Friday, January 03, 2014

a fire in the wood stove...

A third lid design using a shaped knob and rough sawn oak.
Arkansas, like much of the US is under a blanket of severe cold. The year before last we decided have an energy saving mini-split heating and air conditioning system put in my finish room and office as part  of an overall plan to improve our home. Last year, the entire outdoor unit was replaced after a series of complex discombuberations, that left our local technicians scratching their heads for months. Between the local technicians and I, we spent hours upon hours on the phone explaining the ever-unfolding details to technicians who had probably never actually seen one of these systems fail, but had instead talked only on the phone, following checklists of responses, "if this, then that."

The failed system was sent back to the manufacturer, who at first claimed there was nothing wrong with it... It took months of testing before they finally admitted its faults.

Now with this severe cold, the system has given up the ghost. It has been out of commission for a week while we are waiting for a delicate pressure sensor to arrive (next week), and be stuck into a slot, and for the system to kick in and warm this end of our house to a habitable condition.

Thankfully, our home is of a passive solar design. We get lots of sun to warm things during the day, and I bought a small electric heater to cut some of the chill.

Here are a few of the things we're learning about technology if we're paying attention. If things can go wrong they will. Complex systems are unmanageable in the long term. Greater complexity increases the unmanageability quotient. Even people who work with complex systems all the time may not have the capacity to fix things without adequate tech support, and it is virtually impossible to develop adequate tech support without putting those folks who are expected to provide such into the field where they encounter real problems and are expected to solve them through critical and creative thinking skills. Engineering guides and trouble shooting guides are written by engineers, not craftsmen, and the general inclination of engineers is to complicate to the fullest extent of their technological ability not to simplify so that things actually work and are manageable without engineering expertise.

It used to be that folks talked about appropriate technology. It was about DIY, and the ways that technology could reinforce the abilities of real people. And here I am, waiting. The system went out on Saturday. The service man came on Sunday and ordered the part on Monday. Given the holiday, perhaps it will arrive today. Of course complex heating systems fail when it gets cold. All this makes me long for a technology I could manage for myself and rely upon... a fire in the wood stove.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Being an engineer, I can honestly say that things aren't a lot easier for our part as well.
    The tendency that systems need to be smaller in physical size and need to be able to control many more things make them very vulnerable.
    There are plenty of things that can go wrong, and the worst thing is that in perhaps 10 years, you are no longer able to get that particular small print any more. And then you are left with a system that can no longer be repaired for a reasonable amount of money.
    Some of this can be blamed upon the quest for higher efficiency. If a system can yield a 0.5 % better efficiency, then it is a good sales point, because it is easily explained that it will save money. However, maintenance costs are rarely mentioned in any types of equipment sold for private users. And the more complex system can (as you have experienced) sometimes eat up this saving by being more costly to keep running.
    When I look at e.g. wood burning stoves, I try to look upon the object from an engineers point of view i.e. I don't care if it looks smart or has a new design etc. The important things are stuff like hinges and closing mechanisms, refractory lining and so on. But sadly those points don't sell to the wide public.

    A wood stove is a fantastic thing, and with the high prices of oil and electricity the heat is often cheaper if you can get to the firewood at an OK price. Besides it is great for keeping the clutter of the workshop floor.

    I hope you manage to stay warm.

  2. What caused me to almost snort coffee out my nose was your line that of course complex heating systems fail when it gets cold. We're also getting very cold weather in the single digits some days, And we hope the power doesn't go out, since there's no backup. It's too cold to work in the basement shop.