December: Looking Back

Our goal for our 2016 Zero Carbon project was to learn, to tweak, and to make a plan for larger changes.

What we learned:

We can make a massive difference to our own carbon footprint through physical changes to our house, how we get around, and through our purchasing choices. It requires institutional change, too. For example, Alberta still uses coal for electricity generation, which increases our own carbon footprint. As coal use is phased out by 2030, our carbon footprint from electricity will drop massively.

What we tweaked:

To reduce electricity use, we replaced the freezer with a smaller and more efficient model, bought a drying rack to reduce dryer use by about a quarter, replaced lights with LEDS (for an 80% reduction in power use), and tweaked the use and arrangement of air filters.

To reduce natural gas use, we turned down the water heater, fixed leaks around windows, replaced a door sweep, and filled odd gaps. We are still working on insulting the basement where the wood of the house sits on the cement foundation, caulking behind the baseboards in the back entry, and finding a better dryer vent.

To reduce secondary carbon production, we reduced garbage and increased recycling, planted a tree which promptly died (we’ll try again this spring), changed driving habits to increase fuel efficiency, tried to waste less food, and ate more local food, and more vegan and vegetarian meals.

Our results:

The model to measure our carbon footprint we used last year has been revamped and comes up with totally different numbers, so there’s no way to compare this year’s numbers with last year’s. We do have some hard numbers for fuel use.

We thought we were driving more because of some lifestyle changes, but in fact our mileage is lower. Our total fuel use is down 17%. That’s mostly coincidental to our zero carbon project, not earned.

Our electricity use for 2016 resulted in 7.15 tonnes of carbon creation. If we were in BC it would be 1.28 tonnes. That’s the difference between more hydro vs. more coal as a source for electricity production. That means an electric car is not our next best purchase, and neither is replacing our gas furnace with a heat exchanger. Our natural gas use released 4.19 tonnes of carbon.

Our natural gas use decreased by 7%, and electricity by 12%, for 2016 compared to 2015. Many of the changes were done part way through the year. Our estimates for a full year after all changes are completed are 15% for natural gas, and 20% for electricity.

The total cost for the work was a little under $1000. A third of that was for an assessment. We deliberately looked for the easy and inexpensive changes to start with. After this, the price goes up.

What we’ll do next:

  1. We have some house sealing jobs to finish.
  1. As appliances die, we’ll replace them with best in class for energy efficiency.We’d get about a 50% drop in electricity use by switching all appliances to best in class.
  1. We’ll keep watching for developments with solar panels and solar tiles. If we get hit with a damaging hail storm, that might be when we buy, either solar tiles or panels to mount on a newly shingled roof.
  1. We’ll watch government taxes and subsidies, using them to move a little faster.

We’ve had a lot of fun with our zero carbon project, learned a lot, were constantly surprised, and are pleased with what we’ve accomplished. We’ll continue to make changes, but not to blog monthly. We’ll post irregularly, when something interesting comes up. If the work we’ve done inspires some changes at your place, let us know. We’ll cheer you on.

Maureen and Mark

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August: Odds and Bits

In August we worked on odds and bits related to previous months.

Natural Gas

We’re digging through a list of repairs: insulation, cracks in the walls, leaks around windows. We’re hoping for a payoff this winter, with a better-sealed house.

We turned our water heater down one notch. It was fine. Two notches and we still had hot showers. With guests coming we debated turning it up then decided to leave it as is and test on the visitors. It was fine. When they left we turned it down again, and that’s when the cold showers started. We now know exactly the lowest setting to leave it on, except when we turn it right down when we’re away.

Electricity

We had a 5% drop by April, followed by a huge spike, reflecting Maureen’s need for filters and air conditioning in the summer. We tested each filter and swapped which rooms they’re in, so the most efficient is the most used. Except we forgot about the filter in the basement that runs constantly. We’ll check that one, too, and swap it for something most efficient, if it’s an old one.

There was another spike in winter. We wondered if it was more than just weather related. Christmas? Last year we had no house guests, and surely we don’t bake enough to make a difference. We tested our Christmas lights and found an insignificant load. Still, we’ll switch to solar lights for outdoors when our LEDs die, and we got rid of our old incandescent strings.

We’re washing most of our laundry in cold water, and have noticed no difference whatsoever in the clothes. They’re still clean enough.

We rejigged some power bars. The stereo is now kept powered down (it was the biggest ghost power drain).

We turned off everything while we were away. The neighbour watching our house texted it was hot and he’d cranked up the air conditioning. “No, no!,” Mark texted back. “We’re trying to keep our power use down!” “Just giving you a carbon scare,” the neighbour replied. So that’s a thing now – carbon pranking. Thanks Terrance.

Lights

We still find lights left on. That’s our mindfulness practice – noticing. The halogen spotlights in the kitchen are starting to die, so we’ll switch them to LEDs.

Solar

We realized if our utility went to renewables, we could skip solar panels entirely. In the meantime, we’re drooling over the idea of solar roof shingles. Hopefully they’ll be a reasonable option the next time hail destroys our roof.Elon Musk announces Solar Roof Product

Garden

We planted a new tree. It promptly died. Well, not quite. Leaves died, tree’s alive. We’re watching it set out little tiny new buds, and hoping it survives.

We found some biochar. Maureen had heard about it, but didn’t know where to buy it in Calgary. Here’s the blurb on biochar from airterra. http://www.airterra.ca/

Biochar is a high carbon content, charcoal-like material, made by heating plant matter to temperatures above 400 degrees C in a low- to no-oxygen environment. Biochar is valuable as a soil restructuring agent that enhances plant growth and health by improving the following soil characteristics: moisture retention, nutrient retention, provision of a beneficial microbe habitat, and soil pliability. Nutrients that are adsorbed onto the surface of biochar’s porous structure become more readily available to plants through an enhanced ionic exchange capacity. The introduction of biochar into soils provides a home for beneficial microbes to thrive. These beneficial microbes stimulate mycorrhizal fungi, which in turn help plants thrive through improved plant root health. Furthermore, the amendment of biochar into soils is a means by which carbon is removed from the atmosphere. This also increases soil organic carbon.

We’re trying it both as a carbon sink, and to test for improved garden growth. We worked lots into the soil around the new tree. Yes, the one that died. So – we’ll report back on how that’s going.

In anticipation of October’s focus on food, we’re getting to the farmer’s market more consistently for local food, and putting up a little for winter treats. Yummm.

For September we’ll move on to transportation.

 

February: Heating the House

We’re assuming anyone reading this blog is already convinced we need to act on climate change. For anyone who wants to know more, or wants to see Al Gore be positive (really!), check out this February 2016 TED talk. Al says we’re gonna make it. After watching this, we feel even more determined to dig deep and see what changes we can make.  http://www.ted.com/talks/al_gore_the_case_for_optimism_on_climate_change#t-147031

I (Maureen) plant for early, early blooms, because I particularly love that. My first flowers usually bloom at the end of March (one year in three), or the first week of April (two years out of three). This year my first flowers (a bunch of snowdrops) were in full bloom on February 26. As a gardener, I’m thrilled. As an inhabitant of planet Earth, I’m horrified at the damage we’re causing.

And so – to work.

In February we took a closer look at our natural gas consumption.

Step 1. Test for drafts

Requirements: 1 stick of incense, a small bowl to tap the ash into, a flashlight, a notebook and a pen. Price: $0.00.

Recommendations: Do not do it within days of dental surgery. The incense made Mark a little woozy. We turned off the furnace and turned on the fans that vent to outside to create negative air pressure in the house. A windy day might help. Body movement creates drafts, so wait a moment after moving to let air currents settle down. Bright light makes it harder to see the smoke, but in the darkest corners a flashlight is required.

Usefulness: Smoke from the incense stick was much more sensitive than our hands for finding drafts. Both were better than our guesses of where the drafts were coming from (um…that would be places we can see light shining through).

We had some ideas of what was drafty, so we knew where to start. We found some surprises (of course), including a cobweb collected by the incense stick (which thankfully did not catch fire). Our lovely fifteen-year-old double paned argon-filled reproduction wood sash windows have some problems with weather-stripping. We mapped out the drafty spots in awkward sketches in the notebook.

We found a few drafts around the front and back doors (not as much as we expected), and some of the power plugs are drafty, though not all of them. Years ago we put in those little insulation things you put in power plugs (Google says it’s an electrical outlet and light switch plate draft stopper foam gasket). We’ll need to check on some of them.

We’re also curious about the roof (the snow-melt pattern tells us there are warmer and cooler patches). Our back entry is cold and drafty in nasty weather (it’s a lean-to added after the house was built, long before we owned it). Mark suspects there are some air leaks in our dugout basement that houses the furnace (this is ladder and flashlight land where Maureen dares not venture because allergies).

Step 2: Furnace and Water Heater Efficiency

The furnace is rated at 92% efficiency. This is officially high-efficiency but not brilliant. Best available is 97%.

The water heater has an EF rating of .59 (no idea what that measures). The Energuide range for new water heaters ranges from .52 (worst), to .80 (best). Ours is sitting firmly on the low end. Now we know – when the water heater dies, have a chat with the electrician about energy efficiency before he installs a new tank.

Step 3: The Energy Assessment

Thursday, February 11 Kerry Webb from Calgary Thermal Vision spent the morning inspecting our house with a thermal camera. Price $315, including GST.  www.calgarythermalvision.com

The biggest hassle was moving furniture and pictures 18” away from exterior walls the evening before, to let the wall temperature adjust. It was a challenge to keep the house functional, while we shuffled furniture in crowded rooms, and piled all the extras in our offices.

It’s a good thing we didn’t rent a thermal camera on our own – we would have had no idea what we were looking at. Having a knowledgeable guy attached to the camera was very good. Kerry inspected the entire house, inside and out, including the dugout basement. There are lots of small things we can work on, but there was nothing horrific. He gave us tips on how to tackle the problem areas.

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The photos are of the west side of our house, with a regular camera and a thermal camera. Kerry says all houses will show some heat loss along the base of the house. The important thing is the temperature difference. By insulating along the rim joist we can reduce the amount of heat loss. That’s probably the biggest task we’re going to tackle. Well, not we. Mark will. Maureen does not venture into the basement.

The back entry is cold because it has no foundation. More insulation won’t fix that. The roof insulation isn’t brilliant, but because of the oddities of how the house is constructed brilliant isn’t possible. This is not where we’re going to make great gains. The windows have some gaps in weather-stripping we need to repair. There’s a cold spot on my office ceiling that has no explanation – we’ll check the eavestroughing outside that window to see if there’s a leak. Mark is insulating around the dryer vent and the old gas pipe that’s been cut off and plugged but not insulated. We’ll put some insulation in the no-longer-used, incorrectly-installed cable outlet that’s drafty.

There was nothing here desperate for attention, and nothing worth putting a lot of money into. This was a huge surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been, as we know our gas consumption is lower than average.

And so, in our quest to find the changes that will give us the biggest bang for our buck, March will be all about electricity. We’ll check our appliances and try to break down our electricity use, looking for the most efficient changes to make.

January: Where We Begin

January was all about assessing our current carbon footprint.

First, we looked up our fuel consumption. This was easy. Enmax, our electricity and natural gas provider, has an on-line service that totals and graphs consumption. One stop data.

For our two cars, we calculated our annual average mileage, and inputted model information. The on-line carbon footprint calculators worked out the rest. This will be based on official mileage for those vehicles, not our actual mileage, as we haven’t kept data on that. We will collect it this year.

We used two calculators to calculate our carbon footprint. The first, recommended by the Suzuki Foundation, focuses solely on fuel use.

https://treecanada.ca/en/programs/grow-clean-air/carbon-calculator/#tabs1-energy

Based on this, our carbon footprint is 20.34 metric tons of CO2. This is for 3 people in a 1200 sq ft house, no basement, detached unheated garage, in inner city Calgary.

However, we also wanted to include secondary carbon, from making and transporting the goods and services we use, so we looked at other websites, and chose

http://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx

It’s easy to use, to reset, and to play with, and it breaks down the various categories clearly. The two calculators came up with the same carbon footprint for fuel consumption.

Our total carbon footprint including secondary consumption is 24.42 metric tons of CO2, for three people.

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The average for Canada is 20 metric tons per person. Compared to that we’re doing really well. The average for the industrial world is 11 (we’re still doing well compared to that), worldwide average is 4 (we’re double that), and the worldwide target to combat climate change is 2. Ideally, we need to reach carbon zero.

Our first surprise – that our energy footprint as low as it is. Of course, that’s a relative thing. It’s still far, far too high.

The reasons it’s low compared to average? None of us drive to work or school (we’re in a walkable bikeable transitable neighbourhood). We live in a small house. We’ve made some changes over the years, like installing an efficient furnace, replacing old single-paned (multi-paned mullioned windows) with argon-filled double paned windows, and choosing efficient appliances as they need replacing.

Our second surprise ­– that our natural gas use is lower than average for our area, but our electricity use is higher. This one has us scratching our heads. Our guess is that this is a reflection of Maureen’s health issues. We run air filters through the year and a portable air conditioner on the hottest days to help with air quality. We’ll try to break this down further when we look at electricity use.

Note: Calgary’s electricity is generated in part by coal-fired plants, so our carbon footprint for electricity will be higher than for the same consumption in other provinces. The coal-fired plants are being phased out, but for now, it’s higher-carbon electricity. Our personal use is also higher than use in our area – that’s the piece we can work on.

The third surprise – we checked the price of carbon offsets. This is a purchase into someone else’s carbon sequestering project, to provide a carbon sink equal to our carbon use. For our current carbon footprint, this would cost $400ish, for the year. That’s it – that’s the yearly price for the three of us to get to zero carbon.

But that’s not the path we want to take. We want to reduce our carbon footprint. So to work.

In February we’ll focus on learning more about our natural gas consumption. We’ll test for drafts, and get an energy assessment. Hopefully we’ll learn what’s going on with our roof insulation, and discover why our poorly built back entry is so cold in deepest winter. We’ll also look at the efficiency of our furnace and water heater.

We were hoping to rent a thermal camera and play, but it turns out the rental from Home Depot is only available in the US. Alas. No geek out play time for us. We’ll have to be satisfied with a report.

Maureen and Mark

Here are some links we found useful for learning about reducing our carbon footprint:

http://www.davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/reduce-your-carbon-footprint/

http://www.atcoenergysense.com/For-Homeowners/Tools-and-Calculators/

We used calculators that worked in different units of measure than our data. We googled the conversions, but if you want a chart, here’s one we bumped into:

http://www.atcoenergysense.com/For-Homeowners/Tools-and-Calculators/Energy-Conversion-Table

Fueled By Hope

The day the United Nations COP21 climate change summit accord was signed in Paris on December 13, 2015, committing us all to a lower carbon future, I was thrilled, especially by the increased discussion of the need to get to zero carbon. I linked to an article about it on Facebook, and wrote, “Now we need to get to work.”

Then I started thinking about it. Clearly there’s a ton of work for governments and industry. What can we do as individuals, in addition to lobbying, donating and voting for those who are working to protect our environment? I don’t even know what zero carbon means. What will it look like, at my house?

I tend to do this – learn something new in theory and then need to figure out what it looks like on the ground. In my house, in my garden. So I hatched a plan and talked my husband into joining in. This blog is our first step.

Through 2016, we are going to work on this question: How do we get to zero carbon, at our house?

I wrote to the Suzuki Foundation for advice. This was their reply:

Thank you for your interest in carbon neutrality. The process is actually fairly simple:
– Measure the emissions from your household
– Reduce emissions where possible at your household
– Purchase emissions reductions made elsewhere (carbon offsets) to balance the remaining emissions you were not able to reduce.

I’m not convinced it’ll be simple. Mark says it’s kind of like saying you play the flute by blowing in one end and moving your fingers up and down. But we’re going to leap in and learn to play.

Our plan is to tackle one topic a month, researching and making the easy changes.  We’ll research the big stuff too, like electric cars and solar panels, so when the time is right we’ll be able to move quickly. That’s not likely to be this year.

January will be about finding out our current carbon footprint, and what it would cost to buy carbon offsets for that amount. This will define where we are and set a price on the problem. We’re also hoping to book an energy assessment of our house, so we’ll know what we need to work on most.

We’ll report on our progress at the end of the month, and set goals for the next month.

Maureen and Mark