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Solar Power 101

HVAC experts

As our society continues to “go green”, we continue to invest in the natural resource of the sun to produce our energy. While small businesses, corporations, and homeowners alike have incorporated solar power into their lives, many still may not know exactly how we’re able to extract energy from the sun. Here’s a simple breakdown:

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How the IoT Is Helping Colleges Save on Their HVAC Costs

HVAC contractor

Today, the Internet of Things is one of the most extensive and fascinating ideas for the modern world. The IoT joins together vehicles, home appliances, and devices using electronics, sensors, and software. This creates a network of elements that are interconnected – and the idea is only growing. In fact, experts estimate that the IoT will consist of around 30 billion objects by 2020.

As an HVAC contractor, we’re always interested in how new technology will affect the HVAC world. In this EdTech article, Alan Joch writes about how higher education institutions are using the IoT to save money on HVAC:

“Consider this scenario: A facilities engineer on a college campus discovers a failure in an HVAC controller that may cause the system to dump too much cold air into a room.

To compensate, the HVAC system reheats the extra cold air to maintain the desired comfort level, wasting energy and money in the process. The room’s occupants have no reason to contact facilities managers, which means technicians aren’t aware of the glitch.

Problems like this are common, costly and tough to solve. But institutions are starting to use the Internet of Things (IoT) — pairing connected sensors with analytics software — to fix them. And they’re saving big money in the process.

Energy engineers at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln were mindful of simultaneous heating and cooling issues when they implemented an environmental fault detection and diagnostics system two years ago. So, as they installed thousands of networked room sensors, they included an algorithm designed to spot HVAC breakdowns.

“Lo and behold, a room in the Law College showed up with the heating and cooling problem,” says Lalit Agarwal, the university’s director of utility and energy management.

Fixing the flawed air conditioner damper saved the university a modest $300 per year in excess energy costs. But the financial implications go well beyond that, Agarwal says: “Think about how many rooms we have on our campus. If just 5 percent of them have the same failure, we are looking at thousands of dollars a year in excess costs — for just one type of problem.”

In fact, by Agarwal’s estimate, data-driven energy management activities have yielded about $200,000 in cost-avoidance savings in one year. Those savings likely will grow as facilities engineers continue to combine IoT with other technologies to proactively address HVAC issues that waste energy.

Says Agarwal, “We’ve had instances where technicians show up to fix a classroom’s ventilation system, and the instructor says, ‘But I didn’t call for anybody.’ The technicians say, ‘We know, but you probably would have in a month.’”

IoT Optimizes HVAC Operations

IoT lets institutions collect heaps of data on energy usage and, just as importantly, analyze that data for wasteful consumption patterns and opportunities to optimize HVAC operations.

“Energy management is right up there among the most compelling applications for IoT because it often results in direct cost savings,” says Steve Hoffenberg, the director of industry analysis, IoT and embedded technology at VDC Research.

To reap these savings, institutions combine low-cost digital sensors with analytics software in on-premises systems or cloud services designed for Big Data. Some implementations use onsite gateways that, among other duties, filter raw data streams to keep extraneous information from clogging local area networks and analytics engines.

“Ideally, the analytics should be self-learning, so that it understands energy consumption patterns for a specific building and optimizes it based on actual usage, such as real-time occupancy,” Hoffenberg says.

On the horizon, he says, are energy-related IoT systems that mix building sensory data with third-party weather data to help facilities staff manage energy consumption based on prevailing environmental conditions.

Successful Deployment Requires Collaboration of IoT Stakeholders

The rewards of IoT can be significant, but Chuck Benson, assistant director for IT, facilities services, at the University of Washington, says stakeholders may need to align their priorities. “There needs to be a lot of coordination to get these departments to work together closely,” he says.

In particular, IT and operations staff tend to approach such projects in unique ways. “These professionals even see time differently: IT people are patching and changing systems on a daily and weekly basis. OT people think in terms of buildings that last decades,” Benson says. “It takes work, and regular meetings that start early in the process, to bring these two groups together.”

Increased Data Output Creates Troubleshooting Efficiencies

At Nebraska, the environmental fault detection and diagnostics implementation uses more than 60,000 sensors to monitor the campus’s HVAC and computerized maintenance management systems. An electronic dashboard displays summary data, including updated insights about energy consumption and alerts when HVAC performance dips.

“Engineers get enough information to see possible faults and get a starting point for determining potential causes,” Agarwal says.

Multiple databases support the platform, including those running Microsoft SQL and the open-source MariaDB technology. In addition, Agarwal and his staff are always on the lookout for innovations in data-driven energy management. “Cloud-based machine learning applications in Microsoft Azure and similar technologies may help systems learn how to reduce the time needed to identify HVAC faults,” Agarwal says. “That is definitely an area for us to investigate for the future.”

The university’s fault detection and diagnostics system also supports an ongoing building recommissioning project. So far, more than a dozen buildings have been reconditioned for energy efficiency.

“After we perform a full tuneup on HVAC equipment in older buildings, the IoT sensors, working in conjunction with the detection and diagnostics system, enable us to keep our eye on performance, so we can keep the systems running as optimally as possible over time,” Agarwal says.

Recommissioning has reduced overall energy consumption by 17 percent and counting, he adds. “We’ve addressed barely 10 percent of the 130 buildings, so we expect even greater savings as we continue on this path,” Agarwal says.”

7 Ways to Save Energy During Thanksgiving Dinner

It’s that time of year, which means it’s time to fire up the oven, turn on the burners, and get to cooking that Thanksgiving dinner. It also means that you’ll be using a lot of energy to cook your meal. Follow these easy tips from our HVAC service experts to reduce your energy consumption while you make your delicious family dinner:

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An Outlook on Pennsylvania’s Renewable Energy Future

While we’re working to increase renewable energy as a country, the future of renewable energy also varies by state. Some (like West Virginia and New Mexico) are just beginning to produce solar, wind, or hydro power while others (like Idaho and Maine) are already running entirely on them.

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Could Renewables Be a Threat to Natural Gas?

Many homeowners use electricity as their primary source of power, however, there are some who turn to natural gas. Whether this choice is due to a preference or an availability, there are both pros and cons to using natural gas. Recently, our HVAC installation experts came across an article by Paulo Santos that discusses the rise of natural gas and the effect renewables could have on it. We thought we’d share:

“Commonly, I’d say most of us expect U.S. natural gas (UNG) to see increased usage over time. Coal is on its deathbed, nuclear power is seeing blowback since the Fukushima disaster, and U.S. natural gas seems perennially cheap. Adding these things together seems to indicate that, over time, we’ll see increased natural gas usage. This might/should push natural gas prices upward. To this, I would add that the development of LNG export facilities, like those built by Cheniere Energy (LNG), provide potential for increased natural gas demand.

Well, this all sounds good, but I am about to describe a risk that’s not as often considered. It’s a risk that looms pretty large, and whose materialization has already been seen elsewhere.

What Is This Risk?

The risk has a name: renewables. Renewable sources of energy, which are most often used to produce electricity, include things such as solar generation or wind generation. Why are renewables a risk? Let me explain:

Approximately 38.3% of the natural gas consumed in the U.S. is used to produce electricity. Residential plus commercial users consume ~30.1% of the natural gas, and their consumption has been rather stable over time. Industrial users consume ~31.5% of the natural gas, and while their usage has been growing recently due to cheap natural gas, it can be said to be stable over a longer time frame. As a result, demand for electricity generation has been responsible for all natural gas consumption growth in the U.S.

Now, it is this demand for electricity generation which is at risk. The risk comes from the fact that renewables (ex-hydroelectric) are growing quickly, and have gone from 7.1% of all power generation in 2014 to 9.5% in 2017 (ttm). This happened in the context of stable electricity generation. Electricity generation in the U.S. in 2017 (ttm) is lower than it was back in 2011.

Renewables (ex-hydroelectric) are often what’s called “must run.” That is, if solar or wind is generating power, the grid must take it. Someone else has to shut down. On the other hand, natural gas generation is most often both the “marginal producer” (the last to come in when prices are higher, the first to go out if they drop) and a flexible producer (one with the ability to ramp up and down quickly). As a result, added generation of the kind renewables offer mostly tends to displace natural gas generation. Therein lies the risk.

Compensating for this effect are, at times, political factors, such as a drive toward shutting down coal by subjecting it to more stringent emission rules. However, with the Trump administration this political drive isn’t there, and won’t be there for several years. The result, of course, is that as renewables grow through time, natural gas is, again, the prime victim. Also, in case you think this is fantasy, there is an actual precedent as the exact same thing happened in Europe.

Renewables’ development is further along in Europe compared to the U.S. But it should tend to catch up. As a result, the dynamics above might well be in out full force as we speak. Indeed, natural gas demand (ttm) for power generation has been heading down for a year or so already. There’s obviously the possibility that this was simply due to weather. Still, the inexorable growth in renewables generation is a fact, so even if it wasn’t structural this past year, it can turn structural at any time.


The growth in renewable power generation poses a direct threat to natural gas volumes and prices. As a result, this threat can impact natural gas E&P companies. This is because of the loss of volumes and pricing. It can also impact pipelines, which supply natural gas to the market. This is because of the loss of volumes and the increased risk from possible E&P failures.

This isn’t a merely theoretical threat. We’ve already seen its impact in Europe, where natural gas volumes fell a lot. Ultimately, pricing also fell a lot, and indeed has fallen below the cost of landed U.S. LNG. Right now, Europe is stabilizing on account of political action leading to the closure of nuclear and coal power plants. However, such political action does not seem likely right now in the U.S.”

When to Clean Your Air Ducts

Enjoy Fresh Air on a Regular Basis

When it comes to air ducts, there’s no set amount of time you should leave between cleanings; duct cleaning should be done on an “as-needed” basis and in general, is good to do every couple years.

How dirty your ducts get depends on many factors including: your home’s location, the size of your home, how many people live there, if family members smoke, if you have pets, etc.

The warm or cool air that blows out through your vents travels around your home and picks up airborne particles like dust, dirt, dander, mold, pollen, allergens, tar and nicotine (if members of your family smoke cigarettes). The air is then pulled back into your HVAC system and is recirculated over and over. As these particles travel through your home’s ducts, some get trapped and build up. Over time, the traveling air picks these particles up and before you know it, you’re breathing in more and more particles that could harm your health.

By cleaning your home’s ductwork, you’ll not only reduce your chances of illness, you’ll also improve the lifespan of your HVAC system and reduce your energy costs. In addition, to keep your home’s air even more clean, be sure to change your HVAC filter every one to three months (depending on the type).

At Oliver, we have a team of air duct cleaners that can remove harmful buildup and have you and your family breathing clean air in no time. If you’re not sure if your ducts need cleaning, give us a call today for a free over-the-phone estimate or schedule an appointment.

The Power Plants That Produce the Most Electricity in the U.S.

Powering the Country

Today’s nuclear energy facilities produce 64 percent of America’s clean, carbon-free electricity and there are several around the U.S. that are notable for producing the largest amount. Here, our electrical experts explore the power behind the top nuclear (and one hydroelectric) power plants:

Palo Verde Nuclear Station

Power generated in 2015: 32,525,595 mWhs

Located in Tonopath, Arizona about 45 miles west of Phoenix, this nuclear power station is the largest power plant in the U.S. by net generation. Its average electric power of 3.3 gigawatts can power the homes of around four million people and it’s actually the only large nuclear power plant in the world that’s not located near a large body of water.

Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant

Power generated in 2015: 27,669,694 mWhs

located on the Tennessee River near Decatur and Athens, Alabama, the Browns Ferry Nuclear Station was built in 1966 and is named for a ferry that operated at the same site until the middle of the 1900s. Its three boiling-water reactors were the first in the world to produce more than 1,000 megawatts (or 1 billion watts) of power and it’s currently the second-largest power producer in the U.S.

Oconee Nuclear Station

Power generated in 2015: 21,939,740 mWhs

This nuclear power station sits on Lake Keowee near Seneca, South Carolina and has produced more than 500 million megawatt-hours of electricity. Operated by Duke Energy, the Oconee Nuclear Station is the first nuclear station in the U.S. to have achieved this level of energy production and unlike many other stations, it relies on a hydroelectric station instead of a diesel generator for backup power.

West County Energy Center

Power generated in 2015: 20,428,360 mWhs

One of the newest power plants in the country, the West County Energy Center was built in 2009 and reached build completion in 2011. Located in Palm Beach County, Florida, this natural gas power plant is one of the cleanest of its kind in the U.S. In addition, the plant uses reclaimed water as its primary water source.

Braidwood Nuclear Station

Power generated in 2015: 19,740,011 mWhs

Head to Will County in northeastern Illinois and you’ll find the Braidwood Nuclear Station. Serving Chicago and its surrounding areas, this power plant is the largest nuclear plant in the state and is owned by Exelon. Built in 1988, the plant sits on 4,457 acres and when both power units are put together, they can power the homes of more than two million people.

Byron Nuclear Generating Station

Power generated in 2015: 19,478,139 mWhs

Also in Illinois and also owned by Exelon, the Byron Nuclear Generating Station is located in Ogle County about two miles east of the Rock River. This power plant has two powerful units that produce a comparable amount of energy to the Braidwood Nuclear Station and its twin cooling towers rise nearly 500 feet into the air.

South Texas Project Nuclear Station

Power generated in 2015: 19,400,553 mWhs

Sitting on a 12,200-acre site on the Colorado River, the South Texas Project Nuclear Station is located about 90 miles southwest of Houston in Matagorda County. Beginning operation in 1988, the plant features two reactors that produce enough electricity to power around two million Texas homes. In addition, this plant is actually considered one of the safest places to work.

Limerick Nuclear Generating Station

Power generated in 2015: 18,904,377 mWhs

Sitting next to the Schuylkill River in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania is the Limerick Nuclear Generating Station. Also owned by Exelon, this power plant is built on a 600-acre site and its two reactor units began power the area in 1984 and 1989. Back in May 2006, president George W. Bush actually toured the facility and discussed the role of nuclear power.

Grand Coulee Hydroelectric Station

Power generated in 2015: 18,838,602 mWhs

The Grand Coulee Hydroelectric Station is the only power plant on this list that was built for hydroelectric power. Finished in 1942 in Washington, the facility features three powerhouses that actually make it the largest power station in the U.S. by nameplate capacity. When it comes to yearly production, it comes in behind other major plants because of the fluctuation of the Columbia River’s power.

8 Campfire Recipes for Your Summer Camping Trip

Summer is nearly here, which means many of you will be planning your first camping trip of the season. Here, our HVAC experts share some of their favorite campfire recipes to make your trip easy, fun, and delicious!


Breakfast Burritos

Want to wake up to a breakfast you don’t have to fuss over? Pre-make some breakfast burritos: combine scrambled eggs, cheese, sausage, and veggies and roll it all up in a tortilla. Wrap each burrito in foil and freeze them up until your trip. Once you’re there, toss them on the fire grate or grill to warm them up and enjoy.

French Toast

Who says french toast can’t be made while camping? Start by placing a loaf of bread in the middle of a large piece of foil. Sprinkle blueberries and sliced strawberries over the loaf, then whisk together eggs, milk, cinnamon, and cloves together and pour over the bread and fruit. Wrap up the loaf and place on the fire grate or grill and bake for about 40 minutes.


Baked Potatoes

Baked potatoes are a simple, filling lunch. Start by poking each potato several times with a fork. Then, spread butter over the surface and wrap tightly in foil. Bury the potatoes in hot coals for 30-60 minutes or until soft. Then, top with scallions, sour cream, cheese, and bacon bits!

Tacos in a Bag

For a quick lunch, cook up some ground beef with taco seasonings at home and bring it with you. Heat up the beef and add a few heaping spoonfuls to a bag of Doritos. Top with lettuce, cheese, salsa, onions, and more to make an easy-to-eat taco in a bag.


Chicken Sausage Packets

Foil packet dinners are always an easy way to make a meal! Cut some peppers and onions into large chunks, then cut up some potatoes or sweet potatoes into slightly smaller chunks. Toss your veggies and potatoes with sliced chicken sausage and season to taste. Then, pile everything into the middle of a large piece of foil and wrap up into a packet. Place the packet on a fire grate or grill until everything is cooked through.

Stuffed Peppers

Stuffed peppers can easily be made at home and then reheated for dinner. Simply slice your peppers in half and bake for a few minutes to soften. Then cook up your beef and rice and combine it with black beans, tomatoes, onions, and spices. Pile the beef mixture into the peppers and wrap in foil. Once you’re ready to eat them, toss them on the fire grate or grill until they’re warmed. Top with cheese and sour cream.


Dutch Oven Peach Cobbler

Spray your dutch oven with cooking spray, then pour in 1-2 cans of sliced peaches (depending on how large your oven is). Top with one package of white or yellow cake mix and cut 1/4 lb. butter into pats. Spread the pats over the top of the cake and place the lid on the oven. Place the oven in hot coals and spread some hot coals over the top to help cook evenly. Cook for 40 minutes or until the cake mix is cooked through.

Chocolate Marshmallow Bananas

Instead of the traditional s’mores, why not try chocolate marshmallow bananas? Use a knife to make slice marks in one side of a banana and pull the peel back (it should be around an inch in width). Cut out a portion of the banana and fill the hole with chocolate chips and mini marshmallows, then replace the slice of peel. Wrap the banana in foil and toss on the fire grate or grill until the chocolate and marshmallows are melted. Then, dig in with a fork!

4 Technologies That Could Change the Energy Industry

A Look into the Future

From energy storage to vehicles to electricity production and more, the future of energy is ever-growing and ever-changing to become more efficient, more reliable, and more environmentally friendly for people around the world. Here, our HVAC experts share four innovations that could transform the energy world in the next few decades:

Fuel Cells

If you haven’t heard of fuel cell technology yet, it has become a pretty big innovation in the vehicle industry. Instead of relying on gasoline and an internal combustion engine, fuel cell cars rely on the combination of hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, which then powers the car. This type of technology releases only heat and water emissions instead of greenhouse gasses, making them a viable environmental option for the future.

Smart Grids

The electricity grids that were developed in the early 1900s were simple, one-way interactions: utility companies set a price for their electricity and consumers pay it on a monthly basis. With today’s smart grids, however, consumers are able to communicate their electrical demands to utility companies and improve the grid’s efficiency. In addition, traditional electric utility companies can partner with renewable technologies like wind and solar to increase environmental friendliness.

Lithium-Air Batteries

Relying on lithium oxidation to create electricity, the idea of the lithium-air battery is nothing new. While it was suggested back in the 1970s as a way to power electric and hybrid vehicles, it wasn’t until the late 90s that the technology started to form. Today, scientists believe lithium-air batteries could have a promising impact on the vehicles, electronic devices, and more. While the technology is still too unstable to fully develop, more and more breakthroughs are occurring to make these batteries part of the future of energy.

Tidal Turbines

Like wind turbines, tidal turbines use the power of a natural force to produce energy. These structures are shaped like pinwheels and are placed underwater to harvest the movement of the ocean which in turn, creates electricity. Because tidal turbines are a little more complicated than wind turbines or solar panels, they haven’t become as popular. However, they have significant potential. In fact, a recent tidal turbine installation off the coast of Scotland has a power generation capacity of two megawatts.



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