During the initial debate about the future US energy policy direction, we heard a number of statistics, such as the average American uses 33 times the energy that the average citizen of India uses. The results are rapidly diminishing domestic petroleum resources, smog, acid rain, climate change, and a burgeoning foreign trade deficit. Ever wonder what one person can do to make a difference? I decided to take on the challenge, and set about to:
- Build an energy efficient house
- Purchase a Honda Insight for commuting (telecommuting when possible)
- Rely on biking for errands
Energy Efficient House
New houses built in the US today are rarely very energy efficient, as homebuilders view the energy profile of a home as relatively unimportant to buyers (though West Coast buyers now have a different perspective). Homebuilders are risk-averse, as slow-selling or failed projects can lead to diminished profits or even bankruptcy. So they put cheap, energy-wasting HVAC, appliances, and insulation in most homes. The result is a slightly lower initial purchase price, but much larger utility bills for the life of the home.
I initially considered renovating an existing home to improve its insulation and add passive and photovoltaic solar features. After finding that many homeowner association covenants discouraged solar panels, I chose to build my home in 1997 and start a small farm at the same time, 20 minutes from my work location. I discovered a manufactured housing producer nearby (Foremost Industries) who was willing to make the necessary design modifications. My overall approach covered all aspects of energy consumption;
- Heating: Northern Virginia has fair solar heating potential, so the choice of passive solar made sense. Passive solar heating means that no moving parts or working fluids are required to bring the sun's heat into the house, and is implemented primarily through south facing windows. We moved some window space from the north, west and east sides to the south and placed eaves over the first floor windows to provide shade in the summer. For supplemental heat, we chose an EPA approved energy efficient zero-clearance fireplace that squeezed 78% of the fireplace heat into the house (Vermont Castings Winter Warm Large). The building code required a thermostat controlled heat source, so I installed a 92% efficient propane furnace.
- Cooling: Virginia has fairly hot summers, so I considered some form of cooling to be appropriate. After eliminating evaporative cooling (too humid), absorptive refrigeration (not production ready at the time), and ground source heat pumps (lack of qualified contractors), I chose to install ceiling fans and a 16 SEER air conditioner which we would use only on mornings when the temperature was predicted to exceed 85 F in the afternoon.
- Insulation: The minimum code requirements are for R-11 in walls and R-24 in the attic, but the manufactured house came standard with R-19 in the walls, R-38 in the attic, and housewrap (prevents air infiltration), so no improvements were needed here. Insulating shades are also on every window in the house, as even energy-efficient windows are far less than R-19.
- Appliances: The key here is to identify Energy Star appliances that match the needs of the household (Note: most of the following choices can be made by the average homeowner when replacing an energy-consuming item);
- Refrigerator: This appliance is the largest consumer of electricity, after air conditioning, so much research went into this selection. Sunfrost made the most efficient one at the time, but cost and availability at that time were prohibitive, so we chose the best commercially available refrigerator, an Amana bottom freezer model. We didn't even consider a second refrigetrator or freezer. Most second refrigerators are older and use enormous amounts of energy, especially when they sit in garages.
- Clothes Washer: Another heavy user of electricity and water. Horizontal axis washers use up to 40% less of both, so this choice was easy.
- Dishwasher: Many European brands are already energy efficient, so we chose a Swedish model that is also quiet and excels in cleaning.
- Hot water: Hot water tanks constantly give off heat to their surroundings, referred to as standby losses. On-demand heaters simply turn on the heating element/burner when a hot water tap opened, wasting no energy at other times. A solar hot water heater is in the plans, with the on-demand heater to be used as a backup during cloudy winter weeks.
- Lighting: We put Compact fluorescent bulbs in every main lighting fixture, as they use only 25% of the power incandescent bulbs use. Any incandescent lights are only used for brief durations.
- Always on devices: We avoid continuous loads wherever possible, such as "instant on" TVs and power cubes for a variety of devices (i.e., cordless phones, dustbusters, etc) as they add up to significant energy usage. A power strip with an off switch simplifies powering up and down such items.
- Energy Generation: A 2 kW installation of solar photovoltaic panels is currently underway, with an expected generation potential equal to current consumption. With the panels now on the roof, all that remains is integrating the system components.
- Building materials: The foundation was constructed of pre-cast 1½" concrete walls with 6"x 2" concrete studs at 24" intervals. This requires 75% less concrete, which takes enormous amounts of energy to extract, process, and transport. And the studs have a wooden furring strip that interior wall materials can be mounted on, so extra labor and wood for framing was not needed when we finished the basement.
Household transportation energy consumption frequently surpasses residential energy consumption, so we take extra care here. The powerful imagery thrust upon us by advertisements (and movie product placement agreements) steers us towards purchasing a vehicle that projects an image of our choice to others. If we can resist the impulse to buy a vehicle that possesses such imagery, we can then choose one that is far less expensive in initial and operating costs. Our selection here was a Saturn SW1 for our "big" family car and, more recently, a Honda Insight for my commuting vehicle (our location is unfortunately not near a mass transit stop). The Toyota Prius is another excellent choice for family/commuting purposes. I am now in the consulting business, so my job destinations are not always predictable. However, the Insight excels in fuel economy, and I am currently on an assignment where I can carpool, which further extends the fuel savings. And I can frequently take on assignments where I can telecommute much of the time, eliminating the need even to climb into my car for up to a week at a time.
For running errands, I now utilize my bicycle for most jaunts into town (4 miles away), including the hardware store, the video store, and the grocery store. Showing up in cycling gear at citizen meetings and government public input sessions shows one's commitment to breaking the energy addiction. Seeing others start to do the same thing demonstrates the snowball effect of such simple measures. Bike trailers are also available to carry heavy items (including refrigerators and couches!), so the perceived need for pickups and SUVs is delusional.
- Electric bills are usually around $30, with the lowest being $18 and the highest being $69. The completion of the solar photovoltaic system should make this drop to $0 when averaged over a year's time. I will also be able to sell excess generation for about three times the cost of coal-generated electricity, providing a near-term payback period of between 6 to 8 years.
- Propane consumption is around 450 to 600 gallons per year, depending on how much firewood we use and the winter weather conditions. As my neighbors often complain about their 800 to 1200 gallon yearly usage, this roughly translates to savings of about $750/yr. With 2 very young children in the house, I chose to keep the heat no lower than 65 F at night and 68 F during the day, so one could easily realize greater savings. Passive solar construction extras amounted to only about $1350, and the high efficiency furnace was only about $300 more. Savings of 50% are common with passive solar heating.
- Gasoline bills are exceptionally low: the Insight averages around 64 mpg and sometimes sees a month pass by before visiting a gas station for a 10 gallon fillup. The Saturn averages about 33 mpg in mixed use. The total monthly gas bill ranges from $45 to $60. If we had a minivan and a Ford Expedition, our monthly gas bills would be closer to $175 to $200, and the initial costs would have been $18,000 higher.
What might I do differently?
Renovating/refitting a home near a mass transit location is also a good way to reduce one's energy footprint. Living in an apartment/condo in a city with nearby mass transit also achieves the same goals. I'm currently working with my local government officials to improve a design for a new transit development to resemble a carfree district, already implemented in several European countries. Such a design creates a completely pedestrian community around a mass transit hub, with stores (grocery, pharmacy, etc) and offices a short stroll away. Car-sharing takes care of those times when one needs to go where transit currently does not.
So when you hear some people complain about high energy bills, you know that something CAN be done. And such a solution will also decrease the amount of pollution generated, reduce the emissions of climate change gases, lower the foreign trade deficit, and reduce the rate at which we deplete our energy resources. If we rely purely on market forces to save us, we will suffer the fate of boiled frogs. A frog placed into boiling water will leap out immediately. But a frog placed into cool water that is gradually heated will remain until cooked. Now is the time to make the leap to reducing your energy demand and protecting your grandchildrens' future.