Without a Noise, Much Energy or Water, Clean Dishes

When our old dishwasher stopped working, we decided it wasn’t worth a repair, since it was old and wasteful and didn’t amaze with its performance. I started looking at energy-efficient ones, thinking about what a fabulous experience we’ve had with our energy and water-efficient Staber washer. As usual, I searched with dogpile.com for articles, reviews, and stores and I spent some time on ConsumerReports.org.

Consumer Reports ratings on energy use are from their extensive testing, not just the yellow labels on new appliances, so they helped me to zero in on eco-friendly dishwashers. CR also said that sparkling performance starts at about $500 or less, but those are louder than more expensive ones. Most conventional dishwashers fit a 24-inch-wide space under a kitchen countertop and attach to a hot-water pipe, drain, and electrical line. That was true for ours. It was also 34" high, so a replacement had to be that or lower to fit under our countertop, but most have adjustable feet. So the standard 24”-width size meant a wide selection.

Bosch Dishwasher
Bosch Dishwasher
So, like with the clothes washer, I considered not just energy and water efficiency, but also cleaning power, noise level, and ease of loading and unloading. My top contenders were Whirlpool and Bosch. I went to Lowes and looked at their floor models. When I was looking at a Bosch, a salesperson suggested I use a rinsing agent with that one to get the dishes dryer. I said we planned to open the door and let the dishes air dry. Why pay to do something that will happen anyway? He said that we were the perfect customers for the Bosch. I chose a mid-range Bosch that was on sale, and was described as extremely quiet (48 decibels).

We try to run the dishwasher after 6 pm, when people use less energy, to avoid contributing to situations that require energy companies to power up the dirtier power plants. We use the “normal” cycle, which doesn’t include drying. This dishwasher is so quiet, it's easy to think it's not running! So it shines a dot of light on the floor under it to SHOW that it's running. It has a “manual filter” that I clean every few months, and fold-down tines and an upper rack that we can lower for tall items. And I enjoy (yes, enjoy) using the silverware tray that keeps the forks, knives and spoons from touching so they get cleaner. When the dryer beeps that it’s finished, we turn it off, open the door, and pull out the racks. The steamy water evaporates thoroughly by morning. After a year and a half, we can still recommend this Bosch dishwasher.


Using Half the Electricity We Did

In our first full year in this house, 2006, we used 17,818 kilowatt hours of electricity. We started to make energy-efficiency improvements and behavior changes before taking on more cosmetic changes and in 2007, we used 12,276 kWh. Then we had the energy audit, air sealing, and insulation, and in 2008, we used 7,929 kWh. We continued to make improvements and in 2009, we used 7,391 kWh --half of the kilowatt hours we used in 2006.

Adding the shades and drapes helped to keep our numbers a little lower than they would have been in 2009, since we were not as diligent with the thermostat as in the previous year. We weren't using a dryer for a few months in both 2008 and 2009 years (it quit and we took awhile to replace it). We started using an electric dryer again, especially for jeans, some other cotton clothes, and towels, because the difference in softness is considerable, especially with the towels. We continue to use the drying racks for many clothes.
Thankfully, we continue to see the impressive energy savings we gained by making the earlier changes we did, especially from the energy audit's first recommendations.


More Shades Up

In October, my dear husband put up more of the honeycomb shades in the kitchen, the office, and our bedroom. In all three rooms, they replaced blinds, which don't insulate well at all, and were heavy and hard to open and close properly. These cellular shades have a push button and operate like a dream and we have really enjoyed them since then. I was concerned I would miss the ability to tilt slats to adjust the light incrementally, but I don't think I have. In the kitchen, I raise them for the plants and it's nice to see outside more easily. In the office, I open them for me and then I close each (there are two) alternately as the afternoon sun hits. Even when they are closed, there is lots of nice light since they are filtering rather than darkening. In our bedroom, there are sheer draperies over them, and it's great to have two insulating layers while relaxing in soft, uplifting light.


Wind Energy: Cheaper than the Standard Electric Mix

Updated March 31, 2010
We'd been buying 100% wind-generated electricity from Commerce Energy. Last month we paid 11.2 cents per kilowatt hour, which is less than the 11.97 cents per kWh that our distributor BGE charged for their standard mix of power sources including fossil fuels. When the last yearly contract ended, they switched us to month-to-month pricing, varying with the market. So I compared our options. (In Maryland and D.C., electricity is deregulated so you can choose your energy provider, while your energy distributor stays the same.)

I had read that Greenbelt Homes Inc., a co-op known for its practical citizenry, recommends a company called Clean Currents to their residents at http://ghi.coop/SDP/choosegreenpower.pdf. Clean Currents was listed on BGE's site for me to consider, so I did at http://www.cleancurrents.com/index.php/C-Green-Overview. And I chose to switch to them with a fixed two-year contract of 100% wind at 10.8 cents per kilowatt hour.

Last time I renewed our wind energy contract it cost more than the previous year, which surprised me, but I went ahead anyway. We're investing in clean energy as a practical matter and on principle. I've been pleased to notice more companies such as Pepco and Clean Currents offering wind power since then. I look for the Green-e certification for a respected third-party confirmation that a company is doing alternative energy right. This time we are able to save money over conventional sources. 100% wind electricity now feels really good in terms of both carbon neutrality and wallet leniency.


A Marriage of Insulating Drapes and Honeycomb Shades

The draperies we put up as our second layer over the honeycomb shades in the living room are 100% silk with brushed insulating 100% cotton flannel interlining. I bought them at Tuesday Morning. So we have the two layers over the window, and the natural fibers hopefully won't give off any indoor air pollution. They are not as room darkening as the polyester-lined draperies intended for that. So they aren't keeping out quite as much light and therefore heat this summer, but the room is a bit cheerier to walk through in the daytime even with everything all closed up.


A Peace Lily to the Rescue

Since we both have allergies, we used to use an air purifier with a HEPA filter. It had an ionizer that made the dust drop to surfaces, but I read on Consumer Reports online that ionizers create ozone, which isn't good for you. That purifier let you turn off the ionizer and still run the HEPA filter, so we did that. After the unit stopped working, we didn't replace it. Then I was given a peace lily and I learned that peace lilies purify the air. Without using any electricity. And it's much prettier than the electric kind.

OK, it doesn't filter dust. We have a furnace filter doing that now anyway, and according to Consumer Reports, doing a better job of it than the air purifier. But the peace lily removes the toxic gases that furniture, drapes, carpet and computers often give off. And it creates oxygen. Makes me breathe easier.
Peace Lily


Energy savings so far (sans dryer for five months)

Our Staber washer spins clothes and towels much drier than the old Whirlpool top-loader. This has been quite useful since the old dryer quit working in November. We decided to hold off on buying another dryer and see what it was like to just hang everything to dry. Why not save some more energy, at least for a few months? The dryer is electric, so the savings are shown on this chart of our electricity use (in kWh).

The wood drying rack we set up as needed in the master bedroom for delicates was no longer enough, so Santa brought us another one like it. We've been hanging shirts and pants to dry right on their hangers and perching them on the molding above the closet. Everything has dried just fine, except the old, thin towels which become like cardboard. The newer, fluffy towels are soft after air-drying. We noticed a little bit of added humidity in the bedroom, which was very welcome in the cold, dry months. We may move the drying clothes to a bathroom or the kitchen or possibly outside if the humidity becomes bothersome as the weather gets warmer.

This updated chart shows our natural gas use (in Therms) for heating over the same period.
Gas use update April 09


Honeycomb Shades Insulate Better Than Blinds

honeycomb shades
Our energy auditor said that our home's original windows, including storm windows, were fine. As far as windows go. Even two panes of glass do not give you close to the insulation value (or R-value) of an insulated wall. He suggested that "shades and drapes" would be a good cost-effective solution to better insulate the windows than our blinds. Traditional blinds, with gaps between every row, do not create a solid cushion of air between the window and the room.

My Internet research indicates that the cellular shades (the pleats have a honeycomb shape if you look at them from the side) are probably the most insulating type of shades available. I found Redi Shade cellular fabric shades that you cut to size yourself at Costco and at Tuesday Morning. These have a single layer of cells and let in a nice glow of light. Cellular shades with a second layer of cells darken rooms and offer more insulation. I also found a cellular shade/blind combination that looks promising.

We put four of them up in the living room with relative ease (we used the brackets so we can take them down to paint instead of the adhesive option, which would have been really simple). They look great, and a great deal better than the old blinds. They are cordless and pressing the button to raise and lower them is fun and easy. We put up draperies too, so that is our second layer.

We've been opening the shades and drapes up and letting the daylight warm the house. We used to open, but not raise, the old blinds in that room and it's been great to have an unobstructed view of the trees and grass waking up for Spring. We haven't put all of the shades up yet, but I look forward to have a tighter building envelope at night while it's still cold. I hope to open them after the heat of the day in the summer, to continue enjoying the nice views.


To Cover and Insulate the Attic Door

attic door cover in place
During our energy audit, Thom said that an attic door opening loses a lot of heat and the usual sealing and insulating methods don't address that. I said that Battic Door, the company that makes the fireplace damper pillow we bought, also makes an attic door cover (hence their name). He said the low cost made that worth trying.

Using the instructions at http://www.batticdoor.com/StairCover.htm, I measured the attic opening. I chose the cover with the reflective shield and insulation. It came within two days. Once assembled, it would be too big to get through the opening, so I took the pieces into the attic, folded the cardboard into a box, set the insulation into the reflective cover and then slid the box into the tight, shiny cover. I couldn't set it in place immediately, though, because the top of the cover, which is taller than I realized with the insulation added, was too tall on one side of the opening for the slanted beams.

I used a couple of other boxes to test how to easily make one end of the box fit the angle. The hammer method just made a hole. Making two cuts, refolding and using a lot of mailing tape did the trick. Now the cover fit under the slanted beams to seal the opening. I put the weatherstripping that came with it where the cover meets the wood around the opening. Before it was set in place, I could feel plenty of cold air coming down through the open door, but not anymore. I folded up the stairs and closed the door and it fit.

To put away some boxes, I lifted the cover to one side. The next time, my husband suggested I prop it up at an angle using a mop instead, which gave me more room to move boxes. We're pleased with the attic door cover and I highly recommend it.


Caulking the Caulk: The Gap around the Fireplace

wall to brick fireplace
One of the items on our audit to-do list was to caulk around the fireplace and the sliding glass door. The day of the audit and on a few cold days since, my hand felt a steady stream of cold air along the edges of both. The molding around the brick face of the fireplace fit well and I did not want to mess up the look.

I bought a tube of nontoxic caulk: Geocel Quick Shield VOC-Free Sealant. I had someone with experience remove the trim around the brick to avoid damaging the wallboard. The gap along both sides was MUCH bigger than I thought it would be: almost half an inch wide. The gap revealed a cavity a few inches wide with NO insulation. So I bought a small bag of fiber glass insulation and we used it all in those spaces, then stuffed in foam backer rod (gray foam tubing) called Frost King Poly Foam Caulk Saver (1/2" diameter) and applied the caulk.
gap between wall and brick sealed
We put the molding back and it looks fine. We caulked a new white edge along the sliding glass door, too, and that looks much neater than it did. The caulk worked great with no smell and the tube said it will last 50 years. I now notice a remarkable stillness in those places.


Energy Saved So Far

My husband and I saved a lot of energy since we started trying, after moving into our first house. How much? Here is a chart comparing our electricity use over the last three years (as of December 2008) in kilowatt hours. electric use chart

We saw a nice reduction in 2007 after switching most light bulbs to CFLs and replacing our washer with the Staber washer, along with making an effort to shut lights and computers off when we weren't using them. Then we saw a much bigger reduction after having the attic sealed and adding insulation in January 2008, and comfortably keeping the thermostat lower in the winter and higher in the summer. Here is a chart comparing our natural gas use (in Therms) for heating over the same period.
gas use chart

We'll see how much more we can save as we do more of our energy audit To Do list, and continue to learn better habits. We're not approaching the $36.76 July power bill of the former Maryland senator and Chesapeake Bay activist Sam Weingrad, but in July 2008 we used half the electricity that we used two years before.


Recycling (or Oops, Breaking) Our CFLs

Good news! On June 24th, Home Depot launched a national CFL recycling program:
http://www6.homedepot.com/ecooptions/index.html? So now you can bring in expired, unbroken ones when you go to buy a new one. Most of ours have come from Home Depot, so that's fitting. IKEA, True Value, and Whole Foods already accepted burned-out ones. So far, we've broken a couple on hard surfaces, and the clean-up was easy, if a little spooky the first time (leave, wait, scoop with cardboard and then a damp paper towel into a plastic bag, put in the trash). Broken CFLs go in the regular trash since the mercury has mostly been released into the air.

Wendy Reed, who manages EPA's Energy Star program, says that even though fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, using them contributes less mercury to the environment than using regular incandescent bulbs. "That's because they use less electricity ­ and coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of mercury emissions in the air."
bath mirror CFL

The Maryland Department of the Environment says CFL bulbs contain up to 5 milligrams of mercury, the amount that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen, as compared to older home thermostats and mercury fever thermometers, which contain between 500 to 30,000 milligrams of mercury. Most of our exposure comes from eating fish. The Maryland Department of the Environment urges consumers to use care when handling CFLs by screwing and unscrewing the bulb by the base. If a CFL bulb breaks, the amount of mercury released can evaporate into the air where it will likely remain at a level below safety standards set by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

In the DC metro area, many local governments accept expired CFLs at their periodic household hazardous waste (HHW) collection events or permanent HHW drop off sites: see http://www.mwcog.org/dep/gorecycle/cfl.htm.

And if you get one of those emails forwarded to you about how dangerous CFLs are, send the person you know this link to Snopes.com, the great muckraking site: http://www.snopes.com/medical/toxins/cfl.asp. It's good to separate the myths from the facts.


Reading By Solar: The BoGo Solar Task Light

Solar Light
When our energy auditor was going into the attic, I got my flashlight so I could look, too. He said with surprise, "That's a BoGo Light!" I was surprised and pleased that he recognized it. He told me that he actually gives them to clients and forgot to bring mine that day, but would send it to me! He borrowed my BoGo solar task light, because it was brighter than his flashlight.

I often read by mine in bed after my husband has gone to sleep. If it's getting too dim, in the morning I put it in the window so it can recharge all day. One overcast day has recharged the batteries enough to last many days for me. The real beauty of it is that when you buy one, one is donated to people who don't otherwise have a safe source of light. I've given several as gifts and I think it's a great flashlight, a neat way to save some energy and a powerful gift to those who truly rely on it after dark.

Our auditor did remember to bring me a BoGo Light when he came back. Since I already had one, I gave it as a gift, to enlighten someone else.


100% Wind-Powered Home

On Maryland Energy Independence Day last July, I read an interview with a World Wildlife Fund researcher in The Washington Post. She said that from seeing the effects of climate change on animal habitat, she believes there is a five-to-seven year window for us to take action. I hope she is wrong and we have more time. Heck, I hope many things, but as Mel Brooks said, "Hope for the best and prepare for the worst."

So I plugged in my computer and looked for good ideas. I found my way to the U.S. Department of Energy's Green Power Network site and learned that we could power our house with renewable energy. I shared the good news with my husband, who like me was surprised and pleased that it's available in our state. Nobody told us! And we watch a lot of TV! I followed the links and chose a Green-e certified provider generating wind power in Maryland and neighboring Pennsylvania: http://www.commerceenergy.com. Using Commerce Energy's site, I quickly and easily switched our energy supply from Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE)'s standard mix of 60% coal/30% nuclear/10% alternative to Commerce Energy's 100% wind-generated power.

When I compared the cost, it looked like it would be around $20-25 more monthly, but our contract has a fixed rate for one year. So it could be cheaper before long. Anyway, we had already reduced our energy costs more than enough to make up the difference. And making that decision felt good to us.

Commerce Energy notified BGE and our power switched over in September. BGE continues to distribute the power to us and bill us, so after that visit to Commerce Energy's Web site, we haven't had to do anything differently. We've been powered by wind for over seven months and our electricity is reliable and consistent, no different than before. And knowing what's behind it continues to feel really good.


58 Degrees & Comfy in Bed

For two Winters and a month into this last one, we turned our thermostat down to 67 degrees at the lowest for us to sleep comfortably upstairs. Then in January we had an energy audit that led to air-sealing a few big gaps and adding cellulose insulation to our attic. Ten days later, I gave a TV interview for NBC4 news that mentions we'd turned down our thermostat four degrees. But that's not where it stopped!
cellulose insulation
We turned down the thermostat one degree every few nights until we got down to 58 degrees. It's still true that it's a lot warmer upstairs than down (other suggestions from our audit should help with that): most winter days when we're home and evenings downstairs, 67 has been O.K. since the work. But with a blanket of 85% recycled paper above us, we've been cozy in our bed at nine degrees lower. And Spring came before we were finished experimenting!
thermostat at 58

For details on our audit, see Our Home Energy Audit and for a quick photo tour of the work, see Air Sealing & Insulation.


A Cherry Blossom Break

We're on vacation this week. Here are some of the cherry blossoms I saw with my mother last week in D.C.


Dryer sheets that don't clog the filter

In May last year, we switched to cloth dryer "sheets". I read that the chemicals in most dryer sheets are toxic and potentially harmful to humans, and these cloth ones don't use chemicals. Somehow it's the weave that removes the static & makes the clothes softer. They are reusable for 500 loads. That's makes them cheaper, too. They also don't leave the residue that clogs the lint filter, the way most dryer sheets do, so they keep the dryer working efficiently. That's probably why these don't void dryer warranties. I bought them at http://www.staticeliminator.us. They are the two striped cloths in the photo.

In the summer and fall after we switched, they made the clothes soft and free of static. We did notice a bit more static in the winter. Our indoor air gets extremely dry in the winter. They still did an acceptable job, though. We could add some white vinegar to the wash, but I only did it a couple of times and then forgot about it, since the clothes, towels, sheets, napkins, and tablecloths have all been fine.


The Staber Washer

Staber Washer
A year ago, after much research, we ordered a Staber washer, made in Ohio and built to last 25 years. It's a top-loader that runs like a front-loader. After you close the top of the basket with your laundry in it, it rotates on a horizontal axis. Though this type of machine is popular in Europe, the Staber is the only one made in the U.S.

It's on the Energy Star list of efficient washers. It's not in the very highest efficiency Energy Star tier because Energy Star doesn't subtract the agitator to judge volume (an ordinary top-loader with this drum size could not hold a full load). Yet it holds a full load (approx. 18 pounds), because we can fill it completely full since there is no agitator and no front-door gasket to avoid (front-loaders often leak when clothes get caught in the door gasket). So it uses less energy, less water and much less normal detergent than most washers, and it does a load in about the same amount of time as our old top-loader. See http://www.staber.com and be sure to watch the video.

The Staber sounded superior to any other washers sold in the U.S. from the specs and the testimonials and forums I read, including Consumer Reports forums (it wasn't included in their tests). It also has the critical advantage of fitting in our small laundry room. Our distant second choice was the Fisher & Paykel Intuitive Eco top loader with flex agitator, but the brand seems to require frequent repairs. Third choice was the Whirlpool LHW0050 front-loader, but while the measurements seemed about right, I wasn't sure that our laundry room doors would have given the front door enough clearance, and front-loader door gaskets seem to require frequent cleaning with bleach to prevent mold.

We wash the laundry only in cold water, and the Staber does a better job in cold water than our old top-loading washers. It is gentler on the clothes too, since there is no agitator to stretch or pull them. It gets more soap out of the clothes, which pleases my sensitive skin. After using it for a year, we are both still very pleased with it.

After washing a load in the Staber, it's already much dryer from the spin cycle than any washer I've used. With that and the dryer duct replacement and vent cleaning, the laundry dries much sooner. We switched to using the dryer's dryness sensor instead of its timed drying cycle, which makes so much sense I keep having "I could have had a V-8" moments for not switching sooner. Since the clothes are not being overheated, they are not shrinking as much and they are softer.


A Metal Dryer Duct & A Clean Vent

semi-rigid metal dryer duct
With the washer out of position after the overflow, I noticed we had rare access to the dryer vent. I'd read that homeowners should have the dryer vent cleaned every few years to prevent a fire hazard, so I looked online for how to get that done.

I learned that the vinyl/plastic and aluminum foil dryer vents ARE fire hazards. The rigid metal and semi-rigid metal ducts are both much safer. The rigid metal duct is the best choice if your path from the dryer to the opening in the wall or floor is pretty straight, since the escaping air, moisture, and lint encounters the least friction on the way out, drying the clothes that much more efficiently. Our path is like a question mark, so when I called the Dryer Vent Wizard to arrange a cleaning, I asked if he could also replace the old foil vent with a semi-rigid metal dryer vent.

Bill from Dryer Vent Wizard came and put in a semi-rigid duct with lots of metal tape to make sure the connection was secure. He cleaned from the dryer all the way to the outside outlet, sending vast plumes of lint into the air. Cough, cough. I came inside. The speed of the air coming out went from 8.2 mph to 15 mph. He said he usually sees a big improvement, but he was impressed. He even raked the leaves on the patio to clean up the lint.

He also told me that if we used dryer sheets, they leave a residue that blocks the lint screen. He said I should take an old toothbrush & soap and clean the lint screen every now and then. He said you can tell if it needs it by just holding it under running water, which would pool instead of just going through. I tried it. He was totally right. The lint screen might as well have had clear plastic over it. Then I cleaned it for a few minutes and the water ran straight through it.

We looked forward to the clothes drying faster, once we had a working washer.


Stopping a Washer Flood

Our second Spring in the house, in 2007, our washer overflowed. We did the towels and buckets routine. We moved the washer out of its spot. I called a carpet company and they brought ozone generators to quickly finish drying the floor, walls and nearby carpet to prevent mold. I didn't want to worry about water damage from that source again. I didn't want to breathe that amount of concentrated ozone in my home again either.

I discovered the Samurai Appliance Repair Man's suggestions for preventing a washer flood in the future at http://fixitnow.com/2005/03/three-easy-steps-to-total-washing.htm. Confirmed by my research at other sites, the three steps seemed like very good ideas. So I ordered the FloodStop, a smart system that shuts off the faucets if it detects water on the floor. We already had the steel-braided fill hoses, and they had not leaked. I also ordered the leak catcher, which is a plastic "dish" like the one under the dish drainer on the kitchen counter but big enough to sit under the washer.

FloodStop shut-off valves After the FloodStop arrived, we installed its shut-off valves on both the hot and cold water faucets. We plugged the valves into the control unit. We plugged the moisture sensor into the control unit. We plugged the control unit into the power outlet. We rested the moisture sensor on the floor.

Since we'd unplugged the fill hoses from the old washer before moving it out, it was easy to test the FloodStop. We turned on a faucet and splashed a little water onto the sensor. The water immediately stopped. We dried the sensor with a towel and then waited for it to dry completely to test the other faucet. Its shut-off valve worked like a charm, too.

Even for the people (not us) who shut off both faucets after every washer use, this is a good idea. Our washer overflowed while we were using it, but we were watching movies with a guest and we didn't notice until the water had covered a surprising distance. I think the water level sensor of the old washer failed. I didn't confirm this because I wasn't willing to give it another chance, and it was a good time for us to switch to an energy-efficient washer. Bottomline: The FloodStop is a clever device that should save a lot of people from a lot of hassle, expense and anxiety.


23 Lightbulbs & A Carbon Fast

traditional shape CFL
Not long after we moved in, we noticed we were replacing the front porch lightbulbs surprisingly often. We even wondered if the sockets were bad. I was pleased to find compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) that were shaped like regular incandescent bulbs and we replaced the porch bulbs to save electricity. Happily, they are lasting a very long time. We've only taken them out to put in yellow bug CFLs for warm weather and then replaced them again with the white ones.

Later, we replaced the patio bulb with a CFL too. Later still, we replaced 14 lightbulbs in a fairly short time: ten of them were bathroom vanity lights! One site claimed that if you didn't leave the lights on for hours, it wasn't efficient to switch to CFLs. I think we're vain enough to get our money's worth ;-)

Weeks later, we replaced four more lightbulbs. And then a couple more. It's been 23 so far and we still have more to go! It's been tough trying to replace the chandelier bulbs that are on a dimmer, but hopefully soon the CFLs that claim to work on a dimmer will do so very well. For the ones we've been using, reducing the energy used while still enjoying nice lighting is a kick. shaped CFLs

I bought some small spiral CFLs at Costco in bulk to put in the lamps where you don't see the bulb and more conventionally-shaped ones at Home Depot. Here are sites to help with choosing a low-energy lightbulb:

We are also becoming more conscious about turning out lights when we leave their area. To become more conscious of green opportunities like that, here is a Carbon Fast to do for 40 days (The Rt. Rev. James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, created it for Lent, but any 40 day period will do): http://www.tearfund.org/webdocs/Website/Churches/Carbon%20Fast.pdf You can sign up for 40 days of emails to help you stick with the Carbon Fast.


The Fireplace Draftstopper: A Damper Cover

In February '06 after we'd been in the house five months, it seemed like a good time to make our beautiful fireplace serve its purpose. I thought that would take the chill off our evenings downstairs.

A chimney sweep cleaned the gutters, swept the chimney, left a fine black dust on the living room, inspected the chimney and then considerably overpriced a new cap. That's okay, I wasn't going to climb up there with a new cap. He said we had one of the strongest downdrafts he'd ever seen. He left the damper up, saying it would make the downstairs more comfortable without costing us more and that I should test it, at least.

We bought a new HEPA vacuum to suck up all the soot and then gleefully let it pull us across every room. We had a couple of glorious little fires using a Duraflame and then a Crackleflame log, which sounds like real wood burning. But the room was no warmer. I was surprised, since my mom's fire heats her family room very well. Of course, she closes the doors to the room. And we have no doors to close off the room from the rest of the house: it's an open floor plan.

Days after the fire was out, the room was still colder than before the sweep had come: the experiment failed (What a surprise! Not.). I managed to dislodge the damper instead of shutting it. We put a blanket over the front of the fireplace and watched the gusts inflate and deflate the blanket animatedly. The sweep came back and fixed the damper, and closed it.

Months later, to prevent the AC from rushing up the chimney, I was looking at fireplace doors online and found a damper pillow at http://www.batticdoor.com/fireplacedraftstopper.html. The Fireplace Draftstopper creates a better seal than a metal damper encrusted with past fire debris. I set the black, plastic inflatable cushion in place and blew it up. It's just as easy to take it out if we want to have a fire.
We definitely noticed the strong draft from the fireplace was much weaker with the cover in place. A small draft still comes up from the gaps in the masonry on the firebox floor. It's on the To Do List.

Last month, our energy auditor was glad to test a house that had a damper cover. He had recommended this type of solution to others since they are so affordable. We discovered ours had deflated a little over time, so I added some air and he said it helped. I checked it again when I replaced the furnace filter, and I'll make it a habit to do them together each time.


In Hot Water

Though we moved in over two years ago, our 70s house still sports much of its original decor. The second owners showed off a switch plate perfectly wallpapered to match the leafy pattern on the wall behind it. It really is amazing. And it's pretty tasteful. Both of our moms love it. That works for us, because we've had enough to do with our jobs, cleaning, and unpacking.

We did start on the home inspector's list. A Sears tech cleaned and inspected the furnace & the hot water heater and was about to give a clean bill of health, when he saw a rust patch lurking in the back, broaching the final remaining layer of the tank. The home inspector had missed that.

I bought a new hot water heater from Home Depot. I replaced a gas one with an electric one for better indoor air quality. That removes a potential fire hazard, too. I didn't know then that gas is the current environmental choice, even though gas isn't renewable, because power plants are a bigger problem. At least I bought one with a 12-year warranty. Ones with longer warranties, according to Consumer Reports, are much more energy-efficient than the models with shorter warranties, because they typically have larger heating elements, thicker insulation, and thicker or longer corrosion-fighting anodes. Yes, this one is much wider than the old one, and though I measured, it was a relief when it fit!

Our home energy audit report said that water heating is our second largest single energy use. One recommendation is to insulate approximately 4 feet of the hot and cold pipes as they exit the top of the tank to reduce the convective heat loss. I've been looking at types of insulation to use for this and when I looked at our pipes to see what size to get, I saw that they touch. Yes, the hot water pipe, which felt like it might burn me if I kept touching it, actually touches the icy-feeling cold water pipe! Very close to the top of the tank!! So I'll be getting insulation that fits between them...

We already have the hot water heater thermostats set at 120 degrees, which was the factory set temperature, and is often recommended by energy efficiency articles. We've never run out of hot water and it's definitely hot.

I wondered later if I should've chosen a tankless hot water heater, but from what I've read we probably would've had to increase the amps to the house to support it! I'm going to look into the AirTap Water Heater Add-On among other options on http://www.aceee.org/consumerguide/waterheating.htm, which would be a good site to check out if you need to pick out a new one.

Update: I wrapped Armaflex insulation tape around the hot water pipe, overlapping halfway for the first layer and then just a little bit for the second layer. water pipesI barely managed to get both layers between the two pipes. pipes touch


Our Home Energy Audit on NBC4's Going Green!

Wendy Rieger interviewed me about our home energy audit for NBC4's Going Green series. She also interviewed our contractor Thom, who did the audit and led the air sealing and insulation work. A videographer shot the work being done for the segment, which aired this evening at the end of the 5 o'clock evening news hour. You can read it and see video at http://www.nbc4.com/goinggreen/15285616/detail.html.

If you're in Maryland, did you go to mdhomeperformance.org yet to pick a contractor for your energy audit? Please let me know if you have any questions!

Many other states now have a locally-sponsored Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program, too. If your state does not have one, see the U.S. Dept of Energy's Home Energy Audits information.

If you're in DC, did you hear Pat Lawson Muse say that Pepco provides free energy audits to DC customers? Call the Department of the Environment at 202-673-6750.

If you're in Northern Virginia, here is another Energy Star partner: http://www.nspects.com/faqs/default.htm

Air Sealing & Insulation

Thom and Brad of Energy Services Group came and built a platform for attic storage higher than the new insulation would be to prevent compressing it, which would reduce its effectiveness. Brad sealed the gaps in the attic with foam, and foamboard where appropriate.

Here is the biggest gap, sealed for the first time in the house's 37 years, along the framing void for the master bath.
Sealing the Framing Void

A common gap is around the furnace flue, like this one:

Furnace Flue Sealing

Another gap was found hidden under the old insulation over the stairs near the upstairs hall bathroom. They covered and sealed it too:
Another Gap Found
Thom opened the drywall in the shed to check the air gap and then close it with foamboard and seal it with foam:

Shed Gap

They installed baffles to keep the eaves clear of insulation for good attic ventilation: Baffles

Another contractor blew the cellulose insulation carefully all over the attic floor while Thom fed cellulose into the blower outside:

Blowing Cellulose

We went from R11 to R38, which is 10" of cellulose. Then they ran the blower door test again and showed a substantial reduction of the air leakage rate. There was still some air leakage. I could feel it in the furnace room, but nothing like the torrent I felt before the work. Thom said it probably wouldn't be cost-effective to tear up the house further to find more leaks. He said that doing more of the recommendations from the audit should take care of our needs.

Now the upstairs is wearing a warm sweater. We lowered the thermostat by four degrees right away with the same comfort upstairs. It's been neat to try the thermostat one degree lower each night. Our latest try: 61 degrees was just fine while we slept. So we're saving money at night and when we're in the office, since it's upstairs. We still raise the temp a few degrees when we plan to spend the evening downstairs, a few times a week. The downstairs will continue to improve as we finish more of the recommendations.

Update: We've been sleeping at 60 degrees comfortably for a few days!

Our Home Energy Audit

On January 4th, Thom of Energy Services Group came to do an energy audit of our house. He asked for our primary reason for doing the audit. I told him that we wanted to save money on energy, have healthier indoor air and reduce our carbon footprint, but our primary reason was to have more comfortable indoor temperatures. The upstairs was around five to seven degrees warmer than the downstairs year-round and being warm enough downstairs meant turning up the heat a lot.

The difference between our upstairs office at the Western corner of the house and our living room underneath it could be even more. Thom said that replacing our Venetian blinds in both rooms with solid shades would create an air cushion that would help, drapes even more. Low-E glass would help in the office, but I like the warmth of the sun through the glass and I work there all day. (Since my husband likes it cold, a compromise may be that after enjoying warmth and sunshine in the morning, I close shades and drapes midday to prevent the room from being too warm in the evening when he gets home and gets on his computer.)

Thom said he was pleased to be able to audit a house with a damper pillow in the fireplace. He had recommended them as a low-cost way ($50) to seal the fireplace when not in use, but he had not had the opportunity to test one.

He used the infrared scanner and showed me on the scanner where the cold air was coming in. As expected, it was coming in through the windows, the fireplace, where ceilings meet walls, through the sliding glass door. Less expected was that cold air was coming in where the shed meets our kitchen wall and well into the room along the top of that wall. As expected, cold air was coming in around the attic door. He said it's difficult to address the attic door and I told him that the damper pillow company makes a product to seal attic doors too and we agreed it's cheap enough at around $60 to try. Surprisingly, cold air was visible through the wall just above the furnace.

Blower Door
Then he put the blower door in our front door and used the scanner again all around. This time we found where cold air was coming in by feeling the blasts of air with our hands. The damper pillow wasn't sealing, so I blew more air into it and it did better but still not complete --I'll try to position it better later, and check on it regularly to see if it needs more air. There was a lot of cold air coming up through the masonry that needs "pointing" --some of the bricks are missing cement between them-- in the firebox floor. There was also cold air coming in the register that's low on the outside wall in the kitchen. He said it may be worthwhile, if we replace our furnace at some point with a high efficiency one or a heat pump, to cap that register and put a new register --angled to send air in two directions-- on the kitchen ceiling. That placement would avoid two bends in the duct for greater efficiency.

Cold air came in most dramatically right above the furnace. He said we'd see where that was coming from in the attic. Cold air also came in the upstairs bathroom fan openings. He said that eventually we should get better bathroom fans for about $150 each that have a damper that closes completely when they are off. He said making the house tighter would necessitate bringing more fresh air inside and efficient bathroom fans could do that on a low setting. He also said that a new furnace or heat pump would have a fan that would cost one-fifth of ours to run. Since we run it all the time when it's warm, that would be substantial savings.

Then he turned off the blower and we went into the attic. Thom recognized my BoGo solar task light since he gives them to clients! He borrowed it, because it was brighter than his flashlight. Looking under our loose fiberglass insulation, he was surprised to find a vapor barrier but said it isn't that helpful. He said our attic had better ventilation than most, which is good, and our home inspector had told us that, too. Thom found gaps in the loose insulation, some probably caused by our custom cable installer sliding through it. Thom showed me how the furnace chimney needs to be sealed where it meets the attic floor. He said if we replace the furnace with a high efficiency unit, we should cap the old vent where it meets the attic floor or remove it and seal the roof.

Looking for dirty insulation as a good indicator, he found other gaps. The biggest gap was an inch or two wide and several feet long, along the edge of the house above the master bath. He said even today's builders often use this type of plumbing cavity and then never seal the top of it. That's the source of the major draft we felt right above the furnace. The air travels down that shaft along the outside wall and then along a duct into the furnace room. He said, "We'll seal that." Thom has an air sealing company, so he spoke as if he would do the work, although he offered to give me a list of other approved contractors if I wished. He said 80% of houses lose most of their heat through unsealed gaps and poor insulation in the attic. He also said that sealing or replacing windows rarely has a big impact.

We looked in the utility shed. He said he would cut open the drywall of the shed attic, to see why so much cold air is going into the house where they meet. I suggested it might be the central vacuum system ductwork: the unit is no longer hooked up to it, so the duct is open in the shed. He looked at the air conditioning unit nearby to check its capacity.

I asked him if we should wait to do any of the steps we talked about. He said he would send and email his report, which would include the recommended order. He said that basically it's attic, then shed, then anything else we're going to do, then replace the heater last, so we really test the final tightness of the house to determine the size/capacity of the heater we need. He said that we could wait on the heater until we're ready or it quits, since it may be the original unit from 1971. He said the new furnace would be around $6,000 for our house size. He is encouraging the state to do a low-cost loan program for high-efficiency heaters. That's the same price we were quoted by another company for replacement windows, by the way.

To Do List:
  • Have the air sealing and insulation done to the attic and shed attic.
  • Get an attic door cover, shades & drapes.
  • Look into an electric fireplace insert.
  • Put clear caulk around the fireplace at the sides and ceiling, either by the trim with painter's tape or remove the trim and do it and then put the trim back. Use clear caulk to seal the frame around the sliding glass door.
  • Save up for an energy-efficient sealed gas furnace or heat pump.

Thom teaches air sealing and learned about energy efficiency from the Princeton researcher who started the company 27 years ago. He said that some of the $450 audit fee I paid would apply toward the air sealing work, because he wouldn't need to do the inspection again, so I chose his company to do the work. They will re-do the energy audit afterward to be sure the changes have been effective.

Deciding to Have an Energy Audit

December '07 began with not only Christmas shopping but also preparing the house for our first party, set for New Year's Eve. We replaced the kitchen faucet with a shiny chrome Delta model with a sprayer since the old one leaked and the plumber said the model was too cheap to fix! A friend came over and commented how cold it was downstairs. I thought, "It'd be nice if our party guests were warm enough to enjoy the decorations..." That led me to search for "energy audit Maryland" so we could put our money toward the right effort.

In our quest to save money, energy and the environment, we'd replaced 23 lightbulbs so far among several other efforts which I will comment on later. In 2007 we used 17% less energy than in 2006. In Sept. we switched to 100% wind power at a slightly higher rate. So we were ready for the next step, but wanted expert advice to get the most bang for the buck.

I found the MD Energy Administration site and chose a contractor, Energy Services Group, because they had the most experience in Maryland of the ones listed, and left a message. MDhomeperformance.org is an easy way to find the approved contractors including mine.

We bought sustainable rubberwood bookcases (Target online) for the office to finally unpack several more boxes, a new futon cover, a couple of fresh wreaths and a cut Christmas tree. We also bought a steamer to clean (tile especially) without harsh chemicals, but so far we can't get the top off to put in any water. We ran out of time on doing any home performance improvement before the party and just turned up the heat for our guests this time.

Welcome to Our Home Energy!

Hello and welcome to Our Home Energy! My husband and I bought our first home in the Fall of 2005 and have been learning to care for it while being responsible with our piece of the Earth. We have friends who've been better environmentalists than we have for a long time, but that's a reason we're sharing our experiences, to show that a couple, who both work and play a lot, can gradually fit in changes that will...

  • save money,
  • make the house more comfortable and safer inside,
  • and reduce our carbon emissions significantly

so you can do it, too.

I've been keeping a log offline during our first two years in our first house, so some posts will flash back yet also have the benefit of my more recent research. Please feel free to offer your own experience or advice from hot water heaters to hygrometers or other concrete steps we or others could make right away with our homes.