Monthly Archives: October 2010

Where the personal and professional meet

This is it – the post you have all been waiting for…the post where I talk about my job and my life of energy efficiency. Um, hello? Are you asleep already? This is thrilling stuff! Well, ok, it’s important stuff.

Why is energy efficiency important? The real reason, and you are on my side so you get this, is that the ecosystems and human economic systems as we know them are in for some pretty uncertain times if we don’t shake our dependency on fossil fuels, and efficiency measures are the quickest way to start doing this. But, what we have to tell people is that they will save serious money (or better yet ‘stop wasting serious money’), be healthier and more comfortable in their homes, and, heck, everyone else is doing it.

But even with correct framing and education about the benefits and options, etc, etc, there are still some significant barriers. I ran into many of them head on as I worked on my home projects these last two years: where do you find the time to research what is the most effective thing to do and the right way to do it and where to get all the materials, contractors, etc? How do you find the up front money to do it? How do you find the time to do the things you can’t afford or don’t want to hire out? How do you trust that the technology will work and give you the promised savings? What do you do when it doesn’t? What do you do when the person who sees the savings or other benefits is not the same person who would choose to conserve or install energy efficient technology? How do you stay sane living in a construction zone for over a year, routinely breathing in fine blueboard or fiberglass particles?

I’m here to tell you that it is all worth it, but that I have my job cut out for me. My job as an energy efficiency coordinator focuses right now on getting the word out on a new Alaskan program to incentivize energy efficiency upgrades for public buildings. The state, university, school districts, and municipalities can borrow money from a revolving loan fund without voter approval and pay back the loan from guaranteed utility savings. It is truly exciting the potential this has in this state – an upgrade of public buildings in Nightmute including lighting and ‘weatherization’ (mostly sealing air leaks and adding insulation to attics with a few new furnaces and more extensive insulation) saved about 60% of the electricity used for lighting and 56% of the fuel used for heating in these buildings. Payback periods were about 2 years for lighting and 7.5 for weatherizing. So I hope every public building in the state gets retrofitted (the loan program is administered by the same folks at Alaska Housing Finance Corporation who run the Home Energy Rebate and weatherization programs I am so fond of). Then we just have to figure out how to reach the commercial sector, the part of the residential sector not yet being served (or serving themselves) and – that elephant in the room – the industrial sector (it’s really, really scary how much of our emissions up here come from the north slope oil and gas industry and the cargo planes stopping over)…

Final(?) Energy Audit

I had my follow-up energy audit for the Home Energy Rebate Program yesterday!! There are still some loose ends on the project – the south pop-out of the building needs some siding still, all the siding needs to be carefully caulked and repainted (touch up at least) phone and cable wires need to be rerouted and stapled down over the siding, there is a bit more stuccoing of the foundation insulation to do (a second coat in some places and corner touch ups and the north side), and cedar trim needs to be protected with stain or linseed oil or something! Also, windows and doors need to be trimmed out and the north wall inside my apartment where windows were taken out needs to be vapor barriered and sheetrocked.

Lowes trip for window trim

But – all the energy improvement parts of things were done – 4 new heat-mirror (two glass panes with a heat-mirror film in between, to create two air cavities) fiberglass-frame windows in place, windows all caulked and foamed, 4 inches of blueboard over the entire outside of the house including to 4′ below ground and 4′ out at the base, R-13 fiberglass insulation added to the attic (on top of a foot that was already there), and put in the north wall cavities where windows were removed.

So I now have approximately R-30 walls and R-50 ceiling. That along with the results of the blower door test (I don’t have that number in front of me) puts us at an energy star rating for the ecoplex of 5 star!! The dilemma is that I still have about 3 weeks until all of my paperwork is due, and apparently if I could find and seal the equivalent of about 35 square inches of gaps I’d have a 5 star plus building – which is mighty tempting for the bragging rights! But I’ve sealed a lot of the easy to find places, and I would have to find a time to fit work around my and my tenants schedules, so I probably will hold off and do that work later on my own time (and it may be very difficult to find enough gaps to seal).

So, what about money? I have spent roughly $30,000 on the project. At this point I qualify for $8,500 back from the state rebate program (I would qualify for the maximum $10,000 if I could get it to 5 star plus). It remains to be seen what my real natural gas savings will be, I will report after this heating season. For a 15 year payback on the net $21,500 they’d have to be $1,433 a year, which is going to be kinda tough – I don’t think it’ll be there this year. Over the lifetime of the improvements (40 years? How long does well protected blueboard last?) it’ll pencil out for sure, and given that natural gas prices will undoubtedly go up over time, and probably by a lot, maybe I will get payback in a reasonable timeframe. Obviously, with the average homeowner or commercial building owner looking for more of a 3.5 year payback, envelope improvements of this magnitude are tough! And that’s just monetarily – there are also significant disruptions to business/life/sanity for all involved as well as the time spent researching options and figuring out implementation of measures (even with a good energy audit). So it is no wonder that more people don’t go to this level. But this is the level we need to go to if we are going to approach sustainability, reduce our carbon emissions to saner levels, and live within our energy means. SO that means even more incentive and barrier reduction. Two things that could seriously help get us in the right direction would be enforced codes that require buildings to be highly energy efficient, both at the time they are built and then also if they change hands or get remodeled, and a financing mechanism that ties repayment of improvements to the building and not the owner (either through utility payments or tax payments) so that the cost and benefit of the improvement gets passed along.

So all this theoretical mumbo-jumbo and starriness aside – what has this done for us? I can tell you that the house is feeling very comfortable. It is getting to 25F at night and a bit above 30F during the day, and I have not yet turned on the heat. My apartment is staying at 64 to 66F at all times, and feels very comfortable – no chilly walls and windows sucking the heat radiatively away from me. It feels more like 68 to 70 F in a less well insulated home. The upstairs tenants get almost too-good solar gain, and all the heat from below and from the boiler chimney, so they actually have had heat off and windows open during the day. The downstairs tenant just moved in. I had the heat off while the unit was empty for a couple of days, and when they moved in it was 61F in there, but felt comfortable to them. I’m sure they have turned the heat on since, and I am probably getting the benefit of that coming up through the building. Also, the new windows are accumulating almost no condensation, where the old double pane windows have a fair amount of moisture condensing on them. What is the value of this added comfort and healthiness (less condensation = less mold)? Priceless!

Using dirty oil money to get clean

Well, it’s dividend dispersal day in Alaska (at least if you do direct deposit). It’s also my dad’s birthday! Happy birthday dad! I know a few people who do not sign up for the dividend on principle, since it is oil money, and a fairly good bribe to the populous to be happy with business as usual – drill, pump and burn. I have always looked at it a bit like Norway does though, as an opportunity to use the proceeds of what is happening anyway (not that we can’t work against that directly as well…) to lessen personal/collective oil/fossil fuel dependence. I know I don’t need to give you the whys here, but suffice it to say that I prefer clean air, a lack of catastrophic climate change, lower utility bills, a home that remains comfortable even if enstar has supply issues this winter, etc… Call me crazy. Ok, did that make you feel better? 🙂

So, how could you use your ill-begotten oil money for the powers of good? I’m sure a quick websearch or a quick thought experiment would reveal many ways in which a thousand dollars could make your life less oily and gassy (and coaly). is one good resource – it is the new clearing house website for all things alaska and energy and efficiency – tips, resources, etc, etc. Some of my thoughts are below, and keep in mind that many energy efficiency measures will actually give you a much higher return on the investment than if you stuck the money in a CD or the stock market. I thought about giving some sample ROIs in real numbers for the dividend amount, but it is pretty dependent on your personal details, so I’ll let you do the hard math. I’ll organize my personal possibilities into two main categories, transport and home:

Transportation is the main way I would use oil – since my heat and electricity is mainly gas and some hydro. In rural alaska, though, diesel is the main source of electricity and fuel oil provides heat. I digress. Well, I am still the car-less wonder (there are a few of us hardy souls in Anchorage – I am certainly not the only one), but I may be contributing soon to the death of the species, as I will need wheels for work occasionally. I could use the money to help start a carshare, or take taxis to my destinations the few times I really need to get somewhere far and fast (so that I can avoid the expense and temptation of a ready-to-go, insurance-paid vehicle). Although most transportation options for my situation involve an upping of my fossil fuel usage, this is somewhat unique. For those in a different starting position, investing in a more fuel efficient car or a winter-ready bike may make sense to lower your oil dependence. Or a year bus pass.

Home heating:
I am separating out heating and electricity here as the two broad categories of home fuel use. In the heating side of things I have already slapped 4″ of blueboard over the outside of my whole house to up the R-value to about 3x what it was (effective R-value of old 2×4 walls: approximately R-10, new value: approximately R-30). I should get a chunk of the costs back from the Alaska home energy rebate program, probably about 1/3. I will post a more detailed economic calculation of this later, it’s not perfect but the payback is within the lifetime of the improvement even without higher natural gas prices in the future – and I think we can all guess which way those prices will go with time. I also need to throw the additional batts of fiberglass I bought for the attic up there, on top of the existing 1′ of attic insulation. I replaced a couple of leaky old single pane windows with seriously good windows too, and upgraded the water heater to an indirect one working off my fairly efficient boiler.

Look how thick my walls are now!!

What else do I want to do? I want to some day replace a few more older windows and install masonry wood stoves in the bottom two floors for heating. But what I have already done is pretty major, and I am hoping to see the bulk of my decrease in fuel use from what has already been accomplished. Graphs will follow this winter!

What else could I do? My boiler is only 82% efficient, so that could be upgraded, although the boiler is only about 4 years old, so not worth it from a lifecycle/embodied energy analysis. The doors could be replaced with more efficient ones. I could add thermal curtains or shutters. Someday I’ll probably get serious about solar hot water. I could go build a passivhaus, and maybe someday I will!

Home electricity:

I have already replaced most of the lighting, but I still have some older fluorescent tube fixtures in the drop ceilings. When I drywall those ceilings I would like to add normal fixtures and fill them with LCD or CFL bulbs. Some lighting, such as in the hallway, could get occupancy sensors. I would like to add some daylighting improvements to reduce the need for other lighting – a solar tube in the upstairs hall and in my bathroom and downstairs living room would be nice. More south windows in the lower 2 floors with opened walls to get the light into the living rooms would be nice. Lighter colored floor covering in my living room would help.

Two of the four fridges in the building are old and need to be swapped out for energy star ones. Ditto the coin-op washer and dryer, and the two dishwashers in the building. Separating the electricity from one meter into one for each unit would be a good way to encourage tenant efficiency/conservations (although having only one meter right now removes my split-incentive barrier – meaning since I pay for all the electricity, it encourages me to upgrade fridges and things that short-time tenants would never touch), as would visible ‘smart meters’ inside the units.

Some folks off the grid might reasonably invest in a solar panel or two to allow a bit of lights or computer time without firing up a generator. If none of this works for you, you could always donate the whole chunk to a worthy cause or non-profit! Other things, like improving your garden space or planting fruit trees or joining a local CSA could decrease the oil that goes into shipping your food.

What am I really going to use my dividend for? Probably most directly and quickly on replacing the two energy-hog fridges, but all those things on my list will be done someday soon! What are you using yours on?