Monthly Archives: January 2009

Riot for Austerity

Those of you who know me, know that I tend on the ‘personal reduction of consumption and emissions’ side of the environmentalist spectrum. More than counting on changes mandated from above, and more than glitzy (or even appropriate) technological innovations, and even more than encouraging others to act a certain way, I most like to challenge myself to make do with less. Despite the satisfaction I get from this (from knowledge of how it can benefit those with less than I have and the environment, from personal perversity in enjoying self denial, etc), it is hard for me. I have a family that is partly on board, but also wants certain things in their lives and resists radical steps like shutting off the hot water (oh wait, I’m the one addicted to hot baths…sorry for the attempt at transference). My extended 4-plex family also provides some limitations. I can not legally turn off the heat in the winter for the building, and no one but me in the building would even want to try that one on for size. I also live in Alaska, where local food and sustainable warmth can be a bit more of a challenge. Then there is the issue we all have with diets and budgets – best intentions are subject to guilty binges when we are feeling low or deprived. In any case, I do strongly believe that solutions or adaptation to many of our woes (energy, environmental, economic, etc) will require a radically different lifestyle, or at least way of using resources. Mostly meaning using radically less of them.

I know not everyone agrees, but I am ready to play the game and take the challenge. I recently found reference to the Riot for Austerity movement. The link in the last sentence takes you to the rules. My first step will be an accounting of present personal usage, and then an identification of where to go from there. I will try to take as much of the 4-plex along with me as I can, at least as far as I can without breaking bonds of good will. At this point, this is my personal journey of experimentation, of how reducing emissions 90% below national averages might, or might not, work in the place and situation I am already in. I like goals. I will be honest with failures and try not to obsess but learn from them.


Check out my new page!

I have added a new page of green resources in Anchorage (I have wanted to help put together a green guide to Anchorage for a long time and this is my attempt at a brainstorming start!)  The link is the tab at the top of this page.

I am trying to spew out resources as I think of them, and I am missing many obvious ones.  I will go back and link web pages or addresses as I can.

Please help by reminding me of what I have missed or correcting my lists.  Please don’t be shy to self promote if you have a green Anchorage business!

My birthday wish

It’s a little early for this – it is only my son’s birthday today (though I did have a part in that 🙂 ) – but I have been thinking about spring a lot. Any casual readers of this site may totally ignore this, but for my close family and others who might feel the desire to get me something for my birthday or otherwise help me realize my visions, I have a plan.

My birthday in May coincides nicely with planting season in Alaska and thus with the return of some warmth. I will hold a party at this time to celebrate all those things and the eco-plex, and all of my friends are invited – email me later for info if you don’t hear more closer to the date. I am happy to receive love and good thoughts, but for anyone who wants to help with a tangible contribution or gift, I am in need of edible vegetation. Currently my lot contains 1 lilac and two spruce and a bunch of grass (covered with snow). I would love to have perennial berry and fruit trees suited to the climate…raspberry, currant, rosehip, apple, mountain ash, strawberry, pie-cherry, etc. I would like to try hardy hazelnuts too, though that is not currently something people grow here (a little warming is inevitable no matter what we do, so there may come a day…). There is a nursery in Potsdam, New York that grows cold-hardy perennials that I will probably order some things from soon – one option is just to pledge to sponsor a tree (about $6 a piece for most) from my order. Most of my trees I would like to find locally – which is the best insurance that they will make it here. I don’t know much about good local nurseries – suggestions? I don’t know if local nurseries do gift certificates or how this would work for my family, who doesn’t live in the state, but I can research it. I have had great success with apple trees from Arctic Organics, which is the farm in Palmer that grows my CSA produce – I would prefer apples from them. Thanks in advance! I’m assuming no one who doesn’t already have my address will be sending me a gift certificate/ plant, but in case there is some wonderful person out there that I don’t know somehow interested in promoting eco-living in Alaska, heck, let me know and we’ll work out the details.

OK, I’ll go back to my dreams of green in the white, white winter!

Plumbing victory!

I am feeling really good about myself. We succeeded in fixing 4 faucet issues this weekend! Gil helped immensely with all of them, I highly recommend a second brain with you on any project to catch the obvious things you missed.

Faucet 1: Unit 3 kitchen sink had no cold water after the water heater install. I checked all the shut-offs in the boiler room and didn’t find it, but Gil double checked and found the one that was shut off – a pretty easy fix. The valve was leaking when we opened it, so I had to tighten that too.

Faucet 2: Unit 1 kitchen sink had a slow drip of hot water. Replaced the faucet. Extra trips to home improvement mega-store: 1 – for shut off valves as the old ones were cr@!. 2 – for hole cutter bit for drill to drill a center hole through stainless steel sink (discovered missing after the old faucet was removed – couldn’t find a replacement faucet to fit the old 2-hole configuration).

Faucet 3: Unit 3 bath had a steady stream of hot water leaking – yikes! I should see a lower gas bill now! Took apart the faucet valve with all the tools I had bought to unsuccessfully work on my bath faucet and replaced the washer-thing and re-tooled the seat. Success! No leak!

Faucet 4: My bath faucet (see previous posts for my very long history of messing with this!): Installed shut-off valves in the supply lines, soldered in the shower and tub to the new valve body (worried that I had fried the plastic bits of the valves as the body got way hotter than I thought it would!) Attached supply lines and put everything back together – OH MY I have a beautiful, working faucet now!! I now know that plumbers do not get paid the mega-bucks for basic plumbing – that is pretty easy. Plumbers get paid the mega-bucks for working in very tight spaces – which sucks!

Of course, I’ve obfuscated my savings from the new hot water heater, because they will be all mixed up with my savings from all the non-leaking/wasted hot water now!

Attack of the Mega-bills!

gas_vs_hddAs expected, this round of energy bills was very high. Our record cold snap at the end of December/ beginning of January was the main cause. Heating degree days for the period covered by the gas and electric bills were the highest they’ve been in the 4 year period I have data on. Also, both utilities just raised their rates by about 20% (as they should – fossil fuel energy should NOT be cheap!). My gas bill was $402, my electric was $369. Gas usage was actually below average given the coldness of the period. I know because I made the chart above plotting the gas usage vs. the heating degree days. The trend is fairly linear, as you might expect; with a fair amount of scatter as one might expect (from such things as varying tenant numbers and habits, etc etc). So for any given month I can compare the actual therms used and heating degree days (HDD) with the theoretical from my linear fit.

The electric bill increase (74 kWH/day vs. 57 kWH/day for last month – both of which are outrageous) can be explained by vehicle block heaters being plugged in more often, an electric heater my basement tenants are using in their bathroom (that doesn’t have baseboard), a touch more light usage around the solstice, fans and dehumidifiers used to dry the carpets after the pipe broke, etc, etc.

Solutions? I have already helped the gas with the new hot water heater; insulation and weather-sealing would do more. This may also take away the perceived need for the electric heater. I have provided an engine block heater timer and left instructions as to its use, but no one is biting so far. There are refrigerators and dish and clothes washing machines I can replace. I can work more on education. I can separately meter the units for electricity. I am thinking that screening for green tenants may be my best insurance against high utility bills, but I do like the idea of helping normal people be more energy efficient. Any suggestions? My Kill-a-watt meter should be in the mail, but I have a pretty good grasp on what the energy use of various appliances under my control is already – it’ll help with some replacement decisions though.

New water heater!

Circle Plumbing installed my new, efficient, 80 gallon indirect hot water heater yesterday. It uses hot water from my 81% efficient boiler to indirectly heat the domestic hot water. This water heater replaces 2, very old, 50 gallon gas fired water heater with pretty low efficiency. These tanks needed to be replaced due to age alone, but the efficiency gain is the big bonus! I also had an outdoor temperature reset control added to the boiler that allows the boiler to create lower temperature water for space heating when it is warmer outside. They also put a automatic air purging valve on the boiler. So my system should work great and be much more efficient. It all set me back a bit less than $4000 – which seems like nothing after all my plumbing emergencies 🙂 Although I am in a very privileged financial state to be able to say that…I do realize. I will calculate a return on my investment and a payback period when I’ve got some new bills to compare to.

The post-fossil-fuel-economy is a morality issue

I have been long familiar with the framing of the need for a massive renewables plan as a new Apollo project, but something always sat wrong with me on that. I finally put my finger on it – the need to move away from fossil fuels is a morality issue, not a glitzy, cold-war race, public invigoration issue. In the need to preserve the present viability of our planet for the children of those creatures currently alive, and to prevent resource wars, it is more akin to the need to abolish slavery because slavery is wrong. Even though economic results may initially be painful. Like the abolition of slavery, a big push away from fossil fuels will meet plenty of hiccups and political maneuvering and resistance. It will require many to totally change their lives. It can not happen gradually enough to not be painful in the short term, or things will likely be very painful in the long term. I found some words on the internet to echo my sentiments – the following is extracted by a published talk by Pat Murphy as given at the 2005 Community Solutions Conference (I am not familiar with the speaker or the conference):

Some people are calling for a new Manhattan project or a new Apollo project to solve fossil fuel depletion. But the Manhattan project brought us the possibility of instant planet annihilation and the Apollo project has shown us the limits of expansion. Star Trek is only a child’s story. We and our children will live here – on this planet – in this place … forever. If we destroy it, then we will disappear. If we foolishly waste the resources we will suffer. There is no escape at warp speed to Alpha Centura. There are no dilithium crystals.

There are much better analogies of major change in the past that are not based on technology and science. We need the equivalent effort of the abolition of slavery. We need the equivalent force of the work for getting the vote for women. We need the equivalent of the banning of child labor. We need an effort something like the Civil Rights Movement. We need a Copernican Revolution – a change in mindset from the fantasy model of infinite fossil fuel driven growth and pollution to one of understanding our physical limitations. We don’t need another war on something – poverty, government spending or terrorism. We need no wars or even analogies of wars. What we need are metaphors of creation. We need a new society. And it has to be based on low-energy ways of living.

My fellow scientists may be a bit rebuffed at the dismissal of scientific solutions, and I am not sure that rebuff is totally warranted, but I do believe that turning the light switch off manually (every time), is better than the gizmo that does it for you and fails in 10 years, is better than building a wind turbine to power the light. A new mindset and way of living first, and then some appropriate technological solutions. Most of us reading this can make a lot of “sacrifices” in our current lifestyles before we truly deserve the world’s pity.