Thursday, February 18, 2010

Green Energy on a Shoestring Budget

So, snow day number seven (in a row) begins... Before getting the real post for the morning, I had to share this with you all. One of my former students produced it and it's highlighted on today. It absolutely fits how we're all feeling right now! If "Groundhog Day" Was Set in Boone Now, on to this morning's post...

As I said before, we have the vision of having solar panels on our roof one day, but that simply doesn't fit into our budget right now. We did try to plan the home with that end goal in mind, choosing electric kitchen appliances and electric tankless hot water heaters. Of course, the southern orientation of the house will mean that we'll get the most out of our solar panels when we finally get them.

In order to save energy now, we had higher R-value insulation put into the walls and attic space, so that the home would heat and cool more efficiently. (And also insulated the slab in the basement--see below for more details.) We chose double paned windows (which have pretty much become standard) that will help retain the internal temperature of the house. Our heating system is zoned and sized for the basement as well, so we can control each level independently. Some of the most common sense things we did were to install ceiling fans in almost every room (again, thanks to my uncle, a family friend, and Benny). When we have the windows open in the spring and summer with the fans on, we don't need AC. (In fact, I think we ran it about a week last year. Yes, we're blessed to live in the mountains with wonderful breezes most days.) And, as I mentioned in the laundry post, we don't use the dryer that much.

We did a few more things to increase the energy efficiency of the home:

1) We installed insulation behind every outlet and light switch. (These are readily available at most home improvement stores.) All you do is screw the cover off, put the foam sheet in place, and screw the cover back on. It's amazing how much cold air you can feel flowing through those spaces once you remove the cover!

2) We stuffed insulation (or spray foam insulation) into every other possible leak, especially behind the dryer and around the holes where the cable and HVAC system come into the home.

3) We installed CFLs in every possible fixture in our house. (We did leave out the chandelier because you can't dim CFLs, but we most often eat by candlelight or have an oil lamp, so we don't use that light that much.) And, of course, we only use the lights when it's dark so that we can make as much use of the natural light as possible. (This means that in the spring and summer, when it's light outside when I'm getting ready, I don't turn the light on in the bathroom until I put on makeup. We have a sheer shower curtain, so it diffuses the natural light nicely into the shower.)

4) The thermostat stays at 62 in the winter for us. I know this sounds extreme to some people, but we've really gotten used to it. With our insulation being higher than most homes, the heat stays in well and the cold stays out. I've learned in the evenings to put on a sweater or sweatshirt, and we sleep better with the cooler air. If you can't make an adjustment like this all at once, try it one degree at a time. (It's more energy efficient to run your heat that way anyway, than bumping it up and down several degrees at once.)

5) We kept all of the trees on the property that we logically could. This means that in the winter, the evergreens on the north side act as a windbreak and keep the house a little more protected. In the summer, the deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in the fall) help to nicely shade the house. It does still get a little warm on the southern side of the house in the summer, but we installed curtains to help control that.

6) We insulated BEFORE they poured the cement slab in the basement. After we laid the vapor barrier (which is easy and will save you on labor costs if you're looking at building), we laid down blue board (the hard, Styrofoam type insulation). Although this was not the most earth friendly product, it did mean that we'd get a lifetime of savings out of the insulation factor. It also means that we have to worry less about condensation in the basement because the insulation acts as a thermal break between the interior temperature and the temperature of the ground underneath the house.

7) Our current project is to install new weather stripping around the exterior doors. Since the doors have settled a bit and shifted when they were moved with the house, the weather stripping that was originally installed now has gaps. This is an easy project, just do your research first so you know what type of weather stripping would work best for your application. I've also made a draft dodger from some dried beans, dryer lint, and scrap cotton fabric for the basement entry. Since I used these materials, it means that if (or when) the beans start to get a little funky, I can compost the entire thing.

8) We bought the most energy efficient appliances our budget could afford for the kitchen. This meant a fridge with the freezer on the bottom (warm air rises, remember, so this model makes tons of sense), a range with double ovens (the top one is smaller than the other, so it heats quickly and uses less energy... the bottom one uses convection, which runs about 25 degrees cooler and makes fantastic cookies), and the most energy efficient dishwasher we could buy (you don't have to rinse and it recirculates the water, sensing the cleanliness of the water with an electronic beam... oh, and we have a Lavender prewash cycle!). (Yes, that's a horrible run-on sentence for an English teacher.) We did take the hand-me-down washer and dryer from Benny's sister, which are not terribly energy efficient, but we know that when we have to replace them, we'll purchase the most energy efficient models our budget can afford.

9) I started landscaping last year, which included bushes as foundation plantings. Although foundation plantings provide a nice visual, their primary purpose here was to provide an additional wind block and temperature break between the yard and the house. Once the bushes grow up well, they will shelter the house from the winter winds and snow, meaning that heating the basement (one day, when we finish it) will take less energy.

10) We installed curtains in every window we could to act as another thermal break. We have a few odd shaped windows upstairs that will need something custom, so we're still working out the details there. When we do have something on those windows, it will probably be something that I make because that is generally cheaper than store bought materials.

Now, I know many of you may be thinking... with all those electric appliances, hot water heaters, two floors, tons of windows, you can't possibly have an economical electric bill! Not so fast... in the spring and fall, when we don't run the AC or fans, our bill is around $30 a month. In the winter, it might get up to $90, maybe $100 if it's really cold outside. So, when you average that out, that means we spend about $40-50 a month on electricity.

Certainly, we could make that greener by opting into the program offered through Blue Ridge Electric, where we can purchase green power from TVA for an additional cost. Right now, that's not in the budget for us, but maybe in a few years we'll have our own solar panels!

So, I hope you've found something useful here that will help you make your home a little more energy efficient. Also, if you haven't seen the documentary Kilowatt Ours, you should. It's amazing in what it reveals about the American energy industry and what individuals can do to make a difference. It's probably available at your local library, and if it's not, they usually welcome requests from patrons about new material to add to the collection.

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