State of the Homestead: Energy

Part of the State of the Homestead series

Energy. We just about hit our carbon goal of 10.45 tonnes last year (actual: 10.53t).

  • Heating was our biggest success, I think. We used about 400 gallons of propane last winter, compared to nearly 700 gallons the year before and 850 gallons in 2008.We used the fireplace as our primary heat for the living room, whenever we were going to be home for more than 3 hours. The thermostat on the furnace was set at 55 most of the time, and we found that it’s a pretty comfortable temp for us to sleep in. Spring and fall, when it was 60 overnight, I was kicking off covers, tossing and turning, and sweating half to death. When we did use the furnace to make the whole house warm, we found that 62 or 63 was pretty comfortable. I attribute that to insulating the walls last summer, getting the window plastic up early, and acclimating to a cooler house.
  • We can get our electricity usage under 300kwh/month in the summer. This requires that we turn off the radon fan, which uses almost 100kwh/month. I figure, all the windows are open in the summer, so the radon isn’t accumulating. We do turn it back on any time the windows will be closed for more than a couple days. The other big energy user is the furnace and a/c fan. Last year, the weather was such that we didn’t turn on the a/c at all. Hopefully, we can do that again this year. This is still well above the recommended 3kwh/day, but with the stove, dryer, and water heater all electric, I’m not sure how to cut more.
  • Gasoline. This is a hard one to cut down on. We drove quite a bit less this year, not necessarily by choosing to not do things that required driving, but because those activities didn’t present themselves. (For example, Scott no longer needs to drive to Missouri three times a year for his retreat series.) Driving any less than we do now would mean cutting trips to see family.
  • Air travel. Still flying a lot; it’s hard not to, what with the family spread all over the country. Trains are not at all practical for the places we need to go, and when I do the math, they don’t actually save all that much, anyway. I don’t know that there is a good answer for this one. This coming year has a wedding, a new baby, local friends moving across country, and our 10th wedding anniversary, too. *sigh*
  • Alternative energy: We are to a point where we can get through multi-hour power failures with little fuss. We have several options for light, heat, and cooking facilities. We can heat water on the fireplace and keep it warm overnight to have enough warm water for a quick wash, if we want. We’d still like a way to charge phones and possibly run a fan, so we’re exploring options for solar battery charging. I think we lost power for over an hour four or five times last year; it’s nice to feel like we can continue an evening as usual without worrying about water, light, etc.

We’re at the point where I don’t know what we can cut any more. The low-hanging fruit is gone. Cutting more energy moves us into the “drastic lifestyle adjustment” area, which is tough. We live 11 miles from work, and though we’ve talked about moving closer to town, the fact is, we really like this house and this land. We also don’t feel like going through the process of selling a house, packing, and moving. We already drive to work together, combine trips, and all that. I don’t know how much more we can cut down on our driving without becoming hermits. Geothermal is an iffy proposition in Michigan, from what I can tell, and very, very expensive. Air travel I mentioned. Our food is already pretty darn local. Solar hot water? Maybe. If you have any suggestions, please let me know!

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9 Comments

  1. June 16, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Pretty impressive! Only a few ideas come to mind. Have you done any energy retrofitting on your home? You could shave heating energy there if you haven’t already done that. The only other thing I’ve been mulling myself is an electric-assist bicycle. I don’t think I’m quite ready to go there yet due to the fairly high expense. Also, I’m not in an urban area, nor even a conventional suburb, so the distances we’d need to cover are significant, and the terrain is quite hilly. Maybe someone else will have more ideas for you, but you’ve done well, I think.

  2. EdgeWiseInAnnArbor said,

    June 17, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Geothermal is iffy in michigan? Why? I’m really interested in what you’ve read. I was considering adding a ground source closed loop geothermal heat pump and I live in Ann Arbor with high clay soil. I thought it would be a good way to cut costs and energy use.

    I also have a radon mitigation fan and am vexed at it’s energy use. I’ve been wondering if I could use a windmill to mechanically mitigate the radon somehow. It seems so silly in the winter on windy days to not be using that to blow out the radon.

    • Emily said,

      June 23, 2010 at 11:16 am

      I’m still hazy on this subject myself. I found a couple of articles that suggest geothermal might not be a great choice in very cold climates because of their electric back-up heaters. Geothermal can only change the temperature very slowly. So if there’s a quick drop in temperature, it could take hours to counter that. So geothermal (ground-source heat pump) systems include a radiant electric backup (or sometimes gas) to quickly dump heat into the system, so it feels like something’s happening when you kick up the heat a few degrees.

      Of course, electric heat is far and away the least efficient heating method, so you end up with this odd “best and worst world” scenario. If you really can just use the heat pump, you’re golden – but I’ve read lots of anecdotal evidence from people who have use staggering amounts of electricity in supplemental heat.

      One report http://intraweb.stockton.edu/eyos/energy_studies/content/docs/proceedings/NEISS.PDF suggests geothermal is the least polluting way to go – but the data is averaged over 6 cities. Some of those cities need more A/C than heat, and some need more heat than A/C. I asked, but he couldn’t give me the data just for Boston (the city most comparable to our climate).

      Here’s another thumbs-up: http://peakoilhausfrau.blogspot.com/2008/08/my-geothermal-experience.html from Oklahoma City; but their temps were 30-40 most of the winter.

      For some cons, see comments on http://blog.mapawatt.com/2009/09/22/residential-geothermal-heat-pump-where-does-it-work/ Note that the disappointed customers are all from areas with climates like ours, and comment that when it hits 30, you really need supplemental heat. Even the folks who like it…well, see the one commenter who uses 5000-6000kwh/mo in January! OK, sure, that house is a ridiculous 4000+sf, but our electric usage is more like 400kwh/mo.

      So to me, it seems like a huge investment for something that’s not a sure thing for energy savings.

  3. Melissa said,

    June 23, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Solar Water heat doesn’t pay back. Estimated payback for us was 30 years with expected life of panels being 10-15 years. Our annual potential savings was $100.

    We have solar panels and like you are under the 300 KwH per Month. Our 3 KW array of 12 panels cost 6K after rebates and tax credit. Estimated payback of 6-8 years. Panels are warrantied for 20 years. We used a Zero interest credit card to float the 20K install prior to receiving the rebate check and tax credit.

    • Emily said,

      June 23, 2010 at 11:17 am

      Wow. 10-15 year life span? That’s nothing…

      Hm.

  4. Ruth said,

    June 23, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    The first post says that they use of carbon was down in part due to using a fireplace instead of the propane heater.

    I wonder, was this a wood burner or pellet stove? Or a gas fireplace? If wood or pellet — do you have any way of measuring the emissions/pollutants from the fireplace in order to add that into your total footprint?

    Wood is a big polluter and in our state buring any wood or biomass is highly regulated for that reason. Gas is more efficient, in general, and if you can zone your use of gas, limiting it to just the rooms you are in (as in, if your fireplace is gas), then that is a plus.

    But if you replace the use of your gas furnace with your wood fireplace, it is not likely you are polluting less.

    • Emily said,

      June 23, 2010 at 7:07 pm

      Hi, Ruth. Thanks for your concern –

      Yes, I’m very aware of the other pollutants caused by burning wood. We use an EPA-certified fireplace insert, which reburns soot and cuts down drastically on emissions, compared to an open fireplace. We burn ash, which was killed by emerald ash borers…not that that cuts down on pollutants. Our main pollutant of concern is carbon emissions, and we’re also concerned about locally-sustainable heat. Wood is really the only option for local fuel, though there may be other ways to use wood for fuel that are less polluting overall (gasification, for example).

      My understanding is that gas fireplaces are horrifically inefficient as heating devices, though zone heating with a gas furnace has a great blend of fuel efficiency and “only heat the space you’re in.”

      This is one we’re still struggling with. I’m all ears if someone has a solution that’s less polluting and also locally-fueled!

      • Will said,

        July 12, 2010 at 4:32 pm

        Something that we’re considering is a solar air heater (sometimes called a solar furnace). The commercial ones (like this heater) are pretty expensive, but you can create one yourself for much less.

        You couldn’t heat your whole house with it, and it does require an area with as much full sunlight as possible, but I’ve read that you can keep a room warm (60F or higher) even when it’s zero or less outside. With a closed-loop version, you could probably do better, but I’m a little scared to cut a hole in the house to experiment.

        Even though it’s coming from millions of miles away, I think you can count the sunlight as a local source of heat. 🙂 Even better, there’s absolutely no pollution!

  5. January 5, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    vary good job on the savings on the propaine! even tho you can open the windows up to get most of the radon gas out i wouldnt recomend doing that if you hang out in your basement alot, as we all know the windows in the basement are small, and for 100kwh / month of power its just not the risk in my opion. I guess you could keep your tester on and if the alarm sounds you could always kick the system back on.

    radon testing michigan


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