When Energy Saving Becomes an Emergency
Pretty much since I learned to walk, I have had an unusual disdain for waste. I noted the inefficient route of the school bus and wondered why it couldn’t just pick us up at a few centralized locations. Tracked my allowance with multi-year forecasts and kept the dollar bills organized in a photo album. Always cast a fiery eye towards a fridge or a front door left open, a car left idling, or a credit card bill left unpaid.
This odd condition has proved to be profitable over the years, as I have naturally sought out ways to use less energy and waste less money, with very positive side effects like getting to spend more time outside and retiring from work relatively early.
This is the reason the concepts of money and energy efficiency mingle so freely on this supposedly-financial blog: you can look at your energy consumption as a very close measure of the wastefulness of your life. The ideal life, even a very modern one, will require you to spend very little of your earnings buying energy. This is a contrarian opinion for me to hold in this world of Peak Oil and energy shocks, but check out the evidence:
Transportation: The Mustache family uses less than 3 gallons of gasoline per month for most of the year. This changes for special occasions like family roadtrips, but by following the basic principles of avoiding commuting and car clown local driving, and using the bikes for errands like groceries, driving is cut by almost 90%. Savings: about $10,000 per year compared to an average family.
Electricity: Although our current 2600 square foot house is oversized for three people, we manage to run it these days on 243 kWh per month, which costs about $25.00 even when offsetting 100% of the use with more expensive wind energy from the local utility. This is done by being reasonable with the air conditioning, letting our bodies toughen a bit as the seasons change, line-drying the clothes, and using CFL and LED light bulbs*. Savings: About $1000 per year
Heating: I have upgraded some of the insulation in this house, added some South-facing windows and plenty of thermal mass, and seal the curtains and shutters up tightly on winter nights while the programmable thermostat keeps the house at 62F during the nights, 67 during the day. The water heater is in an insulation blanket and we use a low-flow showerhead. Because of this our spending on natural gas averages out to $25 per month ($300 per year), which includes all heating, hot water for showers and dishwashing, and cooking. In contrast, the average US house spends $400 on water heating and another $960 on heat, meaning we enjoy Savings of $1060 per year.
When your bills are this low, it becomes a bit difficult to save money on energy by buying high-tech upgrades. I could get a Nissan Leaf electric car, but it would sit unused in the driveway just as much as the Scion xA currently does. Could replace my 80% efficiency furnace with a 95% efficient one for $4000, but the payback period would be decades. Better to just add $100 more insulation or get a nice pair of slippers to drop the existing furnace use even more. We spend about $5 per year on electricity running the air conditioner – I’d sooner remove it altogether than upgrade it. I can’t even upgrade my city bicycle, which cost $300 brand-new in 2008 and has over 4000 miles of errands on it, because it still works perfectly and gets me around very quickly. This whole picture is an example of a Non-Emergency Energy Situation. Spending is minimal and further optimization is difficult, so energy use fades into the background where it should be.
So when does energy use become an emergency? There is no single fixed rule, but the following are some warning signals:
When energy is unusually expensive: While living in Hawaii last winter, I noticed that their electricity is generated by burning tankerloads of imported oil, which is reflected in the 30 cent/kWh price (300% of what I pay here). And all the water is electrically heated – furiously expensive. To compensate, we took many of our showers just by jumping into the turquoise-blue ocean and outfitted the Vacation Suite project with GU10 LED bulbs in its track lighting system, which use 85% less power than halogens. People who live in the Northeastern US who rely on heating oil are in a similar situation for heat.
When more than 5% of your income is on spent on energy and gasoline: Bumping up your savings rate by 5%, for example from 10% to 15% of income will slice 8 years off of your working career. Is worth working 8 more years just to stand at the gas pump?
When you have a rattly almond-colored fridge with fake woodgrain handles:
Last year I ran some tests on an old fridge that a friend still had in operation. It was burning 110 kWh per month, or $135 of electricity every year. For $300 he replaced it with a nearly-new fridge from Craigslist and I measured it again. This one used 62% less energy, saving him $83 per year, which is a spectacular 28% annual return on investment! When you do the math, many of the lower-cost energy upgrades described in this article will return even more than the stock market over time.
When you find yourself driving around regularly in a car that gets worse than 35MPG: Imagine that your only vehicle was an 84-foot double-trailer Walmart semi, stuck in first gear with no muffler and a bed of nails for the driver’s seat. Would you take it down to the drive-through? Probably not. This is how ANY sub-35MPG vehicle should feel in your mind to drive regularly. It’s an emergency! Sell it! Replace it with a reasonable car!
My own Plan for Energy Efficiency
Because energy consumption is one of the biggest issues affecting humanity these days, I’ve decided to go just slightly overboard when renovating the new house. It presents an ideal blank slate for this experiment because in its current condition, it is an energy emergency. It came with almost completely uninsulated walls and ceilings, and a drafty crawlspace that lets winter air blow directly in from the outside. I found it both ridiculous and amazing that the house has existed in this condition, wasting energy for almost 60 years.
But through this blog, I had the good fortune of hearing from a reader/energy expert named Roch Naleway who manages a department of GP Conservation products. Born in Germany and having lived in the Netherlands and now Portland, Oregon, you can imagine the strict views this man has on energy efficiency. And he has been lecturing me to take my own own game to the next level on this project.
Insulation: The new insulation will be a combination of sprayed-on foam insulation, rigid foamboard with foil backing, and standard batts. The roof, all-important in a wide flat house like this one, will be insulated to R-50.
Free Solar Heat: The amount of South-facing glass in the house should provide more than enough to heat the entire structure for most of the cool season, since my region gets over 300 sunny days per year.
Supplemental Heat: The house currently has an old gas furnace with creaky mouse-filled ducts. This will be replaced with a 95%-efficiency gas boiler and radiant under-floor heat installed between the ducts from the crawlspace side. Although it will hopefully not be used much, it will be a luxurious and efficient way to warm the house, and an excuse for me to learn how to install a multi-zone boiler heat system. Also nicely compatible with roof-mounted solar water heating panels in the future.
Electricity: I will be installing a very fancy clothesline overlooking the park, and no air conditioning system at all. With LED lighting throughout, our bills should be even lower than they are today. With usage this low and a local utility that discourages grid-tied solar installations, solar panels are not practical at this time, but I will probably do some off-the grid experiments in the future – stay tuned.
Water Heating: Either a tankless natural gas heater or an electric heat pump water heater will get the job done here. I will supplement it in the summer with a Hawaiian-style outdoor shower that gets its heat entirely from a simple coil of black irrigation pipe mounted on the roof.
As the final bit of this energy efficiency experiment, I just ordered a fine new tool which should come in handy for both the blogging and construction “businesses” : an 8-foot-long bike trailer from Bikes at work that can carry huge items up to 300 pounds. With my new house only 1.7 miles from the Home Depot, I plan to use this to haul most of the construction materials, eliminating countless trips in the van and giving me some serious leg training in the process.
Energy Efficiency Shopping: If you find this field as interesting as I do, I recommend browsing around GP Conservation’s site. If you have questions about the field, ask them in the comments and I’ll try to get Roch to spend an entire workday answering them for us.
Further Reading: Wired Magazine comments on how we’ll all be using almost entirely clean energy by 2050 – I sure hope so.
* I recently upgraded the last frontier – the kitchen – with higher-end LEDs from GE. These were the first LED bulbs I found with a sufficently good “color rendering index” to make the food look tasty, and thus they finally allowed me to remove the power-hungry halogens.
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