Networks – What Me Worry? by Jay Lewis

Networks are everywhere and have been here since the beginning of the planet. We have all sorts – chemical, physical, ecological, energy, social, transportation, etc., etc.. They are a fact, not just of life – of everything. The first of Barry Commoner’s Four Laws of Ecology is that “Everything is Connected to Everything Else.” Networks are powerful and unavoidable. No matter how you may try, you cannot escape them.

Recently, it has become fashionable to put down those networks, which are most in our face on a daily basis. The Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Smart Energy Grids, highways, iTunes, Kindle all come in for their share of criticism, which is as it should be. They are seen to sap our time, take our money, invade our privacy and may seem to be the arena of elites. All that is true to some extent. Clearly, most people have done some benefit/cost analysis and have decided that these networks generally work in their favour – most of the time. Like democracy, which must be defended on a daily basis, our participation in networks must be continuously evaluated and adjustments made where necessary. Whether various regulators shape the networks we have control over or participants get vocal and then walk, if things go off track, vigilance and action is always required.

With the Smart Homes we design, thermostats are connected to lights, which are connected to the TV and on it goes. The aim of the system is to reduce energy and other resorce use, cut costs, add convenience and improve safety and security. There are legitimate concerns that privacy may be compromised by these systems. As we have designed safety into our electrical systems for the past century, Smart Home controls require strong security. It may be that utilities and product suppliers would like to know what appliances you are using and how much energy they consume. You may want to share that information with them, maybe to your benefit, but maybe not.

Any appropriate Smart Home system must be secure and under the control of the resident. They alone can decide, whether data will be shared with a utility or product supplier. The Smart Meter at the home reports energy use to the utility for billing purposes at various intervals, but does not necessarily connect to the control systems inside the home. The utility does not know what you are doing and when. There needs to be a drawbridge at that point, which only the resident can lower.

There are those who are fearful that anonymous hackers, utilities, sales organizations, espionage agencies and government officials are poised to snoop in their home. Some paranoia is useful in this world, but really – let’s get a grip. Who is going to spend time and money hacking through your firewall to reset the temperature on your hot water tank. They can’t even scald you, as there is a thermostatic mixing valve that prevents that. People are justifiably concerned about an unauthorized person accessing the hard drive on their computer, but checking the lighting setback regimes is not very interesting to even the most bored hacker.

Smart Homes produce a wide variety of benefits for the residents and society in general. By optimizing energy system efficiency and instituting load management, fewer generation, transmission and distribution projects need to be built. Distributed generation systems, such as solar panels on your roof can easily be integrated as the economics improve. Seniors can remain in their homes longer with Living-in-Place systems. House fires and flooding from leaking pipes and tanks will become a thing of the past. Networks that we control will give us more time and money to do the things we like, while minimizing our negative impacts on the earth. Smart Homes are not just automation, but they can reflect the way we want to carefully live our lives.

Water Works by Jay Lewis

“The water is in the creek – and it doesn’t want to come out.”  My friend Jim was sitting exhausted on the steep side of a dry grass bank slanting down to the creek.  He was a student of Zen and the water had spoken.  That he was dehydrated and hyperthermic after spending the past two hours climbing up and down the blazing hot mountainside in the dry British Columbia interior, may have had something to do with the voice in his head.  He simply wanted to have cool creek water come down the 25mm polyethylene hose and into our cabin where he was staying.  Using all the tricks we had developed over the years to start a siphon, he could not make the water flow.  Then he happened to see a small dead sapling that has fallen across the hose.  The pipe goes over and under many deadfalls on the way from the creek to the house. When he lifted the small tree, a broken branch, the size of his thumb had pierced the center of the hose and blocked the flow.  A few minutes later, with a hose patch, the cool, fresh water flowed to the shower where Jim was recuperating.

 We take water for granted in the northern climes.  It is generally plentiful and reasonable clean.  We have a history with our creek that flows down the mountainside and plunges over the waterfall across the glade from our log cabin.  The details of a water works is alien to most people.  We are used to turning a tap and water comes out.  It is not so easy in our part of the world.  There is no water utility.  We have a license to take 5,700 litres of water from our creek per day.  For the past thirty-five years, we have been determined to use as little of that allotment as possible.

At the end of our 25mm pipe is a screened intake consisting of a 150mm diameter piece of PVC pipe with many holes drilled in it.  The pipe climbs gradually out of the creek canyon and winds its way about 600m down the hillside to a 28,000 litre water storage cistern. To start the whole system running I use a small boat pump at the head to get the siphon working.  When the intake threatens to suck your hand into it, the system is functional  - no motors or pumps – just gravity.  There is still some Zen involved on days when there is low summer flow or spring torrents.

On the demand side, the faucets and the shower head at the house are all low flow with quick cut-offs.  We have a Clivus Multrum composting toilet so there is no flushing. A family of three can get along quite nicely on 20 litres of water per day domestically.  We largely do xeriscape (dry land) landscaping around the house using native grasses, flowers and trees.  We have a garden and fruit trees, which are watered at the base using traditional irrigation trenches served by distribution garden hoses.  Water sprayed into the air during blazing summer days does not come back down to where it is needed.

The only missing link at this point would be a small Pelton wheel generator at the garden base of the system to generate electricity from the kinetic energy in the water falling from the intake head 100m above.

This type of water works is replicated in various ways all over the world.  Without fresh water, we cannot live.  We have to be sure that our use of this resource is super efficient.  Every drop that we don’t use is free to run down through the lakes and rivers in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and into the Pacific.  We share with other people, animals and fish along that route.  We are nowhere as adept with water as the people of the Kalahari, but we are working on it.  Unless we are all more careful with our use of water, the day will arrive when it will refuse to come from the creek – ever again.

Adaptive Engineering by Jay Lewis

In originally contemplating the field of “Adaptive Engineering,” I just assumed that it was a well established discipline with the usual representative associations and hierarchies. Wikipedia put me straight on that notion.  ”The page does not exist.”  Well maybe that is where we have been going wrong.

Yes, in some sense, we have been adapting everything in sight since humans got tools.  If the prime definition of adapt is “to make fit,” then we have been very busy at that.  It has largely been a process of making our earth fit our requirements.  Much of the effort has been a sort of Procrustes’ Bedaffair – a rather uncomfortable process for our fellow travelers on this planet.

So we can either try to adapt the world to ourselves or design our activities and physical assets to fit in a non-disruptive way within our residential ecosystems.  We have spent much of human history attempting the former with very mixed, long term effects.

One of Terra Firm’s businesses, is retrofitting  buildings so that they and their contents are not damaged or destroyed in an earthquake, with the attending nasty consequences for the inhabitants.  Most buildings in earthquake zones were not built with the seismic forces in mind, because we weren’t aware of the degree of risk or we simply didn’t want to spend the extra money.  People were very concerned about this issue for a few years after the recent San Francisco and Los Angeles quakes.  We have regressed in our remedial activity recently in spite of damaging events in Sumatra, Haiti, Chile, New Zealand and Japan.  We can’t bolt the San Andreas Fault together and we are not focussed on designing buildings for strong ground motion – maladaptation.

Our energy use runs from the sophisticated (smartphones and laptops) to the crude crude (internal combustion engines and furnaces).  We are still building homes, offices and industrial plants as if energy was cheap, plentiful and without extraction and distribution consequences.  We can get better at this.  We are building our business on making homes more like smartphones in their energy use.  There are still some who think we should be moving our cities away from the rising oceans and broadcasting particles into the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s radiant heat – adapting to our failure to adapt.

Maybe someday, we will have an International Association for Adaptive Engineering.  Millions of people are already working in this field, but they tend to be under thousands of different tents.  For humans, the time frame to make changes to our operating mode may be relatively short.  Many of the other species that seem better at adapting and will likely continue with the evolutionary experience.