Introduction to "Thinking In Systems" - A GW Principle - Part 2a

David Trammel's picture

A Closer Look at the Three Inputs - "Energy, Matter and Information"

In the first part of this introduction to the valuable Green Wizardry principle, "Thinking In Systems", we saw how simple things like a bathroom shower are in fact an organized and adaptive mechanism, one with a desired "output", in this case "getting a hot shower".

This "output" is affected by three broad "inputs" which we call Energy, Matter and Information. They each influence the overall system in different ways, and can be tweaked to make the system perform in various ways, both good and bad. Understanding how to optimize those inputs to achieve the best performance at the least cost, is key to using Green Wizardry.

Let's take a closer look at each of them.


Energy - "Concentrated Becomes Diffused"

When you think of Energy in a System, it is important to understand its primary characteristic:

"Energy will always follow a one way path from a concentrated source to a diffused state."

You can not re-concentrate energy. There is no process by which you can take a diffused source of energy and put back into a concentrated one. There may be systems and equipment which appears to do that, but if you look at the entire system in total, there is always a less than 100 percent efficiency.

That is to say, that there is always a loss of energy in any process in a system. We can simply add more energy to make up for that loss or we can find ways to minimize those losses. Since we have entered a time when energy will be more and more scarce, and that which we can access is more and more expensive, finding and using the best ways to cut those losses and make our systems more efficient will be critical.

First let us look at the ways energy losses concentration.


Conduction, Convection, Radiation

When considering how energy in a system diffuses you must look at the boundary layers where a concentrated energy source comes in contact with a diffused source. Basically where a hot substance meets a cold substance. Science divides these types of boundaries into three names, Conduction, Convection and Radiation. They are related to how dense the material in a boundary layer is. That density affects the speed at which the diffusion takes place.

Think of it like this analogy.

Suppose you have a large auditorium. You are on one side and your friend is on the other. You want to get a bag of coins to them, It would be easy enough to just walk across to them and hand them the bag. And it wouldn't take much time either.

Lets make the task a bit more challenging.

The first rule we will introduce is that if there is another person between you and your friend, you must hand the bag to them, and then they will hand it to your friend but if there are two people between you, then you must divide the coins and give each half, they in turn will give their half to your friend. Increase the number of people and the bag gets further and further divided, and takes more and more time for the transfer to be completed.

Notice something, the total amount of coins, though divided, doesn't decrease. Energy can't get destroyed but it can get so diffused as to be useless. If all those people eventually handed their few coins to your friend, and he then handed them off to the third friend in the next room, the total coins (aka energy) would be the same.

If we let each person keep one coin as they transferred them, then the resultant energy handed to your friend would in fact be less.

But it becomes more complicated.

Suppose that we don't have just one bag. Instead we get one every ten minutes. We keep handing them off, and if we let each person keep one coin, at some point, all the people in the room will have a full bag of coins. If we make a rule that you can't keep more coins that I have at the start, then we will reach a point of equalibrium.

No more energy can be transfered.

It is complicated how energy goes from concentrated form to diffused but you must remember this simple thing, there is always some loss.


In a material that is dense, like metal or other solids and like that filled up auditorium, energy diffuses slowly. We call that process "Conduction". In a less dense material, like a liquid or gas, we call it "Convection". And in a vacuum, we call it "Radiation".

Whatever you call it though, it is still energy going from being a concentrated source to a diffused one. The important thing to remember is putting a dense material between those two, extends the time the process takes to work.

You can see this in our shower example when you consider the copper pipes which carry hot water from the water heater to your shower. Bare copper pipes are thin and the energy in the hot water inside of them will easily cross the boundary of that metal, and then begin to diffuse to the surrounding air. Put a foam insulator around the pipe and you can see that the energy will take a much longer time getting out.

Shortening the distance from the water heater and the shower can also be thought of as an insulator. Cutting the distance in half will cut the loss of energy in half.


Time As Energy

Energy can be thought of as "Stored Work". The kind of work it can do varies according to its concentration.

You can think of it in the comparison between a man with a shovel and a colony of ants. The shovel allows a man to move dirt in large amounts in a short amount of time. Ants too move earth, and while each ant moves a tiny amount of dirt in compared to that shovel, given enough ants, or enough time, that colony of ants can move just enough if not more than the man.

Another example, relating to our bathroom shower. That electric water heater uses a very concentrated source of energy to heat that tank of water in a short period of time, but we could get the same result if we took a large tank, painted it black and set it where the Sun could warm it all day. Both processes result in the same output, hot water. One just takes longer to do it.

We can therefore lower the energy requirements of a system, if we are willing to modify the time frame that we wish the system to perform in.

You can also use Time as a helper. If you use a solar hot water system, like that black tank, to preheat the water, then have a smaller tankless electric water heater, to bring the preheated water up to the desired hot temperature, then you save on the energy needed.


Understanding how energy in a system finds ways to diffuse and coming up ways to slow it down, is important to a Green Wizard and their mastery of "Thinking In Systems".


Matter Is Contrary

If our first input, Energy, is a straight forward process going from concentrated sources to diffuse, our second input, Matter is anything but.

Anyone who has babysat a three year old, has a profound respect for that child's capacity for misbehavior. Matter has a similar capacity. At its worst Matter can render all your hard work useless and yet can also be our friend. You have to respect it, and work with it.

The important thing to learn about Matter is that it moves in circles. You must learn how those circles work which can benefit you and learn how those circles can harm you.

Consider the simple plant clover.

While its useful as a feed crop for horses, cattle and sheep, it has a very useful property. Clover and symbiotic rhizobia bacteria found in root nodules have the ability to accumulate large amounts of nitrogen from the air, into a useful form and store it. Nitrogen is a fertilizer and something many vegetables need to grow well. Clover also grows well in the Fall and Winter. Planting clover in your garden beds after the harvest, and then turning the plants under in the Spring before planting  is one such circle. 

Another good example, consider your own urine.

While a vast majority of people still believe that human waste is bad and steps away from it with a big "YUCK!", knowledgeable gardeners recognize that urine boasts a nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N-P-K) ratio of 10:1:4, plus more modest amounts of the trace elements plants need to thrive, making it an excellent fertilizer.

Both demonstrate the way that Matter turns on itself in ways that you can use. To find a way that is harmful you have no further to look than your own medicine cabinet.

For a long time, flushing your expired pharmaceutical drugs down your toilet has been a recommended way of disposal. It was believed that the biosphere was so large that the small amount of those drugs would be harmlessly diluted. Recently we have learned that some types of fish are showing elevated levels of such drugs in their bodies.

That's the thing about Matter.

Somewhere out there is a something, a plant or animal, that will concentrate it. A Green Wizard must take that into consideration when they are "Thinking In Systems" and try to maximize how their system uses this in a useful manner, and minimizes the way that same system uses it harmfully.


Water Flowing Uphill

Another thing about Matter, sometimes it has a mind of its own.

I am in the process of designing a small home that I will build and then live in, 5-7 years from now when I retire. I am building it from the ground up, with as much of my own labor as I can. That means I am trying to understand the way the various systems of a home, interact and re-enforce each other.

A home is what I term a "mega-system". As system made up of smaller systems. While the output of each of those sub-systems may be specific and focused, the output of the mega-system is often vague and unspecific.

The septic system of a home, of which our bathroom shower example is a part, takes in water, waste products, and energy to provide us with hot water and a clean environment. The actions of the roof system in a home, whose output is to provide shelter, impacts the septic system in only a minor way, but together they impact the home's mega-system greatly.

Now lets consider that roof.

A good roof protects its home from the elements and makes the inside of the home comfortable and livable. It is designed to keep cool the inside in the hot Summer and keep warm the same inside in Winter. It must be durable and strong, within a expected set of limits and since we usually don't have unlimited funds to build it with, must do its job within a reasonable cost.

I didn't know this until I began to research this home project, but sometime, drive through a modern sub-division and notice the roofs.

If your view is like mine, most of the homes have tall peaked roofs, usually 2 or perhaps 4 sided. They can be as tall as the inside space is beneath them. Ever wonder why there is so much useless space in your attic?

It comes back to the cost of a 2 by 4.

I love tall vaulted ceilings with those massive exposed beams, stained and polished to a sheen. Throw in a fireplace and something about that whispers to my soul of protection, hearth and welcomed home. In contrast, I just need to look up at the room I sit in now. It has a ceiling of drywall, as are the 4 wall. Its a box. As much as I can decorate and accessorize it, the room is still a box.

The trees that can be cut down into a 2 by 4 inch board take a lot less time to grow than the larger ones that provide 2 by 10 inch or larger, that provide those exposed beams.

So making a roof truss, which is the frame work that supports a roof can be done cheaper if you use smaller beams but the trade off is you must pitch the roof angle higher. Roofs are a structure which gets its strength in the triangle shape they are. The lower the center distance, the more force that is exerted on the lateral arms and the stronger they must be.

Add in plywood, a material which is cheaply made by cross laminating thin sheets of wood, and shingles with a short (10-15 year) lifespan, and you can see why builders opted for tall, peaked roof which account for as much as 25 percent of your floor space.

How does this come back to water flowing up hill?


(I'm getting too long with this post, so I will post the second half in a separate post.)

Some interesting analogies! I had a bit of a hard time following the coins in the room (probably not enough coffee), but eventually I got it. My physicist friend explained those concepts to me as he was describing the kind of buffer I needed in a build-in bed in a cabin I had... one that had almost no buffer against the bare ground below! He talked about the difference between lining the empty box below the mattress vs. filling it with some kind of stuffing... it was a good practical lesson.

The roof truss situation was one I didn't know, either. It also makes sense to have a steeper slope to have rain come off quickly, to avoid water "backflowing" as it sometimes does on shallow roofs. But it's another good reason to recycle old houses with their huge beams! Portland, OR now has a rule that one has to take apart any old house (1910 and before) rather than bulldozing. If I had my druthers, I'd ban removing them, but this is at least a start.

David Trammel's picture

Feel free to make suggestions on a way to make that coin analogy clearer Cathy. Often a writer can get too focused on the writing and miss something a second person sees clearly. That's why we have editors, lol.