A Xylophone and LED Light Bulbs

Snowy yard in January 2015

Snowy yard in January 2015

A mixed bag of whatnot for this post. We’ve been somewhat snowed in for a week or two as winter asserts itself in northeast Ohio. The ground has been covered in a blanket of white for the better part of four weeks or more. But the last week has found an accumulation of a few inches per day it seems.

We’re in full hibernation mode. Venturing out for school, provisions and not much more. I’ve been busy with work but have found some time here and there to dabble in various distractions.

As the original lightbulbs in the house burn out, I’m trying to replace them with energy efficient LED light bulbs. Because LED’s do cost a fair bit, I can’t just go out and replace them all. But this past week I replaced the four light bulbs in the upstairs studio. This space is used by the wife and kids everyday so it’s a good candidate for eco-friendly, cost saving bulbs.

One of the three recessed ceiling cans had a burnt out bulb. I took the three working bulbs and transferred them to the kitchen where we have a half-dozen burned out cans. I then went to Lowe’s and picked up four Sylvania Ultra 11-Watt (65W Equivalent) BR30 Medium Base Soft White Dimmable Indoor LED Flood light bulbs. I normally prefer Home Depot for LED light bulb selection. But I get a discount at Lowe’s and there’s for the studio recess cans, you don’t see anything but light, so a sexy bulb design isn’t important. Though these Sylvania do look good.

 The smooth lines of a SYLVANIA Ultra 11-Watt (65W Equivalent) BR30 Medium Base Soft White Dimmable Indoor LED Flood Light Bulb from Lowe's

The smooth lines of a SYLVANIA Ultra 11-Watt (65W Equivalent) BR30 Medium Base Soft White Dimmable Indoor LED Flood Light Bulb from Lowe’s

Here’s a picture of the box with all the stats. For60Watt replacement bulbs you want to make sure you’re getting around 800 lumens, which is exactly what these65W equivalent bulbs get. At 11-watts, according to the packaging, the bulbs will each save us $1.32 per year over 22 years for a grand total of $29 per bulb (at 3/ hrs a day, at $0.11kWh).  Each bulb cost $15, so we’ll sort of “make money” in the form of long term cost avoidance.

Those four bulbs will keep 1,600 lbs (nearly a ton) of carbon from entering the atmosphere over 22 years (18.2 lbs per bulb per year). It feels pretty good.

Another fun fact I pointed out as my kid helped me install the bulbs, since they last 22 years, it could very well be my grandkids standing there the next time I have to get on the ladder and change those bulbs in the studio. Who knows, the bulbs may even outlast me.

Side of the box

Side of the box

front of the box

front of the box

The new bulbs doing their thing.

The new bulbs doing their thing.









One fun thing we did this week was we made a real xylophone. Our oldest came home from school and told us how he played a xylophone that day, and he wanted to make one.

We didn’t have any sort of plan, but he drew up his own plan in book form. It was cute. He then directed me as I sawed and screwed together some scrap wood. The first one didn’t turn out too good so on Saturday we woke up early and picked up some 1×2’s at the store. I used this guide online (click here) to make our xylophone. I’ll let you look through the steps yourself.

Ours turned out okay and it does make the right sounds for the most part. It was a fun project and nice distraction for a snowy Saturday afternoon.

I used a file to tune the keys.

I used a file to tune the keys.

The assembled xylophone.

The assembled xylophone.

The xylophone in action.

The xylophone in action.




Our Home Energy Usage


In case you’re wondering, here’s what we use in electricity per month.  I don’t know if this is good or bad. It seems like we use a lot. Then again, everything in our house runs off electric except natural gas range (stovetop).  Heating and light bulb use in winter is what kills us. Our old “normal” 2,700 sq ft house, we averaged 500 kWH per month, 6,500 kWH per year. But that was with mostly just two adults and no kids.

Stuff that runs off electricity (family of four, 3400 sq ft cape cod, NEOhio):

  • geothermal heating and cooling
    • set at 69 degrees in winter
    • set at 72 in summer?
    • we rarely open up the windows (I know we should)
  • cistern water pump (water coming in)
  • septic system pump (water and waste going out)
  • sump pump (runs all the time when its wet out)
  • lighting – including copious amount of incandescent bulbs in kitchen and living room
  • tv (our favorite pass time)
  • computers, phone chargers, iPad, etc. (on all the time)
  • internet (on all the time)
  • chest freezer and small fridge that we don’t use but are plugged in (forgive me father for I have sinned)
Our electric usage in Kwh since we moved in.

Our electric usage in Kwh since we moved in.

To improve things I need to unplug the unused freezer and mini fridge. I need to replace all the light bulb eventually with LED’s. And we should start opening our windows more. I also want to get a programable thermostat which would help a ton at night, regulating temperatures.  Also would be nice if we learned to shut off lights when we leave a room.

Natural Gas

I don’t think the natural gas furnace has ever turned on….not sure it ever will.  We pay about $30 for natural gas and that is almost all fees and taxes ($23 in fees and usage, $7 in actual natural gas). 

In hind sight, we probably should have forgone the natural gas all together and went all electric. This despite my love of booking with gas, and the fact that natural gas is cleaner than our coal sourced electricity here in Ohio. All electric would save us $360 annually, not to mention all the plumbing and maybe an all electric range oven would have been cheaper. It may not amount to much but when every penny counts, I may have given it more thought.

Our average usage is a little under 1.0 MCF per month, and 14.6 MCF in the last year. For us Natural Gas is more of a hobby than energy supply. In our old “normal” 2,700 sq ft house we used about 100 MCF a year, so we dropped our dependence on gas by 85%.

gas bill

Other Stuff

As far as wood pellets go, we’re still working on the free ton we got with the fireplace. I’d say we’re a third of the way through. The family room is the warmest room in the house to begin with, so turning on the pellet fire place is more for ambiance.

I don’t know how to judge water usage or septic usage. Water comes in, stuff goes out. Circle of life.  All we pay for so far is water filters, about $40 every couple months.

If anyone has better “average” household use numbers for electricity or gas, post up in the comments. I couldn’t find much online.

A Cursory Glance At Solar Electric For Green Living

We enter week two of new cats.  I took them to the vet and they checked out alright. No major diseases. The do have fleas and worms  but all of that can hopefully be cleared up in the coming weeks. Keeping them segregated from our original cat, Daphne is a pain, but this to shall pass and we’ll be one big happy family in no time.  I’ve got all the Christmas lights and various trees up to, and we even got our first holiday card in the mail. Most of our shopping is done, so we’re all ready for the 25th.

Out of curiosity I took a few minutes today to look at Dovetail Solar & Wind’s website. I wanted to see where the prices were at for renewable energy systems. An article on EcoWatch reminded me of my interest in someday having our estate work off of the grid.

Here is a sample overview Dovetail regarding the cost and size of a typical solar electric system:

SOLAR PV Residential Price Sheet 10-7-2013af.xlsx

If we put in a system, I would want a roof based array, that had battery back up. I abhor the thought of a power outage; we’ve had three in the last three weeks and I hate worrying about the sump pump, water pump, septic and refrigerator. In fact I’d go so far as to consider a bit of redundancy and install a natural gas generator as well. We’d have quite the outpost for the zombie apocalypse.

I took a look at the September ‘Home Energy Report’ that Ohio Edison provided us and it said we used 1,266 kWh which is “good” according to them. Apparently my “efficient” neighbors only used 748 kWh in September, and “all” neighbors used an average of 1,376 kWh. Despite our house being an electricity hog, the advantage of having a virtually all-electric house (we use gas for cooking and heat backup on our hybrid furnace) is that we can, in theory, switch to all solar electric and get off the grid, which is our ultimate goal….especially once the zombies start coming and take out the coal-fired electric plants along the Ohio River.

Let’s say we use 1,250 kWh per month. First we’d want to reduce our usage to a bare minimum – switch all the lights to LED’s, teach my family not to leave lights on, etc. That’s the first rule of being sustainable, get as efficient as you can, but efficiency follows the rule of diminishing returns, so just being efficient isn’t enough; especially if we’re looking to get off the grid. Other areas I need to attack include finding the damn Therma-tru door corner pads to block out the daylight I still see on my exterior door corners (I lost the damn yellow envelope they sent me during studio decorating!!!), and working on the fan board in the crawl spaces, as well as finishing off the basement with insulation on the top 4′ of the Superior Walls. I list these things if for no other reason than to keep reminding myself they need to be done.

Okay, math time.  Let’s say our efficiency measures get us down to 1,000 kWh per month. 1kW of solar capacity = 100 kWh per month, so we’d need a 10kW system to live off the grid. Well looking at the above chart, that’s not really realistic, or at least it’s not on the chart so lets also look at the roof space we have. If vanity rules then we’d just cover the south-facing garage roof so as not to mar the beauty of Joe’s masterpiece [my word], then we have 576 sq. ft to work with (32’x18′). Looking at the chart above this equals a 6.1kW system. Okay, not bad. We’re still on the grid but it’s a great start. We can either drive down our usage or drive up capacity down the road. Cost? $20K after tax credit, about the cost of a new small car. Not bad at all. Over 25 years (after that I’m dead or in Florida) we save $40K, reduce our carbon footprint, and are no longer at the mercy of Big Energy and their random Autumn blackouts at 12am on a Sunday. Remember, I hate power outages…probably as much as I hate being at the mercy of “the man”.  I have serious control issues, you have no idea, but I digress.

The battery back up is a nice feature because without it, a grid tied system won’t work when the lights go out.  With this system, or a non-backed up system, you can actually “sell” electricity back to the grid if the power company allows it. That way the surplus you might generate doesn’t go to waste, and you can power your “efficient” neighbors with clean solar power. The natural gas generator would come into play if, after 3-5 days without power it was so cloudy that the batteries were drained.

Another cool system that we can get is a solar thermal system that provides our hot water needs. Here’s the Dovetail example chart for that:

SOLAR THERMAL Residential Price Sheet.xls

They also mention solar thermal air heating, which I know nothing about…between our pellet fireplace and hybrid furnace I think we’re all set on that front for the time being.  I do like the solar thermal for the water, and who knows, maybe that’s the system we should experiment with first; would reduce our electrical load in preparation for out solar electric system.  Looks like about $10K for a thermal system, which typically is a series of black tubes on the roof our water runs through and is heated for use inside the house. I’m over simplifying here but you get the idea.

All of this is just speculative, but it’s good to do the homework now, and keep an eye on the prices, as they are coming down and are reasonable for any budget in my opinion; essentially a car payment. In fact one could argue that since we both work from home and don’t have a commute that maybe we should allocate a car payment to this type of system in the future when funds become available. Also, these systems are do-able on any home. don’t feel like you need a special house. I know I’d greatly love to experiment with one or more of these systems.

You know, control issues and all.

Power Outage

It’s been kind of crazy 48 hours or so. Not like end of the world crazy but the twisty part of the roller coaster crazy.  Sunday I spent the morning getting shelf supports for the adjustable shelves in my studio, and installing them. I was very excited to get the shelves all set so I could start loading them up with books and other items that have been in boxes for some time. I went with 1/4″ spoon-shaped supports. All the variations of 5mm I had bought were too loose in the adjustable holes.

The two types of shelf supports I bought at Home Depot. I ended up using the 1/4" spoon shaped supports

The two types of shelf supports I bought at Home Depot. I ended up using the 1/4″ spoon shaped supports

Once that was complete I went back to painting shelves and cabinets for / in the kitchen. The coffee cabinet doesn’t look good in black so I had a good alternative idea. Build two doors for to cover the entire set of cabinets, and finish them in the same walnut laminate. Then it will look like we just pushed that cabinet back, punctuating the existing orange cabinet “core” imagery.  It’ll be nice, I’ll show you when it’s done.

The afternoon found the wife, boys and I back on the road attempting to make a final call on the new plates. We packed up all our new Pottery Barn plates and drove up to the east side. We ended up stopping at Pier 1, William Sonoma and back to Pottery Barn. We compared our Gabriella pattern that we had already bought to the only other PB pattern we liked, Cambria. Well despite our uncertainty at home, the original set we bought felt the most “right”, despite the really deep dishes. The Cambria was even wider, and though it was shallower, we didn’t like it as much.

Our new dish on the left, the, shallower and wider, runner up on right at Pottery Barn.

Our new dish on the left, the, shallower and wider, runner-up on right at Pottery Barn.

Wife: “See, here in the store the [Gabriella] plate doesn’t seem too deep. I like it better than the other one and I think we’ll get used to it. We should just stick with that. What do you think?”

Me: “I agree. And it’s different from what we’ve had in the past. We’ll just have to adjust our lifestyle. Start waxing [body parts] and eating mussels over vermicelli more often.”

So with that the plate decision is over. We picked up a salt & pepper set as well as a creamer and sugar vessel to match. All ready for holiday dinner parties, and Sunday night Mr. Chicken take out.

Back home I made decent progress moving into my “new” studio.  I unpacked a few books and found spots for magazines, painting supplies and “stuff to be sorted later”. As a line of storms passed outside I curled up on the couch to watch TV. Since getting hooked last week, I’m two episodes into “The Good Wife” on CBS; discovered when the television was left on for five minutes too long after “The Amazing Race”. This along with my wild desire to trade my car in for a minivan have me worried about my ability to make sound decisions. Mid-life crises are not to be taken lightly and manifest themselves in all sorts of ways. Mine is going on year four I think, with no end in sight.

I retired dead tired at eleven. Only to be awoken by various things beeping and flashing on and off. I lay in bed, sleepy-eyed, not sure I understood what was happening. Then I figured it out.

The power was out.

And there was a weird alarm or buzz going sounding from somewhere.

“What the hell is that sound?”

Well turns out it was coming from the sump pump. More specifically the battery back up for the sump pump. The little “low battery power” light was on. Luckily the instructions were still under the unit, where they sat since installation almost two years ago. So by LED flashlight I read and re-read the instructions. As best I can tell the batteries were shot and with no AC power the buzzer went off.

The wife and I weighed our options. If the sump pump wasn’t able to work then it was only a matter of time until the basement started flooding. And with that ruining a few decades of crap that we have stored in our basement. “Hmmmm.”  After some time I finally woke up a little more and figured, well my only choice is to get the pump running again and doing its job. Moving all that crap was not an option. And there was no way to tell when the power would come back on. By the way I have given some serious thought to getting a whole house backup generator so I don’t have to deal with this crap. Invariably these emergencies always happen on Sunday night. Oh, and another thing, it’s my fault I didn’t check the battery, but 1) why doesn’t the thing chirp or something to tell me the batteries are low before the power goes out, and 2) why does the alarm have to sound the entire time the power is out?  Once again, decent product poorly designed because human factors are not taken into consideration. Frankly someday I’d like to have a master “dashboard” for the house so I can check ALL the systems at a glance and not have to remember if I checked this or that. Systems need to be designed, built and distributed for lazy guys like me. Fortunately for me (yes, patting the wife and I on the back) we were willing to take a stab at fixing the problem; after all it was Sunday night and there isn’t anyone to call when your sump pump goes down as far as I know.

Ok, I’m going to Walmart” I announced. The instructions and the current batteries gave me enough info to figure I could basically buy two marine batteries and replace the old ones with them.  The wife held down the fort as I departed the driveway at 12:07am, destination our 24-hr Walmart. Note, the lights were on everywhere but our handful of houses on Riverview.  Fate, god and all their friends hate me, I’m certain of it.

I’m always leery of what I’ll see at Walmart after midnight on a Sunday night [actually Monday morning]. It was dead save but a few people doing their weekly shopping at this time…so weird. I tried not to make eye contact. I didn’t have much luck until I saw the last section of batteries: “Ahhh…marine batteries“. I grabbed two 12V batteries whose markings seemed to approximate what I had left behind at home. Most importantly they had smaller threaded terminals which were critical for jumping the batteries together and connecting them to the power supply. I loaded my cart, paid for them and headed back home.

Buying marine batteries at 12:30am at Walmart. I passed on buying the santa sweater.

Buying marine batteries at 12:30am at Walmart. I passed on buying the santa sweater.

The Rabbit at Walmart at 12:30am on a Monday morning. There aren't many people shopping at WM this late on a "Sunday night" but I'm fairly suspicious of all of them.

The Rabbit at Walmart at 12:30am on a Monday morning. There aren’t many people shopping at WM this late on a “Sunday night” but I’m fairly suspicious of all of them.

Back home I grabbed a handful of wrenches and headed downstairs with the wife in tow. The instructions said to have a helper in case the batteries blow up and spray hydrochloric acid all over my face, hands and body. She was my assigned helper. Plus I guess the battery charging process produces toxic gas which can cause you to pass out and die. Once again, good to have a helper. I’m glad this set up is in my basement within cat licking distance.

I gingerly unhooked wires by flashlight, trying not to touch anything but the fasteners with my wrench. I even put on a small rubber glove, not really knowing if that would keep me from getting electrocuted to death. Thank god, disconnecting the wires made the high-pitched buzzing alarm stop. I removed the fuse and unplugged everything as well, not necessarily in that order by the way; refer to your instructions if you’re trying this at home. I then removed the old batteries, and delicately wiped up some “goo” in the bottom of the battery container.

Reversing the order of operation I put the two new batteries in the container, jumped them together then hooked up the positive and negative leads to the power supply.


The freaking alarm started sounding again. Low battery light is on again. It’s 1:30am on a school night.

“What the f*ck?! These are new batteries.”

We looked at each other. I didn’t understand, does this mean the old batteries were fine? The new batteries weren’t fully charged? The low battery alarm goes off when battery power is below ~23V total.  I wanted to cry, scream and burn the house down all in the course of 30 seconds of thought. I went through everything in my mind. Then I had a thought but very little confidence in it.

I reinserted the fuse into the power supply.  Voila! The alarm stopped.

The old batteries. Positive and negative terminals, and one white jumper wire going from + to - in the foreground.

The old batteries. Positive and negative terminals, and one white jumper wire going from + to – in the foreground.

Here's the power supply for the sump pump, ready to be reconnected.

Here’s the power supply for the sump pump, ready to be reconnected.

By time I got back to bed I think it was 2am.  The power came back on at 2:30am.  Of course.  Oh well now we have new sump pump batteries. I should start checking them in the future. Oh the joys of home ownership when you’re a lazy homeowner like me.

Alright I’m going to bed. Business picked up a little this week so I’ll be busy again.

But for now I’m tired.  Stay tuned for more fun later this week.

Just Another Day

We exercised our electrical enhancements monkey this week. On Tuesday our electrician came out and tidied up our “to do” list. First order of business was hooking up the cool USB charging outlet in our office area. Tom the electrician cut out the drywall, ran the wire to an existing outlet and even checked my work at the other end where I installed the new outlet. I wasn’t expecting it but he even put the drywall back and mudded over the seems. One less chore for me.

Tom went above and beyond cleaning up his mess. Here he patched up our drywall after running the wire to the new office outlet.

Tom went above and beyond cleaning up his mess. Here he patched up our drywall after running the wire to the new office outlet.

The new charging outlet is up and running.

The new charging outlet is up and running.

Out on the screen porch we had him add some outlets. When we built the house we just had a cable tv wire sticking out of the wall, and no outlets to plug in an actual tv. One of our electrical panels had an open slot so he ran new wire from the panel, and the cable interface in the basement to the rim joist by the screen porch. He spray foamed the hole for the wires to make sure we maintained air tightness in the house. He even sprayed some foam around the new plumbing spigot pipe that was installed last week.  One less chore for me.

Out on the porch there’s a hollow column that is perfect for mounting all the electrical boxes to. As it turns out we asked for a ton of outlets so the column looks pretty bad now, but through no fault of Tom’s handy work. Rather just overzealous owners. We have outlets for the tv power and cable. Way up top an outlet for twinkle lights; we’ll loop those around the back porch next Spring. About 36″up another outlet was placed so we can plug in a blender for margaritas or whatnot during party time. That outlet also has a switch for the twinkle light outlet. Lastly a regular outlet down low…not sure why we did that one other than maybe for a table lap out there. Like I said, it looks awful but once we install a tv and bar countertop they should camouflage most of the visual destruction.

Enough outlet covers?  We're out of control.

Enough outlet covers? We’re out of control.

I love these slim outlet covers. They're metal and even have a hole for a lock. This one is for cable tv.

I love these slim outlet covers. They’re metal and even have a hole for a lock. This one is for cable tv.

Another cool outdoor outlet. This one is for plugging in a blender for happy hour at the estate, with a switch for the twinkle lights.

Another cool outdoor outlet. This one is for plugging in a blender for happy hour at the estate, with a switch for the twinkle lights.

After the porch we had the electrician take a look at an outlet in the upstairs hallway that never worked. Turns out it wasn’t hooked up so he was able to do the with little fanfare. In the basement he pointed out a couple oddities that were questionable but in the end we determined didn’t require immediate action. One is the pump for the septic is on a GFI outlet. Apparently the code was recently changed to no longer require pumps to be on GFI’s because if the GFI trips and we don’t know about it then the pump won’t work…I guess you figure out it’s broken when the toilets all start backing up. Also anytime you have wires leaving metal conduit there should be a transitional coupling and there were some other inconsistencies but like I said, nothing that is a deal breaker.

Lastly outside I had him look at a random set of metal wires sticking up from the ground in one of the plant beds. Apparently no one bothered to hook up the ground wires and bury them so he hooked them up free of charge for us, which was nice because he’d been working for like 9 hours already and I’m sure his family was waiting for him at home.  I’ll have to cover the wires next chance I get.

So if you’re in Northeast Ohio and need a good electrician, shoot me a line and I’ll give you Tom’s info.  He even covered our filthy floor and stairs with a drop cloth as he moved about the house.  Really did a nice courteous job.

So that’s it for electrical for the house until we finish the basement.

As for the rest of life, it is its typical roller coaster existence. Work has been slow so the thought that we’re preparing the house for sale crosses my mind often, and then things pick up here and there and we’ll be fine….then they really pick up and I get ahead of myself.  Life is funny that way.

I finally finished that painting and it’s soon to be owner is happy. And my weekend will be occupied with an art show so that’s always good, though way too much manual labor for an old guy like me.

August flew by and now September is hot on its heels. As the season winds down my sense of urgency only increases. Maybe it’s the world around me. The days are getting shorter and the yard is filled with activity. A world that was lazily enjoying the heat of Summer is now busily preparing for Fall. When I was cutting the nature trail I heard the geese moving through the valley headed for their cold weather home down south. In the yard yesterday the air was filled with dragon flies….it was incredible, not sure what they were doing but suspect the time of year had something to do with it. And of course the birds are everywhere including countless yellow ones and even the occasional cardinal.

We’re trying to get the boys out as much as we can. Wringing every warm hour out that we can while there is still time. Between loads of mulch bound for the front planting bed, I worked with them on how to hit a baseball off a tee. And as we discussed the finer points of a different type of swinging on the swing set, we looked up and watched as jets left contrails in the waning September sky.

“Dad, who’s in there?”

“I dunno bud, probably people just like you and me.”

“Where are they going?”

“Hmmm, maybe New York City or someplace.”

And it brought me back to being a kid watching planes fly overhead, leaving vapor trails across the sky. As a grown up I know whenever I’m in a plane I always look down at the world…the buildings, fields, cars….and wonder what the people are doing down there. I imagine that they’re just driving home from work, or leading their ordinary average lives, driving to the store for milk or a lottery ticket, getting ready to pick up their date or hang out with friends. Just another day, and here I am stuck in a plane coming or going. Even when I’m flying home and it’s been a long day, as the plane approaches the runway I look down and to those folks on the freeway it’s just another Thursday. There’s something to be said about it being just another Thursday. Yesterday when we looked up, if those people in the plane could have seen us I bet they’d be thinking it was just another day of the week for us.

And they’d be right.

And that’s okay. There’s something extraordinary about ordinary days.

Today we knocked a few things off our list. And added a few more. By special request I got to watch our oldest partake in swim lessons so I could see firsthand how well he floats on his back now. As we walked out I looked at all the kids playing various sports at various levels and realized how many more ordinary days we had ahead of us, god willing. It’s a lot to process during a few dozen paces to the car, especially when time is both eternal and fleeting simultaneously.

I don’t have answers, and I don’t really need any frankly.

Every day is extraordinary.

Squint and you can two planes passing overhead.

Squint and you can two planes passing overhead.



Summer Flowers

My relationship with Mother Nature is a love hate one at best. Today I’m enamored with her as she’s in full bloom again and all her little plants and animals are loving our land.  We’ve got some family stopping by to see the place and I’m so happy that they will get to see all the great little plants enjoying our warm wet summer.

I took a quick tour before dinner tonight and snapped some photos for you to enjoy as well. So many amazing things we’ve been seeing, from a plethora of butterflies and bees to flowers to fruits and veggies growing in the garden.  I took a stroll the other day to locate all the blackberry bushes on our land and stumbled upon a huge buck and a baby deer, both in our tall grass that is up to my shoulders in places.  During my trek I found at least a half-dozen new blackberry bushes including one right next to the driveway. This is going to be a banner year for the wild berry bushes…I can’t wait for some home-made blackberry pie.

We’re anxiously awaiting to see how the bees are doing but we’re being good and letting them be so they can do their thing, or rather the queen can do her thing.

I hope you enjoy these photos as much as I enjoyed taking them. Nothing fancy but you get the idea. Also you can see our new Harbor Breeze ceiling fan, on sale at Lowe’s for only $88. It looks great in our porch and helps take the edge off hot summer afternoons.



Case Study: Annual Energy Usage In An Energy Efficient Home

[editor’s note: I changed the title to ‘energy efficient home’ from ‘passive solar’ – this post doesn’t talk about passive solar that much, I can delve into that at another post]

Wow that’s a pretty boring title for a blog post.  I figured “Murdering Fewer Mountains and Trees So I Could Play My XBox” would be a bit to melodramatic for a Saturday night.  My new year’s resolution, which I decided upon last night was I wasn’t going to spend the day on the computer.  Well I made it ’til dinner time before I just had to hop on and fire up an Excel spreadsheet, and for your benefit, a blog post.

I spent the last hour or two pulling all of our utility bills for the last year or so, and entering them into my spreadsheet.  Also I cracked open a bottle of 2010 Joel Gott California Cabernet…it’s pretty good.  Whoever brought it over, thank you.  You’re welcome back here any time. [editor’s note: my sister said she got me the wine so I wouldn’t have to drink Yellowtail.  Thanks sis.]

2010 Joel Gott 815 California Cabernet Savignon makes everything better.

2010 Joel Gott 815 California Cabernet Sauvignon makes everything better.

So I looked at the energy costs from 2009 at our old house.  This was the last year I have complete records for on a previous spreadsheet.  The records I pulled for this new house span from March last year when we were still finishing the house through this month’s bills.

The old house was a cookie cutter colonial, about 2,700 sq. feet.  In 2009 there were just 2 of us and a baby.  Heating was natural gas, electric everything else including cooling.  The furnace had a humidifier too. We had city water and sewer at the old place.  Why this is important is for two reasons: city water and sewer means water magically shows up and leaves the house and we pay a bill to the utility to make that happen.  This also means we’re not really expending any electricity to get that water and send it back, as far as I know.  The old house also had about half the number of light bulbs compared to our over the top new house and it’s hundred or so light sources.  Cooking was natural gas predominantly.  Washer and dryer were electric just like in new house (we have the same appliances in the new place).  Most of the light bulbs were incandescent but many were CFL’s and a few halogen bulbs; no LED’s. Finally we had a gas fireplace but we never really used that.

The new house is about 3,000 sq. ft. and there are 4 of us in here living.  Heating and cooling comes by way of our hybrid system employing geothermal and natural gas. Our fancy system also had an air exchanger and full house air filtration system.  Water and sewer is handled by our cistern and septic systems.  Both of these run off of electricity to pump water in, filter it and send it back out after our bodies filter it a little more.  The new place also has a sump pump which runs all the time basically to keep us from going under water during wet periods.  Cooking is handled by duel fuel range, and electric appliances.  As I said the new place has a ton of light sources, i.e. bulbs, so that alone is a huge load.  Only 4 of the bulbs are LED’s (not including the range hood’s 4 LED bulbs). The rest are all incandescent light bulbs.  The fireplace is our handy-dandy pellet burning unit, and we’ve barely made a dent in our free ton of pellets we got from Northfield Fireplace. It’ll be 2014 before I have to buy pellets.  We run the fireplace every few nights when hanging out in the family room.

Usage and lifestyle are about the same in both homes, for example in terms of watching tv and play video games.  The new place does not have any electric garage door openers though, not that it matters a whole lot.  I’ve just been too cheap / broke to put them in yet.

R Family Company, LLC estimated we’d use $2,413 annually on gas and electric when they did our Energy Start rating last year.  The engineer and architect estimated the usage to be around $1,500 – $2,000 a year just for HVAC…I think.  I’d have to delve into the paper work a bit more to confirm that.  In reality we’re pretty darn close to those numbers, after considering a few things.  I added up utility costs across the four major utilities most of us pay: electric (E), natural gas (G), water (W) and sewer (S).  Other utilities are lifestyle like phone, cable and internet so they’re not important in my calculations.  So adding up EGWS we’re at about $3,080 for the year 3/12 to 2/13.  Our 2009 total in the old house was $3,129.  So actually a little LESS in the new place.  Now there are some expenses not added into the new house such as septic service like getting it pumped out or fixed if it broke.  Same for the water system and sump pump in terms of repairs.  I did include bleach and filters for the water purification system.  HVAC filters would be an added cost in the new home too (the old place had a washable filter).  There is one bill for electric in March of last year that was $800 when we had the resistance heater in place I believe.  That throws our new house total off a bit.  If you take most of that out of the equation then we’re spot on with the $2,400 estimate Bob gave us from Energy Star.

Here's what we paid in 2009 and what we paid in our first year in the new house (most of the year at least)

Here’s what we paid in 2009 and what we paid in our first year in the new house (most of the year at least)

Our Natural Gas (G) usage plummeted off the face of the earth.  Dropping a whopping 90%, I don’t even think the gas furnace kicks in all.  You can see it rises in the winter, so some heat usage and probably more cooking usage as well.  Most of what we pay for gas is fees, taxes and the privilege of having access to gas.  The geothermal heating is just fine for us.  It’s not too cold or clammy like some people claimed it to be.  The fireplace is offsetting some of this too, so figure if we had to buy pellets (a $100-$250 a year maybe?) our heating cost would go up.

Electrical (E) usage is way over the top at nearly 3x the usage of the old house.  But consider: that wild March bill last year, the septic, sump and cistern all running off electric, electric oven and the biggest culprit all the light bulbs…all add up to higher (E) usage and costs.

Water (W) and Sewer (S) costs are a fraction of what they were but once I have to maintain the systems it’ll be a wash I bet….think about replacing the septic tank, field and cistern and there isn’t enough wine in the world to make that not be a major bummer, man.

First Energy now has this cool energy usage graph that customers can utilize to see where they are spending money on electricity

First Energy now has this cool energy usage graph that customers can utilize to see where they are spending money on electricity

Here's another First Energy  graph that highlights electric usage

Here’s another First Energy graph that highlights electric usage

I logged onto First Energy’s site and they have a new energy summary that will show you how much energy you’re using and where at.  It looks pretty good though it works off of a lot of assumptions, I’m not sure you should get too hung up on the exact numbers.  I filled in all kinds of info about my appliances and house.  I like all the color coded graphs and bars.  It even compares my house to the average house.  For electricity we barely beat out an average house ($27 per month) but for overall energy we win by a large margin ($700 annually). It’s actually embarrassing see our costs pegged all the way to the left on the little cost graph……not.  Granted these numbers are just one month’s were of data I think.  I’d have to delve into it deeper to see what a year would really save us.  Also I need to go back and look at our Energy Star docs and engineering docs to see what they estimated and where we landed.  For instance I think the engineer said about $1,000 annual saving on HVAC alone.

By the way, we keep the house at about 70 degrees throughout the year.  The fireplace thermostat gets set at 75 degrees in the evenings just in the family room area.  Personally I need to be in a certain thermal band to be comfortable so I’m not one to dial the temp up or down to far, even to save cost and planet.

I wish someone invented a smart meter, that my utility companies would support and use, that would do all this monitoring for me and just output a report on my computer or phone. Maybe I should design one.

We can save costs in the coming year a couple of ways.  Convert more bulbs to LED’s, especially the bulbs we use the most.  I plan on insulating the hot water tank. I did that in the old house.  We can insulate the basement walls even more, insulating the top 4′ that are at or above grade.  There are some air holes at the corners of some of the exterior doors that I need to close up as well.

One note, when we go to install a solar power system, having this historical electrical usage will be helpful in sizing the system. Right now it’d be difficult to go zero energy (use as much or less than we produce) because we’re at about 17,250 KWH per year.  Let’s say we had 15,000 KWH per year…that translates to a 15 KW solar system.  That would take up about 1,500 square feet of space….our garage roof is probably about 600 square feet (the part that faces southwest).  So we’d have to cover the house bits up too with solar panels.  Cost would be somewhere between $40,000 and $80,000 to install.  Not too bad considering there’s a Jeep I’d love to have that costs $40,000.  Savings over 20 years could be as high as $20,000 to $40,000 (including tax breaks and factoring in the cost of the system i.e. above and beyond).  The system would save between 400 and 800 thousand lbs of CO2 as well.  These are just wild ass guess numbers I gleaned from Dove Solar & Wind’s website while drinking my wine.  Our system would ultimately be smaller; we’d reduce our usage quite a bit and employ other goodies like solar water heating and LED’s everywhere.

Also today we went to the zoo.  They had a cool exhibit talking about collecting rain water and rain gardens.  Around this building there were two rain gardens with a “bio swale” connecting the two.  This inspired me.  We’ve got this surface water problem in the front yard that I’m going to tackle this Spring.  It’s late so I’ll talk more about it in a future episode.  For now you can look at a  couple pictures of the front yard and our temporary pond so to speak.  Night kids.

This is the little pond we get between the lawn and front bed, every time it rains or the snow melts.

This is the little pond we get between the lawn and front bed, every time it rains or the snow melts.

Spring project will be to address the surface water issue by reworking the topography by hand to get the water to drain.

Spring project will be to address the surface water issue by reworking the topography by hand to get the water to drain.