# Change home air filters 3 times per year

Energy efficient furnaces use a surprisingly large amount of electricity to blow the air around your house. Part of the problem is the pressure drop of the ducts, but quite a lot of energy is lost bowing air through the dust filter. An energy-saving idea: replace the filter on your furnace twice a year or more. Another idea, you don’t have to use the fanciest of filters. Dirty filters provide a lot of back-pressure especially when they are dirty.

I built a water manometer, see diagram below to measure the pressure drop through my furnace filters. The pressure drop is measured from the difference in the height of the water column shown. Each inch of water is 0.04 psi or 275 Pa. Using this pressure difference and the flow rating of the furnace, I calculated the amount of power lost by the following formula:

W = Q ∆P/ µ.

Here W is the amount of power use, Watts, Q is flow rate m3/s, ∆P = the pressure drop in Pa, and µ is the efficiency of the motor and blower, typically about 50%.

With clean filters (two different brands), I measured 1/8″ and 1/4″ of water column, or a pressure drop of 0.005 and 0.01 psi, depending on the filter. The “better the filter”, that is the higher the MERV rating, the higher the pressure drop. I also measured the pressure drop through a 6 month old filter and found it to be 1/2″ of water, or 0.02 psi or 140 Pa. Multiplying this by the amount of air moved, 1000 cfm =  25 m3 per minute or 0.42 m3/s, and dividing by the efficiency, I calculate a power use of 118 W. That is 0.118 kWh/hr. or 2.8 kWh/day.

The water manometer I used to measure the pressure drop through the filter of my furnace. I stuck two copper tubes into the furnace, and attached a plastic tube half filled with water between the copper tubes. Pressure was measured from the difference in the water level in the plastic tube. Each 1″ of water is 280 Pa or 0.04psi.

At the above rate of power use and a cost of electricity of 11¢/kWhr, I find it would cost me an extra 4 KWhr or about 31¢/day to pump air through my dirty-ish filter; that’s \$113/year. The cost through a clean filter would be about half this, suggesting that for every year of filter use I spend an average of \$57t where t is the use life of the filter.

To calculate the ideal time to change filters I set up the following formula for the total cost per year \$, including cost per year spent on filters (at \$5/ filter), and the pressure-induced electric cost:

\$ = 5/t + 57 t.

The shorter the life of the filter, t, the more I spend on filters, but the less on electricity. I now use calculus to find the filter life that produces the minimum \$, and determine that \$ is a minimum at a filter life t = √5/57 = .30 years.  The upshot, then, if you filters are like mine, you should change your three times a year, or so; every 3.6 months to be super-exact. For what it’s worth, I buy MERV 5 filters at Ace or Home Depot. If I bought more expensive filters, the optimal change time would likely be once or twice per year. I figure that, unless you are very allergic or make electronics in your basement you don’t need a filter with MERV rating higher than 8 or so.

I’ve mentioned in a previous essay/post that dust starts out mostly as dead skin cells. Over time dust mites eat the skin, some pretty nasty stuff. Most folks are allergic to the mites, but I’m not convinced that the filter on your furnace dies much to isolate you from them since the mites, etc tend to hang out in your bed and clothes (a charming thought, I know).

Old fashioned, octopus furnace. Free convection.

The previous house I had, had no filter on the furnace (and no blower). I noticed no difference in my tendency to cough or itch. That furnace relied for circulation on the tendency for hot air to rise. That is, “free convection” circulated air through the home and furnace by way of “Octopus” ducts. If you wonder what a furnace like that looks like here’s a picture.

I calculate that a 10 foot column of air that is 30°C warmer than that in a house will have a buoyancy of about 0.00055 psi (1/8″ of water). That’s enough pressure to drive circulation through my home, and might have even driven air through a clean, low MERV dust filter. The furnace didn’t use any more gas than a modern furnace would, as best I could tell, since I was able to adjust the damper easily (I could see the flame). It used no electricity except for the thermostat control, and the overall cost was lower than for my current, high-efficiency furnace with its electrical blower and forced convection.

Robert E. Buxbaum, December 7, 2017. I ran for water commissioner, and post occasional energy-saving or water saving ideas. Another good energy saver is curtains. And here are some ideas on water-saving, and on toilet paper.

# In praise of openable windows and leaky construction

It’s summer in Detroit, and in all the tall buildings the air conditioners are humming. They have to run at near-full power even on evenings and weekends when the buildings are near empty, and on cool days. This would seem to waste a lot of power and it does, but it’s needed for ventilation. Tall buildings are made air-tight with windows that don’t open — without the AC, there’s be no heat leaving at all, no way for air to get in, and no way for smells to get out.

The windows don’t open because of the conceit of modern architecture; air tight building are believed to be good design because they have improved air-conditioner efficiency when the buildings are full, and use less heat when the outside world is very cold. That’s, perhaps 10% of the year.

Modern architecture with no openable windows. Someone wants you to suffer for his/her art.

Another reason closed buildings are popular is that they reduce the owners’ liability in terms of things flying in or falling out. Owners don’t rain coming in, or rocks (or people) falling out. Not that windows can’t be made with small openings that angle to avoid these problems, but that’s work and money and architects like to spend time and money only on fancy facades that look nice (and are often impractical). Besides, open windows can ruin the cool lines of their modern designs, and there’s nothing worse, to them, than a building that looks uncool despite the energy cost or the suffering of the inmates of their art.

Most workers find sealed buildings claustrophobic, musty, and isolating. That pain leads to lost productivity: Fast Company reported that natural ventilation can increase productivity by up to 11 percent. But, as with leading clothes stylists, leading building designers prefer uncomfortable and uneconomic to uncool. If people in the building can’t smell an ocean breeze, or can’t vent their area in a fire (or following a burnt burrito), that’s a small price to pay for art. Art is absurd, and it’s OK with the architect if fire fumes have to circulate through the entire building before they’re slowly vented. Smells add character, and the architect is gone before the stench gets really bad.

No one dreams of working in a glass box. If it’s got to be an office, give some ventilation.

So what’s to be done? One can demand openable windows and hope the architect begrudgingly obliges. Some of the newest buildings have gone this route. A simpler, engineering option is to go for leaky construction — cracks in the masonry, windows that don’t quite seal. I’ve maintained and enlarged the gap under the doors of my laboratory buildings to increase air leakage; I like to have passive venting for toxic or flammable vapors. I’m happy to not worry about air circulation failing at the worst moment, and I’m happy to not have to ventilate at night when few people are here. To save some money, I increase the temperature range at night and weekends so that the buildings is allowed to get as hot as 82°F before the AC goes on, or as cold as 55°F without the heat. Folks who show up on weekends may need a sweater, but normally no one is here.

A bit of air leakage and a few openable windows won’t mess up the air-conditioning control because most heat loss is through the walls and black body radiation. And what you lose in heat infiltration you gain by being able to turn off the AC circulation system when you know there are few people in the building (It helps to have a key-entry system to tell you how many people are there) and the productivity advantage of occasional outdoor smells coming in, or nasty indoor smells going out.

One irrational fear of openable windows is that some people will not close the windows in the summer or in the dead of winter. But people are quite happy in the older skyscrapers (like the empire state building) built before universal AC. Most people are nice — or most people you’d want to employ are. They will respond to others feelings to keep everyone comfortable. If necessary a boss or building manager may enforce this, or may have to move a particularly crusty miscreant from the window. But most people are nice, and even a degree of discomfort is worth the boost to your psyche when someone in management trusts you to control something of the building environment.

Robert E. Buxbaum, July 18, 2014. Curtains are a plus too — far better than self-darkening glass. They save energy, and let you think that management trusts you to have power over your environment. And that’s nice.

# If hot air rises, why is it cold on mountain-tops?

This is a child’s question that’s rarely answered to anyone’s satisfaction. To answer it well requires college level science, and by college the child has usually been dissuaded from asking anything scientific that would likely embarrass teacher — which is to say, from asking most anything. By a good answer, I mean here one that provides both a mathematical, checkable prediction of the temperature you’d expect to find on mountain tops, and one that also gives a feel for why it should be so. I’ll try to provide this here, as previously when explaining “why is the sky blue.” A word of warning: real science involves mathematics, something that’s often left behind, perhaps in an effort to build self-esteem. If I do a poor job, please text me back: “if hot air rises, what’s keeping you down?”

As a touchy-feely answer, please note that all materials have internal energy. It’s generally associated with the kinetic energy + potential energy of the molecules. It enters whenever a material is heated or has work done on it, and for gases, to good approximation, it equals the gas heat capacity of the gas times its temperature. For air, this is about 7 cal/mol°K times the temperature in degrees Kelvin. The average air at sea-level is taken to be at 1 atm, or 101,300  Pascals, and 15.02°C, or 288.15 °K; the internal energy of this are is thus 288.15 x 7 = 2017 cal/mol = 8420 J/mol. The internal energy of the air will decrease as the air rises, and the temperature drops for reasons I will explain below. Most diatomic gases have heat capacity of 7 cal/mol°K, a fact that is only explained by quantum mechanics; if not for quantum mechanics, the heat capacities of diatomic gases would be about 9 cal/mol°K.

Lets consider a volume of this air at this standard condition, and imagine that it is held within a weightless balloon, or plastic bag. As we pull that air up, by pulling up the bag, the bag starts to expand because the pressure is lower at high altitude (air pressure is just the weight of the air). No heat is exchanged with the surrounding air because our air will always be about as warm as its surroundings, or if you like you can imagine weightless balloon prevents it. In either case the molecules lose energy as the bag expands because they always collide with an outwardly moving wall. Alternately you can say that the air in the bag is doing work on the exterior air — expansion is work — but we are putting no work into the air as it takes no work to lift this air. The buoyancy of the air in our balloon is always about that of the surrounding air, or so we’ll assume for now.

A classic, difficult way to calculate the temperature change with altitude is to calculate the work being done by the air in the rising balloon. Work done is force times distance: w=  ∫f dz and this work should equal the effective cooling since heat and work are interchangeable. There’s an integral sign here to account for the fact that force is proportional to pressure and the air pressure will decrease as the balloon goes up. We now note that w =  ∫f dz = – ∫P dV because pressure, P = force per unit area. and volume, V is area times distance. The minus sign is because the work is being done by the air, not done on the air — it involves a loss of internal energy. Sorry to say, the temperature and pressure in the air keeps changing with volume and altitude, so it’s hard to solve the integral, but there is a simple approach based on entropy, S.

Les Droites Mountain, in the Alps, at the intersect of France Italy and Switzerland is 4000 m tall. The top is generally snow-covered.

I discussed entropy last month, and showed it was a property of state, and further, that for any reversible path, ∆S= (Q/T)rev. That is, the entropy change for any reversible process equals the heat that enters divided by the temperature. Now, we expect the balloon rise is reversible, and since we’ve assumed no heat transfer, Q = 0. We thus expect that the entropy of air will be the same at all altitudes. Now entropy has two parts, a temperature part, Cp ln T2/T1 and a pressure part, R ln P2/P1. If the total ∆S=0 these two parts will exactly cancel.

Consider that at 4000m, the height of Les Droites, a mountain in the Mont Blanc range, the typical pressure is 61,660 Pa, about 60.85% of sea level pressure (101325 Pa). If the air were reduced to this pressure at constant temperature (∆S)T = -R ln P2/P1 where R is the gas constant, about 2 cal/mol°K, and P2/P1 = .6085; (∆S)T = -2 ln .6085. Since the total entropy change is zero, this part must equal Cp ln T2/T1 where Cp is the heat capacity of air at constant pressure, about 7 cal/mol°K for all diatomic gases, and T1 and T2 are the temperatures (Kelvin) of the air at sea level and 4000 m. (These equations are derived in most thermodynamics texts. The short version is that the entropy change from compression at constant T equals the work at constant temperature divided by T,  ∫P/TdV=  ∫R/V dV = R ln V2/V1= -R ln P2/P1. Similarly the entropy change at constant pressure = ∫dQ/T where dQ = Cp dT. This component of entropy is thus ∫dQ/T = Cp ∫dT/T = Cp ln T2/T1.) Setting the sum to equal zero, we can say that Cp ln T2/T1 =R ln .6085, or that

T2 = T1 (.6085)R/Cp

T2 = T1(.6085)2/7   where 0.6065 is the pressure ratio at 4000, and because for air and most diatomic gases, R/Cp = 2/7 to very good approximation, matching the prediction from quantum mechanics.

From the above, we calculate T2 = 288.15 x .8676 = 250.0°K, or -23.15 °C. This is cold enough to provide snow  on Les Droites nearly year round, and it’s pretty accurate. The typical temperature at 4000 m is 262.17 K (-11°C). That’s 26°C colder than at sea-level, and only 12°C warmer than we’d predicted.

There are three weak assumptions behind the 11°C error in our predictions: (1) that the air that rises is no hotter than the air that does not, and (2) that the air’s not heated by radiation from the sun or earth, and (3) that there is no heat exchange with the surrounding air, e.g. from rain or snow formation. The last of these errors is thought to be the largest, but it’s still not large enough to cause serious problems.

Snow on Kilimanjaro, Tanzania 2013. If global warming models were true, the ground should be 4°C warmer than 100 years ago, and the air at this altitude, about 7°C (12°F) warmer; and the snow should be gone.

You can use this approach, with different exponents, estimate the temperature at the center of Jupiter, or at the center of neutron stars. This iso-entropic calculation is the model that’s used here, though it’s understood that may be off by a fair percentage. You can also ask questions about global warming: increased CO2 at this level is supposed to cause extreme heating at 4000m, enough to heat the earth below by 4°C/century or more. As it happens, the temperature and snow cover on Les Droites and other Alp ski areas has been studied carefully for many decades; they are not warming as best we can tell (here’s a discussion). By all rights, Mt Blanc should be Mt Green by now; no one knows why. The earth too seems to have stopped warming. My theory: clouds.

Robert Buxbaum, May 10, 2014. Science requires you check your theory for internal and external weakness. Here’s why the sky is blue, not green.