Home & Garden

About the House: Taking Green Measures to Illuminate Your Home

By Matt Cantor
Thursday August 28, 2008 - 09:45:00 AM

We’re all trying to do our part to be a little greener these days. I see you down at the market with your cloth bags, you Prius drivers (not to mention drivers of 25-year-old cars, another very green tack). Many of us, nay, most of us, are trying to do something and studies have revealed in the recent past that most Americans are even willing to pay more for items such as organic produce and cleaner energy.  

The problem is that many of these things seem slightly out of reach so with this in mind, I will offer a short list of things that you can either do right now or plan for in the future that are relatively simple to do (some are more expensive or complex but you can table them and talk them up until your ready). 

Before I get into these simpler or easier things, I’d like to take a second to mention Berkeley’s recent Solar initiative called FIRST (Financing Initiative for Renewable and Solar Technology). The idea is terrific. Berkeley would provide financing for you to put solar panels on your roof (photovoltaics that generate electricity) and would directly pay for an approved solar installer to do the job. You would then pay for the system over about 20 years (that’s what’s proposed at this point) at a monthly fee that would be roughly the same as your electric bill. Though proposed last October, we don’t have anything happening yet and I encourage my readers to inquire with their city councilmember or the mayor’s office as to the progress on this initiative. In short, we need this thing. By the way, one great thing this city has done recently (thanks to our dear departed Dona Spring) is to waive the cost on permits for photovoltaic systems, so if you want to go ahead now and buy your own system, you’ll save on the permits.  

As of my last calculation, Germans are buying solar panels at a rate nearly 30 times ours (per capita) and this is virtually certain to be linked to their ability to charge the utility company several times the going rate for power on what their panels generate. In short, in the case of Germany, it’s a money MAKER for the buyers of panels. While we don’t have that yet (and should, especially given that we’ve been told in the recent past that we don’t have enough power generation capacity in the state (anyone remember ENRON). 

Anyway, I think it’s great that Berkeley is doing this and I hope they’ll get it under way sooner than later. This is how we save our planet (at least in part). (By the way, the mayor’s website says that this is due to go online in a pilot form mid-’08 and this is, let’s see, August?) 

On a more illuminating note, lets look at what you can do today at a low cost to save energy in your home. I know you’re hearing this a lot these days but I do feel duty-bound to add this one because it’s really true. Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) save enormous amounts of energy. A PG&E program subsidizes the cost of CFLs available through many stores and I’ve found bulbs as cheap as a quarter at some stores (e.g. the awesome 99 Ranch Market). 

You can also contact CESC (Community Energy Services Corp.) or California Youth Energy Services about CFLs as well as other low cost or free energy upgrades. 

Lighting accounts for about 9 percent of your residential electrical bill and use of CFLs can reduce it by about 7 percent. This means that the cost of CFLs will almost certainly pay for themselves in the first year and possibly in the first two months. They’re also better today than in the past. My new friend Julie, a local contractor was telling me yesterday that she just hates fluorescent lighting and I don’t think she’s alone. The queasy Cicada-bombilating lamps of the past managed to make everyone look (and feel) as if they were in a David Lynch film.  

Today’s CFLs are all but reinvented in several respects. Their color spectrums are better, they buzz almost nil and have much less discernible flicker. They also tend to come to full brightness much faster. The early models that could barely compete with 25 watt incandescent have been augmented with larger ones that easily mimic 100 watts. I’ve finally started to use them in my main interiors and there have been few, if any, complaints. Oh yes, we also have dimmable ones now and for those who know a little about this technology, this is quite the Leap Forward (Yes, many are made in China).  

For the really forward thinking, LED (light emitting diode) bulbs are now available (most easily found on the web). While these are still quite expensive (roughly $20+/piece), they use far less power than CFLs and have extremely long lifespans. In typical use, they will last 10-30 years. This means that for those bulbs that are very difficult to get to (top of the stairwell on a very scary ladder) they already pay for themselves.  

Keep your eye out for LEDs and let PG&E know (they send you an envelope with their address on it every month!) that you’d like to see them fund LEDs the way they do CFLs, although you may want to send the note Aaaanold, instead, with your next tax payment. The state is ultimately the source of the mandates that make PGE provide us with energy conservation incentives like cheap CFLs. 

Split-seam piping insulation is also very cheap ($1-$2/6 foot length) and super easy to install. The hardest part is clearing the cobwebs in the crawlspace. You just pull it apart far enough to snug around a pipe and remove a release paper thus revealing an adhesive that seals the whole thing around the pipe (they also stay on without the glue most of the time). If you put these on all your hot pipes, as well as cold pipes within a few feet of the water heater, you can reduce your heat loss and lower your water heater bill by quite a few bucks each year. This will definitely pay for itself in the first year (unless you pay someone to do it for you, in which case it may take a little longer). 

Weather-stripping windows and doors sounds like something Jimmy Carter would be advocating (and he would, wouldn’t he?) but yes, it’s still one of the cheapest, quickest reimbursing upgrades you can make. Just Do It (I stole that). 

If you still haven’t tried a programmable thermostat for your furnace, it’s about time. This is a cost/energy/carbon saving device that doubles as a thermal valet. In other words, these cost savers also make sure you’re cozy by turning the heat up around the time you wake up to make the house nice and warm for climbing out from under that big IKEA duvet. No need to fear the VCR effect (endless flashing 12 a.m.), most basic models come already programmed with a simple sensible setting (surely served by some shrewd soldier of science). You will need to set the clock but this is manageable and you may, eventually, change the morning or evening setting without bursting a blood vessel. These are very big savers for most of us who don’t think about the temp setting at all hours of the day. They start around $50 bucks and usually only require two lo-voltage wires be attached. Yes We Can! (eventually, these apophthegms will get old). 

By the way, energystar.gov says that an average American household can save $180/Yr. by using a programmable thermostat and even if we’re half of that around here, it’s still a free dinner at Chez Panisse every year. 

There are, of course, many other things we can all do and finding the ones that feel right for you is certainly part of the course toward success. We’ve stopped buying bananas (a tragedy) due to the global carbon footprint of shipping said fruit and have cut back on meat (again) because of its environmental savagery. The chicken coop is almost done and the garden is in full fruit, as it were. Every little bit does help.  

Perhaps, if we’re very lucky, we’ll even end up with a new president capable of turning down the heat. Now wouldn’t that be nice.