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Midgrade Gasoline: Worst Deal on the NJ Turnpike February 24, 2017

Posted by federalist in Energy, Government Regulation, Markets, Transportation.
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The New Jersey Turnpike is an interesting study in government price regulation. In order to avoid price gouging by the gas vendors at Turnpike rest stops, the NJTA requires prices to be set competitively with regional gas retailers.

Furthermore, the NJTA contract allows only one price change per week. A familiar consequence of this has been that during spikes in gas prices people flood the Turnpike to fill up at the old prices during the few days before the Turnpike vendors are allowed to raise their prices to the market level.

Another strange pricing quirk has persisted for years: Sunoco, which has the contract for most of the rest stops, offers four grades of gasoline. A recent offering was:

  • 93 octane: $2.83 (“Ultra”)

  • 91 octane: $2.81 (“Premium”)

  • 89 octane: $2.70 (“Plus”)

  • 87 octane: $2.37 (“Regular”)

The weird thing is that 91 octane is always priced 2 cents per gallon lower than 93 octane. It turns out that this 93-91 price spread is specified in the NJTA contract, because most competitors used in the survey to set prices only sell three grades of gas.

This makes 91 octane the worst deal on the NJ Turnpike. Why? Gasoline octane is a linear function of blending. I.e., you can get a tank of 91 octane gas by mixing two parts 93 octane with one part 87 octane. (In fact, most gas stations only store two grades, and the pumps blend them to produce the mid grades.) At these prices, one could buy a tank of 91 octane by blending 93 and 87 at a cost of just $2.68/gallon – that’s lower even than the listed price for 89 octane!

I suspect Sunoco is exploiting this in two ways. First, NJ still does not allow customers to pump their own fuel. So blending a tank requires explaining the process to the attendant, who rarely seems that attentive. Second is the fact that Sunoco labels the overpriced 91 octane blend as “Premium.” The manuals and stickers in cars designed for high-octane gas typically specify “premium” fuel. Depending on the season and location the highest grade available might be 91, 92, or 93 octane, so drivers are likewise accustomed to asking for “premium.” On the Turnpike, “premium” gets you a tank of 91 octane. You have to explicitly request “Ultra” or “93” to get the highest grade.

Helium: A Very Non-Renewable Natural Resource May 13, 2013

Posted by federalist in Energy.

Where are the environmentalists when it really matters? They pitch fits about depleting natural resources, most of which are to some degree renewable or replaceable. Except for one in particular that is practically both irreplaceable and non-renewable: helium. And who shows up to lobby for the continued preservation of this natural resource? “A coalition including orthopedic surgeons, industrial welders and balloon makers….

Helium has a number of unique characteristics that make it indispensable to current industrial applications, and that seem likely to make it essential for future technologies. (Here’s one interesting backgrounder on the element.) Unfortunately those characteristics include exceptional levity and inertness, so when released into the atmosphere helium gradually evaporates into outer space. The only source of terrestrial helium is radioactive decay, which over eons has produced some natural concentrations in impermeable geological formations. When we drill into these formations for natural gas we often get small quantities of accumulated helium. Once we have tapped those pockets we’ll essentially be out of industrial quantities of helium. The prudent course of action, which the U.S. government has been leading, is to stockpile helium found during drilling in the Federal Helium Reserve. This Reserve just became profitable, which strangely required Congressional action to allow it to continue operations.

Nuclear Recycling Update December 29, 2012

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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I have always been baffled by the U.S. policy to not recycle nuclear fuel. The used uranium nuclear fuel (UNF) rods that leave our nuclear power plants have only lost 3% of their total nuclear energy. I.e., what we call “nuclear waste” is actually 97% nuclear fuel that could be put back into the same reactors after being scrubbed of tiny amounts of accumulated fission byproducts.

We have spent generations accumulating concentrated UNF in storage pools and dry casks at nuclear facilities, waiting for a “permanent” nuclear waste dump to be established where the highly toxic fuel can be safely stored to naturally decay, undisturbed, for at least one million years!

The whole situation is farcical: U.S. nuclear energy was built on uranium (instead of more practical thorium) precisely because one of the products of uranium fission, plutonium, is most desirable for nuclear weapons. As planned, the U.S. accumulated a massive stockpile of plutonium for its strategic nuclear arsenal. Starting in 1976 the U.S. decided not only that it had enough plutonium, but also that refined plutonium was such a strategic risk that it would not condone further operations in which it could conceivably be produced: In particular, recycling of UNF. A few decades later it signed a START treaty that requires it to dispose of its stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. The agreed method of disposal is to dilute and burn the stockpiles in nuclear reactors. This will be done over the next few decades at the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) using a process that is virtually identical to nuclear recycling, except that instead of a hypothetical risk of enriched plutonium being siphoned off during one of the steps, it is explicitly starting with enriched plutonium as an input.

Following its original convoluted policy, America’s growing stockpile of UNF will still not be recycled. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world does recycle UNF, with nearly half of nuclear recycling being handled by the French company AREVA’s plant in La Hague.

Based on AREVA’s extended experience, a 2008 Boston Consulting Group study determined that lifetime costs for dealing with UNF by recycling were at least 10% less than permanent storage. The economic advantages of recycling have certainly increased since then as (1) projected costs of raw uranium have increased and (2) America’s hopes of establishing a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain grow increasingly expensive and uncertain.

Are Electric Vehicles environmentally friendly? December 28, 2012

Posted by federalist in Energy.

Depends on where you charge them. Car and Driver put this useful chart in their July 2012 issue. An electric vehicle is only as environmentally friendly as the generators that charge its battery. (Never mind the distribution overhead and inefficiencies of current batteries.) So unless you’re plugging unto a geothermal or hydroelectric grid your electric vehicle would probably pollute less if it just ran one of the more efficient modern internal combustion engines.

Solar Tsunami: Nature’s EMP Attack February 16, 2011

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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Forecasters are see an increase in solar storms over the next few years. Power Magazine explains the devastation that a powerful solar storm would wreak on our infrastructure. Unlike a man-made electromagnetic pulse attack a “solar tsunami” will affect a much wider area, primarily damaging satellites and the largely invisible high-voltage infrastructure on which our society depends … and which we are unprepared to replace.

This is the largest natural disaster the country could face and it is certain to happen…

Scared? Have another look at my post on stockpiling for survival.

Cool Stuff: Large-scale Energy Storage December 20, 2010

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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Power generation and distribution systems suffer from two expensive characteristics:

  • Inexpensive power sources aren’t always near users.
  • Generation capacity doesn’t always line up with power demand. For example, power suppliers have to meet peak demand that may consume several times the average for just a few hours a day.

There are a number of solutions to the first problem. High-voltage transmission lines can carry electricity long distances, but there are losses and expenses to transporting power even in that form. Rather than generate electricity at the power source, sometimes it’s more cost-effective to move the power source to the demand: So we have natural gas pipelines and coal railways spanning continents to deliver fuel to generators closer to users. Have a cheap power source that can’t be moved around or attached to a high-voltage grid (say, geothermal wells in Iceland)? Power can be exported in the form of energy-intensive commodities, like refined aluminum.

To solve the second “peak demand” problem most power systems rely on flexible but expensive natural gas generators to supplement their baseload supplies. But it would be better if they could run their cost-effective power plants at a more consistent level and somehow store the extra energy generated during off-peak hours to release during peak hours. When you’re talking about hundreds of megawatt-hours chemical batteries are not a realistic solution. Some utilities are investigating flywheel arrays, but at this point the capacity and cost-effectiveness of those are limited.

Two clever solutions to the problem are compressed air energy storage (CAES) and pumped hydro storage (PHS). PHS depends on being near a water reservoir: It’s basically a hydroelectric dam that is filled during off-peak hours by pumping water up into it and run during on-peak hours by draining water through turbines. The EU has about 40GW of PHS capacity and the U.S. has about 20GW. As with PHS, CAES depends on geological circumstances. Presently there’s only one plant in the U.S. (at McIntosh, Alabama) running CAES. Thanks to its location near an underground salt dome it has a 19 million cubic foot cavern that the plant can pressurize up to 1100psi. When full this CAES reservoir can run a 110MW generator for 26 hours straight. (Source: Power Magazine.)

Trash: The Other Renewable Fuel April 14, 2010

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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State-of-the-art incinerators are so clean and efficient that many environmentalists are advocating for them. The NYTimes discovers that even Europeans like them!

A 2009 EPA study “concluded that waste-to-energy plants produced lower levels of pollutants than the best landfills did, but nine times the energy.” Of course overwhelming arguments like that never stopped fringe/NIMBY wackos. In its otherwise positive article on waste-to-energy plants the NYTimes found a group that has “vigorously opposed building a plant in New York City.”

“Incinerators are really the devil,” said Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Safer, Cheaper Fission Energy from Thorium April 5, 2010

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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Thorium — the other actinide.

I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of thorium fission reactors before. Thorium in nature is roughly three times as abundant as uranium — about as common as lead. A recent article in Wired notes that a liquid-fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) uses its fuel three orders of magnitude more efficiently than solid-fuel uranium reactors, leaving little waste. Ironically, that seems to have been its downfall:

[The Atomic Energy Commission] proved the efficacy of thorium reactors in hundreds of tests at Oak Ridge from the ’50s through the early ’70s. But thorium hit a dead end. Locked in a struggle with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, the US government in the ’60s chose to build uranium-fueled reactors — in part because they produce plutonium that can be refined into weapons-grade material.

The arguments for LFTRs are extremely compelling: Not only is fuel a miniscule cost, but they are also so efficient and inherently safe that they leave little waste and they require an infrastructure footprint only about 1% that of a uranium reactor of the same power capacity.

Kirk Sorensen advocates for thorium fission energy at energyfromthorium.com.

Which Would Be Worse: Global Warming or Global Cooling? February 9, 2010

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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If the earth’s climate grows significantly warmer we will probably have to deal with rising sea levels and more severe weather. But these are changes that both human civilization and planetary ecosystems can take in stride. Over the course of decades people will move inland, build more weather-resistant structures, and shift agricultural production to increasingly fertile regions.

But what happens during the next ice age? Our current technology can’t halt glaciers from first blanketing continents and then sweeping them clean.

We still don’t know to what degree human activity can affect the climate one way or the other. But if we had to err in one direction shouldn’t we prefer warming to cooling?

Why are activists so uniformly dedicated to averting global warming? My guess is that climate change is just a pretext for a number of less palatable agendas: Population control, wealth redistribution, and other attempts by putative elites to build up government machinery to encroach on human rights and activity.

Geothermal Energy August 23, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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While researching the best way to take advantage of the 2009-2010 tax credit for household energy upgrades I looked at geothermal heating/cooling systems.  Currently the most energy-efficient residential climate control system is a heat pump, which is essentially two-way air conditioner: It doesn’t expend energy to generate heat, but rather to extract latent heat from air in one location and to pump it to another.  During the summer it pumps from inside a house to the outside, like a conventional air conditioner, and during the winter it pumps heat from outside air back indoors.  The problem with an outdoor heat pump is that it’s always working against the weather: During hot weather it’s trying to move heat from a hot location (inside) to an even hotter location (outside).  During cold winters it’s even harder to extract heat from freezing outside air to raise indoor temperatures to a comfortable level.  Geothermal heat pumps solve this problem by exploiting the fact that subterranean temperatures are a nearly constant 50 degrees year-round.  By putting the heat exchanger underground the heat pump runs much more efficiently because it doesn’t have to fight the weather.

Geothermal heat pumps are very nifty and efficient, but even with the government’s 30% tax credit they are still not economical for conventionally-sized residences.  Drilling underground heat exchange loops will typically exceed $10,000, and the efficiency gains don’t justify that expense given current energy prices.

But geothermal heat sinks aren’t the only advancing technology.  A study by the U.S. Geological Survey suggests that geothermal power generation may be able to satisfy a large portion of our energy demand.  Existing geothermal power plants depend on unique geological formations where high temperatures can be found in permeable rock within 2 miles of the earth’s surface.  Such sites are limited and only rarely economical to exploit.  Newer approaches, dubbed “Enhanced Geothermal Systems” (EGS), would tap up to 4 miles below the surface and take advantage of the higher temperatures and pressures to drive power plants with greater capacity and service life.  EGS appear to be practical over much wider geographic areas.  The USGS report, the first comprehensive geothermal resource assessment in thirty years, suggests that EGS could add on the order of half a terawatt of generating capacity to the domestic power grid.  (Current U.S. generating capacity is roughly one terawatt.)

Why Don’t Cars Display Engine Performance Data? July 27, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy, Open Questions, Transportation.
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Most modern cars have engine control computers and sensors that can tell not only whether your current tank of fuel is contaminated but also whether you would benefit from higher-octane gasoline. Yet few (if any) cars readily communicate those data to the driver. Why not?

Many car engines are designed with higher compression ratios that require “premium” gasoline for optimal performance. These cars can still run on lower-grade fuel: They rely on knock sensors to detect the failure of low-octane fuel to resist detonation and can adjust valve timing to counteract it. However this adjustment reduces engine efficiency and power, so typically drivers want to avoid it. (Conversely, higher-octane gasolines are sometimes sold at such a premium to regular that their higher cost might outweigh the efficiency benefit to engines tuned for them.)

But gasoline octane rating is not the only factor that determines safe engine timing. Air density, which decreases with altitude and temperature, also affects detonation. Fuel that works great in summer or mountains may bog your car down in cold or sea-level conditions. Only your engine knows for sure whether it’s running optimally, or whether it would benefit from a bump in your fuel tank’s octane.

Apparently some aftermarket engine computer interface devices (e.g., the ScanGauge or the DashHawk) can allow a driver to monitor engine timing retardation in realtime. Ideally manufacturers should convert these data into useful dashboard information. Perhaps something like, “Your current fuel is handicapping the engine. Increase tank octane by 2 for optimal performance in current conditions.”

Environmentalists for Incinerators July 13, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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I recently pointed to a report showing that incinerating biomass is at least twice as efficient at producing energy as trying to first convert it to ethanol and then burning the ethanol.  Furthermore, biomass incineration is a mature and versatile technology whereas ethanol can presently only be produced in scale from food.

This month’s Power magazine reminds us that “waste-to-energy” trash incineration is also an environmentally advantageous and mature technology.  It notes that trash incinerators already process 14% of municipal solid waste.  With current technology toxic emissions are negligible and environmental benefits are sundry:

  • Incinerated trash requires only one tenth the landfill space of the raw trash.
  • Metals can be more readily recycled from incinerator dross.
  • If you are a global warmist: Incinerating municipal solid waste emits only one third as much CO2 as coal (to produce the same amount of electricity).  Also, incinerated waste does not produce methane, the potent greenhouse gas released during the decomposition of raw waste.

Long-term I still have my hopes on plasma waste conversion.  But until then this country is still producing at least 200 million tons of solid waste a year that could be burned for energy instead of buried to rot.

Why Focus on Ethanol Instead of Biomass Incineration? June 2, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy, Transportation.
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Government has been paying domestic companies to turn food into vehicle fuel, even during food supply shortages and even though more ethanol is being produced than the current vehicle fleet can consume.  Government is also funding efforts to build plants that can convert non-edible biomass into ethanol.

At the same time, government is funding initiatives to make vehicles more dependent on electricity and less dependent on liquid fuels.

If the goal is to increase the domestic supply of liquid fuel for the transportation sector, there is no question that coal liquification is the most cost effective and realistic solution: We have vast coal reserves, and liquified coal produces heavier fuels that can support existing kerosene, diesel, and gasoline engines.  (Ethanol is a light, hygroscopic fuel that can only run efficiently in modified gasoline engines.)

If the goal is to effect a shift from fossil to biomass fuels then simply burning biomass to generate electricity is far more efficient at recovering energy than first trying to distill it into ethanol.  Even if we do develop effective cellulosic ethanol technology, WSJ reports:

An acre of crops can generate enough electricity for a battery-powered SUV to travel 15,000 miles, nearly twice the distance that would be covered if the crops were turned into cellulosic ethanol….

And unlike all these other tentative technologies biomass power plants have been in existence for decades.

Congress Imitates Homer Simpson — II May 24, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy, Healthcare, Taxation.
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Some federal legislators have decided that all of that government-subsidized sugar we’ve been adding to soft drinks all these years might not be so good for us.  Since government has assumed responsibility for the health of American citizens our representatives are ready to take action.  Naturally, they’ve decided to reduce those crop subsidies.

Oh wait, no, they’ve actually decided that the way to fix this problem is to impose an excise tax on sweetened drinks.  I.e., they’ll continue to pay farmers to grow more corn and sugar than the market wants, but they’ll discourage Americans from drinking it with a “soda tax.”

Because of course the best way to correct the unintended consequences of government is with more government.

Reminds me of Homer Simpson’s solution to overdosing on stimulants:

Clerk: Hey, you can’t take that many pep pills at once.

Homer: No problem, I’ll balance it out with a bottle of sleeping pills.

QOTD: The Climate-Industrial Complex May 21, 2009

Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Energy, Markets.

The always incisive Bjorn Lomborg describes the emergence of a “climate-industrial complex” of politicians, special-interest groups, and for-profit corporations.

 Spending a fortune on global carbon regulations will benefit a few, but dearly cost everybody else.

Why Run Ships on Oil? April 29, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy, Open Questions, Transportation.

Vote for Dave asks an excellent question: Massive container ships burn low-grade “bunker” fuel for power. Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to run them on nuclear power, as our navy has done without incident for decades on submarines and large warships?  Shouldn’t global warmists be thrilled at such low-hanging fruit in the fight against carbon dioxide emissions?

[Addendum: Four nuclear-powered cargo ships were built, but the technology is simply not cost-competitive with fossil fuels.  The United States Navy has abandoned nuclear power for all vessels but submarines and aircraft carriers, where nuclear power confers unique tactical benefits.]

The Problem With Wind Power April 25, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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Ross McCracken via William Tucker:

As wind provides neither baseload nor peaking plant it has no impact on reserve capacity. . . [I]t increases redundancy in peaking plants and reduces the profits of baseload generation; potentially good for consumers but bad for investment in non-intermittent sources of power, and presenting the risk of a decline in reserve capacity. . . . [P]eaking plants would be used much less and baseload plant would see sustained period of potential below cost prices – a particular nightmare for the nuclear industry.

The Battery Breakthrough we’ve been waiting for March 18, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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MIT researchers have produced a lithium battery that can charge and discharge almost as quickly as a supercapacitor.  David notes that coupling the energy density of a battery with the power density of a capacitor would make electric cars far more practical: Smaller battery packs could provide extreme torque and full brake regeneration.  You could also fully “refuel” an all-electric car in minutes.

Granted, having solved the power density problems with electric batteries we still won’t be happy until we can also boost stored energy density a few orders of magnitude.  But current lithium chemistry has probably taken us close to the limit of electrical energy density.  Batteries that can store more energy per weight will have to rely on chemical (e.g., fuel cell), nuclear, or antimatter reactions.  (Kinetic batteries like flywheels in practice have not been able to achieve higher energy density than lithium eletric batteries.)

There Is No Such Thing as Nuclear Waste March 13, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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I quoted William Tucker last year on this subject when I pointed out the absurdity of our country’s executive ban on recycling our own nuclear fuel.  The new administration might actually be taking a step in the right direction on nuclear energy policy since they apparently intend to terminate the Yucca Mountain boondoggle.

Today Tucker explains in greater detail how wasteful it is to not recycle spent nuclear fuel (emphasis mine):


Ninety-five percent of a spent fuel rod is plain old U-238, the nonfissionable variety that exists in granite tabletops, stone buildings and the coal burned in coal plants to generate electricity. Uranium-238 is 1% of the earth’s crust. It could be put right back in the ground where it came from.

Of the remaining 5% of a rod, one-fifth is fissionable U-235 — which can be recycled as fuel. Another one-fifth is plutonium, also recyclable as fuel. Much of the remaining three-fifths has important uses as medical and industrial isotopes. Forty percent of all medical procedures in this country now involve some form of radioactive isotope, and nuclear medicine is a $4 billion business. Unfortunately, we must import all our tracer material from Canada, because all of our isotopes have been headed for Yucca Mountain.

Why flu spreads more during winter February 10, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy, Healthcare.
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Shaman & Kohn are getting a lot of press for their article documenting a correlation between absolute humidity (AH) and flu virus transmission and survival.  But it was already well established that flu incidence peaks during the winter.  Shaman & Kohn have merely “rediscovered” this fact through a correlated variable: Apparently nobody covering their article is aware that AH and outside air temperature are nearly perfectly correlated on a seasonal scale.

Humidity itself is an interesting subject: For a given temperature and pressure there is an absolute limit to how much moisture air can hold.  The hotter the air, the higher that limit.  Relative Humidity (RH) indicates the ratio of actual water vapor to theoretical water vapor in the air.  When air is cooled, holding all else constant, RH increases because the capacity of the air for holding water decreases with temperature.  When RH hits 100% and the air is cooled further the moisture begins to condense right out of the air.

This presents all sorts of problems for indoor air quality.  Ideal indoor relative humidity is 30-50%.  Any higher and fungus begins to thrive.  Any lower and humans begin to dry out, which leads to health problems, some of which we’ll come to shortly.  During the summer even relatively dry outdoor air can hold enough water vapor to cause elevated humidity when cooled to comfortable indoor levels.  Fortunately modern air conditioners include condensers that remove enough moisture from the air they cool to keep humidity in line.  But many houses still have problems in basements, which are naturally kept cool by underground heat mass: As the outside summer air makes its way inside and cools in the basement, its relative humidity shoots up.  Without dehumidifiers basements get that musty smell indicative of fungus thriving on the moisture.

In the winter we have the opposite problem: Cold winter air, even at 100% humidity, dries out as it is heated indoors.  Without artificial humidifiers the RH of heated air can fall to single digits, which is drier than many deserts.  Humans acclimated to more temperate weather do not handle dry air well: their skin and sinuses dry out and crack.  Dry mucus membranes are more vulnerable to pathogens.  Which is why the onset of winter in temperate climates causes a spike in influenza: Eyes and noses are irritated from the dry air, so people are constantly touching them, sneezing, and coughing.  If that weren’t enough to get pathogens out of their body and onto their hands, then when they go outside the cold gives them a runny nose.  Now everyone’s hands are covered in respiratory pathogens, and they’re constantly putting their hands near the dried out mucus membranes those pathogens crave to infect.

No surprises here: Humidify your air during the winter to protect your respiratory membranes.  Wash your hands and keep them away from your face when they haven’t been washed.