stage, using a lot of energy, water and money to do so.  Deepwater drilling is expensive and risky, remember Deepwater Horizon? Most people seem to have forgotten. Anyway the fact they're willing to go there shows the easy sources have been found and tapped.  Same with fracking, it's an expensive and complicated process to turn the tight source rock into a reservoir and its only viable because we've found all the easily extracted stuff.

This brings us back to the toothpaste tube. When we started extracting petroleum and natural gas we had a brand new full tube and it literally burst out of the ground. For years thereafter we could just squeeze the tube a little and still get all we wanted.  One day we started to have a little difficulty, the tube was squashed, misshapen and lumpy.  So we go to enhanced extraction and rolled up the tube from the bottom and our production stayed high.  But that only lasted a short while longer, so now we're in the process of squeezing the tube with vise grips and adding water to the dried paste in the cap and on the sink. Soon we'll be cutting the tube open and flushing out the inside. 

Of course I never go to such lengths with tootpaste, I just run to the store.  But old mother Earth has only one toothpaste tube, maybe we can squeeze all we need for another decade or so but inevitably our increasing efforts will only produce diminishing returns.

Well, I guess we can always get toothpaste from coal!

Monday, April 2, 2012

What is the Old School House?

(Part of my new morning writing regimen.)

Since the title of this blog implies (correctly) that I'm posting form an old school house, I thought that now is a good time to tell of the trials and tribulations of the former Franklin Township Schoolhouse. It's a tale of DIY and contractor work gone bad, and how we came to realize it.

The place is a former one-room schoolhouse built in 1875 and converted to a dwelling sometime in the late fifties.  The front door was removed and the entrance put on the side and a deck ran from the front porch along the side and wrapping around the back where it was over a small garage. Around 2003 a two floor addition was put on the back above this garage on the exact footprint of the old deck. The kitchen and dining room are in the old basement half below grade (house is on a gentle slope). Although we noticed some quirkiness and poor decisions, we noted no major problems and our fairly useless house inspector found none. We liked the large amount of space and the potential for us to do what we wanted and we liked the kitchen.

After we began painting prior to moving in is when I started to find things that were more than just quirks. Instead these were the result of poor workmanship and cost-cutting by former owners and hired contractors. First off, the addition was constrained to fit the footprint of the former back deck, instead going out two feet more. As a result the stairs cut into the space of the first-floor bedrooms.  The door between the old and new halves was the old back exterior door and still had the exterior metal threshold.  This door also still had the old exterior lock and it would have been possible for one to be locked into the addition with no way out.  Doors fit poorly, insulation was poorly installed and there were leaks around the chimney and the two exhaust/stack pipes that did not have pipe collars. Remember this is new construction.  In the old part, I discovered taht the first floor ceiling had been lowered and the old ceiling was still there!  The former wrap around deck had been reduced to a stub allowing access to the side (main) door. This isolated the front porch, which had been stripped of planking, exposing crumbling concrete. This attractive porch served no real purpose in this configuration. 

Then there was the front master bathroom.

The layout in the art deco style bathroom was terrible. There was a deep tub, but it was too short for tall folks like us. When you sat on the toilet your knee hit the tub.  Because there is an entirely new floor and plumbing no one can claim that reason for this shitty layout is that they had to fit the existing bathroom plumbing. Again, this was new work, done as part of the overall renovation in ’01-’03. Now for the fun stuff.  As it turns out this tub is just off the centerline, over an alcove in the dining room below.  We noted a dip in the ceiling of this alcove, but no one from the initial house inspector to an engineer though this was anything other than old sagging in a 130 year-old building. We would find out otherwise.  

Last winter Sara Beth was expecting and began to regularly use the deep tub for well-needed soaks.  The unusually heavy snows that winter also loaded the structure.  We suddenly noticed in late February ’11 that cracks had developed in newly painted areas in the living room and a crack opened up from the corner of a door-frame next to the tub. Turns out there were old cracks that had been spackled over. Our house inspector missed this.  The entire structure of the old brick school house has since sagged inwards at the peak, pulling away from the addition which has moved as well. The amounts are tiny, but in a house they matter.
An engineer we hired suspected that the center-line supporting wall in the basement needed to be re-done and wanted to temporarily support it while digging out the footing and putting in new wall.  A Maryland contractor from a firm that did restorations suggested putting in second wall alongside the existing one, but never gave us an estimate.  A second contractor came in, blathered about his plan, but never called back.  Finally we found someone my brother-in-law knows.  He suspected the problem lay in the alcove in the dining room under the tub. I opened the walls and discovered that the joists were not continuous and there were two supporting centerline walls, the alcove had been created by removing part of one, beneath the tub! 

Now we knew the problem, and the process of correcting decades of mistakes ranging from weird layouts to compromised structural integrity could begin.  

Next: what I found in the walls.