Sorting and Packing

Packed in BasementYesterday I began sorting and packing in the basement.  Here is a pile of stuff all packed and ready to go to our new house!  I also made an area for things we didn’t want, and at the end of the day I put several boxes in my car ready to go to Goodwill.  But here is what is left to do:

Still to Go

It was a bit overwhelming to even think about how to get through all this, until I just decided to start in one corner, which happened to be our camping equipment, and do that, and then when that was done, to move on to the next area.  I guess that is a good remedy for many overwhelming things in life–start someplace and take it one step at a time.

Since I had the day off, it was a good chance for Margy and I to confer on various items–we got through Christmas decorations, and baskets, and pots for planting:  What can we get rid of? What do we want to keep?  Then, I would put them in boxes and seal and label and put them in the packed-and-ready corner.

Meanwhile, Margy was sealing cracks in the concrete floor.  When we first bought our house, the basement had tested too high for radon levels.  A mitigation system was installed–you can see part of it in the photo above–the white piping goes down underneath the floor to draw radon from the soil.  The piping goes up through a closet into the attic and out through the top of the roof.  A fan in the pipe in the attic creates a negative pressure to pull the radon gases through the piping, so it doesn’t seep into the basement.  But part of what makes it work is to seal all the cracks in the floor.

We haven’t been much concerned about it for a while.  Since we don’t spend much time in the basement, it has not mattered so much to us.  But our home buyers are having their home inspection done this week, including a radon test.  We are hoping the extra effort to seal the cracks will ensure the mitigation system is doing its job, and the basement levels will pass the test.

Radon is a big issue for housing all across the United States.  Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas, but if humans are exposed to too much, it increases our risk of lung cancer.  This can be an issue for very energy efficient houses, because they are more tightly sealed, which makes for less air flow.  Have you had radon levels tested in your home?

Heat Pumps are In

Heat Pump Final TouchesYesterday, the final connections were made, and the heat pumps were up and running.  The outdoor unit sits 30 inches above the ground, so when it snows, it is up above the snow line.  But if snow blows into the unit, it is smart enough to know when to start defrosting itself. In fact, these machines are smart in many ways.  Our installer oriented us to all of their many features.  You can program them to sense a human being in the room, and either blow conditioned air toward them or around them.  Not that we need that feature.  But maybe on a hot day, when they are cooling the air?

You can also set them to efficiency mode, and they’ll figure out how to keep the air at a comfortable set temperature all on their own.  A wonderful feature of heat pumps is that they do both heating and cooling.  One of the symptoms that Margy faces from her chronic illness is a severe incapacity to tolerate heat. So it is a wonderful relief that our home will be safe and comfortable for her in all weather.  Heat pumps are efficient except when the outside temperature goes to 5 below zero.  For those very few ultra cold days, we have back up heat from the very efficient Buderus boiler that was already in the house.

We were chatting with the installer about the irony that, right now, with oil prices being so low, it may actually be less expensive to heat with the oil furnace than with the heat pumps which use electricity.  But once we have installed solar panels, we hope most of our electricity will come from the sun.  That is what will make these heat pumps an important contribution to our search for greener housing. For us, it isn’t just the price, but the desire to move away from fossil fuels that put too much carbon in the atmosphere.  For now, we set the thermostat to about 50 degrees, until we finally get to move in.

Heat pump in living room

A Greener Housing Walk Through

A couple days ago we had a walk through at our soon-to-be new house with an energy efficiency company representative.  What fun to finally be getting closer to this aspect of our search for greener housing!

Attic DSC02676

Old attic insulation

We started in the attic, which desperately needs new insulation, and which he said will be easy to insulate.  The sellers had reported using 500 gallons of oil last winter–which seemed like a lot to us.  In our current house, which is twice the size, we had used 600 gallons.  But we did attic insulation several years ago.

They can take out the plywood floors, take out the old fiberglass insulation, add extensions to raise the height of the wooden floor joists, and then blow in cellulose insulation of several inches to achieve a high R-factor. Put back plywood floors so we can use that area for storage.  Create an insulated cover for the pull down ladder, and voila, lower heat bills immediately.

Moving down to the main floor, we learn that our windows aren’t too bad–double pane glass, which we were happy to find out.  But he did mention that French doors (which we want to install in the kitchen) can be problematic for air leakage.  So I’ve been researching options that might be more environmentally sound. Wow, lots of research is involved in this process!  I also called the Maine Green Performance Building Supply to get their opinion–the French doors they recommend can take six weeks to arrive by order.  More to think about.

On to the basement, he recommended sealing and insulation at the rim joists, which is the very bottom of the wood frame of the house above the foundation, for those who haven’t been exploring the bones of your own homes. There is already some insulation between the wall board and basement walls that should be okay.

We also talked about air-source heat pumps, and where they might be placed and how many we might use.  One unit in the living room, one in the basement, and maybe one small unit in each bedroom to have more control of the temperature–all these units attached to one outdoor unit.  Once installed, this would be our primary source of heating and cooling, with oil furnace or wood stove as back up in the coldest days of winter.

He’ll be sending us a full report with pricing estimates next week, and then we can see how we stand.  We are also doing a walk through with another energy efficiency company next week, so we’ll have two estimates to compare. It was really satisfying to hear him say that this house is a very good one for making greener.

Trying to Find an Ecological Water Heater

When we awaken to a vision of living in harmony with the earth and other beings, we enter an in-between place, a place of increasing awareness of the brokenness of our world today. Our social and economic system was built upon exploitation of the earth for resources, and the options we have as individuals are limited because of that.

During one spring, Margy and I noticed that our hot water wouldn’t get hot anymore. We put up with lukewarm showers while we were trying to sort out what to do. We are always trying to make our home more easy on the environment, so we took time to research a lot of options.

Our hot water came from a coil in our boiler, and we were told that it would be quite expensive to clean out the coil, using lots of nasty chemicals. Did we need a new boiler? At that time, a very state-of-the art efficient new boiler would cost $11,000 to install. A boiler that used wood pellets instead of oil—even better—would cost $22,000, including an automatic pellet feeder. Well, we didn’t have enough money for either of those options, and our current boiler had some years left in it. Solar hot water is also expensive, and we don’t have a south facing roof, and we have a lot of trees. One company recommended heat exchange water heaters—they were about $3000 to install.

Water Heater DSC01555I also researched more traditional hot water heaters—we don’t have natural gas where we live, so that wasn’t an option. I lined up all the brands and all their energy efficiency. But I found that the ones that were the most energy efficient cost a whole more, for the tiniest fraction of greater efficiency. I did a whole lot of work on it, but eventually, we chose a standard electric hot water heater installed for about $1000. The good news is that we can shut off our boiler during the summer months, since it won’t be needed to heat water. And we have hot showers again. The bad news is that our electric bill will go up about $50 a month. So all in all, we might be using more energy than before.

I share this story because I felt so sad after our experience, so disappointed and angry that there weren’t good ecological solutions. Despite our values and idealism about how we want to live on the earth, despite how much time we put into research, it wasn’t possible to find workable and affordable choices. The options we have as families depend on what our society chooses do with its resources.