Monthly Archives: March 2009

Our cars weigh too much and cost too much

Or do they? What all of our cars weighed 1500lbs and cost $4000 and got 54mpg? I mean all of them, so you didn’t worry that you’d get hit by an SUV weighing 4 times as much. Would that be a good thing? Not so obvious. On the other hand, I agree that it seems crazy to spend so much on helping US car companies. Time to move on. Even the Prius is going to seem like a joke in 10 years. I hope. I mean, it should. But I don’t really hope. All depends on what happens to the price of oil.


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All I wanted was a chair mat!

So, the floor in my office in the house we are renting is not exactly smooth, so I foolishly thought I would buy a chairmat. You know, those clear plastic things to make your office chair roll nicely? So I was next to a Staples today so went and grabbed a nice looking one. I did my usual “plastics sniff test” as I do with all plastic (if it smells, out it goes!), and it seemed to pass, and nowhere on the display or labeling did it say what it was made of, so I foolishly gave it the benefit of the doubt that it was not PVC (vinyl).

Silly me. After only maybe an hour of use in my office, my throat was beginning to bug me. Oh no. Phthalates strike again! So I sniffed again (this time, maybe away from all the other smells in Staples, it did have a noticable smell… darn, not a good sign!) And I called the manufacturer, E. S. Robbins, and they are emailing me back (they never did), but this EPA website (and my sore throat!) seems to indicate that it probably does have phthalates. What a shame!

“Acute exposure to dimethyl phthalate, via inhalation in humans and animals, results in irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.” From: EPA: Technology Transfer Network Air Toxics Web Site: Dimethyl Phthalate


So what should I have bought? Well, it looks like there are actually mats made out of wood or bamboo that one can buy, but really what I need is something more flexible. 2 options that would probably work are: 1) carpet (but something natural with good IAQ without phthalates or PBDEs like wool) -or- 2) maybe a section of linoleum (not imitation vinyl flooring) which is also a winner.

I guess my main complaint is… should life be so complicated? No! phthalates/BPDEs/BPA/etc should be banned from products where there is a reasonable alternative! Which is almost everything, most likely!!!
Tisk tisk companies, phase out this nasty stuff, or be left behind by your competitors who are!

UPDATE: I give up. I am going to buy a section of all-wool carpeting (no PVC backer) and use that instead. That’s the ideal solution for my situation I do believe.

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Deep Energy Retrofits

So, we’re building a house. But part of that is because any existing house I bought, there would be significant improvements I would want to make. This article (link below) from Affordable Comfort has a reference (p23) to $75,000 as the amount needed to do a Deep Energy Retrofit plus add a 3KW PV solar array (presumably on a small house) in an effort to get to Net Zero Energy (with yearly savings of (7000k less heat+4300k from PV=11300KWh). From just a $$ standpoint at 2008 electricity prices in the northeast ($.25 for a green KWh) that’s

7000 * $0.10 (=0.25 / 2.5 COP of a air-source heat pump in new england)
+4300 * $0.25
=700+1075 = $1775 per year

(** I have no idea if this 11300KWh is even ballpark close to a reasonable number… I think it might be though… the 7000KWh seems to be like reducing a $1400 heating bill for a year to $700 — at my $0.10 for an air-source heat pump ==> $700 = 7000*0.10)

You really (in my opinion) need to keep the heating separate, because you aren’t going to realistically use straight resistance heat at $0.25/kWh. You are going to either use an air-source heat pump, or fossil fuels (which end up costing pretty much the same per BTU of delivered heat as an air-source heat pump)

OK, so that $75k is going to have a simple payoff of 42.2 years. (75/1.775) OK, so I began this post hoping it would come in under 30 (length of a mortgage), because then…

Well, the idea is that if you could somehow buy a fixer-upper house, but get an extra $75k thrown in on the mortgage, that guess what… you’d save money in a cash flow sense from day one.

You mortgage would cost a little more per year (at 30years@4.5% interest , $75k is $4560 a year)


And darn. You don’t save nearly enough on heating and electricity bills ($1775 saved per year) to make up for the difference in your mortgage ($4560)

So I guess that’s essentially why we are building a house?

And I guess that’s what the Affordable Energy paper is talking about. How to deal with all of these existing inefficient houses.


PS. Of course, remember this example is all about $$ payoff. If you do a BTU payoff or try to use a price per KW for energy which might better reflect the true cost to the country (in environmental degradation, a lack of energy independence, etc.; due to electricity or fossil fuel usage; which would probably jack up the cost per KWh or BTU of fossil fuels by several times.) Then you are in good shape. Your pocket book is still hurting significantly, but I think you are on firmer moral ground — you are trying to be part of the solution to our energy woes. A 42 year payoff is suddenly 21 years if you think oil is half as cheap as it should be. Now you’re in business.

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Green Decking — recycled milk jugs

OK, so everyone knows about trex and thinks it’s great. Which OK, it’s maybe a little easier than standard decking in that it doesn’t need to be restained. But it does have some percentage of wood in it, and my understanding from reading (and visiting a relatives house) is it *DOES* certainly get mildew on it here in the lovely HOT AND HUMID summers in the northeastern US. What a pain in the rear! I want zero maintenance AND a “green” deck! Is it possible? I think so!

But wait, back up. So in addition to it (Trex, and it’s relatives in the “composite” category) not being NO MAINTENANCE, it’s also not particularly recyclable is my understanding (since it’s a mix of wood and plastic). OK, perhaps this will be different in 10/15/25 years when you decide (or the next owner) to huck it. But who knows?

So, what to do? I’ve heard good things about ipe/ironwood. As long as you can get sustainably harvested wood, you might be in good shape, since it apparently lasts a long long time.

But how about HDPE? Recyled Milk Jugs. YES! It gets an “A” in this GREEN DECKING REPORT

COST OF OWNERSHIP COMPARISON which seems not-totally-unreasonable based on my own experiences with a cedar deck for 5 years

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More on Site vs Source Energy

Here’s an article on the topic from the Energy Star website.
They call it site/secondary energy (“consumed energy”) vs source/primary energy (“raw fuel”)

There is a PDF linked there discussing the “site/source ratios” that Energy Star uses.
The national average (2001-05) they use for electricity is 3.34 which is based on 70% fossil fuel, 20% nuclear, 10% renewables.
(I believe the mix I came up for MA as reported by National Grid each month in my bill in Shutesbury, MA in 2008 was ~40% coal/oil, ~30% nukes, ~30% nat gas.)

Anyway, point being… only 30% (=1/3.34) of the energy in the fuel actually gets to the houses.

But one gets 100% of the particulate pollution and greenhouse gases. So unless you are generating your electricity renewably (as with PVs or a “green up” option on your electricity bill) you are polluting 3 times as much when you are heating your house (or heating water or cooking) with electricity (vs using propane/natural gas).

PVs are especially nice because one is directly helping out with peak load times (during the day when people are at work and using heat or AC) — the difficult times for power-plants.


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SNCF Customer Service

(phone ringing…)

me (in french) hi, I’m looking for tickets that I think were lost in the mail, etc, etc.

customer service (in french):

me: so where are the tickets?

SNCF: I don’t know, I’m not in the envelope with them

me: laughing!

SNCF: are you done laughing?

me: “I’m not in the envelope with them” — that’s funny!

SNCF: It wasn’t MEANT to be funny!

me [shocked!]: ok, can you help me figure out what has happened?


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Zero Energy Homes — Source Energy vs Site Energy

One thing you don’t read much about with respect to zero-net-energy (ZNE) homes is the issue of source vs site energy. The basic idea is that the electricity one purchases and uses (on “site”) is produced by power plants (at “source”) that are only 33% efficient! (BTUs-in vs BTUs-out) So one should ideally be comparing BTUs from the source when talking about how large a PV array you need, to have a Zero Energy Home (ZEH).

This means (for instance) that heating with straight electric resistance heat is not particularly desirable, but gets better if you are using a air-source heat pump with a COP of 3. Now you are roughly back to parity vs heating with a point-source natural gas or propane heater like a Rinnai.

Electric resistance (baseboard heaters, ceiling panels, $30 plug-ins from the hardware store) of course has the advantage that, depending on your habits at home, you can keep the house quite cool, and heat up just a single room. So that might make up for the source-to-site efficiency vs the air-to-air heat pump (33% times COP of 3 = 100%) or propane heater (80%).

IOW, the ideal ZEH reduces electricity energy consumption SUBSTANTIALLY and therefore add as small a PV array as possible.

The ZEH balance sheet:
On the left: the “site” BTUs you use to heat, cool, and operate your home
On the right: the BTUs your PV array puts back onto the grid

But ideally you also want the left (your usage) to be as low in source BTUs as possible.

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