This article was originally published in the January/February 1995 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.



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Home Energy Magazine Online January/February 1995


Annals of Energy Auditing:
The Case of the Refrigerator with Rounded Corners

by Alan Meier

Alan Meier is executive editor of Home Energy.

Most of the events described here are true, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent and the facts embellished to sustain the interest of the reader.

My telephone doesn't ring that often. Face it, people just don't need the services of an expert on energy use of refrigerators every day or every week, for that matter. So I was fighting off an afternoon nap when Lester's call came through.

Lester explained that he runs a small energy services company, Energy Entrepreneurs, near Santa Cruz, California. He had been asked to help a client in a most unusual situation and he needed to know how much electricity a specific refrigerator consumed. I asked for details, like the manufacturer and type. Sorry, said Lester, All I know is that it had round corners and a lever to open it.

What do you mean, `had' round corners? I asked. Did somebody retrofit square corners on it? I was getting curious.

No, it's been seized as evidence by the DEA--the Drug Enforcement Administration--and they won't let me see it again, said Lester.

Now I was really curious. I mean, since when had the DEA entered the refrigerator business? Shifting the telephone to my left ear, I settled down for a long listen. OK, you'd better start at the beginning.

Lester's client, it turned out, had recently purchased 160 acres of land outside of Santa Cruz, near Bonny Doon. The land was diverse, consisting of forest, fields, and meadows. Traditionally, the meadows had been leased to a shepherd, who grazed his goats on them. For $600 a month, the shepherd got the meadows and a small shed, which he used for storage. The shed had electrical service and even a refrigerator. (Indeed, this was the refrigerator in question.)

At the same time, the nearby fields were leased to a carrot farmer. The farmer used the shed's electrical service to power irrigation pumps for the carrot fields. Apparently, the former owner did not notice when the number of goats dropped from 50 to five--the shepherd was still paying $600 per month.

Furthermore, he didn't pay any attention to the appearance of new high-performance cars parked near the shed (hardly the kinds of vehicles preferred by a shepherd!). Many of these cars arrived and left late at night, and drove fast along the narrow, winding roads leading to the shed.

According to Lester, the bad guys must have realized that this shepherd charade couldn't continue after the new landlord acquired the property and prepared to occupy it. They laid low, waiting to see if the new landlord was as unobservant as the old one.

Lester's client moved onto the property in December, but he didn't discover the factory in the shed until February. He called the police immediately. The Santa Cruz County sheriffs were no babes in the woods when it came to drugs (though marijuana was more common). After listening to what appeared to be going on in the shed, they called in the DEA.

A bust occurred hours later, with several members of the local drug mafia captured and, eventually, incarcerated. The tiny shed had been transformed into a major crank (methamphetamine) factory. It was producing enough of the drug to supply half of the Los Angeles market. There were five 22-liter flasks, along with heaters and fans used in the synthesis. To give me a sense of scale, Lester said that empty cans for 7,500 pounds of R-11 (freon) were found on the premises. Based on evidence collected during the bust--which included the refrigerator in question, Lester reminded me--the DEA concluded that the factory had operated for at least six months.

It sounded like a happy ending to the story. The cops got the bad guys. So what role did the refrigerator play? I asked, Did it keep cold beer for the thirsty chemists?

I suppose so, replied Lester, But that's not the problem. It's the county HazMat Department and the gopher holes.

Figure 1. Billed kilowatt-hours and timelines for the case.

Now I was flummoxed. I couldn't imagine an old refrigerator being treated as a hazardous material, let alone a refrigerator being stuffed down a gopher hole. I tried to avoid sounding stupid when I asked him to explain.

I guess you don't know much about synthesizing crank, Lester said patiently. Since I only grunted, he continued, You see, the basic reaction involves mixing red phosphorous, hydriodic acid, and ephedrine.

You cook that for about 16 hours. That's why they needed the heating mantles around the 22-liter flasks. I measured one of those mantles and found that it drew 770 watts fully loaded, and 300 watts at the `7' setting. That's the setting found during the bust. It was clear that Lester was proud of his own investigations. Then you cool the solution, strain off the red phosphorous, and mix in the freon. The methamphetamine dissolves in the freon, while the unreacted ephedrine and some other junk separates and rises to the top of the vessel. Then you bubble hydrochloric acid through the mixture--I guess that makes the salt and causes the crank to precipitate--and filter the stuff with the assistance of a vacuum pump. Out comes high-grade crank. The DEA estimated that each batch produced $200,000 of street-value crank.

I calculated that each of those heaters used 24 kWh per batch. The shed must have been really stinky because they installed a 20-inch, three-speed ventilation fan. I can't be sure how they operated it, but I bet you they used it at full speed when they were cooking the pots. That used at least 2.0 kWh per ten-pot session, probably a lot more.

I had given up trying to figure out where the rounded-corner refrigerator fit in this story. But I guess that Lester also realized that he was straying from his explanation of why the HazMat Department was involved.

So the synthesis generates lots of nasty side products, like red phosphorous, waste acids, and who knows what else. The shed had no plumbing, but the chemists had an ideal alternative disposal system: gopher holes! The meadows around the shed are teeming with gophers. There's a whole network of tunnels. The bad guys just poured the byproducts into the gopher holes. I suppose they figured that they would move on to a new lab once the holes overflowed.

Ah ha! Now the druggies were not only destroying society, they were killing gophers and polluting the environment! This was serious business.

So after the bust, Lester continued, the HazMat Department visited the site and discovered what they called an `illegal toxic waste dump.' They immediately cited the former landowner and my client--the present owner--for violating many pages of environmental regulations. Although I don't think there is a law specifically prohibiting pouring toxic wastes down gopher holes on private property, they threw the book at my client. On top of that, HazMat proposed to bill him for the costs to the county to properly dispose of the wastes. They want him to pay even though he discovered and turned in the druggies. It's not as big as a Superfund site, but the cleanup is still going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I am not known for my patience. Lester, tell me what all this has to do with the refrigerator.

Oh, sorry, I thought I made that clear. You see, my client is certain that, except for the two batches in February, the druggies stopped making crank before he gained title to the property. He hadn't seen any of the fast cars on the property that winter. If that's true, then he is responsible for only a small part of the waste cleanup costs. But the only hard chronological evidence is in the electric bills. Utility bills! Finally we reached something I understood!

Lester continued, I need to use the utility bills to prove that the druggies could not possibly have been synthesizing crank in a major way after my client took ownership. But it's complicated because of the carrot farm and harvest. That and some other activities overlap with the critical periods, so I am trying to estimate electricity use for everything.

Lester seemed less enthusiastic about the details of carrot farming and harvesting than of crank synthesis, but he had nevertheless investigated the key element: the irrigation pumps. The pumps were large and consumed thousands of kilowatt-hours per month; it would be easy for the druggies to conceal the crank lab's energy use in the pumping energy.

It wasn't clear that we even needed to know much about the pumps because the fields had lain fallow since the carrots were harvested in the end of October. By coincidence, the meter was read two days before the completion of harvest. Some irrigation occurred during harvest so Lester reasoned that November's meter reading would contain a mixture of pumping and drug manufacturing.

I slowly extracted from Lester the dates and events and how they were bracketed by the utility bills. In the end, it required a little timeline to keep everything straight (see Figure 1). Everybody agreed that the druggies had produced two batches of crank in February because that was when they were busted at the site and that amount was confiscated.

That activity was reflected in elevated electricity consumption in February. But how much was produced in the other months? In the end, four months were critical: October, November, December, and January. Lester needed to prove that an operating drug lab was inconsistent with the utility bills for those months.

First, Lester wanted to demonstrate that the 10 kWh/day in October was consistent with the electricity needed to operate the laboratory. That's why he needed to estimate the energy use of the heaters and fans used in the synthesis.

I wasn't much help there, though I once taught university organic chemistry lab (and more than one of my students undertook syntheses similar to this one). I reminded him that most heating mantles were thermostatically controlled and cycled, so his estimates might be high.

Together we worked through his calculations and concluded that, using 270 kWh per month, one could produce about ten batches at about 27 kWh per batch. This seemed like a reasonable rate of production, at least from our naive perspective, but I pointed out that it could be at least twice that if the druggies left halfway through the meter-reading period (because then the consumption while present would have been 20 kWh/day). We knew that we couldn't guess much more accurately than that owing to the uncertainty introduced by the huge consumption of the carrot farmer's pumps.

Second, Lester wanted to demonstrate that, during December and January, all of the electricity consumption could be explained by the refrigerator alone.

I realized that the key to the proof was the energy use of the refrigerator. When I read your article on field energy use of refrigerators, Lester said, I knew that you were the only person who could help me.

Flattery works wonders with me, and this was no exception. Well, let's see what I can do, I said as professionally as possible.

In your article, you wrote that energy use is a strong function of the temperature of the air in the kitchen, Lester continued. So I collected the data from a nearby weather station and calculated the average and maximum temperatures. During December and January, the average temperature was 55deg.F, but the night temperatures fell as low as 25deg.F.

I suggested that outdoor temperatures weren't necessarily useful, to which Lester replied, Oh, I forgot to tell you that the shed wasn't insulated and leaked air like a sieve. I checked it out and found that the inside temperature was pretty close to the outside temperature.

I was beginning to like Lester. Not only did he read my articles, but he seemed to understand them. I quizzed him again about the refrigerator. He confirmed the rounded corners and that it stood about shoulder height. One door or two? One, he believed. OK, I thought, so we are probably dealing with a manual defrost. Did the handle pivot when he pulled it or was it rigid? Lester hesitated, as if he was trying to recall opening the door.

I think it pivoted, he finally decided, In any event, it was a real effort to open it.

Good, that meant that it was built before the child safety laws requiring magnetic locks (instead of latches) went into effect. I couldn't recall exactly what year that occurred, but I thought it was the late 1960s. That also meant that the refrigerator predated the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers' (AHAM) directories, so there was no use in checking them.

Lester, I can't give you any documents or specifications for that unit. From what you have described, it's a 12-ft3 manual defrost unit, built in the '50s or early '60s, possibly even the late '40s. I've monitored some of them. They can't keep ice cream worth a damn, but they use 2-3 kWh/day in typical kitchens. Your client's shed is cooler, so I can imagine that it would fall to as low as 1.5 kWh/day. In any event, there's essentially no electricity left during December and January after subtracting the refrigerator's use. There's no way they could be synthesizing crank in those months.

Lester took careful notes, in addition to my full name, title, and address to include in his report. After all, this might become critical evidence for his client. He promised to follow up once the case was settled.

Several months later, I talked to Lester again. He was brimming with satisfaction. It never even got to trial; when they saw our documentation, they dismissed the charges. I filed my notes and wondered what kinds of calls experts on hot tubs receive.


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