Cooling Potential

I had an interesting discussion about the cooling potential of our heat pump system – in a climate warmer than ours.

Recently I’ve shown data for the past heating season, including also passive cooling performance:

After the heating season, tank temperature is limited to 10°C as long as possible – the collector is bypassed in the brine circuit (‘switched off’). But with the beginning of May, the tank temperature starts to rise though as the tank is heated by the surrounding ground.

Daily cooling energy hardly exceeds 20kWh, so the average cooling power is always well below 1kW. This is much lower than the design peak cooling load – the power you would need to cool the rooms to 20°C at noon on a hot in summer day (rather ~10kW for our house.)

The blue spikes are single dots for a few days, and they make the curve look more impressive than it really is: We could use about 600kWh of cooling energy – compared to about 15.000kWh for space heating. (Note that I am from Europe – I use decimal commas and thousands dots :-))

There are three ways of ‘harvesting cold’ with this system:

(1) When water in the hygienic storage tank (for domestic hot water) is heated up in summer, the heat pump extracts heat from the underground tank.

Per summer month the heat pump needs about 170kWh of input ambient energy from the cold tank – for producing an output heating energy of about 7kWh per day – 0,3kW on average for two persons, just in line with ‘standards’. This means that nearly all the passive cooling energy we used was ‘produced’ by heating hot water.

You can see the effect on the cooling power available during a hot day here (from this article on passive cooling in the hot summer of 2015)

Blue arrows indicate hot water heating time slots – for half an hour a cooling power of about 4kW was available. But for keeping the room temperature at somewhat bearable levels, it was crucial to cool ‘low-tech style’ – by opening the windows during the night (Vent)

(2) If nights in late spring and early summer are still cool, the underground tank can be cooled via the collector during the night.

In the last season we gained about ~170kWh in total in that way – so only as much as by one month of hot water heating. The effect also depends on control details: If you start cooling early in the season when you ‘actually do not really need it’ you can harvest more cold because of the higher temperature difference between tank and cold air.

(3) You keep the cold or ice you ‘create’ during the heating season.

The set point tank temperature for summer  is a trade-off between saving as much cooling energy as possible and keeping the Coefficient of Performance (COP) reasonably high also in summer – when the heat sink temperature is 50°C because the heat pump only heats hot tap water.

20°C is the maximum heat source temperature allowed by the heat pump vendor. The temperature difference to the set point of 10°C translates to about 300kWh (only) for 25m3 of water. But cold is also transferred to ground and thus the effective store of cold is larger than the tank itself.

What are the options to increase this seasonal storage of cold?

  • Turning the collector off earlier. To store as much ice as possible, the collector could even be turned off while still in space heating mode – as we did during the Ice Storage Challenge 2015.
  • Active cooling: The store of passive cooling energy is limited – our large tank only contains about 2.000kWh even if frozen completely; If more cooling energy is required, there has to be a cooling backup. Some brine/water heat pumps[#] have a 4-way-valve built into the refrigeration cycle, and the roles of evaporator and condenser can be reversed: The room is cooled and the tank is heated up. In contrast to passive cooling the luke-warm tank and the surrounding ground are useful. The cooling COP would be fantastic because of the low temperature difference between source and sink – it might actually be so high that you need special hydraulic precautions to limit it.

The earlier / the more often the collector is turned off to create ice for passive cooling, the worse the heating COP will be. On the other hand, the more cold you save, the more economic is cooling later:

  1. Because the active cooling COP (or EER[*]) will be higher and
  2. Because the total cooling COP summed over both cooling phases will be higher as no electrical input energy is needed for passive cooling – only circulation pumps.

([*] The COP is the ratio of output heating energy and electrical energy, and the EER – energy efficiency ratio – is the ratio of output cooling energy and electrical energy. Using kWh as the unit for all energies and assuming condenser and evaporator are completely ‘symmetrical’, the EER or a heat pump used ‘in reverse’ is its heating COP minus 1.)

So there would be four distinct ways / phases of running the system in a season:

  1. Standard heating using collector and tank. In a warmer climate, the tank might not even be frozen yet.
  2. Making ice: At end of the heating season the collector might be turned off to build up ice for passive cooling. In case of an ’emergency’ / unexpected cold spell of weather, the collector could be turned on intermittently.
  3. Passive cooling: After the end of the heating season, the underground tank cools the buffer tank (via its internal heat exchanger spirals that containing cool brine) which in turn cools the heating floor loops turned ‘cooling loops’.
  4. When passive cooling power is not sufficient anymore, active cooling could be turned on. The bulk volume of the buffer tank is cooled now directly with the heat pump, and waste heat is deposited in the underground tank and ground. This will also boost the underground heat sink just right to serve as the heat source again in the upcoming heating season.

In both cooling phases the collector could be turned on in colder nights to cool the tank. This will work much better in the active cooling phase – when the tank is likely to be warmer than the air in the night. Actually, night-time cooling might be the main function the collector would have in a warmer climate.

___________________________________

[#] That seems to be valid mainly/only for domestic brine-water heat pumps from North American or Chinese vendors; they offer the reversing valve as a common option. European vendors rather offer a so called Active Cooling box, which is a cabinet that can be nearly as the heat pump itself. It contains a bunch of valves and heat exchangers that allow for ‘externally’ swapping the connections of condenser and evaporator to heat sink and source respectively.

Reverse Engineering Fun

Recently I read a lot about reverse engineering –  in relation to malware research. I for one simply wanted to get ancient and hardly documented HVAC engineering software to work.

The software in question should have shown a photo of the front panel of a device – knobs and displays – augmented with current system’s data, and you could have played with settings to ‘simulate’ the control unit’s behavior.

I tested it on several machines, to rule out some typical issues quickly: Will in run on Windows 7? Will it run on a 32bit system? Do I need to run it was Administrator? None of that helped. I actually saw the application’s user interface coming up once, on the Win 7 32bit test machine I had not started in a while. But I could not reproduce the correct start-up, and in all other attempts on all other machines I just encountered an error message … that used an Asian character set.

I poked around the files and folders the application uses. There were some .xls and .xml files, and most text was in the foreign character set. The Asian error message was a generic Windows dialogue box: You cannot select the text within it directly, but the whole contents of such error messages can be copied using Ctrl+C. Pasting it into Google Translate it told me:

Failed to read the XY device data file

Checking the files again, there was an on xydevice.xls file, and I wondered if the relative path from exe to xls did not work, or if it was an issue with permissions. The latter was hard to believe, given that I simply copied the whole bunch of files, my user having the same (full) permissions on all of them.

I started Microsoft Sysinternals Process Monitor to check if the application was groping in vain for the file. It found the file just fine in the right location:

Immediately before accessing the file, the application looped through registry entries for Microsoft JET database drivers for Office files – the last one it probed was msexcl40.dll – a  database driver for accessing Excel files.

There is no obvious error in this dump: The xls file was closed before the Windows error popup was brought up; so the application had handled the error somehow.

I had been tinkering a lot myself with database drivers for Excel spreadsheets, Access databases, and even text files – so that looked like a familiar engineering software hack to me 🙂 On start-up the application created a bunch of XML files – I saw them once, right after I saw the GUI once in that non-reproducible test. As far as I could decipher the content in the foreign language, the entries were taken from that problematic xls file which contained a formatted table. It seemed that the application was using a sheet in the xls file as a database table.

What went wrong? I started Windows debugger WinDbg (part of the Debugging tools for Windows). I tried to go the next unhandled or handled exception, and I saw again that it stumbled over msexec40.dll:

But here was finally a complete and googleable error message in nerd speak:

Unexpected error from external database driver (1).

This sounded generic and I was not very optimistic. But this recent Microsoft article was one of the few mentioning the specific error message – an overview of operating system updates and fixes, dated October 2017. It describes exactly the observed issue with using the JET database driver to access an xls file:

Finally my curious observation of the non-reproducible single successful test made sense: When I started the exe on the Win 7 test client, this computer had been started the first time after ~3 months; it was old and slow, and it was just processing Windows Updates – so at the first run the software had worked because the deadly Windows Update had not been applied yet.

Also the ‘2007 timeframe’ mentioned was consistent – as all the application’s executable files were nearly 10 years old. The recommended strategy is to use a more modern version of the database driver, but Microsoft also states they will fix it again in a future version.

So I did not get the software to to run, as I obviously cannot fix somebody else’s compiled code – but I could provide the exact information needed by the developer to repair it.

But the key message in this post is that it was simply a lot of fun to track this down 🙂

The Orphaned Internet Domain Risk

I have clicked on company websites of social media acquaintances, and something is not right: Slight errors in formatting, encoding errors for special German characters.

Then I notice that some of the pages contain links to other websites that advertize products in a spammy way. However, the links to the spammy sites are embedded in this alleged company websites in a subtle way: Using the (nearly) correct layout, or  embedding the link in a ‘news article’ that also contains legit product information – content really related to the internet domain I am visiting.

Looking up whois information tells me that these internet domain are not owned by my friends anymore – consistent with what they actually say on the social media profiles. So how come that they ‘have given’ their former domains to spammers? They did not, and they didn’t need to: Spammers simply need to watch out for expired domains, seize them when they are available – and then reconstruct the former legit content from public archives, and interleave it with their spammy messages.

The former content of legitimate sites is often available on the web archive. Here is the timeline of one of the sites I checked:

Clicking on the details shows:

  • Last display of legit content in 2008.
  • In 2012 and 2013 a generic message from the hosting provider was displayed: This site has been registered by one of our clients
  • After that we see mainly 403 Forbidden errors – so the spammers don’t want their site to be archived – but at one time a screen capture of the spammy site had been taken.

The new site shows the name of the former owner at the bottom but an unobtrusive link had been added, indicating the new owner – a US-based marketing and SEO consultancy.

So my take away is: If you ever feel like decluttering your websites and free yourself of your useless digital possessions – and possibly also social media accounts, think twice: As soon as your domain or name is available, somebody might take it, and re-use and exploit your former content and possibly your former reputation for promoting their spammy stuff in a shady way.

This happened a while ago, but I know now it can get much worse: Why only distribute marketing spam if you can distribute malware through channels still considered trusted? In this blog post Malwarebytes raises the question if such practices are illegal or not – it seems that question is not straight-forward to answer.

Visitors do not even have to visit the abandoned domain explicitly to get hacked by malware served. I have seen some reports of abandoned embedded plug-ins turned into malicious zombies. Silly example: If you embed your latest tweets, Twitter goes out-of-business, and its domains are seized by spammers – you Follow Me icon might help to spread malware.

If a legit site runs third-party code, they need to trust the authors of this code. For example, Equifax’ website recently served spyware:

… the problem stemmed from a “third-party vendor that Equifax uses to collect website performance data,” and that “the vendor’s code running on an Equifax Web site was serving malicious content.”

So if you run any plug-ins, embedded widgets or the like – better check out regularly if the originating domain is still run by the expected owner – monitor your vendors often; and don’t run code you do not absolutely need in the first place. Don’t use embedded active badges if a simple link to your profile would do.

Do a painful boring inventory and assessment often – then you will notice how much work it is to manage these ‘partners’ and rather stay away from signing up and registering for too much services.

Update 2017-10-25: And as we speak, we learn about another example – snatching a domain used for a Dell backup software, preinstalled on PCs.

Data for the Heat Pump System: Heating Season 2016-2017

I update the documentation of measurement data [PDF] about twice a year. This post is to provide a quick overview for the past season.

The PDF also contains the technical configuration and sizing data. Based on typical questions from an ‘international audience’ I add a summary here plus some ‘cultural’ context:

Building: The house is a renovated, nearly 100-year old building in Eastern Austria: a typical so-called ‘Streckhof’ – an elongated, former small farmhouse. Some details are mentioned here. Heating energy for space heating of two storeys (185m2) and hot water is about 17.000-20.000kWh per year. The roof / attic had been rebuilt in 2008, and the facade was thermally insulated. However, the major part of the house is without an underground level, so most energy is lost via ground. Heating only the ground floor (75m2) with the heat pump reduces heating energy only by 1/3.

Climate: This is the sunniest region of Austria – the lowlands of the Pannonian Plain bordering Hungary. We have Pannonian ‘continental’ climate with low precipitation. Normally, monthly average temperatures in winter are only slightly below 0°C in January, and weeks of ‘ice days’ in a row are very rare.

Heat energy distribution and storage (in the house): The renovated first floor has floor loops while at the ground floor mainly radiators are used. Wall heating has been installed in one room so far. A buffer tank is used for the heating water as this is a simple ‘on-off’ heat pump always operating at about its rated power. Domestic hot water is heated indirectly using a hygienic storage tank.

Heating system. An off-the-shelf, simple brine-water heat pump uses a combination of an unglazed solar-air collector and an underwater water tank as a heat source. Energy is mainly harvested from rather cold air via convection.

Addressing often asked questions: Off-the-shelf =  Same type of heat pump as used with geothermal systems. Simple: Not-smart, not trying to be the universal energy management system, as the smartness in our own control unit and logic for managing the heat source(s). Brine: A mixture of glycol and water (similar to the fluid used with flat solar thermal collectors) = antifreeze as the temperature of brine is below 0°C in winter. The tank is not a seasonal energy storage but a buffer for days or weeks. In this post hydraulics is described in detail, and typical operating conditions throughout a year. Both tank and collector are needed: The tank provides a buffer of latent energy during ‘ice periods’ and it allows to harvest more energy from air, but the collector actually provides for about 75% of the total ambient energy the heat pump needs in a season.

Tank and collector are rather generously sized in relation to the heating demands: about 25m3 volume of water (total volume +10% freezing reserve) and 24m2 collector area.

The overall history of data documented in the PDF also reflects ongoing changes and some experiments, like heating the first floor with a wood stove, toggling the effective area of the collector used between 50% and 100%, or switching off the collector to simulate a harsher winter.

Data for the past season

Finally we could create a giant ice cube naturally. 14m3 of ice had been created in the coldest January since 30 years. The monthly average temperature was -3,6°C, 3 degrees below the long-term average.

(Re the oscillations of the ice volume are see here and here.)

We heated only the ground floor in this season and needed 16.600 kWh (incl. hot water) – about the same heating energy as in the previous season. On the other hand, we also used only half of the collector – 12m2. The heating water inlet temperatures for radiators was even 37°C in January.

For the first time the monthly performance factor was well below 4. The performance factor is the ratio of output heating energy and input electrical energy for heat pump and brine pump. In middle Europe we measure both energies in kWh 😉 The overall seasonal performance factor was 4,3.

The monthly performance factor is a bit lower again in summer, when only hot water is heated (and thus the heat pump’s COP is lower because of the higher target temperature).

Per day we needed about 100kWh of heating energy in January, while the collector could not harvest that much:

In contrast to the season of the Ice Storage Challenge, also the month before the ‘challenge’ (Dec. 2016) was not too collector-friendly. But when the ice melted again, we saw the usual large energy harvests. Overall, the collector could contribute not the full ‘typical’ 75% of ambient energy this season.

(Definitions, sign conventions explained here.)

But there was one positive record, too. In a hot summer of 2017 we consumed the highest cooling energy so far – about 600kWh. The floor loops are used for passive cooling; the heating buffer tank is used to transfer heat from the floor loops to the cold underground tank. In ‘colder’ summer nights the collector is in turn used to cool the tank, and every time hot tap water is heated up the tank is cooled, too.

Of course the available cooling power is just a small fraction of what an AC system for the theoretical cooling load would provide for. However, this moderate cooling is just what – for me – makes the difference between unbearable and OK on really hot days with more than 35°C peak ambient temperature.

Computers, Science, and History Thereof

I am reading three online resources in parallel – on the history and the basics of computing, computer science, software engineering, and the related culture and ‘philosophy’. An accidental combination I find most enjoyable.

Joel on Software: Joel Spolsky’s blog – a collection of classic essays. What every developer needs to know about Unicode. New terms like Astronaut Architects and Leaky Abstractions. How to start a self-funded software company, how to figure out the price of software, how to write functional specifications. Bringing back memories of my first encounters with Microsoft VBA. He has the best examples – Martian Headsets to explain web standards.

The blog started in 1999 – rather shortly after I had entered the IT industry. So it is an interesting time capsule, capturing technologies and trends I was sort of part of – including the relationship with one large well-known software company.

Somewhere deep in Joel’s blog I found references to another classic; it was in an advice on how to show passion as an applicant for a software developer job. Tell them how reading this moved you to tears:

Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. I think I have found the equivalent to Feynman’s Physics Lectures in computer science! I have hardly ever read a textbook or attended a class that was both so philosophically insightful and useful in a hands-on, practical way. Using Scheme (Lisp) as an example, important concepts are introduced step-by-step, via examples, viewed from different perspectives.

It was amazing how far you can get with purely Functional Programming. I did not even notice that they had not used a single assignment (Data Mutation) until far into the course.

The quality of the resources made available for free is incredible – which holds for all the content I am praising in this post: Full textbook, video lectures with transcripts, slides with detailed comments. It is also good to know and reassuring that despite the allegedly fast paced changes of technology, basic concepts have not changed that much since decades.

But if you are already indulging in nostalgic thoughts why not catch up on the full history of computing?

Creatures of Thought. A sublime book-like blog on the history of computing – starting from with the history of telephone networks and telegraphs, covering computing machines – electro-mechanical or electronic, related and maybe unappreciated hardware components like the relay, and including biographic vignettes of the heroes involved.

The author’s PhD thesis (available for download on the About page) covers the ‘information utility’ vision that was ultimately superseded by the personal computer. This is an interesting time capsule for me as well, as this story ends about where my personal journey started – touching personal PCs in the late 1980s, but having been taught the basics of programming via sending my batch jobs to an ancient mainframe.

From such diligently done history of engineering I can only learn not to rush to any conclusions. There are no simple causes and effects, or unambiguous stories about who invented what and who was first. It’s all subtle evolution and meandering narratives, randomness and serendipity. Quoting from the post that indicates the beginning of the journey, on the origins of the electric telegraph:

Our physics textbooks have packaged up the messy past into a tidy collection of concepts and equations, eliding centuries of development and conflict between competing schools of thought. Ohm never wrote the formula V = IR, nor did Maxwell create Maxwell’s equations.

Though I will not attempt to explore all the twists and turns of the intellectual history of electricity, I will do my best to present ideas as they existed at the time, not as we retrospectively fit them into our modern categories.

~

Phone, 1970s, Austria

The kind of phone I used at the time when the video lectures for Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs had been recorded and when I submitted my batch jobs of Fortran code to be compiled. I have revived the phone now and then.

 

Simulations: Levels of Consciousness

In a recent post I showed these results of simulations for our heat pump system:

I focused on the technical details – this post will be more philosophical.

What is a ‘simulation’ – opposed to simplified calculations of monthly or yearly average temperatures or energies? The latter are provided by tools used by governmental agencies or standardization bodies – allowing for a comparison of different systems.

In a true simulation the time intervals so small that you catch all ‘relevant’ changes of a system. If a heating system is turned on for one hour, then turned off again, he time slot needs to be smaller than one hour. I argued before that calculating meaningful monthly numbers requires to incorporate data that had been obtained before by measurements – or by true simulations.

For our system, the heat flow between ground and the water/ice tank is important. In our simplified sizing tool – which is not a simulation – I use average numbers. I validated them by comparing with measurements: The contribution of ground can be determined indirectly; by tallying all the other energies involved. In the detailed simulation I calculate the temperature in ground as a function of time and of distance from the tank, by solving the Heat Equation numerically. Energy flow is then proportional to the temperature gradient at the walls of the tank. You need to make assumptions about the thermal properties of ground, and a simplified geometry of the tank is considered.

Engineering / applied physics in my opinion is about applying a good-enough-approach in order to solve one specific problem. It’s about knowing your numbers and their limits. It is tempting to get carried away by nerdy physics details, and focus on simulating what you know exactly – forgetting that there are huge error bars because of unknowns.

This is the hierarchy I keep in mind:

On the lowest level is the simulation physics, that is: about modelling how ‘nature’ and system’s components react – to changes in the previous time slot. Temperatures change because energies flows, and energy flows because of temperature differences. The heat pump’s output power depends on heating water temperature and brine temperature. Energy of the building is ‘lost’ to the environment via heat conduction; heat exchangers immersed in tanks deposit energy there or retrieve it. I found that getting the serial connection of heat exchangers right in the model was crucial, and it required a self-consistent calculation for three temperatures at the same point of time, rather than trying to ‘follow round the brine’. I used the information on average brine temperatures obtained by these method to run a simplified version of the simulation using daily averages only – for estimating the maximum volume of ice for two decades.

So this means you need to model your exact hydraulic setup, or at least you need to know which features of your setup are critical and worthy to model in detail. But the same also holds for the second level, the simulation of control logic. I try to mirror production control logic as far as possible: This code determines how pumps and valves will react, depending on the system’s prior status before. Both in real life and in the simulation threshold values and ‘hystereses’ are critical: You start to heat if some temperature falls below X, but you only stop heating if it has risen above X plus some Delta. Typical brine-water heat pumps always provide approximately the same output power, so you control operations time and buffer heating energy. If Delta for heating the hot water buffer tank is too large, the heat pump’s performance will suffer. The Coefficient of Performance of the heat pump decreases with increasing heating water temperature. Changing an innocuous parameter will change results a lot, and the ‘control model’ should be given the same vigilance as the ‘physics model’.

Control units can be tweaked at different levels: ‘Experts’ can change the logic, but end users can change non-critical parameters, such as set point temperatures.We don’t restrict expert access in systems we provide the control unit for. But it make sense to require extra input for the expert level though – to prevent accidental changes.

And here we enter level 3 – users’ behavior. We humans are bad at trying to outsmart the controller.

[Life-form in my home] always sets the controller to ‘Sun’. [little sun icon indicating manually set parameters]. Can’t you program something so that nothing actually changes when you pick ‘Sun’?

With heat pumps utilizing ground or water sources – ‘built’ storage repositories with limited capacity – unexpected and irregular system changes are critical: You have to size your source in advance. You cannot simply order one more lorry load of wood pellets or oil if you ‘run out of fuel’. If the source of ambient energy is depleted, the heat pump finally will refuse to work below a certain source temperature. The heat pump’s rated power has match the heating demands and the size of the source exactly. It also must not be oversized in order to avoid turning on and off the compressor too often.

Thus you need good estimates for peak heat load and yearly energy needs, and models should include extreme weather (‘physics’) but also erratic users’ behaviour. The more modern the building, the more important spikes in hot tap water usage get in relation to space heating. A vendor of wood pellet stoves told me that delivering peak energy for hot water – used in private bathrooms that match spas – is a greater challenge today than delivering space heating energy. Energy certificates of modern buildings take into account huge estimated solar and internal energy gains – calculated according to standards. But the true heating power needed on a certain day will depend on the strategy or automation home owners use when managing their shades.

Typical gas boilers are oversized (in terms of kW rated power) by a factor of 2 or more in Germany, but with heat pumps you need to be more careful. However, this also means that heat pump systems cannot and should not be planned for rare peak demands, such as: 10 overnight guests want to shower in the morning one after the other, on an extremely cold day, or for heating up the building quickly after temperature had been decreased during a leave of absence.

The nerdy answer is that a smart home would know when your vacation ends and start heating up well in advance. Not sure what to do about the showering guests as in this case ‘missing’ power cannot be compensated by more time. Perhaps a gamified approach will work: An app will do something funny / provide incentives and notifications so that people wait for the water to heat up again. But what about planning for renting a part of the house out someday? Maybe a very good AI will predict what your grandchildren are likely to do, based on automated genetics monitoring.

The challenge of simulating human behaviour is ultimately governed by constraints on resources – such as the size of the heat source: Future heating demands and energy usage is unknown but the heat source has to be sized today. If the system is ‘open’ and connected to a ‘grid’ in a convenient way problems seem to go away: You order whatever you need, including energy, any time. The opposite is planning for true self-sufficiency: I once developed a simulation for an off-grid system using photovoltaic generators and wind power – for a mountain shelter. They had to meet tough regulations and hygienic standards like any other restaurant, e.g.: to use ‘industry-grade’ dishwashers needing 10kW of power. In order to provide that by solar power (plus battery) you needed to make an estimate on the number of guests likely to visit … and thus on how many people would go hiking on a specific day … and thus maybe on the weather forecast. I tried to factor in the ‘visiting probability’ based on the current weather.

I think many of these problem can be ‘resolved’ by recognizing that they are first world problems. It takes tremendous efforts – in terms of energy use or systems’ complexity – to obtain 100% availability and to cover all exceptional use cases. You would need the design heat load only for a few days every decade. On most winter days a properly sized heat pump is operating for only 12 hours. The simple, low tech solution would be to accept the very very rare intermittent 18,5°C room temperature mitigated by proper clothing. Accepting a 20-minute delay of your shower solves the hot water issue. An economical analysis can reveal the (most likely very small) trade-off of providing exceptional peak energy by a ‘backup’ electrical heating element – or by using that wood stove that you installed ‘as a backup’ but mostly for ornamental reasons because it is dreadful to fetch the wood logs when it is really cold.

But our ‘modern’ expectations and convenience needs are also reflected in regulations. Contractors are afraid of being sued by malicious clients who (quote) sit next their heat pump and count its operating cycles – to compare the numbers with the ones to be ‘guaranteed. In a weather-challenged region at more than 2.000 meters altitude people need to steam clean dishes and use stainless steel instead of wood – where wooden plates have been used for centuries. I believe that regulators are as prone as anybody else to fall into the nerdy trap described above: You monitor, measure, calculate, and regulate the things in detail that you can measure and because you can measure them – not because these things were top priorities or had the most profound impact.

Still harvesting energy from air - during a record-breaking cold January 2017

The Future of Small Business?

If I would be asked which technology or ‘innovation’ has had the most profound impact on the way I work I would answer: Working remotely – with clients and systems I hardly ever see.

20 years ago I played with modems, cumbersome dial-in, and Microsoft’s Netmeeting. Few imagined yet, that remote work will once be the new normal. Today I am reading about Industry 4.0, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, and how every traditional company has to compete with Data Krakens like Google and Amazon. Everything will be offered as a service, including heating. One consequence: Formerly independent craftsmen become preferred partners or subcontractors of large companies, of vendors of smart heating solutions. Creative engineering is replaced by calling the Big Vendor’s hotline. Human beings cover the last mile that robots or software cannot deal with – yet.

Any sort of customization, consulting, support, and systems integration might be automated in the long run: Clients will use an online configurator and design their systems, and possibly print them out at home. Perhaps someday our clients will print out their heat exchangers from a blueprint generated on Kraken’s website, instead of using our documentation to build them.

Allowing you to work remotely also allows everybody else in the world to do so, and you might face global competition once the barriers of language and culture have been overcome (by using ubiquitous US culture and ‘business English’). Large IT service providers have actually considered to turn their consulting and support staff into independent contractors and let them compete globally – using an online bidding platform. Well-known Data Krakens match clients and freelancers, and I’ve seen several start-ups that aspire at becoming the next matching Kraken platform for computer / tech support. Clients will simply not find you if you are not on the winning platform. Platform membership becomes as important as having a website or an entry in a business directory.

One seemingly boring and underappreciated point that works enormously in favor of the platforms is bureaucracy: As a small business you have to deal with many rules and provisions, set forth by large entities – governments, big clients, big vendors. Some of those rules are conflicting, and meeting them all in the best possible way does not allow for much creativity. Krakens’ artificial intelligence – and their lawyers and lobbyists – might be able to fend off bureaucracy better than a freelancer. If you want to sell things to clients in different countries you better defer the legally correct setup of the online shop to the Kraken Platform, who deals with the intricacies of ever evolving international tax law – while you become their subcontractor or franchisee. In return, you will dutiful sign the Vendor’s Code of Conduct every year, and follow the logo guidelines when using Kraken’s corporate identity.

In my gloomy post about Everything as a Service I came to the conclusion that we – small businesses who don’t want to grow and become start-ups – aspiring at Krakenhood themselves – will either work as the Kraken’s hired hands, or …

… a lucky few will carve out a small niche and produce or customize bespoke units for clients who value luxurious goods for the sake of uniqueness or who value human imperfection as a fancy extra.

My personal credo is rather a very positive version of this quote minus the cynicism. I am happy as a small business owner. This is just a single data-point, and I don’t have a self-consistent theory on this. But I have Skin in this Game so I share my anecdotes and some of the things I learned.

Years ago I officially declared my retirement from IT Security and global corporations – to plan special heat pump systems for private home owners instead. Today we indeed work on such systems, and the inside joke of doing this remote-only – ‘IT-style’ – has become routine. Clients find us via our blog that is sometimes mistaken for a private fun blog and whose writing feels like that. I have to thank Kraken Google, begrudgingly. A few of my Public Key Infrastructure clients insisted on hiring me again despite my declarations of looming ignorance in all things IT. All this allows for very relaxed, and self-marketing-pressure-free collaborations.

  • I try to stay away, or move farther away from anything strictly organized, standardized, or ‘platform-mediated’. Agreements are made by handshake. I don’t submit any formal applications or replies to Request for Proposals.
  • “If things do not work without a written contract, they don’t work with a contract either.”
  • I hardly listen to business experts, especially if they try to give well-meant, but unsolicited advice. Apply common sense!
  • Unspectacular time-tested personal business relationships beat 15 minutes of fame any time.
  • My work has to speak for itself, and ‘marketing’ has to be a by-product. I cannot compete with companies who employ people full-time for business development.
  • The best thing to protect your inner integrity is to know and to declare what you do not want and what you would never do. Removing the absolute negatives leaves a large area of positive background, and counter the mantra of specific ‘goals’ this approach lets you discover unexpected upsides. This is Nassim Taleb’s Via Negativa – and any career or business advice that speaks to me revolves around that.
  • There is no thing as the True Calling or the One and Only Passion – I like the notion of a Portfolio of Passions. I think you are getting to enjoy what you are learning to be good at – not the other way around.
  • All this is the result of years of experimenting in an ‘hyperspace of options’ – there is no shortcut. I have to live with the objection that I have just been lucky, but I can say that I made many conscious decisions whose ‘goal’ was to increase the number of options rather than to narrow them down (Taleb’s Optionality).

So I will finally quote Nassim Taleb, who nailed as usual – in his Facebook post about The New Artisan:

Anything you do to optimize your work, cut some corners, squeeze more “efficiency” out of it (and out of your life) will eventually make you hate it.

I have bookmarked this link for a while – because sometimes I need to remind myself of all the above.

Taleb states that an Artisan …

1) does things for existential reasons,
2) has some type of “art” in his/her profession, stays away from most aspects of industrialization, combines art and business in some manner (his decision-making is never fully economic),
3) has some soul in his/her work: would not sell something defective or even of compromised quality because what people think of his work matters more than how much he can make out of it,
4) has sacred taboos, things he would not do even if it markedly increased profitability.

… and I cannot agree more. I have lots of Sacred Taboos, and they have served me well.