Sunday, December 17

Fade to Green; Why It Makes Sense To Be Efficient

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Becoming “efficient” doesn’t mean we can’t have our toys, it just means we have to pick and choose the toys. You can have a new TV but, do you really need a plasma screen. LCD’s are pretty cool too but, will cost you less in the long run because they use less electricity.

The following equation;

Item cost+cost of energy (over lifetime)=real cost, should be considered when making any item which requires energy to work. Higher cost items, such as a heating or air conditioning system, or any appliance.

When we buy a major appliance, the real cost of that appliance isn’t printed on the price tag, but it can be known. Take a look at the Energy Star label on the item. It actually tells you approximately how much it’s going to cost you per year to run the item. Multiply the per year cost by the life expectancy of the item. That’s the unadvertised cost. Add that to the purchase price and now you have the full price of the item.

Here’s an example showing how to figure out what an appliance is going to cost, over its lifetime;

You can find a fridge on the internet for $921. It’s a nice side by side 25 cu. ft. model which burns 726 kilowatt-hours(kWh) per year based on the Energy Star “federal rating.” Let’s assume your electricity costs 10.5¢ per kWh and the average life span for a fridge of this type (side by side doors) is 14 years, then the formula looks like this;

726 kWh/year x14 years = 10,164 kWh burned over its lifetime. Then . . .

10,164 kWh burned x 10.5¢ per kWh = $1,067.22

$1,067.22 utility + $921 purchase price =$1,988.22

That’s more than double the original purchase price!

So, let’s try a different model. This one is also a 25 cu. ft.., side by side model but, it only burns 635 kWh per year. We’ll keep the price the same to keep things even. Let’s do the math . . .

635kWh per year x 14 years = 8,890kWh burned

8,890kWh x10.5¢ per kWh =$933.45

$933.45 utility +$921 purchase price =$1,854.45

The price still doubles over the life time of the fridge but, by doing the math on these two items you can save a grand total of . . . $133.76. Not a fortune but, a savings nonetheless and if fuel prices rise, the difference between the two grows.

If your power company uses natural gas to generate its electricity, it puts out 0.84 lbs of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour. On the other hand, if your power company uses coal to generate electricity, they put out 1.9lbs per kilowatt-hour. So, if your fridge uses up 10,164 kWh in its life time, it has also contributed 19,311.6lbs of carbon dioxide to our air. But, if it burns 8,890kWh in its life, you’ll have contributed 16,891lbs.

Before you buy a refrigerator with side by side doors, consider this. You can get a bottom freezer unit which uses 594 kWh annually or, if you are willing to give up 3 or 4 cubic feet you can get a 21 cubic foot top freezer model which uses only 519 kWh per year.

As you can see, your choices have an impact on both your personal finances and how you affect your environment. The true costs of these items is often obscured in the way it is presented to the consumer.

Conservation’s Side Effects

A whole slew of people in America have been complaining about the price of gasoline and rightly so. We’re not used to $4.00 per gallon. So, many people have bought new, smaller cars which are more conservative in their gas consumption. Now that’s money smart.

Most people could not afford a new car, so they were stuck with the old gas guzzlers and their complaints (including myself.) There is a simple fix which can impact how much of your money you keep; no matter what you drive, if you want to pay less, drive slower. If you drive a car slower, you use a little less gas. Now here’s the cool part; if a lot of people demanded less gasoline, the demand is lower. If the demand is lower, so are the prices.

This holds true to every commodity. If we all used less fuel, oil producers and suppliers would be forced to compete on prices. That equals discounts on gasoline, natural gas, fuel oil, etc.

This rule has been playing out in the corn commodity markets. The new call for corn based ethanol has increased the demand for corn. However, because you can only grow so much corn, the growers could ask higher prices because so many people wanted their corn.

The Energy Hog

A home consumes energy from the time it is set down as a blue print. The architect puts in some energy, the building crews and machines put in some energy and finally, when it is occupied it consumes energy to stay comfortable. The trouble is the homes use more energy than is necessary. Even now, some homes are built in a way which maximizes profits for the builder and developer, rather than in a way which maximizes efficiency.

This isn’t always the case and there have been many reasons why homes are built the way they are. Much of it has to do with when they were built. For instance, I own a home which was built in the 1920’s. Building technology just wasn’t what it is today and the standard practice of the day was to use a ¾” air gap in between the exterior brick and the interior plaster as insulation. That’s an R-4 value. I took one room at a time (starting with the North wall) and removed all of the plaster and wood furring strips, reframed and insulated the walls with R-15 insulation (fits standard 3 ½” wall cavity.) That’s almost four times the insulating value and I got a tax write off from the Feds for the insulation.

Fireplaces were common as a way to supplement heat. The fireplace is a funny device in a house. It warms the room it is in but, it sucks all of the warm air from the rest of the house. It makes more sense to stuff insulation inside the chimney and not burn a fire in it at all (this method works well but, care should be taken to allow some air to get through the insulation to prevent moisture build up inside the chimney.) If money permits, get an insert which pushes the hot air out into the room and keeps it there.

Windows and doors are another common problem area. If you think about it, we spend a good chunk of change insulating the walls of our homes only to put holes in them. Single pane windows have the equivalent insulating value of R-1. A double pane window has the equivalent of an R-2 rating (windows are rated using a different scale but, it’s a good approximation.) Compare that to the rest of your wall’s heat transfer rating and you can see why windows are an issue.

You can get windows with higher rating by getting gas filled, double pane glass but, no matter what, get the best you can. It’ll save you more money in the long run.

The rest of this publication will take each component of the home, attempt to explain how the component does what it does and why it may cost you more money than is necessary. Then, once we have the energy hog penned up an under control, we’ll talk about renewable energy systems which will reduce your consumption from the grid even further.

Reining in the Home

So, you have the home, everything works great. The heater heats, the electricity flows and all’s well. Then, the utility bills start to come.  Whether your home uses oil, Natural gas or Propane gas as a fuel source, we’re all in the same boat. All of these are petroleum products and, as such, are big polluters. Petroleum products are also made from, you guessed it, petroleum, which is considered a “commodity.” This last point is very important because that’s the reason our prices are not only high, but are unstable.

Many homes are climate controlled. This means that no matter what the weather is like outside, the home will keep our perfect temperature inside.

The question is “How much of your heating and cooling do you actually keep?” The unfortunate answer is all too often “not much.”

Heat rises, therefore you attic is the single most important barrier against heat loss. Unless you have a well insulated attic, much of your heat is used to heat the neighborhood. Unfortunately, this situation often causes other unwanted effects such as spring time mold and rotted roof sheeting.

When the heat escapes into an attic it not only gets lost to you but, the cold air in the attic causes any moisture in the warm air to condense. This condensed moisture will then collect on either your insulation (making it useless) or on the underside of a roof. In either case, it may freeze in the winter but, the moisture will remain till spring when mold and fungus spores float around looking for a nice warm, wet spot to start a family on.

Warm air in a cold attic also creates a condition known as “ice damming.” This happens when warm air from your house rises into the attic. This warmth melts some of the snow on your roof. The water then flows down the slope and, when it gets to the eaves (the part that protrudes off of the house) it freezes again. When it does, your gutters become clogged with ice and the ice gets pushed under your roof shingles. This condition destroys the roofing material and causes your roof sheeting to become wet when the spring thaw comes. Neighborhood mold and fungus spores will love you for providing new habitat.

In all climates, attic insulation should be approximately R-38 or more. This means that it should be around 10” to 14” thick or thicker. Nice warm blanket to keep that expensive heat in and the cold out . . . of your house, not your attic. You see, the attic temperature needs to be approximately the same as the air temperature outside! A warm attic in the winter means the air from your house is getting out of your living space and you’re heating the neighborhood!

Before you start throwing insulation into your attic, consider this; much of your warm air escapes through holes in your ceiling. These could be electrical or plumbing pipe penetrations, or any number of other cracks, crevices or holes. Take the time to trace out all of these “heat chimneys” and use spray foam or caulk to seal them up. Remember, electrical junction boxes are meant for wires only. Wrap these in duct tape before you spray foam around them. Otherwise the foam will expand right into the junction box creating a potentially dangerous situation, or at the very least, will make for a grumpy electrician if you ever need that light fixture replaced.

Once all of the holes are sealed tight, you can proceed with the insulation. If you already have some in the ceiling joist cavities, lay your new insulation across the joists. If you do not, lay the first layer in the joist cavity so that it is even with the top of the joist, then lay another layer across. This will create less gaps in the insulation creating a blanket effect. Better yet, lay in an R-38 insulation batt between your joists and fill in all of the gaps with some loosefill insulation, adding at least 1” on top of the insulation batts. This is by far the best method, if you take your time and do it right.

By the way, don’t enter your attic without personal protection. You will need a high quality dust mask and goggles. Insulation is good for your house, but not your lungs and the dust will stick to your mist eyeballs. Not fun and it can be prevented. I would also recommend getting one of those Tyvek “bio suits.” Most home centers sell these in the paint department for about $15 dollars. A great investment if you are working with fiberglass. The stuff is really itchy if it gets on your skin, but is fairly easy to get off with a good hot shower and plenty of soap. You may also want to get any existing insulation you may have in your attic tested for asbestos content. Look up “asbestos insulation” online and see if it matches what you have. If in doubt, put a dust mask on and get a sample or two into separate plastic baggies. Do it carefully so that you do not disturb it too much because it is the airborne dust which is dangerous. There are many testing labs around the country which will do a sample test for around $20, or less per sample, and you can send the samples in by mail. Just seal the baggies tight and label them. If you do not want to handle the stuff yourself, you can hire a professional to take the sample for you. Either way, better to be sure.

Being “green” doesn’t mean being a tree hugger. It just means you want to save money, or have a smaller impact on your environment. If you like the outdoors as much as I do, this should hit close to home. After all, I don’t like walking through the woods and seeing bottles, paper and other junk strewn in between all of the plants. I don’t like to worry about my Mercury intake because I want to eat a fish I just caught. These things can be avoided with just a little effort. We only need to think before we act.

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