4 Favorite Easy Tips for Winterizing Your Home (Saving Money and the Planet)

If you are serious about changing your carbon footprint or about saving money, then this article is for you.  Rex and I are big believers in energy audits, because you would be surprised to know how much a “regular” house leaks.  However, I like knowing that there are ways that I can personally accomplish something that will save us money and time and is ultimately good for the planet.  I especially like knowing there are easy ways.  I can imagine that I have options, and they seem attainable.

Within this informational slide show by The Daily Green, there are ways to clean out or tweak your current large, energy-consuming appliances and ways to get the most out of what you already have, and many of them for the DIY’er.  There are many important weatherizing improvements listed, such as caulking, sealing, and insulating around windows, and cleaning out or replacing appliance filters.  You should always determine if your improvements are covered by state or federal rebates, tax deductions, or if you qualify for low-income weatherization programs in your area.  You can Google that for your state.  Here in Missouri, we have several.  So in addition, I have a few favorites on this list of weatherization tips.

Okay, now the fun part.  My favorite Top 4 Weatherization Tips:

images Possibly the first thing we do in the fall in Missouri, is to get out our sweaters and jackets.  We really look forward to the autumn change in weather, in part because it generally follows a pretty hot summer, and also because of the beautiful autumn colors.  However, sweaters are not just for the outdoors; a light-weight sweater-type layer (over a sleeveless shirt or t-shirt) works beautifully inside the house to help maintain a comfortable body temperature without having to pay $ for it daily, as you would by turning UP your thermostat.  And it just feels right, like you could be snuggled up with a kitty in your lap, drinking a piping hot cup of tea.  For you die-hard t-shirts-and-flip-flops-in-winter folks – remember, it’s also better for your health to keep your room temperatures lower, and it’s better for the planet.

Another one of my favorite suggestions for winterizing your home is using an energy monitor.  ted-winterize-lgAbsolutely a favorite!  Especially, if you like to read gauges and thermometers, you will get a thrill from monitoring your energy usage.  We have a voltmeter in the house, which tells us how much solar energy we have stored in the batteries.  Also, our inverter tells us how much AC it is creating, which translates into how many watts we are currently using.  It helps you keep your usage in check.  Our batteries get more of a challenge during winter, so a monitor really helps us stay on top of things and adjust our usage.

**A sidebar: .  AC is Alternating Current, that which is grid electricity and DC is Direct Current, which is produced by solar power.  The inverter allows DC to switch into AC to be used in the house with regular electrical appliances.  We use both AC and DC in our off-grid application.  DC appliances tend to be more expensive and less available, but they are more efficient than AC appliances.  It’s a trade-off.  Our inverter is fairly efficient, inverting 93% of incoming DC current to AC, but inverters are different, some more efficient than others. **

This is a super-cool idea!  Get creative with your refrigeration to save energy and money.

air-fridge-winterize-lg (1)  Take advantage of the cold winter air outside to cool a hand-built insulated cabinet attached to your house, through a door or even through a window (which we used to do!).  This blog article says all you need is some wood, insulation and a couple of computer fans (or socks!).  Get detailed with the super-frig. 

And last but not least – my #1 favorite, because it requires some creativity and sewing on my part.  😉  A Draft Snake ~  You can find many different styles to purchase too.

drafts-winterize-lg

Dodging Drafts:  According to the U. S. Department of Energy, doors and windows can waste 5% to 30% of your energy.  That’s a lot.  As a tribute to what may have started back in the Great Depression, we can see some very artistic modern versions of this tried-and-true method, some with a lot of personality.

colin-draft-snake-lg green-draft-snake-lg

These draft snakes can be as subtle as the fabric they are made with,  such as this beauty on the windowsill, buttons-draft-snake-lg or they can be bright and lovely like this patchwork snake.

bright-draft-snake-lg

It’s especially fun when children can get in on the action, maybe even helping to make one.  Or, you may have to make a special snake just for your little one, since it may be moved all about the house, doing a different job – that of companion snake. 🙂

kid-draft-snake-lg

One blog post states:  “In the fight against cold drafts (not to mention pollution and global warming), draft snakes can be real superheroes.”

spidey-draft-snake-lg

Enjoy your process of weatherizing your home!  By all means, get an energy audit and save yourself some dough; many states offer rebates for weatherization if it involves an energy audit.  Inspire others, and share your photos and ideas here.  I will be sharing photos of my draft snake soon.

Cheers!

Lorian


The Power of Phantoms

This article concerns anyone who is into being more sustainable, solar powered, or just generally more energy efficient…

We remember those awesome appliances that didn’t hide anything.  They did what you expected them to do  Toaster Lady (once you got over the excitement of the fact that they actually *did* those things).  And they didn’t have any “sensing” abilities or black boxes. Ever wonder about those little black boxes that are attached to our power cords and what our appliances are “sensing” about us?

Phantom Dr_CaligariStandby power, also called phantom load, vampire power, vampire draw, or leaking electricity, refers to the electric power consumed by electronic appliances while they are switched off or in a standby mode.  

Any device that includes a remote or a little black transformer box is always on.  Home theater systems and other remote control “sensing” equipment draws on electricity 24 hours/day, 7 days/week.  These sensing devices are always on, watching…waiting…literally searching…for a signal, a sign of life from the couch.  Phantom load, as this is referred to, is approaching 15% of the electrical usage in the U.S.  Imagine all of the fossil fuels needed to run stuff we don’t even think about or know is turned on!  In Missouri, coal supplies most of the energy, then nuclear and hydro.  Many new products have phantom loads, products which may be inventive but are unnecessary, such as light-up picture frames.

The wasted standby power of individual household electronic devices is typically very small, but the sum of all such devices within the household becomes significant. Standby power makes up a portion of homes’ miscellaneous electric load, which also includes small appliances, security systems, and other small power draws.

Fix Those Phantoms!

One way to get around the phantom load issue is to plug equipment into $3 power strips, U.S. power stripand you can turn off the switch for the 2/3 of the day the equipment is not in use.  Also, cell phone chargers, camera chargers – anything with the little black transformer box on it – uses power when left plugged into the outlet.  These chargers also work well on a power strip.  We like to use the kind of strip that has a little red light.  It is much easier to see if it’s been left on.  Another option is to have an electrician wire your miscellaneous electronic devices to wall switches.

A Small Change in Habits…

Standby power can be as high as 10 to 15 watts per device, and occasionally more. A 2005 study estimates the number of standby appliances in the EU at 3.7 billion.  Although the power needed for functions like displays, indicators, and remote control functions is relatively small, the fact that the devices are continuously plugged in, and the number of such devices in the average household means that the energy usage can reach up to 22 percent of all appliance consumption, and around 10 percent of total residential consumption.  It’s up to each of us to make a difference, so turn off those phantoms!

 For something a little more technical…

Research on Phantoms

Alan Meier, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in Berkeley, noted that many household appliances are never fully switched off, but spend most of the time in a standby mode. His 1998 study estimated that standby power consumption accounted for approximately 5% of total residential electricity consumption in America, “adding up to more than $3 billion in annual energy costs” (this is calculated at current 2010 cheap electricity rate per kW/hr).  According to America’s Department of Energy, national residential electricity consumption in 2004 was 1.29 billion megawatt hours (MWh)—5% of which is 64 million MWh. The wasted energy, in other words, is equivalent to the output of 18 typical power stations!  Meier’s 2000 study (2 years later) showed that standby power accounted for around 10% of household power-consumption, twice as much as he estimated 2 years prior.

On a personal note, we are fairly frugal with our energy usage and have absolutely no phantom load, except for the occasional “I forgot to turn off the power strip last night!”.  Being aware of what appliances are running or being used and when really gets you involved with your energy usage.  It’s a good feeling, this Awareness.  🙂

February Landscape Tasks for Nature Lovers

February is an excellent time to work outside – cool temps, no bugs, no hurry.  Here in Missouri Zone 6, in the time of Imbolc (an ancient Gaelic celebration of Spring), just after The Day of Marmota Monax (according to him, Spring will be early this year)

Imageand well into the Mayan New Year,Image the sun is shining, the temperature is in the upper 40’s, and it is quite pleasant. Which brings us to how now is a good time of year to do a few things for your landscape, and your trees and shrubs will thank you.

Prune for Structure

If you haven’t already done so, corrective pruning works well now because the plant’s energy is still in the roots.  It is much less stressful for the plant or tree if you do a more vigorous pruning when the plant is dormant.  You can easily see the branching structure of your trees and shrubs, and at this time of year, you won’t have to dispose of all the leaves.  Be careful that you do not cut off your spring flowers, because many of the spring flowering plants are budded and just waiting for enough warmth to open up.  These particular plants (viburnum, lilac, azalea, etc.) should be pruned after flowering.  So, you don’t want to tip-cut the early blooming plants like this, but it is okay to remove old canes that are less vigorous. Cut those canes back as close to the ground as you can.   Keep in mind that maple pruning at this time will cause a lot of sap loss, unless you want to collect it in a bucket and cook it down for maple syrup!  It’s always a good idea to keep an eye out for dead wood and remove it when you see it. Dead limbs provide an entry into the live wood for insects and rot.

Cut Back Grasses

Now is a good time to cut your grass!  Ornamental grasses (such as liriope/monkey grass, maiden grass, fountain grass, etc.) should be cut back to about 6″ from the ground for larger grasses and about 2″ from the ground for smaller monkey grass.  When the dead or old grass blades are gone, the soil will warm up faster; the plant will begin to grow sooner Liriope Muscariand will look lovelier.

Transplant Plants

The spring digging season is about to begin.  Now is a good time for transplanting deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs, and to make arrangements to plant larger trees and shrubs that will be field dug at the nursery.  This timing will help you get better choices, as quality plants can get picked over by spring.  Also, early planting eliminates transplant shock when no foliage is exposed.  You will also be able to take advantage of the spring rains and have less watering and maintenance work.  If you have very little experience, I recommend you consult a Horticulturist for advice on transplant information regarding your specific plant or tree choice and your location and/or help in accomplishing your goals.

For the DIYer, some things to bear in mind, which is not total but will give you a good start when planting a new nursery tree or shrub:

1)  “Call Before You Dig”, that is, dial “811”;

2) Be certain that the plants you have chosen will work well in your landscape – Does it need well-drained or moist soil? Will the plant like the intense heat/sun on the western side of your house or does it prefer the sunny south or cooler north side, or what?

3) The width of the new hole you dig should be twice the size of the root ball, and the depth should be a little bit shallower.  If the root ball is planted in too much depth, the tree could drown; too high, it could dry out.  Create a little ring of dirt around the root ball that will bring some water to the roots and not dry out too fast.  Mulch and water it in.

4)  When digging out a shrub, keep as much of the soil and root base intact as possible.  Move root ball and place it in a newly dug hole that is well-aerated and larger than the root ball.  Then, you can fill it in with amended soil, if the original soil is not adequate.  Keep the base of the plant slightly higher than the surrounding dirt.  Mulch and water it in.

A Word About Natives

We really want to encourage  native plants and edibles instead of large areas of mono-culture non-native lawns.  In fact, check out this blog about starting a veggie garden (with great resources too!).  Also, read this article if you would like to know “How to Start an Organic Garden in 9 Easy Steps”.  Try to buy or grow as many native plants, shrubs and trees as you can; rudbeckia and echinacea (640x480) (2)they will attract all manner of birds, butterflies, bees, and dragonflies, will resist drought and require less water once established, and they do not require chemical inputs to survive.  Many natives are perennials or will reseed, giving you years of enjoyment from the original plant or seed.

Take Time for the Small Pleasures

Implementing these suggestions now will help you stay caught-up in your landscape gardening.  Instead of hurrying through spring with the usual business of over-burdened schedules and appointments and last-minute gardening, you can approach the excitement of spring in an unhurried manner, able to pay full attention and smile. 🙂

Sunny Skies and Off-Grid Living

It’s not for the faint of heart, but living off grid can be very satisfying.  All you need is the Sun (and the equipment, of course!).  Even with the diffused lighting of a cloudy day, solar panels will produce some energy.

solar panels web small

Having your energy produced by solar panels is environmentally friendly, renewable, sustainable, and by being off-grid, you don’t have the additional monthly “service availability charge” coming in from the electric company.  Besides, you’ll need that $25 per month when you have to replace your battery pack!  Battery replacement varies, but the average batteries will last 3 to 6 years in an off-grid situation.  To be off-grid, you have no electric lines running from your house to your utility company.  We will also touch on grid intertie and grid-interactive systems, but since we live off-grid, that’s the perspective we’ll share for this article.  Now, contrary to what you may have heard, solar is a very cost-effective way to reduce your energy costs and your carbon footprint.  Check out this blog at Earthtimes.org to learn the top 5 myths discouraging homeowners from getting solar panels.

To See the Forest for the Trees

We always knew we wanted to be powered by the sun, even after having enjoyed the pleasure of lanterns for a couple of years, but when we realized that we needed to allow 30,000 square feet of forest clearing (1000’ x 30’) to allow for the power lines (never mind that coal is the main driver for electricity in this state), that did it for us.  We didn’t want to use coal, and we didn’t want a view from our house of a cut-out swath of forest and electric poles and wires.  Destroying all those trees for our electric consumption seemed sad, considering that we moved to the forest because of the trees.  You do, however, have to have a clearing for your panels to receive sunlight, and we deal with this continually, living in the forest.

forest for the treesOur panels have a “window” of about 6 hours of sun per day, which is about as small a window as you would want.  It’s too hard to part with the trees!

It’s a Battery Life

The winter has the largest effect when being off-grid, due to increased cloud cover, shorter days, and colder temperatures influencing the battery pack.  So, the batteries react much the same as the batteries in your car; when the temperatures drop, they have less capacity to hold energy.  Battery storage in a warm spot is helpful.  Just remember, they do produce hydrogen gas when charging, which is explosive, so they need to be safely vented.  It has become a real household occupation to check the voltmeter inside the house to see our battery charge.  It lets us manage our battery bank; you really want to keep your batteries above 50% capacity for their health.  And speaking of health, you have to tend them gently every so often with a dose of distilled water in each of their little cells…Now, we know if we can watch that show, if we should turn off the frig for the evening to preserve power, if we need to use the generator, or if we should just chill out and use our DC lights to read a book. It all depends on us.

Image

battery bank wired in series

An interesting sidebar about solar in winter due to a chemical process involving how the silicon reacts to temperature, the coldest sunny day of the year will give you the highest voltages coming off your panels.  We have to design the system based on this, because you can damage your charge controller if it hasn’t been sized for this higher winter voltage.

Here in Missouri, you can have many days in a row without sunshine.  So, what do you do?  Some people try a hybrid system of solar with wind energy.  Wind energy is site-specific, and there isn’t that much wind on this eastern side of the state.  We mainly get it in the spring.  It can be a help, but it won’t give you everything you may need to fill in the gaps.  A wind system needs to have a tower where the bottom part of the blade is at a minimum of 30’ above the nearest obstruction, such as buildings or trees.  For us, this would mean having a wind turbine blade’s lowest point starting at 110′, since our trees are easily 80′ tall.  Another option is charging your battery pack with a generator, which is loud, polluting and somewhat expensive (depending on your circumstances and how much you have to use it), if it’s a gas generator.  A diesel generator that can run off of WVO (waste vegetable oil) would be the optimum choice.  Batteries will always need an equalization charge approximately every month, which can be done with a charge controller, but a generator is *almost* a necessity for an off-grid system.

E = Efficiency

The key to off-grid living is to use as little power as necessary year round.  Efficiency everywhere – lighting, appliances and usage – is essential.  When we go to bed, no appliances are on, except for the refrigerator, which cycles periodically.  No chargers are plugged in; all phantom loads are off, due to power strips.  Our normal-size Energy Star refrigerator (with small freezer on top) is our biggest load in the house; it uses an average of 1200 watts per day.  Probably everyone’s biggest energy consumer (besides heating and air conditioning or the Jacuzzi)  hmmm, maybe we’ll do another post about the pleasures of a hillbilly hot tub  is the hot water tank.  Starting out with a propane hot water tank seemed like the best option for us back in 1994, but when the tank broke last year, we had options!  In order to not rely on fossil fuels, we now heat our water with a wood-fired hot water system, soon to have a solar aspect to it for summer use, which we will cover in another blog post, along with photos.

Are you a Candidate for Off-Grid Living?  Compare the Options

Being off-grid makes sense for people who are off-the-beaten-path, Imageor if you already like your privacy and your view and don’t want the trees cut down.  Now if you want to go solar, but have access to or already are grid-tied, then a battery back-up system will give you security when the grid goes down. You can include your essential loads such as a refrigerator, well pump, some lights, and computer on a subpanel that will always be fed through the inverter via grid power or solar power.  Know that most standard grid-intertie inverters are required by law to shut down when there is power outage, so if you want to stay powered when the grid goes down, you will need a battery backup system.  If you aren’t concerned about losing the grid, then pure grid-tie is the least expensive route to go, allowing you to make your energy during the days, then use that energy throughout the month, basically off-setting your electric usage with solar.  In Missouri, we hope to go to a yearly net-metering plan, but right now it’s based on one month.  This means that at this time, we cannot use the excess energy from summertime to offset the darker months of winter.

Ultimately, you can power anything you want with solar, if your pockets are deeper than your desire to be more energy efficient.  It is much more cost-effective – and you’ll greatly reduce your carbon footprint – to become energy efficient, and then use solar to power your lifestyle.