My Sister’s Escalade, An Energy Dream


No, that’s not my sister’s Escalade in the photo. That’s a Mercedes Smart car done up American style. The modification is called a Monster truck conversion, in which the vehicle is rendered capable of driving right over the roofs of other cars. So handy in gridlock when the kids are late for soccer practice. ūüôā

My sister’s Escalade is a lovely SUV from Cadillac, provided by her car-dealer husband at an attractive price well below retail. She gets a combined 12 miles per gallon, commutes app. 15 minutes in traffic to work, does amazing things in the field of communication marketing, gets out early and does the soccer mom thing with her kids, ferrying them to dance, swimming, karate and counter-terrorism classes like a good mother should. The Escalade travels app. 10,000 miles a year, consuming about 830 gallons of fuel.

My wife’s Volkswagen Passat wagon, bought by her through Ebay three years ago, gets a combined 22 miles per gallon. She drives all around the county in the course of her work as a realty broker, only leaving the car briefly to sleep and change clothes . She drives app. 35,000 miles a year, consuming about 1600 gallons of fuel. The four wheel drive affects her mileage, but she considers it indispensable for safety and reliability in her every-day-without-fail business routine.

My 2009 Sprinter van is the primary vehicle used in my contracting business.  I drive it every workday, averaging 18 miles per gallon, travelling app. 20,000 miles per year, consuming about 1100 gallons of fuel per year.

So how come the most fuel-efficient vehicle in our sample cost the most to run? And how could we alter this picture in cost-effective ways to save some fuel? Will Detroit (or Toyota, or Mercedes, or Nissan, or Hyundai) provide the solution to the problem?

My van hauls a payload of nearly 1000 lb. every day. hard to get by on less, when you’re using pipe, fittings, duct, copper wire, tools and ladders. The Chevy Silverado hybrid pickup operates at a combined (city and highway miles) 22 miles per gallon. After I’ve loaded it down with my inventory and equipment, what do you think the numbers would be? Not much improvement there, I’m afraid.

My wife’s Passat hauls signs, clients, office supplies, lockboxes and fast food wrappers, requiring¬†interior space commensurate with a full-size wagon or SUV. The Volkswagen Touareg SUV might be an alternative for her; it’s roomy enough and has all-wheel drive, but it gets a combined 20 miles per gallon. The Chevy Tahoe SUV hybrid¬†gets 21 miles per gallon.

My sister hauls two kids and their friends, two dogs (but probably not their friends), her husband when he’s home, furniture, grass seed, stuff for the church picnic and her own tiny self. She wouldn’t be eager to move into a smaller vehicle. And if you improved her gas mileage by 25%, at a fuel savings amounting to $500 per year, she would say, “forget it– i’d pay that much again in extra trips, or have to borrow my husband’s pickup.”

We’re not getting anywhere here, are we? The needs of American drivers, especially businesspersons, don’t lend themselves to reform easily. My wife can’t get by on less than 35,000 miles per year, nor can she easily manage her business without a spacious vehicle. My 20,000 miles per year are pretty predictable, and I’m driving one of the most fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly diesel vehicles in the world. There’s no other van that gives me a big improvement in economy. My sister doesn’t want to be shamed out of her busy, happy suburban lifestyle into a hybrid sedan that won’t let her pile the whole neighborhood in and take them down to the pool.

What’s going to give here? For our three typical American drivers, no sweeping changes are likely. As my operating expenses rise with the cost of diesel fuel, my profits decrease. I grin and bear it. As my wife’s fuel costs rise and fall at the whims of global oil speculators, she also grins and bears it. We have to run our businesses. My sister loves her lifestyle, if not her Escalade, and she would pay more than she’s paying now to keep it. The Smart Car in the photo is not an option for any of us. A Prius with a big trailer wouldn’t really serve for a contractor, and it would bog the fuel mileage down by quite a bit. You can’t sell real estate from a scooter, and you can’t haul kids, dog and fertilizer in a Smart Car. Our fuel costs and our carbon emissions, for now, appear to be just the necessary cost of doing business in America.

Five Carbon Footprint Things You Can Change Yourself


That last post was a serious paper cut. Sorry. The global picture for energy and the environment is not grim, but it is gloomy. As individuals we can only add our voices to the big conversation, and wait for change. Our votes, our opinions, our blog posts all count, and we must keep them coming. But for today, tomorrow and next week, you can do many things for yourself and your family. Here are some suggestions.

One.¬†Drive less. Don’t worry about buying the Prius, or the scooter, just cut your mileage by smart thinking and planning. CARPOOL! Pick stuff up on the way home instead of going out again. Shop weekly, not daily. No cruising for the teenagers. Cut your weekly mileage by 25%, it’s like buying into the next smaller class of vehicle. An SUV turns into a subcompact if you drive it less.

Two. COOK! AAAAAEEAHHHHH!! Your kitchen is the greenest place to eat, depending upon the menu. No styrofoam takeout packaging, no exhaust fumes while in the drive-thru, no wasteful high-energy fat fryers and radiant warmers. You come home with real food, cook with less energy, present with less marketing and fuss, and you’re an energy superhero. Really. And even packaged frozen stir-fry veggies count. Toss ’em in the skillet with some chicken bits, and you’re Emeril.

Three.¬†Hang your clothes out. Simple. If your zoning doesn’t permit exposed lines, get a rack at the big box store and hang some things under a ceiling fan, or next to an open window. Use the basement if you have one. Don’t forget the fan. Won’t work as well when it’s already terribly humid outside. Pick your days. The only gas drying clothes emit is water vapor. Ralph Nader is smiling somewhere.

Four. Use curtains and drapes. On the sunny side in the summer, on the shady side in the winter. Turn windows into walls with coverings of all kinds. Welcome that sun when you want it, shut it out when you don’t. Put off using the air conditioning until you’ve tried the window thing. Use the fans after the clothes are dry. Wear fewer clothes. Keep a robe by the door for the UPS guy.

Five. Balance your budget. No kidding. Live within your means. It may be the most global, local, cosmic thing you can do for your impact. The real villain of the current unpleasantness is not your SUV. It’s debt. Not spending more than you have to spend is a worldview, not a newfangled¬†secret. You raise your own consciousness about the cost of your entire lifestyle when you ponder what you need and what you just want. A hundred small choices a week can add up to revolutionary change at your house—– while you wait for evolutionary change all over the planet. And when you’re being careful, you can splurge sometimes. It’s built into the program. Bring home a pizza, watch a late movie, take a bubble bath. You’re doing fine. Footprints in the sand, growing smaller, smaller…..

Five Things That Change Slowly About Your Carbon Footprint


Last time we discussed carbon footprint in very broad terms: energy that goes into your house, energy that escapes your house, and the energy cost of procuring and disposing of the things you¬†use (food, packaging, water, garbage, etc. ). There are larger, “macro” issues that complicate the concept, and you should be aware of them. But beware– the big issues change slowly, and they require many people acting in concert to work real change, even in a clear state of crisis.

If you acknowledge that Al Gore, the Prophet of Warm, is right about rising CO2 levels and the effect of the phenomenon on global climate, then you’re the choir: you already believe the planet is in crisis. If you’re one of the signatories of Global Warming Petition Project,¬†an effort to debunk global warming as a looming crisis (reportedly signed by 31,000 scientists), you might still agree that using less energy and emitting less¬†airborne pollution is a good idea worth pursuing. At least for the 180,000 people on this planet who die of asthma every year, mostly in industrialized and developing countries, too many of them children, you might support cleaner air.

Five things about your portion of this nation’s carbon footprint that you can’t fix overnight, that will change slowly if at all over time and require the efforts of a politically committed electorate?

ONE.¬† Half of the electricity generated in the US comes from coal fired plants. We’ve got lots of coal, still, and it’s the only thing that saves us from complete dependence on foreign oil. A change in coal burning technology, or a shift to nuke plants, or a massive conversion to solar or wind, will be frighteningly expensive and will increase the price of electric power over the short and the long haul for consumers. And you thought your bills were too high already.

TWO. Power generation, industrial operations, “transportation” (your SUV, big trucks, trains, shipping, your SUV, your other SUV) together account for just under 75% of greenhouse gas emissions and general pollution. You and I don’t have easy access to power to influence the national infrastructure, and we have trouble agreeing about anything as an electorate, anyway. To top it off, none of us has ready solutions to the problem of national energy consumption. Let’s sing together, from the Dire Straits song, “I want my, I want my, I want my SUV…”

THREE. Nearly all profound changes in economic behavior in this society are forced upon us by economic necessity. The balance of energy wastefulness (Styrofoam Happy Meals, Coal-generated power, electric clothes dryers) and energy awareness (your neighbor’s Prius, lower thermostat settings, your car pool team) we’ve achieved in the last thirty years since the Great Artificial and Temporary Gas Crunch of the Mid-Seventies has been the result of painful price increases in the various forms of energy we consume. We howl, we whimper, we weep, we rail like Lear against the heavens, then we change.

FOUR. Blunt fact: this society does not admire or reward frugality. Wanna hear it again? Al Gore is a prophet, but he¬†will become¬†a pariah¬†as the meaning of his warnings sinks in: we’re going to be poorer, colder, more careful, less carefree, and un-entitled in our attitudes to energy consumption. When the message hits home, we will be howling for the immolation¬†of the messenger. We’ll roast Al Gore over a bonfire of GM share certificates for telling us the party’s over. And we’ll watch from a distance, safe in our SUVs, with the engines running. Americans want to be wealthier; we don’t want to be more thrifty.

FIVE. The politics of energy will always be a shell game. Don’t pretend it didn’t cross your mind that a friendly Iraqi parliamentary government would naturally owe us cheap oil for liberating the country from tyranny. It crossed mine. Our foreign policy does not always take us to the cutting edge of freedom ¬†and human rights.¬†Sorry. The hunger of the world’s great nations for energy will continue to exaggerate the importance of societies living over energy deposits (oil and natural gas, coal). France (of recent Freedom Fry infamy) changed its foreign energy dependency from 75% to 8% in three decades. And, they were notoriously unaroused by our cry for the¬†liberation of oil-rich Iraq. It’s politics, and the big waves will be made by large numbers of people who agree with each other about at least one thing: we can’t go on this way.

Next time we’ll lighten up, pull the focus back, and talk about five things you can easily change about your carbon footprint. And then we’ll look at your neighbor’s Prius and my sister’s Escalade. Until then, don’t drive to Blockbuster’s just for a movie. Download from Amazon.

Carbon Footprint for Carbon-Based Dummies


I hesitate to wade into these waters, being at heart a homebody and small-picture guy, but you can’t hold a drink at a party without hearing something about our “carbon footprint,” whether too large, shrinking, uncritically consumptive or just right. Because some of you trust me to put you in touch with global issues that may come to your front door soon in the¬†form of new laws, new products or new expenses, I’ll do a slight intro and invite your questions in forum style if you wish, or more discreetly.

The buzzword “carbon footprint” refers in general terms to your personal accountability for a portion of the climate-changing gases released daily into the air. The idea relates¬†first to raw consumption of resources (electric power, fuels used for heating and transportation, and goods and services purchased, including their packaging and the environmental cost of making and delivering them). If you consume one hundred dollars worth of electric power in a month, and that power comes from a coal-burning (half of the U.S. market) or wood-burning (a bit in the American Northwest, but more in Scandinavia and northern Europe) power plant, you are responsible for a fraction of the environmental impact of that plant’s smoke, chemical emissions, water usage and CARBON DIOXIDE RELEASE. If your local grid receives its power mostly from a nuke station, you are tagged for a fraction of¬†the much smaller environmental impact of that plant. The issue of nuke waste and incidental (oops, no fishing here for a bit) release of pollution does not yet enter into the calculation. Nuke plants come up generally roses on carbon footprint issues.

If your house consumes fuel for heat and hot water, those factors go into the hopper on your carbon footprint. Fuel oil? Emits considerable CARBON DIOXIDE, dissolved sulfur, soot and ash particles and a truly manky odor if you have ground-level exhaust. Natural gas or Liquefied Petroleum (LP) gas? Much less sulfur, soot and ash, and 40% less carbon dioxide. Almost odorless, but beware the traces of deadly CO. ¬†Cost differential? Measurable,¬† but that’s not today’s topic.

What goes out of your house monthly in the way of garbage, and how is it disposed of? Lots of styrofoam and dense plastic containers? That runs your score up: foam and plastics are difficult to dispose of without environmental consequences, even if they’re recycled. Think in terms of a red mark on your score for every take-out meal, except for those wonderful, leaky cardboard containers from the takee-outee. They’re not so bad at all. And a pizza box, apart from the grease that burns like biodiesel because it actually is like biodiesel, is only a peccadillo.¬†Newspapers? You should¬† be reading them, certainly,¬† but online. Magazines? The coated paper is environmentally expensive, and again, you can usually subscribe online and still get the hot models and cool graphics. Junk mail? It’s hard to win at that game, but you can request to receive sale bulletins online, and then unsubscribe if you’re tired of them. There has to be a link at the bottom for you to opt out: it’s a law, and most decent companies obey it.

Raw garbage is a delicate subject. Where does it go? Who would even ask? It just can’t go away fast enough, most folks think. In my area it goes to an incinerator. More CARBON DIOXIDE, chemical emissions and waste heat going up to the sky. It’s a “green” incinerator, whatever that means, but burning is burning. And the emissions go on my tab, is the point. I’m responsible, in this brave new world, for the disposal of my stuff. If you see that truck take your junk away, you have to admit to yourself that it goes somewhere. Check it out. Call town hall. If you are told that your refuse goes to an “energy recovery” recycling plant where waste is converted to methane and¬† burned cleanly to generate power, give yourself a small Poopy. That’s a statue declaring your high state of awareness and upright behaviors in the environmental area. I haven’t actually started giving them out yet. Robert Downey, Jr. will host the awards show.

Enough for one dose. I’m on vacation, and this may have to do until I return to harness next Sunday. We’ll do cars, especially my sister’s Escalade, another time. For now, think a little, while the tv warms up, about what comes into your house, and what goes out. What comes in, what goes out. In, and out. In, out. OH– Dancing With the Stars– you can think about the environment later. Bless you all, it’s beautiful on Cape Cod this week. Wish you were all here.

Earth Sheltered Living for Trolls

cave-mouth-blog¬†In the last post we examined the elegances of Bilbo’s earth sheltered dwelling as described in The Hobbit. Careful construction and design can yield a home requiring little energy for comfort, snug and dry and spacious inside. Twelve dwarves, Gandalf and Bilbo could gather in the dining room to feast on Bilbo’s pantry without feeling cramped. Then they had a jam session and stayed up all night plotting Smaug’s demise and the division of an uncountable treasure. All carried out underground.

Living underground is not always so nice. Later in the story the travellers are waylaid by three trolls, and in due course the trolls’ cave is described. Not a nice place. Smelly, with stuff scattered about. Later, the group visit a goblin cave. Likewise, not a nice place. Wet, dark, confusing, windowless. That’s the dark side of earth sheltered living. So take care: while you’re being wooed by the fabulous energy profile of earth sheltered living, be warned about the several things that can go wrong.

  Be aware that the concept of earth sheltered building does not rest on the insulating properties of dirt. The guiding principle, instead, is the thermal mass of the concrete membrane and the earth resting on it, enhanced often these days with layers of rigid foam board. The goal is to create a well-insulated envelope much like that of a conventional frame structure, but with a huge thermal mass on the inside of the insulation as well as on the outside.

¬†Another unwritten but understood factor in American earth sheltered living is the electric heat added to the space by lighting and appliances. Without this incidental, or “internal” gain, the temperature of an earth sheltered dwelling would come to rest somewhere in the 50s. Call me a wuss, but I like to hunker down at home in less than a parka. And, notwithstanding the somewhat cheeky boast of¬†earth sheltered builders that no hvac system is needed in their homes, most earth sheltered buildings feature a heat pump, furnace or stove to provide comfort as it’s needed.

   Moisture, the bane of many an otherwise well built house, will kill an earth sheltered home. A perfect membrane is important for sealing the concrete against moisture, protecting the insulation and keeping the earth mass dry, . The low air change rate in a concrete, foam and earth envelope can result in a humid, moldy cave, the kind only trolls would want to live in. Forced ventilation through heat-recovery vent systems is an excellent idea. Meticulous construction featuring approved and inspected membranes and a drainage network is also fundamental to success in below-ground living.

¬†¬† One advantage modern earth sheltered builders have over Bilbo’s hobbit craftsmen is the technology that makes warmth, light, and air movement so much easier to design into a home. Skill with stone and wood will get you so far toward elegant American living, but without skylights, light wells, modern HVAC, kitchen equipment and tons of hot water, the idea of living in a well-designed cave would not appeal to most people. As it is, earth sheltered living is growing on us as a society, slowly. But that’s the pace of change in the American building industry. Slow. And cautious. I think I like it that way.

Bilbo’s Earth Sheltered House

bag-end-blog¬†The opening passage of Tolkien’s The Hobbit reads, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat; it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.”

¬† I first read those words in the heady 60s, and at the time the building industry and the American worldview was far from ideas like passive solar, earth sheltering, or zero energy architecture. Bilbo’s hole was odd and faerie-like, and I had no inkling of how current, even futuristic Tolkien’s homey burrow would become.

¬†¬† To function as a cozy house, Bag End required an effective roof, partly of dry thatch(the porch roof), partly of green thatch, or sod. Rainfall was absorbed by the living sod roof and drained gently downhill toward the garden plants over¬†a membrane of¬† stone or¬†cement, probably limed plaster (concrete featured nowhere in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, not even in Saruman’s dystopic industrial nightmare). Inside temperatures tended to settle at around 55 degrees, making active fireplaces a comfortable feature even in summer, at least in the kitchen where they were needed for cooking. Energy requirements were calculated, even in winter, against a tremendously reduced heat loss compared to a four-square above ground house of wood and stone.

¬†¬† The floor plan of Bilbo’s place took into account that three sides of earth sheltering left only one for windows and doors. The foyer, den, parlor and dining rooms were situated up front so that visitors, sitting next¬†to the windows,¬†could feel comfortable and not cooped up. Bedrooms, baths, storage and private spaces were off a hall extending “fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill.”¬† The refinement of light wells¬†and skylights is not required for the hobbit lifestyle. Chimneys shot straight up through the thatch, capped to discourage rainfall, cleared of thatch in fall and winter to prevent fires caused by sparks.

¬†¬† Generous eaves over “deep set” windows kept out rain and snow,¬† and provided shade for the summer sun directly overhead. In winter, the sun’s low, slanting rays entered the windows to light those front rooms, the hole doubtless being oriented to face south. The windows featured shutters which could be drawn against the weather and those pesky Black Riders if need be.

¬†¬† Light for late evenings was provided by candles and oil lamps, creating the need for ventilation without chilling drafts. The several chimneys, whether in use or not, provided a constant flow of fresh air pulled from the surrounding space, removing combustion by-products and biological smells of various types, including cooking odors. No use suffocating Mr. Baggins in his own house when we’ve already decided to send him off in pursuit of a dragon’s hoard and the lethal hazards of trolls, spiders, xenophobic elves and the searing breath of Smaug.

¬†¬† No well is mentioned in Tolkien’s tour of Bag End, but there were servants like Samwise Gamgee to draw water for cooking and baths, and it’s pretty certain that Bilbo got by on much less than the 90 or so gallons of water per day¬†that a modern American needs to live comfortably. Vegetables and flowers shared the nurture of the green thatch roof and the surrounding plantings.¬†¬†No livestock appeared at all, though I suspect that Heidi’s¬†goats could have grazed up there on the roof for most of the year¬†¬†without causing any trouble. Green thatch¬†requires some tending, but not much, to stay vital.

¬†¬† Tolkien was only invoking the long history of European rustic architecture, nearly a thousand years in the making by the time he was crafting Bilbo’s burrow in the early 20th century. The basics¬†of earth sheltered living are not at all new. The technology of earth sheltered living is a rapidly progressing project designed to furnish a below-ground¬†house with the much desired features of the American lifestyle. More on that next time. Fancy a pipe on the porch? Smoking in Middle Earth is, I read, not bad for you at all.

Only God Can Make a Tree– But You Can Plant One


¬†¬† Please note the music player in the sidebar at right. If you click on any track,¬† the music will play while you read the posts. And tell me what you think of an old man’s taste. We will consider requests for special readers.

¬†¬† The image is a repro of Cezanne’s House with Trees, and in this post we move outside the box a little to have a look around outdoors for energy tactics and some long range resource management tips. The oldest passive solar building tip is leafy trees close to the house.¬†The technical term for leafy trees is “deciduous.” Loaded with leaves all summer, they cast shade as the sun rolls over the house, and then stay up all night manufacturing oxygen and scouring your premises of carbon dioxide and other unwanted gases. Can’t beat those trees. If you think the trees¬†worked this out¬†on their own, I salute your limitless faith. Looks like an obvious case of Design to me.

  The shade from trees near your house shields you from intense solar heat and ultraviolet radiation, keeping the interior cooler. The rustle of breezes through the leaves is an acquired taste. So are the animal noises: birdsong, squirrel parties, cricket concerts, all that stuff that comes with nature and  might or might not be music to your ears.

¬†¬†Thoughtfully placed, leafy trees can reduce sun loading of at least the exterior wall surfaces, including windows, by as much as 90%.¬†¬†And in winter, the leaves fall off. The sun’s arc also flattens nearer the horizon, and the bare branches block very little of the sunlight that you now want streaming through your windows and warming up even the exterior surfaces of your house. The link says you can disregard the shading effect of leafless trees, making them a nearly perfect element of your energy strategy outdoors.

And the bad news, you already realized: you can’t have trees of the proper size and placement without thinking years ahead. Sorry. But the long view is my favorite perspective. We’ve lived in our little Civil War-era farmhouse since 1975. In those 34 years we’ve planted a privacy hedge out by the street and seen it grow higher than our roof ridge. We’ve nurtured a stunted, damaged pine sapling and seen it grow huge and wide until the neighbors on that side can only be sensed when they throw a party. We’ve lost mature trees in vicious hurricanes, replanted and seen the replacement trees now begin to shade the sunroom as well as the old ones did. We’ve planted trees this spring that will shade our south side in perhaps ten years, and I hope God lets us stay here to see them that tall.

If you rent, you probably won’t be staying for life where you are. Sorry. But you can employ potted trees inside and out(this link is actually to a local Craig’s list ad for inexpensive¬†potted trees, just so you realize it’s possible)¬†to gain the benefits of shade and fresher air as much as space allows; and I doubt your lease prohibits potted pets, though my ficus sheds like a retriever, I must admit. Small trees are still a bargain, and can be had by mail or at the big box home store. I’m surprised at how healthy and well-tended the plants at Big Orange can be, depending upon the branch store and its management. And when it’s time to move my giant ficus out for the summer, I just starve it for water for a few days to make it lighter, slide it to the front door on a towel, and out it goes. I have a friend who landscapes her rather large deck entirely with potted plants, and the effect is….. vernal, to say the least. You just have to water them, and check the pot to make sure it’s big enough as the plant grows.

Any deciduous plant that grows along the sunnier sides of your house is going to help you both in summer and in winter. And it’s fun to plant things, easy to tend them with water and mulch, and so much more cost-effective than residing or replacing all the windows. So if you can’t tear your house apart and do the energy thing with hammer and nails, consider using God-given equipment in an Intelligent way to control heat gain and loss in all seasons. And time is just that stuff that¬†passes while you do one smart thing after another to improve your lifestyle and your energy profile. The plants you install this spring will reward you for many years. They’re like kids, only much less demanding.