By Francis Koster, Ed.D.

Imagine a magic machine that replaces old equipment for very low cost and then puts money in the owner’s pocket for decades to come.

Imagine that this same machine could lower the cost of groceries at the supermarket, clothes at the mall, education for your kids — while actually earning local investors a profit and employing local workers at the same time!

Now imagine that if you use this machine, you reduce the number of people suffering from asthma, heart problems and many other diseases, thus lowering health care costs for our country.

Now imagine that this magic machine has existed for years, and still is not used nearly as much as it could be. And that is where we sit today.


Before I introduce the “magic machine,” let me teach you a bit about how it works.

When a building is designed, the designer has to calculate how to cool it on the hottest day and heat it on the coldest. Then they buy heating and cooling equipment to do that. The equipment is designed too big for the needs of most of the year. The building needs a sledge hammer twice a year, and has to use the sledge hammer to drive a tack most of the rest of the year.

Imagine your car with an “on-off” speed switch instead of a gas pedal. You would race down the road at 50 miles an hour, and when you came to a 20-mph school zone, you would have to do something to slow down. Without a gas pedal, your only choice would be to apply the brake. You can see that the result is that the car engine would burn more gas than it needs, while you drive slowly down the road with the brake on. Kind of a silly way to design a car, right?

Hard as it is to imagine, that is how most existing air conditioning systems were designed.

Now let us imagine introducing a magic machine “gas pedal” into the building’s heating and cooling system. Instead of running the motors at just one speed all year, sensors gently apply more or less power, depending on the temperature. This magic machine is called a “variable frequency drive” — and it lets a building adjust the amount of energy required for heating and cooling by using what amounts to a gas pedal, rather than a brake.

Variable frequency drive motors usually pay for themselves quickly, offering a rate of return many times greater than the same money invested in the stock market. The prices vary widely depending on building size, but in all cases the investment is recovered in an amazingly short time.

The electric power industry, including Duke Energy, is so much in favor of this invention that utilities will pay part of the cost of putting them in. You can learn more about that at

One example of a landlord who installed the magic motor controller is Environmental Way, in Charlotte. It spent $48,000 and has begun to save at least $15,000 every year over the 20-year life of the equipment. This is the equivalent of investing a dollar in a bank account and getting a guaranteed 29 percent interest rate for 20 years. You can find more out about this at 

So, with all these reasons to install the modern hardware, why isn’t it happening?

There are basically three reasons. First, in large buildings full of tenants, the landlord owns the heating and air conditioning equipment, but the tenant pays the electric bill. The landlord does not really have a cash incentive to make the investment.

Second, in many cases the “landlord” is a government agency, running an arena, police station, sewage treatment plant or school. These landlords are struggling to keep aging buildings presentable and safe — and replacing a perfectly good old reliable motor just does not capture their attention.

And lastly, governmental agencies actually have disincentives to make investments because the investment money usually comes from some kind of building improvement or maintenance fund, and the utility bills are paid from a different pot. The agency would spend its own money to put the variable frequency drive in but then have its budget cut as the utility bills go down. Not a lot of monetary incentive, is there?

There are solutions. In the first case, the tenants could band together and agree to pay for the new variable frequency drive controller, as long as the savings in electrical costs were passed on to them. In the case of publicly owned buildings, the budget folks could allow the agency to keep a portion of everything it saves.

We need to see this as the moral issue it is. Wasting energy, causing needless pollution, spending taxpayer money needlessly and hurting people’s health goes beyond money. This is an issue of our values as a society. And, unlike some other values-based decisions, in both the short and long run, doing the right thing will save money.


Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.

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