One House at a Time, Part II

This article is a continuation of “One House at a Time, Solving the Energy Crisis”, by Norm Farwell, published in the New Franklin Register #18, Fall 2012.

Solving the Energy Crisis

Here are a few principles to help with that.

  1. Forget upfront cost, think life cycle cost. The operating and maintenance costs of a building over its life time will exceed the initial construction cost, sometimes by leaps and bounds. This changes everything. When energy was cheap we learned to make decisions based on how much something cost upfront and to ignore operating costs. In that world, gas was cheap, mileage was not important, and we bought SUVs and McMansions. Now that the party is over, we have a big bad hangover: we are stuck with a lot of wasteful infrastructure, and the cost of fixing things can be frightening. Until you consider that the cost of not doing anything it is much higher…
  2. You are already paying for it, so you might as well have it. Let’s say you are thinking about a new hot water heater. You can either buy a conventional propane water heater for $1200 installed, or a solar hot water system, which will cost $5800 after incentives. The usual question is, “what’s the payback on solar?”––when does the money you save equal the amount you spent. This sounds like a reasonable question, but it misses a crucial point: if you buy $800 per year in propane for the conventional water heater, you are already buying a solar hot water system with that money, you just aren’t getting it. The payback then is instant, because you just raised the value of your house by the amount you spent on the system. The same logic works in other places: if you spend $3000 per year on oil or propane to heat your house, you are already paying for a lot of insulation and air sealing work, you just aren’t getting it. If you pay more for an Energy STAR front loading washing machine that cuts your water and soap consumption in half and your drying costs to boot, you will spend much less per month over the life of the machine, even though it costs a bit more upfront.
  3. Fossil Fuel expenses are debt. Actually they are worse than ordinary debt—usually when you borrow money you spend it on something that has value. The same with taxes––you have to admit that you at least get something for your money, even if you think much of what the government collects is misspent. When it comes to fossil fuel and energy, you have endless payments, no way to negotiate terms, no equity, and no long term benefit, and clear damage to the climate. We should be furious about utility bills–we waste money and energy together.
  4. Borrow money to save money. This is not a scam but it is counter-intuitive: usually if you want to save money, you don’t want to take on debt, especially when times are difficult. But because fossil fuel is already a kind of debt, it can make sense to borrow money in order to turn things around. For example, if the loan to fix up your house costs $80 per month for 15 years, and saves you $100 per month in energy bills, you will have bought positive cash flow, increased equity because the house is worth more, and you will probably be more comfortable. All because you borrowed wisely to save the money you were spending foolishly before.
  5. Insulation is sexy. Spending money on things you can’t see can be a hard pill to swallow. Cellulose insulation or granite counter tops? You probably aren’t going to invite the neighbors over to show off your attic rehab. I said this to a funny lady one time, and she said she was happy to spend money on insulation because it was just like her silk underwear: nobody knew she wore silk underwear and nobody needed to know, but it was worth it because it was warm and comfortable and put a smile on her face.
  6. First drop demand, then shift to renewables. This is the “eat your peas first” argument. Everybody loves solar and renewables, but until we attack demand, they aren’t going to make a dent in the big picture. Likewise, at the household level, if you can replace a couple of appliances and change your habits a little and drop the electrical load by 25%, then you save thousands when you go to buy the solar PV system because you can buy a smaller system. Similarly it makes sense to tighten up your house before you swap out a boiler—you might save additional money on a smaller new boiler.
  7. Whenever you have work done or buy an appliance, think energy efficiency. When you are doing a project like roofing, siding, or other renovations, the marginal cost of adding additional insulation is typically much less than it would be otherwise. And sometimes there is suddenly access to areas that are normally inaccessible. These are the golden opportunities in the life of a house—don’t let them slide by. Likewise, if you buy a new appliance, look at the Energy STAR label and try to get the most efficient one—the additional cost of greater efficiency will probably be be far less than you save over the life of the appliance.
  8. Windows don’t pay. Contrary to what you might think, replacing old windows in order to save energy is usually a bad bet. If they are rotten or broken or you don’t like how they look, then fine, go for it. But the life-cycle cost numbers on new windows are usually not favorable.
  9. Do due diligence: avoid early adopter risks. There is a lot of dishonest marketing out there, and some of it is green. It can be hard to separate truth from advertising. Look for data, proven track records, and customer references. Solar hot water is beautiful and there should be many many more systems than there are. But caveat emptor: probably best to avoid evacuated tube collectors. Likewise solar combi systems for heating in this climate are mostly expensive roof ornaments when you do the cost benefit analysis. Look for contractors who are BPI certified—that means they have training in energy efficiency and building science.
  10. Wear a sweater. (Remember, insulation is sexy!) How you live is an enormous part of your house’s energy picture. Replacing incandescent lights with CFLs will save you lots of money. After that, don’t forget about turning lights off. Watch for phantom loads—appliances that are on even when they are supposed to be off. Install a low flow shower head and take short showers. Dry clothes on a rack. The most effective conservation is human and costs nothing.

Resources:

NYSERDA’s Green Jobs Green New York Program
Homeowner resource for energy audits, financing, and rebates

Architecture 2030
Has a mission to “rapidly transform the U.S. and global Building Sector from the major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions to a central part of the solution to the climate change, energy consumption, and economic crises.” Great graphs and charts.

Building Performance Institute (BPI)
Develops standards for energy efficiency and retrofit work.

Green Building Adviser
Clearinghouse for technical information on building science and energy efficiency; blogs, archives, articles etc.