Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Coal, mercury and your fish dinner

You flip a light switch on and a grizzled Appalachian heads back into a coal mine in Virginia. He brings out some coal that they ship to Texas. Another grizzled guy loads that into a coal fired power plant. The resulting smoke has mercury in it...and it drifts along with the prevailing winds. Eventually the mercury falls or is washed out of the air.

It lands on mostly land where it sits waiting for a heavy rain to wash it into a watershed. Farm land makes it especially easy for the mercury to get caught up in the run off.

The mercury is then eaten by micro organisms in the water that change the mercury into methyl mercury. That's when it becomes dangerous because methyl mercury is "bio available" meaning it now can be absorbed into animal and human tissue.

As it wanders downstream, stuff eats it, and then stuff eats the other stuff and before long big fish are eating a little methyl mercury every day. The mercury and fish are in all our oceans lakes and rivers but the concentration is the issue. How much bio available mercury accumulates in that particular area and that particular fish?

So we now have warnings from the EPA and FDA that pregnant women and young children should limit the types and quantities of fish they eat! We hear of people getting mercury poisoning from eating too much sushi! Everyone has to pay attention to the amount and type of fish they eat for fear of accumulating too much methyl mercury.

Bottom Line - We are talking about "clean coal" but its too late, too expensive and too unproven. What we need is "clean fish"!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Conservation and waste

It seems that every effort to be environmentally more responsible comes with trade offs. In fact, I think its the hardest part...measuring the pro's and cons. Time and money are two obvious ones but then you have to consider carbon, pollution, landfills, etc etc. Here is my stab at criteria for deciding in order of priority.

  1. Harmful use. If something we do, buy or consume is considered harmful, we need to address it first. Pouring used motor oil in the sewer is harmful.
  2. Second is waste. If the item serves no function, then it's waste. Wasting is bad economically and karmic-ly. Cutting out waste is usually immediate change, but its not to be confused with "use".
  3. Charitable value. If your green efforts and actions can help those less fortunate or needy, it's a great opportunity.
  4. When it's easily cheaper to do it the green way. Saving money is likely to make the action stick. Otherwise we only have our conscious to remind us...
  5. Change what can make a difference today. Not using paper or plastic is today. Changing to CFLs is today. Immediate gratification is good to keep us going on to the harder things.
  6. Long term payoffs are next. These items are usually larger, like a more energy efficient car or a solar hot water heater.
  7. Actions that soothe one's conscious but aren't likely to make economic sense. It's something that bothers you, like buying a newer more efficient refrigerator rather than keeping the old inefficient one.
  8. Reducing use is a tricky one. Not really waste but you could do with less of something, like a few degrees on your thermostat or turning off your security lights. If going green makes your life less enjoyable it's a bad idea. If you choose to drive up the street to get a Starbucks, go for it, if you choose the biggest car you have to do it, that's waste.
  9. Trends and fads, i.e. keeping up with the Joneses' and their new Prius purchase is probably the least compelling reason to go green. That's how people ended up driving Hummers! It was a fad too!

Bottom Line - You can probably run many opportunities to go green through that list and better decide where to prioritize it...the first five are in my view, the must do's, and the last four are options for continuing to go green. Of course, if you get an item that covers multiple entries high on the list, jump on it!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Styrofoam, cant live with it...

I cant live without it. There is no other product out there that performs for the money like a Styrofoam cup. It handles heat and cold, protects your hand, doesn't sweat, keeps the temperature of your drink better than anything, is cheap and easy to store. What's not to love?

Oh ya, it's really bad for the environment and we cant recycle it!

The Starbucks cup with a sleeve is their answer to the problem. I haven't found mine yet. Replacing water bottles with a reusable one was easy, but how do I get a green alternative to Styrofoam?

Let me let you in on a dirty little secret. Styrofoam is very recyclable. It's just that we don't because the economics don't work. It turns out that Styrofoam is too light yet bulky making shipping it way too expensive. So if you have a Styrofoam recycler close by it may be included in your recycling program. Otherwise, Styrofoam is verboten so it goes into the landfill to last, well...forever.

Here in Dallas we have some drop off opportunities for big chunks, packing and even peanuts, but no cups or food containers. (Metro Foam). So my cups remain homeless. We do wash them if they aren't stained but eventually they go in the trash.

I was willing to live with this issue as is until my latest walk at the lake after a big rain. The usual ton of plastic bottles were there but interspersed among them was Styrofoam! Huge amounts of little bits! It was even more of an eyesore than the bottles....it's everywhere!

Now what do I do? I can't live with them and I don't want to live without them.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sealing up your home

My zero of a home needs some sealing. I know that because it got cold again and I went around feeling and measuring my cold spots. It seemed like an easy project...

Basically you end up concentrating on all the penetrations through the sheetrock. So we're after plugs, switches, plumbing, lighting...but only on exterior walls. You just need three things (other than time), you need those little foam deals for the switches and plugs, some foam sealant, and child protection plugs for the outlets. Windows and doors are for another post.

Off to the Depot, but first I have to count my plugs and switches on exterior walls to figure out how many foam deals I need. Well, I have triple wide, double wide and single switches and double wide and single wide plugs. About halfway through I give up counting because I don't really know what's available.

At the store I ask and get directed to an obscure box in the electrical section. (How long will it take for the Depot to realize they need an energy conservation section?) In the box are plastic bags of foam deals, two for a dollar for single outlets or switches (they are universal). It occurs to me that means I have to essentially assemble the double and triple wide ones. I grab a big handful wondering how badly I am getting hosed buying little sheets of foam rubber for $.50 each.

Next I head to the paint department for foam sealant. The first thing I see is a product in a big can called "Great Stuff", well let me assure you it isn't. Steer clear. This stuff sticks on everything, it's horrible to clean up and even harder to control the expansion. Think of your last caulking project only using super glue foamy stuff.

A little farther down is a new foam product (to me) from DAP. They make good stuff and it's water clean up. That also means it will have very little noxious smell (VOCs).

Lastly, I have to ask again where the safety plugs are..."in the child safety section". They have a child safety section and no energy conservation section! I choose some clear plugs because no manufacturer has the forethought to make white ones that match the plates. Off to the register...wherever that is.

There is lots of information out on the web on how to do this project but it's pretty simple. You take off the plates and foam around the electrical boxes, not in them! This stops most of the air movement. Then you put the foam deal on the back of the plate and replace. On outlets you also push in the safety plugs to close the holes in the plug itself. Belt, suspenders, glue....

Of course the "universal" foam deals don't fit my plates! They are too big, so I have to trim every one, on four sides. For the doubles and triples I have to perform minor surgery. There has to be a better product out there...

Bottom Line #1 - This project cost about $30 and saved me...well...who knows? It's easy, cheap and we know it works, just not how much. This one we do on faith because we can feel the cold air!

I also visit every plumbing penetration and sealed those with the foam. The can has a short straw but I used a long skinny one we had in the house that worked great to reach back in the holes. The colder it is in the sink cabinet, the more foam you will need.

I then went outside and sealed all the external areas where I had some mortar cracks that were deep enough to require some foam. You don't want to fill these all the way as they will need mortar, or caulk and paint to finish them right. I also sealed up where the AC enters, dryer vent, etc but those only enter my crawlspace, but it keeps the critters out.

Since it's all water clean up, just carry some paper towels and get all the excess off right away.

Just a note on sealing and insulation. The reason insulation works is because it stops air flow. If your wall was completely sealed but without insulation, the air would flow from convection, transferring the cold in and the heat out. So stopping these flows of air is what insulation and sealing do. In your attic, the insulation just makes a non flowing barrier of stuff with the air trapped in it. In argon filled, double pane windows, it slows down the convection and makes a better "insulating" window.

So why does air flow into your wall plugs even with insulation? Because a house is rarely neutral in air pressure so it may be sucking it in and wind can also exacerbate the problem. The fiberglass bats typically used don't really "seal" so there are air gaps. But if we seal, we stop the air flow and thus the transference of heat or cold in the walls. (This is why the new spray foams are becoming so popular, they seal and insulate at the same time!)

Before you start such a project, I caution you. If you are the obsessive type, you may chase and fix leaks till you finally live in an air sealed bubble. That's not good for your health. There are too many things in your home emitting noxious fumes that a completely sealed house would hold, forever. So two choices, live with some air infiltration or seal it up and buy a device that provides fresh air into the home. Feel like you have come full circle?

Bottom Line #2 - Your sealing project is time and money well spent but don't go overboard. Just hit all the high spots and keep an eye out for any new leaks. Like when the cable guy comes out and starts drilling.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I'll save 30% on my electricity bill!

I am pretty surprised and encouraged that I could save that much without counting any heating and air conditioning. Here's the numbers: Last year I spent $3,323.50 on electricity. That is my total bill, not just the price of electricity. (It's interesting to note how much the taxes, fees etc add to the bill and price per kilowatt.)

Based on my recent efforts I anticipate saving $1,056.10, or 31.7% per year. But that's calculated with the price of electricity only and doesn't include the fees, taxes etc. so I expect to save even more.

Here is how you can do that too.

It's best if you think about the number of hours something is on, or on standby. Make a list by hours and days. At the top will be anything on all the time like chargers, computers, TV's on standby etc. Then "long use" items like refrigerators, dryers, water heaters and the small stuff like security lights, pumps, decorative lighting, task lighting, coffee maker etc.

Lastly, list the items that are on only occasionally for a short time and then throw it away. You will have a really hard time getting any payback working on those items.

Bottom Line #1 - Don't try and guess the item's power usage, it's the amount of "on-time" per month that really triggers the possible savings.

Next you choose your weapon. There are five in your arsenal.
  1. Smart Strips
  2. Timers
  3. Fluorescent bulbs
  4. The plug
  5. A wad of cash for some new appliances
First, the Smart Strip. Anywhere you see a wad of cords, like behind your desk or near the TV you want to consider this device. It basically turns everything off (really off) that's on when the TV or PC are on. Like satellite boxes, sub woofers, printers, modems etc etc.

Timers can be deployed to allow items to use power when you say the can. It's like your own smart grid. Decorative lighting, pumps, chargers, etc.

Fluorescents allow a big reduction in watts used for lights that are on enough to matter. Skip the closets and go directly to the kitchen and living room. If you have lights that are just notoriously left on for no reason, change them to CFLs also. (Kids room?)

The "plug" means you may have items like a clock in your guest room or exercise equipment with an LED display or a TV in the garage, battery chargers, etc...just unplug them or get a regular power strip with a switch, and turn them off!

Last, the wad of cash. Always a good weapon to upgrade a really old appliance. If you have fridges over 10 years old, check with the manufacturer on it's energy use. They have their energy labels online, even for older units. This might be worth the trouble since they are on a long time, and you can get $50 for your old one!

The washer and dryer are next. The new washers are much better, and expensive. The dryers are about the same as the one you have. If yours work fine, I'd hope one failed and then get a new set. And don't get one with a display that's constantly on!

The dishwasher is tricky. They may pre-heat water, and they also heat the air for drying. That's expensive regardless. Again, I would check the manufacturer's energy rating and go from there.

An LCD is your best TV and monitor choice. A new gas water heater with lots of insulation, a high end AC unit and furnace can all help, but will have long paybacks.

For me, I only used the first four weapons and got 30%. My nine year old fridge was better than my new one! (We have two). My washer and dryer are old and work fine etc etc.

Bottom Line #2 - I consider the 30% I saved to be nothing but wasted power. It hasn't changed how I live, or my enjoyment of life. No one visiting our home would know unless I told them. My overall payback is less than a year and I feel better about my footprint.

A note about PCs. I always had trouble with the standby or sleep modes that Microsoft has in Windows. I found a small but fun piece of free software called CO2 saver. It has settings to make sure you sleep when you should and counts the amount of CO2 you saved by doing it...

I measured the "hibernation" mode and it's around one watt for my desktop and laptop. Combine this with a Smart Strip that reacts to hibernation and you can leave your PC on all the time to be ready for you, but without all the power use!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Programmable thermostat - and other lies

I purchased my programmable thermostat about eight months ago. I started using it in late summer when judicious use of the air conditioner can provide some pretty big savings.

First I read the package and marveled at how this simple device could save me up to 30% on my utility bills. All I needed to do was install it and turn my temperature up in the summer and down in the winter. But of course we could do that anyway, and, what they were suggesting was something like 65 in the winter and 78 in the summer.

Maybe it was seeing Jimmy Carter in the white house in a cardigan that did it, but it turned me against being cold in my own home. And being hot might be worse because you can only take so many clothes off before everyone, including your neighbors, are uncomfortable.

But back to the thermostat. The real value isn't your house being hot and cold when you're there, awake, it's for when you're gone or asleep! You have to buy the better ones so you can program awake and asleep as well as home and away AND have it be different for different days of the week. I bought the Honeywell because who else make thermostats?

Bottom Line #1 - Don't believe the lies on the box unless you like being naked at home in the summer. However, these thermostats pay for themselves quickly in energy savings even while keeping you comfy, if, they are programed properly to fit your lifestyle.

One thing they do is keep the temperature accurately. That way you will be less inclined to "adjust" the temp based on a moment of warmth or chilliness. The new ones like mine actually anticipate the time to cool or warm the house and start prior to the time you set. We set ours to warm the house early in the morning for showers and dressing and then readjust for the rest of the day.

These devices also have separate cool and heat settings. When you switch to one or the other you aren't try to figure out what's comfortable...it already knows. When the seasons change you are ready without wasting energy tuning for a couple weeks.

Bottom Line #2 - I saw real savings, but it's difficult to quantify. We were more comfortable as well, but that is subjective. If it saves 5% on your bill, it's a steal. Get one, a good one, as soon as you can and consider it your own personal smart grid.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The results are in!

I have completed my home (a zero) electricity audit and remediation. I found and I conquered. Well, mostly.

First, I didn't do anything with heating and air conditioning except install a programmable thermostat. More on that later.

I have a device called a TED (The Energy Detective). This device was installed by TXU for my two tier rate program. (It's no longer offered.) This device is connected into your electrical panel and sends out a signal to a little display box. You can then turn stuff off and on to see the power use.

I asked my wife to help on this one. She sat at the computer with TED while I switched stuff all over the house. She recorded the electricity use in a spreadsheet. We did about 50 items.

Bottom Line #1 - Information is power. I found some interesting things (see my coffee maker and dryer posts), and some areas of minor concern.

I know this may come as a shock to you but 50 items isn't a lot. Everything has a plug, a switch or a battery. We love electricity! In fact, I am now at 94. And there are many more things that use electricity that I could measure and record, but as I went, I learned what I need to worry about, and what I don't.

  1. If it's on all the time you need to worry. It adds up quick into real money, even if it's small.
  2. If it's on a lot you need to worry, for the same reason.
  3. If it makes heat from electricity, you need to worry.
  4. If it pumps water, you need to worry.
  5. If its big, with a plug, you need to worry.
If it combines any of the above items you really need to worry.

So, for example, your pool pump is big with a plug, pumps water, and on a lot. Your electric hot water heater is on a lot, and big, and makes heat from electricity! If you have one of those, your electric meter is probably water cooled.

Bottom Line #2 - You can just use those rules of thumb above to know what to work on to reduce your energy use.

My spreadsheet takes the power used and multiplies it by the amount it's on, then by the days its used, then by the days in the month, and finally by the price for electricity at my house (.119 KWH off peak). I then sorted the sheet by worst offenders and went to work.

I purchased another gizmo called the Kill-a-watt. This device measures in smaller increments and its made for plugged stuff. So, I went hunting for those Vampires we hear so much about. I was suspicious this was a waste of time. (This is partially how my spreadsheet got to 94 items.)

First, my Vampire definition. If the device is using power soley to make or keep it "ready" for use. I.e. anything that uses a remote and my PC speakers, treadmill, etc.

If it has a clock, or its charging a battery, I call that a zombie. Its not sucking power secretivly, it's doing it in plain sight. It in theory has some value but a lot of what its doing is wasted energy.

So I calculated I was using $6.56 of Vampire power per month (17 items). After remediation (more on that later) I got it down to $2.26. I saved $4.30. a month. Hardly likely to stop global warming.

On my zombies (18 items), coffee maker clock, phone chargers, answering machines, hand vacuum, tivo's etc, I got a more satisfying result. I was using $20.31 and reduced it to $9.88 or $10.43 a month in savings.

I went through 35 items to get that result! $14.73 a month savings, I spent $145.32 to do it. It will pay back in less than a year if my time is free.

My coffee maker was costing me $15.14 a month and I reduced that to $.76 by buying a $35 carafe. Saved $14.39 a month with one item! Pay back, 3 months. (I told you, if it's on a lot and you're turning electricity into heat...)

I put a timer on the hand vacuum so it only charges once a day for an hour. It was costing me $.43 a month. now it costs $.02. $5.00 timer, one year payback.

I put timers on my two water feature pumps. $15.42 to start, $9.46 now, $5.96 a month savings for two $10 timers. That's a four month return!

Bottom Line #3 - Over all, I am now saving $89.44 a month in electricity that was wasted energy. That' 654 watt hours or about 4 kilowatt hours a year. I spent a total of $366 doing it. A four month payback, let's see how that compares to my other investments...ok, maybe not.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hunting Vampires

As part of my ongoing energy savings project I am confronted with the Vampire. This means I have to hunt down stuff that sucks power doing nothing...I think.

That's where I am at the moment, trying to define what a true Vampire is in electrical terms. Most would define it as standby power. There's no clock or anything useful going on. It's just sitting there waiting for you to ask it to do something, usually with a remote.

If I use that definition strictly, I have numerous devices, but I just suspicion it's not a lot of energy. I am measuring each of these devices and totaling their collective power use. I will post results soon.

What's tricky, or maybe it just needs a different name, is that stuff that has a minor function like a clock or a battery charger that keeps the battery charged. I have a rechargeable hand vacuum that we use about every two weeks. But am I paying to charge it all the time? That's probably worse than a Vampire. I suggest we call them Zombies. They wander around all the time wasting energy while doing very little real work.

Bottom Line #1 - Whatever we call it, if it runs 24 x 7 we need to look at it closely. There are very few things that we need around the clock, so if we are powering it, we are wasting energy.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lightbulbs...replace with green alternatives...or not?

I have a confession to make, I have 123 sockets inside my house and 37 outside. Together I have 160 different sockets that require light bulbs. No wonder they have to strip mine coal...just for my house!

That means that lighting for me is an ongoing project that started eight years ago when I remodeled this house. I used my first Compact Fluorescents (CFLs) then. I have learned a lot about bulbs since.

I have four kinds of switches for those bulbs. On-off, dimmable, motion sensing, and three way. Unfortunately, this is important to your green bulb choices.

First the easy part…there isn't, that I can find, any energy saving bulb technology, including CFLs and LED bulbs that work properly with motion or light sensors. If you find some, let me know as my exterior security lights are motion sensing and on at least until bedtime. That's expensive. Those cool indoor switches for a closet etc that come on when you enter? Won't work either.

On-off switches are pretty easy once you know what the rules of thumb are:
  1. Don't buy bright white or natural light CFLs, the light is terrible unless used behind a softening shade. Buy soft white. (2700k).
  2. Buy more output in lumens than the incandescent bulb you are replacing. The CFLs are always weaker than advertised.
  3. Note that any sockets you have that require a smaller, shorter profile incandescent (refrigerator bulbs, ceiling fans, sconces) usually can't be replaced effectively with a fluorescent because they always have the integral transformer that makes them too long. This also applies to the newer CFLs that look like spotlight bulbs, beware of can lights etc because the bulb will stick out below the trim. Measure first, buy second.
  4. Home Depot, Wall-Mart etc only carry a small subset of what's available in the market, lighting stores and online sources have a much wider array and the newest stuff.
Three way switches are getting easier. There are decent CFL, soft white, three way bulbs for lamps. If your shade is the kind that clamps on the bulb, it won’t work and if you have "harps" to connect the shade to the lamp, it must be wide enough to take the larger CFL. Some CFLs come with small brackets to help make the harp work but I haven't ever needed them.

Dimmed switch sockets are becoming much easier to retrofit. The new dimmable soft white CFL bulbs are great as long as they fit your fixture. It's worth noting that a dimmed incandescent saves energy too. However, because of the way they light, a half dimmed bulb uses more than half power.

There are some new dimmable CFLs that are housed in the "spotlight" looking form factor. I have two from different manufacturers. They are specified in both light color, and light amount, to replace halogen PAR type bulbs. They don't and aren't. They are a very disappointing product. They do dim, but only partially. They are of course too long and stick below my can light trim and the light quality is weak at best.

They might be good for something but PAR halogen lamp replacement isn't one of them.

Bottom Line #1 - Buying energy saving bulbs is way harder and you need to be informed to get a satisfactory result. Your switch type and bulb size dictate a lot.

Each CFL contains a very small amount of mercury. If you break a bulb you can capture this mercury and apply it to your fish directly and cut out all the middle men. Actually, you do want to dispose of these bulbs properly. Home Depot, Wall-Mart etc have recycling bins just for this purpose and will take bulbs you bought anywhere. If you break one, just sweep it into a zip lock baggy and take it to the Depot.

But that's why everyone is so breathlessly waiting for LED to become affordable. No mercury. But based on my test of four different LED bulbs, they have many of the same problems as CFL's. They don’t dim, the light quality is harsh in many cases, and they are odd form factors due to heat dissipation requirements (that I don't really understand). The promise is they will provide more light for less watts and last a long time. But, they are currently very expensive. They can be justified in commercial applications where there are large numbers left on for long periods of time (12 hours etc.) but not for most homeowner applications.

Bottom Line #2 - LEDs wont be an answer for us homeowners for awhile...(if ever).

I bought a bulb at the Depot recently from Phillips that is a halogen replacement that's advertised as 30% cheaper to run. And it's a halogen bulb! So it's dimmable etc...Works great but I can’t vouch for its lower energy use.

Bottom Line #3 - The energy savings from CFLs is impressive, the better ones last a long time and costs have come way down. They make a difference everywhere they work as well or better than an incandescent. If they don't, don't compromise the quality of light or appearance just for the sake of feeling green. Our homes and especially the lighting go a long way towards our quality of life and sense of well being. It's been proven, we are emotionally light sensitive. Let the manufacturers figure out how to give us what we need and want, and don't feel guilty about not having CFLs everywhere.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Recessed lighting

When I purchased my house it had many old style recessed ceiling fixtures. After the remodel, I had added a large number of new recessed lighting in the form of "can" lights. All of these fixtures, old and new, penetrate into the attic space.

I also had new insulation added which was blown-in cellulose. After reading the fine print on my new can lights (25 total) it says you can't pile insulation on them or next to them! Too hot, so we don't.

Now, jumping forward to today, it's apparent I have made a huge energy mistake. I have holes cut in my ceiling where thin metal boxes with holes in them for ventilation pass air in large volumes from my attic to my living space. The good news is, TXU sends me a picture of the coal mining family that I am responsible for feeding and clothing.

So, how to fix it?

In most of these cans I use hot halogen bulbs. The option of ignoring the fine print and just covering them up doesn't exist. Next I hear that some people build insulated boxes around the fixtures in the attic...but you still have to cut a hole for ventilation??? That's a lot of work and expense for insulated but unsealed lights.

So I look up my manufacturer and what do I discover? They make cans that are air sealed and can be covered with insulation!

Bottom Line #1 - Can lights can be a real problem and if you are considering them for your home get the sealed ones that can be in contact with insulation (IC rated).

Now I have considered changing all my bulbs to cool running fluorescents and just covering the cans, but that seems irresponsible to any new home owner who might put halogen fire starters back in....

The new can themselves are cheap, $12 each. The decorative trim rings however are around $25. It turns out I could switch the fixture and use the same trim ring! Sweet! But what will the electrician cost? Can I save that much money and how could I figure that out? Hmmmm...

Bottom Line #2 - This will takes some more work but...it does illustrate how easy it is to just waste energy, unintentionally.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Carbon Cap and Trade

In my very first post here I mentioned cap and trade. The idea is we define how much carbon we agree to release into the air (the cap). Then we sell a share (credit) of that to businesses that produce carbon. They can then sell those "credits" creating a trading market. Like stock trades, you have carbon credit trades.

President Obama has already built revenue into his budget from the initial sale of these credits. (646 billion). Every carbon producer will have to pay for the amount of carbon they produce by buying sufficient credits to offset the carbon produced. If you produce less emissions later you can sell your extra credits. If your business grows and you need more credits to cover your additional emissions, you must buy them in the market at market price.

Europe started theirs in 2005 and they gave all the credits away initially. Right now prices for credits are depressed due to the recession. (There are more credits than carbon being produced.)

Bottom Line #1 - Cap and trade is already integral to a budget long before its been vetted by congress. It is a market created from the ground up to price carbon emissions and limit or reduce the amount produced. Europe would like us to join their system so there will eventually be a global cap and trade market.

Taxes are the alternative. Simply tax every ton of carbon produced. Some would argue it's all a tax but "cap and trade" is just another way of saying it. Either way, industry will be faced with a cost to putting carbon in our air. Boulder Colorado already has a carbon tax and other states have implemented programs as well.

Bottom Line #2 - The opportunity to argue whether carbon is a real problem or not has mostly passed. It's now down to how to build a market mechanism to reduce the amount, rather than just hand it to the EPA, call it a pollutant, and regulate it through fines etc.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Giving it away

If I take something out of service because it's not environmentally sound, can I then give it away?

We think that someone else using it is better than it ending up in the dump. But what about this pile of incandescent light bulbs? I may be saving energy with the swirly bulbs but if I give the incandescent to somebody, isn't the result that the same amount of energy will be used and carbon produced? But that's only true if they use my bulbs instead of buying a fluorescent right? Or if they would have just purchased an incandescent bulb...isn't reuse better than recycling?

If I have a 10 year old refrigerator that uses twice the energy of today's model, can I sell it when I replace it with a new one? We don't want it in the dump either. What's worse?

Maybe we shouldn't be taking anything out of service until it's dead. If every American suddenly got rid of every 10 year or older appliance, we would be swimming in them. Should we ship them to poor countries?

Bottom Line - I have no idea... Why hasn't the question come up before?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

I am a zero!

Or my house is. I went to the Energy Star site to baseline my residence. They ask some pertinent question about my electricity and natural gas use along with the size of my home etc. This data is then compared to the rest of the US and you get a score. In my case a very bad score. From zero to a hundred...I got a zero!

Why I ask myself? Why does my home use so much energy? How am I ever going to get solar hot water or electricity to pay off if I am pouring that energy into an inefficient house? Given my experience with the sprinkler system, I am feeling pretty positive I can have a big effect without a lot of money. I have got to fix my energy hog of a house, or connect to my neighbor's utilities.

A quick analysis of my bills says that I use twice as much electricity as I do gas, in dollars. (I haven't found a reason to convert all that to BTUs.) That means cooling my home is the primary culprit. I think. (I can't find any electricity leaks...where its pooled up and overflowing into the driveway.)

Btw, we heat with gas, including food, and water.. We cool with electricity including two refrigerators. We dry the clothes with electricity. We turn the lights off, dim them, or we have put in CFLs to conserve on lighting. We also have a lot of daylight in our home because of all the windows....uh oh. Could it be the windows?

When I remodeled the home I put 12 inches of insulation in the attic, I have attic turbines (that work). I put in a 13 SEER AC unit. All the windows I changed I put in high quality wood framed double pane. The house itself has insulated walls (to what degree I don't know).

But I do have a lot of glass. In addition, I have quite a bit that's still single pane and a lot that is double pane in aluminum frames. Many don't even have curtains or blinds. Is that my Achilles heel?

The problem here is how do you know? Are my ducts leaky, the floors too cold or warm? Are the doors leaking, or is the insulation in the walls too poor? Or is my neighbor connected to my utilities? What makes me a zero?

I saw a show on TV where they called in a guy with an infrared camera. This device shows every minor temperature differential in your home. Walls, ceilings, wall plugs, windows, etc etc. So I track down a guy here in Dallas that does exactly that, he takes pictures of the trouble spots and afterward you have a report on where you need work...for $500. Question is, what's my payback? Well obviously, if he discovers some big problem I may get that money back pretty easy. But if there is a big problem, I should be able to figure that out.

Next, I buy online, a temperature reading infrared and laser device for $89. It basically reads out temps at whatever you point it at...instantly. The cat, 78 degrees (well insulated). So I go around looking for big problems...I see some small ones, I am going to have to seal up my electrical outlets on exterior walls, add some foam insulation in a couple small places etc. No big payback.

So by now I am beginning to believe it's just windows. That's the big problem. Now I know that traditionally you can't make window replacement pay off in energy bills. But, so does the government! They now have some really good tax credits to help the process and the new windows do a lot more! So I find a guy who builds custom, highly energy efficient windows, here in Dallas.

But what if my ducts are leaking? What if I am pouring hot or cold air into my crawl space or attic? Well, there are guys that come out to your house, close up all the ducts and then pressure tests them to see if there are any leaks. They isolate any ducts that are trouble and tape them up. I don't know what this costs are, or the likelihood that I have this problem...how would I know? I may need to do this...

Another way you can try and sort out this problem is to have a company (guys) come in and seal up your house and pressure test it to see how much leakage you have around doors, windows, can lights etc etc. I don't know what that costs either.

Bottom Line #1 - There are three things we are looking for in a home or business. One, how much heat or cold is transferred through materials (including glass). Two, how much hot or cold air, that I paid to produce, is leaking out of my ducts? Three, how much outside air is leaking into the space around the doors, windows etc.

So far that looks like three different guys, can that be right? And I wonder who else I have to call in to fix stuff? But there is more. What if, I have too hot of an attic? Or what if I have too much sun on my windows in the summer, are my floors too cold...in other words, what external temperature concerns should I have?

It looks like this is going to be a multipart blog due to the complexity of it all...but I am not going to be a zero forever!

Bottom Line #2 - Energy, both natural gas and electricity, are at the center of our challenges with the environment. Other than transportation, this is where we can make the most difference. Whether it's the specter of global warming, pollution, strip mining, drilling expansion, pipeline expansion, utility profits, mining accidents, acid rain, mercury in fish, or just the size of your bill, its worth looking at and minimizing your contribution.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Saving water? Head outside....

I was reviewing our water bill last August and doing my usual grumbling about the amount of dollars. But, then I saw the amount of gallons. 53,800 gallons, in a month! I was in shock! I couldn't fathom using that much water. I knew the meter and bill were correct, it was me that was broken. I am a water-a-holic.

Not long after that I received a notification from the city that as part of their conservation efforts they would pay me $100 to upgrade my toilet to a low flush model. Now I have two of the old style, high water use toilets...could that be the cause of my high water use? Let see...two gallons per flush extra, so 53,800 gallons, that's 26,900 flushes per month. Hmmmm.

How many time do we flush? I have no idea. but lets say its a whopping 20 times a day, 2 extra gallons each, 30 days. That's 1,200 gallons a month. Now all I have to do is figure out where the other 52,600 gallons went.

Well a quick billing history showed me the effect of the sprinklers on the bill based on seasonal variations so...I headed outside.

Bottom line #1 - In Texas, depending on the ratio of house size to soil area, sprinklers are a big part of your water bill...year round.

I began looking at the idea of finding a green alternative for water supply...rain water capture in cisterns. I looked at how big my roof was, all the gutters and downspouts and decided this was the answer! I headed back inside for some research.

I am going to cut this part short. If you would like to know more detail about cisterns let me know. In the end, capturing enough rainwater to feed my sprinklers would take about $30,000 and still not do all that I needed.

Bottom Line #2 - The problem with rainwater capture is you don't need to sprinkle when its raining regularly. You need to sprinkle when it's dry for weeks. The cisterns need the rain to keep up the supply???? The only way to mitigate this is to have huge storage. Or...reduce the water use. (An ah-ha moment!)

Back outside...I have a half acre of a combination of house, lawn, trees, lots of driveway, and planting beds of different plant material. I am normal in those respects...lots of Asian Jasmine.

First, I turn the sprinklers on to see if I have a major leak. I watch them closely as we move zone to zone...like you would a thief. No big leaks.

I am still in disbelief (denial?) that I can use that many gallons so I go and pry the lid off my water meter, turn the sprinklers on again, and watch. In fact, I time every station (8) as to their gallons per minute and duly note this. I head inside, build a quick spreadsheet multiplying the gallons per minute by the minutes per zone programmed in my controller. (Usually 20). I then multiply that number by the number of times I water per week (once on all but two that get twice) and then per month.

Oh my god, it is me...or more accurately, it's my sprinklers! We use around 9000 gallons inside the house, the other 44,000 gallons went onto the yard!

Now I think of myself as a conservative waterer. I understand you want to water a few times deep rather than a bunch of shallow waterings. So, to review. In August, I watered once a week for 20 minutes on all the zones but two. Those two zones dry out faster so they get one extra cycle per week. That's it!

Back inside. I start looking for a new sprinkler contractor (someone has to be to blame). I call around looking for water conservation savvy sprinkler guys to help me with my water Jones. I don't frankly have much luck. The city may want to conserve water but these contractors know one thing, most customers want FULL coverage, not low water use...after all this is Dallas!

Bottom Line 3 - You will likely need a contractor to help, but you should be able to get a good ROI, if you can find one that even knows what water conservation means.

I find a guy that pops up under Google searches, we talk and he seems knowledgeable, or at least opinionated. He comes out, reviews my system and suggests a pressure reducing valve.

I have heard this before and I know my pressure is around 100 PSI. What I didn't know is that most sprinkler heads were designed for around 34-40 PSI. So what happens is you get all that misting you see above your sprinklers. I had lots of misting. I didn't know how much misting in gallons, but I agree to pay to have an adjustable pressure reducer installed.

$2000 later I remeasure the system output. I reduced the water used by 32%! Next we tune up the system and fix a small leak and gain another 4%. Total for the effort 36%. Around 13,000 gallons per month! For the year I will save $523. So it will be a four year ROI...not bad. (Detailed spreadsheet available).

Bottom line #4 - If your pressure is too high you can waste a ton of water. In fact, I saved 6.5 tons of water per month!

I called the city, proud as a peacock, to wonder where my rebate is for my pressure reducer. The city explains that as the need for water grows in distance from the source, the pressure gets higher the closer you are to the source. So here in Lakewood, I am close to the source so my pressure is really high. And there are no rebates...except for toilets???

I do however request a water audit (free from the city). The guy comes out and gives me some pats on the back and some more tips I will cover later.

Next, my new sprinkler contractor calls me (apparently he doesn't have anybody as concerned about water use as me) and asks if I would like to be in a Beta test of a new water saving sprinkler controller from Rainbird. It's free so I ask him to sign me up!

Its called an ET controller. What that means is it waters based on evapo-transpiration, hence ET. It has a rain and temperature gauge along with programmable parameters for wind (based on zip code) plant type, soil, slope etc. In theory it only waters when you need it!

It also tracks and logs everything, rain, how much it watered and when it will water next and for how long. You don't tell it when or how much to water...it figures that out.

It's late October when this happens and I know what I would normally water...20 minutes a zone once a week. Well the ET waters a whole lot less. 67% less! I save another 12,290 gallons! In November I saved 73% and its been unusually dry. I tested my soil moisture and everything is great! I couldn't be happier. It turns out I was watering way too much.

I went from using an average of 18,500 gallons per month (after the pressure reduction and tune-up) in the winter to 4,898 gallons.

Bottom Line 5 - You can have more impact with an ET controller than anything. It's a great investment with an easy ROI...get one ASAP! You will quit wasting a bunch of water.

So I will save an estimated, 308,856 gallons of water per year or an 80.75% savings. It amounts to $1,158.50 per year. Considering I didn't have to pay for the ET controller or install, I get a nice two year ROI.

In discussing with my contractor how the ET was working etc. I began to wonder how I got to over-watering that much? Then it dawned on me. Today's typical sprinkler controllers only allow you to set your sprinkler to once a week or MORE! I have never seen a residential controller that automatically waters less? You either have to water manually or live with at least once a week watering.

Believe it or not I have plans to change my sprinkler nozzles to a low water use version estimated at another 30% savings. I think the city will provide rebates this year so keep an eye out. There is also an entire sprinkler head with the pressure reducer built in...I haven't priced these against the valve but they are worth considering. (Hunter, MP rotator).

Now that my water use is that low I can now realistically consider rain capture and cisterns. I will be doing some ROI work on that next.

Bottom Line #7 - What I learned from this was the criticality of putting conservation ahead of any other ideas. No matter what you consider in the green movement, just taking a look at how much could be saved will get you to a much more reasonable ROI. Trying to fix the problems without conservation is terribly difficult. For example, if you are going to leave your incandescent lights on all the time you will have a very hard time trying to power all that with photovoltaics or windmills. More on all that later...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Why go green?

It's the environment. The ONE we live in. The one our kids will live in. It's like we live in a terrarium, we live, eat and breathe in a closed system. It's inevitable the way we are going, with our population and productivity growth, that we will foul our nest. Is it our generation's responsibility?

We know there are problems, but going green is uncomfortable, complex, expensive and just downright hard. Is it because we are born to waste and pollute - it's part of our DNA? Or is it just habit and cultural? Why is it so hard to keep the terrarium clean?

We are going through a very steep learning curve on how to keep the environment intact. We happen to be the generation that will take this challenge, mainly because of climate change. That environmental problem effects every human and seems to be engendering a cultural shift on all forms of fouling of our nest.

Bottom Line #1 - There are just too many of us to just pollute our terrarium willy nilly. We have to address many of the problems associated with human growth and productivity.

Our environment also has resources for our growth and existence as a species. We are dependent on those resources and again, we just have our terrarium's worth to work with. We cant move to a new, abundant one.

Bottom Line #2 - There are too many of us to just use resources without care and forethought.

"Going green" seems like a moniker that falls way short of the problem at hand. Sustainable, environmental, etc. all fail to capture the scope and urgency of us just using up and fouling our terrarium. Whatever you call it, it's worth the trouble.

Our generation will have to reverse the trend, we will be the ones that make the cultural shift and develop the technologies, laws and regulations to keep ourselves in check. We may even learn to work with other nations for a common good...which is bound to draw us closer.

Bottom Line #3 - "Green" is the catalyst for change. We have an opportunity to secure the future by caring about our own terrarium. By definition it's worth the trouble. The byproduct will be an increased consciousness of how we share this world and that our actions affect others, globally.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Fireplace, wood, match....CO2

Well, winter is almost over and I have a confession to make...I have a huge fireplace and I love fires. There, I've said it out loud. But what am I doing to the environment?

Well, this one seems simple...but of course...it never is.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide (yea) and they use it to build more tree. About 50% of a tree is made up of carbon. When you burn the tree it releases the carbon (along with other particulates) back into the air. That's why cutting down rain forests and burning them is so pivotal to CO2 amounts in the atmosphere. It removes the plants that are utilizing (storing) the existing carbon from the air, and, releases the long stored carbon into the atmosphere through burning. A double whammy.

Bottom Line 1 - If you cut down live trees or pay someone to do this dirty work for you so you can burn a fire, you are being irresponsible. You remove a working carbon capture unit and then put its carbon back into the air.

But what if the tree is dead or dying? This is where it gets complex. First dead or dying trees are an important part of any woodlot or urban forest. When dead trees fall to the forest floor and begin to decompose they release much of their stored carbon back into the air. Another portion is taken into the soil.

That says that a tree is really temporary carbon storage. The problem left with burning it is we are accelerating the process...what might take 10 years of decomposition, we can achieve on a cold night.

Here in the city much of our firewood comes from tree trimmers, arborists etc. If they are cutting from our supply of urban trees, those trees are being removed anyway. They are dead, dying or in the way. So dead or alive, they are going to become firewood or be sent to the landfill. (More on that here and here).

Bottom Line 2 - Getting your firewood from local tree trimmers is a good thing. Don't buy from any other suppliers as they may simply be going into rural areas and cutting down perfectly good trees.

Unfortunately, fireplaces are very inefficient. You might want to argue that your fireplace is keeping your house warm and therefore saving gas or electricity. Most estimates however place the efficiency ratings between - 10% to + 10%. The minus figure comes from how fireplaces pull already heated air from the house. The waste more heat than they provide.

In my home my thermostat for the whole house is in the same room with the fireplace. So when we burn a fire the heat in the room shuts off the furnace. It gets really cold in all the other rooms and can take a day or so to rebalance. So, I do save some on my heating bill and reduce that carbon, but the fire is still worse for our atmosphere.

To lessen the environmental impact of a fire you can increase the efficiency through fireplace inserts or doors. They prevent heated air from going up the chimney when a fire is burning or not. But, you do have to keep the glass doors closed. (It seems like watching it on TV to me). Another tip is to always close the damper when the fireplace is cold to keep your heated air from going up the chimney every day.

It’s also worth noting that green "unseasoned" wood burns slower and emits more pollution. Dry wood burns hotter and faster and less particulates go up the chimney. I haven’t had much luck getting my suppliers to give me truly seasoned wood. (Seasoned wood is much lighter in weight and much darker on the ends.) So I have begun to buy my wood in the spring or summer and store it for that winter. I get a fire that’s easier to start and burns cleaner.

Bottom Line 3- Burning wood is bad for the environment. But so is breathing. The carbon will be released at some point, but we are accelerating it. Minimizing the impact is important and burning responsibly can significantly reduce your fireplace's carbon footprint. We can’t make a fire guilt free, but there is a lot you can do...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


I would like a low energy use clothes dryer. Apparently, dryers are exempt from any kind of evolution, they are appliance dinosaurs. There haven't been any changes to dryers to even warrant Energy Star to list them! The eat a ton of energy yet we live with the 1950's technology.

A green, environmentally conscious dryer comes in the form of a rope and two poles along with devices called clothes pins. How quaint.

I have an electric dryer. Typically, gas dryers are cheaper to own but more expensive to buy. I don't have a gas outlet where the dryer is...so I doubt the change would ever pay for itself. But at some point I will probably do all the math and decide. But for now I am resigned to letting it eat more energy while running, than any other electric device in my home...yes that includes the air conditioner!

Bottom Line - Find another way to save energy, dryers are exempted from Darwin's law of survival of the fittest.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

My coffee maker sucks...power

I am in the middle of a project to reduce my gas and electric use. I will publish more on that later, but for just a moment, I want to talk coffee. The most popular beverage in the world...and apparently the most expensive. If Juan Valdez were here I'd show him my electric bill.

We have a new Cuisinart coffee maker that uses 126 kilowatt hours a month! About $15! We run it four hours a day every day. Excluding the A/C and the refrigerators, it ranked second only to my electric clothes dryer for the month. I was shocked!

So of course I did a little research. Did you know there are no Energy Star ratings for coffee makers? Consumer Reports doesn't even rank them for energy use?

An internet source says we burn about 400 million in electricity a year making coffee. We use the equivalent of one decent sized coal fired electrical generation plant a year!

Bottom Line - We do care about how much energy a coffee maker uses because we use them often and for long periods of time. Our solution was to just buy a nice insulated carafe. (Already recommended by coffee connoisseurs to eliminate scorching). We brew, (10 minutes), pour the coffee into the carafe, turn off the burner. The coffee is now closer to me and hot! The pay back on that little purchase is less than three months.

If I were buying a coffee maker, I would buy one with the insulated carafe already part of the set up...and turn off that burner before we cut the top off of another coal bearing mountain in West Virginia!

Rain Water Capture

How great would it be if we could capture all the rain that falls on our house and driveway and use it to sprinkle our yards? Or flush our toilets? I started this project a few months ago...boy did I have a lot to learn.

Rainwater capture for most of us means we use gravity to put the water in storage. That means we can't really capture the water from our driveway or other concrete areas without holes and pumps. There is some cool stuff you can do if doing new construction, but my project was for my existing home.

First, there are calculators out there that you enter the square foot of your roof, estimate how much you can capture of that depending on gutters, roof material etc. If your house is guttered you will generally capture about 70%. Then you get the monthly rain estimate in inches for our area. Multiply the two and you know how many gallons in theory you can get from your roof based on past rainfall. Seems simple no?

After I figure out how much water I can get from my roof I need to figure out how much I use. That means I need to get to my water meter, run my sprinklers and figure out how much I am using. It turned out I used 9000 gallons each time I ran the sprinklers! So I just figured I would need a lot of storage.

Some of you have seen, or even own a rain barrel or two. You basically stick the thing under your downspout. Unfortunately, the first time you calculate your sprinkler's water use for just a minute, you will realize that these are grossly inadequate in size. My smallest sprinkler zone, about six heads, uses 24 gallons a minute! That's two minutes from a 55 gallon drum! These barrels are best used to water shrubs or a small garden in the immediately adjacent area.

So, it turns out you need some pretty big storage. In our neighborhood there are people with large above ground tanks either capturing rain water or connected to a shallow water well. They are large and typically eyesores but they hold between 2-3000 gallons. Tanks of that size cost around a dollar a gallon to buy and estimate another two dollars per gallon to install, connect pumps etc. So a 3000 gallon tank would run me $9000. Every time I filled it with rainwater and used it I would save myself $11.10. Or, I would need to fill and empty it 811 times to pay it off.

However I would need three just to cover one sprinkler run! You also begin to realize that your figures are based on average rainfall. I was sprinkling once a week but what if it didn't rain every week? How could I be sure my tanks would be full? And if it was raining weekly I wouldn't need to sprinkle! Then my head began to hurt. If it rains I don't need to sprinkle and when it doesn't rain I need to sprinkle...hmmmm. I would really need even more storage...or something.

That something was I was using too much water to sprinkle! My roof and huge tanks weren't going to get the job done. Now I have a large yard but I am just talking about how many gallons per square foot, per week I used. If I couldn't reduce it, rain water capture wouldn't work.

Bottom Line- The more water you can store the more likely you are to have water when you need it but you may have to think of your system as purely supplemental. You also have to consider your ROI is going to take a few years and the aesthetics of above ground tanks aren't good. Most importantly, you have to change your sprinkling habits and water use, then and only then can rainwater capture provide significant help. I will be posting my success reducing my sprinkler's water use...that project was a lot more fruitful.