The DIY Network Sifts the Green Options

blog this new houseWhether you are a realtor, contractor or homeowner, the learning curve is essential, and the people at the DIY network look like good interpreters of the dizzying galaxy of options. The “Green” building movement is already full of grinning hucksters, and the consumer cannot safely pursue energy independence without a big self-education learning curve. Sorry. Or you could just follow my page. The Do It Yourself movement has become a tremendous resource for beta-testing self-styled green products and features in modern homes. Linked below, a list of green ideas is evaluated by DIY enthusiasts on a new TV show, This New House.

Rainwater- use for plants, emergencies

blog rainwaterThe device in the photo is the legendary rain barrel of song and story, and it’s staging a comeback in conservation circles. Is your water metered? do you use that water to irrigate vegetable and ornamental plants? wash the car? wash the dog?

In the rain-starved American midwest, the rain barrel was used for many purposes, including emergency potable water. We don’t recommend any potable uses of collected rainwater, but we invite you to calculate the savings and independence of having 50-100 gallons of water at your disposal all the time to supply outdoor and bulk needs. If you’re chlorinating your pool, this water can be used. If you’re watering your plants, perfect. If you’re cleaning off muddy boots, go ahead.

   The movement to revive the use of collected rainwater will gain momentum as groundwater becomes more scarce and less pure. And whatever you’re paying per cubic foot for the municipal water supply, this water is free, and it’s rather clean, and it’s soft (minerally speaking). There’s a national association at this link.

Observe safety precautions, please. Keep the lid secured, don’t let the kids drink out of it or dance on the cover, and if it freezes in your climate, drain before winter sets in.

Passive Solar at Your House, Right Now

                                       blog sunset window                                                           Sunset through dirty windows, as shown at left, is beautiful. But it’s not efficient. Clean your windows, at least the south and west facing windows, and pull those drapes aside to let more sunight in, especially now while outside temperatures are moderate and the sun is still high and able to deliver comforting heat to your home.

   You don’t have to mortgage your house to get into the passive solar game. Figure out which windows in your house, if you haven’t already noticed, get the most sun, and put them to work for you. If you’re having trouble locating the most solar-friendly windows, follow your cat around one day. Modest-sized south facing windows can transmit as much as 15% of the house’s heat load, depending upon many factors, results will certainly vary. But the gain is always in the positive, and it doesn’t cost you anything but a little thoughtful planning.

   You can, of course, spend thousands of dollars replacing all the windows in your house with low emissivity argon barrier double glazed windows. And if you want to, go ahead. But if your budget doesn’t allow for that, substitute your brain for your credit cards and get those south facing windows working for you. When it’s colder, and here in New England it certainly will get colder as the year wanes, we’ll check in again and give you some additional strategies for covering those windows at night after they’ve worked for you all day. Be careful washing those second floor windows, please.

Green Builder Shares Wisdom

blog pepitone green builderAttended an open house/ green building discussion at 419 Norwich Road in Salem CT yesterday. Jim Pepitone, green builder, showed off the distinctive features of the home, his second in this area, for sale at 359,000 on 4 acres of land. The link below is his first green project in the area, a few miles away in Montville. The takeaway for this short post is: green features raise the price of a building by a smaller fraction than anyone would think, in this case about 10% overall. We’ll revisit this topic and point out things builders can do to inch toward energy-efficient building in a very conservative industry.

Point of Use Hot Water Heaters

blog point of use heaterWe solar contractors generally disparage electric tank water heaters, except when used for solar storage. But sooner or later, solar is going to let you down, in cloudy weather or when it’s very cold, and you’ll need hot water for dishes, hands, cleaning and filling the pasta pot (who wants to wait for that cold water to boil?).

Whatever backup system you use to close the gap between solar and the American lifestyle, it has to be available all the time, not dependent upon the solar equipment at all, and capable of supplying your assessed need for hot water until the sun replenishes your tanks.

Consider putting a little tank of electrically heated water under your kitchen sink. Two, three, five gallons of water, kept hot all the time (you can have a switch if you can plan those solar outages an hour in advance), ready to fill a pot, wash your hands, feed the dishwasher (yes, the dishwasher has a heater, but it lengthens the cycle by about an hour waiting for it), and even draw a mug of water for tea, almost hot enough to brew the leaves, can be had for the price of some electric power and an upfront cost ranging from $500 to $1000 US. How long will it take you to pay that investment off? Not sure that’s the right question.

   What you’re buying with your money is convenience. It’s not easy to calculate a payback on that. If you’re able, by means of two or so installed point of use heaters, to turn off your backup, whether it was a gas fired boiler, oil fired tank, or big electric tank, you may save enough energy from that idle system to give yourself a payback on the point of use heaters. But showers and laundry are not served by these relatively tiny devices, and you may need to use your backup hot water source just to keep those important services going. Go ahead. Tell me you wash all your clothes in cold water, all the time. Ok; I believe you. I don’t; and I don’t recommend it, unless you dry them thoroughly at rather high temperature. Don’t make the world a better place for all those bacteria, allergens and dust mites you want to remove from your clothes. Do you think you’re making them dizzy in the spin cycle?

   For houses with multiple baths, long piping runs, and several occcupants, point of use water heaters can be a real convenience and an energy saver. I say if your hot water source is less than thirty feet from your faucets, tank insulation and a timer are your best tactics. You can decide whether a significant upfront investment and the privilege of turning off your backup source for the day balance for you economically and energy-wise.

Offshore Oil Rigs are Walrus-Proof

blog oil rig whaleAt left are two conjoined off shore oil rigs. The whale seen venting in the foreground was cited for ruining the photo and released on his own cognizance. Hurricane Earl is headed toward us here on the Atlantic coast, and the best thing about Earl, according to those posted on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, is that Earl will be our problem, not theirs. Offshore drilling, under discussion and proposed to begin soon before BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig blew up, killed its crew, and began hemmorrhaging oil into the Gulf at a furious rate, is now suspended for the time being. Good call, DOE and President Obama.

   But what if Earl, as of this date threatening the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a prime area proposed for offshore oil drilling, were bearing down on hundreds of offshore rigs, as Katrina and Rita did in the Gulf five years ago? Over a hundred rigs were damaged or destroyed in that storm season, although no catastrophic spills were recorded on the scale of this year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. What would be the real impact of a big storm unfettered by the shore effects present in the Gulf, a storm free to go wild in the open sea?

  When my children were small, we vacationed for several years in the Outer Banks area, in a non-posh resort community I will not name but remember fondly. We swam, we waded, we walked the hot sands, we ate shrimp cooked in iced tea (a local speciality and acquired taste), we visited the dune shrine where the Wright brothers risked life, limb and their death of cold to keep a wild , Newton-defying contraption airborne for a few seconds. We carried our children out into the surf and dropped them into the roiling, emerald waves. We gazed out toward Europe across the farthest horizon and saw—– nothing. We also saw the erosive effects of recent storms and congratulated ourselves that we would soon return to New England, where we get a fraction of the storm activity of the Outer Banks, and most often weary storms that have already spent their strength on the lower Atlantic coast.

   Oil rigs offshore in the Atlantic? This link from the Christian Science Monitor of 05 describes the damage done by storms of that year to oil rigs in the  Gulf. It was scary. The two largest rigs in operation at the time were both damaged, one actually capsized. This link cites a common safety contractor and consulting firm hired by several oil companies to strategize spill control before Deepwater Horizon. The report did not go into detail about the not-yet-imagined Deepwater scenario. What it did was assure its clients that no significant impact would be felt in the indigenous walrus population. Goo goo gajoob. No walruses have been cited in the Gulf of Mexico since Rush Limbaugh fell off his yacht a while back, and not for ians and ians before that.

  If we can’t trust our energy suppliers to be governed by their better selves, then I for one am willing to let Energy Secretary Stephen Chu look into it and give me a thumbnail. As Shakespeare’s Beatrice said, I can see a church by daylight. What I don’t want to see is the Atlantic coast looking like the Caspian Sea viewed from the hills over Baku (see photo below). Or clouds of petroleum rolling in where my children used to play, and where their children will want to play, if they can. blog caspian rigs

Electric Tankless Water Heater Caveats

blog electric tanklessWe’ve posted on tankless water heaters before, but an inquiry from a client prompts us to revisit some of our reservations about tankless units. Wonderful idea, of course, good for energy, wish i’d thought of it myself, and all; but do your homework and keep your eyes open. Claims made for tankless heaters are larger than they seem in real life.

  First, flow rate. You need at least three gallons per minute of hot water at 125 degrees fahrenheit to operate a laundry machine, dishwasher, shower, kitchen sink or any combination of two faucets or appliances in the house. if your teenager is in the shower and you go downstairs to start the dishwasher, you will be cited by Family Services in this litigious society, for cruelty to a teenager. Sharing the output of a tankless electric unit is dicey. And families living in multi-bathroom houses will, sooner or later, need to share that output.

   Second, power needs. The only electric tankless that begins to fill the bill for a family is something like the Bosch AE 125 . The power requirement of this water heater is app. 125 amps at full load. Do you have a 100 amp service feeding your entire house, as I do? Fuhgeddabouddit. You can’t install electric tankless in your house. Do you have a 200 amp service? Expect to give away 60% of that capacity while using hot water, which means that you can’t operate your electric range, air conditioning, and clothes dryer all in tandem with this water heater. You have to do what we call “load management,” in which you stop to think, ok, toaster is 110 watts, dryer 4500, range is 8000 unless I only use one burner, turn up the air conditioning thermostat, and,,,, ok, now we can do hot water. And if you have electric heat, you’ll have to shut some of it off to avoid an overload, even with a 200 amp service. No, you can’t have a 300 amp service on a house, not without paying lots of money. Perhaps in the “home of the future.”

   If it’s just two of you in the house, or if the kids only come home for Christmas, this all may work out well. You can save up to 25% over electric tank hot water by virtue of  lowering your standby costs (the expense of keeping the tank hot and losing heat to the surrounding air). If your house is large, full of kids, or if you have a big kitchen and you’re always in it, beware.

    Electric tankless water heaters are growing in popularity, and they should. But i’m always concerned when a past or potential client buys one off the internet and asks for a quote to install it. My bill for installation will commonly exceed the cost of the water heater, if indeed I can even shoehorn it into the house’s electrical system. Then I’m delivering the bad news, the phone goes “click,” and the unhappy client is off down the road to a plumbing company which knows not-so-much about electrical loading and is willing to take the client’s money for installing an inadequately sized unit. Happens several times a year.

  Other technologies are more practical. Oil, natural gas, LP gas, almost any fuel other than electric power makes for a better performance in water heating, due to the ability of those fuels to deliver larger amounts of energy instantaneously to the water, exceeding electricity by far in the critical category of  “recovery rate.”  Watch your loading, watch your pricing, beware of claims made by salesmen bearing gifts, and consider all  your options. Sometimes a heavy insulation blanket and a simple timer can turn an old electric tank into a lean, mean green machine, for a lot less money.

Ask the Right Questions About World Oil Supply

blog oil rigs

The oil derricks shown at left against a smoggy sky are located in……..go on, you’ll never guess– Southern California. And they could have been located outside Philadelphia, along the Gulf Coast of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, or in the Caspian Sea of Central Asia. Oil derricks are everywhere, just not in your back yard yet. We are in a great and conflicted discussion about how and whether to tap the undersea oil reserves off our own coasts, and enduring a humiliating and damaging spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

I have noted in past posts that our reserves of oil, natural gas and coal are estimated to last us, globally, for at least 250 years. Is that comforting? For maximum comfort, stop reading here. Don’t go on and ruin a good mood.

One of the “right questions” to ask about world fossil fuel supplies is: when do we START running out of fossil fuels? When does world daily demand outstrip world daily production? When does demand begin to bring about stupid foreign policy behaviors designed to secure a supply of oil, gas and coal against future scarcity? When do the suppliers of oil begin to manipulate and torture (acceptable in economic circles, not so much in terror suspects) the consumers of oil by raising prices to punitive levels and controlling supplies to create artificial scarcities for their own purposes? When are we faced with the datum that we have used well over half  of the original deposit of oil in the earth’s crust, and from here on the picture is going to get more and more difficult as we face slowly, almost imperceptibly dwindling supplies?

  Probably you’ve stopped reading  before now. If you’re not reading this, lucky you. The questions listed above are some of the many good ones that need answering as we contemplate the future of fossil fuels as our energy supply.  We write these posts for ordinary people like ourselves, and we aren’t really up to the detailed math anyway. So here are some answers for ordinary people, and some opinions based on reasonable thinking. And here’s a wiki link to some straight talk about those hard questions.

   Even if the hard data on fossil fuel reserves globally was not widely available (it is, but say it was a secret), we could make an observation or two about the behaviors of those powerful custodians of our welfare in recent years. Foreign policy in America is complex, but no one except a 9-11 consipiracy theorist (which puts Michael Moore and Rand Paul in the same cozy little bed, what a happy thought) could deny that oil drives much of American foreign policy for the last 20 years. OPEC (Oil Producing and Exporting Countries) has been staging artificial scarcities and fixing the price of oil for some years now, exerting an influence over world affairs out of proportion to the size and influence of the member countries. Remember, if you’re over 40, the Great Gas Crunches of the early 70s. And the equipoise of world daily oil consumption and production? We’re there. We consume more than we produce. By just 50,000 barrels a day as of late 2008. Think we’ve reduced our consumption since then?

So the information that we’ve got “lots of time, hundreds of years” to solve the energy equation and escape our deepening bondage to oil and the forces that control its supply is deceptive. Seventy five years of clear oil reserves, 250 years of coal reserves don’t seem as reassuring as they did. We’re already displaying scarcity behaviors. Our own American oil companies and financial investment industries manipulate the price and availability of oil for their own purposes. Hard to deny, then, that we’re in twilight, or at least the late afternoon, of the fossil fuel era. Won’t trouble you in your lifetime? All shortsighted, self-absorbed people get the hell out of the discussion right now. Goofy will begin your Disneyworld tour at five minutes before the hour. This is the Gotterdamerung of oil, the long retreat. Those who stay awake and keep watching “won’t get fooled again.”  This is a time for serious people, both expert and ordinary, to do lots of thinking and a bit of talking about where we’re going as consumers of energy.

 Renewables, including solar pv, solar thermal, wind and fuel cells, are a long, long, long payoff. Add two more ‘longs’ to that statement. We had a comment from a reader lately which quoted a conservative think tank to the effect that the numbers on renewables in the short term are laughable. The numbers said what the correspondent wanted them to, but they didn’t lie. Renewables is a long haul. And the owner of the first solar pv system in your neighborhood is sure to get laughed at for the huge investment and slow payoff. But those individuals and nations that are already acknowledging the slow decline of fossil fuels as a viable energy source are the far-sighted ones. Even their mistakes do them prouder than the smokestack economies and Drill, Baby Drillers. It will take daring, not denial, to secure an energy future for ordinary people like us as fossil fuels continue, year after year, to grow just a tiny little bit more scarce, and a measurable amount more expensive.

Beyond Coal– What Future Lies There?

Carbon Footprint blog

Bluntly put, 23% of US energy consumption is supplied by coal. We have enough coal reserves to meet our complete energy needs for 250 years. Natural gas, a byproduct or co-recoverable resource with oil and coal, supplies 24% of our energy needs, and we increase our ability to find and recover it each year. Crude oil, about which so much political ado has prevailed in the last 50 years, is still partly a domestic resource. we only import about half of our yearly consumption. And oil supplies app. 37% of our national energy needs.

If you subtract industrial use and home heating, coal supplies, through generating plants, about half the nation’s electric power. Natural gas generation, nuclear generation, and renewables do not promise to put coal out of the picture soon. A HUGE portion of the nation’s carbon footprint, if you care about global climate change, comes from the burning of coal.

We recently lost 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, and we lost 47 miners in 2006 in the Sago mining disaster. Coal mining ranks with commercial fishing and military service as  the most dangerous professions in this society. We all listened and watched as prayers, opinions and excuses went up all over the country over the fate of those 29 men, and the question came up once or twice:  Do we have to do this? Do we have to put men and women at risk to gouge coal from the earth profitably, burn it in some of the dirtiest smokestacks to generate our electricity, deal with the effects of rapid climate change while wringing our hands or engaging in denial, and watch our hunger for energy as a society grow every year without respite?

Do we have to kill our miners at this rate to keep the coal plants burning? yes, apparently we do. Until we have an alternative, and right now we don’t, we have to keep drilling, mining, leasing offshore sites to the highest bidder and waiting for the accidents and spills. We have to have the energy. At any cost, human, economic and, apparently military. The quiet conspiracy to secure Iraq’s oil was a failure. “Clean coal,” at least so far, is a myth few of us can buy. Nukes are scary, and dirty in the long run (dangerous to all life forms for 159,000 years after disposal).
We have no choice. We will continue to put miners at risk, drill and pipe natural gas, float drilling rigs where a spill could be disastrous, and humble ourselves at foreign tables, if not spill American blood, to secure a share of the world’s oil reserves. We don’t know how long we can keep this up; but we don’t have a plan to free us from this dangerous and expensive cycle: the pursuit of more and more energy. God bless the miners, drillers, reactor jockeys and power plant workers. We need you more than we let on; and we sacrifice you at a rate that would shame an enlightened society.

Tight is the Best Possible Green for Windows, Doors

blog window infiltrationThe infrared photo at left shows radiant heat loss (yellow and red shading) in a typical residential window and door. It also reveals that the most grievous heat loss (purple, violet, almost black shading) takes place around the trim and edges of the opening. This is air infiltration, and it is your deadly enemy in keeping your house warm and dry and free of mold.

We’ve posted before on the hazards of air infiltration and moisture, and we’ve urged you all to arm yourselves with caulk, foam in cans, and sticky weatherstripping to fight the crannies that permit heat to escape and air to come in while you’re trying to heat or cool your house. Only in temperate spring and fall weather here in New England do we blithely throw open our windows and share the environment indoors and outdoors. In either high summer or deepest winter the potential for unpleasant temperatures and moisture accumulations indoors and makes climate control increasingly not just a luxury.

Enter the capitalist economy. Don’t fuss about with all that caulk and foam, say the strident voices on the radio and television; we can change your house’s energy performance in a jiffy with 1. new energy-efficient vinyl replacement windows, 2. new energy-efficient vinyl storm doors front and rear, 3. safe, energy-efficient blown-in insulation in attic and walls, no damage to your interior, 4. new, safe, “permanent” energy-efficient vinyl siding with optional foam insulation backing to save you lots of energy and money. And they take credit cards, and they have financial experts standing by to mortgage your house for the full amount.

No sudden moves, now. Will replacement windows perform startingly better than the wooden sash windows or vinyl double-hung you have now? Not if you reduce or eliminate air leakage ( infiltration) through and around your old windows. Then your old windows will perform nearly as well as any window on the market, give or take 15%. Surprised? Same story with the blown-in insulation and the vinyl siding. The best deal of the lot is the vinyl storm windows and doors. They reduce infiltration almost completely through your entry doors. The rest of the “home improvements” won’t pay for themselves any time soon.

The article linked here is from Journal of Light Construction on the subject of replacement windows and their rate of payback based on improved energy performance. The math doesn’t work. It takes a LONG time to payback the investment on new windows, doors, siding, and blown-in insulation. What takes a SHORT time to pay back? Anything that tightens your house, closes cracks, tightens doors and windows, and reduces air infiltration in and out. That’s the magic of home energy. Air. Stop it going in and out, you stop energy from being stolen from your house and your budget.

The boring conclusion is:  nothing makes as big a difference in your house as caulk, foam and weatherstripping. Big ticket stuff like windows and viny siding works, eventually. But caulk and foam and gummy weatherstrip work today. If you hire a remodeler, handyman or do it yourself, it still works if you do it right. And it’s not too hard. Don’t hock the ranch before you’ve done the chores, ok?