Slaughtering an Energy Hog

Maggie looking at the safety lightYou know those little projects that you never seem to get around to?  Well, our new house came with a security light over the garage that stays on 24 hours a day.  Neither of us have ever really been into security lighting, especially the kind that illuminates the back deck, calls in flying insects from nearby counties, and shines brightly in through our windows.  There’s also the fact that it drains electricity 24 hours a day, which seems rather wasteful.  However, this light didn’t come with a light switch so we had trouble figuring out how to turn it off.

At first we thought we could just turn off its circuit breaker.  Unfortunately, it was installed on the same circuit breaker as the refrigerator, which is one of those energy hogs we aren’t quite ready to unplug.  (There are folks who have – check out Green as a Thistle or go straight to Little Blog in the Woods for the real dirt on living without a fridge.)  We tried tracing the wiring down from the light but it disappears under the deck in a corner with no access.

Then Will had an inspiration – just take out the bulb!  My dad suggested a BB gun but we thought we’d be a little classier and actually unscrew the bulb.  I ended up doing the dirty deed since it was an awkward squirm from the ladder to the roof and we figured it would be easier for Will to catch me than to try it the other way around.  No big deal except that I’m really scared of heights.  Happily, it wasn’t too bad except that the bulb was really hot so even with gloves I had to take breaks between rounds of twisting.

The lightbulb from our safety light nestled in a bowlWe checked our electric meter after turning the circuit breaker back on and it appears to be spinning at a much slower rate.  Woo hoo!  Victory!  We’re not sure exactly what wattage the bulb was but based on some other on-line security light figures it could easily be as high as 200 Watts.  With 24-hour usage, that adds up to 6 kWh per day, almost as much as we used in our old apartment in July.  Craziness.  Of course, it will be awhile before we see any significant savings in our energy bill but just knowing it’s gone will help us both sleep a little better at night.

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Greener links

Logo for Consumer Reports\' Greener Choices websiteAs part of making the house move-in ready, I’ve done a lot of research into efficiency and appliances. I’ve already shared one of my favorite sites with some, but I’ll post them here as well in case anyone else is in a similar situation.

The most generally interesting site is Greener Choices, which is run by Consumer Reports. It has the same great, in-depth information as the normal CR site plus information on energy consumption. Even better, all of the content is free! I’m seriously impressed that Consumer Reports is making their green information available for free in an attempt to help people figure out how to reduce their environmental impact. Kudos to them!

The Lawrence Berkeley national lab (LBL) has some great information as well. Their web-based do-it-yourself energy audit tool (the first, according to them) gives a great overview of what could improve your house’s energy profile in a cost-effective way. You do have enter in a lot of basic information, but you end up with a list of changes that you can make, what impact they’ll have, and how long they’ll take to pay back in your cirucmstances. I like that they take into account that everyone’s situation is a little different, so the right move to make will differ from person to person.For those who’d rather get some information right away, LBL also has some great numbers on energy costs for appliances. The numbers provided aren’t exact, because there is some variety within a category and electricity costs vary across the nation, but they give a good comparison between types. This page also provides the approximate cost per use in addition to a monthly and annual cost. That’s very useful when looking at something like a microwave that isn’t on all the time.

If you’ve got any websites that you visit when looking at energy usage, let me know! I’m always on the lookout for more information.

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Geothermal rebates

The Indiana Office of Energy & Defence Development (the OED, not to be confused with the dictionary) just released their grant programs for fiscal 2008-2009. There’s some interesting stuff for small-scale demonstration projects and a variety of things for non-profit and commerical, but really only one program for residential, the aptly named Geothermal Residential Rebate program.

This program allows you to apply for $1500 toward installing a new geothermal heat pump or $1000 if you’re replacing an existing heat pump. A geothermal heat pump would still be several thousand dollars more than a traditional furnace, but it helps make it more attractive.

The OED also released a PDF of the results of last year’s program. It’s a very cool look at the economics of geothermal heat pumps in Indiana. The report gives the average cost (including installation) of each size of heat pump (from 2 to 6 tons) that got the rebate last year. Even better, it compares those costs with the cost of a different type of furnace over several years.

In the final analysis, they find that geothermal heat pumps have under a 6-year payback no matter what the alternative is. If you’re using heating oil, it could even pay for itself in under 2 years!

According to the report, the OED calculates that every dollar spent in rebates has saved consumers two to three dollars and stimulated spending within the state (since geothermal heat pumps are local business).

Maggie is making fun of me for thinking about this when we haven’t even painted the front rooms of the house yet. I figure that now is the time to start saving money so that we’ll be able to afford it when our current furnace fails. Until then, at least a natural gas furnace is the second-best option!

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Beating the heat

Earth exploding from heatIt’s starting to feel a lot like summer. We had a couple days of hot weather about three weeks ago, but since then it’s been in the high 70s and low 80s. In the past several days, it’s been up to the high 80s and lower 90s and should stay that way for at least a week. Since it’s still June, I expect it’ll only get worse.

We’ve only turned the AC on once, briefly, when it was hot and stuffy before bed and I’d like to keep it that way as long as possible. Working from home makes it harder, since I can’t mooch off of business AC during the day when it’s hottest. Ceiling fans aren’t an option (yet), so here’s what I’ve been doing to beat the heat.

Keep the windows close and the blinds down during the day. This makes it darker, but also cooler, since our place retains some evening coolness for quite a while. Unfortunately, this also makes it kind of stuffy, which leads to…

Use a small fan. I have a little fan that I’ve used to good effect since college. It works best in the evening when I can prop it up against an open window, but it’s also useful for some targeted cooling. When I’m working on the computer, I set it up so that it’s blowing across my face which helps me avoid the sensation of stuffy air.

Stay up late, sleep late. This doesn’t work for Maggie because she has to be up on other people’s schedule, but since I work whenever I like, I tend to stay up later and only go to sleep once it cools down around 2am. I’ve thought about also taking a siesta in the hottest part of the afternoon, but I don’t want to get my sleep schedule too out of wack. I do sometimes have to be up relatively early.

Open the windows in the evening Around here, things start to get reasonably cool around 8pm. I open the front windows and the back door (it has a screen) and let the breeze come through. It’s probably not much of a temperature difference, but it sure feels good and it only gets better as it gets darker.

It’s all pretty low-tech and common sense, but it works pretty well. I do wonder if I’m missing anything, though. I haven’t really had to deal with extreme heat since my freshman year when my dorm didn’t have AC.

What do you do to keep cool and reduce your AC usage?

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A solar epiphany

Energy Smarts article coverLooks like we spoke too soon. Financing is taking longer than expected, so we probably won’t close for another two weeks.

In the meantime, I’m reading up on electrical work and solar panels. Electricity is so cheap in Indiana that it’s hard to justify the expense of solar panels, especially given the other things we could be spending money on (like an electric scooter or a metal roof). There also aren’t any local subsidies for photovoltaics, although the federal subsidy is nice.

I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that it’ll be best for us to start small and work our way up. Maybe put some solar panels on the garage to run the lights and stuff there. Of course, even that’ll need a pricey connection to the grid or an equally pricey battery system. If we do eventually get an electric scooter, it might be worth it to set up a solar system to charge that, since we’ll already have the batteries.

Even so, I still like to read about whole-house solar conversions. That particular article, about a couple in Vancouver who set up a whole-house system, was interesting and even inspirational! It lays out the steps they took and the cost of all of the components (in Canadian and US dollars). Their overall cost was about $10,000 (US), which seemed low compared to the systems I’ve priced before.

After getting curious and reading the article, rather than skimming the tables and pictures, I realized that it’s because getting solar panels wasn’t their first step. The first thing they did was to reduce their electrical usage to 3kW/day. That’s a little less than 1100kW a YEAR. At our electric prices, that would be about $80 a year. We spend more than that per month!

Okay, that’s not quite a fair comparison since our current place is heated by an electric furnace. Even in the summer, we spend about $60, which amounts to about 12kW/day. In addition to the energy saving techniques that we use (CFLs, air drying clothes, etc.), this couple replaced their old appliances. replacing those appliances reduced their electrical needs by 78%! If we could manage that kind of reduction, we’d be using less than 3kW a day as well.

While we’re still in the apartment, we can’t change appliances. It’s hard to know what to expect when we move into the house. Many of the appliances seem pretty old, so we might be able to cut our usage down to 3kW or less. On the other hand, it’s a lot more space to heat and cool and I’m not sure the ceilings are high enough to install ceiling fans.

In any case, I’ve decided to shift my focus from solar panels to efficient appliances. Reducing our consumption is a lot easier than trying to power it all with solar!

And I fully expect frequent commenter Andy to chip in with an I-told-you-so. He’s been saying the same thing for a while and it just hadn’t clicked for me. I may be slow, but I do get there in the end, Andy! :)

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Motivating Myself with Scarcity and Bribery

water pumpOur landlord finally replaced our water heater a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the installer used a lot of PVC glue, which is one of the nastiest smelling substances in the world. Besides stinking up the air, it also leached into our water and we decided not to drink any until the taste disappeared.

For about a week we filled jugs of water at other houses and brought it home. Having a limited supply made me much more conscious of how much water I use. Knowing that the tap flows at 2 gallons per minute is somehow not as meaningful as seeing the water level drop in a 1-gallon jug. It was also sobering to know I had to haul more water to the house instead of just turning on the tap.

While I don’t want to suggest we go back to the times of carrying water from the local well, I wonder if there’s a way to have that resource-consciousness without having a limited supply. One idea would be to install a meter to actually measure our real-time water usage. How much water does it really take to run the dishwasher? I can look it up in a chart but it would be way more convincing to see our storage tank draining or even see a dial spinning.

What if the meter also told how much it costs to use that water? I’m sure it wouldn’t be as dramatic as electricity or gasoline but I might be a little more conscientious about dishwashing. On the other hand, gasoline prices keep rising but I’m not sure it’s changing people’s behaviors all that much. Will maintains that it changes people’s behaviors in the long-term; people look for jobs with a shorter commute, look for cars with better gas mileage, and think twice about taking long driving vacations. However, most people have not changed their day-to-day activities and are still willing to drive to the grocery store four times a week because it’s convenient and it doesn’t cost *that* much money. Hopefully those larger habit changes will come as part of a societal shift, when we all start counting car trips as special occasions like plane flights as opposed to counting them as just part of our every day routine.

I know I don’t conserve diesel as well as I could. It is something I can monitor closely and associate with a direct price ($0.09/mile just for fuel) but I still haven’t made huge changes. So what is the key? For me, I think it comes back to the idea of scarcity. My new idea is to fill up my tank at the beginning of the month and see if I can make it last.  I’m also going to throw in a dose of bribery.  Each month I will set aside $40 (about a tank’s worth of fuel) in an “emergency” fuel fund. If I run out of fuel, I can use that money to refill my tank, but if I I can make that first tank last, I get to spend the $40 on a massage or a fancy dinner or some other special treat.

I still love the idea of being able to measure my use of water – and electricity – in real-time. I think it would be fascinating to do some experiments (is it better to turn the thermostat down lower at night or do I end up using more energy reheating the house in the morning?) and also get a better idea of what behavior changes would really make the most difference. And I might make some huge changes like the folks in North Carolina who dramatically cut their water usage in times of drought last summer. But I still think scarcity is the strongest motivator I know of, followed closely by bribery.

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Solar Water Heating Lessons

Solar Water Heating bookI just got back from an 8-hour training in solar water heating offered through the Indiana Office of Energy and Defense.  My brain is a little oversaturated but it was a good course and I’m glad I went.  We even got a really cool book published by Mother Earth News!  Solar water heating is one of those technologies that makes infinite sense to me – capture the sun’s rays to heat our water?  Of course! – but I wanted to learn how they actually work.

The class was taught by a solar system installer from Wisconsin who is associated with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, which is an awesome resource for sustainable living ideas in the Midwest.  They run a Renewable Energy Fair every year that covers a wide range of topics from constructing a windmill for water pumping to making window quilts to growing food organically.  There’s also a trade show featuring fascinating products like a whole range of hand-operated kitchen appliances and solar ovens that were developed to purify water in third world countries.  I’ve been twice and highly recommend it.

Anyway, in the solar water class we talked about several types of systems and their various benefits and drawbacks.   The  simple DIY version is a black 55-gallon drum enclosed in a glass box (to provide some insulation) mounted somewhere in your yard with good solar exposure.  You run pipes to carry water from your water supply through the drum (where it’s heated) and then back into your house (to your hot water tap).  It’s simple, it’s cheap, and it works pretty well during the summer.

One major drawback is that this system is very vulnerable to freezing so you really can’t use them during the fall, winter, or spring.  The solution is to set up what’s called a closed system.  Instead of running your water directly through the collector (the black drum), you run a propylene glycol solution outside to the collector and then back into the house where it goes through a heat exchanger (picture your car radiator) and transfers its heat to your potable water before returning to the collector. The gylcol solution will stay liquid to a temperature of negative thirty degrees so you can use it all winter long and take advantage of those clear, sunny, cold days.

I found the class very inspiring but I’m still put off by the cost of purchasing a professionally installed system – approximately $10,000 for a family of four.  The instructor ran some calculations showing that if electric rates keep increasing by 7% a year, the system will pay for itself within 20 years.  It’s true but 20 years seems like a long time.  So I’m rather tempted to try the drum-in-a-box version for awhile and see how that goes during the summer.  I also question their estimates on how much hot water people use on average.  20 gallons per person per day seems like a lot of hot water.  Granted, we wash our laundry using cold water and take short showers every 2-3 days so we’re definitely going to be below average but I figure we use less than a third of that.  Do you know how much hot water you use?  And how to measure it?  The book suggests that if you have a plug-in electric water heater you can use a kill-o-watt but ours is hardwired (and isn’t working very well right now anyway – I think it’s 75% full of lime) so I’m not sure what else to try.

There will be two more renewable energy classes this spring so I’m excited.  It’s not often the government throws education and books my way so I plan to take advantage of all of it.  Oh, and for those of you who are curious about the Indiana Department of Energy and Defense, my understanding is that someone somewhere figured out that one of the biggest weaknesses of Homeland Security is the fact that we’re highly dependent on foreign oil (I know you’re all shocked) so they decided to merge Energy with Defense.  I guess it kinda makes sense and if we can divert some tax money away from building bombers and towards building solar panels, I’m all about it.

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