Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Ask the Green House Detectives

The Green House Detectives have been asked to write a regular column for the Weavers Way Shuttle. Here's a preview of what you'll see in the June '08 Shuttle.
--- Q. How can we keep our house cool and comfortable during our lovely Philadelphia summer, without breaking the bank and overheating the planet?
A. Fortunately the very same strategies that enable you to consume less energy also decrease your electricity usage and your ecological footprint. The most obvious efficiency is to cool as little of your house as you can get by comfortably. Use the lowest tech options first, and move to the higher energy-consuming solutions only in the extreme heat of Philadelphia summer. Recall that heat rises, so use lower floors more. Also keep in mind a lot of what makes Philadelphia uncomfortable is our high humidity, so focus on getting the moisture out of your home, not just cooling it.
Q. We can’t live without air conditioning - what are your recommendations?
A. This year’s minimum EER (energy efficiency ratio) for air conditioners has increased to 10. Also check for EnergyStar compliance, the government’s rating for the highest efficiency appliances. New models have thermostats, not just Low/Medium/High dials, for increased precision. If your window air conditioner is more than seven years old, upgrading it may be worth it; this can be checked with a Kill-a-Watt meter. Don’t forget to change the filters on your units. You can compare the efficiency of various models at the store or online. Portable AC units still need to be vented, and tend to be less efficient than semi-permanent window units. There’s no reason to run the AC if you’re not there, so watch that carefully. If you are on a predictable schedule, you can always put your AC on a timer so it starts cooling a bit ahead of your arrival.

Q. I can’t stand room air conditioners, plus I hate blocking my window views with them. Other ideas?
A. Think Casablanca – go with fans. Ceiling fans are attractive and effective. (They are reversible, so in winter you can have the warm air pulled downward, but nobody we know ever really bothers with this, since using a fan in winter seems kind of dumb.) Window fans with two directions do make a lot of sense. Install one in an upper floor window directed outward, so it pulls hot air out of your whole home. Turn it off at night or reverse the direction when it cools off. If you work in one location in your home, the most efficient fan is a little clamp-on unit that you can angle directly at yourself. Remember, it’s you who needs to feel cool, not the whole room.
Q. Our electricity bills are crazy high in summer, even with barely running the air conditioners. What’s up with that?
A. The Green House Detectives are taking a wild guess here: you have an ancient dehumidifier. Dehumidifiers run constantly and if yours is old, replace it! Not only is it likely to be circulating a lot of mold, but the efficiency standards have increased so much that a new EnergyStar unit will pay for itself in just a season or two. Here’s an alternative dehumidifier option – use a window unit AC in your basement. The water then drains out the window and you don’t have worry about piping to a floor drain. Air conditioners set to 75-80 degrees will be just as effective as a dehumidifier at pulling the moisture out of your house. If that surprises you, just think about defogging your car. Running the AC is the fastest way to do that. Of course this solution requires a basement window that can accommodate a window unit.
Q. What home upgrades should we think about to conserve energy?
A. Insulation, insulation, insulation! Most people think that insulation is important to keep your heating bills down. But just as insulation helps your home stay warm in winter, it helps your home stay cool in summer. One friend of ours added a ton of attic insulation to increase her winter heat conservation. The next summer she discovered she hardly ever needed her air conditioning!
Q. Anything else we should be doing on a daily basis to keep our place comfortable?
A. Be sure to close the windows and draw the blinds, drapes, and shades during the day. At night, open them up and let the cool air in. If you have windows that get serious sun beating in during the day, this is especially important. You might even consider upgrading those windows to coated double or triple panes. We’ve experimented with adding window film which is cut to size, but that’s one tedious job! Don’t run appliances during peak hours, and turn all your appliances and lights off when not in use. Not only does this save electricity, but since each running appliance generates some heat (notice this around your computer or TV?), you can avoid that as well. And for sure take advantage of the warm weather to hang your laundry instead of running an electric dryer, which consumes a lot of energy.

Q. Any old-fashioned low tech ideas we should know about?
A. Yes – ice cream cones.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day for all Species

I've always thought of Memorial Day as the official start of summer, only vaguely aware that it glorified war & militarism. Yesterday, was under our big tree out back pondering on the Meaning of Memorial Day and of lives lost in wars, including the one our civilization has waged against Nature & our Planet. Later in the day, discovered Rebecca's essay: Memorial Day for all Species, reminding us that honoring our soldiers "so easily slips in to glorifying militarism and war."

So today, "on Memorial Day, pause and remember the fallen sons and daughters of our country. Recognize that they were unique individuals, and irreplaceable in our human family. And then, pause and remember the Western Back Rhinoceros, the Golden Toad, the Caribbean Monk Seal, and the Laughing Owl. They too, were unique and irreplaceable to our earth family."

Thank you, Rebecca!!