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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Eye on Design: Prying Gas Stoves from Dead Fingers

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

April 11, 2023

Copyright alexanderuhrin/AdobeStock

Copyright alexanderuhrin/AdobeStock

When Greg Trauthwein offered me a column in Maritime Reporter & Engineering News, I received little direction with regard to subjects. I have not yet tested his boundaries of my subjects, and maybe, some day, I will try to slip in a column on the role of nautical fiction in the development of modern literature.

So far, I have tried to stick with engineering subjects, although recently I may have pushed the boundaries with discussions on decision making, esthetics and OODA loops.

It occurred to me that in writing on those subjects I had skipped past an important engineering subject that also is not commonly discussed in engineering curriculums. That subject is data. Data is essential, any discussion on a problem without a solid grasp of data is pointless.

The late Senator Patrick Moynahan is said to have expressed this as:

  • “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”

As an engineer I am not sure I agree with the statement. I think it would be more accurate to say:

  • “You are entitled to your opinions, but not if they have no basis in fact.”

Undoubtedly there are complex problems with limited facts where there may be varying solutions and thereby different opinions, but in real life there are even more simple problems that lead to simple factual solutions and therefore clearly flawed solutions should be strongly denounced. That is an exhausting prospect and the real solution actually relates to training people to actually look at data and facts and to draw proper conclusions.

The concept of facts is not uniform in the human condition. To an attorney a fact may be an utterance. This results in cross examination questions like: “Mr. van Hemmen isn’t it a fact that Mr. Soandso told you on such and such date that he had seen pigs fly? Yes, or no?” To an attorney the fact is the noise, but to an engineer the message in the noise is the fact, and flying pigs is far from a fact.

So, let’s stick with the term data and define it as a verifiable truth. On a philosophical level one can argue that nothing is truly verifiable. One can never know that what one perceives as life is not actually a dream. But allow me to proceed within my dream in a rational fashion. The best truths are the truths that are personally verifiable and repeatable. As such, if I poke myself in the eye it will hurt and will hurt again if I do it again. Then we can proceed with baby steps and assume that if one gets tackled by an NFL linebacker it will probably hurt. Not too far from there, we have schools and text books, which can be quite unreliable. Fortunately, today, we have Wikipedia which is actually more verifiably reliable.

We all know that not everything on the internet is true, but even that is becoming more interesting since at some stage ChatGPT may be able to filter out ungrounded opinions.

And there are so many ungrounded opinions, and they all rely on broken facts.

Take gas stoves.

Yes, gas stoves obviously produce combustion products and therefore may cause health issues. Is it bad? It could be, but, so far, there is no data that indicates people with gas stoves die more readily than people that use electric stoves. Let’s face it, we have survived leaded gas, lead paint, loss of ozone, PCP’s, DDT, raw sewage and coal soot. A reasonable assumption is that maybe it makes sense not to burn natural gas in the house, but in the whole context of things it is not COVID. Meanwhile too many people love their gas stoves and would never switch to electric.
Imagine switching to an electric stove! Their lives will be over! Maybe gas stoves will be outlawed! We’d better form a “You Can Pry My Gas Stove Out Of My Dead Hands” PAC!

And we are off to the races. I have even heard committed environmentalist complain about the prospect of having to switch to electric stoves.
The bizarre thing is that everything in that discussion is based on bad data.

Let’s step through this:

  1. Conventional electric cooktops don’t work as well as gas cooktops.
  2. Induction cooktops work as well as gas cooktops and have many additional advantages
  3. Gas cooktops and gas ovens are energy hogs compared to electric ovens and induction cook tops
  4. Electric energy can be sustainably provided and natural gas cannot
  5. Since there are better technical and environmental solutions, there is absolutely no reason to continue to use gas stoves.

Some of my readers may go: What? No! Electric cooktops suck!

Please do yourself a favor and get the dope on induction cook tops. They are magically good, respond faster than gas stoves, are safer, cost no more than gas stoves, use less energy and are easier to clean. Yes, you need pans that work on induction stoves, but you may very well already own such pans without knowing it, and pans are much less expensive than stoves.

Having said that, let me make a confession. My gas stove broke last year (A leaking valve that would cost more to fix than the cost of the whole range). I went to the store and looked at induction stoves and then went: “I just don’t have the time and mental energy to find an electrician and wait for him to show up and install a 240 VAC outlet near my stove. I’ll just get another gas stove”.

Due to a momentary lack of energy, I am now remarried to a gas stove for another 30 years or so. That is despite the fact that on my boat I have a $300 two burner 1500W induction cooktop that is better and cheaper than any gas cooktop that is available for installation on a boat.

When I confessed my bad decision to a friend of mine, she sent me links to two startups that are going to produce convection stoves with built in batteries. Since stoves run intermittently, and only for short periods at maximum power, that is a wonderful hybrid solution that fixes two issues: power outages and the need to install 240VAC outlets. Once the stove is charged, 1500W with battery backup will always be enough to keep the stove properly powered. A classic hybrid solution, that immediately points to additional benefits such as having battery power to keep a nearby fridge running during a power outage.

So what is the cause of this whole debate?

To some extent it is public ignorance. Induction stoves have been around for 40 years, but somehow never became part of the public stove discussion. Less than 5% of all stoves are induction stoves.  

However, I am going to blame the original publishers of the air quality studies. Somehow these researchers found it to be more important to report a problem than a solution.

There were two ways to convey their findings: “Bad news! Gas stoves may be killing your kids” or “Good news! The negative effects of gas stoves can be forever solved with a simple switch to induction stoves”.

Somehow researcher decision making skills don’t match their research skills. As engineers, let’s not make the same mistake.

For each column I write, MREN has agreed to make a small donation to an organization of my choice. For this column I select No Limits Café. Induction for Cooking Instruction.

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