Saturday, February 13, 2016


Think of the typical American mall parking lot—a wasteland of white-striped asphalt rhythmically punctuated with little oil slicks. Not long ago I had the misfortune of crossing one of these dreary places on foot, a lonely pedestrian picking my way through the iridescent puddles of leaked oil, transmission fluid and and antifreeze. Then it suddenly struck me: in just a few years, all of this mess will be history.

These are the parts that make up an internal-combustion V8 engine.
And this doesn't even include the transmission or rear axle that
are connected to it. An electric motor, on the other hand, has
exactly one moving part.
Not the parking lot—that, I’m afraid, will be with us for a long time. But the oil puddles, gas and exhaust fumes, and rumbling engines will all be gone. Electric cars exude none of these things, and they’ll be taking over a lot sooner than anyone—including moribund “industry analysts”—predict.

And amen to that. I’ve been a rabid gearhead all my life, and I love cars even more than most Americans. But knowing full well what a ridiculously complex contraption the internal-combustion engine is, I’m thrilled that electric cars will soon be driving the last nail in its coffin. 

Why are electrics so much better? Just think back to all the maintenance and repairs you’ve done on the cars you’ve owned over the years: Hoses and belts. Spark plugs. Air, oil, and fuel filters. Perhaps a new starter, radiator, alternator, water pump or fuel pump. Or, heaven help you, a new transmission or cylinder head gasket. 

Well, electric cars sweep every last nut and bolt of that complex, inefficient, and trouble-prone hardware into the dustbin of history. They require nothing more than a quiet, reliable, and extremely efficient electric motor, which essentially has only one moving part. An internal combustion engine, by contrast, has hundreds of moving parts, the failure of any one of which can bring the whole contraption to a standstill, or at least make it run lousy and spew pollution.
The Chevy Volt has modest range of about 53 miles
on one electric charge—still way more
than the average trip demands.

In view of the obvious technical superiority of electrics (whose performance, by the way, can inarguably blow the doors off any gasoline-powered car), the arguments made against them are trivial indeed. The most common of these is the tired bugaboo of “limited range”. 

The distance today’s electrics can go on a single charge ranges from 53 miles for the Chevy Volt at the low end to 240 miles for the mighty—and mighty expensive—Tesla S 70D. These figures will only increase in the future.  But in any case, a 2012 study by two Columbia University doctoral students showed that the average one-way driving trip in the U.S. is—ready?—5.95 miles. It also demonstrated that 95 percent of driving trips were under 30 miles, and that a whopping 98 percent of all driving trips are under 50 miles. The study concluded that some 95 percent of all driving trips were within the range of electric vehicles.  

In other words, the phony “problem” of range is just a ruse drummed up by the many people and institutions who are still deeply vested in internal combustion. 

The cabin of the high-end Tesla S 70D, which can go
240 miles on a charge, if you can afford it.
And by the way, it will blow the doors off ANY
internal combustion vehicle.
Ironically, the most worrisome aspect of this revolution is the common perception that electric cars are “clean”. They aren’t. Since the electricity is mainly generated by coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear power, environmental pollution is simply transferred from the car to the generating station. What’s more, the process of generating electricity by these methods is only about 35% efficient. Add to this the losses inherent in distributing electricity—typically between 8% and 15%—and a potentially super-efficient system turns into one that’s only so-so.

Hence, the ideal electric car would be recharged by a source of electricity that’s as local as possible—for example, a photovoltaic array on the roof of your house. Better yet, your car could recharge itself while it’s parked in the blazing sun all day long. All of these things will come to pass, and sooner than you may think. The car you drive today—which after 120 years of refinement is still essentially powered by a bunch of little explosions—will seem downright primitive in comparison.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

THE GREENEST WAY TO BUILD: Use Stuff That Already Exists

During the 1950s and 60s, when
Victorian architecture was held in
contempt, many an interior like this one
met the wrecking ball.
Unlike Europe, the United States has never had many reservations about demolishing its old buildings to make way for the new.  The vast array of exquisite materials squandered during the Modernist era— when ornamentation was held in contempt—could make a grown person cry. After World War II, countless Victorian homes filled with ornately-milled hardwoods, marble, leaded and colored glass, brass and bronze were blithely destroyed to make way for the sedate, blank surfaces of the “new” age. 

Nowadays, any green designer or builder worth his salt recognizes the value of quality salvaged items. Yet ironically, long before the green movement, it was wrecking contractors who first saw value in such items.  Over the years, their equipment yards became stockpiled with items hastily stripped from old homes in the last bleak hours before the Caterpillars arrived. These stockpiles eventually grew into organized salvage yards featuring a huge array of architectural materials.   

With money as scarce as it is today, many remodelers have turned to salvaged materials as a way to save a few bucks. And rightly so: If you know what to buy and what to avoid, the salvalvage items can be a real bargain. With luck, you may even come across an architectural treasure or two. Don’t expect perfection, however; remember that these items have already lived one lifetime. Consider a chip or scratch here and there as a badge of honor. 

All these windows once graced the interior
of someone's old house. The least we can do
is to give them a second life.
(Photo courtesy
Probably the most useful salvage buys are metallic items like high-quality cabinet hardware, railings, escutcheons, grilles, scutcheons, grilles,  They’re easily stripped of paint and reused, and their quality is generally far higher than similar items you can buy today.  Also worth searching out are fireplace mantels and other stone or marble items that are very expensive purchased new.   

Panel doors can also be a bargain as long as they’re in good condition. Except for really one-of-a-kind items, though, don’t bother buying doors that are badly weathered or otherwise damaged; repairing them simply isn’t cost effective. Also, try to use salvaged doors in new openings made especially for them, not in existing openings. Modifying old doors to fit an existing opening (or vice versa) can be a real headache.  

Salvage yards frequently have leaded or colored glass windows, too. Many have interesting muntin patterns or
Knobs, anyone? You won't
find ones of this quality
at the local Big Orange.
unusual shapes, and can fit nicely into remodeling plans.  However, the more mundane types of double-hung or casement windows are seldom worth buying for new construction (nor will they usually meet modern energy codes). By the time you’ve gotten them properly refinished and in smooth working condition, you’ll wish you’d simply bought a new window.  Save your rehab efforts for windows that are worth the time.

Salvaged plumbing fixtures must also be approached with caution.  Many old toilets, for example, are difficult to connect and few will comply with modern water-conservation standards. Pedestal sinks, on the other hand, are easily retrofitted with modern water-conserving faucets, and are often a bargain. Avoid the cast iron variety and look for the higher-quality chinaware type, however.