Compact Fluorescents- serve me a dish of crow

blog-compact-fluorescents Guess how many of the bulbs in the photo are energy-efficient compact fluorescents?  Yes, of course it’s a trick… ok, all of them, smartypants. And that’s the point of this post: to retract my longstanding opposition to compact fluorescent bulbs, and to get you to take a fresh look at a new generation of energy-efficient lighting that saves money while still doing the job well.

About fifteen years ago compact fluorescent lights appeared on my contractor’s radar; clients were asking about them, the public utility was hawking them in discount programs, and I was the stodgy old guy telling everyone to wait, the product wasn’t really up to the challenge, and removing the fixtures people insisted on buying in a rosy glow of greenness. The dim, harsh, flickering, watery, slow-to-light fluorescents that were supposed to change the world and lower our power bills have been a terrible disappointment, as this George Will essay sarcastically details.

And I, monsieur energy contractor, installing the latest in efficient heating and cooling equipment, and the best in automated home lighting systems that turn off when not needed to save money, was the naysayer who steered everyone away from the latest trends in alternative lighting.

Until now. it’s time to retract, and I’m doing it publicly. This link is to a catalog site showing many styles and brilliances of fluorescent and LED lighting, and while there are still caveats restraining the homeowner from believing every claim that GE and Phillips make for their new bulbs, I’m changing my stance and coming out for compact fluorescent retrofit bulbs, the ones that can be screwed into an old-style socket to replace an incandescent bulb.

The quality of the light is still “variable.” If you choose the “daylight” or “soft white” color options at the home store, you’ll probably be satisfied with the color and warmth of the light, even if it’s a bit whiter than your old incandescent bulbs.

The intensity is appropriate to the fixture. Compact fluorescents are now prominently labeled for their “lumen” output, a more telling measure than the old “watts” per bulb number. Buy a bulb equal to the lumen output of your old bulb, whatever the wattage, and you’ll get enough light. Notice, while you’re doing that, that your new fluorescent retrofit bulb costs as much as ten times what you’ve been paying for incandescent light bulbs, and is rated to last as much as twenty times as long; and this time they’re probably telling the truth. Older fluorescent retrofits were shorter-lived and grew dimmer as they aged.

Are all compact fluorescent bulbs created equal? No, sorry. Beware of those not costing significantly more than incandescents, and stick to brands like Phillips and GE rather than those packages which clearly indicate their foreign manufacture and sport suspiciously lower prices. The technology you’re paying for is not cheap, and you’ll be disappointed with the cheapest fluorescent retrofits. Check this Popular Mechanics link to a shootout test. Be told, as Granny used to say.

Environmental concerns? They’re real. Compact fluorescents contain a small dose of mercury, which poses no threat unless the bulb is broken. Incandescents are also not safe when broken, so all the same warnings apply. When the dog knocks over the lamp, shoo the kids out of the room and use the vacuum; carefully. Here’s an Energy Star data sheet to help you.

And how do the numbers work out? They work. A compact fluorescent using twelve watts of power competes with an incandescent 60 watt bulb for performance, lasts many times as long, and costs five or six dollars rather than 5o cents. That’s twenty five percent of the power, with a service life that works out as a bargain even ignoring the energy savings.

We’ve blogged before about LED  bulbs, and expressed our reservations. We still harbor those reservations. Maybe we’ll visit that topic soon.. Until then, you can go to the big box store, or a good supermarket, and buy the compact fluorescents with confidence. Use them in lights you leave on a lot, not your basement or your closets. Then they’ll do you some real good. And I’m replacing the incandescents at my house, too. We walk what we talk……

Ductless Split Air Conditioners – Practically Perfect


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.

Pimp My Kitchen– Appliances as Bling

  kitchen-fancy-blogIf you can afford the kitchen design shown in the photo, good for you. Every item shown has either an Energy Star rating or other “green” label, all are at the top of their peer group for energy performance, and the whole ensemble looks terribly impressive. If this is the prettiest, priciest kitchen in the free world, give it a blue ribbon. The basic ergonomic triangle is present (fridge, stove, sink all accessible without traveling far), the storage space makes the supplies for each operation available where the work is to be done, the counters are small but well-placed for staging a meal-in-progress, and there appears to be room for a wheeled workstation that will serve as portable prep space, ingredient setup and serving dish transport. Woof. What a kitchen!

kitchen-basic-blog1Now look at this kitchen. It’s plain, sports simple appliances, is short on storage space (presumably the hidden section at right contains the cabinets and cooking gear), and appears to have been squeezed into the corner of an existing room (the window would have been set higher in a room designed as a kitchen). This kitchen has no unifying theme, no flow of concept, no comforting proportions, no evoked period memory, no sense of who it is, and no self-declaring identity. I made all that crap up. Sorry. It’s a simple little kitchen, low in cost,  ad hoc in design, crude in aesthetics, and it just about works. And oh- the appliances are still green-rated, such as they are.

    Choose your kitchen. They’re both labeled green, both functionally adequate, both capable of facilitating good food preparation. I estimate one cost about $20,000 to install, appliances included. The other cost at least $100,000 dollars excluding structural remodeling. They both contain the same basic  equipment: range, vent hood, toaster, microwave, refrigerator. One has an automatic dishwasher, the other not. They both, surprisingly, use about the same amount of energy to prepare similar dishes. They both accommodate informal eat-in furniture, they both work for either a single cook or a cook with a helper or two. They both work.


 The kitchen in this photo is rated as LEED compliant (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design), which means it is built to rigid standards for energy conservation and sustainability. There are heat exchangers under the floor to capture the heat from drain water. The appliances are manufactured from materials not harmful to the environment, and the finishes on the natural wood cabinets contain no harmful chemicals. The refrigerator runs on a gas deemed no threat to the atmosphere. Don’t ask what this kitchen cost. Some of you might be able to afford it, but you would choose this kitchen not because it makes the others look wasteful, or pays for itself in energy savings, but because you desire the LEED rating and the prestige that comes with it. Despite its advantages, this kitchen runs on energy, and the more you use it, the more it costs to store and prepare your food.

   Kitchens perform, I’m trying to say, much more according to use than to design. The most energy efficient kitchen is the one never used. The most energy extravagant kitchen is one that is used to prepare foods at high temperatures, that consumes large amounts of water and energy for cooking and washing, and that keeps the fridge door flapping constantly while things are taken out and returned to cold storage. The best kitchen, to sum up, can be either one, two or three from our discussion, according to how it’s used. The best kitchen, actually, is the one used by the smartest cook.

No Hanging Out? Whatsamattawityou?

                                                It costs me (and you, too, dear reader) about a dollar to dry a load of clothes. If you’re one of our Western Canadian readers whose power comes from hydro-plants, it could be 70 cents. But for the rest of us, powered by the modern miracle of nearly-free nucular energy, call it a dollar.

   My loveliest and I dry about a large load a day. What, you say, self-employed old folks, kids long since gone, running a big load a day? Yeah, sorry, I’m a contractor, and I foul at least one, often two sets of clothing a day. So it’s me, ok?

   What could I do with an extra thirty dollars a month? I don’t know, I might just throw it away at Blockbusters. But I could hang my clothes outside, in this fine spring weather, and save that thirty dollars a month. And families with children who are doing two or three loads a day could hang their clothes outside and save much, much more.
   The downside? Oh, Lawdy Lawd, it’s work! Yes, it’s not convenient in the modern, labor saving sense of the word. It’s old fashioned, it’s po-face, it reeks of Waltons’ re-runs, it…… just isn’t cool, is it?
  But it’s economical, and pardon my Chechnyan, green as hell. It’s the way my family dried clothes, even in the humid Florida heat, and Florida was hot and humid before Al Gore made it trendy. It was the way my daughters tottered, in their many layers, out to the clothesline with my wife to make snow angels while mom hung out the wash. Yes, the hippy Robartses hung out their wash, even in winter.
   If I needed to cut my power bills in half, to win a bet or accommodate my straitened Social Security stipend (I’ll never see those checks, I fear, but I do dream), I’d begin by hanging out my wash. And in winter, I’d hang my wash inside under a ceiling fan.
   And second, I’d wash my dishes in the sink. The on-line bric-a-brac about Energy Star dishwashers using less water than the sink is highly suspect and not supported by my experience. Two gallons of hot soapy water in the sink, another one mixed into the rinse water, and the dishes go back on the shelf courtesy of Elbow Grease. Nooooo!! More Work! 
   And third, I’d swear off air conditioning. If I had to. It costs me from 45 to 90 dollars a month to run my central air. I could save that with fans, cool drinks and old fashioned suffering. If I had to. I don’t have to. But if I had to be the Green Gandhi, the Sultan of Sustainability, and my cred depended upon having all the right sacrifices going up in smoke, that’s what I’d do.
   My undies are entirely prosaic, not like the torrid thong in the photo, so the neighbors won’t be talking, unless a high wind carries my stained levis into their yard, sending the goats into a feeding frenzy leading to expensive vet bills for surgical removal of my now useless jeans from the goats’ nether passages. Hanging clothes outside comes with some risk, after all. Oh– and check the local zoning– in some trendy bottled-watering holes it’s not permitted to show a clothesline. You could get into trouble, and Al Gore won’t be galloping in to rescue you.

House too tight? Not Likely

In this season of airing linens, opening windows and putting up screens, the subject of a tight house isn’t really pressing. But if you start now, you can get yourself ready for a tighter, less energy-hungry house next winter, ant-and-grasshopper style, while your neighbors are all atwitter about poisoning their crabgrass.

The basics of tightness are not too tough, even for non-techies who don’t do carpentry. In New England, barring new, super-sexy LEED or Energy Star homes, it’s difficult to achieve “too-tight” status in an existing, conventionally constructed house. I’ve seen too-tight skirts and too-tight sweaters causing problems for passing traffic, but houses can get very tight without causing much trouble if you know the secret.

And here’s the secret: start from inside the house. There you go. The house in the photo, which by the way is actually in Bulgaria, is open to the air in every way possible, and, as a questionable result, will probably never rot and fall down. Accumulated moisture is the root cause of most “sick” buildings, and of most structural and health-threatening rot in residential construction.
Start inside the house, reducing the escape of moist air into walls and ceilings in winter, and you will also, happily, be reducing the source of trapped moisture that produces dry rot, mold, insect damage and peeling paint.

Caulk. Learn to caulk. If you can’t learn to caulk, learn to wipe up caulk. That will do for a start.
Find the gaps in your walls, floors and ceilings and fill them (within reason– up to 1/4 inch gaps, rule of thumb) with an appropriate type and color of caulk. Use paintable caulk on your house’s interior; true silicone is a wonderful product, but it looks like poo when you can’t match the color, and it REALLY won’t take paint.

Foam. Learn to foam. But don’t try to wipe up foam. It’s not like caulk. Use foam for gaps too large for caulk, and if you havc some large gaps visible from inside your house, don’t hang your head in shame. It’s no disgrace to have large gaps, it’s only a disgrace not to fill them.

Weatherstrip. Learn to weatherstrip. Make old doors and windows tighter, not with paint (unless you’re desperate and you’re REALLY SURE you’ll never have to open that window/door/access panel again) but with those nifty engineered strips and flaps that allow things to move without being drafty.

Well done. And equally helpful, by the way, during cooling season if you use air conditioning. Next time we’ll delve a little into the wall/moisture/tightness question so you can see what all the fuss is about.