Em’s food rules

Well, not really rules. More like guidelines.

Givens:

  1. Food serves biological, emotional, and cultural purposes.
  2. People have different biological, emotional, and cultural needs; therefore, there is no one “right way to eat” for everyone – even people in the same region, family, blood type, or other grouping.
  3. An individual’s food choices have an impact on others beyond the self: the beings one is eating, the environment in which those beings live and die, the ongoing health of the land and its ability to feed future beings.
  4. Generally speaking, the edibles of a place provide appropriate nutrition to survive and thrive in that place. Keep in mind the “edibles of a place” may include things you are not accustomed to thinking of as food: weeds, insects, blood, acorns, etc.
  5. Disasters happen: crops fail, vermin populations boom, warehouses burn, gardeners break arms.
  6. “Waste” is a human construct; in nature, all outputs are inputs somewhere else. Human choices can direct waste to benefit human endeavors.

Actions:

  1. Each person gets to decide her/his “right” way to eat. But please, folks, let that be a decision and not a default.
  2. The food economy needs to be both drastically more localized than it currently is, and needs to retain the ability to trade easily between regions in case of crop failure, destruction of stores, or other supply disasters.
  3. Food waste (at all stages of production) needs to be eliminated. And not just by feeding leftover coq au vin to the pigs.

New house = super energy-efficient!

Total carbon production June 2012-January 2013

Total carbon production June 2012-January 2013

I continue to be thrilled by how energy-efficient (or really, carbon-efficient) the new house is! In the summer, we only needed air conditioning in July (when it was over 100 for several days, and over 80 at night, and we hadn’t sealed off the sunroom well yet). In winter, we have only run the propane furnace in the last week or so, and that only for an hour or so a day to take the chill off before the wood stove kicks in. Otherwise, we’ve heated with local wood. This saves not only the propane, but a rather significant amount of electricity, too. (See below.)

Electricity usage June 2012-Jan 2013

Electricity usage June 2012-Jan 2013

I think I can now say that at our old house, 125kwh was used for heating water, 100kwh was used for the furnace, and 200kwh was for everything else (cooking, laundry, lighting, electronics,  etc.).  In this house, hot water is from propane, and we essentially haven’t used the furnace. So the ~210kwh/month we use is for “everything else” plus the sauna. We used the sauna two or three times on this billing cycle, and our usage didn’t really jump at all.

Propane is probably the most astonishing reduction. In the chart below, 2008 was the first year in the old house that we burned wood in the fireplace insert. We still used over 300 gallons of propane in January alone. This year, we used 25 gallons. I know wood is not a perfect fuel – even with our efficient stove, soot is an issue – but it’s local, renewable, and isn’t dependent on fracking or other damaging extraction methods. I think next year, we might even be able to source from the farm around the corner that harvests almost exclusively deadfall from storm damage instead of less eco-friendly practices like land clearing.

Propane use 2012-2013

Propane use 2012-2013

I’m not sure if we’ll be able to keep the furnace off for February and March. It was really cold at the end of January and our thermal mass is now very cold and working against us. But who knows? A week of sunny days could reverse that.

Overall, we are on track to use this year:

  • 36% of US average gasoline
  • 23% of US average electricity
  • 25% of US average heating fuel

It’s not exactly Riot levels, but I’m pretty happy with the electricity and heating fuel, especially.

 

Which is greenest? Shower, bath, or sauna?

We have a big bathtub, a standard bathtub, 1.85 gpm showers, and a sauna. When I’m feeling the need to soak my body in some serious heat over the winter, which is the most eco-friendly choice*?

Assumptions:

  • Showerhead: 1.85 gpm x 15 min = 27.75 gallons
  • Standard bathtub, waist-deep: 20 gallons water
  • Non-jetted spa-size tub (no heated recirculation), waist-deep: 30 gallons
  • It takes 83,000btu (.9 gallons propane) to heat 100 gallons of water from 55 degrees to 120 degrees
  • It takes 4.5 kwh (15,354 btus) to run one sauna session (heat for 40 mins to ~150 degrees, then residual heat only)

Results:

  • 15-minute shower: 23,240 BTU + 28 gal water
  • Standard bath: 16,600 BTU + 20 gal water
  • Spa bath: 24,900 BTU + 30 gal water
  • Sauna: 15,354 BTU  + 2 gal water + 1000 BTU to heat water to 95 degrees (quick rinse shower after)

So – if what I want is to be very warm for as long as possible, the sauna is by far the best bet. Warmer than a standard bath, and I can stay in as long as I can stand and it’ll still be warm. Add to that the fact that my husband will usually join me in the sauna (but not the bath), and it looks like an even better option.

This is pretty much the opposite of how I thought this would pan out – I’m really glad I did the math!

Resources:

* I am fully aware that doing any of these is a total luxury and “none” is the greenest answer…but if I’m going to do something, I want to know how these options compare

Staying changed

So, in my last post, I talked about how I’ve made some changes in my life, and how resuming my old routine didn’t quite “fit” anymore.

I have been waiting for this for the better part of a year. Heck, maybe two.  I’ve known that I needed to rest, to move houses, to recuperate, and at some point, I’d feel like I’d rested enough.  Well, I think I’ve turned that corner. Here are some of the signs I’m noticing:

  • I concede that there may actually be things outside of my own house that are worth my time and attention.
  • I’m wanting to see people.
  • I’m wanting to create things, try new things, learn things, build things.
  • I’m fretting about things that aren’t actually a problem and probably won’t become a problem. For example, money. We have plenty right now, and relatively good job security. We have several very large expenses coming up (residing the house this spring, a new car in a couple years) but given how far inside our means we live, we should be able to save for those things and we might not even need to take out loans for them.  And if we do need to take out loans, we should have no problem getting approved, and we’ll probably pay them off well ahead of schedule. There is nothing here to worry about, but I find myself poking at the numbers repeatedly to see if I can make them more firm or for the savings to happen faster. This tendency to make mountains out of molehills is one I see in myself a lot, and in smart, bored beings in general. SAHM’s with a now-empty nest, people of extraordinary privilege, and zoo animals all show this tendency – they’re problem-solvers with no problems to solve. So we create problems.
  • A friend recently announced a huge life shake-up. It reminded me that things that seem like they’ll always be the same can still change. It also helped me see that I’ve been focusing on smaller and smaller things lately. Instead of “I need to turn my brain off tonight, or I’m going to have a nervous breakdown,” I’m at the “I’m not feeling completely centered at the end of every single day” point. This, my friends, is pretty much the definition of “being well.” It is time for me to move forward again.

Ok, so, clearly, time to move on. But on to what?

That has been surprisingly hard to answer, and I can see that I am reflexively trying to fill that space with whatever’s at hand, or whatever filled that space before. Work. Chores. Concern for my own well-being. Fears related to any number of old bugaboos. Busy-ness. One dog I’m  not letting back on the bed right now is the desire to save/fix/help the world at large. Not sure if that one is going to come back, but it sure needs a lot more energy than I’m willing to give it at the moment. Maybe ever, because I’m more and more thinking it’s too late, anyway. Coping, not fixing are more the order of the days ahead. So – I don’t want to just refill the spaces with the same old junk. At least I can see that I’m trying to do that, and able to say, “Um, no, I don’t think so.”

But what do I want to fill that space with? The answers – and I’m sure there are more than one – are coming slowly.  One thing I did this weekend was to cook some Indian food.  After years of flirting with Ayurveda, occasionally fascinated and occasionally repulsed, I finally bought an Ayurvedic cookbook over break and I’ve been reading through it and dog-earing recipes. Since mindful, nutritious cooking is one of the things I’d like to have more of in my life, when I found myself with a Sunday mostly free for whatever I wanted to do, I decided that instead of stripping the shower tile in prep to re-seal it, I would go ahead and take the time to choose a couple recipes and make a complete meal from this cookbook.  I’ve not done much Indian cooking, and it doesn’t come easily to me.  Add to that the seeming fussiness of Ayurvedic cooking: the actual measurements of seasonings and sometimes over-involved cooking methods – and this adds up to a pot of beans and rice that took almost two hours for me to complete.

But it felt good to take that time: to give a task my attention, to learn, to have the cooking be the activity, to tie food actively to my body and soul. And it was tasty, too. 🙂

So I think I need to make myself a list of specific things I can do when I feel like I have time on my hands, to make it easier to move forward toward my list of “things I want in my life” instead of just bringing the old crap back in.  The specificity helps: instead of just saying “Yoga,” I list “Try a new yoga routine from my Christmas DVDs.” Instead of “make some lunches for the freezer” (an old chore), I list “try a new vata-soothing recipe” (which could also result in leftovers for lunch).

I still don’t know where this path is going, but I do feel like there is now a path, and I am starting to move down it.

Making changes

So I’ve known for a while that I’ve wanted to change some things about the overall shape of my life. I was fried too much of the time. I was accomplishing a lot but never felt at ease or rested. I had pulled back some from 2011’s two speeds of “dead run” and “asleep,” but I still wasn’t feeling like I could ever get out from under a “must-do list” longer than my lifespan.

The first helpful thing I did was to phrase this in terms of things I wanted – not just things I was running away from. I don’t think I ever wrote this down (though maybe it’s in a journal or on a scrap of paper somewhere), but it was along the lines of:

  • Reclaim my time from the obligations of my job, and the obligations I’ve imposed upon myself
  • Feel tranquility around me and within myself
  • Re-find and occupy my center, so I can move deliberately when I choose to do so

These things were, by and large, things I wanted to feel, not things I wanted to do.  Though I did want to feel like doing certain things, too:

  • Feel like cooking is a pleasure and a conscious act of nourishment, not just “preventing hunger”
  • Feel like I can do things because I want to do them – “leisure activities” instead of “work” (including work at home)
  • Feel like engaging with other people, not just hiding from them because interacting takes so much energy
  • Feel like exercising – not forcing myself, but actually wanting to do it

And there were some things I wanted: this house, fittings for the house, and now gardens and fruit trees. (Can you believe I went an entire year when the idea of putting plants in the ground didn’t excite me? Or even felt like “just another duty”? Yeah, I was that wiped out.) Even just admitting that I wanted things and that it’s ok for me to want things was kind of a leap.

So…I feel like I’ve done a lot of this stuff. I’m “over the hump” at work, and each subsequent hump will be smaller than the ones before. We bought and settled into the house, and over break I was able to draw a line around “enough” in terms of what the house needs to be functional and “done” for now. And then we also finished those things – the smoke detectors, the superfluous but very pretty heat register covers, etc.

Now I’m past the vacation, and going back to work. And the interesting thing is how I am watching myself heading right back to my accustomed way of doing things. Those customs don’t actually fit anymore.  I no longer have to spend disproportionate amounts of my energy at work – but I have to remember how to move more slowly, and with less dire urgency.  As that energy has returned, just coming home, making dinner, and reading all evening doesn’t feel like enough to be doing each night. Before, it was fine, because each evening, I was also trying to replenish my depleted stores of rest and energy. But now, I can tell I’ve got some energy left, and some inclination to use it for…something.  That’s a big change.

And that’s the topic for another post.

What’s not working…yet

So, this passive solar home had a lot of features that were good in theory but need some changes in practice. The rock pile is the main one.

Theory: The rock pile is supposed to gather solar heat during the day and vent it into the living room (via floor vents) at night. There are also huge cold air returns to keep the air circulating. There are vents or louvers from the collector to the rock pile, and louvers on the hot ducts (but not the cold air ducts), again, to direct the flow of air.

Reality: There are several issues.

  1. All ducts blow air all the time. This is especially bad on windy days. Even the cold air “returns” have air blowing out of them into the living room. This is not so bad in the summer – sort of a natural fan, if a bit humid – but in the winter, it’s awful. Video of vent blowing air
  2. The rock pile doesn’t ever get warmer than about 65-70 degrees in the cold weather. It was about 80-85 in the summer – but you don’t want it hot then, of course. This may be because the louvers from the collector to the rocks are stuck in the “closed” position – we can’t tell until we open up the collector, and that’s not happening this year. So, we’re stuck with a 65 degree breeze, which doesn’t feel warm at all – it just feels drafty.
  3. The louvers on the hot air ducts don’t fill the entire duct space. So, if the duct coming off the rock pile is 48″ wide, the louver mechanism might only be 40″ wide, leaving a huge gap with no way to control the flow of air.
  4. There’s a large (1″) gap between the concrete slab and the wood floors. Meaning the cold air can circulate under the floor at will.
  5. Snakes really like the rock pile. And also our living room.

The workaround: For the moment, we are wedging rigid foam insulation into all the ducts to seal off the rock pile from the rest of the house, and we’ll probably spray some foam in the gaps between the ducts and the floor. Next summer, we will probably take the solar collectors apart (they need to be re-glazed desperately) and we’ll see what we can see while we’re down there. We might be able to get it functioning better, but I suspect this is one of those “better in theory than reality” items.

Fortunately, the solarium (“sunroom,” “greenhouse”) works incredibly well, building up heat during the day and releasing it to the house. For first-floor heating, we just open the French doors wide. The vents to the upstairs need some work (we need to be able to seal them tightly and open them easily), but if it’s sunny and at least 40, we don’t need any additional heat in the house during the day. If it hits 50 and is sunny during the day, we can actually go several days and nights without supplemental heat, even if it’s in the mid-20s overnight.

Sunroom in November

So it seems to be pretty consistent that if it’s 35-40 outside and sunny, it will get up to about 70 in the sunroom. We can open the doors to the living room and the temps will be about equal. Before we insulated, the temperatures upstairs lagged behind, a lot, but now the upstairs is generally warmer than downstairs. I still want better control of the vents from the sunroom to the upstairs – something that can be sealed shut and weatherstripped, but easy to open on both ends when we want the warm air to come through.

Indoor garden - NovThe thermal mass holds for about a day of no sun. For example, Tuesday was sunny, and everything got warm. Wednesday was cloudy, and the temperature was borderline; we could maybe have gone without any extra heating, but decided to light a slow fire. That never got super-hot, and the living room didn’t get above 68. Upstairs was about 63 this morning. Now (at noon), downstairs is 68 and up is still 63. Experience suggests the sunroom will stay warm until 7 or 8pm; then it’ll start being cooler than the living room. I’m guessing that will change as the season progresses. Though nights have been at or below 30 the last week or so, daytime highs are still around 40. I bet once winter really sets in, we’ll lose most of the remaining heat in the rock pile, and one day of sun won’t be enough to offset all the cold in the thermal mass.

Still, it’s December 5th, and we haven’t turned the furnace on at all this year. We’ve probably burned 1/2 face cord of wood so far, and I don’t feel cold all the time like I did in the last house.

The plants in the sunroom are barely growing, but we can harvest some kale and even the occasional cherry tomato still.

Carbon production at the new house

Does not include work travel.

Does not include work travel.

The first six months at the new house have been interesting in terms of energy use. Overall, we’re holding steady at about 1450lb/mo – on track for 4 tonne/person this year. Though winter’s coming up, and that’s likely to skew the trend upward due to winter heating.

Electrical usage went down almost exactly what I thought it would – we switched from an electric water heater to propane – and we’re now averaging around 225kwh/month (with a huge spike in June/July when it was 100+ for days on end and we didn’t have adequate ways to prevent solar gain in the sunroom and warm air from rising to the upstairs).  We’ve had a rotten time getting DTE to read the meter correctly – they’ve read it wrong 3 of the 6 months so far, which makes me wonder how off the June/July reading is. So the figures below are mostly my own readings of the meter.

It’s also December, and we’ve not had to turn on the propane furnace yet. We’ve used about 1/3 face cord of firewood, and the sunroom does a fantastic job heating the house when it’s sunny. This not only saves propane; it saves the electricity for running the blower. This shows up very clearly on the graph of our electrical use in the last five years:

Our drive to work is about 6 miles longer each way now, but for whatever reason (terrain?), the car is getting about 5mpg better gas mileage on this commute. There’s no denying that we’re driving further, though – average of 1250/month instead of 800-900/month.

Still, overall, from June 1-Nov 30, our carbon this year is below the average of the last 5 years.

If we’d been able to avoid that huge electricity spike in June/July, we probably would have broken our all-time low carbon for this time of the year by 1000lb. And I’m confident we will be able to avoid using A/C almost entirely once we get the ventilation in the sunroom situated and are able to seal the vents to the upstairs better. I am also sure we will drastically reduce our winter carbon over previous years due to wood heat instead of propane. I’m sure at some point this winter, we’ll need to turn the furnace on, but I think we’ll be able to keep usage way lower than the last house…and maybe even keep the house a little warmer, too. It was getting to be a wrench to feel chilly all the time.

So, despite moving a little further away from work, it’s looking like this move will be carbon-neutral or possibly even carbon-negative. It sure is nice to have the place stay cool most of the summer with no air conditioning – our cool burrow in the shady hillside is great for that!

Why am I doing this?

If you’ve ever wondered why I do the things I do – keep a carbon budget, build a root cellar, eat locally – or if you’ve ever worried that I’ve gone off the deep end, because really, honey, it’s ok and there’s really nothing to worry about, please read Sharon Astyk’s recent post: Since You Have to Change Anyway, You Might as Well Have Fun .

I hope y’all will join me in this effort, since there isn’t enough room for y’all to join me in my house.

Grateful for water

If you’re in the mood for gratitude today, go appreciate a nice drink of clean water.

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