Archive for July, 2008

Energy detective

Detective silhouetteEver since I learned that a 3 kWh a day lifestyle is achievable, I’ve been very curious as to our current usage. Since everything we have is electric (and much of the 3 kWh number is based on offloading things like heating to natural gas), I thought I’d have to wait until we actually moved.

Then I got this month’s electrical bill and realized that it’s about as good as it’ll get anywhere. We obviously didn’t use any heat this month but we also didn’t use much, if any, cooling. Given that, the only significant difference between here and the house is that here we have an electric stove. However, I think we use the stove for about half an hour a day (on average), which only adds up to 1 kWh a day, so that’s pretty easy to adjust for.

This month, we used 200 kWh over 28 days. That’s a little over 7 kWh (modified to 6 if we take off the electricity for the stove), which is about twice my eventual goal. That still seemed like a lot, so I decided to track down where all of that electricity is going.

Least surprising to me is that our refrigerator uses up to 3 kWh a day (50% of our presumptive housing number!). The refrigerator at the house only uses 2 kWh a day, which will help some as well. A new EnergyStar refrigerator can use as little as 1 kWh a day, so there’s room for improvement there as well.

So now we’re down to 3 kWh a day that are unaccounted for. The next things I thought of were basic appliances that we run intermittently, like the dishwasher, washer, and dryer. We haven’t used our dryer this month (hooray clotheslines!), but we wash dishes and clothes about once a week. That puts the dishwasher at about 0.3 kWh a day and the washing machine at 0.5 kWh a day. More efficient appliances would help some, but since we run them so infrequently, they’re not big culprits.

That puts us at 2.2 kWh a day that disappear into the unknown. I thought it might primarily be lighting, but that would be enough to run our lightbulbs for 110 hours a day, which seems unreasonable. It’s hard to estimate light usage, but I think we use about 24 light-hours a day (since mostly lights are off during the day and while we’re asleep and Maggie and I tend to stay in the same room and use one light in the evening). That’s only 0.1 kWh a day (thanks, CFLs!).

Not much of a change, but we’re down to 2.1 kWh. There are some other appliances that we use occasionally, like a microwave and clock radio, but they probably use less than a tenth of a kWh each, so that still only brings us down to 1.9 kWh. If we didn’t have most of our appliances on power strips, I’m sure that phantom power would increase this number considerably.

Oh, computers, of course. Maggie and I both have laptops. She uses hers about half an hour a day (at least, at home) and I leave mine on about 10.5 hours a day. With an average useage of 30 watts (based on 45 watts when in use and 10 watts hibernating), that comes out to a third of a kWh a day.

Well, 1.6 kWh is better but is still a lot of “black” energy. In fact, it’s 26% of our presumptive electrical use! If it takes you less than a day to figure out where that energy is going, you’ve got me beat. I’ll give you a minute to think about it.


The culprit appears to be our hot water heater. It’s stuck in a closet and we never think about it except when it’s not working and yet it’s using half as much energy as a refrigerator! It would be even more except that Maggie and I use it infrequently (especially in the summer). The EnergyStar sticker on the side says that it’ll use 4773 kWh a year, which is over 13 kWh a day! Obviously, the sticker is way overestimating (and we’re using less hot water than the typical family), but that’s still a lot. Even though it’s “only” using 1.6 kWh or so now, when the weather is cooler and it has to work harder and more often, I bet it uses at least as much energy as our refrigerator (which will be working less hard in the winter, so this is about as bad as it should get).

A tankless water heater is looking better and better! A conservative estimate would put the tankless water heater at about half the electricity as an electric tank water heater. That still puts us well over 3 kWh a day, but add in a better refrigerator and we’re starting to get somewhere!

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Hot and Lazy

We got a lot of work done on the house yesterday with my parents (thanks Mom and Dad!) so when today turned hot and sticky we both decided to spend the evening at home relaxing.  I’ll take my turn on the mower tomorrow, probably in the morning before it gets too hot.

We really can’t complain much since so far July has been unseasonably cool but it was quite pleasant.  I rather enjoy having unseasonably warm winters and cool summers but I do worry that it’s indicative of global warming and associated climate change.  On the other hand, it’s hard to tell what falls within the range of normal variation.  I’ve heard that the Indiana motto for weather is “Don’t like the weather?  Wait a few hours.”

Tomorrow a professional plasterer is supposed to come by the house and tell us what to do with our living room walls.  I hope he has some ideas about the mirror, although a friend suggested we glue glass tiles on it to make a mosaic, which could be really cool.  Ya know, if we actually did it.

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Mowing green(ish)

Will mowing with an electric mowerLest you think Maggie is doing all the work herself, let me tell you about our new lawn mower. Until yesterday, I hadn’t mown a lawn since sixth grade, when my family moved to a house without a lawn. At that point, I used an ancient reel mower along with a rusty manual edger.

Lawn mowers have come a long way since then. We were hoping that we could get away with a reel mower (one of the few occasions where the green option is the cheaper one!), but with a half acre lot, it just didn’t seem feasible. On the other hand, a riding mower seemed like overkill (although most of our neighbors seem to use them) and I’ve never liked gas mowers (which pollute as much in a hour as a car does over 350 miles). Fifteen years ago, that would have been it.

But now that we’re living in the future, electric mowers are an option! We’ve been looking at corded mowers for a week or two now and they seemed like a good option. They mow well and, although the cord would be unwieldy, they’re cheaper than battery-powered mowers and last longer (as long as you have handy outlets).

Saturday evening, we had to go to the mall, so I suggested we head through Sears and check out their mowers. Their online selection seemed slim, but I thought it might be useful to see them in person. They did have some nice reel mowers, and a million gas/rider mowers, but we didn’t see any electric ones at all. At least, not until we saw the clearance section off to the side. There, right in front, was a nice Craftsman battery-powered mower. It was still about 50% more expensive than a similar corded mower, but it was almost 50% off. We went home to think about it but, when I found a 10% off coupon for refurbished mowers that expired that evening, we decided it was the way to go.

Next door neighbor Nathan and I took the mower over the house on Sunday and plugged it in so that I’d be able to mow yesterday. I had a moment of fear when it conked out after just three passes, but it turned out that trying to cut grass that tall had flipped the circuit breaker. Once I reset that, and set the height to 6 (out of 6), I was able to cut the whole front and most of the side yard. The battery could have kept going, but I couldn’t. I’d been a bit worried that 40 minutes of mowing time, the amount I’d seen on the Internet, wouldn’t be enough. It seemed to run longer than that and certainly as long as I wanted to mow.

Unfortunately, the gras was so high that Maggie is going to take her turn mowing tomorrow, this time at a lower setting. She’ll start in the back, though, so that everything will be mowed at least once.

I won’t say that it was fun, but it was another adventure (rite of passage?) in home ownership!

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Excavating House Layers

Maggie and panelingAs Will said, we’re busy excavating the layers of wall material in our living room.  The top layer was ugly wallpaper, the next layer was wood paneling, and now we’re down to plaster.  (I actually don’t mind wood paneling since it covered the walls of my childhood bedroom but it’s not the most attractive thing in the world, especially when it has been coated in wallpaper paste and patched up randomly with non-matching pieces of wood.)

Alas, we have no experience with plaster and haven’t found any friends or family that do either.  There are holes in the plaster from where the paneling was nailed in and big globs of glue where the paneling was glued into place (you gotta make sure your walls don’t wander away) so *something* needs to be done.  We’re just not sure how big of a project it will be.

Oh, and there’s also the 5′ x 6′ giant mirror that appears to have been installed to replace what used to be an outside window.  We haven’t been brave enough to pry it off the wall but it looks like there’s no plaster underneath, so we’re not sure what to do next.

Any suggestions from the peanut gallery?

From an ecological standpoint, plaster doesn’t seem too terrible and it would make more sense to patch it than to cover it over with totally new material.  I got a book from the library about mixing natural plasters but I’m not sure if you they would stick to the old stuff.  I’m hoping to get a professional in to look at it and give us some advice.  My biggest concern is if we need to get the glue off before we put fresh plaster on.

On the plus side, we also pulled up the carpets in the front room and the hardwood floors underneath look BEAUTIFUL.  It was nice to reveal at least one treasure in our excavating work…

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Creating an electrical budget

Electricity meterI apologize for the lack of a post last night. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I was asleep. It’s been a crazy couple of days, with work stress, the sleeping schedule that won’t regulate, and–oh yeah–we got a house and are slowly tearing it down.

At least, that’s what it feels like. Maggie and I have spent several evenings over there working until it got dark (we have the electricity off). We’ve peeled off most of the wallpaper, some of the trim, and two sections of wood panelling. Underneath is plaster, so we’re going to have to figure out what you can do with that. Paint it? Wallpaper over it?

On Wednesday, we took a break from tearing things apart to do some electrical baselining (that’s a word, right?). I’ve complained before about how difficult it is to figure out where our electricity is going. Starting from scratch gives us a unique chance to do just that.

I think this is a great opportunity to make great strides with our electrical use. Several years back, when I first took control of my finances, my first move was to track exactly where my money was going. That information helped me decide where to focus my efforts for the biggest gains. In my case, I wasn’t able to do much about my rent, but I was able to cancel cable and cut my car insurance by two thirds without feeling like I was sacrificing much.

I’m hoping that creating a baseline for our electrical use will help out in much the same way. To get started, we went around the house and unplugged everything (including the refrigerator and built-in microwave). The meter was still turning, so we started flipping breakers off until we found what we’d missed in the first go-through (an exterior safety light and a sub-panel that goes to the electric water heater).

Now that we’re sure we have no shorts in the system, we can start plugging things back in and see what our base load is. Since most of our appliances are powered by natural gas, I expect it’ll be relatively low. Our biggest power draws will be the refrigerator (according to GE’s information on the model, it’ll use about 700 kWh a year) and the water heater (I have no idea yet).

From there, we can add stuff to the system and see how it affects power consumption. For example, we can turn on all the lights and see how much more electricity that uses than having no lights on. Or, we can run the microwave and see how much electricity it takes to make soup.

Once we’ve got a good month’s worth of data, we can figure out which changes will give us the most bang for the least work.

But first, we’ll have to finish redoing the front room so that we can actually move in!

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Up to My Arse in Wallpaper

Maggie peeling wallpaperWe’ve had the house for less than 24 hours and I’m already psyched to pull off all the crazy textured wallpaper and rip up the carpet to reveal hardwood floors.  Alas, it’s a lot of work!  We spent several hours today pulling the top layer of wallpaper off the family room walls (the backing and paste tend to stay behind).  A guy from Vectren came by to turn on the gas and told me that I should make my life simpler and buy a gallon of magical solution called Dif that supposedly takes wallpaper right off.

I looked it up and learned that Dif is a wallpaper stripper with a “unique patented enzyme formula” and “a superior, more effective blend of wetting agents” that have made it a must-have for wallpaper removal projects.

Of course, my question is, what is the environmental impact of this stuff?  I looked at the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) but it is really designed for firefighters and hazardous waste clean-up crews so there wasn’t detailed information about its overall environmental impacts.  I’m pretty sure Dif is more environmentally harmful than using hot water but I’m also pretty sure it’s a lot faster.  At what point can a person justify an increased environmental impact to save some physical labor?  For this project, I would feel a lot better sticking with the manual labor – I could use the exercise!  But the question of trade-offs comes up a lot and it’s almost always impossible to get all the information needed to make the best decision.

My dad says that someone needs to come up with a Green Consumer Reports that would crunch all the data concerning the environmental impact of how an item is produced, how it’s used during its life, and how it gets disposed of.  I keep telling him it’s a great idea except I don’t think that data even exists for most products.  But maybe someone just needs to give it their best shot and refine as they go.

Any publishing moguls out there?  I’m handy with a blog and a wallpaper scraper…

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YAAAAAAY! (Or, We Finally Bought That House After Much Harassment)

Well, we are now officially homeowners.  *zowie*  We’re excited and exhausted and a bit unsure that it really happened.  Even this morning we were getting phone calls asking us to pull up a few more bits of financial information and be prepared to sign just a couple more preliminary papers before the closing and it seemed to all be hanging by a thread.  But we managed to do the final walk-through inspection, meet the sellers for the first time (very sweet people), sign an almost endless stack of papers, hand over about one year’s salary, and we were given the keys.

It was actually a bit anticlimactic.  We signed papers for about an hour and then everyone pat us on the back and said “Congratulations!”

It didn’t really feel real until we took my parents over and started peeling off the 70’s textured wallpaper in the living room.  I have realized that for me, the best way to make it feel real is to start making some changes, to leave my mark and claim it as MINE.  And Will’s.  Although technically I think the mortgage company owns about 95% at this point…

Anyway, it’s a relief to be done with the purchasing process.  We’ll be spending the next month doing a little remodeling (there are hardwood floors under the carpet!) and slowly moving in our belongings.  Let us know if you have any green remodeling tips!

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Beat the heat treats

Electric ice cream makerMaggie and I have been looking for a good source of organic ice cream since February. For some reason, getting an ice cream maker hadn’t really occurred to us until I got one for my brother and his wife for their wedding. After hearing of their success with some great iced concotions, Maggie and I were even more interested. We took the final leap when we found an old shopping network ice cream maker at a yard sale for $10.

As a kid, our ice cream maker was a monstrosity, with a huge bright pink bucket (or perhaps I was just smaller then). You had to dump in ice and salt and churn it continuously. It was pretty grueling work for half an hour, but spread out among the five of us it wasn’t bad. And there was ice cream at the end!

The new ones work a bit differently. Instead of hand-churning, most of them use an electric motor (which makes it a bit faster too, I think). They also replace the salted ice with a smaller metal bucket with a liquid core. You leave that in the freezer until you’re ready to make some ice cream and then toss all the ingredients in and turn on the motor.

Our first experiment was honey-flavored frozen yogurt. The recipe called for corn syrup, but we thought the honey would work better. Unfortunately, we didn’t eat it right away and it solidified in the freezer. It was rock-hard, which made it hard to sample.

This past weekend, we got the ingredients necessary for actual ice cream (primarily heavy cream). The recipe made much more than actually fit in the container, especially once we put in some peach slices from the peaches my parents brought from the NC farmers’ market. The first batch turned out pretty well, although I had to clear peach blockages out every once in a while. The second batch just never froze completely and ended up as more of a milkshake. Unlike the old ice cream makers, you can’t just add more ice, so we either had to leave it at the milkshake level or dump it into the freezer and stir manually.

We took the ice cream to Maggie’s family’s Sunday gathering and it was a hit, especially alongside the peach crumb dessert (also from the NC farmers’ market). It was more crystalline than I expected, but that wasn’t bad. The peaches were also frozen solid, which shouldn’t have surprised me. I think next time I’ll try putting the fruit bits in towards the end of the process so they’ll be chewier.

Overall, we’re very pleased with it. Now we can make ice cream as organic as we want it to be. The size is just about perfect too. A quart of ice cream is enough to take to a gathering, but little enough that we can eat it all ourselves if need be (twist my arm!).

Our other beat-the-heat treat has been fruit juice frozen into popsicles. Generally, I think I prefer those (they’re great in the hot middle of the day), while Maggie prefers the ice cream as an after-dinner dessert.

In both cases, it helps make the heat more bearable when we’ve got something cool to eat, so they’re definitely worth the (minimal) effort!

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WALL-E and his coolerWe saw WALL-E yesterday with our parents and thoroughly enjoyed it (as well as the short that preceded it). I’ll mostly just echo the thoughts of others, but I was also impressed with how well they pulled off a main character (and love interest) who speak less than half a dozen words throughout the entire movie.

As with most movies, the science is only middling correct. One of the advantages of the stylization of the movie is that I didn’t mind because all of the science mistakes seemed less like ignorance and more like a stylistic choice. For example, the plan to clean Earth up apparently consists of crushing and piling the garbage. How that’s supposed to help, I don’t know, but it sure makes for some incredible visuals.

There’s definitely a strong environmental call-to-action in the movie, but it comes across very well. Instead of seeming patronizing or accusing, I felt like the message was that we can really do anything we set our minds to… so we’d better start thinking about the environment!

Above the visuals and the moral, the storytelling was top-notch. WALL-E and EVE are incredibly human (moreso than the humans, at least at first), so you care about them even if the implied crisis (Earth being buried under garbage) doesn’t thrill you.

I did find a late scene ironic, though. Despite the green overtones of the movie, the humans living in space have solved their garbage problems by… tossing their trash out the airlock. Not a huge advance over piling their trash into monuments.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to figure out something better by the time we get there. We’ve got less than a millenia to go, so we’d better hurry up!

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Chilling in the Summer

We’ll blame the lack of posting yesterday on Will’s parents, who are in town for a whirlwind visit on their way to Saint Louis. We tried to show them our house (we hope soon) today but unfortunately, when the owners moved out they locked a lock that the realtor doesn’t have a key to. *sigh* So we walked around the outside and tried to describe what it looks like behind the blue vinyl and mini-blinds.

Life is a bit stressful these days between wedding planning and house buying and the long laundry list of projects I have piled on my plate, not realizing that even tiny commitments add up quickly. I am looking forward to a long holiday weekend and a chance to spend some time relaxing in the out-of-doors. The fireflies are out and the day lilies are in full bloom. I’m ready to lie on my back in a field looking up at the stars. I’m eager to walk in the woods and listen to the summer cicadas. Maybe I’ll make it down to the lake and throw myself in the water. I’m ready to reconnect with nature and with relaxation, in celebration of summer.

Happy Explosion Day.

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