Kermit was Right: It's NOT Easy Being Green

Download a more fully fleshed-out and illustrated version of this saga here.

It’s not easy being Green … even if you have a Ph.D. in the subject. Kermit was right, but I’m on a mission to prove him wrong.

Moving to a new home in mid-2008 presented a great opportunity to walk the talk (some say to “eat my own dogfood”). The late-1970s house was an eco-basket-case. To put it more positively, it offered a lot of that proverbial low-hanging fruit: ancient heating system, incandescent lighting galore, inefficient appliances, you get the idea…. This will be like shooting fish in a barrel, I assured myself.


What better way to start than to jump on Google and see what the best products are these days? Easier said than done. I was quickly reminded that one of the largest obstacles to doing the right thing these days is having too much of the wrong information, and in a form that is inscrutable. Now I finally know what today’s high-schoolers mean by TMI. (No, not Three Mile Island … Too Much Information.) The web provides access to various directories of consumer products ranked by energy efficiency. Some of these sites are absolutely choked with columns of data that have little meaning (and thus value) to the main-street consumer. Meanwhile, information that is critical is often missing, e.g. will this premium-efficiency fridge even fit in the opening in my kitchen? Can I get service for that brand in this area? What are the standby losses of those boilers?. (If anyone can point me to a standardized list of standby losses from boilers, I’ll buy you a beer.) On top of this, some of the resources don’t work on the Mac, kicking back un-formatted gibberish (so there goes 10% of the population right off the top). Often, it’s difficult or impossible to get side-by-side comparisons. Computer geeks probably have their own special kind of sinister fun designing these resources, but we have a long way to go before consumers with a “change-the-channel” attention span will get what they need from these websites.

And, being in a small town in a relatively remote rural area, it was impossible to find contractors and product retailers who gave more than lip service to "green". I lost count of how many times I heard: “But Mr. Mills, doing that’ll only save you pennies,” followed by snickering when they thought I was out of earshot. It was like pulling teeth; so we did.

Switched fuels from oil to propane (no natural gas in this area) for heating, electric to propane for hot water and cooking: 14% carbon emissions reduction. We replaced an ancient oil furnace (which was also billowing flue gases into the house) with a condensing boiler. This gave us premium efficiency hot water as well (with an extra heat exchanger in the tank so we can add solar down the line). R-8 ducts and a programmable thermostat. Made a run at weatherstripping. Getting it just right is not as easy as it sounds; had to experiment a lot to get the right thicknesses.

We did a massive lighting retrofit--indoors and out--and there is not a single incandescent lamp left in the house. Trimmed a mind-numbing 5722 watts of installed lighting load by 2/3rds, increasing lighting levels in some dark areas. Premium T8-electronic lamps in the cove lighting, some dimmable CFLs, and even affordable LEDs for lighting in the closets – amazing how far 1 watt of LED will shine. Dual-tech wall switches save me chasing around after the kids all the time to turn lights off. I couldn’t help but take the cover off of the nifty new bathroom fan-light to see how it was put together. I found two 18-watt fluorescents inside, pumping out more light output than a modern 4-foot lamp. Immediately unplugged one of those for a cool 50% savings on top of the savings from converting from incandescent to fluorescent in the first place, avoiding certain blindness in the process. Tucked between these two macho CFLs was a 4-watt incandescent bulb that was continuously on, thereby negating some of my savings and providing light (day and night) that I didn’t need. I suppose it is there for the one hour a year that the power is out. It was gratifying to unscrew it, but most consumers wouldn’t have bothered.

Called the utility to recycle our old fridge ($75 rebate to-boot). They’re of course supposed to verify—but didn’t in my case—that the unit actually runs, otherwise the utility shouldn’t get any credit for taking energy and carbon out of the system. Next round: find new fridge. We hunted and hunted and found the one that had the amenities we wanted and super-good efficiency. Shortly after purchasing, Consumer Reports announced a scandal in which some manufacturers of this style unit had falsified their energy test results, claiming Energy Star levels of performance but in fact not delivering them. We didn’t happen to get that model, but it leaves me wondering…..

Lots of other little things, like water-efficient showerheads and faucets, a door on the fireplace, replacing the snaking, crimped clothes dryer vent, and a nifty solar tube to keep a bathroom that would otherwise need a lot of electric light nicely lit all day with daylight. Best-available dishwasher, and boy is it quiet. Telecommuting now, and so burning less gasoline.

Moved the washer/dryer into unconditioned space to avoid the exhaust ventilation impact. Official info tells us there is no difference among clothes dryers. NRDC doesn’t think so (see their latest study), but no products are correctly tested/rated, so I’m left hung out to dry, so to speak.

Oh, did I forget to say that the heating contractors who bragged so much about the meticulousness of their duct insulation forgot to do the “Y’s”? They also forgot to insulate the hot water runs in the uninsulated crawlspace (yes, it was in their scope of work). I won’t embarrass myself by telling you how long it took me to find these defects (hint: the warranty period was over). The building inspector? A sleepwalking apparition.

Despite all this inertia, I estimate that we've reduced the carbon footprint of this house by half, and we'll make another huge dent during round two when we get to beef up the rigid ceiling insulation when it’s time to re-roof, and attack those windows. Maybe by then I’ll get a second wind and be ready to try and teach the local window retailers not to sell low SHGC-windows in this cool, coastal climate…. “Oh,” says the window vendor, “these are fine; we never get complaints.”

Once we get the efficiency dialed up as much as possible, I’ll look at solar PV and water-heating (and maybe reverse fuel-switching), although I’ll have to calculate how much carbon is embodied in those redwoods I’d have to cut down in order to get unobstructed solar access ;).


A more fully fleshed-out and illustrated version of this saga can be downloaded here.


~ Evan Mills

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Comment by Fred Davis on February 2, 2011 at 9:06am

This was a very good read Evan. About how long do you think it will take to break even as far as cost savings?

 

On a side note, I was reading about these vapor recovery systems the other day. Awesome technology for the oil and gas sector.

Comment by Amy Aselia on January 25, 2011 at 5:35am
I think that nothing beats that analogy with Kermit! The knowledge that you can find here is soo much more worth then all the news in the media etc... Keep up the good work!
Comment by Dennis McCarthy on December 3, 2010 at 4:53pm
Hey Evan,
Truly inspirational, this coming from an energy loss specialist . I believe we would all be
better off with halving our consumption. For you & I, its mission completed now if
we could see similar results both res & commercial as well as institutional I would be happy! - The trick is to convince or cajole millions of others to emulate our results -
with out seeming to be sanctimonious!
Comment by Evan Mills on November 29, 2010 at 1:37pm
Hey Steve - glad you liked it....

Yep, cathedral ceiling. We have another 5-10 years on the roof, so I'm just going to bite the bullet and wait until reroofing. There is 2" of rigid already (not enough, but something at least....) Maybe PV at the same time. Ceiling is wood, so re-paneling (sooner) from the inside would be kind out of the question....

We do have a few large (micro-attics) above the bathrooms and one closet, and did put rigid insulation up there (so we can still store stuff on top. You should have heard the contractors snickering (out of my earshot, they thought) about my desire to do this....

Haven't done the ROI calc yet, but should at some point. Much of this was end-of-life replacement stuff, so incremental costs are relatively small....

The crawlspace question is a good one. We are in a very damp climate, and having a lot of moisture under the vapor barrier makes me a bit nervous. The floor is not insulated (the fiber was rodent-ridden and removed, and I need to either replace it (spray foam anyone?) or condition the crawlspace. I would like to think the latter would work out...

Back to the salt mines...
Comment by Steve Waclo on November 29, 2010 at 1:22pm
Evan:

What a pleasure reading a blog by an energy person who must also have a degree in English! Informative and entertaining . Thanks for the effort.

What a chore working with "professionals" whose primary fall back is "we've always done it that way" and "trust me". While I value the knowledge and experience of folks who occassionally do work in my home, it's very frustrating to be talked down to when I know what I'm saying is state of the art truth.

A couple of observations:

Went back over your entry (used the search function) and, unless I missed it, saw no reference to the addition of attic insulation. What did you do in that area? (just ready to hit "Add comment", when I noticed you said "when we get to beef up the rigid ceiling insulation". Cathedral ceilings?

Also, while I appreciate the difficulty in answering this question, did you estimate an ROI for all the $$ you invested in the project (+/- 5years will suffice:-).

We recently replaced all of our 8 year old appliances in the kitchen (wife had to have stainless steel), and as much as I wanted to keep the money here in NV (we did buy the dishwasher and microwave locally) I finally ordered the fridge and range on line for a total savings on the order of $1200. BTW, the original appliances are finding a new home in son Matts home in Truckee.

Finally, noticed you have a conventional crawl space and wonder if you considered encapsulation? I did mine a couple of years ago, before I knew that's what the process is called (I gotta get out of the house more :-) and our hardwood floors are much more comfortable now that the CS has become a conditioned area. Naturally, heating season loss from your ducts and plumbing would not be a loss at all. This subject came up on another discussion here, and while conversion cost at contractor prices is considerable (some might say exhorbitant), there appear to be a number of DIY sources selling materials. I believe a big portion of cost is the 20mm liner. I simply foamed in all my vents, provided a return grill in the CS acess hatch and double checked the integrity of the vapor barrier. The builder had specified a 6" supply duct to the CS (with no return?) so that was already in place. We are in a low humidity area (high desert, northern NV) so did not feel a need to totally encapsulate the space. Also, I inspect regularly, and so far all is well.

Once again, your article is much appreciated and for every comment, I'm sure you garner 100 reads!
Comment by Evan Mills on November 26, 2010 at 4:17pm
Allison -Thanks for your thoughts and predictably good questions. I probably didn't press enough on the duct design, focusing more on sealing, insulation, and minimizing run lengths. Am located in a rather remote rural area and would have had to go to "The City" for better design. It was hard enough getting any HVAC contractor to work on the project. The initial phone interviews sent most of them running the other direction (preferring customers who open their checkbook and don't ask questions). In the end, there was only one local contractor who would even return calls.... They claimed to be doing good duct design, but with the amount of balancing that was required later, it seems that he was less than scientific about it..... To be honest, I didn't look into hard/flex tradeoff, and the contractor (perhaps not surprisingly) didn't .... perhaps that makes me a candidate for retrofit ;)
Comment by Allison A. Bailes III on October 27, 2010 at 2:09pm
Sounds like you've had a fun time with this project, Evan! It's definitely not easy, though, especially when you try to do things the right way, and contractors/suppliers resist out of ignorance, inertia, or antipathy.

You're right - it's not surprising that HVAC contractors oversize heating & cooling systems. Was proper HVAC design (Manuals J, S, T, & D) not part of the specs you gave them? Also, I'm curious why you went with flex duct. When I see Y-splits and flex, it's usually a system that wasn't designed, and the installer just figures out the details once he arrives on the job site with the materials.

I know it can be difficult to install a new duct system in an existing home, so perhaps that's why you didn't get the HVAC design and hold the contractor to it? I know remodelers, though, who insist on Manual D duct design and hardpipe in all their jobs, so it's certainly possible. The best way to proceed with this, in my opinion, is to find a third party to do the full HVAC design and tell your HVAC contractor that's exactly what you want them to install. We provide that service, and most people are surprised to find out that HVAC contractors not only don't do that, but some of them have never even heard of Manual J.

Despite the hiccups, though, it looks like you still got good results from your efforts. Congratulations on cutting your bills in half. Even with a lot of low-hanging fruit, it's still a great accomplishment.

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