Thursday, December 31, 2015

It’s New Year’s eve, one last opportunity for a post during 2015. I may as well take advantage of it.

From December 26 through 28, we had one of the heaviest rainstorms in St. Louis’ history. As much as 9 to 10 inches of rain fell across portions of the metropolitan area, oriented in a band running roughly northeast to southwest. We were within that band, as was the official weather station. As a result three new rainfall records were set, one for the most rain on any day in December (4.87 inches on the 26th, which is the third highest daily rainfall total measured for St. Louis), one for the most rainfall in the month of December (11.74 inches), and one for the highest yearly rainfall (61.24 inches in 2015). With the soil wet to start, almost all the rain ran off into the rivers, creating major to record flooding. The Meramec River, which defines the southern border of St. Louis County, was especially hard hit, with several locations on the river in St. Louis County breaking their old crest records, set back in December 1982. Interestingly, it was the 1982 crest which inundated Times Beach, one of the towns along the Meramec, spreading dioxin-contaminated road dirt all over the town and prompting its eventual demise. Back to this year ... three separate interstate highways had closures this morning due to floodwaters on the roads. One of the local meteorologists says that’s a first. Luckily we live on high ground, far from all those issues.

But in other ways we are as affected by the weird El Nino winter weather as everyone else. The photo at the top shows that our earliest daffodil leaves are already growing. I would not be surprised if this happened in January. In fact it is typical for some daffodil leaves to show up above ground sometime during January when the soil has a chance to thaw. But I cannot remember seeing daffodil leaves in December before. The soil hasn’t frozen yet and it shouldn’t for at least another week given the forecast and how wet it is (as water freezes it gives off heat). I still have mustard greens and arugula in the garden, which we’ll be eating now that we’ve eaten all of the stored bok choy.

Speaking of the garden, the next post will begin my recap of our garden year. For now, suffice it to say that overall it was the best ever. Give me a couple more weeks and you can read all about it. And a few more weeks after that, I’ll let you know what the garden and I will be discussing in 2016.

A very happy New Year to all of you!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Other options to reduce fossil fuel use in heating season

In my previous post, I discussed how heat leaves your residence and some low-tech, low-cost ways to persuade it to hang around with you for awhile longer than it would have otherwise. In this post, the last of my series on keeping warm with minimal fossil fuel use, I’ll discuss some more costly modifications you could make to your residence to hold heat inside longer or to generate non-fossil-fueled heat.

Since all of these involve extensive and expensive modifications to your residence, I doubt that they will be within the means of a renter to undertake without cooperation from the landlord. If you rent and find any of them intriguing, you can try to persuade your landlord to adopt one or more of them. In some cases, if the work has to be done on your rental anyway, you may be able to influence a decision toward adding a more energy-efficient version than the landlord had in mind.

For those of you who have come to expect me to promote low-cost ways of doing things, it might seem odd that I am devoting a post to discussing ways that are outside of many peoples’ means. However, I have reason to do so. Besides being able to help those of you who may be contemplating any of these projects to have a better chance of getting what you want out of it, some of you might suddenly find yourselves with the means to do them. Perhaps you receive a bonus from your employer. Or you might receive an inheritance; we received two inheritances within a five year period and chose to devote most of each to doing several of the modifications I’ll discuss. Or you might receive unexpected income from another source.

Few people who come into a sizable sum of money seem to entertain the idea of spending it on something so prosaic and, dare I say, dull as improving the energy efficiency of their residence. They might choose instead to buy a new car or house, or travel someplace they’ve never been. Or they might decide to put it toward education, their own or a relative’s. Or they might invest it into something that is supposed to make them more money over time. Or they might choose to pay off debts. In fact, if it were me and I had debts, I’d pay off the debts first and only then consider other possibilities with any money that remains. But I will advance an argument for why you might consider putting energy efficiency work onto your list of what to do with unexpected income.

If you have a savings account or any small investment such as a certificate of deposit and if you are old enough to have had these for more than 10 years, you have no doubt noticed that the interest rate these earn is much less than it used to be. As John Michael Greer wrote, there aren’t many bankable projects left out there, not much left to invest in that can grow enough to offer the interest rates folks enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s. Once you fully grasp this change, you will realize that it can make more sense to spend excess cash on ways to reduce your expenses over the long term than it does to invest it at the pitifully low interest rates being offered by the safer investments. And that’s exactly what the projects that I’ll be discussing can do for you. Furthermore, even though the payback time on some of these projects may be many years, as soon as they are completed you will reap the benefits: a less drafty, more comfortable place to live and lower heating (and in some cases, cooling) costs to boot.

Let’s look at each project individually, attempting to separate the help from the hype - for in some cases, there may be more of the latter than the former, sad to say.

New entry or storm doors

In the previous post we learned that doors can leak cold air into our residence and how to reduce that with weather-stripping and caulk. But that isn’t the only way they might be responsible for winter discomfort. Just like walls, doors can lose heat by conduction when cold outside air cools them down and they then cool the inside air, or from radiative heat loss to the outdoors. They may also be ill-fitting beyond the point where weather-stripping can help. Because of this, new entry or storm doors can make sense as an energy-saving home improvement.   

When we were researching this two years ago, we decided not to replace two of the three entry doors into our house despite their worse performance compared to a new Energy Star rated entry door. However, one of our entry doors was actually a flimsy interior door, which we chose to replace with a proper entry door for security reasons. Unless you plan to replace the entry door for other reasons I do not think replacing entry doors is the best use of your money. We didn’t spend the extra money for an Energy Star door on the one we did replace.

On the other hand, if your storm doors are old and not well fitted or weather-stripped, as was the case with ours, our experience is that replacing them does make sense, as long as the replacement doors are properly made, sized, and installed. If you don’t have storm doors on all your entry doors and you can afford to buy good-quality storm doors, I recommend them. We are well pleased with our new storm doors. They seal much more tightly against air leakage than the previous doors did, cutting down on draftiness and the resultant discomfort. The new doors are glass on both the top and bottom halves, with the top half sliding down when desired, allowing a screen to roll down in its place for ventilation. They allow more light into our house compared to the previous doors which were metal on the bottom half and as much ventilation as the previous doors when we want it.

New windows

Hardly a week goes by that we do not receive an ad urging us to replace our windows with “energy-saving” gas-filled double pane windows. Having had this done on both the houses we have lived in (once by us, once by the previous owner), I have learned about the big drawback of these windows that the ads don’t tell you about, except in the small print you probably won’t read: the seal that keeps the gas inside eventually breaks, allowing the gas to leak out. Once this happens, air will leak in to replace the gas. That air has moisture in it, which will then condense out onto one of the interior window surfaces whenever weather conditions allow that. In our experience, that is most of the time. Now you have a cloudy window you cannot fix, except by replacing it. Guess who benefits? Companies that sell you these windows don’t offer a lifetime guarantee on the seal, because it doesn’t last long enough. The seal on most of our windows has broken by now. We haven’t replaced these windows and don’t expect to, although if we ever change our minds, we’ll replace them with high quality single-pane windows.

Years ago I was on an e-list of old-house restorers and residents. A popular topic was what to do about the wooden windows that come with many old houses. After years of little or no maintenance, they often fit poorly, or may not open, or the glass may be broken. The consensus of the experienced home restorers was that it is better to repair these windows than to replace them. I suggest that you consider spending your money on a properly done repair job if you have old wood-framed windows. Either you or your contractor should replace any broken glass and re-putty all the way around each piece of glass. The sash cords and locks should be repaired and the wood refinished or repainted if needed. Then do the simpler fixes suggested in the previous post to cut down further on air infiltration. You could also install storm windows during heating season if they still exist (many older houses included storm windows that were put up for the heating system and stored during the rest of the year) or make them yourself if you are handy, or see if you can purchase them if you can afford to do so. But if you really want to replace your windows, look on the Energy Star web site to learn about the best products for your region.

New central heating plant

Another well-advertised high dollar fix is replacement of your current central heating plant with a highly energy-efficient version. We have replaced old, inefficient (50% or less efficiency) natural gas furnaces in both this house and our previous house with 90+% efficient units. Both of the furnaces were over 20 years old and near the end of their useful lives.

Whether or not replacing the central heating unit in your residence makes sense depends on several factors. If the unit is at or near the end of its useful life, then replace it with the most energy-efficient unit you can afford. Check for Energy Star listed units; they are more efficient than other units in their class. If you have sealed and insulated your residence, you may be able to use a smaller unit than before, saving you money. If, however, your unit still has a lot of life left in it, spend your money instead on whatever maintenance schedule is recommended for it. Doing so will ensure that it runs at its peak efficiency, and keeping it in place as long as possible reduces the energy use and pollution associated with making a new unit. Our furnace contractor says that because he has properly maintained our 13 year old furnace, it is in better shape than many units half its age.

Home performance audit

I mentioned in the previous post that while you can hunt for all the different places where air leaks into your residence yourself, there are specially trained and equipped folks who can do this for you. The specialty is called home performance. These folks will do a home performance audit, using procedures such as a blower door test to find all the places where air leaks in and IR cameras to look for places where heat escapes out due to inadequate insulation. They may or may not do the work to fix problems that are found. If they do not, they may offer recommendations on contractors to do the work, or you may have to find them yourself.

We had a home performance audit done on our house in 2005. Our auditor also did the sealing and insulation work that the audit suggested should be done. It was very effective; our house is no longer drafty and it requires only about half as much natural gas to heat the house to the same temperature as it did before the work was done. It was also very expensive, requiring most of one of the inheritances to be completed. I think the most cost-effective approach is to hire the auditor to do the audit and then do the recommended sealing and insulation work yourself, and you may have to do it this way if you cannot find a contractor to do it for you.

Adding wall insulation

As Greer points out in his book Green Wizardry, wall insulation is more difficult and expensive to add after the fact than is attic insulation, although if you are replacing the drywall or other inner surface of the wall anyway, it makes sense to add insulation before re-surfacing. Similarly, if you are replacing the exterior siding of your house, you can add insulation before the new siding is attached.

The only kind of insulation you can add to wall cavities without removing the interior surface is a blown-in product. You’ll need to make holes large enough for a blower hose to penetrate through the wall into each wall cavity along the exterior walls, so you will have extensive patchwork and repainting to do after the insulation is added. We had this work done on the recommendation made by our home performance auditor. Since we’d not painted the walls and they needed it, the patchwork and repainting was not a barrier for us. Although you may be able to rent the equipment to blow in recycled newsprint or denim insulation and you can buy the insulation in the usual big-box stores, I am not sure that this sort of thing can be well done without proper training. Our contractor had difficulty getting the machine that blew in the insulation to work properly. Greer says he has heard mixed reports about the effectiveness of blown-in insulation. In our case the results seem to have been positive. I am not sure the insulation has remained dry since the only way to apply a vapor barrier would be to paint the now-insulated wall with a vapor barrier paint. We did not paint the walls until 8 years after they were insulated. Our contractor did not mention this issue, which I think he should have. But on the other hand we have not noticed any problems that might be attributed to wet insulation in the 10 years since the work was done (which is not the same as saying there are no problems, please note).

Supplemental heat sources

In the previous post I mentioned space heaters as a relatively cheap source of supplemental heat. Other supplemental heat sources which may already be present in your residence or that you may consider adding are a fireplace, a wood stove, or passive solar heat sources.

If you have an existing fireplace, it may be wood-burning or use natural gas as the heat source (in the latter case, the natural gas burner is located among structures looking somewhat like logs, called gas logs). However, while a fire in a fireplace adds atmosphere, it is not an efficient source of heat, as most of the heat goes up the chimney. Worse, if you leave the damper open (and in the county we live in, if you have gas logs in your fireplace, the damper must be welded in the open position for safety reasons, as friends of ours recently learned), heat continues to escape through the chimney when the fireplace isn’t being used. If you have a wood-burning fireplace, you can cut down on heat lost up the chimney by using tight-fitting glass doors, and you can use cast-iron firebacks to radiate some heat back into the room.

The way to turn a fireplace into a serious source of heat is to put a fireplace stove into it. If you don’t have a fireplace but you do have a large enough open space for a wood stove, you can have one put in. But it is not cheap to add a good wood stove, whether a fireplace stove or a stand-alone stove. Besides the expense of the stove itself, there is the cost of the chimney and of installation of the stove and chimney, plus you will need to add a fireproof surface under the wood stove if your floor is not fireproof. Please have these done by someone who knows what they are doing and will do them properly! If you cannot afford a safe installation, whether it’s you who does it or someone else, you cannot afford a wood stove. Then you’ll need to obtain the wood, either by paying a high price for wood that is already cut to size and split or by getting the tools you’ll need to do some of this work yourself. The more you can do yourself, the less the wood costs, but the more time you have to put into it. You’ll also need to store the wood properly, preferably in a wood shed that will allow it to dry before you burn it or covered by a tarp. And you’d better know how to burn the wood safely as well. The book The Woodburner’s Companion tells you what you’ll need to know if you are considering adding a wood-burning stove to your residence.

After many years of mulling over the possibility of adding a wood stove, we finally had it done a year ago. The photo at the top of the post shows our stove in its place of honor. We got the stove from Arnold Stove and Fireplace and they installed it as well. I am happy to recommend them to anyone in the St. Louis area who is looking for a good wood-burning stove. We are very pleased with the stove, the installation, and the service we received.

The past two weekends we have burned wood for heat rather than using the natural gas furnace, getting a feel for how much wood it burns to keep the temperature in the living area in the upper 60sF to lower 70sF (around 20C or so) when the outside temperature is in the 20sF to the low 40sF. Because of the high efficiency of the stove, the amount of wood we burned was rather small. The radiant as well as convective heat from the stove felt better to us than the convective-only heat from the furnace. We also found that the stove warmed the whole house, though less so as distance increased from the stove as we expected. While we don’t expect to heat with wood every day, we both enjoy the extra warmth on the weekends and knowing that if the electricity goes out during the winter, we still have a source of heat.

As noted in this post, Mike recently completed a wood shed to store wood above ground and under a roof, to enable us to burn the wood as cleanly as possible, for safety and environmental reasons. The wood has come from either trees on our land or has been scavenged. Mike uses all hand tools to process the wood, including a human-powered hydraulic wood splitter from Harbor Freight that he’s been pleased with so far. The nearby big-box home improvement store has a powered wood splitter for rent, a good choice for someone who purchases a load of wood and wants to split it all at once.

A number of supplemental heat sources based on collecting and redirecting heat from solar radiation might be available to you, if your dwelling is suitably oriented. Greer mentions three of these in Lesson 26 of his book Green Wizardry, with emphasis on cheap, do-it-yourself versions. In this post I wrote about the sun room we had built into the existing front porch on the south-facing wall of our house. Please go to that post for more details on how it works.