Old Home Energy Conservation in Bellingham, WA

[article under construction. Last updated June 4, 2008 rferris@rmfdevelopment.com]

Energy Conservation Strategy: Methods and Discussion

If energy were just another commodity and all market capitalism were a transparent and smooth mechanism this article would be useless. But neither is true. The probability of economic shock, depression, bankruptcies, foreclosures, dislocation, poverty and starvation due to energy shortages and speculation is all too real. All large scale energy investments are dictated by sovereign political policy. National governments (not all of them capitalist including the USA) will respond in their best interests of their governments (not necessarily their people) to $200/barrel oil or $15/MBTU natural gas. The results may not be predictable or create stable world trade. If a barrel of oil could be retailed like a bushel of wheat, increasing demand would be met with increasing investment and price equilibrium compatible with market demand would result. With oil and natural gas shortages, there is a strong likelihood of increased military action, political conflict, currency wars, and oil and natural gas used as a geopolitical weapons. In reality, the problem is the trade itself of international hydrocarbons as a major sources of energy. The value of hydrocarbons is simply now too central to the world's economy to create stable global trade. The best reason for removing hydrocarbons and all international energy trade from the world market is not lowering emissions or decreasing trade deficits. The best reason for strictly local production of energy is too stabilize global trade by reducing world conflict, stabilizing currencies, and minimizing the effect hydrocarbon revenues have on sovereign power and relationships. Currently, the energy trade creates more market chaos than it does market value. Below, I discuss technologies that can be used to help adjust to this coming chaos.

This article takes an unusual approach to understanding home energy conservation. It looks at all fuels that can possibly be measured easily: natural gas (therms), electricity (KWh), petroleum (gallons). The average use of an American household of energy in general is enormous; energy is a component of all human activity. In an industrialized, urbanized society, all aspects of human life are paid for in hydrocarbon consumption: food, travel, construction, heat, light, data processing. But the number that would represent our household's total energy usage is not easily measured. You cannot change what you cannot measure. The most available measurements are your utility bills and petroleum credit card. They are not perfect measure of total fuel consumption, but they are the most easily quantifiable for homeowners. An example illustrates this complexity: My wife travels long distance by plane. I drive. My fuel costs for such travel is exactly measurable and recorded per trip on my gas card. Her plane flight energy usage can only be approximated. In this article, I discuss the implementation of high end energy efficient technology as a purchasing agent or consumer. A description of the skillsets required to implement the referenced technology is beyond the scope of this article.

The reader will notice that I chart all fuels we use and derive a common statistic (“Combined Energy Costs Per Month”). This is purposive. There is never just a single fuel crisis. All the hydrocarbon derived “elixirs of life” (natural gas, electricity, petroleum) are inextricably linked in production, use, and discovery. A change in cost in one energy form creates a change cost in each. The newest fuel sources (heat pumps, photovoltaics, micro-CHP, plug-in hybrids, ethanol) will undeniably change the profiles of household energy cost and consumption as well. Therefore, it is explicitly part of my energy conservation strategy to anticipate of deployment of new energy use patterns and home production of energy. Without such a strategy, how could we most efficiently plan large scale purchases that will involve 10 – 20 year technology lifespans? We suffer from a “BTU crisis” today. Do we also suffer from an inability to see new technologies of the future?

The New York Times recently printed this image in an informative article:

Clearly the United States has a long way to go in energy conservation. Japan is deploying and subsidizing fuel cells, Micro-CHP, and photovoltaics as fast as possible. It encourages energy conservation as a national duty. What are we doing in America but reaching new heights of consumption? The United States is the world's largest producer, consumer, and importer of energy. We consume according to the EIA:

Total Energy Consumption (2004E) 100.3 quadrillion BTUs, of which Oil (40%), Natural Gas (23%), Coal (22%), Nuclear (8%), Hydroelectricity (3%), Other Renewables (1%)

This leaves each of us with a “Total Per Capita Energy Consumption of (2003E) 339.9 million BTUs”. What if it all or part of this were to stop? There is no evidence to suggest that the last four years have brought anything but a dramatic rise in energy costs. Indeed, all signs point to rapidly increasing energy costs and quite probably, shortages. Some arguments dramatically suggest a future of climatic price increases and crippling shortages.i Noted energy investment banker Matthew Simmons has argued:

"For 50 years, [the] world blissfully dreamed that energy was an endowed, virtually free gift. We wasted our highest quality energy at low prices. We built a global blueprint that assumed energy use could expand forever. The dream is over. The alarm has gone off. It is time to wake up!"ii

If true, this is all really too bad. I have just reached 45 in my life. For the first time ever, I was able to move somewhere picturesque with my beautiful and loving wife and afford a home. For the first time ever, I am raising my own child. It is not by choice that these amenities have come to me so late. Especially with my health ebbing, I would not now leave my new found prosperity to fate of energy poverty, energy shortages and social crisis if I could stop such terrible fates.

Remodel Another Old Home and Our Energy Consumption Profile

The data and charts associated with article are the preliminary result of my attempt to understand our energy usage patterns since we purchase an older three bedroom home (1700 sq. ft) with two car garage (650 sq. ft) in the Columbia Neighborhood of Bellingham, Wa. In the years previous to our move to Bellingham, I assumed something of minor leadership/authority role during the 2001 California energy crisis by writing extensively about home energy usage and practicing (mostly) low cost energy conservation measures and other dreamy thoughts.iii Since then, our priorities in life and our energy needs changed dramatically. So has energy conservation technology. This article examines not whether residential and residential businesses require conservation in the form of sacrifice to growth and comfort. This article examines whether a homeowner and business person can invest their way to energy efficiency and whether this investment is cost effective or worthwhile.

In the short order of a few years, we moved to this small ex-pulp plant town in the farthest NW corner of the United States, bought an old home (in much need of remodeling), changed careers, and began raising our daughter. The 49th parallel in the Pacific Northwest (the Canadian/US border) has a completely different climate than the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area. Our new Northwest home sees lots of 'weather'. Lots. iv All our energy needs with the exception of those from commuting, began to increase. It took some time before I could start remodeling our home from the original ex-Coal miner's 900 sq ft store plus 1970's additions it had become to whatever it is in the process of becoming today. The previous owners had a 100 amp electrical box, an “airtight” wood stove (used extensively in the winter), an older furnace and water heater, aluminum frame windows, hollow core doors and a very much older gas heater for the garage. Amazingly, energy costs when we bought our home in August of 2003 in Bellingham were much cheaper than what to which we had become accustomed in California. For awhile, we had other priorities than energy conservation. Both our priorities and cheap energy costs would change soon enough.

This time, with home appreciation in Bellingham rising at a record pace and easy access to home refinancing at cheap interest rates, we have been able to alter our energy use profile through the use of high-end technology purchases. It has turned out that all of these purchases have not only been energy efficient but extraordinarily utilitarian. All of them have exceeded my expectations for performance and cost. In this post-Katrina, post-Iraq, peak energy, crisis driven world, our effective energy costs in Bellingham now varies from $1 - $2 per therm, 6 to 9 cents per Kilowatt, and $3.95 to $4.35 per gallon for regular unleaded. Today, whatever advantage the hydro-power driven Northwest gains in relatively cheap electrical costs are currently burned up with some of the highest gas prices in the Pacific Northwest. The reasons for this is beyond the scope of this article.

Where to begin? In the past four years (August 2003 – August 2007) that we have owned and occupied our home we have changed our energy profile as below:

Average annual therms per month decreased (120/36)

70% reduction

Average annual gallons per month decreased (47/33)

30% reduction

Average annual KWh per month increased (496/947)

91% increase

Average annual monthly energy 'cost' (KWh, therms, gallons) $241/$215 month

11% decrease

Stunningly, despite spending ten of thousands of dollars on energy conservation equipment in the last four years, engaging contractors in multiple projects, lots of personal effort in remodeling, our total energy costs have decreased only 11% per month. Why? Increased energy cost and increasing energy services are the culprits. When we first moved to Bellingham five years ago, a gallon of gas could be bought for $1.34/gallon. Currently, many stations in Bellingham are charging $3.46/gallon for same unleaded regular. Although natural gas and electricity have not seen such quite dramatic rises in cost, our needs for heat and electricity have increased dramatically with the founding of my home office, the birth of our child, and appliance/security/lighting needs for our home. Projections of “peak natural gas” may well lead to increased costs in electricity as the natural gas as we try to import the world's remaining natural gas from fields in Russia, Iran, Qatar.

To be fair to our efforts, it is no dim-lit, old sweater, barefoot, lifestyle that we lead. Although I personally walk or push our stroller downtown nearly a half dozen times per week and we both work locally, our small family has all the comforts and demands a three car, 3 bedroom, 2 bath, 1 child lifestyle suggests. We take frequent trips to local destinations like Seattle Zoo, Vancouver Aquarium, the San Juan Islands, Vancouver Island destinations, Mount Baker. I personally will fly only if necessary, choosing instead to visit all my relatives in the far flung west by 60 mpg Honda Insight Hybrid. Often, these are 2000 – 2700 mile round trip 'visits'. Although my wife works locally, she does not walk or take the bus to work as she shuttles between North and South side hospital campuses and daycare for our child. Indeed, it is not unusual for us to drive to the Portland, OR area for a weekend conference or getaway.

The long rainy season (6 – 8 months) and often dark winters (less than 6 hours of visible daylight for much if if not all of November, December, January) in Bellingham just begs for lots of heat and light. But we have had more needs than comfort from the long, rainy winters here. Security and safety needs that became apparent when we first moved in forced installation of extra outside lighting and surveillance systems. Ventilation needs have prompted the installation of extra household fans. And the birth of our child and the four ear infections she suffered in her first year made us unwilling to 'set back' our thermostat in the winter months. Processors and computers are making serious improvements in energy consumption. Still running a small computer lab in my office (up to 6 machines and associated peripherals) does not decrease my electrical needs. In summary, we have had real needs for which real energy input was required.

Can technology continue to offset my growing residential/business needs amidst rising energy costs and shortages of supply? Will the costs be affordable enough to prevent discomfort, maintain our lifestyle and business growth? Will I have any other choice? These are the questions I have put to myself for the last four years. To that end, we have implemented at least this much configuration management and appliance deployment in our old home at these approximate costs:

Insulate attic, floor joists, walls


Replace all windows, sliding and exterior doors with energy efficient substitutes


Paint and Repair all exterior siding as necessary


Update electrical box and electrical weatherhead


Install energy efficient Washer and Dryer (220V)


Install energy efficient refrigerator


Install energy efficient street lamp and exterior lighting


Install new 93% natural gas heater, tankless water heater, 16 SEER 9 HSPF pump with coils, all new insulated ducting, zoning system with programmable thermostat


Install energy efficient bathroom and garage fans


Purchase 2007 Touring Edition Prius


Basement and Ceiling Insulation deployed Fall 2003 and Spring 2004 :

Whirlpool “Duet” controls for 220V clothes dryer deployed September 2003, but put to rigorous use after the birth of our daughter in August 2004:

High lumen, Compact Fluorescent Lamp (with photo sensor) deployed Fall 2003 to enhance security:

New Heater, Coils, Air Filter, Tankless Water Heater, Control Boards deployed July 2006 :

Carrier “Infinity 16” Heat Pump Installation deployed Summer 2006:

Carrier Thermostat Showing Engineer's Menu with Heat Pump Lockout Temperature:

Prius Seen Through New “low e” coated windows on March 1, 2007:

In deciding what to appliances to upgrade and how much to spend, I tried to use these guidelines:

Notice that typical environmental goals like low carbon emissions, net resource consumption, passive architecture, simplicity of design, etc. haven't concerned me as much as goals like net savings, home comfort, ease of installation. Additionally, I am interested in applying technology to guard my family from the potential discomfort of geo-political chaos or sudden world-wide energy crisis might cause. To these ends, I am now very much interested in power production: photovoltaics, Micro-CHP, and “plug-in” hybrids. My guess is that the most significant movement in energy conservation will be a movement to decentralize power production; to make power production as local as possible. Indeed, I look forward to attempting to design a net revenue income stream from home energy production in the future. In the coming times of shortages, inflated energy prices and high interest rates, such a goal may well make our recent investments profitable.

End Notes