Open House Feb 26th

house_portrait01We’re having an open house! 

608 W. Guy Avenue Bloomington, IN
Sunday, February 26th, 2:00-4:00PM

We are hoping it will be sunny enough to demonstrate our solar furnace (that big black box shown behind us).  For a sneak preview, check out our post about how it works and our more recent post about our experience so far.  We have enjoyed the extra heat a lot and think it is a very neat form of solar technology.  I’m afraid our pup won’t be joining us; she’ll spend the afternoon with a friend so she doesn’t get overly stimulated by NEW PEOPLE IN THE HOUSE OH MY GOODNESS.  And hopefully between now and then we will give the inside of the house a nice scrubbing plus have time to bake some cookies!  No promises about the yard, though.

Please RSVP by sending a note to us at maggie at  Thanks!

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Winter Laundry – Will It Dry?

snowy_laundryDuring the Energy Challenge, we discovered that our dryer is a major electricity hog (as pretty much all heat-generating electrical appliances are).  In warm, sunny weather it was pretty easy for me to get motivated to use our clothesline but I’ve found it more challenging during the winter months.  I also wasn’t sure if laundry would actually dry in sub-freezing temperatures, so I decided to do some test runs.

First test (shown in picture) – inconclusive.  Approximately 5 minutes after I hung my laundry to dry, clouds rolled in and proceeded to dump snow on my clean clothes.  I brought them inside and hung them on our indoor clothesline, where they dried after about 36 hours.

Second test – success.  It was very sunny and temperatures were hovering right around freezing so I’m still not totally sure how it would go on a really cold day.  It has been a weirdly warm winter and we haven’t had many super cold days.  Today, in fact, it was about 65 degrees out, which is just wrong for February.  The poor daffodils are sending up shoots and buds, which I have no doubt will be frozen off in another week or two when our “normal” weather resumes.  With a little luck, there will be a sunny day in the teens when I can get a definitive answer to my laundry question – will it dry?

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Cool Down with a Solar Attic Fan

solar_fan_roofOur prize for winning the 4th quarter of the Energy Showdown last year was a very cool solar attic fan.  It took us awhile to get around to installing it but we found plenty of motivation and dry weather in July.  I convinced my dad to come help, despite his preference to stay at ground level.  I took the fun job of cutting a hole in the roof (gotta love those sawzall projects) and then he helped me install the fan itself.

We were both a little surprised when the fan started spinning as he handed it up to me.  But it was sunny and the air temperature was above 80 and that’s all it takes for the fan to get to work.  The brand we got is called “the SunRise” from SRS (SunRise Solar, Inc) and it was made in Jordan, Indiana.  I’m happy to know we have some solar manufacturing in the state and so far I’m definitely impressed with the fan.

It’s a very simple one-piece unit that was pretty easy to install.  (For detailed instructions, check out this article from Home Power Magazine.)  My first step was to climb into the HOT attic and pick a location near the roofline and near the center of the attic.  I drilled a hole halfway between two rafters and left the drill bit in place. Then I climbed up on the roof, found my drill bit, stuck on the circular cardboard template that came with the fan, and used the sawzall to cut out a circular hole.  (I did nick the rafters on both sides but only a tiny bit.)

solar_fan_caulkAfter that, we pried the neighboring shingles loose so we could position the fan unit into place.  A few screws, a huge tube of caulk, and we were done!  We probably could have done the whole thing in under an hour but of course we had to take two trips to the hardware store – one for screws and a second one for a star-shaped drill bit that fit the star-shaped screws we had picked out.  Good times.

It’s hard to tell for sure how much of an impact the fan is having but it has definitely been running a lot.  The mechanics are pretty simple – there’s a photovoltaic panel attached to the motor but with a thermostat so that the fan will only run if the air temperature is above 80, which it has been for most of the last six weeks.  The goal is to pump hot air out of the attic, keeping it a little cooler and slowing down the amount of heat that seeps into our house.  I think it does reduce the burden on our air conditioner.  Yes, we have been running the air conditioner (set at a modest 81 or 82) although it’s mainly to keep the humidity down since we’re in Indiana swamp season (90% humidity nearly every day).  We also use fans, which make a huge difference.  Right now we only have a ceiling fan in the living room so we have a couple of box fans.  The trick is to minimize power use by only turning the fans on when you’re in that particular room since they don’t actually cool the air temperature; they just make you feel cooler by blowing away the layer of hot air around your body.  (Check out this post about staying cool from Mr. Electricity for a nice graphical explanation and some other non-AC cooling tips.)

Eventually we hope to add more ceiling fans but that will require an electrician.  For now, I’m planning to stick just with projects that involve cutting and gluing, which I think I mastered in kindergarten.

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Energy Showdown finale

The 2010 Energy Showdown is now officially over and we kinda won! Okay, we didn’t win the grand prize, but we won the 3rd and 4th quarter prizes, saved about $300, and expect to save more in 2011. As a whole, participants reduced usage by over 11 megaWatt-hours (that’s over 11,000 kWh!). Since Indiana’s electricity is produced almost entirely by coal, that’s a reduction of 22,000 lbs of CO2!

At the SIREN meeting this week, some of the other families talked about their experience in the showdown. One thing that struck me was the diversity. The 1st quarter winners were a married couple who’ve been slowly improving their house over the past 5-6 years. The 2nd quarter (and eventual overall) winners were a family of four, who didn’t want to make any significant lifestyle changes. The 3rd and 4th quarter winners were us, who have pretty good habits, but were willing to try some pretty crazy stuff.

Despite our willingness to try things out, in the end, we didn’t have to do anything particularly difficult. Getting a new refrigerator was painless, as was caulking and sealing areas around the windows. Line drying was sometimes annoying, but wasn’t particularly bad. We’ve decided that 56 degrees is too cold, but we’ve discovered that we’re comfortable at 59.

I think that the biggest obstacle for most people to reduce their consumption isn’t the difficulty or discomfort, but the fact that usage is pretty much invisible. There are so many things that use electricity, and in such a hidden way, that it’s really difficult to know what your biggest energy hogs are. From the perspective of activities, it’s also difficult to know what things cost. How much electricity do you actually use to watch a movie? What if it’s streaming through a computer? How does that compare to playing video games? It’s hard to tell.

I think that if people had a sense of how much electricity (and money) they could actually save by changing their behavior, they’d do it. If my non-eco friends found out that it cost twice as much to watch a movie on TV as through their laptop, I think a lot of them would switch. I’ve talked about this some before, but I think it bears repeating. It doesn’t take crazy lifestyle changes or lots of money to make a significant dent (over 20%) in usage. You just have to spend the time to make the consequences of your activities more visible, at least to you. One way to start is to use a Kill-A-Watt to identify the appliances in your house that are the energy hogs (e.g. refrigerator, space heater) and look at the Energy Star ratings to know what benefits you might get from upgrading – as well as thinking about cutting usage entirely if you can (e.g. ditch that extra refrigerator in the garage).

It’s also extremely useful to track daily electrical usage overall to get a sense of your normal usage. This helps capture some of that hidden electrical usage – like water heaters, dryers, and furnaces that don’t plug into regular outlets – and also gives a baseline for comparing when you make changes. If you lower your thermostat from 59 to 56, how much energy do you save? We found it saved about 0.5 kWh/day and decided that wasn’t really worth it for the added discomfort. What if you line dry your clothes instead of using the dryer? We found it saved nearly 6 kWh/use and decided that was TOTALLY worth it (although we still sometimes use the dryer when it’s raining or freezing outside).

There are a lot of painless ways to reduce electrical usage but it can be hard to know where to start and which changes to embrace. With that in mind, Maggie and I are preparing to teach a class in energy conservation through People’s University (a city program where anyone can offer a class for their fellow citizens) and we’re also planning to publish an e-book for people who want to try it at home on their own. The class will meet two hours a week for four weeks and have homework assignments in between – like tracking daily electrical usage at the meter and measuring the most commonly used appliances with a Kill-A-Watt. Our biggest goal will be teaching people how to study their own electrical usage and figure out the best way to cut back, since it’s different for everyone. Sure, we can all do a better job turning off the lights when we leave the house and making sure our houses are well-insulated but there are a lot of other small changes to be made and we want to help people understand which will work best for them.

If the Energy Showdown participants in Bloomington were able to reduce energy usage by 11 megaWatt-hours in a year, just think of what it could look like if we all made an effort! And you don’t have to turn off your water heater or your air conditioning, we promise.

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Freeze Yer Buns Challenge

maggie-will-hatsFellow blogger Crunchy Chicken recently launched the Winter 2010-2011 Freeze Yer Buns Challenge, encouraging everyone to turn their thermostat down this winter.  She’s open to any temperature settings that works for folks but encourages people to push their limits a bit, especially at night.  I think her target is 62 during the day and 55 at night.

I feel like we’re already participating although in a rather unique way.  We have our thermostat set at 52 degrees and are relying on our solar furnace to heat us up to a more comfortable temperature during the day.  Our main motivation is keeping our electrical bill down so that we have a shot of winning the SIREN Energy Showdown grand prize – a one kilowatt photovoltaic system!  Will also likes the idea of just acclimating to a lower indoor temperature to lower our carbon footprint all winter, since we did fairly well adjusting to life without air conditioning this summer.

For the past couple of weeks it has been unseasonably warm (several days we opened all the windows to let the warm air IN) so with the solar furnace it has been in the high sixties during the day, dropping to about 55 overnight.  Yesterday it was cold but sunny so the solar furnace ran all day and brought the temperature up to about 65.  Then last night it got cold and our furnace actually kicked on for about ten minutes this morning to heat us from 51 to 52.  It has been between 52 and 54 all day and I’ve been here working.

And you know what?  It’s cold but it’s not unbearable.  I do wish we had some sort of supplemental heat for the bathroom – I hate stepping out of a hot shower into a cold room – but otherwise it has been okay.  I wear about three layers of long sleeves plus a hat, drink a lot of hot tea, and get up to exercise every hour or two to heat my body up again.  Perhaps life with minimal heat will improve my cardiovascular health!

Or perhaps in another month or two I can coax Will into turning up the thermostat to a balmy 58.  I’ll keep you posted…

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Powering Down

A couple months ago, Maggie talked me into giving a presentation at the Simply Living Fair about our 3-kWh Challenge (which has more details, if the presentation is too high-level for you). The presentation went very well and has some more information (and hard numbers) about our electrical use since January. In my challenge post, I clocked us in at just under 80 kWh, but the official number from Duke Energy was just 71 kWh! The difference is just because we started and stopped measuring at different times, but it still sounds good.

My presentation slides are embedded below, but I’ll add some explanation underneath to replace some of the bits where I talked.

On the graph of our electrical usage, I included one line for each year plus a bar graph series at the bottom that represents our kWh usage per day based on my readings. There’s a LOT of variation, mostly due to hot water heating, the furnace, or A/C. When we stopped using all of those things in June, everything calmed down a lot.

In the end, we used 28% of the electricity we used last year, which is a tiny 14% of the electricity used by the average house our size!

We ended up using 115 kWh in September and are on track to stay under 120 kWh in October, so we’ve been able to maintain usage at 50% of last year’s numbers.

Just looking at electricity, we’ve saved about $175 so far this year and reduced our CO2 emissions by almost 2.5 tons (coal is not a very clean source of electricity)!

We’re incredibly happy with what we’ve done so far and plan to continue trimming as we head into the heating season! We knocked out some insulation projects today that will hopefully help and we’ll certainly keep you updated about the solar furnace!

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Energy Star Appliances Rock!

our refrigeratorThis whole SIREN Energy Challenge has made us even more conscious of how much electricity we use and Will has become obsessed with switching off lights, unplugging appliances, and spending his free time trying to uncover the source of unaccounted energy use every month.  We thought we had made some major progress with our new water heater and our conservation efforts and were initially proud of our first quarter results – 11% less electrical use than last year.  Then we found out that the winning household cut their energy use by 35% for the quarter!

How did they do it?  They made a lot of little changes that we’ve also done like adding attic insulation, installing a programmable thermostat to lower their heat at night, caulking windows, and replacing light bulbs with CFLs.  However, they also made two big appliance changes.  First of all, they unplugged an underutilized chest freezer, determining that they didn’t need the space.  Secondly, they replaced their 1986 refrigerator with a new Energy Star model.

We don’t have a chest freezer but we immediately became suspicious of our refrigerator and got out the Kill-a-watt meter, which confirmed our fears.  The old fridge was using 2.6 kWhr/day, which was a big chunk of our daily usage.

Our “Carbon Free Home” book suggested insulating the fridge to try and increase its efficiency so we got some foam insulating board from the home improvement store and stuck it on with double-sided carpet tape.  (For those aesthetic types, they suggest building a wooden insulated box around the sides of the fridge and adding shag carpeting on the front for a little extra oomph.)  It seemed to help at first but then the electrical usage went back up, possibly because our house suddenly warmed up with the weather.  (We survived with the thermostat at 62 all winter long but in May 62 degrees started feeling really cold!)

I suggested that we look into getting a new fridge so Will started doing research and we figured an Energy Star fridge would be at least 50% more efficient, which seemed significant.  We shopped around a bit and although theoretically there are SUPER efficient fridges out there, we bought one that is simply VERY efficient from our local box star.

The results so far?  The new fridge uses less than 0.7 kWh/day, which is about one quarter of what the old fridge used.  Did you catch that?  It uses SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT LESS ELECTRICITY!  We’re thrilled and feel like it was totally a good purchase, even though a payback time of 8 years still seems like a lot.

Of course, replacing the refrigerator was relatively painless (at least in terms of our day-to-day lifestyle).  We decided to push on into the lifestyle change category in the quest of fame, fortune, and fabulous eco-prizes.  Tune in next week as Will regales the world with tales of turning off our air conditioning, our water heater, and our clothes dryer in the quest of using less than 3 kWh/day….

Energy Tracking Note:

kWh/day = kilowatt-hour per day which is calculated by multiplying the wattage that a device uses by the number of hours it runs in a day and dividing by a thousand.  Here’s a link to a nice post about estimating appliance energy use provided by our federal government.  For real world testing, you can use a Kill-A-Watt device on anything that plugs into a normal outlet (so it doesn’t work for most clothes dryers and water heaters).

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Seeds, seeds, and more seeds

I Love Bees Seed MixIt’s December and it’s snowing and I am feeling totally unprepared for Christmas.  None of these things are particularly unusual for me or I suspect for most people.  The good news is, I did manage to launch the webstore for my new organic seed company, Nature’s Crossroads.  It has been a lot of fun coming up with collections and kits based on the seeds we have in stock.  Probably my favorite is the sunflower fort but we are also selling some really cool heirloom tomato seed-saving kits.

Will and I are plugging away on the house and our respective businesses.  2009 has been a good year but it felt very transitional.  We’re looking forward to a little more stability in 2010.

There are also some cool green living events coming up in 2010 which I’ll post more about next week but just as a sneak preview, we recently signed up for the SIREN Energy Showdown where households try to become more energy efficient and win fabulous prizes.  I’m also debating entering an outfit in the Trashion/Refashion Show which challenges designers to make new clothes out of either discarded items or old clothing items.

It’s events (and organizations) like these that remind me how much I enjoy living in Bloomington.

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Our energy audit

Our energy kitWe’re actually doing reasonably well in terms of electrical usage and heat. According to Vectren, we’re using about 77% of the natural gas that other similar houses in the area are using. Since only about 5% of that is for cooking, our primary difference has to be heating. During the day, we keep the thermostat at 66. If I didn’t work from home, we could go cooler, but that’s about as low as I can be comfortable for long periods of time. We used to go down to 59 at night, but Maggie read that a difference of more than 4-5 degrees overtaxes the furnace, so we changed it to 61. I think that you could warm the house in stages to avoid that problem as well, but it turns out that with a gas furnace it’s not as large an issue.

Even though we’re doing pretty well heating-wise, we wanted to make sure that the house doesn’t have any major issues. There have been a lot of improvements since the late 1960s! The local Duke Energy provides a free service called Home Energy House Call, where a technician comes through and examines your house for energy problems. Maggie’s parents had to wait months for their appointment, so we signed up last week and got ready to wait. Luckily, a slot opened up yesterday, so Maggie and I got our energy audit remarkably quickly!

The beginning of the audit consisted of a series of basic questions. How big is the house? How old is it? How many people live here? After that came energy-specific ones. Do you use CFLs? Do you wash your clothes in cold water? I’d guess that most people who get an energy audit answer yes to these, since they’re aware and interested in energy conservation.

Once we had those out of the way, the auditor inspected the house, including the crawl space. He felt along the windows and external outlets for drafts. The bedroom windows were really drafty, which we knew, so he suggested using “great stuff” insulating foam. He also checked the windows themselves, but most of ours are double-paned, which was fine. He looked around external doors for gaps around the edges for weatherstripping, but only found a little piece on one of the back doors.

More importantly, he said that around here, our attic should be insulated to R38, which is about 10 inches of blown insulation. We only have about 6, so that’s a big issue. Heat rises, so a poorly insulated attic is killer in the winter. The auditor suggested that we use cellulose rather than fiberglass. It insulates about 50% better, which means we wouldn’t have to add as much. For either, we can rent a blower and buy bags of insulation and do the job ourselves, so it’s a relatively cheap project. We also need to insulate the panel that leads to the attic, since right now it’s not insulated at all.

After doing the inside, we headed outside to get into the crawlspace. Unfortunately, I sustained a back injury in the line of duty from slipping down our icy steps. My sore back is a reminder that we need to de-ice our steps as well as insulate our attic.

Perilous as it was, the trip to the crawlspace as worthwhile, since it was the worst offender on the tour. Although our ducts are insulated, nothing else in the crawlspace is. Even worse, our vents are still open so we’re basically sitting on an ice box. The crawlspace under the addition, which is where my office is, is properly insulated although the vents are still open.

Our home inspector had told us to insulate the crawlspace when we could, but we’ve heard conflicting things about how exactly to do it. According to our auditor, we should put down plastic sheeting and insulate the walls, but not bother to insulate the floors. During the summer, we can keep the vents open to prevent moisture problems but in the winter, that’s not an issue. When the weather gets cold, we should close the vents and put insulation behind them and reverse the process when it gets warm.

In addition to these tips, our auditor left us with some weatherstripping, a low-flow showerhead, a faucet aerator, some light switch and outlet insulating pads, and some CFLs. Over all, not a bad return for half an hour of our time!

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Simple Pleasures

Walk on the BeachI’m feeling a little stressed.  I have a long list of things I’d like to get done before we leave on our trip Friday and it seems that there’s no time to get through it all, let alone spend time on the stuff that sounds fun.  So I’m implementing all my little stress-relieving techniques to keep my sanity.  My favorite is deceptively easy: focus on the simple pleasures.   Simple pleasures can be as exotic as a walk on the beach or as mundane as petting the cat.  They can be as environmentally decadent as a test drive of a gas guzzling sports car or as environmentally supportive as biting into a freshly picked organically grown apple.

An environmentally themed simple pleasure arrived in my inbox today.  A Spanish friend of mine forwarded information about an event similar to Earth Hour that is scheduled for September 17th.  I had to laugh at the translation and yet it turned out rather poetic.

Darkness World: On September 17, 2008 from 21:50 to 22:00 hours.
Proposes to delete all lights and if possible all electrical appliances, so our planet can ‘breathe’.
If the answer is massive, energy saving can be brutal.

Only 10 minutes, and see what happens.
Yes, we are 10 minutes in the dark, we light a candle and simply
Be looking at it, we breathe and our planet.
Remember that the union is strength and the Internet can be very power and can
Even do something big.

I, for one, am looking forward to some brutal energy savings from our massive dedication to green living.

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