Sunday, April 15, 2012

Electricity use for the year

I just got my electricity bill-- the one that finally marks one year in the new eco-ranch, ergo, all of the usage shown on our bill is for the time we actually lived here. The moment of truth: Our usage for last year was 9935 KwH. Now, to improve!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

So much has changed!

It was a heartbreaking decision, but hubby and I sold the eco-ranch. We took a significant loss : about $60,000 on all the improvements and upgrades we made. Sadly, it was an issue of school quality. We now have two toddlers: one 22 months, the other 3 and a half years, and we live in a terrible urban school district. That, and the house seemed gigantic when we bought it. But with the prospect of two giant teenage boys one day living there. Well, that wasn't going to work. So, we crunched some numbers and determined it was more economical to move to a new neighborhood with good schools. Of course, we picked another 1957 ranch house! A new eco-project, so to speak.

Our first order of business was to install a new high efficiency gas furnace and a new air conditioner. Project done. Then, we discovered we had a measley one inch!! of insulation in the attic. I was set to hire someone to add more (R 38 or R65? still up for debate) when someone told me I could get a $50 energy audit from our local gas company. Then, the company would give us rebates to have the insulation work done.

I got on the waiting list, and my number finally came up last week. I'm so happy we waited! We'll be getting rebates of about 60 cents per square foot of insulation, plus a discount on weather sealing. It's going to save us serious money. And, it will make our house probably even more energy efficient than the first eco-ranch.

So there are some exciting things on the horizon. I also have some interesting organic gardening projects underway, and I will update you on those soon.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It's been a hard year!

Wow, that second baby really derailed the whole blog thing. I'm sure all of my former readers have fled to sunnier internet climes. But, I'm happy to write for just me.

Here's a run-down of what we did and didn't do this year:
First, the garden. We planted green and jalapeno peppers, slim red cayenne peppers and roma tomatoes. The peppers were a spectacular failure. We got mostly nothing, although we did manage to pick a small bucket of slim red cayennes, which makes hubby very happy. We dry them and eat them all winter long. Okay, HE eats them...

We had really weird weather this year, so I feel lucky we got anything. It was either super super hot and dry or weeks of monsoon-style rain. A garden disaster!

Except: We planted 18 roma tomato plants this year. It cost us $6 for all of them. We bought them through a school fund raiser. Those tomatoes turned into 50 pints and 33 quarts of salsa, pasta sauce, and stewed tomatoes now safely canned in the basement. It was amazing. I actually was out of jars and tired of canning, so I left some to rot on the vine. (after I snuck tomatoes to everyone I could think of...)

We also did get the ceiling fans in. The side effect: we realized there was zero insulation over one of the baby's bedrooms, and that we really should reinsulate the attic. So, I will be pricing that out in the next couple of weeks.

The kitchen doors have yet to be replaced. I did insulate the door between the kitchen and garage, and install a new, more energy friendly pet door.

We also converted our old 1957 electric cooktop to a new, gas cooktop. It's fabulous, and likely more energy efficient. Although, cook tops do not have energy star ratings.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Life got in the way

Wow, it's been a long time since I have posted to Ecoranch. Sorry, I mean, if there is even anybody out there reading. The big news is we are having our second-and last baby. Another boy. I am due Nov. 22. That pregnancy, a little earlier than planned, set me back on a lot of the projects I was planning to do this year. Half the garden didn't get planted or turned, due to morning sickness and exhaustion, and many home improvement projects are still left undone. Sigh. And, I know how impossible it is to get anything done once a new baby comes, so we'll see if we make any progress ever again.

Just to update:

The Garden
We grew about 54 pounds of veggies in our garden this year, just over half of our goal of 100 pounds. Not too shabby, considering some beds didn't get dug due to pregnancy and work, our asparagus patch died a horrible death due to a deluge from a clogged gutter, and all of the raspberry plants were dead on arrival. There is always next year. Here is how it broke down:

.50 lbs of basil-- turned into 2 batches of pesto,
17.1 lbs zucchini-- all from 2 plants
3.4 lbs. beets
2.7 lbs hot wax and banana peppers (8 peppers)
3.8 lbs green peppers
21.32 lbs tomatoes-- roma, cherry and mortgage lifter heirloom
.62 lbs. potatoes
4.1 lbs butternut squash

Ceiling fans
We are in the process of converting the original 1950s light fixtures in the kitchen and in the two baby bedrooms into ceiling fans w/ lights. The original fixtures were recessed, basically just little metal domes housing a single light bulb. They put off very little light and were no help with climate control. The fans, although they will use more energy, will help keep those rooms more comfy in the summer and in spring and fall when it's not quite warm enough for AC, and will put more light into those very dim rooms. I say we are in process because the junction boxes are installed, but the fans we bought hung too low so had to be returned. I haven't quite found anything I love to replace them, but have to get something soon because I am staring at my attic insulation through the holes where the old fixture used to be!

Kitchen doors
After the fans are installed, I am dragging hubby to the store to buy two new interior kitchen doors, both solid core, to replace to damaged hollow core doors. One is between the kitchen and garage and is a source of much cold air poring into the kitchen in winter. Hopefully a solid wood door will be a bit more of a barrier. Also, I am looking for an efficient kitty door for this door, something that will leak less.

Our 2009 goals

We did meet some of our goals. We did install the three additional rain barrels, bringing our total to five. That free water does come in handy.

The low-flow toilet we installed in our main bath has really reduced our water use. I don't have an exact tally in front of me, but it has made a dent.

This summer, we did manage to reduce our electricity usage, mainly by turning off and draining the hot tub. Sigh. We don't want to give up all luxury though, so since it is fall, we have turned it back on. We'll see if there is a clever way to reduce the impact of the tub without getting rid of it all together.

On the laundry front, we still have our not energy star washer. I am trying to make it greener by running loads on the short cycle when it makes sense, using the lowest water setting possible for each load, and by washing in cold unless it's diapers or hubby's gym clothes.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The garden is in the works!

I have an ambitious garden plan and April is fast approaching. We have a lot of work to do in order to transform my typical, 1950s in the city yet suburban style lot into the veggie and fruit growing powerhouse of my dreams. The seeds arrived in January and most of them have sprouted quite nicely in my sunny window. We started two varieties of green beans, butternut squash, luffa, four varieties of hot pepper, oregano, basil, cilantro, cosmos flowers, butterfly bush, lavender, and dill this year.

In May, my shipment of strawberries, asparagus, lingonberries, raspberry and blackberry bushes, and hot peppers should arrive. May is also the month I pick up my green peppers, roma tomatoes, zucchini, and flowers from my mom's school, which sells fantastic plants as an annual fundraiser. Their plants have never let me down.

April will be a month of hard labor. I started cleaning leaves and roots out of the garden beds this weekend, but we still need to rent a sod cutter and a tiller to dig three or four new garden beds. We will then have about 6 cubic yards (!) of compost and mulch delivered. Then begins the real work of spreading the soil additives and planting all of the flowers and veggies. It's work that will really pay off come August and September. I can almost taste the tomatoes now.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Replaced the not-quite-last water hog

I finally got around to replacing the old old old water-hog toilet in our main bathroom. Frankly, given that it probably used 5 gallons a flush, I am ashamed it took me so long to do it. I guess it dropped down on the priority list behind work, babies, life and just about everything else.

But, it's finally done. I replaced it with a Kohler Cimarron, 1.6 gallon. I had to tell you the model number because the names companies come up with for toilets cracks me up. Just take a walk down the toilet isle at your local hardware store and see if the names don't make you smile.

I installed a Wellworth in my other bathroom. : )

Now I have one more big water hog to knock off my eco-friendlier makeover list: the washing machine. I just discovered that our washer is not Energy Star. Ugh. It's a kilowatt pig and probably uses a lot more water than necessary. I tried to talk hubby into shopping for Energy Star front-loading machines, but he made it clear that buying a new washer is not on the list of priorities. Ugh. I feel kilowatt guilt now every time I wash the jammies.

I can attribute this oversight to the appliance deluge that accompanies every house purchase. When we bought our house, we had to buy a washer, dryer, and fridge all at once. We wiped out our savings putting down a down payment, and were still paying the note on our house in New Orleans. Spending extra for an energy star model wasn't in the cards. Now we are paying for it, literally.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Smart power strips

In hopes of meeting my goal to reduce our household electricity use, I just bought a Smart Strip LCG3 power strip. At $40, this is not cheap. But, it seems like it's worth trying. It is supposed to actually turn off your computer and electronics if they are idle for more than 1 hour.

After some careful thought, I decided to start with only one of these. My hubby has a computer, monitor, playstation, big screen TV, and speaker set-up in the basement that I suspect is a huge electricity vampire. Even when they are "off" these items are never really off, they are on standby. So, I plan to install one of these smart strips in this area. If it works well, I may buy one for the stereo system upstairs and possibly a smaller version that I can plug all of the small kitchen appliances into.

I know that reducing electricity usage to a manageable level is going to be very difficult now that our furnace is an electric heat pump (even though it's geothermal). This is what I hope will be one step in the right direction.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

the furnace, the killowatt eating monster

Well, it turns out our furnace is using much more electricity than it should be. We apparently had some sort of malfunction that we only caught because the temp here went below zero this week, and despite the furnace running constantly, the house never made it above 56 degrees. Frustrating to say the least.

It turns out the thermostat was not telling the furnace to turn on the auxilliary heat when the geothermal couldn't keep up, even though the thermostat sad the auxilliary heat is running. So, after about two hours of work, we finally got the furnace and the thermostat to talk to each other today. One problem solved.

I think this will help with the furnace's electric usage, because even though it's still near zero out, the house is warm AND the furnace actually has cycled off a few times. Before, it was running constantly and the house was still freezing. I hope this cuts its electric use significantly, but I am trying not to hold my breath.

Guess I got more than I bargained for for that service call.

Reducing home energy use 101

Earlier, I outlined my plan to reduce our home electricity use by 10 to 20 percent by the end of the year. In a house already filled with compact fluorescent bulbs, this will be no easy task.

My most recent electricity bill arrived in the mail this week, so I now have my benchmark kilowatt numbers. It's enough to make me queasy.

We used a total of 19405 KwH in the past 12 months. The average U.S. family uses 10,656 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year, or about 888 kwh per month. We were well below average before we installed our new furnace.

Our highest usage months were March, at 4,801 KwH (I think this is because our previous two bills were estimated, and didn't take into account our new furnace), December 2008 at 2,289 KwH, and August, at 1,520.

Our electricity usage has skyrocketed in the past year. I know what the culprit is.

In September 2007, we replaced our 1957 gas furnace with an electric heat pump. Electricity is not my first choice for home heating and cooling. But, we really wanted a geothermal system, which is supposed to be as earth-friendly as you can get. every month where we really needed heat or air conditioning sends our Kilowatt hours through the roof. Even our lowest use month is still twice what it was before we installed the new furnace.

Except for the huge amount of electricity it uses, the furnace has been great. I assume it's also more efficient than our old furnace, which at 50 plus years old was not the model of Energy Star efficiency. Although, I am not skeptical of geothermal's claim to reduce CO2 emissions and instantly turn your home into an Energy Star house. That electricity has to come from somewhere, and where we live, 78 percent of it comes from coal fired plants. But, we'll just have to deal with it and try to reduce our use in other ways. We aren't replacing it again.

In the interest of full disclosure I must admit we have another electricity loving vice: a hot tub. Not the model of efficient use of natural resources, I know. But we are clumsy and tend to get injured a lot playing sports, so we consider it therapeutic. We run the tub from September to July.

So, numbers in hand, our goal is to reduce our usage by 1,940 to 3,881 kilowatt hours a year. Our monthly average use is 1,617 kilowatt hours. Our monthly goal is to reduce usage by 161 to 323 kilowatt hours a month.

These are big numbers. As I said in my earlier post, we are planning to tackle this with a combination of upgrades large and small.

This month, We have already managed to implement part of our plan to reduce our kilowatt addiction.

* We installed the final three Energy Star windows in our house. We began this project last year, but because we are old fashioned, we only do what we can pay for out of pocket. We couldn't afford to do all of the windows at once, so we put off the last three (which we deemed to have less impact on our home's leakiness). Now, all of the windows are finished. The company also came out today to repair some window locks on the first set, so all of the windows should now be securely closed against the freezing outside air. This was our most expensive project, at $1,633.
* We have ordered the new doors for the kitchen. This doesn't sound like an energy issue, but it is. The door between our frozen garage and the kitchen is hollow and lets all that cold air right into the house. This is the second-most expensive project on our list, at $600. It is a close tie with another project slated for the laundry room.
* We have one final task: to find an energy efficient cat door. Put gingerly, the new thick door will cut off access to the "kitty loo", so we need to put a door in it. Hopefully we can find one that doesn't leak. Is there such a thing as an Energy Star cat door? I'm about to find out.

Considering we are midway through out first month, I think we are making a decent bit of progress. It's going to become more of a challenge once the big projects are out of the way, as it will be harder to find places that we can cut.

On the agenda for this year, to help with this goal,

* We hope to purchase a front-loading Energy Star washer.These are a good bet all around, and should be much more efficient than the top-loading model we bought when we moved into this house. I will do some research on brands and post my findings here.
* Invest in some LED lights, to replace some of the much-used CFLs we have around the house.

Who knows what we will need to do. It seems like every project we do leads to another project we hadn't even thought of before. It seems our house is an onion.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Food gardens that pay dividends

I wrote this post originally for "Middle Path Finance" but thought you might enjoy it as well.

Last August, I drew out a plan of what I wanted the gardens on our half-acre lot, surrounding our 1957 ranch house, to be like. I live in the city, on a typical used-to-be-suburbs but now I'm in the city limits lot. I grew up in the country, in wide open spaces with plenty of sunny room for a garden. Not so here, but despite its limitations, I am determined to convert as much of our land to agriculture as possible.

I was discussing this last night with a friend who has never had a yard. He grew up in a condo, with no grass, and said he didn't understand why he felt compelled to grow things. He dreamed often of farming. It makes perfect sense to me. For thousands of years, people grew food. It's only the last two generations or so who have been so far removed from where dinner comes from. You can't breed such an important trait out of a species in only two generations.

So yes, our plan is ambitious. I dug about half of the new beds in September. With a shovel. Every night when hubby would come home, I would hand him the baby and head outside to dig beds. Our first two summers in this house we had only one row of tomatoes on the right side of the house, and a small bed that holds Peonies and sage that is hemmed in by a concrete sidewalk. Considering how many beds I have left to dig, I have made the executive decision to rent a sod cutter in April to clear the rest.

The real question now has become: How do I make the most of the garden? I can only make the beds so big, because I have to consider the neighbors. It has to be pretty and feed us. Our backyard is pure shade, thanks to two beautiful silver maple trees that keep spitting out saplings faster than I can dig them up and post them on freecycle. (Three silver maples have gone to new homes thanks to the local freecyclers.) The backyard garden is out, unless something unfortunate happens to my trees.

Now, with seed catalogs in hand, I must decide what to plant. Our system may help you make the most use out of your limited growing space as well.

My first stop is They have a handy article about home gardening and a list of what fruits and veggies cost the most at the grocery store.

This list is quite handy if your primary goal is to lower your grocery bill.Here are the spendy veggies and fruits.

• Mushrooms. • Blackberries.
• Collard greens. • Raspberries.
• Cherry tomatoes. • Cherries.
• Green peas. • Blueberries.
• Okra. • Apricots.
• Turnip greens. • Strawberries.
• Asparagus. • Pineapple.
• Mustard greens. • Grapes.
• Kale. • Plums.
• Cauliflower. • Avocados.

Of course, there is no sense growing foods your family doesn't love, no matter how much they cost in the store. But the list is a handy guideline. Several of the things we'd like to plant this year are on the list, which simply reinforces our decisions.

How do you grow a garden that will pay you dividends?

* Plant the foods that will save you the most money, or will provide you with a food that you like but normally don't purchase because it is too expensive. Growing foods that can be preserved for winter use, such as hot peppers, potatoes and tomatoes, can help you stretch your grocery budget well past the summer season. Plant foods that can be frozen or canned, and don't waste anything that your garden produces. By mid-September, it can be tempting to let those last green Roma tomatoes rot on the vine. That is not the way to make your garden pay off.

If you, like me, are just starting your food garden, remember that some foods take a long time to pay off. For instance, fruit. Raspberries and blackberries can be faithful fruits for small backyards, but generally take at least a year to bear fruit. If you plant a fruit tree, it can take three years or more for you to collect your first juicy dividend.

Asparagus is another patience-tester. Asparagus can take two to three years to produce a decent crop, but once established, that bed will produce for another 20 years. Strawberries take two years to produce a good crop.Fill in the wait by planting a variety of annuals that will provide a good harvest this summer, like peppers and tomatoes.

It is important to remember

* The garden is a work in progress. You probably won't be able to accomplish everything in the first year, nor will you necessarily be happy with the choices you make in the first year. Through the seasons, you will learn what grows best on different parts of your property. For instance, we grow tomatoes on the right side of the house. When we tried green peppers in that spot, they didn't do well. It's almost as if they got too much sun. When we moved them to the less sunny left side of the house, the peppers did very well. The beauty of the home garden is that every spring is a chance to start fresh.
* You must mix instant gratification with long-term production. Annuals can be great if you like replanting your entire garden every year (and paying for plants every year). Me? Not so much. So I am mixing annuals with perennials and longer-term plants like fruit trees, because in 5 years I hope to have a varied harvest, and a garden where something new ripens every couple of weeks.
* Don't spend a fortune on your garden if you plan to move, or if your main goal is to save money. Don't skimp on bargain seeds. Buy good ones, yes. But don't go crazy and spend $500 or more on tools and gizmos. That can get out of hand quickly, and eat up your profits.
* And when you are picking what to plant, don't discount something just because it's very cheap at the store. Cheaper foods like potatoes can be worth growing. Chances are anything you grow at home will taste a lot better and be more nutritious than what you can buy at a grocery store. And, you can choose to grow pesticide-free as well, an added health bonus.It all depends on why you want a garden and what you hope to accomplish.
* Be creative in your use of space. The aforementioned potatoes can be grown in a space saving trash can, if you don't have room for a long row of them.
* If you are going to do this well, you have to visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation web site. If you grow anything that you hope to eat after summer is over, it helps to know how best to preserve it. Freezing isn't always as simple as just tossing stuff in a Ziploc and putting it into the freezer.
* Make room for animals and insects in your habitat. It's always good to plant something for the honey bees, the butterflies, and other denizens of your habitat. The goal should be to tread lightly. You may also want to refrain from using pesticides. You might be surprised at how well your garden does without chemical assistance.

Now that I have said all of that, I'll tell you what I am going to plant on my modest lot, in the flower beds I have reclaimed from lawn.


* Mary Washington asparagus. An heirloom variety, to establish a bed.
* a hot pepper garden, so that we can dry them and use them to flavor our food all year long. We have chosen to grow Kung Pao hybrid, long red slim cayenne, false alarm hybrids and hot lemon heirloom peppers. We'll also plant one or two green pepper plants.
* five each of heritage everbearing red raspberries and royalty standard purple raspberries.
* red pontiac potatoes. We will be 'forcing' these in a trash can, like my grandpa used to do. By stressing the plant you can get great yields without wasting precious space.
* six Roma tomato and six cherry tomato plants. I don't know what variety, as we buy these from my former grade school every year during their plant sale fundraiser. They have always been good producers.
* the herb garden will consist of cilantro,pesto perpetuo basil,and Greek oregano.
* a patch of Ozark beauty everbearing strawberries.
* bloomsdale spinach and nantes carrots, for my raised bed and fall coldframe. I use these to extend the growing season. This will be my first year trying to extend the fall harvest into winter with the coldframe.
* green beans of a yet undetermined variety, at the request of hubby, who could live on these alone.
* the obligatory zucchini plant, also from the school fundraiser. I may get ambitious and plant two, even though I know I'll be up to my neck in zucchini. I have two new recipes for zucchini, and it always makes a great extender for sauces and such, so maybe I can keep up.Echinacea
* A butterfly garden, including five varieties of echinacea, two types of bee balm, and some butterfly weed. I will frame this flowerbed with butterfly-friendly annuals, and maybe with lingonberries, which are delicious on Swedish pancakes, unusual, and look like an ornamental plant.
* Luffa. Yes, the luffa sponge is a squash, not something that is plucked from the ocean. This will be a fun experiment. They grow as a vine, so with staking shouldn't take up too much space in the garden.
* English lavender, for its aromatherapy qualities.

Of course, the seeds aren't ordered yet so this could change. It is overly ambitious, I know, and I haven't even included the two sweet dwarf cherry trees I'd like to plant. But through clever use of space, we hope to grow all of these things in abundance in our small garden, in plain view of the neighbors, without raising their ire.

No discussion of an economical garden would be complete without suggesting ways to save money in the garden.

* We use rain barrels to collect water for our plants. It saves money and the collected water is better for the plants because it doesn't contain the chemicals in treated water.
* We compost. You don't need an expensive set up, but you do need patience. It can take a year or two to turn waste into rich compost, but when it is ready, your garden will pay you back with lots of love, disease resistance, and delicious fruits.
* Save seeds, or at least let a few veggies and fruits fall into the dirt. This netted us some lovely volunteer cherry tomato plants that sprung up and gave us tomatoes just like the plants we bought every year.
* Skip the pesticides and fertilizer. We have never once used either in our garden. Instead, we try to take good care of our dirt via mulch and compost, and we don't get too upset if a slug eats a tomato or two. There is enough for everyone.
* Don't waste a single veggie or fruit. Last year, I had two marathon sessions turning Roma tomatoes and green peppers into pasta sauce. I froze about a dozen bags of it, which will feed my family all winter. You will have to have some marathons too, whether you are in the mood or not, to get the most pay off from your money-saving garden.