Is it a toy or a tool?

I recently stumbled across the TV program “Living with Ed.” The show stars Ed Begley Jr. and his wife, Rachelle Carson. Begley is probably best known for his former role as Dr. Victor Ehrlich on the series “St. Elsewhere.” The “Ed” program began on the HGTV channel, but has since moved to the Planet Green channel.

If you've never seen the show, let me describe Ed for you: He's a nutcase — a loveable nutcase, but still a nutcase. His singular purpose in life seems to be finding ways to be even more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. For instance, Ed rides a stationary bicycle connected to a generator, which allows him to produce electricity so he can toast his bread for breakfast. Each new show highlights his latest project to help him get closer to living “off the grid.”

There's a third person on the show, Ed's next door neighbor Bill. In reality, he is “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” Bill's environmental fanaticism almost makes Ed look normal. The two are engaged in a running battle to see who's the most environmentally efficient.

When Ed installed a solar collector, Bill installed a larger solar collector. Despite Rachelle's pushback, Ed installed ugly brown plastic rain barrels. Bill then bested him by installing decorative and sophisticated-looking rain barrels.

As an aside, I saw a large plastic rain barrel in my local grocery story this week. It looked just like a huge can of Campbell's Tomato Soup. Please tell me these aren't available for sale. I'm afraid my neighbor's house could soon resemble an industrial storage pantry with 4ft soup cans located under each downspout.

Back to “Ed.” The show highlights the ongoing technology battle between these two eco-nuts. On one particular show, Bill grinned from ear-to-ear as he escorted Ed and Rachelle through his home, pointing out the technology he has installed to become more environmentally efficient.

The first stop was the house's electricity meter. Bill was glowing with pride as he showed Ed that his meter was going backward, meaning he was selling power back to the power company. Ed's frown was a hint that he felt the need to soon address his own power technology deficiency.

The second stop on the tour was the solar water temperature controller in the bathroom. Rachelle suggested the controller looked geeky and should have been mounted out of sight inside a towel cabinet. Ed thought it was cool.

Each show culminates with Ed installing some new piece of eco-technology. This show focused on the installation of a wind turbine generator. It was Ed's response to Bill's negative power bill.

The first step was for Ed to saw off a 3ft section of his roof overhang so the turbine's mounting pole could be bolted against the side of his house. Then we see Ed and the turbine company installing the turbine's rotor above the garage. (Don't these housing developments have homeowners' associations?)

By the end of the show, viewers see Ed glowing proudly as he shows Rachelle the turbine slowly spinning in the Hollywood wind, producing electricity — a whole 500W. Rachelle stares into the camera with a “So what?” look. I agree with her — $3500 for a 500W generator? What's the sense in that?

The point of all this is that we engineers can get caught up in chasing our own technology tails. Gadgets, both personal and professional, can be fun, but the more important consideration is whether the technology helps us be more efficient and effective in our lives. If it doesn't, then it is little more than a toy.

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