Archive for July 2011

Long Term Household Energy Profile   Leave a comment

The first thing that I did as part of my personal energy audit was update my household energy usage log. Since 2005 I’ve meant to get into the habit of logging gas/electrical usage when I pay the bills the same way I log gasoline usage after I enter receipts into Quicken. However, I just never got around to it. After spending a couple of hours entering in six years worth of data, I think I’ve received the appropriate self-kick in the butt and will start dutifully logging each month from here on out. This is one step to the audit that is really easy to skip by just logging onto your gas/electric account online since I think most companies give you easy access to one or two years of usage in a simple table and/or graph. The benefit of entering it into my own spreadsheet is that I can play with the data. For instance, at the old house we did have gas, which was billed in therms. Using my spreadsheet I can really easily convert therms into kilowatt-hours and add them together. It was actually astonishing when I did that because 1 therm is approximately 29 kWhr, so the blips for summer cooling almost disappeared under the magnitude of the winter heating peaks. Another benefit of the spreadsheet is developing a long term profile:

Annual Household Energy Usage Comparison Chart

Annual Household Energy Usage Comparison


Analyzing our profile like this provides a lot of good information. For one thing I had been thinking for the last seven years that in Sacramento where it regularly tops 100 degrees in summer and rarely drops much below freezing even at night in the winter it would make more sense to focus on cooling rather than heating improvements. But that is not necessarily true, as the energy used to heat that uninsulated leak-bucket where we used to live dwarfed the energy used to run the two window air conditioners and a passel of fans in the summer. Speaking of fans, the second summer that I lived in Sacramento I went without air conditioning just to prove to myself that I could (I love heat, the question was if I still loved it when there wasn’t a cool room to retreat to). According to my energy profile I used MORE electricity the summer that I DIDN’T use any air conditioning. Granted it’s not a big difference, so it might not be statistically significant, but it does mean that I can absolutely say that turning off the air conditioner didn’t save me anything. I did have a fan running either on/near me or drawing cool air into the house almost every minute that I was home that summer, so apparently a fan can actually use as much electricity as an air conditioner. And compared to subsequent years when my husband (then-fiancee) insisted on air conditioning, I just use less electricity in summer period.

Oh, and not that we needed the confirmation that our new house is better construction/more energy efficient than the old, but the thick black line is the energy usage for the new house. (Note that the August point is for the month we were cleaning the house and not yet living in it.) That graph got a happy dance from me.

I’m curious if anyone else ever studies their long term energy profile like this.

Posted July 27, 2011 by mayakey in energy use, home

Tagged with , ,

2011 Summer Project: Energy Audit   1 comment

Every summer I do some kind of environmental self-audit or equivalent on a rotating schedule (with interruptions). I started doing this back in 2001 when I was first living on my own after college. I was originally inspired by two things. The first was my participation in a college-wide trash sort. It was the university’s way to prove the effectiveness of measures to promote recycling. So they got a bunch of volunteers, gave us Tyvek suits, gloves, and face shields, and sent us into a room with large sorting tables where bags of garbage from all over the campus were placed for us to sort through. In the end they measured the weight or volume (I don’t remember) of recyclable material for comparison with previous measurements. I was crazy enough to be one of those volunteers. And I learned a lot about American’s trash habits, most of it sad. (That’s a story for another day, though.) The second source of inspiration was a class that I took in which we did one week audits of our direct water and energy usage. These experiences made me realize how useful it is to actually measure and not just guess when it comes to something you want to improve, in this case my “global footprint”. Not only can you be surprised by the results, but it also means that you have a way to see progress, which feels really good.

So that first year I started by doing my own trash sort. I saved all of my trash for a month and then took it down to my mom’s house at the end of the month to sort and weigh. Kitchen waste got weighed throughout the month so that I didn’t have horrible smelling garbage to sort through. The following year I attempted to do a water use audit, during which I realized that human return flow is not insignificant. In 2003 I evaluated the ingredients my personal care products for potential exposure problems. 2004 was when I moved to Sacramento and in the upheaval skipped a year. In 2005 I was able to do my first direct energy use audit. It was quite involved, with me reading my gas and electric meters four times a day on weekdays (when I woke, left for work, returned from work, and went to bed), and before/after any major changes on weekends (like turning on the dryer or taking a shower). I was trying to figure out how to determine my baseline electric and gas usage, as well as electrical demand of the various electrical items in my house. That was mostly not successful. I did get a pretty good estimate of the baseline, though. Since that was also the year I went without air conditioning all summer that baseline does not include air conditioning or winter heating, so it’s what I would consider a true baseline: the measure of phantom energy and structural demand.

This year’s energy audit should be a little easier. I got a relatively comprehensive energy audit done on the house, and I bought a Kill-a-Watt monitor. A Kill-a-Watt monitor is a monitor that plugs into a socket and then measures the electricity usage of anything that you plug into it. This way I’ll actually be able to directly measure how much electricity is consumed by my computer, the TV, the refrigerator, etc. I’ll be using this blog to help me work through this energy audit throughout the summer.

It is worth noting that this is really only a partial energy audit, since I can only measure direct usage. I can’t measure my portion of communal energy usages like municipal (street lights, traffic lights, etc.) or commercial (lighting in my office, air conditioning in the grocery store, etc.). Nor can I measure/estimate the embedded energy in my water, food, and various stuff that I use/buy.

Posted July 25, 2011 by mayakey in conscious living, energy use

Tagged with , , , ,

Do You Like Your Energy Utility Companies?   1 comment

When I was renting my house, I liked my electric utility, SMUD. The rates seemed fine, especially compared to PG&E rates that would occassionally get published in the newspaper in a summer-time story about someone getting a $2,000 electric bill. I was very happy that SMUD has 50% and 100% Greenergy options (renewable energy). It should be obvious that we’re enrolled in the 100% Greenergy program. I knew that they ranked well in customer satisfaction surveys (according to the website: 1st in California and 2nd in the nation for 2010). And I hadn’t had any negative experiences myself, nor heard of any from friends or coworkers.

Then we became homeowners. Now I have to say that I love my electric utility. And that started right away. This house actually didn’t have an electric meter installed before we bought it due to a lien on the previous owner or something like that. But in order to close on the house with an FHA loan, the electric connection had to be restored. How/why none of the real estate agents, appraiser, or loan officer didn’t catch that slight detail before the week we were going to close, I don’t know. To make a long story short our agent somehow managed to get a building inspector out to the house the following morning (usually takes 1-2 days), and then a SMUD installer out that afternoon (usually takes 7-14 days). I don’t know how she did it, or why SMUD was actually willing to send an installer on such short notice, but I am very grateful. (The rush was an attempt to meet the June 30 deadline for the first-time homebuyer tax credit.)

After we bought the house we had to buy appliances. Since we weren’t replacing anything we couldn’t take advantage of any of the Cash-for-Appliances programs; but SMUD had a separate rebate for an energy efficient washing machine. And when our water agency ran out of funding for their half of the joint rebate program for the washing machine, SMUD sent us the application for an alternative rebate program. Then we planted two free shade trees in our front yards, with possible plans to plant a third this year. Then I got this home energy audit, which is a $500 home energy audit that cost me $99 because SMUD reimburses the contractor for the remainder. I know there are other rebates, some of which we might be able to take advantage of like the Cool Roof rebate (since we are looking at having to reroof anyway), or whole house fan rebate. And if I ever decide to buy carbon offsets, I can look into their carbon offset program.

One of my only disappointments has been the slow roll-out of new smart meters. I probably shouldn’t complain since PG&E’s earlier roll-out was a disaster with lots of defective meters. But now we have a smart meter, and hopefully we’ll be able to get detailed/down to the hour energy usage data through our online account soon.

Posted July 21, 2011 by mayakey in energy use, environment, home, money

Tagged with ,

Seek Peace And Pursue It   Leave a comment

Turn from evil. Do good. Seek peace and pursue it.

Psalm 34:15

Posted July 19, 2011 by mayakey in quotes

Tagged with ,

The Tomato Sauce Aisle Struggle   2 comments

Tomato sauce and I don’t have the greatest of relationships. I don’t ever remember putting tomato sauce on my pasta. From my earliest memories I would put a pile of spaghetti on one side of the plate, a barrier of vegetables across the plate, and the tomato sauce and meatballs on the other side (or even in a separate bowl). My preference for pizza is little to no tomato sauce; olive oil, pesto, and tomatillo sauce work just as well for me! When I met my husband the fact that he prided himself on doctoring up and improving tomato sauce (and that was almost the limit of his cooking at the time) ran head-long into my aversion to the stuff. Over the last few years we’ve struck a compromise by cooking with tomato sauce in “caserole” dishes and vegetables, and kept pasta separate. And usually he buys the sauce so I don’t have to think about it.

It’s good that he buys it because when it is on my shopping list I usually spend several minutes standing in front of the tomato sauce shelves unable to make a decision. Especially living in “the Big Tomato” as Sacramento/the Central Valley is sometimes referred to, it seems like buying locally produced tomato sauce should be the best choice. There should be no need to buy Italian or East Coast imports, right? And generic brands don’t indicate where they were grown/made. But most of the sauces that are grown/made in California are more pricey artisan sauces. Usually I would easily chose the artisan sauce, but it’s really hard to pay more money for something you don’t even like.

Recently, though I found myself saying “that was absolutely delicious” after eating a tomato sauce based dish that was made with a generic brand organic tomato sauce. So long story short, this shouldn’t be a conundrum for me. Just get the generic organic sauce and forget about artisan sauces that I don’t appreciate; and acknowledge that it just doesn’t actually make sense to buy local in this case. I wonder how long it will take to convince myself of that?

Posted July 15, 2011 by mayakey in advocacy, food, shopping

Tagged with

Awning Time   3 comments

Summer’s here, and with it comes our canvas awnings. Well, they’re not needed this week since the forecast high temperatures are the same or lower than our programmed A/C setting. But a couple of weeks ago, and fourth of July weekend, getting those awnings up quickly was imperative in the face of hundred degree temperatures with no evening Delta breeze.

We have the awnings from our old house, but unfortunately discovered that they don’t quite work here. We have larger windows and an open back patio that means we get no relief from afternoon and evening sun. The old four foot long awnings don’t manage to shade the entire window and sash, especially if there is a breeze. So we got longer six foot canvases at the hardware store. This is the only cotton item that I can think of where I voluntarily purchase a non-organic fabric. The painters drop cloths at the hardware store are perfect in that they have a tight weave that doesn’t let any sun through, but are thin enough that they let the light through. I tried canvas from the fabric store one year and it was eternal twilight in the house. Since we can, this year we bought strong metal screw-in hooks to hang the awnings from the eaves. Now there is no more need to go outside after a windy day and re-glue/replace fallen/broken plastic hooks. Up until the last minute we hadn’t decided if we wanted to continue using our “cheap” canvas awning strategy or do something a little nicer since we own the house now, but it really stands out as the best option. If/when we decide to do something else, the hooks on the eaves can be used for something else like hanging plants or windchimes.

Just a refresher, the awnings are part of my primary strategy for climate control in the house during the summer: keep the sun off. If the sun doesn’t shine on the walls, it won’t heat them up as much, which in turn doesn’t heat the inside as much or as fast; and if the sun doesn’t shine in the windows the interior of the house doesn’t heat up nearly as fast. This is vital for walls/windows that face east, and even more so for walls/windows that face west. For the last two weeks I experienced the difference first hand since our office is in the one room that doesn’t have an eave so we haven’t figured out how to hang an awning. (Disclosure: we also haven’t figured out how to shade the bay window in the living room since canvas hanging from the eaves isn’t really attractive, but those windows face south and are still fully shaded by the eaves.) During the last two weeks I worked from home to avoid the offgassing of the new carpeting at my work office, and even with a curtain completely shading that window from the inside all morning long that room was significantly hotter than the rest of the house. I’d be sweating in the office (with the door closed so as to not heat up the rest of the office), but the rest of the house stayed cool well into the afternoon. In fact, even at 8 or 9 in the morning there is a noticeable difference between the unshaded office and the master bedroom, even though they are right next to each other and the bedroom is occupied while the office is empty.

In addition to buying new canvas to fully shade the windows, we are also shading part of our back patio this summer. Mike had bought one of those collapsable canopies last year and for fourth of July we put it up in the patio and hung another awning (actually our tent ground cloth) on the west side so that part of the patio is in shade all day long. This also helps to keep the house cool because then at night there’s less radiant heat coming off the concrete. For that reason we plan on keeping the canopy up for most of the summer. It’s amazing that there’s still a difference in the temperature of the concrete at 10pm under the canopy versus the exposed areas. I look forward to getting rid of much of that concrete and reducing the thermal mass around the house.

Posted July 12, 2011 by mayakey in energy use, home

Tagged with , , ,

Corelleware For Picnic Ware?   3 comments

This may not come as a huge surprise, but I’m not big on disposable anything, and that includes dishes. In the planning phase of hosting a July 4 bbq one of the questions that came up was what to do for dishes and napkins? Most people would break out with some paper or plastic plates and cups with plastic utensils and paper napkins or paper towels. I just can’t make myself do that if there is any way around it.

Avoiding plastic utensils is easy because we have lots of regular silverware, so long as everyone doesn’t go through multiple forks. And cleaning up? Well, that’s what dishwashers are for (or apparently mothers-in-law in the case of our bbq). And when camping you’ve probably got to clean a pot or two at least, so cleaning a fork isn’t a big deal.

We do have a handful of paper plates and disposable bamboo plates from past camping trips and the first week or so after moving, but not enough for the number of people we were expecting. Buying more was out of the question. Our Fiestaware plates and bowls would have been enough, probably, but when talking picnic/bbq where there’s lots of movement inside and outside with plates balancing on knees sometimes, I’m not sure that my nice breakable collection is the best choice. Plus I’ve gotten resistance in the past at the idea of using dishes that can break/have to be washed for casual parties. Then I remembered the box of pretty-darn-unbreakable Correlleware in our garage. They’re the dishes passed down from my mom to my brother and I to get us started when we first moved out on our own. I’ve now got the Fiestaware, and my brother insists that it’s okay if I give away his half of the dishes, too. But for some reason I haven’t been able to do that yet. I’m not sure if it was sentimentality or practicality, but it turns out that may have been a good choice. Those are perfect dishes for picnics, bbq’s, parties, and maybe even camping! For camping they’d be easier on knives than metal plates, easier to clean than wooden plates, and on a par with reusable plastic plates. And since they aren’t our primary dishes even if they do get broken it is no big deal.

Where we cheated was on the napkins and cups. I do not have a good solution for party cups. With the exception of wine glasses and brandy snifters, no one ever wants to use glass at a party, or so I’ve learned. So we have paper cups made from partially recycled paper. Since I don’t know what they’re waxed with we didn’t compost them, but finding compostable paper cups might be the best option. For camping we just keep refilling our water bottles for water, and we have travel mugs for hot drinks in the morning. The obvious best solution for napkins is a whole lot of cloth napkins that just get tossed in the next load of laundry. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to get around to making cloth napkins. While we don’t have any paper towels in the house, though, we do have a stack of leftover napkins from take-out (another bad eco- and healthy living sin of mine). Even if we stopped getting take-out today (yeah, right), we’d still have enough napkins to make it through the year.

Posted July 7, 2011 by mayakey in conscious living, frugal living, resource use

Tagged with ,