Saturday, February 14, 2009

Economic Leverage in Hard Times: Part 4—Energy

This is the fourth installment of my series on how everyone can get more of the life they want while at the same time spending less money to make it happen. My motivation is that most folks today need to be more careful about their economic choices, and I have some good news.

Through what's been learned about cooperation and sharing in community living, it's possible for most of us to continue to enhance the quality of our life while at the same time cut back on cash outlays. To be sure, my suggestions will require some lifestyle changes. Yet what I'm offering is meant to be widely accessible, and does not involve a change in personality or altering one's core values. In Part 1 I focused on Housing; in Part 2 I looked at Food; Part 3 was about Transportation. Today I'll spotlight Energy.

• • •
Energy costs in the typical American budget are embedded in both Transportation (gas) and Housing (utilities), which have been the subject of previous blogs. While I don't have a percentage for how much Energy represents in aggregate, I have figures for household energy costs: 49% is devoted to heating and cooling; 18% to heating water; 10% to lighting; and 6% to the washing and drying clothes (with a bunch of lesser categories making up the remainder). Here are a half dozen suggestions for how to realize some substantial savings in this segment of our lives: five relate to heating and cooling; and one relates to laundry.

1. Wood stoves
If you live in a part of the country with abundant trees (which we do in northeast Missouri), using wood stoves for space heating can save tremendously on the cost of warming the house. While this is not a practical option in some areas (such as the southern two-thirds of New Mexico & Arizona), and you need to be careful about air pollution (they banned wood stoves in Missoula MT—located smack in the midst of huge tracts of forest—because the temperature inversions that are common in winter there created an air quality that evoked Pittsburgh in the heyday of the steel industry), there are some amazingly efficient wood stoves on the market these days, and it's wonderful getting off the utility merry-go-round if you're currently using a propane/natural gas furnace or electric baseboard heaters.

In addition, wood heat warms thrice. First whe you cut the wood; second when you split and stack it; third when you actually burn it. Note: those first two tasks can be done in teams, providing yet another social opportunity (one of the themes of this blogger, in case you hadn't noticed).

To be sure, there are additional costs:

a) To get the most out of your wood, it's best to cut it and let it season for at least a year, and that requires planning ahead.

b) Because wood will burn better if it's dry, you're better off seasoning your wood in a storage shed. While this needn't be more elaborate than an open-sided pole building with a roof, that's still an investment.

c) Unless you can borrow your neighbor's
(or have forearms like Paul Bunyan and love wielding an axe & a crosscut saw), you'll need to own a chain saw and learn how to maintain it.

d) Wood heat tends to be messy (ashes, bark scraps, stray bugs attempting to overwinter in your kindling… ), requiring more frequent cleaning in and around the stove and the wood shed.

Still, I'd never go back to the propane furnace we had our first two years on the farm. Nudging the thermostat up and standing over the floor register is not nearly as satisfying as sitting on the couch on January mornings, sipping that first cup of coffee and basking in the radiant heat of our airtight stove.

2. Sweaters
Even simpler than locating a lower-cost heat source is figuring out low-tech ways to avoid losing the heat you're already generating. Instead of goosing up the thermostat (or putting another log on the fire), consider putting on more clothes. Wool sweaters work wonderfully for this purpose.

Depending on how far you want to take this, you could knit your own sweaters (knitting clubs constituting yet another social opportunity), and even raise your own sheep (for both wool and meat). But don't get overwhelmed. Even if you never learn to distinguish between knitting and crocheting—or between a wether and a ram—you'll be saving money simply by wearing more clothes in colder weather and allowing the ambient room temperature to drop into the 60s.

Most people prefer the strategy of dressing in several layers, each of which can be added or shed to fine-tune one's comfort throughout the day. You just have to remember where you put that black turtleneck when the sun came out from behind the clouds and you were suddenly too warm sitting next to the south window.

[You may think that adjusting room tempatures to mirror seasonal swings would be automatic as an energy conservation measure, but I had a lesson about this that I've never forgotten during my brief tenure as a junior bureaucrat with the federal government in the early '70s. I worked for the US Dept of Transportation in a 10-story office building that was shaped like a square doughnut. Half of the office spaces had exterior windows and half didn't. Being a junior bureaucrat, the offices I worked in never had an exterior window. In any event, none of the windows opened and the temperature of the entire bulding was centrally controlled. Because I noticed an odd pattern over the course of my two-year stint, I kept a thermometer in my room. In July, the building was cooled down to an average of 67 degrees; in January, it was heated to an average of 76 degrees. While that might make some sense if we worked in Buenos Aires, it was madness for North America (and helped explain the national debt). Adapting as best I could, I made sure to have a sweater or suit coat on hand in summer, and could typically work in shirtsleeves around Christmas time.]

3. Insulation
The next best thing to better insulating your body (my preceding point) is to better insulate your house. When we added a 16'x30' extension onto the existing farm house the first year we bought Sandhill (1974), it was somewhat exotic to make the stud walls out of 2x6s instead of 2x4s, for the purpose of placing more robust insulation in the walls. Yet there is no question it was worth it.

If you live in a climate that has any kind of cold winter weather, the best strategy is to buy the most insulation you can afford. The payback is almost always less than 10 years (energy savings versus the cost of purchase and installation), and often less than five. What's not to like?

And don't limit yourself to thinking about the walls and roof of your house. Think about insulating your hot water tank, hot water pipes, and warn air ducts (if I haven't convinved you to switch to a wood stove). Don't settle for curtains over your windows; consider insulated shutters.

If you don't have the money for these investments, consider simpler steps. We have a thermal shutter that is little more than laminated pieces of cardboard (salvaged from a large appliance store), covered with a piece of fabric. By carefully cutting the cardboard, there's a friction fit inside the window frame. No hardware needed.

Or build a hay box. All it takes is some scrap polystyrene insulation (blue board works fine), some cardboard, and alumnium foil. Ours was built in 1990 and we're still using it! When we cook rice, for example, we use 1/3 less water and only need to have the water boiling with the rice for five minutes. The hay box does the rest. We save a ton on propane.

4. Clotheslines
Sandhill's washing machine is an excellent example of the econmies of scale possible with community living. Though we average a year-round population of around 8-10 people—and generate plenty of dirty clothes living on an active farm—we accomplish all of our laundering with a single washing machine. To be sure, it's a good one. We have a low-water Bosch that's frontloading. All the hot water is flash heated on demand.

But the biggest energy savings we achieve in our laundry operations is with our dryer. We use the sun. I can still recall my sister visiting us about 30 years ago and not understanding why we'd choose to live like hillbillies (because we didn't have a dryer). Well, let's do the math. A typical clothes dryer is rated at about 4400 watts. Since we average at least one load of laundry a day, let's figure (conservatively) that we'd be running that clothes dryer an average of one hour per day. That would be 4.4 kWh/day. After 34 years, that would translate into 54,604 kWh. Since we pay about 7¢/kWh, that means we've saved nearly $4000 living like hillbillies. And that doesn't count the purchase, installation, or maintenance costs of the appliances (plural because you know we'd be using up more than one of those babies in 34 years). Clothes pins are way cheaper.

5. Attic fans & porches
I grew up in the '50s, when central air-conditioning was still a fairly expensive and unusual option. Though my father made good money, we didn't have air-conditioning. We had an attic fan instead. Today, at Sandhill, "air-conditioning" means opening the window to catch the breeze, or turning on the attic fan—yup, just like we did more than 50 years ago. While our attic fan doesn't lower the temperature like air-coniditoning does, it creates an air flow which feels cooler—and uses about 1/30th of the electricty to operate.

Growing up, I had the bedroom next to the attic door, and when the fan cranked up it felt like I was living next to an airport. Our attic fan at Sandhill is also fairly noisy, yet that irritation is mild compared with the blood pressure spike you get watching the electric meter spin when an air-conditoner is running full bore.

Our other main strategy for summer coling is living outside the house, on the screened-in front porch. While it mostly serves as firewood storage and as an unassuming mud room in the winter, from April until November our front porch is the social hangout space in the community. It faces east, which means it
catches the early morning warmth of the sun's rays in the spring and fall, while shedding the broiling afternoon sun in July and August. And there's nothing quite so lovely as listening to the drumbeat of a summer thundershower on the porch's metal roof, knowing that our garden is getting a thorough soaking.

6. Shade trees
Unlike my previous suggestions, this idea has a long-term payoff (unless you're buying or building a home this year). One of the factors in containing home energy costs is positioning your house relative to predominant winds and solar tragectories. In northeast MIssouri, for example, the summer winds are mostly out of the southwest (blowing toward the northeast) and the winter winds come mostly from the northwest. That means we can design our housing to take advantage of cooling breezes (by having openable windows face the southwest), while protecting ourselves from chilling winds (by having the rooflines slope down toward the northwest).

Last year, we made a decision to anticpate the eventual demise of a fast-growing (yet short-lived) Russian Elm located about 15 feet to the southwest of our main house. It was not a simple choice. That elm tree was something we inherited when we bought the farm a third of century ago, and it occupies perhaps the most crucial spot on the farm with respect to its impact on Sandhill's comfort: it provides summer shade from the late afternoon sun on the building most used in the community. We decided to plant the replacement sapling now (an ash)—while the elm tree was still healthy—in the hope that it will be big enough to start shading the house as soon as the elm meets its end.

Shade trees work at two levels. Not only do they block the suns rays from hitting the house directly, but they also transpire, releasing oxygen and moisture into the air immediately upwind of the house, cooling the air through evaporation.

As far as solar gain goes, your maximum benefit occurs when your windows and long side of the building face south. However, that turns out not to be ideal when you take into account that you want the sun's heat more quickly in the morning and would be willing to give up some of the afternoon's bounty to get it. In northeast Missouri, it turns out that pivoting your long face 15% to the east of south is a better trade-off. You still get more than 90% of the maximum solar gain (of a true south positioning), but now you're getting your heat more quickly each day—just when you want it.

By siting your buildings and landscaping intelligently, you can make substantial inroads on your energy costs.

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