Sunday, November 22, 2009

Home Energy Assessment: Part One

Four winters ago we lived in Urbana, Illinois, in a tri-level home built in 1964. Our gas bill circa January of 2006 was roughly $125 for the use of about 119 therms to run a gas furnace, water heater, and range (the biggest percentage of gas going toward home heating). The average daily temp that month in Urbana was about 33 degrees.

When we moved to southeast Wisconsin in October of 2006, we were stunned by our first Jan/Feb 2007 power bill. The price to heat our 1918 bungalow with roughly the same square footage as our tri-level was nearly 2.5 times what it was in Urbana.

Here's a comparison of our gas usage/cost in January, 2006 in Urbana and January, 2007 in Wauwatosa:

House Size
Urbana: approx. 2200 sq. ft.
Wauwatosa: approx. 2200 sq. ft.

Gas Cost
Urbana: $1.06/therm
Tosa: $1.14/therm

Avg. Temp
Urbana: 33 degrees F
Tosa: 22 degrees F

Urbana: 119
Tosa: 270

Total Cost
Urbana: $125
Tosa: $310

Being further north and in a slightly colder climate we expected higher gas bills. Plus, gas prices were about 8 cents per therm higher between winter of 2006 and winter of 2007. Still, math isn't my strong suit, but I'm venturing a guess that the difference in temperature and the price of gas weren't significant enough to increase the use of therms from one house to the other by 250%.

With only one income and three little mouths to feed (four if you count our beastly, all-consuming golden retriever), we were strapped for cash our first year in Wisconsin – and continue to be. After all, at about $500, our average January power bill rivals many folks' rent payments.

To offset the huge cost of winter heating, we made a decision not to run our A/C in the summers. Suffering through some infernally hot summer days without air conditioning brought our monthly budget payment (the average of all 12 months' gas and electric usage) to about $280.

That wasn't good enough for us. So we began cranking down our heat in the winter. Unfortunately, even keeping our thermostat set in the mid-60s didn't bring down our wintertime bill significantly. All it did was make our fingers and toes a lot colder.

So two years ago we replaced our old heater with high efficiency (92%) gas furnace. Then, one year ago, All American Window & Door installed triple pane, argon filled replacement windows on the second story of our home. We programmed the thermostat with a conservative schedule and, on nobler days, sucked it up, put on sweaters and turned down the heat a few more degrees. We turned down the temperature on our water heater, too.

While every little bit has helped, to our dismay the current gas payment continues to be about $310 to $387 during the coldest months. That's about of 270 to 340 therms at the current cost of $1.10 per therm.

Colder weather aside, there's another factor that explains the huge difference in heating our Urbana home versus our Wauwatosa home: "house health." Our practical tri-level in Urbana was a solid, well-insulated construction with brand new windows added in roughly 2002. Conversely, our partially-insulated blue bungalow is drafty and inefficient.

We love our impractical blue bungalow, so our goal is to help it use as little energy as possible. In that spirit we struggle onward, trying to determine what more energy savings we can squeeze from our house.

Thankfully, this fall we were offered a special opportunity. The Wauwatosa Home Energy Efficiency group offered us a free energy assessment in exchange for us opening up our home for experimental purposes. At $300 to $400 a pop, home energy assessments are not cheap, but a good one can provide accurate, unbiased information on how to make a home more energy efficient.

We learned the hard way the cost of the kind of biased "energy assessments" that are currently being offered by various enterprising contractors. Windows, siding, insulation, HVAC and other contractors are all vying for consumer and government dollars ear marked for "greening up" residences and businesses. We were wooed by window contractors' promises of energy efficiency into spending thousands for what amounted to nice windows that hardly saved much energy or money at all.

I don't exactly regret replacing windows in our home – our upstairs is much more attractive and comfortable now – but was this the most effective energy saving technique? Not by a long shot.

Our home energy assessment was conducted just before Thanksgiving. The inspector was Keith Williams of West Allis, a "home performance consultant" with nine years' experience. Keith was one of the first consultants in the state of Wisconsin. Prior to working as a consultant he ran his own insulation contracting business for 22 years. He's a certified building analyst, a certified energy rater, and is nationally recognized as a trainer.

In part two, I'll talk about Keith's visit and what he told us about our house.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Winter Composting

The arrival of winter can render composting an unpleasant endeavor for folks in the northern reaches of the U.S. Here at the Blue Bungalow, we don't care much for trudging across our snow-covered, dog-dropping-strewn back yard with bowls of congealing kitchen scraps. Worse, those scraps are dumped atop a frozen, snow-capped pile that won't decompose until the spring and can't properly be turned. Winter composting outdoors is a task we at our house are likely to neglect once the blizzards start rolling in, as they did last December:

I don't think I could even *find* my compost bin under all the snow that fell during that terrible onslaught of wintry weather!

For me, the answer to the problem of winter composting is simple: we'll rely on our indoor worm bins. When and if the worms get overloaded, we'll add more bins. This way, we'll be able to continue composting our kitchen scraps through the winter, reducing the amount of garbage we send to the landfill and building up a beautiful supply of compost for the spring planting season.

But vermicomposting isn't for everyone. To illustrate, allow me to share an e-mail I recently received from a fellow sustainer in Tosa. He asked the following:

Good Morning Heather, Do you have any experience with winter composting without worms? My wife doesn’t like the worm idea indoors. I found one solution at that sounds pretty interesting. Just wondering your thoughts. Dave in Tosa

I told Dave I've never tried indoor composting without the assistance of the amazing red wiggler. Of course, as a vermicompost enthusiast, I couldn't help but try to convince him to give vermicomposting a shot. I told him:

You know, worms aren’t that bad – esp. if you are very careful to keep a tidy bin and follow vermicomposting rules. Do you have a basement, or some other out of the way area your wife doesn’t frequent? You could try keeping them tucked away in some place so she doesn’t have to see them regularly.

Truth be told, my husband is not a big fan of the worms, but he tolerates them b/c he knows they are little wonderworkers. I used to keep them in my kitchen, which was fine, but at least a couple of times in warmer weather the fungus gnats got out of control. When that happened in the summers of ’08 and ’09, we moved the bins outdoors, where they remained just outside my kitchen door. When it got cold I moved them in again. Now they’re in my basement, which seems to work well. It’s cool down there, which keeps the gnats down, but not so cool that it kills the worms. ...

Do you and/or your wife garden or grow any plants indoors? If so, the worms, I've found, are indispensible in organic gardening. And the "compost tea" that can be made from worm castings and compost keeps indoor plants very healthy and happy.

I should make it clear that while I think every household should have at least one worm bin, the last thing I would want to do is encourage marital discord. IMHO a spouse (or roommate, or child) should never stress over sustainability techniques he or she is not ready for. Hopefully, my friend will find an alternative solution that appeases his spouse if she's still not ready for worms. And who could blame her? Worms aren't exactly the most appealing creatures on first glance.

I asked Dave to let me know if the winter composting solution mentioned in the article above works for him (and his wife). I'll let you know what he reports. Who knows -- maybe I'll try this method myself.

Finally, I'd like to add two comments about the gnat problem that has plagued my vermicomposting efforts since the get-go:

  • A friend of mine, who uses the same style of bins I do, told me she doesn't have gnats because she never feeds fruit to her worms -- she gives them only veggie scraps and coffee grounds. I imagine that a great number of microscopic pests arrive in our kitchens on the peels of bananas.

  • When I was at the 350 carnival a couple Saturdays ago in MKE, vermicomposting demonstrator Godsil of Sweet Water Organics told me that he doesn't have problems with gnats because he absolutely submerges all food waste with carbon-rich material. I've been using strips of newspaper to cover the nitrogen-rich materials added to my bins; Godsil uses finely shredded leaf mulch. This made me wonder if perhaps the hand-torn newspaper strips I'm using aren't fine enough to really bury the food waste. Perhaps gnats are still able to slip through the copious air pockets in the newspaper shreds to get to the food (or from the food, as the case may be) and do their breeding.

  • I think I'm going to gather a bagful of autumn leaves and keep it beside my worm bins this winter for composting. I wonder if the leaf mulch will be healthier for the worms and will do a better job of covering waste. Plus, it's probably better to send old newspaper to the recycling center, rather than into the earth. Aside from the dubious inks and other contaminants in the paper, reusing dead tree matter via recycling prevents further trees from being harvested.