Moving to a new home in mid-2008 presented a great opportunity to walk the talk (some say to “eat my own dogfood”). The late-1970s house was an eco-basket-case. To put it more positively, it offered a lot of that proverbial low-hanging fruit: ancient heating system, incandescent lighting galore, inefficient appliances, you get the idea…. This will be like shooting fish in a barrel, I assured myself.
What better way to start than to jump on Google and see what the best products are these days? Easier said than done. I was quickly reminded that one of the largest obstacles to doing the right thing these days is having too much of the wrong information, and in a form that is inscrutable. Now I finally know what today’s high-schoolers mean by TMI. (No, not Three Mile Island … Too Much Information.) The web provides access to various directories of consumer products ranked by energy efficiency. Some of these sites are absolutely choked with columns of data that have little meaning (and thus value) to the main-street consumer. Meanwhile, information that is critical is often missing, e.g. will this premium-efficiency fridge even fit in the opening in my kitchen? Can I get service for that brand in this area? What are the standby losses of those boilers?. (If anyone can point me to a standardized list of standby losses from boilers, I’ll buy you a beer.) On top of this, some of the resources don’t work on the Mac, kicking back un-formatted gibberish (so there goes 10% of the population right off the top). Often, it’s difficult or impossible to get side-by-side comparisons. Computer geeks probably have their own special kind of sinister fun designing these resources, but we have a long way to go before consumers with a “change-the-channel” attention span will get what they need from these websites.
And, being in a small town in a relatively remote rural area, it was impossible to find contractors and product retailers who gave more than lip service to "green". I lost count of how many times I heard: “But Mr. Mills, doing that’ll only save you pennies,” followed by snickering when they thought I was out of earshot. It was like pulling teeth; so we did.
Switched fuels from oil to propane (no natural gas in this area) for heating, electric to propane for hot water and cooking: 14% carbon emissions reduction. We replaced an ancient oil furnace (which was also billowing flue gases into the house) with a condensing boiler. This gave us premium efficiency hot water as well (with an extra heat exchanger in the tank so we can add solar down the line). R-8 ducts and a programmable thermostat. Made a run at weatherstripping. Getting it just right is not as easy as it sounds; had to experiment a lot to get the right thicknesses.
We did a massive lighting retrofit--indoors and out--and there is not a single incandescent lamp left in the house. Trimmed a mind-numbing 5722 watts of installed lighting load by 2/3rds, increasing lighting levels in some dark areas. Premium T8-electronic lamps in the cove lighting, some dimmable CFLs, and even affordable LEDs for lighting in the closets – amazing how far 1 watt of LED will shine. Dual-tech wall switches save me chasing around after the kids all the time to turn lights off. I couldn’t help but take the cover off of the nifty new bathroom fan-light to see how it was put together. I found two 18-watt fluorescents inside, pumping out more light output than a modern 4-foot lamp. Immediately unplugged one of those for a cool 50% savings on top of the savings from converting from incandescent to fluorescent in the first place, avoiding certain blindness in the process. Tucked between these two macho CFLs was a 4-watt incandescent bulb that was continuously on, thereby negating some of my savings and providing light (day and night) that I didn’t need. I suppose it is there for the one hour a year that the power is out. It was gratifying to unscrew it, but most consumers wouldn’t have bothered.
Called the utility to recycle our old fridge ($75 rebate to-boot). They’re of course supposed to verify—but didn’t in my case—that the unit actually runs, otherwise the utility shouldn’t get any credit for taking energy and carbon out of the system. Next round: find new fridge. We hunted and hunted and found the one that had the amenities we wanted and super-good efficiency. Shortly after purchasing, Consumer Reports announced a scandal in which some manufacturers of this style unit had falsified their energy test results, claiming Energy Star levels of performance but in fact not delivering them. We didn’t happen to get that model, but it leaves me wondering…..
Lots of other little things, like water-efficient showerheads and faucets, a door on the fireplace, replacing the snaking, crimped clothes dryer vent, and a nifty solar tube to keep a bathroom that would otherwise need a lot of electric light nicely lit all day with daylight. Best-available dishwasher, and boy is it quiet. Telecommuting now, and so burning less gasoline.
Moved the washer/dryer into unconditioned space to avoid the exhaust ventilation impact. Official info tells us there is no difference among clothes dryers. NRDC doesn’t think so (see their latest study), but no products are correctly tested/rated, so I’m left hung out to dry, so to speak.
Oh, did I forget to say that the heating contractors who bragged so much about the meticulousness of their duct insulation forgot to do the “Y’s”? They also forgot to insulate the hot water runs in the uninsulated crawlspace (yes, it was in their scope of work). I won’t embarrass myself by telling you how long it took me to find these defects (hint: the warranty period was over). The building inspector? A sleepwalking apparition.
Despite all this inertia, I estimate that we've reduced the carbon footprint of this house by half, and we'll make another huge dent during round two when we get to beef up the rigid ceiling insulation when it’s time to re-roof, and attack those windows. Maybe by then I’ll get a second wind and be ready to try and teach the local window retailers not to sell low SHGC-windows in this cool, coastal climate…. “Oh,” says the window vendor, “these are fine; we never get complaints.”
Once we get the efficiency dialed up as much as possible, I’ll look at solar PV and water-heating (and maybe reverse fuel-switching), although I’ll have to calculate how much carbon is embodied in those redwoods I’d have to cut down in order to get unobstructed solar access ;).
A more fully fleshed-out and illustrated version of this saga can be downloaded here.
The windows would be a good project to tackle next. Windows that don't fit well or don't have ratings appropriate for your climate can be a major source of energy loss. Replacing them can save 30% on heating and cooling costs. In terms of window ratings, the appropriate SHGC and U factor depends on your climate. If you live in a cool area and your windows are good insulators (indicated by a low U-factor, 0.32 or less) the window's ability to absorb heat (as indicated by the SHGC) is less important. If the U factor is greater than 0.30, the SHGC should be 0.35 at the least.
Chart via (www.energystar.gov)
Energy Efficient Home improvements can qualify for tax credits, too. This article explains what makes windows, roofs, and doors energy efficient and outlines the standards necessary to meet energy star requirements.