Monthly Archives: January 2011

Joining the no-fridge bandwagon and other news

All right, enough of this seeming like a sane, average homeowner…doing economically viable energy efficiency projects that look good, use modern materials, raise the value of my home, and don’t require me to change my lifestyle… Time to get my crazy on again.

So I have put all my fridge stuff in a cooler with some frozen goods I need to defrost, and a few ice packs (except for the 2 shelves worth of compost that was in my fridge that I need to get around to taking out to the backyard pile), and I have put all my freezer stuff in the borrowed chest freezer with my salmon and alaskan pig. Then I unplugged my fridge. I meant to do this a couple of months ago – as soon as winter took hold enough that I could freeze ice packs outside to keep the cooler cold, but even the simple changes can require a lot of time to get around to. Nice to not have that noisy, old, power gobbling fridge chugging away anymore. Maybe by summer, or at least before I have to give the chest freezer back I’ll get a new energy star fridge. Until then, the unplugged beast will still make a good cooler if I run out of room in the portable picnic cooler, especially the freezer compartment. It has the disadvantage of not having a top lid (that allows cold, dense air to stay put instead of sliding out the door), but is otherwise a decently insulated and sealed compartment. OOh…maybe I could use it as a hay-box cooker with some wool blankies (maintain heat instead of cold)! I’ll report on that it I ever do.

The other crazy efficiency initiative is that I have fairly purposefully (though partly through laziness) only half fixed a leaky faucet. My tub faucet, which needed new washers 2 years ago, was dripping massive amounts of hot water again. So I turned off the house water long enough to cut the supply pipes and successfully install water shut off valves on them. I bought almost all the parts I need, including the new faucet, to totally change out the faucet, and even recently made it to the restore where I got tons of matching, nice tile for the surround (and some for the floor). But I have left the project there. So what about my addiction to reading in a nice, full, hot tub of water every night? Manageable. Totally manageable. I sometimes want to take a bath, but when I know I can’t, it doesn’t bother me much. I drink a cup of tea and read on the couch instead. I may be keeping my apartment a bit warmer in the eves to make up for not soaking in heat, but probably not all the time or by much. I wash in the sink, with a washcloth, and I love washing my hair in the kitchen sink with the spray thingy – it feels good. Although…strangely I have not washed my hair for the last week and it is a touch greasy, but not itchy like it normally would get after a day or two of not washing…hmmm. Maybe it will find it’s own balance, like they say, and not need as frequent of washing (some folks claim you don’t ever need to use soap, etc to not smell – once your body equilibrates, but I think this is highly personal. I know people who don’t have pit odor without deodorant, or don’t have body odor without soap, or don’t ever use shampoo on their hair and don’t have cleanliness issues, but I’m not yet convinced the results are universal, or not highly dependent on food intake and personal body chemistry, etc). Anyway, just goes to prove that if something just isn’t available (car, bath, chocolate, etc) it’s pretty easy to live without, no matter how deep the addiction seems (yes, you may need to set up your life a bit differently).

And that’s about the extent of the crazy for now. Still contemplating eating totally (or almost totally) locally next year, and getting my humanure toilet set up, and diving into bees and chickens and maybe meat rabbits this spring, but that is all future crazy.

Who needs a car? I’ve got an iphone.

I am generally a luddite. I was a park ranger in a place with no accessible phone, computer, tv, etc for three summers and I loved it. So much that I turned off the ringer on my phone over the winter back in civilization and checked and returned messages once a day. It was so nice to be connected on my terms and to never, ever be jolted by a ringing phone. While rangering I wrote paper letters, I walked over to visit friends in their nearby cabins, I hiked in major bear country with no communication. So of course I was not very keen on getting my first cell phone, through work, 4 years ago.

An electronic leash. It only made calls, not texts. I didn’t take it with me most places, and usually forgot it even when I should have had it for work. I rarely used it – maybe an incoming work call every few days or so, and I still had my land line at home. Over time, I became more and more dependent – transitioning to the point where a few months ago I had a cell with texting capabilities that had replaced my land line altogether, and that I almost always had on me. Then I got an iphone, because it was suggested for work. This time, however, I was a bit obsessive – quickly getting into a pattern of frequent email and fb checkins, looking things up on wikipedia because I could, kinda being a nuisance in social situations. That cooled off as the novelty faded, but there have been instances where the smart phone has been damn convenient, and a couple where I think it has actually enhanced my life and or value to this world. Mostly these have been in ways that make it easier for me to exist without a car.

The first time I really was impressed with the phone was when it greatly enhanced my civic responsibility to improve pedestrian safety. I had noticed that a walk signal was malfunctioning at a busy intersection near my house – the call button never successfully brought up the happy, glowing white walk person, and we all crossed against the angry red hand and the glowers of right-turning motorists who thought we were not waiting our turn. After a few weeks of this (yah, I’m not a super fast responder sometimes) I was crossing during normal business hours and got enough motivation to take out the phone, google the municipality’s traffic signal maintenance page and press the highlighted phone number there to put the call through. The next day the signal was fixed! If left to a land line and a phonebook I would have lost all sense of urgency by the time I reached them.

More regularly, the phone helps me use local transit. The Peoplemover bus has real time bus tracking, with a web ap that allows me to check exactly when a given bus will be at a given stop. I use this every time I ride and it really helps with timing, minimizing waits in the cold, choosing routes, etc. I’m a fan. I’m much more likely to ride the bus now that I have this additional help with predictability and knowing if I have time to catch a bus or not. I can also access the rest of the Peoplemover webpage including system routes, maps, timetables, etc. Hopefully someday they will have a route planning ap on the website as well, as recommended in the High Priority Transportation Corridor Plan. This plan is pretty nifty, by the way, leading me to hope for all kinds of great things for my favorite route – Spenard number 7 – like increased frequency, at least during peak times, and traffic signal prioritization for the bus. Probably in the far future if at all- but I can dream.

One occasional deterrent for me in riding buses is having to know where to pull the cord to get off (this is a big one in foreign or unknown places where the convenience of a subway on a dedicated line, stoping at each stop is such a relief). The fear of missing my stop certainly leads me to be much more willing to take the bus for routine travel that I am very familiar with, and slightly hesitant to try a new route where I’m not sure what the best stop is, and what it will look like as we are approaching. I haven’t done this yet, but I just realized that I could open my map application and watch my little blue pulsing ‘you are here’ dot approach my predetermined destination to help me figure out how close I am and quell that nervousness.

And speaking of being in an unfamiliar city, when I went to DC recently I was able to download a free DC metro ap for the phone that helped me navigate and time my rides on the metro (although with trains every few minutes and easy to read route maps everywhere, this was mostly for my pre-planning and confidence building benefit).

Then there are the normal conveniences that come from having a phone in your pocket – being able to let someone you are meeting know if you are on time or not, being able to call someone if you get stranded or lose your bus fare (not that I’ve had this happen, but it’s nice to have the security). These things plus the map feature can help with biking and walking as well, planning routes, giving a sense of security for those worried about popping tires or being late to meet a friend.

Is the phone necessary for being car free? Certainly not. Do I still dream of not being tethered electronically all the time? Certainly. Does the phone make my non-car life a bit easier. Yes, absolutely – mostly when I ride, or contemplate riding, transit. Of course, another solution would be to simplify my life to the point where I rarely had to be anywhere at a set time, then I could easily ditch the phone and just start walking!

Sexy, desirable energy efficiency

I recently attended ACEEE’s conference on energy efficiency policy and analysis in DC. One of the things that kept coming up is the image of energy efficiency (hereafter to be usually referred to as EE because I am a lazy hunt-n-pecking typist). One speaker mentioned that EE is like Peter Parker. Everyone likes him, wants to do his homework with him, etc. They just don’t like him in that way. So what is the spider that will bite energy efficiency and turn it into a sexy superhero?

I want some of that caulk!


Also at that conference, a speaker from a national marketing firm put up photos from my/REAP’s ‘Energy Efficiency is Sexy’ photo contest and said we had a ways to go still (specifically she noted that the boy on the bike – my son – looked tired, and that dogs aren’t sexy). Ok, so we’re Alaska and the 6 people who entered the contest (nearly the whole population of the state) didn’t have the time to set up a national ad placement-level photo. Granted.

So how do we make energy efficiency sexy for the unconvinced, harried, and otherwise occupied 80%+ of the populous? Apparently it needs to be seen for, let’s face it, what it is or could be: easy, fun and popular.

Easy: EE measures are not generally rocket science. They involve existing technologies and are in the easy realm of do-it-your-selfers. I’d rather caulk around all my windows than have to install granite countertops any day. Insulating a crawl space is way easier than tiling a bathroom. Even doing an exterior foundation insulation job is easy – I’d prefer that over adding an addition. Biking? Even my 7 year old can do it. Driving a more fuel efficient car? No harder than driving a gas guzzler, and you might not need to go out of your way to the gas station as often. Not sure what to do? If you are cheap a quick web search (the DOE and others have good web pages, in alaska check out akenergyefficiency.org) can point you in the right direction, just pick something you feel comfortable with and do it! I highly recommend paying for an energy audit on your home, then you will have specific recommendations and a priority list, probably also an idea of the payback time, energy saved, etc. For only a few hundred bucks. Too cheap for the audit? Put some more insulation in the attic, use your hand to find cold drafts on a winter day (check around windows, doors, outlet covers, and any other penetrations in your walls) and fill them with foam or caulk or weatherstripping. About the only way you can go wrong is causing moisture problems, and if you talk to a professional or just make sure you have ventilation (usually a bathroom and range fan will do unless you are going all Passivhaus) you should be fine. I mean, don’t sue me if you aren’t, but you really should be, and there are plenty of non-profit organizations out there willing to talk to you about it if you are worried. When you buy any appliance for your home, find the one that uses the least energy. Easy.

Fun: Being in a warm home is way more fun than being in an uncomfortable, drafty one. And energy efficient homes feel warmer at the same thermostat setting (while using less energy) because there aren’t big temperature differentials and drafts everywhere. Biking is fun – ask your kids. Doing EE projects with your friends is fun (most of the time – I recommend small dose work parties!). Sex is fun, and think about how much more fun it is when your body is well toned from walking and biking and your well-sealed home isn’t snaking cold air across your bare ass! Unless you are in to that kind of thing, and for that you can go camping.

Popular: Yes, everybody is doing it, so you should too. Middle-class, tea-party, climate deniers practice EE because it makes economic sense, and waste is sinful. Environmentalist do it to save the world. Hip young people do it because it is cool. Sometimes the best EE is fairly hidden and doesn’t advertise well enough for itself – a smart (and very sexy) man I know took his 2 star home to a 5 star home with well under $10,000 (all of which will be paid back from the state’s grant program) by insulating the crawl space and attic, air sealing, and upgrading the boiler. Invisible greatness. Apparently many people spend money on granite countertops and SUV’s because these visible displays might get you laid – we are all just peacocks and bower birds. If you need this, I have thought of some sexy displays of EE. Priusi (what the heck is the plural of Prius??) and Leaves – I’m talking cars if you are lost – not my cup of tea, but for some folks… I think any bike is sexy, but those fat-tire snow bikes seem insanely trendy up here right now, and I admit to coveting a Big Dummy. Really fat walls are sexy – like the kind you get from building with straw bales or adding a whole lot of extra insulation. These 8″ plus walls make great window sills for putting big plants on or starting your garden starts, and people will notice. Gadgety things can look pretty sexy – smart meters, digital displays on programmable thermostats, futuristic lighting controls and timers and LED light bulbs and such. I’m not advocating that you choose your improvements based on what looks cool, but then again, maybe I partly am – if we want EE to become popular, it’s going to have to look cool. My pet idea, though, is that everyone should get a big, digital-display, utility meter on the front of their house that displays energy use and whether it is low or high compared to similar houses. Visibility is the key to results! I’m guessing there will be some resistance to that last thought…