When Energy Saving Becomes an Emergency

led_fancyness_extremePretty 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


The latest sketchup model is fully detailed, and structural engineering is almost done too.(Thanks Mike B and Chris G!)

The latest sketchup model is fully detailed, and structural engineering is almost done too.(Thanks Mike B and Chris G!)

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.

  • StealthSkater October 22, 2013, 12:02 pm

    With regards to “Free Solar Heat”..
    “Solar power has also scaled up surprisingly well in recent years. On Wednesday, the Solana solar power plant in Arizona switched on. One of the largest of its kind in the world, it can power 70,000 households day or night with help from enormous salt batteries. Solar power continues to make its way into more and more homes across the country, whether on the roof or through the outlets. And now it won’t take all your money first.”


  • Jay Bee October 22, 2013, 12:04 pm

    One thing that we did — and learned from our friend who lived on a sailboat most of her life — is begin to take fewer showers and, overall, use less hot water.

    Each day, we take a bath with a wash cloth and water. Yes, we use soap and everything. We also sponge bathe after activities, going into the ocean/pool, etc. We wash our hair once a week — that’s usually when we take a shower — and we tend to do it at the pool (i still consider it water/power consumption, even if we aren’t paying for it — I get admittance to the pool in exchange for work).

    After some research, we learned that cold water plus soap in the sink saves water and power compared to the dishwasher, and it doesn’t take long to do the dishes, really. It’s a nice time for our family (I wash, DS and DH dry and put things away).

    I wash my laundry in cold water, and I really only wash ‘heavy’ things — linens, towels, jeans. Everything else is “hand washed” (plunger in the bath tub). It takes about 10 minutes to wash and 15 to get our excess water and hang things on the lines, which I do indoors (drying racks) because there are no outside lines. Everything dries overnight, usually, except heavier sweaters. The others go through the laundry (triple loader at the laundromat) and dryer for one 30 minute cycle, and then are either dry, or I take them home to line dry. So, it costs $4 per week in laundry.

  • Greg October 22, 2013, 1:04 pm

    If you’re not going to use the radiant floor heat 24/7, and perhaps even if you are, you may want to look into using your planned on-demand water heater instead of installing a separate boiler system. This is how I did it in my home and it works quite well.

    Other tips: for retrofitting radiant heat tubing under existing wooden subfloor, make sure your flooring assembly isn’t too thick (i.e. marmoleum instead of hardwood) and use reflective material (foil-faced kraft paper) above the insulation. Try to use high-density batt insulation where you can.

  • John October 22, 2013, 8:38 pm

    I’m sitting here, just dreaming about all the things I could to to improve the efficiency of my 30 yr old house. Looking forward to reading about you projects MMM. Can I suggest one excellent solar / efficiency website? Check out http://www.builditsolar.com. Very focused on DIY.

  • Mel Lip Stubble October 23, 2013, 1:50 pm

    We went with an electric tankless water heater to replace the gas hot water tank in our auction reno. The plumber then flipped the gas line outside so we can have a gas grill hookup! Posh! I figured that eventually we will want to do something solar (here in sunny New Mexico) so as much as we can get onto our electric grid now, the better – eventually.

    • Greg October 24, 2013, 10:17 am

      Adding a solar hot water collector to your hot water system is a great idea. I haven’t done it myself yet, but plan to.

      On a recent passive-house style home design I did, solar hot water collection was the first part of the solar system implemented. On an slightly overcast day, the solar hot water storage tank was at 160ºF at 10am.

      So this could cut down on your electric bill (electric hot water heater) pretty significantly.

  • Laura October 25, 2013, 6:09 am

    Love this post! I’m new-ish to the site and actively reading everything about finances/energy efficiency that I can get my hands on. I know there are improvements to be made in my house – oil heat and natural gas water heater aren’t efficient or cheap by any means. LIving in the north means lots of cold weather and darkness. I need to find a good contractor to help improve our insulation/heating, etc. to try and make some savings on our bills. I think a new furnace would be my best bet to get started.

  • Lucas October 28, 2013, 7:44 am

    If you do end up picking the hybrid/heatpump hot water heater i would love to hear a report on it. Hot water usage is about 50% of our electric bill at the moment due to high efficiency elsewhere and our wasteful love of hot showers in the morning. I have an 18 year old hot water heater that is running strong due to my routine changing out of the anode rode and dip tube when it failed, but it is clearly one of the most inefficient items in our house.

    I saw the hybrids come out in full force about 3 years ago, but wasn’t about to jump on the initial bandwagon (and many of the initial units did indeed have issues). Looks like they have straightened many of them out though. Any experience/knowledge on these that you or anyone else has would be very welcome.

    Key benefits as i see them:
    1) Are much more efficient at producing hot water then using straight coils – potentially saving up to 65% off electrical usage. – that would be over 200% more efficient than my current hot water heater – and cut my electric bill by 25% or more (around $25 a month savings for a 3-4 year payback period on the $1200 50 gal GE model i was looking at ).
    2) Provide some de-humidification if needed
    3) also works to pull hot air out of your house in the summer (reducing A/C needs)
    4) works with existing tank hot water heater electrical setup (don’t need to run extra amp wires as you would for a tankless hot water heater.

    Key concerns:
    1) reliability vs traditional hot water heater – looks like they have made some major improvements now.
    2) Need significant air volume to work (not a problem for me, but wouldn’t work in a closed in closet)
    3) does pull heat from your house in winter so adds to heating needs somewhat (mine would be a unfinished basement room right next to my heat pump air handler so i think this would be minor due to exiting heat loss into the room as is. Any extra energy from this would likely be offset by less cooling/dehumidification need in the summer.
    4) needs drain for condensation on coils (I have this right next to my exiting hot water heater so that works out great).

  • KarenInez November 1, 2013, 4:32 pm

    Dear MMM, I need help understanding why I should consider driving a car that gets low mileage an emergency. I drive a paid-off 2005 Lexus ES330 with 93,000 miles and a trade in value around $8700-$9000. I put about 8000 miles on it annually. The gas mileage is low (16.5 city and about 25 highway). The car is in good shape, drives well, and only requires routine maintenance. One friend advises that I keep it forever. What’s your take? Thanks, Karen

  • Megan February 14, 2014, 8:35 am

    Ah, I am jealous! I love these home improvement projects and the philosophy behind them. I wish I could emulate you but we are renting the 1950s uninsulated, leaky house we live in so about all I can do is buy a great pair of slippers and complain to my husband. ;)

    The other part of why you want to do upgrades like this is purely selfish: it is WAY more comfortable to live in a well-insulated house than a poorly insulated house. When it gets unusually cold here in CA (as in, approaching frost levels overnight) this house gets extremely uncomfortable. We are regularly seen wearing down jackets inside in the winter. That is partly because I don’t want to run the heat that much since it would just be going straight outdoors through the uninsulated floors and single-pane windows, but also because even when we run the heat a lot, there are still drafts and cold spots everywhere which mean the house is never truly comfortable.

    I can’t wait to be able to buy my “forever” home one day if for no other reason than I will be able to insulate it to my heart’s desire. :)

    • Jeff Wilson February 18, 2014, 6:27 am

      You’re right about insulation, Megan, but don’t forget to air-seal as well, and then add mechanical ventilation for optimal health and comfort.

      In our Deep Energy Retrofit, we first added a layer of spray-foam insulation to the entire exterior of our 70 year-old home (since we had to replace roof, siding, and windows anyway), then installed triple-pane, krypton gas-filled windows and fiberglass shell/foam doors. I then retrofitted the basement from the interior with spray foam. This brought the whole house, from basement to peak of the roof, into the “thermal envelope.” We added an Energy Recovery Ventilator to bring in fresh air and exhaust stale air while keeping 95% of the energy in the air (heating or cooling) inside the house.

      The result? Energy bills are 85% lower (even though we now keep the thermostat higher in the winter and lower in the summer) and the house is a more comfortable and healthier place to live.

      The best part? My wife doesn’t wear full outdoor gear around the house and complain about how cold she is anymore! I wrote a book (see below) but also created a series of videos at http://www.thegreenedhouseeffect.com which show the process. I’m creating the videos on my own time, so you’ll see 9 episodes so far, with the final, 10th episode, to come this spring. Good luck and happy DER-ing!

  • Jacob Huss February 17, 2014, 1:14 pm

    What recommendations (other than moving to a new state) do you suggest for the humid south? I live in South Carolina. Heating isn’t as much of an issue as cooling in the summer. There isn’t really too much of a breeze, everything just sits. Any ideas or upcoming ideas on energy efficiency from the cooling perspective?

    • Jeff Wilson February 18, 2014, 6:20 am

      Sorry, Jacob – I posted a comment, rather than replying to your query. See below for info on how to keep your cool in the south!

  • Jeff Wilson February 18, 2014, 6:18 am

    You’d be surprised to find that a lot of the same building science applied in the cold north works in the hot/humid south as well. The key is keeping heat where you want it: in the north, that’s INSIDE the house. In the south, that’s OUTSIDE the house. So, just like an insulated cooler keeps beverages cold, if you instead put a hot casserole in it, the casserole will stay warm.

    You’ll want to very carefully air-seal AND insulate to keep your air-conditioner working as little as possible. By carefully air-sealing, you’ll block the unwanted hot/humid air from entering the house in the first place, and the AC will have to work less to cool and dehumidify the air. Insulation alone won’t do it – it’s the powerful combination of insulation AND air-sealing that does the job.

    Not to be too commercial, but since I’m unlikely to make any money from my book anyway, you’ll find a lot of this information in The Greened House Effect, which I wrote, and Chelsea Green published. You can also try this EnergyStar guide to air-sealing: http://www.energystar.gov/ia/partners/publications/pubdocs/DIY_Guide_May_2008.pdf?18b1-e2f8. BTW – this will help you with the Polar Vortices, too!

  • Adam April 17, 2014, 2:58 pm


    I hope you take a few minutes to check out Ben Falk and his amazing heating system. He heats the house (1500 sq ft), their water (for all purposes) and cooks all off of about 2 cords of wood per year.


    I’m new to the site, so I don’t know if you’ve talked about it before, but you should really look into permaculture. I think your outlook on life and personal ethic on waste and energy usage, as well as money to be saved from food production are a perfect tie in to what you’re doing.

  • Bob January 17, 2015, 7:44 pm

    Any advice on how to go about insulating an old house? I own a 100 year old house and I struggled finding good information about how insulate it. The tricky parts are cathedral ceilings and lots of knee walls that make just blowing in insulation a little tricky.

    Thanks in advance for any advice or resources.

  • Nathanael September 22, 2015, 11:41 pm

    “Non-Emergency Energy Situation.”

    At the moment I’m trying to resist making those last investments, because they feel like luxuries and have poor paybacks. I have a non-emergency energy situation but I keep wanting to go full zero-fossil-fuel, even though financial paybacks would be measured in decades (I already have a superinsulated, mostly air-sealed house with an HRV). But I don’t like to be contributing to global warming…

  • Andreas July 5, 2017, 4:28 am

    This is something I have to try! Regarding shower I found this test to see if you waste more water than needed:

    Take a bucket of 10liters, fill it with your shower. If it takes 60seconds you use 10liters (2,64gallons according to google).
    If it takes 50seconds you use 12liters (3,17gallons). If more than 2liters (0,52gallons)/minute you need to switch.
    “For a house it could be a saving of $117 / €102 a year”

    Source (swedish): https://www.vattenfall.se/smarta-hem/lev-energismart/minska-vattenkostnaden/


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