Bring on the Spring!

south side of houseI am so ready for spring.  I can’t stop garden planning and I’m ready to run out and start DOING things if only it would be warm & dry for two days in a row (don’t want to overly compact the soil).  I also need to spend a little time creating a [sigh] budget.  I wish I were either fabulously wealthy or super skilled at transforming society’s garbage into useful structures like trellises and fences and grape arbors and outdoor showers.  But as I am neither, I have to prioritize and I’m having trouble.

So right now I’m focusing on one of my ideas that doesn’t need to be implemented just yet: planting some vines to help shade our south-facing window.  It has been lovely to have this winter (although I might try to beef up our curtains next year with some thicker insulating fabric for night time protection) but in a couple of months we’ll shift gears to keeping heat OUT of our house and this year I’d like to do it with plants.  We already have some trumpet creeper vine that grows all over the front porch railing so I think with a few well-placed structures we can coax it into a window-shading growth pattern.  Hmmm, that sounds a bit like some sort of nasty disease but I mean my goal is to have the vines grow up and over the porch to keep out the sun but I also want to maintain a view from the window to the garden plus it would be nice to have sun on part of the porch for my solar cooker.

There’s also the design challenge that our porch already has a roof overhang that is relatively low (like the ceilings in our house, about 7.5 feet).  There isn’t a good place to hang brackets to suspend wires, as suggested in the Carbon-Free Home, and I’m afraid if I put any sort of pergola on the porch it would feel really low (especially if the plants sagged at all).

front_of_house_trellis_sketch_croppedSo here’s what I’ve come up with (as translated with my crude drawing skills).  On the left is a trellis that would run east-west, creating a truly shady spot in front of our front door.  On the right is a trellis that would run north-south (perpendicular to the house), nestled in the corner next to the stairs.  I would connect them with 4 or 5 wires running parallel to the roof overhang, where vines could grow and help shade out the noontime sun but leave the southeast corner of the porch uncovered so I could set up my solar cooker.

Next step: Life-size mockups with giant pieces of cardboard lurking in my garage and some leftover bits of kite string.  I think there’s a good chance this set up might be a little too low for comfort, although we might not know for sure until we grow some vines and see how dangly they are…  But you know we’re game for experiments!

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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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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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Coming Soon: A Solar Furnace!

Solar Air Heater on Boggess Home (slightly different model)Guess what?!?  We were chosen to have a solar air heater installed on our house as a demonstration project sponsored by the Southern Indiana Renewable Energy Network (SIREN)!  Solar air heaters (also known as solar furnaces) are essentially big black boxes that heat up in the sun.  They are filled with air channels so that air flows through the panel, heats up from the sunlight, and then the hot air goes into the house (generally with the help of a small solar fan).  Solar air heating is a form of solar energy that’s actually more efficient than solar electricity (photovoltaic panels) but doesn’t get as much publicity.  SIREN is excited to promote the technology and also hoping to launch a pilot project installing these systems on low-income houses.

Our solar furnace will come from the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), a company in Minnesota that makes them and also does a lot of work making renewable energy more accessible through training, education, installations, and a unique assistance program.  They partner with agencies that serve the low-income community to install these systems for minimal cost as a way to make low-income families more self-reliant.  Pretty cool stuff!  SIREN hopes to bring a similar program down to our neck of the woods and is looking for an agency to partner with, hopefully the South Central Community Action Program (SCCAP), which is a local group working on weatherization and energy assistance for low-income families (among many other great assistance programs).  Will and I are going through the application process so we can work together to try out the system, show it off to anyone interested, and further weatherize our home.

Want to see the system?  We’ll be posting lots of pictures on our blog when the installation happens and we’ll also be opening our home up for a few tours.  One will be as part of the Simply Living Fair coming up September 25-26.  We’re giving a talk on home energy reduction as part of the Saturday workshops and then our house will be featured as part of the Solar Energy Tour on Sunday.  It should be lots of fun!  (Disclaimer: I am chairing the organizing committee for the fair so OF COURSE I think it will be lots of fun.)

Hopefully we’ll get accepted into the SCCAP program and they will help us do some insulating and caulking later this fall to further increase the energy efficiency of our home.  I’m also still contemplating putting a greenhouse on our front porch to help improve heat gain through our south-facing bay windows but I’m  not ready to make any promises.  Regardless, we are looking forward to lowering our carbon footprint this winter while enjoying free hot air from the sun!

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Mouse-proofing and transportation-wrestling

Mouseproofed gas line Well, my big accomplishment this weekend was mouse-proofing our kitchen.  Can you believe they were squeezing in next to the gas line to our oven?  I didn’t know they were so flexible but judging by the amount of mouse poop present, that was their primary hangout.

I found a nice guide to rodent-proofing from the Orange County Vector Control District in California (thank you, Google!) and spent a little time peering in all my cabinets and behind appliances to see if there were any other potential openings but I think this was it.  I stuffed some steel wool in a couple of other holes just for good measure.  And then I spent a very long time cleaning up a mess I had been in denial about for, oh, awhile.

It gave me an excuse to try out Thieves’ Household Cleaner, a product given to me by a friend who sells essential oils.  I’m still a little torn on how much faith to put into herbal concoctions but I thought it worked reasonably well.  Allegedly, these are herbs that were used by gravediggers back in the day so they could rob corpses without fear of contracting disease.  I think it’s a fabulous legend, whether or not it’s true and whether or not the oils are really effective.  I’m sure they help some and I must say, I’d rather have my house smell like cloves and rosemary than bleach and fake pine.  And most anything is better than mouse poop.

Hopefully that will be the end of our rodent guests although we seem to have a fresh batch of ants coming to visit.  Ah, wildlife.  Can’t you just stay outside?  I guess it’s that winter weather, driving everyone to warmer refuges.  I am anxious to do some weatherproofing before it gets too cold but this weekend was rather rainy and it just didn’t seem like the right time to be out with a caulk gun.  Perhaps next weekend although I hope to get in some camping this fall.   Mmmm, cuddling up on cool nights with a warm bonfire!  This is the season where I feel most motivated to get outdoors and I want to take advantage of it.

Today I got outside and biked for three miles.  I’m proud of myself although I did run out of energy halfway up a big hill and ended up walking to the top.  Both my lungs and my legs need to become reacquainted with the bicycle.  My new office is only about a mile away from home (and it’s flat!) so that’s going to be my new commute once we move in next week.

We’re still wrestling with the no-car dilemma.  Even without one of Will’s super special spreadsheets it looks like we’re going to break down and be traditional Americans and buy a new (to us) car.  Neither of Will’s business partners have cars and they’re planning a bunch of client meetings this fall so it would really be buying one car for four people.

Well, maybe that’s just my thin excuse for being a car addict.  Cars are so darn convenient!  And I like to do so many different things in different places!  What I really need is to develop superhero biking abilities so I’d feel comfortable biking anywhere in Bloomington.  I just don’t think it’s going to happen fast enough and it still won’t help Will take clients out to lunch unless they enjoy riding on the handlebars…

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Autumn Means Back to Blogging

Saffron Eating Peanut ButterI can feel autumn in the air.  We had an unusually cool summer and didn’t end up doing much of the usual summer swimming and popsicle eating but now the city is bustling with students on their way back to school.  I feel the urge to stock up on school supplies, despite having graduated from college nearly a decade ago.

Will and I intend to use that going-back-to-school energy to wrap up a couple green living projects this fall before winter sets in.  Our top priority is the roof.  It could probably last another year but we want to replace it with a metal roof, add a bunch of attic insulation, and finally install the solartube we purchased months ago to add light to our kitchen.  We’d also like to build a passive solar air heater and get it installed but that one we’d have to do ourselves, which feels a bit more challenging.  Despite having completed a few construction projects around the house, I still feel like my carpentry skills are limited and am nervous about putting holes through our wall…

The project I’m most excited about is adding in some more edible landscaping features.  We finally created a reasonably accurate map of the yard (look for a post next week) so we can figure out where new plantings can be added.  Our friends at Brambleberry Farm have a number of fruit trees and bushes that they suggest we could plant this fall to get a head start for next year.  I’m also contemplating putting in a mediation labyrinth of flower bulbs but that one might have to wait until next year.

And, of course, we also intend to return to our regular twice weekly blogging schedule.  Sometimes posting to the blog can seem like one more chore to deal with but it’s also a great way for us to constantly evaluate our progress and keep living well.  We’ve done a lot since we started this blog, including some big life steps like getting married, buying a house, and adopting a dog.  It’s exciting to find new ways of greening our lives and enjoying the simple pleasures of life.  Blogging is just one little way to share our stories and to motivate ourselves to keep improving.

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Green tax refund?

Last week, I finished our taxes. Unlike previous years, I didn’t use an accountant, so I was actually able to see how different choices we made affected our taxes. The biggest thing (apart from the Saver’s Credit, which I love) this year was buying a house. Thanks to the economic downturn, we’ll get a $7500 interest free loan, re-payable over 15 years. We don’t have the money yet, but we’re trying to decide what we should do with it.

The frugal thing to do would be to dump it all in CDs and collect the interest while we pay back the principal. Over 15 years, that would make us about $2,000 (assuming an average return of 3%). That’s about $130 extra dollars a year. That’s not bad, but I don’t think $130 a year is going to make us much happier. And besides, a CD ladder is pretty boring.

Maggie is pushing hard for a hot tub, but as fun as that would be, it’s expensive and would increase our water and power needs. On the other hand, if we got a solar water system, we could put the excess in a hot tub. Which brings us to…

A solar water system. We could get a PV system, but even with the 30% federal rebate, it’s just not cost effective. A simple solar hot water system is cheaper and simpler. We’d still have to do some serious plumbing and we might have to add support to the roof, but we’re definitely thinking hard about this option.

Instead of blowing the money all on one thing, we could split it among multiple projects. After the energy audit, the most obvious thing to do is improve the insulation in our attic and crawlspace. Insulating the attic would probably cost about $1500. To recoup that expense, we only have to save about $9 a month over the course of the loan, which is quite likely.

A more fun option would be an electric (or gas) scooter. The ones we’ve looked at cost between $800 (for a cheap gas scooter) and $2500 (for a good electric scooter). They could save us a lot of money if we got rid of the car, but I don’t think we can do that at the moment. Apart from the initial cost, I think they’d break even. The additional cost of insuring and licensing would be offset by the gas savings from using the car less. Unfortunately, there’s still that loan payback to consider…

Something that caught our eye during our shoemaking experience was Glen’s solar air heater. It was basically an inclined box about 6′ tall that was covered in glass and full of tin cans painted black. A tube at the bottom was connected to the house to get cool air into the box and a tube at the top allowed hot air back into the house. They’re relatively cheap to build and could reduce our winter heating costs considerably. This is another strong contender, although I’m not sure where we’ll put it. We might try it out on the shed or garage first just to make sure it’s a good idea.

A smaller project would be to set up beekeeping in the backyard. It’s not that expensive, although there won’t be huge savings either. Our biggest concern is that it would be a time sink, and we both feel pretty busy already.

We could also use it for house maintenance. The roof will need reshingling in the next year or two and our water heater desperately needs replacing. I’m sure that more things will go wrong as time goes on. Maybe it would be smartest to set all of it aside for household emergencies.

Are we forgetting anything? What would you do with a $7500 loan?

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I Need a Junkman

Junkpile picture from -johnnybergSpring is finally here and I’m feeling an urge to do some major spring cleaning.  We haven’t been in this house for very long (seven months) and yet somehow we’ve done a pretty good job filling it up.  Well, maybe it’s not full but it’s feeling a bit cluttered.  Part of the problem is that I’m a packrat.  Part of the problem is that Will has a boxes stored in the living room until he figures out exactly how he wants his office set up.  (My boxes are hidden in closets.)

And part of the problem is that we have a lot of stuff we’re not quite sure how to get rid of.  Some of it we could donate to Goodwill or the Habitat for Humanity ReStore but some of it seems like junk that nobody wants.  Used carpet backing?  Old carpeting?  Old wood paneling?  Pieces of broken ceiling trim?  Scraps of treated lumber?  A gigantic tarp that used to cover our carport until it collapsed in the snow?  Old laptop computers that sorta work?

A lot of this stuff seems like it might be useful some day so I feel bad throwing it away.  Some of it probably ought to be thrown away but I can’t find a good way to transport it to the dump.  Then there’s some stuff that seems like it could be useful to someone with the skills to fix it up but I’m clearly not that person.

So I need a junkman.  I really love the image of the gypsy tinker who goes from house to house mending pots and collecting old scraps to build new toys and tools.  Unfortunately, I think the position has become obsolete in this world of throwaway design and cheap replacements, although some of the peak oil planners will tell you that tinkerers are about to be in high demand.  Still, I’d settle for the junkman service in Denver where a group of strapping young men will come to your house and haul away your junk for a fee.  They do their best to salvage and recycle what they can from your pile.   It sounds like a pretty cool business and I wonder if a similar business could be successful here.  Alas, I don’t think I’m the one to run it, but maybe I’ll get motivated next weekend and at least take a load of stuff to the ReStore.

Of course, the danger there is that I’ll find some awesome building materials to buy and bring home.  Oh, the vicious cycle.

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Weekends are for Projects

Foam expanding underneath the windowI am one of those people who takes great pleasure in writing to-do lists and happily crossing things off, especially when I have a whole weekend with nothing scheduled.  (Just for clarification, in my book nothing = less than two scheduled activities or less than three hours of total scheduled activity for a two-day period.  I don’t think I ever truly have a weekend with NOTHING scheduled.)

This weekend I had a whopper of a to-do list with a special focus on fixing up the house.  We seem to have developed a bad habit of identifying projects that need to be done (e.g. replace the garbage disposal) and then studiously ignoring them.  Often it’s the simple fact that we are missing one key requirement (e.g. plumber’s putty) or simply feel daunted by the size of the project (e.g. insulation our crawlspace).  I decided I would consider it a success if

1. We made it to the hardware store to buy the supplies we know we need

2. We weatherproofed our bedroom windows enough that I can no longer feel a breeze on my pillow.

I am happy to report that we succeeded on both counts although perhaps not as greenly or as elegantly as possible.  I have heard some people argue that when it comes to insulating/weatherproofing one’s home, it’s okay to use less-than-green petrochemical-based products because the net savings on electrical consumption from coal-burning power plants will more than offset the product creation and disposal.  I must confess I’m not entirely swayed but it helps me sleep at night after I use exciting products like “Great Stuff” insulating foam and sealant.  Deep down, I will always be attracted to magical foamy squishy goo that sprays out of a can, regardless of its environmental impact.

Anyway, we used spray foam to fill up the cracks around our window frame (still waiting to put the trim back up) and were planning to use caulk around the window itself where the major leak occurs.  Unfortunately, the caulk said it should only be used when the temperature is above 40 degrees and while that’s true in our house, it isn’t true outside and I’m pretty sure the caulk would be exposed to outside breeezes.  So we resorted to a stopgap method of sticking weatherstripping along the seam to block the worst of the airflow until the weather warms enough for the caulk.

I figure we have another month or so to sharpen up our razor blades, scrape the old crusty caulk off every window edge in our house, and seal it all back up again.  Ah, spring.

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Our house smells like fish and chips

Vinegar BottleWe returned our foster puppies to the animal shelter on Wednesday.  It was a little sad but also a tremendous relief.  We’ve both been looking forward to sleeping through the night and having a clean house again.  Will was most concerned about the carpet which the puppies were never supposed to encounter but of course they broke out one day and pooped all over it.  And I do mean all over it.  Anyway, we decided to rent a carpet cleaner this weekend and do our spring cleaning a bit early.  (It was about 60 degrees yesterday so it felt like spring even though it’s still February.)

Being the green-minded folks we are, commercial carpet cleaner solution just didn’t feel like an option.  I did some internet research and one lady suggested running vinegar through the machine but admitted it took a long time for the odors to dissipate.  We’ve been using quite a bit of vinegar lately for cleaning and the house was already smelling a bit like a fish and chips shop (do any of you actually use the term “chippery”?) so we decided to use a very diluted vinegar mixture (one cup vinegar per two gallons water).  It worked very well and since the weather was balmy we were able to air out the house pretty well.

Vinegar and baking soda are often touted as miracle green cleaners and so far they’ve worked pretty well for us.   To deodorize puppy laundry, I would soak everything in vinegar and water for a few hours (in the washing machine), then wash with a combination of our normal biodegradable laundry detergent and about a cup of baking soda.  For personal deodorant, I’ve been using a mixture of baking soda and corn starch.  [I have not yet been brave enough to try coconut oil as a deodorant; it just sounds gross.]  I used vinegar as a hair conditioner for a little while but couldn’t get over the lingering smell.  I also discovered that if I brush my hair immediately before washing it, I get almost no tangles.

Of course, we’ve been using Kroger brand distilled white vinegar because we’re cheap and we’re going through it in great quantity.  For our house to really smell like a chippery, we’ll have to upgrade to the fancy malt vinegar stuff.  But I think I’ll save that for the pub.

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