Clouds of steam from rooftops and Washington

It was cold in Chicago in January, -16ºF one morning. As I rode the commuter train into downtown, I could see billows of steam coming off the roof of the Sears Tower and Boeing headquarters and the Citibank building and all of the other rooftops downtown, forming clouds that sat on the roofs in the still air in an otherwise cloudless sky.

All I could think about was that somebody was paying good money for each of those clouds of steam. This magazine is dedicated to getting all that steam pouring out of those stacks to disappear.

This industry has so many ways to keep the heat inside buildings — solar thermal and photovoltaic, condensing boilers, tankless water heaters, radiant, geothermal heat pumps, inverter heat pumps, heat recovery ventilators and more. Manufacturers are trotting out that technology at an increasing rate as the editors and staff of Green Mechanical Contractor saw at the International Builders Show and at the Air-Conditioning, Heating & Refrigerating Exposition this past January. One manufacturer showed a residential condensing unit with a companion PV panel to run the condenser fan. Another showed an inverter heat pump boasting a 26.0 SEER. One tankless water heater manufacturer has a unit that’s 98% efficient.

The people we spoke with at those shows, contractors and engineers, small manufacturers to Fortune 500 firms, were all pulling for passage of the President’s economic stimulus package because of their belief that it will jump start construction work and invest in green technologies.

I got rather agitated when I read in early February of list of items in the President’s stimulus bill that the Republican Party considers wasteful. I’m OK with getting rid of the $246 million tax break for Hollywood movie producers to buy motion picture film. My ox isn’t being gored with that one.

But here is a partial list of other “waste” that was published on

• $6 billion to turn federal buildings into green buildings (This one really agitated me).
• $448 million for constructing the Department of Homeland Security headquarters.
• $125 million for the Washington sewer system.
• $88 million for renovating the headquarters of the Public Health Service.
• $412 million for CDC buildings and property.
• $500 million for building and repairing National Institutes of Health facilities in Bethesda, Md.
• $5.5 million for energy efficiency initiatives at the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration.
• $75 million to construct a security training facility for State Department Security officers.
• $500 million for state and local fire stations.

It must be a matter of perspective because I don’t view $6 billion in green building work as “waste,” not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars of other construction projects.

We’ve heard over and over again from people in the industry that green and sustainable construction and service will be what keeps them going in 2009. Energy and water efficiency save customers money. The industry isn’t going to survive 2009 by waiting for the phone to ring.

“As research comes in from diverse sources examining the interest in green buildings among a wide range of Americans, the numbers keep painting the same picture: The future of our built environment clearly centers on energy efficiency, water reduction, systems that encourage cleaner indoor air, the use of recycled and more sustainably developed materials, and communities that coexist with their environments,” said Rick Fedrizzi, president, CEO and founding chair of the U.S. Green Building Council. “Over and over again, Americans are saying the same thing: The key to a prosperous future is sustainability, and the triple bottom line – environmental responsibility, economic prosperity and social equity – is imperative as we move forward.”

Among the numbers Fedrizzi goes on to cite:

Seventy-five percent of commercial real estate executives say the credit crunch will not discourage them from building green, according to Turner Construction Co.’s “Green Building Barometer.”

Seventy percent of homebuyers are more or much more inclined to buy a green home over a conventional home in a down housing market, according to McGraw-Hill Construction’s 2008 SmartMarket Report, “The Green Home Consumer.”

A national green economic recovery program investing $100 billion over 10 years in six infrastructure areas would create 2 million new jobs, according to The Center for American Progress and the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

That to me isn’t waste. It’s just what we need to get the economy going again.