Renewable Energy at Home Archive

My Adventure in Renewable Energy: Part 3, Programmable Thermostat!

Monday, December 8th, 2008

So now I really started to get online and read. I knew there had to me more I could do and I started at AltE because I knew their University section would be jam packed with idea on things I could do to make my home more efficient. AltE sells alternative energy products but they don’t want to sell you a solar power system or wind power system until your home has hit optimal energy efficiency. Makes perfect sense to me since you can’t size a system until you really understand your power needs!

Anyway, among their list of big home efficiency improvements are, of course, to replace windows and improve insulation but the other great tip I picked up was to install a programmable thermostat! Now, I’m quite sure the thermostat had not been touched since the house was built and I know that several times last winter I had to haul my tired self out of bed to turn the thermostat down when I realized the heat was still pumping at 10PM.

The programmable thermostat is pretty simple to install and very inexpensive for the benefits. According to our programmable thermostat you can save $100 in your first year by using this type of system properly which means it will pay for itself almost immediately.

These are also very easy to install if you have a handy human in your home. It can not only make sure you know exactly what your interior temperature is at any time, but you can schedule what it should be throughout the day. The one we chose even allows us to program temperature fluctuations for all seven days of the week!

This was my fabulous thermostat control - circa 1964 most likely.

Sure, it worked fine, but I admit I never knew exactly what my interior temperature was, and we would shift it at will and many times we'd forget to turn it down before sleeping!

Note: This thermostat also uses mercury - so if you have one like this that you are replacing then make sure you dispose of it properly - which means do NOT throw it away in the trash!

After we pulled the thermostat off, we discovered we had only a two wire configuration.Good news for us because it made for a simple installation.

The manufacturer did a great job with the installation guide showing multiple wire configurations. You may have anything from a two wire configuration up through 6 wires.

Once you identify how many wires you have, you go to the next step.

Here are all the tools we used to complete the installation.

  • Basic power drill
  • Quarter inch drill bit (for the screw anchors)
  • Screwdriver
  • Hemostat or hemostatic clamps
  • Needle nose pliers
Here you see the hemostats holding the two wires.
Here is an image of the installation instruction book for the two wire configuration.
Here you see the wires connected to the proper place in the programmable thermostat.
Connected and calibrating - I assure you our house is never 79.5 degrees in the fall, winter or spring!
Complete installation - ready for programming which was super easy!

My Adventure in Renewable Energy: Part 2, Home Energy Efficiency

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Making Our Home More Energy Efficient

At the close of the summer, my husband and I decided we had to commit to some home renovations – mainly to that leaky sunroom. We figured we could improve our quality of life, the value of our home and we could make the house more efficient to boot. The only issue was financing – big surprise! We decided we wanted to handle all the renovations with cash. To that end, we decided to vault the ceilings, re-insulate and replace the longest wall of windows – which also happen to be on the windward side of the house.

When we took down half the ceiling to really get the lay of the land, we realized how justified we had been in making the decision. The first thing we noticed was the old insulation.

The R value of insulation measures its resistance to heat flow. The higher the R value, the better the insulation factor. Being in the Northeast, we wanted an insulation with an R30 or better for maximum effectiveness and we found R19 insulation on the floor of the attic (just above the poorly executed drop ceiling the in sun room). Therefore we saw a lot of opportunity for making the room more energy efficient just in improving the insulation.

The first thing we did was to deepen the joists of the roof – allowing for the deeper R38 insulation. We lost some height in the room – maybe 5 inches with this process, but that was of little importance when considering the potential increase in efficiency of the room. Essentially, we deepened the space that would hold the insulation from about 4 inches deep, to 8-10 inches deep. I had no idea that it was critical not to compress insulation in order for it to yield maximum benefit – but this would be one of the many things I would learn while going through this process.

During the deconstruction process, we also pulled the old wood paneling off the walls of the room and this showed us yet another problem. Not only was there only R9.6 insulation in the walls – the insulation had been smooshed into place – meaning that it was not even operating at maximum efficiency. We pulled out the old stuff and replaced all of it with R13 and fastidiously placed it for maximum dead air space protection.

We were also super careful to save all extra insulation so every piece possible was used. Ultimately, the two walls we reinsulated – at the front and back of the house will be re-done when we replace those windows, but we knew the extra insulation in the short term would be well worth it and we place to re-use as much as possible in the next phase of the renovation project.

We then did our research into the insulation itself. Although my husband and I were loathe to put in fiberglass, because we were putting this in ourselves and because we were going to be insulating over our heads rather than on a floor, we decided to go with the standard fiberglass. Our hope is that the environmental impact we make by needing less heating oil will make up for using a less than green insulation. We spent the most money of the project on the insulation, and we knew it would probably be that way going in – but we also knew it was the smartest place to put the money!

We also designed the vaulted ceiling to accommodate a ceiling fan to circulate warm air in the winter and cool air in the summer. We did consider implementing skylights to bring in natural light to the room, but we ultimately chose not to so we would be assured of the insulation and so we could stay within our seriously meager budget.

The other huge obstacle to energy efficiency was the jalousie windows. They offer so much lovely light and breeze in the summer – but those benefits become their downfall in the winter months. We wanted to find a way to preserve the light, airy feel of the room while using more efficient windows that would also not break our budget.

We considered and got the prices of new windows. Consider though, that our old jalousie windows were approximately five feet high and about 16 inches wide and we had, oh, eight or so that needed replacing. That’s a lot of space. We knew we also wanted to get rid of the leaky and strangely placed door in the sunroom as well – which was more potential window space. We also knew we couldn’t just get giant picture windows because we needed air flow. The replacement windows would have run anywhere from $800.00 to $1500.00 and that would have been for one half of the wall only – and not including the labor to actually put them in.

We did some research on efficient window ratings so we’d be prepared if we came upon a good deal. Here’s what we learned!

Window efficiency is primarily rated in three ways:

  • U-Factor - U-Factor measures how much heat a window will allow to escape. This means, the lower the U-Factor, the better!
  • Solar Heat Gain - Solar Heat Gain measures how well the window blocks solar heat from coming in via sunlight. A lower Solar Heat Gain ratings means less heat gain. (Thanks Captain Obvious!)
  • Visible Transmittance - Visible transmittance measures how much light comes though the glass. The heavier the tint on a window, the lower the visible transmittance and conversely the less tint, the higher the visible transmittance.

Once we were armed with information, we started to consider our options.

First we started with a couple of websites

Crazy? Maybe – but one of the best ways to go green is to recycle existing materials. The important thing for us was to find windows for that whole wall with good efficiency ratings. Did they have to be fancy and new? Not on our budget.

We didn't end up finding out solution through any of these venues - but we did see some interesting options and supplies and it was definitely worth the time to research!

We also put the word out among our friends. Now, we’re in a small town and my husband is the king of Craig’s List and Ebay because of his hobbies – so his friends around town always have their ear the ground for good deals on antiques and everything else.

One of our friends had been poking around in an antique coop a couple of towns over and had stumbled into their warehouse area – which was full of new or replacement windows, doors, cabinets and more! He told us about it and we drove down there – assuming we couldn’t really find what we needed.

In an amazing stroke of luck, we were able to secure four 50×50 energy star rated windows for a fraction of the typical cost. Two picture windows and two sliders would allow for light we wanted, allowed us to keep our view of our two gorgeous flowering trees and because of the cost savings, we were able to replace all the windows and remove the door on our breeziest wall. Also, they were well rated in the mid to upper class of efficient windows, so we knew we were getting more than a reasonable bargain.

Just to put the windows into perspective according to our ratings above:

  • U Factor: .33
  • Solar Heat Gain: .36.

Since most windows have a U Factor between .20 and 1.20, we could see that the U Factor of these windows was above average.

The Solar Heat Gain of most windows ranges from 0 to 1.0, so again, we could see the SHG rating was above average. Although the brand name wasn’t the greatest, the proof was in the ratings – and these were energy star rated and ridiculously prices at $70.00 per window. You couldn’t even get the glass for that much money!

So now we had the windows, we had the insulation and we were ready to begin the real renovation. While Mark got to work on the dirty jobs – I started the next phase of research – how else could we make our home more efficient and what kind of renewable energy could we incorporate as soon as possible within our budget!

My Adventure in Renewable Energy: Part 1, Where We Started

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

Our HomeI’ll be honest, I’m cheap. I’m also a Yankee, so I guess it comes pretty naturally. Cheapness is not even really a trait that has been forced upon me – I love bargains, I love things that pay for themselves – I love Return on Investment (ROI). What’s nice is that being conscious about energy usage and being an alternative energy enthusiast actually works beautifully with being cheap.

I love our planet – I went to a small liberal arts school so I was well exposed to environmentalists and their movement long ago. I recycled, I didn’t use aerosol, but I’ll admit I never really associated myself with the movement. And then I saw “An Inconvenient Truth” and I looked down at my small daughter. I knew I really wanted to make some changes just to do the right thing. And hey – by doing the right thing, I support my cheapness. Sweet!

Some things were already done – mostly out of frugality – but I felt good that we were already on our way. My husband and I are a one car family, and our one car is a Toyota that gets fabulous gas mileage. I work primarily out of my home – so I’ve reduced my car emissions significantly. We keep our heat low, we buy local produce and we have a part in an organic farm share. We have replaced old incandescent bulbs with CFL as they go out, we carry the reusable grocery bags and we recycle. But the bills were still rising with the cost of oil and electricity so we knew we needed to and wanted to do more.

Sadly, we have old and inefficient home heating and water heating. When our oil costs crested at $500 for a tank, I started to get really worried. I knew that we didn’t have the income to cover a winter of $500 tanks of oil – and also, I just didn’t want to pay that much on principle.

I was pumping so much money into oil that I couldn’t even save up for a more efficient boiler or an alternate heating system. I live in the boonies, so natural gas wasn’t an option (and really, I’d just be trading one fossil fuel for another) and our fireplace is tiny and inefficient. My feeling was and is that the cost of oil isn’t going to go down in the future – sure it will ebb and flow but I felt like it was really time to start long term planning and implementation now.

Jalousie WindowsWe live in a small, split level house that was built in 1964. In 1966, the square footage of the house was roughly doubled with the addition of a “sun room.” Roughly 600 square feet, this room is really where we “live” and it is comprised of three walls of five foot high jalousie windows. This made the room three seasons ready – with a chilly fourth tacked on for those of us who were really determined.

Every winter we put the storm windows up – and last year we even duct taped the seams. We hung curtains made from fleece, kept the heat down to 62 degrees and wore a lot of cozy clothing and layers. The rest of the house is quite snug but since the sunroom is critical to our sanity, I knew I couldn’t spend another winter watching the curtains move with the cold air seeping through.

I determined that I would change my situation. I’ll admit it, part of me wanted to jump in the deep end; solar electricity, grants, wind turbines! But I learned that the first step had to be in upgrading the efficiency of my home. The truth is that even if you get grants and help and tax write-offs, you still need cash flow. And how can you design a renewable energy power system without really knowing your optimal (most efficient) power needs? I needed to slow down and get informed.

Becoming an Energy Ace isn’t as fun or cool as buying and installing some cool and massive renewable energy system – mostly I knew it was just changing some habits. Turning off lights, using power strips to get rid of ghost loads, faster showers…you know the drill. We did that stuff

As I became more informed, I realized we needed to invest in some larger changes and that ultimately I could incorporate alternative energy technology in my home – technology that wouldn’t break the bank - and so began my adventure in renewable energy.