2010 Heating Oil Prices Minus Politics

        blog oil truck       This link is to an online trading chart describing the expected arc of fuel oil prices through December of 2010. Some of you who burn home heating oil have already bought, at rates from $2.oo US to $2.30 US. And you did well. What you can expect, according to the futures price charts, is steadily rising prices on wholesale fuel oil through December, topping out at about $2.30. Notice I said wholesale.

You will actually pay retail, which will range from 10% to 40% over wholesale. The difference pays for your oil company to operate trucks, pay licensing and insurance fees, make payroll, prebuy wholesale lots at the terminal (big tanks, usually near railroads or water ports), and make a living.

  Notice I said 10% to 40%. Quite a range. So-called full service oil companies keep technicians in house to repair customers’ equipment. They claim they operate this team at a loss or at break-even. Your oil will cost more because you are paying for “good service.” So-called “Discount” oil companies do not maintain service teams, or train their drivers to perform simple repairs, and you can’t get them at midnight on New Year’s Eve. And you pay less for your oil. The fact is that many companies struggle to make ends meet on the “discount” model, and the most successful oil companies in our corner of Connecticut are those that maintain service teams. And they charge more for their oil.

   You have another option. There are lots of companies: say mine, for instance, which sell no oil, only service. We work hard to keep customers’ equipment running year-round, and you can get at least some of us on New Year’s. I was out on Christmas Day last year, but it was only two hours, then back home to dinner. I don’t run my service operation at a loss, and my rates are competitive with those of the “full service” oil companies. Curious, wouldn’t you say? Maybe they really do lose money on their service. But I don’t. That’s my living.

   So ponder your options as a heating oil consumer, and measure whether the convenience of calling one company for oil and equipment maintenance is worth a premium price per gallon for heating oil. Consider the numbers, ask for price quotes, inquire about budget plans and pre-buys, and make some smart choices about how to get through this winter. I’ll be busy all fall with preventive cleanings and service, but not too busy to help you get your heating and hot water equipment ready for winter. Most of my customers see me just once a year, for the preventive maintenance. Sometimes we replace a part before it fails, and my customers trust me to make that judgment. Then they don’t have to call me on New Year’s Eve.

Solar PV Primer, Simple Concepts

blog pv rooftop  The house at left is roofed with solar panels. No doubt there’s a real roof under there, but someone has cleverly configured photovoltaic panels to cover the roof so neatly that the eye sees only tempered glass and aluminum frames. The roofing material under the panels will not deteriorate, seeing no sunlight, clomping feet or ice and snow, so its life should be at least as long as that of the panels. The panels are attached flat to the roof, with a slight standoff for cooling air, so wind forces should not be a problem in heavy weather.

Note, if your eyes are that good, the shadows of the small trees in the foreground. They indicate that the azimuth, or compass orientation, of the roof is exactly or nearly south-facing, and that no nearby features like trees or other building threaten to shade the panels any time during the solar day (popularly reckoned to be between 9 AM and 3 PM).

No nearby power lines appear in the photo, so it’s hard to be sure whether the panels feed directly out into the local utility wiring (or grid), or to a battery bank designed to power the house after sundown, or a combination of the two functions (bi-modal, it’s called). 

A tiled roof in the background, along with mountains, suggests either a western US or possibly European location, places where solar panels are considered more progressive than kooky, and where local governments subsidize and encourage responsible photovoltaic installations. The local power supplier, or utility, may be purchasing the panels’ output at its own retail rate (net metering is the industry term), or it may be paying a “feed-in tariff” of up to twice the retail value of the power, a practice widely used in Europe and Canada to encourage the installation of solar electric arrays.

The residents of this house (subtle signs indicate this may be a barn) may spend some time each day accommodating their routines to the flow of solar power. They might operate their heaviest electrical loads, i.e. water pumps, refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes dryers, water heaters etc. while solar output highest, using their own power rather than purchases kilowatt-hours. They might adjust their lifestyles subtly to decrease power usage in the evening, using only lights and small loads while only battery current or expensive utility power are available.

Or, if the system has no “backup,” they may go about their business with no thought of loads, since the grid power simply flows into the house at night the same way the solar power flowed out through the meter all day. The local availability of sunlight, or “insolation,” may be as little as 2 kilowatt hours per day per square meter, or as high as six kilowatt hours per day per square meter, depending upon latitiude, climate, compass orientation and shading. The panels themselves may be as little as 12% efficient in transforming uv radiation into electric power, or they may be as much as 20% efficient, according to the quality and cost of the equipment when purchased. The panels, by their appearance, are not homemade, or if they are, they are meticulously framed and sealed. The wiring that connects them to each other is high-grade silicone with a sunlight-resistant coating, and the “inverter,”  thedevice that transforms the panels’ DC output into AC power usable by house loads, also synchronizes that AC output to the grid power for resale.

This primer, with links, is meant to bring your thinking into the picture with solar PV and the role it may/will play in your life in the future. Next time you’re driving past a house with panels on its roof, picture yourself living in it. Solar power on the roof doesn’t mean less fun for people living under those panels; to the contrary, there’s something natural and comforting about being linked to this life-giving power source in a positive and profitable way. But you humans, if you go out there, use sunscreen.

Energy Lip Service in CT

blog-electric-meter  If the electric meter in the photo were spinning backward, it would mean that the home it serves is using photovoltaic panels to push power back into the grid. In Connecticut, not the least progressive state in the union concerning renewable energy, the power is resold to the utility at retail, or exactly the cost homeowners are paying for their power. A corollary of the “Net Metering” system is that Connecticut Light and Power makes nothing on those watts contributed by photovoltaic-equipped homeowners: retail in, retail out. If there were enough of those homes hooked to the grid, the utility would become essentially a grid-maintenance corporation and the turbines at Millstone Nucular Power Plant would be idle– except maybe at night, when demand is low and the solar panels of Connecticut are running on moonlight. Small danger of that scenario, you say? You’re probably right. But like Dylan’s 115th Dream, it’s a nice one to have now and then.

If that meter were located in California, things would be a little different. The power flowing out through it from the residential photovoltaic array would be metered at an increased rate, higher than that charged for incoming power. The owner of the panels would be making a profit over and above the exchange of watts. And the obvious incentive to upsize the system and supply extra watts to the grid at that “Tariff-enhanced” rate is clear to anyone. Photovoltaic installation companies in California will now find it easier to “upsell” larger systems to homeowners, systems that will cost tens of thousands of dollars more than the basic entry level equipment, and those homeowners who commit those extra sums of money to renewable energy will be rewarded by faster payback on their investments, and real profits after their installation costs have been recouped.

This US Dept of Energy link  explains the new tariff, applicable both to residential and commercial renewable installations up to 1.5 megawatts (a typical residential installation in CT is about 3 thousand watts) at differing tariff rates, making it attractive to invest sums starting around $40k and rising to staggering sums (for me, anyway) for home solar installations. Solar “thermal”, or hot water and heating, installations are already rewarded by California’s wonderful sunny climate, enabling folks like us to enjoy nearly free hot water and heating year-round.

The Bad News?  Here in Connecticut we do have net metering, as we said. But the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, which administers and disburses the energy rebates that subsidize solar installations in the state, is currently “under financial review,” code for “not approving new rebates.”  I am advised by a CCEF representative that the next disbursements are projected for July of 2010, and that rebates for commercial solar installations have been temporarily suspended. Why? The funds are developed from surcharges and contributions on consumers’ power bills, and CL&P has been short of funds lately since Attorney General Richard Blumenthal denied their request for a rate hike. So it appears that CL&P is economizing their way through this tough period by shorting, among other things, the Clean Energy Rebate program. With the rebates working, a photovoltaic system still costs quite a bit ($30,000 and up), but with no  rebates the cost of the systems almost doubles.

Decreasing equipment costs are helping contractors to bring the price of system installations down in the last year, but those gains still don’t put renewable energy within the reach of folks with modest incomes and modest borrowable equity in their homes. And the tally of renewable solar systems installed under the rebate program since june of 2009 totals just under 4 megawatts. Four megawatts is enough to power my house for about a year.

So— we progress, but slowly. And we progress with much talk and belated action. Nothing wrong with talk, but it’s disappointing when we see the tiny advances we make over time. All in all, we lack what is called the “political will,” or the consent of the people,  in other words, to move ahead on these issues.

Sunbathing, Once Removed – Solar Hot Water and You

blog-solar-water-heaterThe device at left is a self-contained solar hot water heater, featuring panels, mounting frame, and tank at the top. it requires no power for pumps or controls. Water from the tank circulates through the collector plates by convection as the sun heats it, filling the tank with water at whatever temperature the sun can warm it. The tank remains at house pressure, waiting for a demand. At night the tank cools slowly, delivering hot water until the tank is cooled completely.

You can’t take a shower at midnight with this rig, unless no one else has used water that evening. You can’t store more water than can be held in the tank. You can’t rely upon the supply first thing in the morning, or later in the morning, unless the outside temp is so high that the tank doesn’t cool much. You can’t install this system in a climate where winter temps drop to freezing or below; or, you can’t use the system more than five months a year in New England where I live, and it must be drained for the winter when hot water is supplied by another system.  You can’t supply the hot water needs of an American family of  four unless they’re all atuned to the daily cycles of water heating and time their use of hot water in zen-like harmonious balance with the (i’m singing now, in a sloppy baritone) “Cirrrrrcle of Liiiiiiffffe.” No audio available on that one….

You get the picture? The system shown is not acceptable for Americans. No system I know of is acceptable to Americans, with the exception of aging hippies with dearly held beliefs on the subject. I installed a system several years ago for clients with those dearly held beliefs about energy and independence, but the system nevertheless had to be carefully integrated with a seamless backup, sized to provide hot water for every possible demand including house guests, and separated from the house water supply by a closed-loop heat exchanger filled with antifreeze to prevent freezing. Sporting those features, it cost a small bundle, which federal and state incentives defrayed by over half  (here in CT, at the time, state rebates were generous; since then, with a huge budget deficit, those rebates have withered). But it supplies “tempered” (pre-heated)  water to their oil-fired backup system on any sunny day in any month of the year, and supplies all of their hot water needs for about six months out of twelve.

That’s what Americans require: seamless integration of alternative energy systems into an American lifestyle which forfeits no convenience to the idea of sustainable energy technology. I could sell a lot of the systems shown in the picture; they would supply the hot water needs of a couple for at least the three warmest months of the NewEngland year, saving 25% of the energy costs in a category (domestic hot water) that accounts for at least 30% of an American family’s energy bill. Yes; that’s 8% of the household’s energy costs, defrayed by a system that must be lived with a state of awareness and harmony. No, I won’t sing again. The payback period of the system would be about eight years, and it has a life cycle of perhaps 30 years. But all the caveats listed above still apply. You have to live with what the system can do, and what it can’t do. How many of my clients are willing to make those lifestyle adjustments? Hands up? I don’t see any hands. Guess what? My hand’s not up, and I’m an energy-conscious aging hippie and heating/cooling contractor committed to renewables. I’m an American, and I want my hot water without compromise.

There are other solar hot water systems, other designs that contribute to a home’s hot water needs in a more American way. This USDE site gives an overview. Costs range from 8 to 25 thousand dollars US to install, and they pay back your investment over periods ranging from ten to 25 years. Do you know how fast they’re selling in Connecticut? Not fast at all, especially as the rebates recede and the federal tax incentives age toward 2015, when they will either be renewed or not.

I always plump for low technology, low cost, modest gain energy strategies in this blog and in my business, but I haven’t found a way to put solar hot water within the reach of  average homeowners yet. The renewables train is coming slowly around the bend, and there’s a lot of hemming and hawing among homeowners who’d rather replace windows and siding than invest in solar technology, because that’s what’s being hawked on the telly. I’m a very modest salesman, with a conscience I wear upon my sleeve, and I can’t promise more than the numbers tell me when I talk up renewables. The number are still tough, but they work in the long haul. We need a national, cultural sea change, a tipping point. If it’s not on the infomercials, it’s not hot. Al Gore can’t sell this one: I can’t sell this one. The renewables movement is waiting for someone to sell it to America; perhaps only Tom Hanks is up to the job.

One More Reason to Hate Skinny People- They Stay Cooler

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There are no Models any more; only “supermodels” and “weight loss contestants.” The woman in the silhouette photo at left may be an expensive sweetheart in many ways, but the physics says she’s at least easier to keep cool.

It’s almost a “duh” moment to reveal that skinny people stay cool at higher temperatures, I suppose. But since I stopped being skinny, I’ve been indulging in denial about my need for greater cooling comfort. At two hundred pounds of aging manhood, I suffer a bit more in the heat and humidity than I did a few years ago. And you?

A Hawaiian blogger from Hilo cites a study exploring the relationship between body mass and the need for more cooling. Apparently larger, heavier people expend fewer calories through normal indoor activity, but they require lower AC temps even so. Ok, I get that. And there’s a twist. The study poses the question whether the popularity of largeness has itself causes our increasing dependence upon mechanical cooling, or whether THE AIR CONDITIONING ITSELF HAS CAUSED US TO GET FATTER!

As Dave Barry often says, I am sooooooo not making this up. If reducing our heat stress in summer causes us to eat more, ok, maybe. If reducing our heat stress simply permits larger people to survive summer, ok, maybe. Or if heat stress is a weight loss technique we should all be considering, well, I don’t like it, but maybe.

In the case of my embarrassing spread, I don’t think my air conditioner is the real perp. I think I did it to myself. But a guilty air conditioner may cost less to run. I can be stingier with the thermostat. I can do yoga in front of the TV. I can eat salad with almost no dresssing while i do yoga in front of the TV, occasionally glaring at the thermostat. I can work in the heat all day and come home to a cool house, drink ice water and bask in the relief from heat stress. I don’t think I should swelter until I reach my ideal weight. I think I may live longer if I don’t have to court heat exhaustion, dehydration, depression, grouchiness, malaise and unpleasant body odors when it gets hot outside.

I want my AC. Forget the study linking obesity with air conditioning. I can adjust. I’ll drink so much water I won’t even be hungry. And if the supermodel gets chilly, she can go outside and pose……..

Ductless Split Air Conditioners – Practically Perfect

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If your home has a large open space built around, perhaps, the kitchen, dining room and den, or the newfangled Great Room concept, you can render that space comfortable without sacrificing your windows or paying big sums for some guy like me to install a full duct network for a central system. You can have a “ductless split” system installed, operate it from a handy remote, and cool the large living area of your house in respectable silence.

Window units are noisy and take up window openings. Central systems are the best, but can you afford one right now? Like the incumbent Democratic administration, I favor a considered compromise when all factors can be weighed.  I don’t favor any single brand, but i do insist that you shop for these essentals:  high efficiency, ample capacity, multiple fan speeds, and a good warrantee. Here are some links, offered without partiality for your consideration. Here’s a multi-brand site, another one, and a brand or two of the better ones

To find an installer, you may have to call around, use the Yellow Pages, and ask at the wholesaler’s, because not all techs are familiar with the subtle ways of the ductless split. Expect the job to take less than a day, and expect to be cool by dinnertime. The hardest part is tying the electric power into your panel, a process that may require a licensed electrician. Be sure to ask if your installer does the wiring himself.

The thermostat’s in the remote, the filter is the washable kind, and the condenser is as energy-efficient as the outdoor unit of a central system, and a bit more efficient than any window unit you can buy. Ductless split is less noisy than window units, slightly more noisy than central, typically.

Here in New England, we have the possible need for home air conditioning, I tell my clients, of about 100 days per year. Most folks use their air conditioning between 40 and 60 days, unless a bust of ralph nader adorns your mantel and you’re reading this while completely naked. How much will it cost to get you through the summer? Can you hide in your bedroom next to the window unit? Do you need the whole house cooled and dried to accommodate your teenagers and your expansive tush sticking to your naugahyde recliner? Or somewhere in between? If you’d like to get comfortable in the dining room and huddle around the table like millennial Waltons being cool, and if you’re tempted to break out the sleeping bags and have a camping adventure on the family room carpet, you could be enjoying your ductless split system by, say, tomorrow night.

The S.E.E.R. Predicts Your Energy Future

seer-label-blog1Do you mind the bad puns in the post titles? The label at left was attached to a new room air conditioner. SEER, or Seasonal Energy Effiiciency Rating, is an industry standard meant to help you compare appliances, specifically air conditioners, as to energy efficiency. A low number means lower efficiency, a higher number means greater efficiency and better performance for less energy.

   This Wiki link explains the higher math, but you can get it this way. SEER, in reference to AC units, is the raw number of btu you get from investing one watt for one hour. If you, like me, pay almost 20 cents per thousand (kilo-) watt hours, a SEER 0f 10.5 means you get back 10,500 btu for every kilowatt hour you invest in running the unit. That capacity matches a small room air conditioner, so you can figure you spend between 20 and 30 cents per hour to run your window air conditioner at that SEER. Run it day and night for a week, you’ve spent perhaps $40 US on average to air condition that room or space. Boring? Only until the power bill shows up.

   So the numbers matter as much as the price when you go to the big box store to shop for AC units. You might pay $50 less for a cheaper unit, but how long will that $50 last when a window unit of 9.8 (minimum) EER (category for room/window units) costs 30% more to run than a better one with an EER of 13?  The payback on the difference can be measured in weeks, or perhaps a New York minute.

If you install a central (ducted, noisy parts outside, air comes out of holes in floor or ceiling) system, the minimum SEER permitted in CT is 13. And you can spend some more money and get SEER ratings of up to 23. Yes. Almost twice as efficient. And almost twice as expensive. Equipment rated SEER 16 is more reasonable in price, and the energy savings will pay you back rather quickly for your initial investment in better equipment.

If you have large, open spaces in your house (no, I don’t mean missing walls and doors, silly), you might opt for a Ductless Split System, in which a single blower unit hangs on a wall and the noisy condenser sits outside. There is no hidden ductwork in the basement and you can control the unit with a handy remote. SEER can range from 13 to 16, and total system cost can be half the amount you pay for a central system. The ductwork I and my colleagues install is efficient and equity-enhancing, but expensive.

Numbers can be so boring unless dollar (or Euro) signs are attached. When you invest in air conditioners, don’t wait until it’s hot and you’re miserable and don’t have much money in your pocket. If you can help it. Get a grip, take along a calculator, crunch some simple numbers, tax the salesperson with hard questions about efficiency and capacity, and get more for your money—- not just today, but for as long as you own the equipment. We’ll talk more about the different systems in the next post.

Five Carbon Footprint Things You Can Change Yourself

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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

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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.

Helios at Home – Mission Statement

toolbelt-diva-blogWe return, from time to time, to the reason we do this at all, and the reasons we do it this way. Our bias is not hard to spot: in improving the energy behaviors of your family and your home, small moves will be good enough almost every time.

The young woman in the photo is Norma Vally, host of the show Toolbelt Diva. Her approach is to empower women (and men as well) as home maintenance experts and remodelers. We agree wholeheartedly. You can do much more than most folks think, and you can steer clear of trouble by trusting someone like Norma Vally.

 It’s not necessary to strap yourself to a second or third mortgage, call in the solar panel mavens, gut your old kitchen or any other room to strike a blow for energy conservation in your existing home. Some authorities advocate borrowing to your limit, tearing your old house down, and building a new one on the same site. Some experts say old house retrofits are only worth doing as privately funded projects, that retrofits aren’t worthy of tax credits and incentives since they won’t add significantly to the global picture. Thanks a lot. Try that one in Europe, where the buildings are often hundreds of years old and structurally tied to neighboring buildings. Only in America could we entertain tearing structurally sound buildings down to make room for new buildings costing much more and, incidentally, using less energy.

   We always come down on small steps. We always come down on working with what you have. We always come down right next to fiscal caution, reluctance to incur debt, the addition of sweat and toil to your home’s difficulties, and the value of DIY derring-do, within limits of safety and sanity. Don’t try to replace your breaker panel or air conditioning system. I don’t want you on my conscience at 3 AM.  Old men sleep light as it is.

   Energy conservation is cumulative in the sense that dozens of small improvements always add up and sometimes multipy your energy efficiency (adding insulation to your attic and sealing air leaks in your ceiling yield BIG dividends when done together). Twenty five cans of foam and a dozen tubes of caulk will cost you about $200 at the home store. The payback on that application, when the materials are shrewdly installed, is less than one year. The payback on a water-stingy showerhead is mere months, unless your teenagers are seen entering the bathroom with pliers in hand. Weatherstripping can cost hundreds of dollars, if you get excited and treat every window and door in the house, but once again, the payback is perhaps two years, or less.

 We approve entirely of photovoltaics, solar hot water (which we install professionally and advocate with enthusiasm), efficient hvac systems, super-insulated attics, tankless water heaters, geothermal heat pumps and technologically advanced windows. Thank God and the engineers for all that nifty equipment. But don’t tell me I have to buy it to be in the energy game. If it doesn’t make sense financially, and all of those energy improvements return a payback of over ten years, then let’s wait until the piggy bank and the economy have lowered the risks of big energy investments. Meanwhile, please pass the caulk and weatherstripping. I can get by very well on basics until the numbers make sense for me.

So as these posts pile up, you know exactly what we’re selling. We advocate big moves when they’re well planned, shrewdly financed and based on real numbers not smelling of fudge. We advocate replacement of systems and equipment that is worn out or unsafe, or replaceable with equipment that will deliver immediate improvements in comfort and energy savings. We don’t get too excited about payback calculations exceeding about ten years. If the rate of energy return is that gradual, you need another reason to invest your hard-earned cash. And there are other reasons, but don’t kid yourself. Photovoltaics won’t necessarily make your retirement come sooner or float you a free energy tab. Ask hard questions of anyone anxious to sell you on a life-changing investment that costs more than a new car.

  It’s not exciting to look at life this way. It doesn’t make for a buzzy, colorful blog compared to many I read that cover global issues, expensive retrofits and futuristic technology. It does put regular people, I hope, in touch with resources and encouragement that will help them improve their energy efficiency in small moves. And at 3 AM I might be awake over something, but you dear folks won’t be on my conscience. Bless you all, see you next time.