Thursday, October 18, 2007

Save Thousands of Dollars While Losing Weight

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From the day my first child was born, I began to take global warming personally. 

Before that, climate change had seemed a horrible but distant cataclysm, so difficult to imagine.  However with the birth of Corey, this future became mine to hold.  It snuggled into my arms, fragrant and vulnerable.  Every fiber of my being demanded I do all I could to protect it. 

Because Corey was born in 2000, all the scientific assessments (droughts, disease, forest fires, etc.) were all too easy to translate into how old he'd be.  2020 would be when he was in college.  2040 might be when he was trying to raise children.  Etc.  I tried to imagine him attempting to live out a normal life, finding a job and love, while (in the words of James Hansen, this country's pre-eminent climate scientist) the world started its process of becoming essentially "a different planet."

However what could I do?  With Bush in the Whitehouse taking dictation from oil companies, I felt powerless.  Every time a Hummer drove by, a blind fury rose in my chest.  Helpless, I picked vituperative arguments with relatives about climate disruption and American policy and I ground my teeth at night.

One night, having dinner with my dad, he happened to list all the countries he had flown to in the last month: Singapore, the Caribbean and the most distant reaches of Canada.  Horrified at his flagrant carbon emissions, I broke down into inarticulate tears.

Clearly something had to change.  In an attempt to improve my mood if nothing else, I took matters into my own hands.  Being a new mom, the only things I felt I had control over were my lifestyle and home.  Thus I signed the Kyoto Protocols for my house and, in order to implement the protocols, I set out to redo my section of the world.

Step one - Cars

The average American adult has a car that gets 25 miles per gallon and is driven 13,785 miles per year.  First thing I did was to get rid of my car.  I found I could work out of my home and buy everything I needed in the neighborhood.  I found I could travel to almost everywhere I needed to get to with my bike.  The once or twice a month I really needed to drive somewhere, I rented a Zipcar by the hour.

Curious about what a difference my choice was making, I looked up the info on CarbonFund's carbon calculator.  I was amazed to learn I'd decreased my annual carbon dioxide emissions by five tons.  Five tons.

I don't know if you've ever run your fingers through your car's exhaust, but if feels like nothing more than humidity, weighing nearly nothing.  I tried to imagine how big a cloud of gas would be that weighed five tons.  The size of a city block?  The size of a city?  I imagined how a cloud that big might help to warp the weather.  Single-handedly I had subtracted that damage from the world. 

I can't tell you how much better I felt.  I experienced a little less fear.  I began to find my car-less lifestyle had some other perks.  Since I now biked everywhere, I lost my pregnancy weight without paying for an expensive gym membership.  And I got so much enjoyment from biking.  I zoomed past all those traffic jams.  No car insurance payments for me, no being ripped off by a mechanic, no parking fees or tickets, or difficulty parking.  I could always zip right up to a meter within 10 feet of where I want to go and lock up.  With a squalling child in the backseat of the bike I could pull over in a moment and deal with the problem, instead of having frantically to find a parking spot first.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I found I was saving $7,300 per year (see BikesatWork's friendly chart if you don't like paging though vast PDF files) through lack of car insurance, car payments, parking, repairs, etc.

As a plus, in the seven years since getting rid of my car, my kids have gotten used to biking around town, so they are being raised more as active healthy kids than if they were members of the SUV generation.

 Carbon Saved Money Saved
Per Year5 tons$7,300
Over 7 years35 tons$51,100

Step two - Electricity

Excited by all the perks that came from this first adventure into carbon-cutting, I tried replacing an incandescent bulb or two with a compact fluorescent, ones down in the basement where my husband might not object.  It was so easy to change the bulbs and the light from the CFLs didn't seem very different. 

I replaced more of them, then began researching energy-intensive appliances.  I learned that running an AC for 12 hours a day for three weeks uses more energy than leaving a fridge open 24 hours a day for a whole year.  So I tried out what people in the South used to do before the invention of air conditioning: shutting the windows and shades of the house early in the morning to keep the cool air inside while the air outside heated up.  Using this system I discovered to my surprise my house stayed cool until the evening.  At that point I could open the windows again to let fresh cool air in. This technique works so well that the other morning in 90° heat, a contractor stepped inside and marveled at the power of what he assumed was my AC.

During the summer I began line-drying my clothes outside.  It was easy enough to do and my clothes smelled nice afterward.  By the time summer ended, it seemed unnatural to turn on the dryer and so before winter hit, I cleaned and painted the basement hot-water pipes.  Once it got too cold to dry my clothes outside, I draped the clothes on these heated pipes to dry.  Since these pipes are right next to the washer it's quite convenient.  This way the laundry dries within a few hours without any extra energy being used and as a perk the wet clothes release some humidity into the house (so needed during the winter).

I started to buy appliances paying attention to how much electricity they drew.  I found this really great gadget from Blue Line Innovations that lets me monitor our electrical use.  It displays the moment-by-moment household kilowatt use right in the kitchen in an easy-to-read display, so when my husband turns on the dishwasher, he sees the results.  This makes him less likely to turn the dishwasher on when it's half empty. 

The result of all this is an electric bill 20% of most American households, as well as eight tons of carbon saved annually.  I had erased another huge cloud of exhaust.  Also, I imagined I might be helping to save some mountaintop in Virginia that otherwise might be blasted for coal. 

I began to feel powerful.  Sure, not as powerful as Bush, but on the other hand these days I didn't have to wake up to his approval ratings. 

By now I wasn't grinding my teeth anymore and could have dinner with my dad without fear of breaking into tears.

 Carbon Saved Money Saved
Per Year8.57 tons$421
Over 7 years59.99 tons$2,947

Step Three - Heat

I requested a free energy audit from my energy company and as part of it, the auditor installed a programmable thermostat.  She also put in this plastic V-shape self-sticking liner (called a "tension seal") in between the moving parts of each window's frame to decrease drafts.  The thermostat thoughtfully turns the heat down for me on winter nights after my whole family is already cuddled up in bed and then it turns the heat back up before we have to get out of those warm beds.  I love thick quilts and cool noses at night and we noticed the decrease in our energy bills immediately.

I began the basement renovation that my husband and I had been discussing for years. I hammered off the un-insulated luan paneling that was there (demolition is great for anger management) and after my husband put in the studs for the new walls, I began to insulate. It's easy; you cut the rigid insulation with a knife to match the shape of the area between the studs and then shove it in so it fills the opening tightly.  After I'd finished, we put up the new walls and a floor.  Now the kids have a playroom and the floors of our house aren't always chilly from the freezing basement below.  We found we didn't need to even put in a heating system in the basement because with it so well insulated, those hot-water pipes put out more than enough to keep the room toasty.  The insulation itself cost about a $1,000 and took a few days of work.

In the attic, I had tin foil insulation stapled up against the inside of the roof.  Think of how cool tinfoil feels even when it comes right out of the oven.  It basically reflects the heat that hits the roof right back outward. It can decrease the temperature of the attic by up to 30 degrees on a hot day, and thus keep your whole house cooler.  During the winter, it helps in the same way to keep the warm air inside your house.  Cost: a few hundred. 

About a year after that, I got an insulation company to pump cellulose (recycled newspapers cut up into fluffy insulation and treated so it's not flammable) into the walls of my house.  It took only a day and cost $2,000 for an average-sized house like mine.  As a perk, I got a thousand of that back as a rebate from the government. 

The result of all this work is a 90-year-old house that was drafty and cold with chilly floors and rattling windows is now warm from top to bottom in the winter.  And a house that used to be hot as Hades in the summer now holds onto its coolness through day after day of a heat wave. 

The result of this is a gas use that is 40% less than that of most New Englanders.  As a plus we have a new room in the basement.

 Carbon Saved Money Saved
Per Year2.2 tons$493
Over 7 years15.4 tons$3,451

You might think I'm nuts for expending all of this biological energy to save fossil-fuel energy, but look at it this way. According to my calculations, with a bit of time and about $3,000 in expenses (most of which has gone into insulation), I've saved $57,498 over seven years.  Considering taxes I would probably have had to earn at least $70,000 more and that would have meant getting a job outside the house in a more corporate environment where I would have been miserable. Frankly I would so much rather save money this way than spend all that time working to send fat checks off to MobilExxon and Ford.

Now I'm living the life I prefer, with flexible hours and more time for my children. I am healthier and am raising my children to be more healthy and active.  I'm hurting the world less.  Because I'm doing something daily to combat climate disruption, I feel less bewildered and powerless and thus I act less anxious and angry.  Believe me, my family appreciates it.

I read the newspapers, those articles about how "ambitious" the goal is of 80% by 2050 and how difficult it would be.  Frankly, I just don't get it.  According to my calculations, I've already decreased our emissions by 55%. I'm planning on getting to 80% by 2012.  It all seems so doable.  It's better for us, for our waistlines and pocketbooks, for our children and their future, and for this planet that I'm rather fond of.  If I can do it, a middle-aged housewife without vast research or federal money behind me, why can't our country that is one of the most inventive, determined and technological? 

Why aren't we Americans demanding it?

 Total Carbon Saved Total Money Saved
Per Year15.77 tons$8,214
Over 7 years110.39 tons$57,498

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