Friday, June 14, 2013

Reduce, Reuse THEN Recycle

We have it wrong folks...we have been doing things with our minds flipped backwards for too long so I'm going to take a minute and straighten a few things out.  This whole Reduce, Reuse, Recycle thing has been mixed up.  I was basically raised to think that the little triangle of arrows meant recycle.  We didnt talk the reduce or reuse parts, but those are the most important!  We can't get where we need to go by just recycling...we have to start with steps 1 and 2.  So let's dig in to it...

Before cutting straight to the "throw it in the blue bin" part, we first need to back things up to the your house where stuff gets used and/or tossed in the trash.  Grocery bags are a good example...these are very handy when you're leaving the store, unpacking the basket into the car and then from the car into the house...then, after that 30 minutes of use, we are often done with them.  I know what you're saying "no, no...that's not the end of their use.  I use them as trash bags".  Yes, you are still hitting on number 2 - reuse...but reduce comes first.  These are extraneous. They don't add value but come at an extreme cost.  We use TONS of these things (which are made from petrol) and they all end up in the trash.  Non compostable, essentially non biodegradable...just trash.  Terrible.  There are tons of stats out there, but this isn't my point.  My point is that instead of recycling them (which many stores now offer), or reusing them (which is better than tossing them)...we should first strive to eliminate the need for them...and other things that aren't necessary. Start with thinking about how you can reduce what you consume, then optimize by reusing and if necessary, recycling.

This was the philosophy on which I'm gradually optimizing our home energy usage and yes, it's ok that it's a process. Life is a process and we're all at various stages along the journey but what's great is that it's a win win...the more you learn, the less you consume overall, the more you re-use and the less you recycle (though you're hopefully still recycling a higher % of your overall consumption than previously). So yeah...think about "waste" in your life...things that you could live without or "reduce" your consumption of and do it.  Remember....Reduce, Reuse THEN Recycle :)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Life Efficiency Consultant

Continuing along my journey towards self realization and onward towards an overall more efficienct and sustainable lifestyle, I feel that I have happened upon a title that roughly summarizes a job that I would enjoy.  The "Life Efficiency Consultant".  Y'see...I dont like charging people for things that I'm passionate about and that generally works.  What's beautiful about improving the efficiency/sustainability of one's life is that it generally comes with cost savings.  Assuming the customer is actually interested in making changes...installing PV Solar Panels have a very attractive ROI...replacing the daily commute machine with a motorized bicycle...aka scooter saves substantial money...replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact flourescent bulbs or better yet LED bulbs pays for the bulbs very quickly and saves tons of money in electricity.  I documented my own expenditures and savings and everything paid itself off within a few months and since making the initial improvements, I have gradually been moving from CFLs to LED bulbs, starting with the high usage areas of the house.

So efficiency consultant.  That's me.  Not quite anything I would call a part time job or even a formal engagement at this point, but definitely something I can do and will gladly help anyone do for free.  Paying too much for your monthly electricity/natural gas/gasoline bill?  Hit me up.  I love this stuff. I'm not the master of any specific area but from what I've experienced and read...a few quick and easy changes that come at almost no lifestyle cost can vastly improve the efficiency and sustainability of your life.


Monday, June 10, 2013

home efficiency

one of the things that has always attracted me to the idea of sustainability is that for the most part, it's is a cost savings.  if your car gets more MPG, you spend less on gas to go the same distance. if you replace traditional incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs at home, you spend WAY less on electricity and typically save what the new bulbs cost in the first year. if you install solar panels on your roof, in 5-11 years (depending on if you go the DIY route or have someone engineer and install your system), it pays out and you are rocking on clean, free energy.

In that sense, sustainability resonates with a lot of who I am and how I operate...not to mention the environmental benefits of burning less gas in your car, using less electricity to light your home or generating clean, free energy from the sun vs coal, natural gas, nuclear or other not-so-pleasant means of producing electricity.

When we moved in to our new home, upgrading bulbs, reducing lawn watering times and installing more insulation were just a few of the things I did as we were still unpacking.  It just made sense to me.  As such, our 1760 sq ft house started off with a monthly electric bill of $60/ California where we pay $.12/kwh off peak and $.14 peak power rates...much higher than much of the rest of the country.  So here, it just makes sense to make our homes as efficient as possible, then offset whatever we do use with solar panels. It blows my mind how many folks out there pay upwards of $150/month on power bills.  I really dont know where the power goes but it seems that most people have just adapted to spending tons of money on power.

Maybe this is my niche...I'm passionate about improving the efficiency of homes.  After a few months of working through the house on my own, I looked up and found a company that performs home energy assessments and spent $300 for two guys to come into my house for a few hours and check the efficiency of seals, look for opportunities to better insulate my house, upgrade windows, etc.  They were basically a front end for a construction company who saw efficiency as a means of entry for their construction business.  Good idea...but they didnt turn up a lot that wasnt pretty obvious on the surface.  Be sure that your doors and windows seal (which they didnt do a good job of identifying), seal your attic from your living space including all upper floor outlets (which can leak air to/from the attic vertically) etc etc...

I suppose what keeps me from wanting to move forward with this in a business sense is that the reason I want to do it is to educate people and to help them understand how easy it is to make huge improvements in their home energy utilization...taking home efficiency to the next level.  Home energy usage makes up ~22% of total energy consumption per the EIA ( with the average home using over 11kwh/year so that's a pretty significant chunk of the power we generate each year.  Reducing usage is a great first step at making our way of life sustainable and that all starts with education :)

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Sustainability - Reduce

This week was a good week in terms of reducing our family carbon and water footprint, accomplishing several reasonable sized projects that had been on my list for quite some time:

  • This past weekend, I installed a new dishwasher.  Our old dishwasher had stopped working and seeing as how newer dishwashers are more energy efficient - our new dishwasher is estimated to only use $20/year in energy - and use less water, it was a win-win for the family.  On top of that, most modern dishwashers actually use less water and heat energy than washing the dishes by hand.  This is likely not true for me as I am very stingy with the water when doing dishes...but in general, installing a modern dishwasher is a good way to reduce your household energy and water consumption. 
  • New (to me) Electric Dryer - Some friends of mine had recently moved into a new place and didn't have a need for their old electric dryer.  By old, I mean almost brand new :).  It was roughly 2 years old and in great shape.  You might be thinking "you dummy, everyone knows that gas dryers are more energy efficient from a total energy standpoint" and I couldn't agree more. It is definitely more cost effective to dry clothes with natural gas vs. electricity however, I cannot create natural gas at home whereas with solar, I can generate free, clean electricity dang near every day of the year which allows me to dry my clothes for free with an electric dryer...assuming I can offset the electricity used by our new dryer.  It did require running a new 30amp/220 circuit and installing a special 30a outlet in our garage which was a bit of a hassle but we made it work and now it's drying clothes like a champ.  Electric dryers use between 2 and 6kwhs/load so it will cost us $.12*5.6kwh = $.67/load until we offset that usage with solar.  
  • New home LED light bulbs - When we moved into our home a little over 2 years ago, one of the first things I did was to install compact flourescent light (CFL) bulbs everywhere.  On average, this provided a home energy usage reduction of over 75%...moving from 60 watt incandescent bulbs to 13 watt CFLs, from 40 watt bulbs to 9 watt CFLs and so on.  I also bought some cheap 1.5 watt LED bulbs and replaced the 8 decorative lights out front of our hose with them.  The previous owner had already swapped them out for CFLs running at 13 watts but it was still almost a 90% reduction in usage.  These improvements already left us in pretty good shape in terms of power usage with our average monthly bill coming in at just over $50/month.  To continue that improvement trend and to move away from CFLs which contain mercury vapor and have to be disposed of as hazardous waste, I have been slowly purchasing LED bulbs, testing newer technologies, better brands and more recently at lower price points.  With this latest order of home supplies, I added in 2 Cree 6 Watt LED bulbs to the mix.  These are 40 watt equivalent bulbs but I was replacing 15 watt CFLs with them, so it was still a reasonable improvement.  These bulbs are the first by a mainstream manufacturer that are under the $10/bulb price point (at $9.97ea) which is a big deal for the industry.  Cree is one of the leading manufacturers of LED modules and make a lot of modules for flashlights, expensive home retrofit kits and similar products. I have been placing the LED bulbs in our areas of highest usage, starting with the living room and now working my way back to the kitchen where I placed these 2 new bulbs.  They are putting out enough light and are instant on vs CFLs which do not come on at full brightness...taking a few minutes to warm up before they get to full strength.  Another energy win for the house :).
  • Electric Lawn Mower - This is actually a net energy increase for our house...when we first moved in, I was a bit too optimistic and bought a push mower without thinking about 2 critical factors - our yard is not fact it is fairly large for this part of california. We have covered some of it with a patio extension and installed some "eco-lawn" but it's still a lot to do with a push mower.  This resulted in the yard not getting mowed which is bad press for any husband.  I finally got around to taking action and ordered a new black n decker electric mower.  This again is not in line with the norm which would be a gas mower...but as with our dryer, I can (and am already doing so) generate electricity for free whereas I have to buy and burn gas.  Win for the environment and win for my husband cred...though that does mean I'll be spending this weekend mowing :)
  • Removed Wine Fridge - This one cost me major relationship cred.  With all of the electrical work needed to setup the new 30 amp / 220 volt circuit for the house, I took the opportunity to pull out the wine fridge that came with our house.  We aren't wine drinkers and were basically using it for storage with a bottle of champagne, some dessert wine and the requisite bottle of chardonnay sitting around on top of which we had tossed 2 cases of Starbucks coffee drink leftovers from a recent family get together.  As it was a built in, I pulled it out leaving a gap in our cabinet facing.  We need to find something to put in there and I know I'll be taking flak until then but it was the right thing to do and reduced our energy footprint further. 
Overall, I'm very happy with the progress we made this week as it was the culmination of lots of work, planning and saving and ready to get on with the next items on the list.  Next up: 5 (or 7) more solar panels for the roof.  I broke our solar purchase and installation up into 3 phases to slowly move us over to solar power while also waiting for the massive cost improvements in the solar industry to kick in (while also riding the last few years of the 30% federal tax credit on solar systems installed that are over 1kw).  These next 5 or 7 panels will more than double our solar generation and crank out more green energy to the grid.