Saving My Energy for a Greener TomorrowJune 12, 2009
The winter of 2007 was bone-chilling. Parts of the summer were even worse! Despite energy bills that went through the roof, I repeatedly struggled to type on my laptop with fingers too stiff and cold to accurately hit the right keys.
But no more! This post will share half a dozen simple, inexpensive solutions to most of that chilling problem. I spent less than $500 on improvements and cut my utility bill by about one-third while noticeably improving thermal comfort.
As regular readers know, my posts usually communicate on both a literal and philosophical level, and this will be no exception. While sharing tips about weatherizing, blocking drafts, and managing heat flow, I will also be talking about the emotional and spiritual challenges imposed by the economy and my stage in life. I have a vision of where I’d like to be in my “retirement” years: I will be providing design services to people who want to remodel their homes to make them more sustainable, more beautiful, and more able to meet the challenges of aging and disability. I hope that this blog will establish my expertise and will eventually bring clients to my company, Comfort and Joy Interior Design, which will be located, figuratively speaking, at the corner of Green Street and Golden Years Avenue. Along the way, I hope this blog opens the doors to professional opportunities to market and write about architectural and interior design products.
My Personal Energy Challenge
Currently, I’m a long way from the allegorical intersection of Green and Golden. I work a 40-45 hour a week job at a private university – for which I’m grateful. A handful of clients have asked for my assistance with small interior design projects, chiefly color consultations and space planning. I care for them in my spare time.
I don’t have much time to spare because I’m constantly enrolled in interior architecture classes that give me 10-plus hours of homework a week. My skills are growing at a prodigious rate, and I enjoy sharing new green building ideas in this blog, even though writing it demands another 4-8 hours of my time weekly.
I’m not complaining. I hate to be bored. I am, however, middle-aged. My peers comment on my “boundless energy” and lowball my age when they try to guess it, but my body knows. My energy is more limited than it was, and it takes me a week, rather than a couple days, to bounce back from an all-nighter. I know that my health and time are finite resources. Still, I probably have 20-plus years of productive work to offer, along with considerable skills.
The c-c-c-cold room in which I sit to type out my blog is a way station along a road that leads to a future that is personally satisfying and socially constructive. I don’t mind some trade-offs, but I don’t want to freeze en-route. Enter Ms. Fix-It.
A Drafty House with a Vintage Heating “System”
My 1922 house fits my personal sustainability plan in a number of ways: it provides built-in social support, it’s located in a walkable neighborhood, and it offers more sun than my previous place. But the single, vintage gas wall register it contains does not a heating system make. Indeed, there seems to have been little “systems thinking” involved in where and how it was installed.
I live on the second floor of a three-story house. Mason and I are the peanut butter sandwiched in between Alexei’s upstairs flat, and the cars in the ground-floor garage. Mason is fairly impervious to thermal changes, but Alexei and I are delicate blossoms. We suffered from the cold in winter. In the summer, we not only suffered from heat, we also froze.
For those unfamiliar with the place which prompted Mark Twain to remark “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” this may require some explanation. The temperature here never goes much below 40 and rarely above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. We’re so unaccustomed to heat, we’ve been known to dismiss schools when the temperature goes above 90 – the polar opposite of “snow days.” To be fair, though, most of our Bay Area schools, as well as homes and many older business, lack air conditioning. My flat doesn’t have any, and that single wall unit is tucked away in a hall where no one spends much time. Given the right angles in the flat’s floorplan, heat doesn’t penetrate the bedrooms, the living room, my office, or the kitchen. When the summer fog rolls in, dropping the temperature dramatically, my teeth start to chatter. Throughout 2007, I repeatedly mused about putting in a new furnace and forced air heat – a big job with a four-figure price tag – but given the slow economy, my tuition, and my business plans, I decided I couldn’t afford it. Still, my hands felt achingly cold. Drafts numbed my toes when I was brushing my teeth. I slept in a wool cap, flannel granny gown, and knee socks, and I still spent an hour shivering before I could defrost enough to drop off to sleep. There had to be something I could do!
Revelation struck. In one of my classes, I learned that as much as one-third of all heating bleeds out of the average house. This was dramatically illustrated with an infrared photo like the one at the top of this post. As I began to think about why my toes were growing numb, I became aware of a draft across the floor. When I peeked under the sink, I realized that even buying an expensive and powerful new furnace wasn’t going to make much difference if I persisted, to paraphrase my mother’s words, in “heating all of Northern California.”
Here’s what I did to improve climate control in my flat:
- Fixed the drafty windows
- Blocked the drafts around and under the doors
- Stopped the drafts around the plumbing penetrations
- Learned to better manage the placement of the heat that we do have
- Improved the ventilation for summer cooling
- Installed a low-power, convection heater in the office/dining room
I will talk about each of these things in turn, and I will include some photos of my handiwork. But first, I want to say a bit about why this is important enough to merit its own blog post, and one notably shy of pretty pictures. My toes aren’t of any great importance, but the environment that sustains us is.
The World’s Energy Hogs
Among the world’s nations, the United States uses by far the most energy per person. You’re not surprised to learn that, and neither was I. But I was gob-smacked to learn that our nation, which holds just 5% of the world’s population, is using 22% of the world’s fuel.
The nations most prone to hog a disproportionate share of energy are the industrial nations. Populous developing nations that want to emulate the Euro-American lifestyle are crowding into the trough right behind them. The chart at right, which compares the world’s top ten fuel-consuming nations with the ten having the largest populations, clearly reveals these trends.
How do we in the US use all that fuel? Here are the top ten ways:
- Space heating 25%
- Lighting 14%
- Water heating 12%
- Space cooling 11%
- Refrigeration 6%
- Electronics 5%
- Wet cleaning 3%
- Cooking 3%
- Computers 2%
- Ventilation 2%
These data, which were compiled by the US government in collaboration with utility companies, were shared in a class I’m taking at UC Berkeley Extension. Adding up the subtotals, it turns out that our buildings are gobbling up 38.9% of America’s total fuel. That’s more than industry (32.7%) and more than transportation (28.4%).
And it’s not necessary! We humans know how to design far more energy-efficient buildings. As my prof Ryan Stroupe pointed out, indiginous people have been building reasonably energy-efficient buildings for most of humankind’s history, and without any help from architects! The Hawaiian dwelling above is a great example of such a building; its breezy design harnesses trade winds for passive cooling – despite the warm climate and a lack of air conditioning, it has a comfortably cool interior.
Until technological advances made the column-free, cantilevered, sealed and artificially-lit skyscraper possible, people had to use passive heating and cooling and natural light in buildings. Even “old” skyscrapers such as the Woolworth Building, which was the world’s tallest building in 1911, had windows that opened and brought natural light into every office. The massive, modern, glass and steel erections that characterize modern city centers were built at a time when we saw energy as unlimited – it was going to be, in words of a former atomic commissioner, “too cheap to meter.”
The architect’s world view hasn’t caught up with the real world yet. Despite energy shortages, sky rocketing energy bills, and global warming, clients are still demanding and architects are still designing edifices that in Ryan’s memorable phrase “simply bleed energy.”
I can’t do much about the skyscrapers, but I found multiple ways to improve energy efficiency in my flat. Here’s what I did.
Closing the windows
At the top of the post, I said that my energy bill was “going through the roof.” That’s not quite accurate. While I’m pretty sure that Alexei’s top-floor heating energy was going through the roof, the biggest proportion of mine was going out the windows.
Our bedrooms came equipped with banged-up, wood-framed casement windows that no longer fit tightly. In one case, someone had tried to plug the drafts by sticking black foam weather stripping around the inside of the white frame. It not only looked awful, it didn’t work. The foam was falling away in clumps, and the wind whistled through the gaps left behind.
My solution was to remove the foam and create the wind baffle shown at left. Made from soft, easy-to-trim pine strips, the baffle is painted to look like a part of the original window. I measured and cut five strips of quarter-round dowel to fit each not-quite-square window: one strip for each of the three unbroken sides, and two for the side with the latch. I mitered all four corners and cut flat ends above and below the latch. I then used white glue and finishing nails to hold the quarter round in place, filling both the nail dimples and the imperfectly joined corners with wood dough. (My favorite is Zar Wood Patch because it’s water-soluble, scent-free and dries to a nicely sandable surface.)
As soon as the baffle was installed, I could stand in front of the windows without feeling a draft. (Years earlier, I had found that I also needed to seal the wood-framed windows at my hundred-year-old Downey Street house. In that case, the draft entered through a large gap between the gypsum wall board and the underside of the windowsill. I used Zar to seal that one too, painting the dried wood dough to match the windowsill.)
Window coverings also made a difference. In the guest bedroom, we installed heavy curtains that can be drawn to fully cover the window. Upstairs, in Alexei’s bedroom, we did even better by installing three-layer insulating curtains that have a lining, a heavy fabric layer, and a wind-blocking interfacing layer.
Fixing the Drafty Doors
Several doors in the house were also letting in drafts. I chose to weatherstrip the back door, which is usually kept closed, with an adhesive foam. It’s not pretty, but it doesn’t show.
|Low-tech, but effective! This brown
cloth tube blocks the draft
flowing under the door.
The door to our “watercloset” – the part of the split bathroom that holds the toilet – posed a more difficult problem. The watercloset window opens onto a light well, and when the wind is blowing, it leaks underneath the door into the front hall. (It also sounds like Moaning Myrtle is trapped in the toilet!) One solution would be to keep the window perpetually shut, but that’s not always desirable since it provides the only ventilation to a room that needs olfactory relief.
My husband Mason came up with an easy, low-tech solution. He ordered the cloth device shown here after seeing it advertised on TV. It’s a fabric tube bisected with a lengthwise seam. Each of the pockets formed by the seam holds a styrofoam tube. The cloth-encased styrofoam tubes nestle under the door and block the unwanted draft, but it’s easy to open and close the door with this device in place.
After standing in the bathroom draft for many months – trying not to notice that my toes were going numb as I brushed my teeth – I finally got down on the floor and stuck my head under the sink to find out where the draft was coming from.
It was coming through a big hole in the wall. The opening was for the sink’s drain, but it had been been so generously cut that I could curl my fingers through the gap and brush my fingertips against the stucco outside.
While the generous size of my “plumbing penetration” was a bit surprising, you will frequently find drafts where drains and water pipes enter the house. It’s one of the most common holes in the building envelope, and these openings are seldom given enough finishing and insulation.
Attending to my drafty drain required a trip to the hardware store where, for a couple of dollars, I bought a round aluminum flange. One side opened with a hinge and snapped around the pipe. It didn’t do the whole job; I still needed to fill in some jagged edges to enable the flange to cover them. I also needed to tack finishing nails around the flange to get it to lie flat against the irregular surface of the wall. This job took about an hour, cost less than $10, and voila! Once again, I had feeling in my toes.
Managing the Heat
After we discovered how much cold had been leaking in under the bathroom door, Mason began systematically closing the door to any room we weren’t using, heating only the areas we were occupying. Directing and managing the placement of the heat heat we did have made a difference. Upstairs, in Alexei’s flat, where the wall heater is placed opposite the door to her guest bedroom. Alexei says that the guest room’s temperature dropped a good five degrees when she began keeping it closed off, while the living room grew perceptibly warmer.
Given all we’ve learned, I’m no longer lusting for a big furnace. That creaky old wall heater is being used more effectively not only because we’re directing the heat flow, but also because we replaced its thermostat with a programmable version. The furnace now fires up a bit before we awaken, and we no longer need to remember to turn it down during the day because that’s automatic. The furnace even knows enough to change its plans on the weekends. All this has helped with the temperature of the house, and also made a difference on the bills.
While the wall furnace lacks ducts that would bring heat into our bedroom, I did discover that our ceiling fan – which we installed to keep the room cool enough for sleeping and to mask background noise – could also be used to help heat the room. The fan doesn’t include a heating unit, but its spin direction is reversible. Rotate it clockwise and it cools; turn it counterclockwise and it pushes down the warm air that collects up by our 10-foot ceilings!
Low-Power Convection Heater
I have found a couple things that help defrost my hands. One is an “Eco-heater” that is wall-mounted and uses a convection current to warm the room. About 90% of the heat comes from the back of the panel; it enters a space between the panel and the wall and creates an up-draft that circulates through the whole room.
|Low-power convection heater
is mounted on white spacer legs,
shown in detail at right.
The panel sits parallel
to the wall leaving an open space
behind it; this creates a convection
current that heats the room.
No fan is needed, so the unit is silent.
Panel can be painted to match
the wall as seen above.
The “Eco-Heater” draws about as much power as four light bulbs and plugs into a regular 120 volt US wall socket: 400 watts at 3.3 amps. It measures 23 1/4 inches square and is 3/8 inch thick. I bought mine from Home Depot. They didn’t have it at the store, but it was available from their website. It cost $129 plus shipping; it weighs about 15 pounds.
The panel was easy to mount and paint, and so far, I’m happy with it. It takes the chill off of the room evenly and subtly; there’s no blast of hot air like with most heaters. I have tried it in cool, but not truly cold weather; Mark Twain’s summer hasn’t quite arrived. I haven’t gotten a heating bill since I installed it. It only draws as much current as four light bulbs, so I don’t expect much increase. After the fog rolls in, I will let you know how the bill looks.
My final warm-up trick comes from my physician. She advised me to get some uncooked, instant rice. I was to put it into a deep bowl, microwave it for a few minutes, and then plunge my hands into the hot rice. Nirvana! If I try to warm my hands with water, the residual evaporation that occurs after towel-drying them cools them again almost immediately; with the rice trick, they stay warm.
Here’s my recipe for a complete chilly-weather cheer up: Wrap cold body in a fuzzy blue Snuggie (see illustration below). Heat rice, insert hands. When hands are warm, settle into a comfy chair, hold a cup of hot chai, and insulate lap with a purring cat. Don’t shake or stir. Enjoy straight up!
- Comfort and Joy Interior Design
- Historic Cracker Houses in Florida: lessons in solar design
- Eco-Heater reviews on Amazon.com
- 2,500 years of passive solar architecture
- Video: Keynote speech by Patrick Dixon: Scandalously wasteful skycrapers and global warming
The Cult of the Snuggie!
During the winter of 2007, Alexei and I joined “the cult of the Snuggie.” Very camp, very au courant. To learn about this secret society, watch the YouTube video attached to the link here.