Sunday, February 8, 2009

Doing Our Part to Stay Green

During the long wait for the seller's bank approval to our offer on Chateau Papillon, I read quite a few books on green living, from Insulate and Weatherize to The Home Energy Diet, about reducing the impact we and our home would have on the environment.  Indeed, we determined to handle our renovations in as green a fashion as possible, from the use of low- and no-VOC paints to our choices of renewable flooring materials such as cork and bamboo.

Thinking back now over the past three months we've lived at Chateau Papillon, I realize that though there's still a bit to do (I've got much more insulation to do, for example, despite the amount I've already accomplished) but that we've also come quite a way toward achieving our goal.  Here are a few of the ways we're doing our part to cut our environmental impact and improve our green living:


Beth sometimes calls me the "recycling Nazi," due to the degree to which I enforce recycling in our household.  We've always put out wine bottles, soda cans, and the appropriate plastic bottles (numbers 1 & 2 where we live); now, however, I've added paperboard & cardstock to the usual corrugated cardboard pickup, so that we're recycling pretty much everything except for unaccepted plastics (the most frequent being resin code 5, or polypropylene, such as is typically found in margarine tubs and similar containers).  We've also in the past put said unrecyclable containers to re-use for storing leftover foods, etc.  I even bring home from work the cardstock packaging and plastic tray from my typical microwave lunch to make sure they're properly recycled.

Though we always recycle plastic grocery and shopping bags, Beth has also crocheted a pair of mesh grocery bags we use alongside several others to cut back on our consumption of the same; paper grocery bags serve to hold our cardstock and paperboard recycling.

I've also been very careful to design, measure, and cut all of our wood used in renovations to minimize the waste (this obviously also has financial benefits), and am looking to find out the best way to make use of the remaining wood scraps: mostly thin strips of low-VOC plywood, molding, and small lengths of 1x4s.  Though commercially these are recycled--typically into composite building materials, such as particleboard and plastic decking (the latter making use of those plastic shopping bags, too!)--I've been hard-pressed to find a consumer recycling option.  It's possible we'll chip them and use the wood in gardening, given it's untreated lumber and the plywood is lacking toxic formaldehyde glues; I'm open to other suggestions.

Energy Consumption

Though the pets and Beth being at home during the day make the best use of our setback thermostat impractical, the amount of weatherizing I've done so far (sealing gaps around several windows, along baseboards, and the exterior doors) has allowed us to at least cut the thermostat back to 69 degrees (thanks to less water vapor being lost to the outside through those gaps), and likewise the furnace runs less often.  Our gas bill is already approximately half what it was at our rental house despite being for a larger home.

We have managed to replace almost all of the incandescent bulbs in the house with compact fluorescents (CFLs), typically cutting lighting costs by 75% or more.  For those naysayers who complain about the mercury in CFLs, let me point out that the local Home Depot accepts used CFLs for recycling--keeping the mercury out of landfills--and that an equivalent incandescent bulb contributes far more mercury to the environment via its consumption of electricity (which via the mining and burning of coal emits quite a bit of mercury).  I'm down to the fridge bulb and a set of small spotlights in the basement, and Beth's bedside lamp, for which there aren't any suitable alternative bulbs at present.

Even better, I've recently been able to replace several bulbs with LEDs, which consume even less electricity (and don't have any issues with mercury, either).  The dining room chandelier had used five 40-watt incandescents, and the candelabra-base CFLs simply didn't fit inside the light sconces--but Sam's Club just started carrying LED candelabra bulbs which consume only 1.5 watts of power for their 40-watt equivalent light output.  These bulbs fit the fixture and are priced right ($5 apiece); price has been one of the big detractors to wider-scale LED bulb use to date--for example, one basement spotlight fixture took three 1.5 watt LEDs to replace three 50-watt halogens, but at a cost of $30/bulb.  Eek!  The only downside is that these LED bulbs from Sam's are very directional (this is a problem with most LED bulbs today, mind you); the majority of their light is emitted straight out the end of the bulb.  I'm not sure why the array of individual LEDs are set up all in the same direction or why the protective plastic casing doesn't have a series of refractive lenses to disperse the light better... but for the chandelier, which primarily lights downward onto the dining room table, they work just fine.

I replaced several smaller external hard drives on my computer with Energy Star rated larger units; getting rid of the old 160 GB, 100 GB, and 240 GB units to replace them with a couple of 1 TB drives not only gave me the necessary storage boost I needed (my photography archive consumes about 1/3 TB at present!) but cut my computer's energy usage significantly; at present, even when all the drives are running, the system's on, and I'm using the external monitor, the whole consumes only 100 watts or so.

This year's holiday decorations were entirely LED-powered; for the Hokie tree, we found some orange LEDs on sale at Costco after Halloween which easily cut the tree's energy consumption to 1/10th what it had been with incandescents--and looks better, too.  Outside, we put up LED lights along the roof line, and for the more traditional tree, we found a few last-minute sales on LED light strands at Target which we used to replace several incandescents.  These LED decorations easily translated into a holiday-season savings of $40-$60 at our current electricity prices!

One thing I'm still working on is the electric space heater we use for supplementary heat in the basement for the birds at night; if run at full power all night long, the heater would consume 400 kilowatt-hours of electricity in a month, or over $30 worth of electricity at current rates.  I've gotten Beth to run it at a set temperature (68) to reduce its usage, and continuing insulation and weatherization projects should help lessen the need to use it at all.

There are times now where I watch the power meter outside and see if barely crawling along, even though we've got several lights on and the TV (an Energy Star-rated LCD unit) as well.  Nice!


Our dishwasher features a "Water Miser" setting, which gets the dishes done more quickly and uses less water, yet does a fine job getting them clean nonetheless.  Likewise, setting the laundry load size properly helps use the proper amount of water while still cleaning the clothes effectively.

And, of course, there's the tried and true method of turning things off which aren't in use: the TV, lights, etc., and unplugging "power vampires" like phone chargers and unused consumer appliances.  (Unfortunately, we have to leave the cable box on; it takes a good 5-10 minutes to boot up if you physically cut and restore the power--but at least the power meter we've got on the entertainment center shows the cable box consumes less than 10 watts when idled.)

Future Plans

We've got several plans lined up for the future which should help even more, both near- and long-term.

First, we want to replace our aging hot water heater with a tankless unit; our tank is old enough that a decently-sized, electronic-ignition, variable-firing tankless unit would really make an impact.  The furnace is also fairly old, so when it goes, we'll be looking to upgrade to a more energy-efficient one (the A/C compressor is new enough it won't be a problem).  Our home appliances are in pretty good shape, as they were made in the last few years.  Still, we do want to upgrade the refrigerator and would go with a more energy-efficient unit, and the washing machine could stand to be replaced with a high-efficiency unit, too.

I want to redo my bathroom, and the more modern low-flush toilets have come along well enough that I'm ready to replace the water-hogging ones we've got with better-conserving units.

Our home is oriented reasonably-well to take advantage of solar heating in the winter, and the woods around it will help shade it in the summer.  But there are steps which can help there quite a bit; at some point, we'll replace the asphalt shingle roof (already a light color, fortunately) with something more durable and which reflects more heat.  These are of course long-term projects, as would be adding a solar water heater and photovoltaic cells to the roof.  Shorter-term will be improved insulation in the attic.

In the yard, we're planning to add a vegetable garden as well as several water projects.  From a natural perspective, we want to add a small pond to attract birds, and we also want to improve the drainage of our yard.  I'm hoping to implement a rainwater catchment system to utilize rainwater for gardening and for our pond and perhaps eventually for other uses.  Landscaping is also going to help with the solar benefits of our home as well as provide more wildlife habitat.

The problem with these future projects is that they take money, and given Beth's current job situation, we've had to postpone several.  Oh, well... I'll at least have more time to read books on the how-to end.

The Bottom Line

Many of the projects we've undertaken will pay for themselves over time.  The insulation and weatherizing I've put in so far have had a definite impact on our utility bills, as have the more-efficient light sources we're using.  A few of our upgrades and renovations actually have tax benefits as well (and several of our future ones typically have received tax incentives each year, like high-efficiency water heaters and photovoltaic panels), though there's no guarantee that will remain the case).

The intangible benefit is that we know we're doing our part to ensure the Earth and her environments remain viable for the generations to come.

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