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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Net Zero House

We toured a net zero house in Calgary. The house was built in 1984, and fully renovated a year ago.

They re-insulated the outside, with a spray-on vapour barrier and 4″ of insulation, coated with a finish. The windows were replaced with triple-paned windows.

The gas furnace was replaced with a heat pump, and a second heat pump for the new water tank. They hooked up to existing electrical, duct work and plumbing. The heat pump can heat or cool, but they rarely use air conditioning, as the house doesn’t heat up much in the summer.

Solar panels were installed on the garage roof. The panels produce more power than the house uses in summer, and is fed back into the grid. In winter, they buy power, at the same price as they sell it. They pay a monthly fee for the meter and access to the grid. In their first year they produced slightly more power than they used.

They expected the project to pay for itself in 25 years, but with the Alberta carbon tax coming in 2017, that payout will drop to perhaps 15 years, and continue dropping as power prices climb.

Next, they want to install another set of solar panels on the house roof, for an electric car.

We found it useful to actually see the heat pump in the utility room, with a second unit outside. The simplicity of the change from gas furnace was surprising and encouraging. We’re still waiting for some more price shifts, but we’re getting closer.

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.

 

July: Going Solar?

We’re keenly interested in generating our own power. With a reference through the Solar Energy Society of Alberta, we contacted a local company called  SkyFire Energy.

Satellite imagery of our property was used to determine the best way to install solar panels on our house. Daniel from Skyfire ran some analysis based on current electrical rates (this system involves selling all excess electricity to the utility company, so no batteries are involved.)  With solar cells on our roof, we would be able to generate 6750 kWh per year. The cost would be almost $18,000. It would pay for itself in 15 years, with a return on investment of about 2.5%. After 25 years, we would have made $13,000. (2.5% return on investment does not seem like a lot, but right now there are 10-year GICs going for just over 2%.)

We asked about the maximum potential of power generation for our property, and for about $25,000 (using our garage roof as well as the house),  we could generate more power than we consumed last year. The total estimated potential for us was 11,800 kWh (we consumed about 9900 kWh last year). This would reduce our overall carbon footprint by 40%.

The price tag is not yet economically viable for us. We’re hoping for federal or provincial support for the switch. And we’ll wait to see if prices drop further (there’s been a massive drop in price so far.) The Guardian: Solar panel costs predicted to fall 10% a year

More math: we consumed about 9900 kWh last year. With this year’s project, we’re hoping for about a 20% drop in consumption – to 7920. Panels on the roof would produce about 6750. That leaves us about 15% short. So perhaps the plan could be to wait for a government subsidy and perhaps a price drop, install panels on the roof, continue reducing our energy consumption (nail that 15%), and produce all our own power. Then add panels on the garage roof when we get an electric car.

In the meantime, we researched other options:

We could invest in a solar project. We made a small donation to The Alberta Solar Co-op.

 We’re also watching wind power – inventors are working on bladeless silent small turbines. Green Energy Jubilation: Silent Rooftop Turbine

There’s also microbial power to keep an eye on. MudWatt Microbial Fuel Cell Kit

There’s also interest in thermal heating. CBC news: Geothermal Pitched as Next Big Energy Source

We’re watching development of solar windows. We have the perfect candidate – a large, south facing garage window that we’d be happy to replace. PlanetSave: Solar Windows Ready for Production

However, none of these are in our price range yet and many are not yet commercially available.

In the meantime, we looked at solar toys. The best seem to be for off-grid living, more than for city life. We want more. Maureen has a solar calculator she bought in the 1980s that’s still going strong. The only maintenance it’s had in 30 years is the occasional cleaning of the solar strip across the top.

We did buy a new toy – a string of copper wire fairy lights for the garden. That, the solar calculator and a radiometer is the extent of solar at our house right now.

We want more! So much more is possible, like this totally solar Hutterite egg barn. CBC News: Net Zero Egg Barn. For now, we wait for technology, for government programs, and for further price drops. We’re poised to jump when the time is right. Our dream? In the next five years we’d love to have solar panels, a wind turbine on the north west corner of the garage roof, and a big solar garage window. Plus a battery in the garage, and excess power to sell back to the grid.

Next month we’ll focus on odds and bits, catching up on the repairs we still need to complete, news on small tweaks we’re trying, and a look at whether our consumption numbers are dropping yet.

May: Light Switches

May was all about lights. First we did our research. Tomsguide has more than we ever wanted to know about light bulbs (pricing is US).

http://www.tomsguide.com/us/light-bulb-guide,review-1986.html

LEDs are vastly better than the alternatives, except they are more expensive. But they last forever, so it doesn’t matter unless you switch them all at once, like we did. They are the most efficient, longest lasting, and have none of the concerns about mercury (CFL) or damage to art work (halogen).

We replaced our most-used incandescents with LEDs. We didn’t replace all bulbs – this gets complicated. LEDs are not recommended for enclosed light fixtures, we couldn’t find replacement for every bulb size, and LEDs are weird with dimmers. We took the odd bulb sizes to the hardware store, and a wonderfully knowledgeable woman helped us work through the options for each. We bought 13 bulbs for $98.54. We’ll switch out halogens as they burn out over the next year. They’re more efficient than incandescents, but not nearly as good as LEDs, and short lived.

We decided to test our new LEDs using the electric meter on our house. We turned off everything but the lights, and recorded the meter disk spinning.

We couldn’t get our base consumption to zero without unplugging every device in the house, so we also measured ghost power consumption, and subtracted that number from our other measurements. As usual, our accuracy is not very. Mark liked this website for figuring out the calculations:

https://staff.washington.edu/corey/power.html

Our ghost power consumption was 122.3 watts. Incandescents to be changed consumed 559.8 W. LEDs in the same fixtures consumed 103.1 W, an 80% drop in consumption.

Mark made a video of our electricity meter running with the new LEDs compared to the old incandescents. Maureen laughs every time she watches what he did with it.

Press here for the video.

Between the LED lights, the drying rack, and the new freezer, we’re hoping for about a 20% drop in our electricity use.

Next month? It’s time to talk gardening.

 

 

April: Gear and Habits

In April we researched more stuff. We feel nibbled to death by wee bits of information. It is vastly complex trying to sort out personal behavior and purchasing changes. We found two really good sources of information:

book: How Bad Are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything, by Mike Berners-Lee

website: http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/refrigerators.html

We’ve redone our graph to add what our appliance use would be if we had the most efficient appliances. Blue is our estimated electricity use. Red is the most energy efficient currently available, best of class, according to Natural Resources Canada:

http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/pml-lmp/index.cfm?action=app.welcome-bienvenue

This website is our best find of the month. If you’re looking at new appliances, start here to find the best in class in power use. As always, we’ve found the numbers hard to pin down. We’ve decided the appropriate word for our accuracy is squishy.Electrical_BestinClass

Huge improvements are possible. However – and this is the big however – a new fridge takes carbon to create, so replacing a not-ancient still functioning fridge is actually not an improvement carbon-wise. It’s better to take care of appliances, keep them running well, and replace them when they’re truly dead. Unless it’s really old, like our really old freezer. That one is worth replacing.

We found a new one, finally. It was a pain, searching. Sears doesn’t list Kwh for their freezers in-store, on-line, or anyplace the saleswoman could look. We searched on-line and found most retailers didn’t. Trail had two options, with energuide information, but neither are high efficiency. We ended up scoring at the local London Drugs which happened to have the model we wanted in stock, on sale. The new one is best of class, and much more efficient than the old one. It’s also about 30% smaller.

Our washer tested at better than best of class, even though it’s old. It’s a front loader and highly efficient.

We use a portable air conditioner on the hot days, because Maureen needs filtered cool air when it’s hot and her lungs are unhappy. We’d wondered if central air would be a better choice – it’s not. And it turns out our current portable air conditioner is best in class. We try to reduce our use of it, by shutting blinds during the day and cooling the house at night. We have lots of trees to help cut heat gain, but on the really hot days the air conditioner is working hard. The furnace and air conditioning numbers really drive home the importance of good insulation and sealing leaks.

However, the furnace fan numbers are suspect – both our current estimate and best of class. Our furnace is high efficiency and newish (installed 2013). We’re not sure what’s going on there.

The dryer, fridge, stove and dishwasher will be replaced with best of class as they die.

The other stuff we’ll pick away at where we see opportunities. We’re shuffling power bars to reduce vampire power for older gear like the stereo. We’re becoming more careful about turning off lights and looking for other ways to make small changes.

Overall: between the new freezer, the drying rack (for a 30% reduction in dryer use), and switching to LED lights next month, we’re looking at about a 20% drop in our electricity use. Switching all appliances to best of class would be about 50%. We’ll aim for that with future purchases. And we’ll keep working on other gear and bad habits. Of course, the biggest impact will be when Alberta stops using coal to generate electricity ­- this is a huge source of carbon. So advocacy is important, too.

May will be all about lights as we switch to LEDs.

 

March : The Power We Use

In March we assessed electricity use in the house. This involved infinite detail which made Maureen’s head hurt (even before she wacked it and gave herself a mild concussion). Mark claimed to like this stuff, so he’s done the bulk of the assessment. Maureen suspects it made his head hurt, too.

Mark created a graph of the energy use of various devices. This is vaguely accurate, in a hand-wavy kind of way. It roughly fits what we’ve read elsewhere, that the biggest energy users are for heating and cooling. However, everything we’ve been able to directly test has come in at a different number than the estimates, so we know it’s not precise. About 6% of our power consumption is not accounted for.

ElectricalUseChart

Appliances marked with asterisks were measured using a Belkin Conserve Insight Model F7C005 ($50 on Amazon). This meter shows the current going through it (watts), but can also do a running average of consumption. The items we could not measure (wrong kind of plug, or difficult in some other way) are based on website estimates, some using the age of the appliance, with Mark guessing at yearly hours of use. Other includes the breadmaker, toaster, radios, iron, mower, xmas lights. Vampire power is power used by devices when they are plugged in but turned off.

Mark found these websites useful:

http://www.nspower.ca/en/home/for-my-home/save-energy/energy-calculator.aspx

http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/refrigerators.html

The first thing we discovered is to watch our assumptions. Over and over, what we expected is not what we found.

We’ll focus first on the biggest power suckers:

We’ll be switching to LED lights. We have mostly incandescent, as we hate the fluorescents we’ve tried, and were advised by several electricians to wait for LEDs. Now’s the time.

The furnace itself may be high efficiency, but the fan uses a lot of power. The insulating and sealing tasks that came up last month will help there.

A clothes dryer is a huge consumer of energy, and the best way to reduce that is not having a dryer. Hang up clothes outside. However, that sucks in the winter and is not recommended for people with pollen allergies (Maureen), because then you’re wearing pollen and sleeping with it. We bought a drying rack for indoors as a compromise. We couldn’t have done it with four people in the house or with kid laundry, and it’s tight in our back entry, but it’s working well for three adults. We were hoping for a 20% reduction in dryer use. In fact, it’s coming in closer to a third.

We suspect most of our appliances are not worth replacing right away. We plan to replace as needed, with more efficient models. We will look carefully at the freezer. It’s the oldest, and may be worth replacing now.

April will be all about examining each line on the chart, finding the best changes to make. Research research research. We’re delaying actual purchases in hopes the Alberta Government comes up with some financial support for carbon reduction by homeowners, so we can do more.