The Unseen IAQ Mennace

We’ve talked about all manner of Air Quality issues: pollen, viruses, volatile organic compounds, and more. There is however, one less frequently talked about devil in the air: radon, methane, and other ground seepage. These are harmful, either explosive, cancer-causing, or otherwise dangerous materials that can seep from the soil below. You’ll never know they’re there until it’s too late. How Does It Happen? Time for some science. The ground beneath you is not pure, solid dirt and rock straight to the Earth’s core. It’s not all one particular elemental composition either. There’s pockets of different materials, gasses, radioactive elements, and so on. These materials either work their way to the surface or they emit something that does. Consider for example, a gas like methane. This exists underground, in porous areas of rock or in large, hollow caves. It’s under extreme pressure from the rest of the Earth pressing down on it. All it takes is a path to the surface for it to flow out. When we do mining for it, we drill down and use a pipe to provide that path to the surface. The Methane is a low-density gas, it wants to move higher up, in the same way helium can make balloons float. There is some amount of natural seepage. The gas makes it way up through the ground and rock, tiny pores and cracks that let it slowly escape. The ground beneath you is not […]

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Upgrade Season

It is almost comfortable outside. Mother Nature hasn’t yet committed to the warm 70s, but we have a good few days of 50s and 60s ahead. We’re going to have about two months where our HVAC systems can sit nearly idle, untouched and unneeded. This is your ideal corridor for major maintenance and installing new systems altogether. Depending on the scale of your facility, you may well need it. Perfect Weather From a comfort-perspective, the very beginning of Spring is an ideal time. We’re well acclimated to cool weather and the slow move into the low sixties and seventies means we can be comfortable without any HVAC equipment. We can open the windows for a few days and no one is going to be inconvenienced by it. We can shut down the building’s plumbing and install temporary accommodations outdoors and it won’t be painful or disruptive to your employees for a few days. This rare window is different from the fall. Being cold is inherently uncomfortable and harder to compensate for than being too warm going from winter into spring. In the fall, if you get a very cold day, there’s little you can do to heat the building without buying every space heater in the city. In the spring if you get a warm day, tell your employees it’s Casual Friday all week, shorts and t-shirts approved. Open a window or leave the front doors open. The shifting weather […]

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Improve Your Air

You’ve done your testing and your facility has an air quality problem. Stepping through your doors feel like getting a tour of an 1890s steam powered factory. It’s just gross and you’re going to turn your air into something people actually want to breathe. Physical Defenses Your first line of defense is to attack everything getting inside with some physical mitigations. Every person entering the building is going to carry allergens, pathogens, and other problems with them. Imagine someone who just walked through a grassy field, tracking pollen with every step they take. Imagine the gentle breeze blowing through the door as your guests enter, and carrying with it the latest plague to sweep the nation. There are two defenses you can use here. First, you need a nice, big, hefty door mat of some kind, that everyone ends up walking across. They’re tracking pollen on their shoes, make sure it gets stuck where it won’t cause a problem: in a fibrous tangle where it’ll never bother you again. Second, you need to regularly clean the floors of your facility. All the nasty stuff in the air is hovering around, suspended like tea leaves in water. If the air is still long enough, it’ll all settle on your shelves, floors, and equipment until someone kicks it up into the air again. Use microfiber mops to capture and remove the problem while you can. Don’t use a typical broom though, that’s […]

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Grading Your Steam

As with all things scientific and industrial, there are ways to quantify just how good steam is and where it can be used. We can think of these as three basic grades of steam: Utility, Culinary, and Pure. These essentially deal with how sterile the steam has to be, how much or how little water vapor it can carry, and what contaminants or additives it can be exposed to. Utility Steam There are numerous applications where the chemical make up of the steam isn’t a terribly big deal. Consider steam used for heating oil pipes. It doesn’t matter if the steam is wet or dry, if it contains any anti-corrosives, or if we put anti-freeze in it to prevent pipe bursts in the return lines. This is steam that’s never going to come into contact with humans, never touch food or clothes, or otherwise be an exposure risk. We put up a nice biohazard sign, some skulls and crossbones on the pipes, a sign that reads “if you drink, touch, or breath this, not only will you die, but it will be slow and painful,” and everything is pretty much set. The same can be said for steam used exclusively used to heat a building or dedicated to other purposes. In these environments, there’s not going to be human exposure, so it’s treated like any other chemical. In these instances, it’s helpful to use additives to extend the life of […]

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Industrial Wet Steam

Let’s recap quick: wet steam is the steam you usually see around your house and basically everywhere not investing seven to eight figure checks in their steam system. This wet-steam carries water vapor, which is the actual white, puffy cloud you see. Dry steam is essentially invisible, hot as fire, and essential in industrial scale productions. That begs the question though, is there an industry for wet steam too? Surely the dry-stuff is better? Moisturizing the Product It turns out, there are a ton of applications where it’s essential to add moisture to a product without actually soaking it. Consider, if you use dry steam, you’re not going to make the product wet, but you will dry it out. Between the heat and zero-humidity air, anything that can evaporate from the product will do so. Dry products presents a wide range of problems. Dry things are often inflexible and brittle. Consider if you leave a shirt in your clothes drier for  hours upon hours (do not do this, you’ll probably start a fire), if it survives, it’ll be rough, stiff, and uncomfortable. Dry steam works well enough for a quick cleaning of clothes, but it’s not good for prolonged exposure. This same thing is true in other types of production, consider something like a paper pill or a printing press. If the paper becomes too dry, it might tear inside the machinery. Excessively dry paper is prone to cracking, tearing, […]

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Origins of Steam

Steam is one of the oldest power sources known to man. The ancient Greeks were perhaps the first civilization to have central heating, with archeaology suggesting they had a crude hot-air heating technology 4000 years ago. They were also the first civilization to create a steam-powered anything, 2000 years ago. Heron’s Aeolipile Around the first century AD, there was a mathematician in Alexandria named Heron. He would write numerous books on geometry and early mechanical technology. His work also includes the first steam engine and therefore as good of a place as any for us to begin the story of steam. The Aeolipile was a water tank placed over a fire, with two pipes coming from the top and running into a sphere. The pipes function as an axle and as a pathway for the flow of steam. There’s two bent pipes on the ball for the steam to come out. When the water boiled, it caused the steam to shoot out of the ball like thrusters, and spin the ball. This was the first mechanical use of steam and the last one for over a thousand years after Heron’s death. Vacuum Power The story of steam picks up again in the 1600s. Giovanni Battista della Porta theorized that the state change of water into steam and back again would alter the pressure of a closed vessel. That is, this would increase or decrease the pressure. This idea if the […]

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The Non-Mechanical Trap

There are a number of ways to exploit physics for our benefit. We take advantage of physics to make air conditioners, make friction-free braking electrical cars, and apparently make a valve without any mechanical actuation. That is, a valve we don’t actually open or close from the outside, it opens itself. In this case, it’s the valve component of a steam trap. The Mechanism Everything changes at least a bit with temperature. Water tends to expand when it’s frozen, leading to burst pipes in the winter. Metals tend to stretch when they’re heated. This is something famously demonstrated by the Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird, the engines were a massive four foot, eight inches wide and nearly eighteen feet long on the ground, during operation they would expand by six inches from the heat. This type of expansion is commonly used in older, bi-metal thermostats. As the temperature changes, two pieces of metal change in size. This is something incredibly precise, allowing a basic thermostat to operate without any active components. It would always actuate based on temperature and nothing would change that. If it works in thermostats, why not use it in other places? If we know an element will expand or contract at a given temperature or range, then we can make use that to perform a mechanical job. We put one of these elements inside a steam trap, when it’s expanded, the condensate drain is sealed by our […]

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Sealing In The Heat

There’s more than one way to insulate your facility. We often think of insulation as just the stuff in the walls or on the pipes. It’s important to remember we need to also essentially insulate the air, isolate the air inside our buildings from the air outside. In a perfect world, all the air we heat up stays inside. In reality, every opening to the outside door is money lost in the breeze.   The Doors The doors in your facility are where you’re going to lose heat the fastest. In a large department store for example,  the doors may as well not even be there for peak shopping hours. Customers will enter and leave so frequently that the doors are constantly open. In arrangements like this, it’s important to choose a door configuration that retains as much heat as possible. You may notice that most large stores feature an enclosed entry. That is, you go through two sets of doors to actually enter their building. This reduces the volume of air going straight to the outside world, and tries to keep that warm air at least inside the entry way to warm guests as they begin to enter. The only major downside to this type of entry is some slight inconvenience to the customer. Some large chains forgo this design in order to make their entry into the store more open. They believe the enhanced aesthetic of just one […]

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You Really Should Weatherproof That

Today we’re going to look at a massive plumbing FAIL and hope that people can learn from a billion dollar mistake. It’s relatively common knowledge among plumbers that pipe + water + freezing = big paycheck @ 3am. When water freezes inside a pipe, it starts to expand outwards, and eventually the ice crystals will force themselves into a rigid shape, which will push outwards on the pipe like a microscopic bottle jack. Pipes are pretty rigid, but water doesn’t compress well and ice doesn’t really squeeze down either. It’s going to take on the shape it wants to take. The pipe bursts and things get expensive.   Russia’s Plumbing Problem The USSR, the Soviet Union, was apparently unaware of these issues in physics when building their only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. It’s been reported that the onboard plumbing was not weather proofed. When the ship entered sub-freezing environments, it was possible for pipes to freeze and burst. This can be a massive issue for a combat vessel. You don’t want to be fighting your own cooling systems, drinking water, or risking flooding your ship with your own water supply while you’re fighting off an attacker. That makes for a really bad day. Repairing this isn’t a small task either. The Kuznetsov is an aircraft carrier. It’s about as long as three football feels end to end, with change left over. It weighs 55,000 tons. There’s room for a […]

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What if the Thermostat Really is Wrong?

A thermostat can be ‘wrong’ in that it only represents the temperature in one area, and it’s a poor representation of the overall building temperature or it can be wrong in that it thinks a 100 degree house is currently 0 degrees. Over time, the temperature sensor inside a thermostat can begin to fail. It might be a small error or something entirely bonkers.   Diagnosing the Issue Thermostat issues can be caused by calibration errors, dirt, or complete hardware failure. In the case of dirt, there’s some build up over the sensor, insulating it from the real temperature. Calibration issues can develop over time as the system wears, reading differently as the sensor becomes less resistive or components oxidize, or other issues. There’s also those few occasions where the whole thermostat just loses the ability to read the correct temperature, and that could be caused by a million things, including age, wear and tear, or a power surge. Before we run off and panic, we first need to confirm there is an issue and just how big it is. We need to be sure the thermostat is the cause of the problem and not just a victim of some other failure. The first step in this process is to measure the actual air temperature by the thermostat. You can generally just hold up a thermometer by the thermostat and see what it reads. I’m a bit lazy, I just […]

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