Friday, February 27, 2009

Paying Attention

I am ashamed to say...up until recently, my mindset has been to look at my pay stub in terms of the "government's portion" (taxes) and "my portion" (what's left over). And since I am so busy just managing the "left over", I don't spend a lot of time analyzing where the "government's portion" goes. Well, that is not entirely true...I guess I did have thoughts like "Social Security and Medicare tax...okay, well...I'll never see that money again, so guess I better start a 403(b) for my own retirement...and more recently,...oops, there goes my retirement fund, guess I better start stuffing cash under the mattress.... Hmmm...anyone else see a pattern here?

AND since our Nation is borrowing trillions of dollars to fund bank, insurance and auto industry bailouts, not to mention huge stimulus packages...I guess it is past time to pay attention...but better late than never.

President Obama has promised transparency in government spending. If you are interested in where your tax dollars (both present and future) will be spent...check it out: also provides a link (look for the map of the U.S.) to each state's website where you can track how recovery funds are being spent in your own state.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Compact Florescent Light Bulbs

I realize that it is probably (okay, definitely) odd that someone would be excited about their electric bill, but I am. Here is why.

Over the summer we decided to install ceiling fans (to reduce cooling and heating costs). We also decided to change out all of the light bulbs in the house to compact florescent light bulbs (CFL bulbs). The CFL bulb costs were offset due to rebate offers, which made them an ever better investment.

Last year at this time we were running a furnace to heat our home to a mere 64 degrees (okay, 68 when the "heat miser" was at work) and our hot water. We also periodically ran some small ceramic space heaters to warm our family room. Total kilowatt hours: 822.

This year we are running a pellet stove (75 degrees daytime and 83 degrees overnight), ceiling fans, CFL bulbs and the solar system pump and no ceramic space heaters. Total kilowatt hours: 492.

I am just floored! I cannot wait to see what the kilowatt usage in April will be as that was our pre-solar and CFL bulbs period and lowest kilowatts usage at 365.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Story of the Solar Hot Water System

My husband who is a self-described political junkie is also deeply interested in the world of economics. He follows several newspapers, economic websites, and has developed a lot of interesting and beneficial connections as a blogger of one of those sites. For all the hours he spent online reading, posting and doing the research...I have to say it really has paid off (in more ways than one - perhaps another post for another time). The idea for a pellet stove and the solar system were just such pay offs.

Just like the pellet stove, the solar hot water system came about as a solution to the rising oil costs. In June, our friend called to say that his pre-buy quote for heating oil was $4.98 a gallon. This sent us into a strategic planning mode. We started thinking about alternatives to giving up $5.00/gallon or more (because,let's face it, if it costs that much in June...well then one might as well add an additional $2.00 gallon for cash price during the season.) So, the research began.

Initially our ambition was to "get off the grid". We thought we wanted to install photovoltaic panels in conjunction with an electric hot water heater. We also thought it would be really cool to have the electric company pay us for a change. A friendly neighbor welcomed our questions about his photovoltaic panels and solar hot water tubes. He shared his trials and tribulations and helped to guide our decision making. After obtaining project quotes, the ultimate decision was pared down to a domestic solar hot water system. Our home would have required about 30 photovoltaic panels and an expensive battery system (too fiscally ambitious for us) to come off the grid. And otherwise dissapointing news, the electric company (CMP) no longer cuts checks for those who put into the electric grid rather than drawing from it. Instead, an energy producing home can receive credits on their account to be applied to future bills...which is fine, but the cost/benefit ratio just didn't add I understand there can be a lot of issues with inverters.

Due in September, our installation actually didn't happen until November. The solar hot water tubes were back ordered due to sudden and increased demand for them. This frustrated my husband to no end...all he could see was wasted solar generation. Not me, I actually felt happy that it was back-ordered for seemingly positive reasons. (I would love to see more households go as green as they can afford...I would also like to see lots of stimulus money made available to make this happen...I mean if we are going to spend that kind of tax payer money lets invest it in something that will help more tax paying citizens come ahead in the long term...stop throwing money at bad banks and their reckless CEO's!) Okay, I digress.

For anyone who is curious; our solar hot water system is made up of two panels containing 20 vaccum tubes each. The sun heats the tubes to a temperature of up to 400 degrees. The heat generated is used to heat a glycol solution which runs through copper pipes and into two coils in our water storage tank. The glycol is circulated by a pump and a small computer controls the flow of glycol according to programmable temperatures on the panels as well as the tank. If the glycol solution is too hot it stops flowing so that the storage tank does not overheat. Conversely, if the glycol is colder than the water in the storage tank it is not circulated. Our water coming in from the city goes first to the solar storage tank where it is at the least preheated so our furnace does not have to heat the water from 45 degrees or so. Even on overcast days the solar tank is at least 80-90 degrees which means our furnace only needs to warm the water between 30 and 40 degrees to achieve the preset 120 degrees of our hot water tank. Unfortunately the system is not big enough at this point in time to support our hot water baseboard heat. (That would require a bigger and more expensive water storage tank.) But for now it is nice to know that I am not expending a limited resource to heat water for showers, dishes or least not a majority of the time.

On sunny days (even with below zero temperatures) the furnace does not appear to run as often or for as long. I attribute this to the fact that we make the best of efforts to do laundry on sunny days only and run the dishwasher during peak daylight hours (10 am - 2 pm). And this is only winter. We look forward to taking advantage of the system more as the year wears on and we have more sunlight to work with. This energy conservation feels good...I hope to boost our conservation efforts of water and electricity with a future investment in HE washer and dryer (after I save the cash...of course). But, it is good to have goals, right? One thing at a time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Story of the Pellet Stove

In 2003 we purchased our home for a decent price at an exceptional interest rate and in a great neighborhood. The home did need a lot of TLC but we figured it was a good investment for the aforementioned reasons. Immediately we replaced the original boiler with an efficient oil furnace and we closed off the family room in an attempt to conserve heating oil. Our first heating season required 1300 gallons of heating oil.

In 2004, with the arrival of our daughter, we replaced all drafty single-pane windows, non-insulated exterior doors and added hot water baseboard heat to the family room (which we then re-opened). We managed to reduce our heating oil consumption to 1200 gallons. (not too bad considering we heated an additional 600 square feet in the family room area that had been blocked off the year before).

Then, in 2005, oil started to climb in price. We addressed this by setting up a budget which included setting aside enough money each pay period to pay for our projected heating oil needs. And I have to say...we did much better. We even cut back the thermostat setting to conserve even more. All told we only consumed 1100 gallons that season. But then oil prices started to sky rocket and they continued to climb through 2006 and 2007, to the point that by 2008 we grew seriously concerned as to our ability to stay on top of things financially-speaking. (It was not out of realm to pay a $700 heating oil bill and receive another only 3-4 weeks later.) So enters the pellet stove.

In March 2008 we were faced with the decision to save our tax return for the next season's heating bill (projected at $5500), potentially needing to come up with that again the following year OR use the money to invest in alternative energy. (and hopefully get ahead) A pellet stove is expensive but with the threat of $5/gallon oil it became clear which was the smarter investment. So we ordered, ahead of the mad rush of other smart Mainers, and had it installed in April.

It was hard to part with the cash...but it has been totally worth it. We love it! Not only has it transformed a cold, empty brick fireplace into a warm, beautiful centerpiece it also reduced our oil consumption to a mere 400 gallons! Okay, well maybe it doesn't get all the credit because we did also invest in a hot water solar panel system...but that will be another post. That being said, we are incredibly happy with this investment and plan to install another as soon as we can save the cash.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

An Introduction

My husband and I made changes to our lifestyle and finances after the arrival of our only child; it is a continuing evolution of "small change" that we hope will add up for the greater good of the planet and thus a better world for her to inherit; hence the name for this blog. And so, thanks to my friend, CountryGirl's encouragement, I have morphed into CityGirl and will be reporting from (as she affectionately refers to it) my Urban Homestead for anyone who is interested in alternative energy, energy conservation and various other topics in making ends meet with limited resources.