Thursday, July 31, 2008

Powering Down, Part 3

As promised, this post will list a number of minor changes that have added up to significant savings in electricity usage at our house. I didn't track how much each of these amounted to individually, and some are probably pretty small, but they really do add up.

I've written about a couple of these before, so let me flip on the wayback machine.

Energy Saving Tip: The Computer

Energy Saving Tip: Yeah, the Lightbulbs

And last time I mentined the clothesline and the cool air strategies.

Besides those, here are some other things we've changed:

- We got rid of our fish tank. We listed our remaining fish on Freecycle and unplugged everything. It didn't really mix well with Amelia's water obsession. Or e5's fish tickling obsession. Or our lack of time and motivation to keep it clean and tidy. And anything that runs 24x7 should really be worth it.

- We got rid of our surround sound system. It's really not that cool, we don't watch that many movies these days, and even if we did, it's too easy to disturb the slumbering cherubs upstairs.

- We got rid of the rarely-used VCR. The few videos we actually still watched were easily replaced.

- We got rid of the satellite TV service and DVR in the bedroom (so rarely used), and put the remaining equipment on a power strip that is turned off when not in use.

- We replaced a computer monitor with an LCD monitor, thanks to a loaner from my office. You should always make friends with the techie people.

- We keep outdoor lights off at night. I don't know how much security outdoor lights actually provide. I mean, we don't even lock our doors out here, and we don't really have that much worth stealing.

- We just turn stuff off when it's not in use. I know it sounds dumb, but it's easy to leave the light over the kitchen sink on, or the bathroom fan, or the baby monitor, or the DVD player. Especially with kids in the house. So I just walk around turning stuff off all the time.

- We put in one of those programmable thermostats. We don't use the A/C much these days, but when we do, it's pre-programmed to stay at 79 during the day and 75 at night, so if we do forget and leave it on, I don't end up sitting on the couch in August with a blanket over my legs. In fact, it rarely kicks on even when we do forget. We'll occasionally crank it down a bit if we're doing a lot of heavy cleaning on a hot day, but mostly it's resting quietly.

- We replaced our dying washer with an ancient Maytag washer. It turned out to be unstable and ineffective, and liked to collect nasty stuff in an unintentional lint trap. So we gave up on that approach and bought a high-efficiency washer. Surprisingly enough, this actually caused a noticeable drop in our electric bill. Not a huge drop, but a drop. It also uses a lot less water, less laundry soap, and it spins a lot more dampness (and soap) out of the clothes, so they dry faster. On the downside, it takes longer to wash a load, but it's not a bad tradeoff really. And of course they don't give away those high efficiency washers...

- We moved our cat box from an upstairs bathroom to the basement. What does this have to do with electricity? Well, since the litter box was close to the bedrooms, we'd keep the bathroom fan on all the time to keep the odor minimized. Not only was that using electricity around the clock, but it was constantly expelling cool air from our house in summer, and warm air in winter.

- I switched from an electric razor to a blade. I didn't do this for the pennies of electricity involved. I just misplaced the electric razor after a trip. And now I'm hooked. The blade does a better job and it doesn't actually take any longer. I'm tempted to try a straight razor.

- I also found that the little rechargeable electric beard trimmer thingy that I use once every week or so will keep a charge for about two months. So instead of staying plugged in all the time, I just plug it in when it loses it's charge. Instead of being plugged in all the time, it's only plugged in overnight once every two months.

- We eliminated our garage door opener. Okay, so this wasn't actually to save electricity, but because I was too cheap to get our flimsy garage door bracket repaired for a second time. We're not so frail that we can't open it by hand. And it's not like we can get a car in there most of the time anyway.

- We "insulated" the shroud around our heat stove, which might just be some kind of code violation, but we've used it long enough to know that what we did is very low risk. Code schmode. It was leaking cool air all summer and warm air all winter like a wide open window. Of course, do not try this at home. And if you do and your house burns down, then you did it wrong. Don't come looking for me.

- We did the "chest fridge" thing. Okay, technically this didn't reduce our electricity usage, since it didn't actually replace our primary refrigerator, but it gave us lots of overflow space for our daily supply of milk and eggs. And the power usage is very minimal.

- We moved both our chest freezer and chest fridge to the basement, where it's always cooler, thus giving them less work to do.

- Any meat that needs to be defrosted is moved from the freezer to the fridge the night before, which eliminates the microwave time, and often results in meat that's more tender and more evenly cooked.

- And finally, whenever I go into work, I always turn off the UPS battery pack under my desk. I mean, I take my laptop home with me. Who cares if the power goes out overnight or when I'm not there. Well, especially since I'm only there one day a week. Those UPSes can suck a surprising amount of power. Of course, this has zero impact on our home electricity bill, but it makes me feel good and probably even saves the company a few nickels.

There are probably a few others I'm forgetting. The trick is to just be conscious of what you have that uses electricity, how often you use it, how much you actually need it, and how much of an energy hog it is.

There are lots of other tricks that don't apply to us, but may apply to you. If you have an electric hot water tank, for example, you can put it on a timer so that it's not heating water 24x7. (And yes, it does use less energy to let the temperature drop and bring it back up again than maintaining a fixed temperature. This has been discussed at length in many places, so just trust me. Or go dig it up.) If you have electric space heating, obviously there are a ton of winter heat retention tricks and techniques. Insulation and sealing cracks is a huge deal, especially in older houses. I know of some people who put foil-backed foam insulation on the non-coil sides of their fridge and freezer and get a big boost in efficiency. Of course I also know at least two people who have given up their refrigerators entirely. And plenty of people out there get by without a TV and all its friends. Some even claim to like it better that way. Where I live, these people are usually burned at the stake as heretics...

But the point is to just look around. Be aware. Get creative. Pretty soon you'll be anxiously checking the mail for your next electric bill to see if you beat your previous low.

And watching those bills go down is not a bad thing as energy costs rise and the economy teeters on the edge of the Abyss. We signed up for the "budget billing" option, which evens out seasonal highs and lows and bills us a fixed amount each month based on previous usage. At the end of 12 months, it was time to settle up the differences between our predicted usage and our actual usage. We had a $91.97 credit.

Oh, and there's that whole acid rain / mercury emissions / blowing the tops off mountains / global climate change / pollution thing. Just in electricity, we've shaved about 6,500 lbs of CO2 per year so far from our original baseline.

For more ideas, more thorough analysis, more projects, and more pretty graphs, be sure to check out the "Half" project over at They have all kinds of cool ideas over there.

Happy conserving. Feel free to post comments with other tips or ideas that have worked for you.



Kickin' us while we're down!

Ok, I promise I'll get to my next electricity post soon. And I promise I won't turn this into a whine-a-thon blog. But Holy Shit man!

Our repaired car is broken again. Our well daughter is unwell again. (Less so, but she won't let me or Lori out of her sight, even for a bathroom break, without a screaming, wailing fit. What's that about?) My employer just announced they're discontinuing all bonuses (forever). Oh, and they're moving their office to a different suburb, which actually takes income tax out at the city level. Thanks for the pay cut there guys. What else? Let's see.... Someone got ahold of my debit card number and ran up at least $1500 worth of online purchases today. We got a $400 propane bill yesterday. And I discovered that most of the wooden structure that holds our comfy recliner together is a mess of broken and splintered wood.

I mean, there's nothing really, really bad going on. But dang.

I advise you to run away. Run away quickly. Don't let this bad mojo rub off on you!



Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Another video everyone else has probably seen...

Yeah... whine, whine, whine. The car's fixed, and for much less than we feared. In fact, we went ahead and had them fix most of the other nagging problems too - the tail light that's been busted for four years... the side mirror held on with duct tape... the bogus check-engine light...

And Amelia has stopped wailing piteously. It's been like 24 hours now, so that's good.

Anyway, here, you should watch this:

It's better than lolcats. I want to see it again and again.

Joss Whedon will go down as a modern day Shakespeare.



Monday, July 28, 2008

Life. Don't talk to me about life.

Ok, let's see. Our car (which contained my wife and two sons) conked out, 20 miles from home yesterday, and is now in the repair shop. Our only other vehicle - the pickup truck - cannot even come close to holding the five of us. So some portion of us is always stranded.

Amelia has some recurring digestive problem that makes her cry for hours on end, and get very clingy. Three of the last four weekends she's been having this. And this time it's stretching out longer, and came with a fever. But maybe it's not a digestive problem. Or maybe only partly. Or maybe it's a sinus infection. Or heartburn. Or, um, well... (insert blank stare). A trip to urgent care and two trips to the doc haven't really gotten us an answer. And poor Amelia is just not happy. So now she gets to get sedated and have a CT scan, mostly just to check for a sinus infection, since she can't really tell us what's hurting...

And the cow has mastitis again, or still, or whatever. In fact, this time she's got it even as I'm still finishing up the latest medical treatment. The vet is basically out of bullets, and said she may be stuck with it until we dry her off. So now I'm gonna look into drying just that quarter. Or at least milking it out separately. Sigh...

Hey, how 'bout we throw in a teething baby? Seems like a good fit, no?

So I haven't gotten to my next electricity reduction post yet. I'll get to it before too long. And I've got some more interesting news to pass along by next weekend.

In the meantime, here's a cool little video. Everybody on the planet may have seen this already, but it's new to me, so now I'll inflict it on all of you...


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Powering down, Part 2

In order to reduce your electricity usage, you've got to know where it's going in the first place.

You might be saying, "Duh!" right now. Much of this series of posts might make you say "Duh." But I know I can be blind to the blindingly obvious sometimes. And hopefully there's plenty of non-obvious information here too.

There are several ways to approach this project of reducing electricity use. One way is to make a list of all the stuff in your house that uses electricity, and do some quick searches on The Google to get a rough idea of how much each item uses. If that sounds daunting, then just start by tackling a single room. It goes pretty quickly. Just look around at each item, and ask yourself a) do you really need it, b) do you need it plugged in all the time, and c) is there a more efficient - even non-electric - way to accomplish the same thing. I'll cover these ideas in the next post.

Another useful approach is to focus on the biggest energy hogs. That's what this post will cover. The top electricity users will vary depending on your family size, climate, and other factors, but in general, the biggest energy users, starting at the top are:
- Air conditioning
- Water heating
- Electric space heating
- Clothes dryer
(then a huge drop off...)
- Refrigerator
- Stove / oven
- Chest freezer
- Lighting & small appliances
- Computer(s)
- DVRs
- Everything else

A good rule of thumb to use is that if something is using electricity to make things hot or cold, it's likely to be a power hog.

There are plenty of other things that could make their way up the list. If you've got a hot tub, a heated pool, a big plasma TV, a giant collection of A/V equipment, a high-performance computer network, or a basement full of hydroponics... well, you'll just have to figure it out. In our case, we've got a well pump that uses more power than you might expect.

It could be that you don't have electric versions of some of these things. Our hot water and our range both use propane, and we heat with corn & wood pellets, so that gets us out of some big ticket items on the electric bill.

I don't generally advocate buying your way into efficiency - especially while the economy is hitching a ride with the Ty-D-Bol Man. I mean a hybrid in every driveway and a solar panel on every roof sounds cool, but where's that $100 grand per household come from anyway?

New stuff takes energy to manufacture and transport - sometimes more energy than you'll save by buying it. We have to think of the whole life cycle, not just the monthly meter reading.

But there are times when buying new will pay off big enough to justify it. In the US and Canada, many large appliances come with big yellow EnergyGuide tags to give you an electricity usage estimate. If you need to replace an appliance, definitely consider paying a little extra up front for a more efficient model. In fact, I'd recommend going to the EnergyStar web site to research. I mean, how often do you get to take advantage of a government program that's actually useful and easy to access?

Keep in mind that some appliances like dryers and ovens don't have EnergyStar ratings because, well, in terms of electricity, they're all about the same. The best and worst electric ovens will be very close in energy usage. Well, unless you've got ten grand to buy a range with a magnetic induction cooktop and a convection oven. (I'm sure it's worth every penny...)

So enough conceptual. Let's get to some details.

Here's a bar graph showing the top energy users at our house (assuming typical usage, not actual usage):
There are a couple interesting things here. First is the massive difference between the top two and the rest. With a family of five living on livestock-infested mud farm, we go through a lot of laundry. So by looking at our estimated numbers, it becomes obvious that we'd get an extra large payoff from using a clothesline instead of a dryer. And we do.

(Just for the record, the dryer usage on the graph was based on the number of loads of laundry we typically do. If you make a graph like this, it will probably look different. And in fact, my own estimate may be way off, because I'm playing fast-and-loose with some of the calculations. But it's a starting point.)

The graph also makes it obvious that keeping our house cool in some way other than central air is going have major benefits. The big red 2006 lines in the center of yesterday's graph demonstrate the same thing.

Now I'm not going to tell you that we haven't used our air conditioning at all this summer. We've just used it very sparingly. We've found quite a few strategies for keeping the house cool sans A/C. I'll try to summarize what's worked for us.

First, you've got to get the cool night air into your house. Check the weather forecast to see what the low temperatures will be overnight. When our daytime temps are in the 90's, overnight lows are still usually down in the mid 60's.

Think about that: Free 65 degree air. You need to take advantage of it.

Open windows when you're going to bed. Stick some fans in a couple bedroom windows, blowing inward. Even if it's a little warmer outside when you go to bed, don't worry about it. That night air will cool off before long. Then when you get up to a nicely cooled house the next morning, close the windows to hold that cool air in and keep the hot muggy summer at bay.

We recently installed a Tamarack HV1000 whole house fan to draw that cool air in.
Now the typical whole house fan uses a lot less electricity than an air conditioner, but it also creates what amounts to a giant hole in your attic insulation. Just because those metal louvers are closed doesn't mean they're keeping the heat out in summer, or the cold out in winter. If you have one, find a way to insulate it, at least in winter. Climb up in the attic, put some cardboard over it and throw a couple batts of insulation on top. Or maybe cover it with plastic.

he Tamarack model we got is two smaller fans side-by-side. They fit between standard ceiling joists so it's a little easier to install. It draws a good bit less power than a standard whole house fan, so it takes a little longer to get that cool air in (maybe 10 minutes vs 2), but really, speed is not that important to the process.

It also has insulated doors that close when it's not in use. The standard model comes with R-22 insulation, but for a little extra, you can get R-38. It's not the cheapest fan, but we were lucky enough to have some extra cash to play with, so it worked for us.

Besides sucking cool night air into your house, it will push the super-heated air out of your attic space, which will reduce the amount of heat seeping into your living space from above. Attics can get to 140 or 150 F on a sunny 90-degree day.

Next, if you live in a seasonal climate, you want shade on your south-facing windows in summer (but not in winter). So if you don't have any, plant some leafy trees right now. I planted some cherry trees this year. Or build a trellis or an arbor to shade your south-facing windows, and grow some vines. I like multitaskers, so I'm using grapevines. You could also consider hardy kiwi, or if you're into homebrewing, try hops.

Don't forget about your west-facing windows too. There's a reason why the late afternoon sun is sometimes called the Dragon Sun. The sun will be lower in the sky when it gets to your western windows, so take that into account when planning for shade.

While you wait for those trees and vines to grow, you can block the sun with window coverings. Dark curtains, honeycomb or cellular shades, quilts backed with Reflectix or similar... plenty of options here. This approach can be effective, but it has a small flaw. You're stopping the sunlight (and it's accompanying heat) after it's already gotten into your house.

We've advanced the battle lines to the other side of the glass. I bought a roll of Phifer Suntex 80 shade screen. (I don't know that the brand is important - that's just what I got.) People in the Southwestern US have probably known about this stuff for ages, but it was a fairly recent discovery for me. This is like regular window screen, but made up of more "screen" and less "hole". It blocks out 80% of sunlight before it gets to the window. I'll explain exactly what we did in more detail at a later date, because I'm not quite using it in the typical fashion. But to answer the question you're probably thinking, no it doesn't make it dark inside the house.

Another important factor for keeping cool is to make sure your house is well insulated and well sealed. Track down a copy of Insulate and Weatherize by Bruce Harley. This book does a great job of covering the concepts, but also the how-to if you're so inclined. I'd like to add more blow-in insulation to our attic spaces at some point, though ours is pretty good already.

Anyway, just by bringing in the cool air at night and keeping out the sunshine during the day, our house stays as much as 15 degrees cooler inside, and even on the very hottest days, we can often avoid air conditioning until 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, until dusk. Often we can avoid it altogether.

Oh, one more trick: If you have a basement, seriously consider using it. Ours was a wreck for a long time, because our 20+ year old sick and senile cat treated it as one giant litter box-slash-vomitorium. But as he has gone to the great catnip field in the sky now, I spent a lot of time cleaning up our unfinished basement to get it into a semi-usable state. And boy does it feel nice down there on a warm day.

Next time I'll go over the many other smaller changes that have added up to quite a bit of savings.



Sunday, July 20, 2008

Another quick post

I just can't manage to get some of these posts that take time and thought out of my head and into the keyboard. So in the meantime, I guess it's more sporadic photos and goofy farm stories.

Here's what happens when I showed e5 how to use a couple fun Photoshop tools...



Saturday, July 19, 2008

Powering down

This is our electricity usage for every month since we moved into our current house:

If you look closely, you'll see that only twice has our usage been higher than the same month of the prior year (2/08 vs. 2/07 and 9/07 vs. 9/06). And even then, only by a tiny bit.

You might also notice that our usage was pretty high during most of our first year here. You know, before we started being conscious of such things. Even so, we were just around the national average that year.

This year, we are averaging about 50% of what we were using two years ago. And June of this month was WAAAY down from two years ago. Like one whole megawatt-hour. I don't even know that our quality of life has changed much as a result. A couple of the changes cost a little cash, but nothing outrageous.

At over 600 kWh per month, we're still way over what some people are aiming for, and like ten times what other people have already accomplished. It's getting tougher to cut, but I'm hoping to keep our downward streak going. On the graph you'll see that the first step down is always bigger than the next one, because the initial changes are the easy and the obvious.

In my next post, I'll try to give an overview of the changes we've made, and which ones have had noticeable differences in our electric bill. Most have been just being more conscious of electricity usage, or good old-fashioned conservation. Seems like you don't hear much about that approach. I guess it kind of gets lost in the din of voices extolling us all to "Buy Green!"

Oops. I don't think I was supposed to point that out...



Just what we need... another escape artist.

Our cow is still struggling with mastitis. Or I am. Both, I guess. I'm pretty certain we've now had to dump more milk than we've gotten to use since we bought her. It's no fun milking twice a day and pouring it all on the ground, day after day. And then to going to the store and buy dairy products.

Not Cool.

So the vet came out to get a culture and treat her with an IV antibiotic, since lesser methods didn't get it done. She fought like a good 'un. For some reason, she didn't appreciate getting jabbed in the neck.

And then she managed to sneak past both of us and squeeze out through the open stall gate.

This led to a Keystone Cops chase, as Meadow frolicked in the tall weeds, the neighbor's manicured lawn, and the ditch by the road, while being chased by me, my somewhat elderly vet, my five-year-old son, and the vet's wife in her white slacks and pink blouse.

We opened up several gates because we weren't sure which way we could get her to go. So when we finally did get her back in through one gate, she ran straight through, past the vet's wife, and back out a different open gate.

So jump back two paragraphs to see what happened next.

Eventually, we got her in. But she still needed to be milked. Of course she wouldn't go anywhere near the barn for quite a while, so I was nearly milking by candlelight by the time I coaxed her in.

The poor vet left covered in sweat, blood, and dirt, being hounded by his wife because he was supposed to have drank something two hours before in preparation for a colonoscopy early the next morning.

So I guess difficulties are all relative.



Friday, July 11, 2008

Just to counterbalance the freakin' rainbows...

...I give you... the Rat-Tailed Maggot:

What five-year-old boy could resist such a disturbing little wriggler? Not ours. And I challenge you to find a critter with a greater need for the services of a PR firm.

They're like a cross between a regular maggot, a legless unborn rat, and a fleshy mini-cucumber with a long tail. Oh, and they're semi-aquatic. A lively garnish for your morning beverage maybe?

And also, since Sharon Astyk posted about garden doom, and Greenpa followed up with more good info, I thought I'd pony up and show you my real-life example. You think you've got weeds? Try this recipe:

- Spend a couple years building up already good soil with organic dairy compost, leaves, straw, chicken bedding, char, and any other organic matter that turns up.

- Till the soil and then plant a bunch of different seeds and plants.

- Join a CSA in case you can't keep up on the garden this year

- Have a baby

- Buy a dairy cow

- Get cooler-than-average temperatures and regular rainfall a couple times a week all the way into July...

- Refrain from weeding, hoeing, or other forms of cultivation.

What do you get?

Well... the pictures don't do it justice, but when the weeds start looking back at eye level, you know you're in a bad way:

See, what I'm actually doing is not neglecting my garden. Oh no. I'm embarking on an ambitious breeding program to create weed-tolerant garden crops. Yes, that is exactly what I'm doing. And also generating lots of biomass. And yeah, and some short-term carbon sequestration. It's aaaallll according to my plan...


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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Fun with a rainbow

Looky! A rainbow!

A rainbow and lightning

You'll never get me pot o' gold!


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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Converging crises

Peak oil, climate change, the economic crisis, and now this:

Entertainment Scientists Warn Miley Cyrus Will Be Depleted by 2013



Tuesday, July 01, 2008


I'm not an adrenalin junkie. Don't get me wrong, I like thrills up to a point - roller coasters, sporting events, the occasional suspenseful movie or life-changing decision... Heck, I even went white water rafting once, and loved it. They put a photographer on top of some big nasty rock, and take a picture of your raft just before you smack into it. In the photo of our raft, everyone was either paddling like mad or hanging on for dear life, concentrating on that rock. Everyone except for me. I had one hand off my paddle and a big grin on my face.

But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. (I just used the word "thing" twice in one sentence. Somewhere a shudder runs up an English teacher's back.)

First, our daughter was playing on the front porch, which she loves to do. Between the porch swing, the sky chairs, the water that collects on top of the rain barrel and the shady fresh air, I can see why. But in order to let her play out there somewhat unsupervised, I had to build a gate to close it off.

I was going about my business inside, when I realized I didn't hear Amelia's singsong chatter. Probably a nap, I thought. No - they said she napped at school. I went out to check on her, but she wasn't there. I checked in all her favorite napping spots, and still no Amelia.

Then I went back out on the porch, and saw that the gate latch was popped. She'd pushed it hard enough to get it open despite the locking pin. The hinges swung it shut again, so I didn't notice right away.

How long had it been? Was she out in the barn? By the water bucket? In the shed? Near the dirt?


Every parent's worst nightmare. And for newer readers, Amelia is five years old, she's autistic or something like it, she has almost no language skills and no sense of danger.

I got in the truck and drove the length of the driveway. I looked up and down the two (50 mph) roads that border our property. I called Lori to find out how soon she'd be home (any minute) and keep an eye out for Amelia because I couldn't find her.

Lori went one way up the road and I went the other. How long had it been? How far could she have gone? Did I check everywhere inside the house? A flood of worst case scenarios were racing through my head as I tried not to crap my pants.

Then after what was probably a short while, but that seemed like an eternity... I saw her.

She had wandered across the road to a house that was under construction. It's a good quarter mile away at least. Thankfully, the workers had let her play and kept her out of danger.

And I felt like the worst parent on the face of the earth. And not like the "Bad Father" gag from my last post. I felt like throwing up.

That experience motivated us to start filling out the paperwork for something we'd heard about not too long ago: Service dogs for special needs kids. (I'll write more about this at a later date.)

While we were filling out the forms, not two hours after Amelia's Bogus Journey, she started choking on a mouthful of pretzels. Her mouth was open, but no sound was coming out. Her arms were flapping and she looked panicked. Lori did the Heimlich Maneuver, or something approximating it, several times until Amelia threw up her pretzels and started crying.

Everybody is ok, and Amelia is no worse for wear. I'm not sure about her parents.

Amelia prudently chose a different snack, and went back to her happy routines.

Meanwhile, as I implied above, I think I've had more than enough adrenalin for one day. I've probably had enough everything for one day. But sleep seems far off right now. I wasn't sure if I should write about this, or if I wanted to. I'm still not sure, and I don't know what purpose it serves except to get it out of my system. But here it is.

Not very fun emotions to revisit. I'm scared all over again, long after the fact. But it's over. Life can resume it's normal course.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go put on some clean underwear. Again.


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