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Commentary on The Capital Markets- Category [Consumer]

There are myriad schemes floated here and there about electric usage and means to "conserve" or even "profit."

Some of them are truly bull****, such as virtually all solar installations.  "Net metering" makes solar sound attractive but the facts are that without subsidies from the government it doesn't pencil out over any reasonable time period -- and despite the claims of many, solar cells do wear out.

Anything that requires a subsidy to make work out for you is theft -- you are stealing from either your neighbor or worse, yourself if the government is spending in deficit (gee, the Federal government isn't doing that right now, is it?)

A "subsidy" you simply give back through purchasing power destruction is no subsidy at all any more than you're $20 richer if you take a $20 from your left pocket and put it in your right.

Then there was the "compact fluorescent" craze.  Fluorescent lights are more efficient per lumen of output than incandescent lamps, but there is a problem -- they're also more expensive and when used cyclically (that is, lots of offs and ons) they don't last anywhere near their rated lifetime.  How much less?  A lot; I played with these in a number of places and found that in typical home use instead of the claimed 5-10 years of life I got one or two, which meant the capital cost for the bulbs was five to ten times expectations.  That utterly destroys any claim of "economy" from said bulbs.

Let's add to this -- most homes these days, and those built in the last 30 or so years with various ceiling can fixtures, are grossly over-lit.  You may like it that way, but the idea that there's some argument for blazing showroom levels of illumination in our homes on a broad basis is idiotic.  It's also expensive, by the way.

Ceiling fixtures have another problem -- they leak a lot of air, on purpose.  They have to, because otherwise they can start fires.  The common material above and around them is wood (ceiling joists and such) and we know that burns quite nicely.  They are therefore almost-never sealed entirely, and you can't insulate them as tightly as you otherwise might want to or they will build heat until they either destroy themselves or set something on fire.

Finally, the heat your lighting produces is something you don't want.  In the summer you pay again to remove it from your house with A/C, and while in the winter it "helps" electric resistance heating is expensive on a comparative basis -- as much as 10x that of a heat pump end-to-end, and far more expensive than using natural gas, propane or heating oil on a per-BTU basis for the same purpose.  Never mind that if the heat is in your ceiling it probably gets lost anyway due to the aforementioned intentional leakage in the fixtures, plus more in the form of heated air that escapes.

When I bought my last two homes they were (like most) over-lit on a dramatic scale.  The fix for that is dimmers -- in my case, ones I can control by computer as well as locally from the switch.  This solved the over-lighting problem and also cuts energy expenditure, since I now only use enough power to produce the level of light I want.  However, it's not entirely a free lunch because computer-controlled dimmers have a watt or two of parasitic load themselves that you pay for every hour of every day.  Net-net, including the cost of running the (small) computer to drive them, you don't save much if anything automating your house -- what you gain isn't money, but convenience.

When CFLs that could be dimmed and used in can lights showed up I tried those in the hope of slashing my power bill.  They worked after a fashion but had horrible service life, mirroring my general experience with CFLs -- and thus simply didn't make economic sense.  Nor did they do much for my electric bill, despite the apparent claims made for them.

The newest craze, LED lighting, has recently become available, and a few months ago there was a sale on can light retrofits that had a decent CRI (color rendering index) and "warm white" color temperature.  Both are important; the "cold" light given off by daylight-temperature bulbs is not what most people (including myself) want in our homes, and CRIs under 85 or thereabouts tend to leave quite-ugly hues on things -- including people.  (An incandescent lamp or daylight has a CRI of 100; many CFL lamps have a CRI under 80, which is quite bad.)

(Note that CRI only correlates well with human perception; expecting it to translate into photographic use can lead to some rather interesting and unexpected results!  Yes, that's from first-hand experience....)

The retrofit units are interesting; you remove the spacer in the can and detach the socket for the bulb, then screw that into the LED module, extend the wings and press it into place in the can.  It locks by friction -- and seals the can against the ceiling, substantially cutting the amount of air that leaks through the can.

When these retrofits were $50-60 each they didn't work economically in residences, but when you can buy them for half that or less the back-of-the-envelope looks much better.  In addition you can now get "common" light bulb replacements for right near $10, making replacement of the common dollar incandescent bulb look reasonably attractive, provided they actually last.

So between those and a bunch of vanity lamps in the bathrooms (that I found on sale) I basically retrofit the entire house.

It cost me about $500 to do, which sounds like a hell of a lot of money.  And it was -- on the come, this might have wound up being a white elephant.

When I first put these in the first bill shocked me -- in a good way.  But I have often said "one month is interesting, two makes you take notice, three you can safely call a trend."  I thus avoided writing about this at the time because I simply didn't have the data to back up what I believe had occurred -- yet.

But now the results of several months of use are in, and I will say this: This is one "energy saving" move you can make right now that absolutely, at least in my case, works.

I have more than 10 years of usage history here and it's been remarkably consistent year-over-year.  In January of this year, for example (prior to the retrofit) I was within 2.5% of last year's same-month electrical consumption.  That's pretty damn close.

See if you can tell when I did the retrofit; this is a year-over-year (same month) comparison of kilowatt-hours consumed:

Oh, and June is an outlier in that last year we were gone for a good part of the month (the better part of two weeks) so our usage was below normal as the house was in "away" mode.  This year June was "normal"; we were home the entire time.

My days-home-adjusted reduction in electrical energy consumption from this retrofit is roughly 26%!

Now here's the fun part -- I'm a fairly serious energy pig, so in dollar terms this is a very sizable change.  In addition I have electric hot water, which is one of the worst offenders in terms of electrical consumption in most homes.  No small part of my energy "piggishness" is due to the server that runs this place, which is on 24x7 and pulls a nasty chunk of power out of the wall just to keep it online.  Even when I ran the Ticker on a colo'd server I still maintained the infrastructure here that I have now as a backup, so my energy profile in that regard hasn't changed.

So what's my payback period on these lights, in the end analysis?  Just under 12 months, or better than double what I would judge as "worth it" in terms of cost:benefit.

There is one downside I discovered.  Some (many?) LED lamps have problems with some dimmers.  Certain Toshiba brand lamps, for example, get into a nasty oscillation mode with the dimmer's circuitry when used with them unless there's a conventional lamp on the same load as well to stabilize the circuit.  This shows up as the lamps flashing when dimmed instead of dimming.  Needless to say unless you're after a strobe effect this is utterly unacceptable so make sure whatever you buy you can return if you run into compatibility problems.

There is another interesting point -- at extremely low dimmer settings (like 1%!) these lamps put out an amazing amount of light -- maybe too much if you think you can have a "night light" effect with them dimmed down. Indeed, with my porch lights that use the little candelabra bulbs the parasitic current used to provide neutral sense for the dimmer circuit is enough to light them substantially -- meaning that I get a "mood lighting" element overnight for zero cost over the parasitic requirement to run the dimmer itself.  This is undoubtedly responsible for a large part of the savings in that when I adjusted for equal-lumen illumination in my control software I wound up with evening-time dimmer settings in most parts of the house for lighting that are radically lower than the ~50% or so required for conventional lamps to obtain the lighting level I desired.

In effect I'm using about 1-2 watts of power to get what I was obtaining from 30 watts ("half" power) before.

That's not 1/5th the energy use as you'd expect -- it's 1/15th - 1/30th, or damn close to zero!

The CFL thing looked promising years ago but in fact doesn't pay in money terms.  The LED thing, on the other hand, provided I don't run into failures of the modules that destroy the economic argument for doing the retrofit, is a slam-dunk win.

One final note: Expect to have to rebalance your duct settings for heat and A/C if you do this.  The change in parasitic heating is enough to create significant temperature differentials between different rooms in the house and require you to go back and reset the register dampers.

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Well well....

Zdziarksi is certain that these mechanisms, whatever their purpose, are no accident. He has seen them become more complex, and they seem to get as much maintenance and attention as iOS's advertised features. Even as Apple adds new security features, the company may be adding ways to circumvent them.

"I am not suggesting some grand conspiracy," Zdziarski clarified in a blog post after his HOPE X talk. "There are, however, some services running in iOS that shouldn't be there, that were intentionally added by Apple as part of the firmware and that bypass backup encryption while copying more of your personal data than ever should come off the phone for the average consumer."

"My hope is that Apple will correct the problem," he added in the blog posting. "Nothing less, nothing more. I want these services off my phone. They don't belong there."

It's not a "problem" when something is intentionally done.

It's a choice and a decision.

How does any person or corporation justify buying, using or allowing on their network a device where the manufacturer has placed on it software that can and does bypass the security, including encryption, that they claim "protects" your data.

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In early 2008 I noted a fairly serious decrease in online "revenue per impression" in the advertising space.  This was not reflected in so-called "official" reports from various online ad firms, but I saw it quite-clearly across data I had available to me.

What followed, of course, was quite clear in the markets....

I am seeing the same pattern develop now.

How reliable is this signal in terms of future events?  There's no way to know, of course, since it has one previous test and as with last time the claimed "official" reports today are at odds with what I am seeing.  

But it was a large enough, and sudden enough, move to alarm me in 2008.

I'm noting the same pattern now.

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Back when "Dodd-Frank" was being debated there was a provision I maligned (along with a few others) that exempted car dealers from its provisions -- particularly from those provisions that bore on consumer protection.

We ought to know by now that banksters will exploit any loophole they can find, and when there are none to start with they will create one so as to be able to screw you.  That's what happened here, and the result is harm to everyone, not just those with poor credit.

Rodney Durham stopped working in 1991, declared bankruptcy and lives on Social Security. Nonetheless, Wells Fargo lent him $15,197 to buy a used Mitsubishi sedan.

“I am not sure how I got the loan,” Mr. Durham, age 60, said.

Mr. Durham’s application said that he made $35,000 as a technician at Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton, N.Y., according to a copy of the loan document. But he says he told the dealer he hadn’t worked at the hospital for more than three decades. Now, after months of Wells Fargo pressing him over missed payments, the bank has repossessed his car.

Yeah.  He's broke and couldn't afford the car, especially at the "financed" price.  But that didn't matter.

What matters is that someone can package that crap up, slap a "AAA" rating on it and sell it -- despite knowing this time as last that it is full of "vomit."


Here's the problem -- just like with houses whether your credit sucks doesn't matter.  The "availability" of this insane financing means that there is more demand for vehicles than there would otherwise be.  This drives up prices, so you get screwed out of thousands whether your credit is good or bad.

It used to be that the right economic decision was to buy a lightly-used car, which typically would cost about half of a new one with only a few years and a few tens of thousands of miles on it.  Now such vehicles that cost half of the price of a new one are as much as ten years old.  I see it every day driving past the used car lots, and it's utterly insane what I find as the "ask" on these vehicles -- and that's from big dealers, not the little "used car palaces" that dot the landscape.

Those, especially the "buy here, pay here" places, are even worse.  Those lots typically get their cars at auction houses and fit them with various "payment verification" devices, such as GPS tracking units that can remotely disable the ignition and "phone home" if a payment is missed, making repossession nearly painless and instantaneous.  Then there's the sleazeball tactics that go into sales at those places, including bundling various forms of insurance into the deal price to "protect" the dealer but the sold-on security trust sues the buyer anyway for any deficiency if the vehicle winds up repossessed.

At its core this sort of abuse, however, happens only because we let it, just like it did with subprime housing and the 2/28 and 3/27 loans, serial refinancing and zero-down nonsense -- all of them simply expressions of outrageous and abusive leverage.  

We continue to think there's something for nothing available in the world, and that instant gratification is "good."  The linked article shows flatly outrageous examples; I drove garbage cars for something like a decade when I first became a driver and then an adult out of necessity -- I simply had no money. Among them were a Chevy Vega and an AMC Pacer; those with a bit of memory and age know them to be two of the ugliest and worst vehicles ever made in America, but by God they ran (most of the time) and got me to work and home.  No, they weren't pretty; the former had a crushed passenger door from a wreck before I acquired it and the latter had rotted floorboards and would literally flood when driving through puddled water -- never mind both consumed roughly as much oil as they did gas and neither had a working air conditioner either.  Yeah, that kinda sucked in the summer months, especially the Vega with its black vinyl seats and only one working roll-down window!  But -- not only were the cars cheap the insurance was too, since (having no assets) all I needed was minimum liability coverage; you can't get blood from a stone and damage coverage on a piece of crap is worth zero.

If we're ever going to put a stop to this crap the solution has two components -- first, criminal prosecution for the bandits that put together this garbage exactly as for any other swindler, up and down the line in the bankster industry.

But second, we must stop buying the garbage that these jackasses are selling and stop believing in something for nothing.

It's a hell of a lot harder to sucker someone who isn't begging to be ripped off.

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This is an interesting story -- but unfortunately buries the truth in the process (gee, what else is new these days?)

With drivers looking to visit gas stations less often, automakers are slowly bringing more diesel-powered cars to showrooms.

Diesel, an option that’s more common in commercial vehicles and heavy-duty trucks, has largely been absent from passenger cars and sport-utility vehicles in the U.S. Unlike in Europe, diesel engines have failed to gain widespread acceptance despite a greater focus on fuel economy.


“There’s a need for consumer education,” Anand said. “Diesel is getting lost in the alternative-fuel shuffle.”

Uh huh.

How about some facts to go with that "education", eh?

And before you jump on me -- I'm generally a proponent of diesels.  In fact, I still have title to an '03 Jetta TDI that remains on the road with close to 200,000 miles on the clock.  It runs fabulously, which is no surprise and since I live away from the salted road phenomena the body is in good shape too.

No, the problem is that today the financial aspect of diesel ownership simply doesn't make any sense.  The culprit comes from two elements that turn on intentional design decisions of the manufacturers, including VW.

I speak specifically of the decision to design fuel injection systems that have failure modes that inevitably cascade through the entire fuel system, along with emissions decisions that are utterly destructive to vehicle value.

The first rests with the use of extremely high-pressure "common rail" fuel injection. By itself this is a good system; better atomization of the fuel means better (more-complete) combustion and that leads to both more power and lower emissions, along with a more "social" (e.g. lower noise) engine.  However, the decision to not isolate the high pressure pump from the rest of the fuel system in the event of a failure means that when the fuel pump fails it contaminates the entire fuel system with tiny shards of metal, requiring not just the replacement of a $1,000 pump (reasonable) but replacement of everything in the fuel system (a $5,000+ proposition) -- definitely not reasonable.

In warranty this is the vehicle manufacturer's problem.  Out of warranty it's your problem, and one that the manufacturer intentionally designed into the vehicle.  This sort of crap is similar to what GM did back in the 1980s with vehicles that had spark plugs that could not be reached for replacement without removing the engine from the vehicle first!

Oh, yeah, while we're on that let's talk about the other related problem -- the DPF.  Modern diesels have a "particulate filter" for emissions reasons that is a wear item -- that is, it is expected to wear out (as opposed to something that breaks such as the fuel pump.)  The expected life of this device is somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 miles.

That would be ok except that it is not reasonable to both access and replace, with the replacement cost more than being doubled ($2,000+, and perhaps as much as $4,000!) because the manufacturer combined it with the catalytic converter -- which does not wear out!  As a result you wind up throwing away a perfectly good catalyst because the company put both an expendable and very expensive but non-expendable device in the same case!

Note that heavy-duty trucks also have these DPFs.  But in those vehicles the manufacturers have designed them to be separate, removable and cleanable, making their routine service rational over the long haul.

I like diesel vehicles.  But the additional complexity and intentional value-destroying "features" that are in these modern diesels are another matter.  I won't own one, for the simple reason that it appears that the manufacturers designed them in such a way as to force me to come back and buy another car if and when the economic value of my vehicle is destroyed by a random part failure or expected wear-out of some piece of emissions equipment that could have been prevented from being a catastrophic cost event but wasn't.

I refused to own those vehicles where I couldn't get to the spark plugs without removing the engine years ago, and I refuse to own a vehicle today where the manufacturer acts in a fashion that appears calculated to create monstrous service bills or worse, the economic destruction of the vehicle in an attempt to force me to buy a new one simply because some part that is subject to wear or random failure (and thus is expected to have to be replaced at some point) is designed into the vehicle in such a fashion that it does catastrophic damage to other components, necessitating their replacement as well, when such is not inevitable or inherently necessary.  In the case of so-called "clean diesels" it's even worse in that there is not one such device in the car, there are two!

That's a design choice that is intended to **** me out of a large amount of money down the road and one that I will not reward by purchasing that product.

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