Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The geothermal heating estimate

I'm sure I already mentioned the belching monster of a furnace we have in our basement. I'm sure it was state-of-the-art in 1956. And I certainly admire that it was built well enough to work for 50 winters without so much as a hiccup. But it has to go!

We just got our gas bill yesterday, and it looks like our annual natural gas consumption was 1200 CCF. I plugged that into a carbon-footprint calculator and got a little dizzy when I found out that 1200 CCF produces about 14,000 pounds of carbon dioxide every year. Holy Cow!

That furnace really has to go!

One furnace option we're really keen on is the geothermal heat pump. It consists of a network of underground pipes hooked to a high-efficiency electric heat pump. It is highly efficient because the temperature underground is steady year-round. A traditional furnace pulls freezing air from outside, then heating it to a comfortable indoor temperature. Geothermal pulls the air from the underground pipes, and because it is a steady temperature, expends less energy heating it up to heat your house.

They can also be retrofitted to heat half of your hot water, and to act as an air conditioner in the summertime. So really, it's a furnace, air conditioner and auxiliary water heater all in one. It is also considered one of the cleanest, least CO2 producing furnace options.

We got an estimate from (maybe our one and only) local installed. Looks like it'll cost $12,400 to convert our house to that system. I still have to crunch all the numbers, but it seems promising. The installer estimated the pay-back time at about 5 years. If it cuts those $350 plus heating bills in the winter, it may just work out.

In the meantime, I have a lot more homework to do.

How much do you really save with compact flourescent lightbulbs?

I love the earth but admit I am a cheapskate. My palms get a little sweaty when I head to the hardware store to buy lightbulbs, and the 6-pack of compact flourescents cost $10.

So let's do the math. How much does a compact flourescent bulb really cost you, compared to a regular light bulb?

It costs $2 to use a a 13-watt compact fluorescent light bulb 6 hours a day for one year, and $18 for the typical 60-watt bulb, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. So every incandescent bulb you replace with a compact flourescent will save you $16 a year.


Flourescents also last longer, up to 7 years, than other bulbs. Of course, they are more expensive. But in this case it looks like paying more upfront will save me cash in the long run.

It's easier when I think of each little lightbulb in the bubble package as a $16 a year bonus.

But let me be clear that I'm not going crazy buying cartloads of them either. I've read that it's best to just buy one package to start, and use it to replace the bulbs in the fixtures you use the most. I figure that's the overhead light in the bathroom, above the kitchen sink, in my bedside lamps, and the two floor lamps in the basement and living rooms. I've also read that it's good to keep a few extra on hand, and use them to replace egular light bulbs as they burn out. In theory, within a year or so, you'll have a house full of energy-sipping conpact flourescents without the expense of buying them all at once. (or wasting perfectly good, normal light bulbs.)

Looks like I have another weekend project....

The argument for a laundry line and air-drying your clothes

Laundry lines aren't the most glamorous topic, but they are more interesting than you might think. Especially if you're trying to reduce your carbon footprint. Oh, and save money.

Your clothes dryer is one of the most energy-intensive appliances in your home. BY some estimates, they cost about $85 a year to operate and emit an average of about 3.9 pounds of carbon dioxide every day (according to the Sierra Club).

No wonder line-drying has become rallying cry for environmentalists. Yes, there are now laundry-line activists who are fighting to overturn municipal ordinances and homeowners association bylaws against line drying. (Visit them at LaundryList.org)

It's a compelling argument. We installed a laundry line this spring. And we hang out our laundry maybe three times each week. I admit that sometimes it can be a hassle to lug the laundry up the stairs and outside. Line drying definitely takes more time-- there's the lugging, the hanging, and of course, the fingers-crossed hope-it-doesn't-rain-before-my-clothes-dry dance. Oh, and line drying makes your clothes a little "crunchy", which is remedied only by lugging them back to the laundry room for a 5 minute tumble in the dryer to soften them up.

My hubby was the driving force behind the laundry line. I admit I was slow to warm to the idea. But now that we're in the groove, I love it. There is something relaxing about slwoing the pace of my over-booked life long enough to pin up each sock and towel as squirrels scurry in the trees above me. Something invigorating about the fresh air.

And something great about slightly lower electricity bills, although it's hard to tell how much of that is laundry and how much is our switch to compact flourescent bulbs. (That's another story.)

Even though our neighbor protests, insisting that laundry lines are low-rent (A common perception, despite all of them growing up with mom's who line-dried), we aren't alone in our laundry lining.

Here are several news stories on the issue:
This Story in the Boston Globe

A story in the CS Monitor

We like it so much we're thinking of upgrading with two high-tech laundry lines, one outside and one in the basement laundry room. (Check these out:http://www.clotheslineshop.com)

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Truth About Rain Barrels

I apologize for the angry rant about my complaining neighbor. I am quite steamed about the whole incident.

But allow me to back up. We bought two rain barrels from the Friends of Big Darby Creek, a nonprofit attached to one of our local watersheds. They subsidized the barrels, bringing down the cost to about $30 each-- quite a lot cheaper than the usual $100 to $120 price tag. We're having some problems with swelling rivers after major storms, and it turns out houses with gutters like mine are contributing a lot to the problem.

Our gutters do not run off into the grass. Instead, they are connected to a series of underground tubes that funnel the water directly into the sewer, which then drain into the closest river. Apparently it's better for the water to run directly into your grass.

Enter the rain barrels. We can reduce our environmental impact two ways if we use them-- the first, involves not taxing the watershed. The second: Using tap water for gardening is not only bad for plants (They don't like the chemicals in the water), it strains our city's water-treatment plants.

And, it'll save us money. We have quite the vegetable garden brewing, and when we water with tap, we pay twice-- once for the water itself, then an equal charge for sewer volume. (The utility assumes the water you use will end up in the sewer).

Our barrels hold about 80 gallons each. Including water and sewer charges, it'll save us about $5 on our bill every time we use about 750 gallons of barrel water on gardens. It's not huge, but it's nothing to sneeze at, although the number of barrels we use each summer depends on how much rain we get, and so far it looks as though we are headed for a drought.

We installed one on each side of the house, on the gutter closest to our vegetable and flower gardens. Each comes with an overflow hose, to direct water away from the foundation if the barrel is full, and a spigot that attaches to a standard garden hose.

Here is the Wikipedia entry for rain barrels, with some interesting facts and links to information on how to install and build your own barrels. Check out Wikipedia's entry

It seems like an eco- and a pocket-book win-win to me, despite the protests of our less-than-sunny neighbor. Heck, maybe I should crunch the numbers and make the economic case that he too should install one!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Our first complaint from the neighbors

I suppose it's bound to happen. You want to make changes that are better for the environment, and for some reason it ruffles the feathers of the neighbors.

My father-in-law installed two rain barrels, one on each side of my house, this weekend. Last night, we found an index card with our neighbor's phone number on it and a "please call me" note stuck in our front door.

So we called. He said our laundry line and our rain barrels were "unsightly and disturbing all of the neighbors."

Needless to say, we were furious.

The laundry line is in the backyard. This neighbor is the only one who can see it, and only from his back upstairs window.
The rain barrels are hidden behind trees and cannot be seen from the street. They are also smaller and less offensive than our trash cans, which sit right outside with them. (All of our neighbors keep the trash cans outside.)

We are disappointed, to say the least. We don't want problems with our neighbors. We have good relationships with most of them. The hubby plays bridge with one older woman across the street, another watches the house while we are out of town, and another comes over to share the numbers for plumbers, electricians, and other handy people, or to chat about their grandchildren.

This neighbor in particular has always been frosty to us, so I shouldn't be surprised.

But as much as I like being nice to the neighbors, we are standing our ground. The rain barrels will stay up and our laundry will dry outside. I just have my fingers crossed that this is not the first in a long string of futile battles over the "green" ranch project

Friday, June 8, 2007

Summertime = furnace?

Now that it's 90 degrees outside I've been thinking about my furnace.
That might seem weird, but hey, who wants to replace their furnace when it's 20 degrees outside? Not me.

The hubby and I have decided that the furnace is the first big project we're going to tackle. It makes sense. The darn thing has been chugging along in our basement since 1957. (My guess is it wouldn't make the grade for an Energy Star rating). It also costs us a huge bucket of cash to use. In the winter, we bundle up in sweaters and keep the thermostat on 60 degrees, yet we are still paying north of $350 a month to "heat" our 1,400 square foot house.

Here's the catch: We aren't quite sure what to replace it with. So I've been poking around on the Internet.

I read a compelling story about new micro-CHP furnaces. Basically, they not only heat your house, but use the extra energy to generate electricity. They are used widely in Japan, but have just made their debut in North America. (Here is a link to that story:http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/1114/p01s02-usec.html)

Then there is geothermal, a series of underground tubes that transfer heat into and out of your house. It is incredibly efficient and emits almost no CO2. Alas, we have a small lot, so I'm not sure if it's an option for us. Plus, I'm not sure if there is an installer near us, or if it's going to be prohibitively expensive. (for more info: http://www.geoexchange.org/)

The least sexy option is merely to upgrade the furnace we already have. I mean, a new, normal furnace would still have to be significantly more energy efficient than the 50-year-old monster that's chewing up natural gas at our house every winter, right?

We are budgeting between $7,000 and $12,000 for this project. It makes my palms sweat a little bit because that's a lot of money.

But that's about how much we are budgeting for each of the major system/structural upgrades to our house: The furnace, the roof, the windows, and maybe if we're feeling frisky, a net-metered solar power system to top it all off.
Our plan is to tackle one big project a year, to spread out the costs.

So let the shopping begin.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The $20 earth-friendly makeover

I bet you've never given a second thought to your faucet aerator. Faucet aerators are the little disks in the mouth of your faucet that regulate how much water comes out when you turn the handle. If you're like me, it's something that never even occurred to you. And who would have thought that those little buggers could be replaced with more efficient models? Once again, not me.

But after a short investigation, I discovered that I was sending 2.5 gallons a minute down the drain. Multiply by two bathroom faucets, and well, it just seems like a bit much. So I spent my first $4.30, plus shipping, for the earth.

That was enough to get me two ultra-low-flow faucet aerators. They only use a half a gallon a minute.(You can see what I'm talking about here

It only took about a minute to install each one, and much to my surprise the faucets still have plenty of water pressure.

At this point, I'm already feeling mildly smug. It feels good to save a polar bear, one gallon at a time.

So what about the other $15 or so? While cruising the aisles at Lowe's I splurged and bought a low-flow shower head. My hubby was skeptical. Until his morning shower today.

That showerhead seems to have not only made us "greener" but also saved him, the daily late-waker, the unhappy shock of a cold morning shower. Who could resist that?

I'll admit. These first two "projects" are probably the easiest we are going to encounter on our journey. But hey, I'm not too proud to admit that the cheap and easy path is a great place to start.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Where we are and where we want to be

I suppose the first step of any meaningful transformation is a realistic assessment of where you are right now.
We bought this house about a year ago. At 1,400 square feet, it's modest. It's a great house, but let's face it, it's as green as a mid 1970s coal-burning power plant.

We've got leaky, single-paned aluminum windows, and the original 1956 gas furnace is pumping away in the basement. The roof needs to be replaced, and the air conditioner looks like it was fresh out of the box in 1982. Not the formula for energy efficiency. But at least I won't feel bad ripping out the old stuff. It'd be a lot worse trying to "green" a house if the systems were just new enough that it'd be a waste to replace them.

So that's where we are. Here is what we'd like to do.

We want to reduce the amount of CO2 we're generating. Suspect No. 1 is the furnace. It's so old, that it's the biggest offender. Because of it's age it has to be terribly inefficient. Sadly, we keep the thermostat on 60 all winter and our heating bill is still more than $300 a month. It's got to go.

Part 2 of reducing CO2 is to reduce our dependence on coal-burning power plants. Electricity is cheap in Ohio. Very cheap, but our utility generates 80 percent of its power from coal plants. Most were built before tough pollution standards were in effect which equals EEK! A lot of river towns around here are practically condemned because of the pollution these plants generate. So once the furnace goes, tackling this will be the next big project.

We'd also like to reduce the amount of water we use, recycle more, and reduce the amount of waste we produce.

And here are the rules:
We aren't rolling in money. All of our projects have to pay us back in some way. Either they can be cheap, but provide a significant boost to quality of life, or if they require a big bunch of cash, they have to save us money somehow.

We're hoping our journey can act as a guide to other Midwestern homeowners. And let's face it-- the Midwest is the land of the price-conscious value shopper. If it doesn't pay off, people here won't do it! That said, we'll probably do a lot of price comparisons between traditional products and earth-friendly, just so you guys can see the math and decide if it might make sense for you.