Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Saving the Planet, One Home at a Time

promised, here is my Top-10 list to help green your home. To me, that means reducing our environmental footprint by: increasing the efficiency of the resources we do consume,[*] reducing/reusing/recycling; and eliminating environmental hazards.

Let me start out by saying that tuning up your home saves money (what's not to like?), increases comfort and improves peace of mind. I can't tell you how much more comfortable our tight, renovated, radiant-heated 1916 home in Inverness is. And removing asbestos from our heating ducts here next month will give me peace of mind-at least for children brought up in this home in the future!

Your future buyers and their agents can feel and understand the difference in a tuned-up home (particularly if it's pointed out as part of a thoughtful marketing campaign organized by an EcoBroker, of which I am one of few in the Bay Area).

So, I subjected our 1908 3500 sf, 5 bedroom/3 bath home to both:

•· John McComas's state-supported Energy Checkup process (contact him at john@jmcinspections.com or 525-7173-it's $200, or $75 as part of a home inspection. I'm now purchasing one for all my buyer clients to complement their home inspections), and

•· PG&E's very detailed online Smart Energy Analyzer (click here).

My concern-so many lists of tips, like the Dept of Energy's site (http://www1.eere.energy.gov/consumer/tips/) or even the State of California's site (http://www.fypower.org/res/tools/energy_tips.html) assume air conditioning, or oil heat, or sub zero temperatures. How can I best leverage dollar, water, and CO2 savings here?

My unscientific ah-hah moments:

Turn off the computers! The PG&E calculator asked me how many computers there were in the house, and whether they were turned off (i.e. pull the plug out) at night. Answers: 5-8, depending; and generally, no. Our "other" electric consumption, including the computers, microwave, two rarely used older TVs, and coffeemaker, dwarfed remaining electrical usage, primarily from food storage and lighting.

PG&E estimates we could reduce our usage and bill by $571-951 (love that specificity!) and our CO2 production by 2,400 lbs annually by religiously turning off the computers. This is nearly an order of magnitude greater than most other suggestions from the audit. More consistently turning off our mix of recessed and other lights, in contrast, would save $21-26/year. BTW, laptops are better than desktops. OK, kids, forget all that nagging about turning off the lights-turn off that computer!

Weatherstripping is so boring, but it tops John's Energy Checkup process, and makes a big difference, even in this warmer environment (cuts heating costs 10-30 percent in CA; pays back the cost of materials in less than a year; avoids 1,200 lbs of CO2 annually). We'd save about $500 a year by weatherstripping and carefully plugging leaks and gaps in the house (for instance, where plumbing lines pass from the unheated basement to the heated first floor kitchen and bath). If you know in your heart that you'll never get around to it, suck it up and call Shel Harris, Berkeley's energy conservation guru, who'll do it right-he's at shlnrgy@lmi.net or 549-3290. His running commentary on energy efficiency comes free.

Insulate the attic: Forty-five percent of a home's heat loss tends to be from inadequate insulation. Upgrading to today's R-30 standard is not that expensive, and you'll save money and CO2, and feel more comfortable. This tops Shel Harris's top-four list, but does involve a relatively longer payback period.

Install a flash water heater when your tank goes: Talk about increasing comfort and doing the right thing! Despite five people now taking showers every morning between 6:30 and 7, we don't run out of hot water. When you consider that your flash system may last three times as long as a traditional tank system, the total cost is about the same, while operating and CO2 savings (2,000 lbs/yr) are gravy. Shel Harris saw his gas bill decline by two-thirds after he installed his system during the summer (without the heat on to mask savings--national numbers put the savings at closer to 30 percent, but they reflect a different fuel cost than we see here).

While the hot water installer is there, ask him/her to add a no-maintenance, 30-year-warranty automatic shutoff valve to your gas line-Contra Costa is already requiring them before a sale closes so we're likely next, and it's cheaper to install if the professional is already there. Peace of mind has value too! Barron McEwing of BMC Mechanical (BMCMech2002@yahoo.com) is installing one for me soon for $350 (it would be less if he's addressing your heat or hot water issue).

Change to low-flow shower heads: Installing low-flow shower heads in our showers would save money (savings cover installation costs in only six months), precious water (7800 gallons/year-shocking!), and CO2 (400 lbs). More than air-drying dishes, adjusting the washer load size or reducing water temperature every load, etc. We all love those older water-rich shower heads in our unrenovated showers, and fear the trickle-of-water showerheads of yesteryear, but I have to say that I love our Rohl water-efficient showerheads out in Inverness. Make the change sooner rather than later!

When replacing any appliance, look for the Energy Star label. Now wasn't that easy?

When considering any remodel of our older homes, paint over ("encapsulate") potential lead paint--don't sand it; spring for double-paned windows (see a recent This Old House article for how-tos); buy a 93/95/97% efficient furnace (saves about $100 and 1,000 lbs of CO2 annually); upgrade or repair your furnace ducts to eliminate leaks; think about adding wall insulation if you're adding shearwall; get rid of that asbestos the inspector mentioned to you when you bought your home (abatement is much cheaper than you'd think, and young buyer-families can get freaked out about it these days); consider a flash water heater system; and even think about solar panels on the roof (it's about the only thing the City of Piedmont can't nix--due to state law!). Many of these upgrades won't break even anytime soon, but they'll make your home more attractive to the next buyer, and will reduce costs and increase comfort

Small stuff to put in practice: Wash or dry only full loads of dishes and clothes, sweep-don't wash down decks and patios, turn off lights, don't leave the door open so the dog can go in and out freely (got that Buck?), close the fireplace damper when not in use, open window coverings on the south side of the house during the day and close at night (and reverse in the summer).

Small things you can do in the next hour: Reprogram your programmable thermostat to optimal temperatures-55 at night and 68 during the day (installing one saves over 400 lb of CO2/yr); check to make sure your fridge and freezer temperature settings are at the middle of the dial (39 and 3 degrees respectively); lower your hot water heater temperature to 120-130 degrees; close or duct-tape heater vents going into unused rooms; and then go to the hardware store:

•· buy a mess of CFLs so that as your old lightbulbs go out, you're ready to Do the Right Thing (replacing 12 lamp bulbs that are typically on for 2 hrs/day saves a lifetime total of $600, and 150 lbs of CO2 annually), and

•· buy a couple of power strips-plug your equipment into the strip, and then just turn the strip on and off when you need to use the TV or computer. This approach eliminates that "phantom load"-when your TV and computer suck in energy even though you turned off the appliance itself.

Five important appointments to make in the following hour: 1. Call your heating specialist for a furnace tune-up; 2. call your insulation specialist to check your attic's R-value and install any needed insulation up to R-30 standards (it's SO cheap); call Jaco Environmental (1-800-741-0172, appliancerecycling.com) to come and pick up that old incredibly inefficient (but running) garage refrigerator (use an ice chest for special occasions instead). A family in Medford, MA reduced their electricity bill by 30 percent by getting rid of their old basement freezer. PG&E will pay Jaco clients $35 for it.

That handy list of rebates for Alameda County residents from the 1Q08 newsletter can be found http://www.builditgreen.org/webfm_send/133, and my list of vendors can be found now or later at www.drop.io/MaureenKennedyUsefulStuff. The password is MaureenKennedy (case-sensitive). Email me if you'd like to see a sample copy of the Energy CheckUp.

[*] A smaller home is better than a bigger home; one home is better than two.

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