Paying Attention for $$$!

(I’m going to tell you how much I spend on utilities, in real dollars! Eventually.)

This is a part of my daily life that has been growing for years, so I think it deserves a mention. It’s partially frugal, partially environmental, and partially an exercise in testing limits – how little can we use? It probably started with reading Your Money or Your Life, which I have never managed to implement for the simple reason that I can’t do the necessary accounting. Nonetheless, I took the message to heart that you give up your life energy for the things that you buy, so you should make sure that you are getting your life energy’s worth. In more typical language, this means: don’t spend your life earning money to buy things that you don’t value. After years of reflection, I can say that I resent every single penny I spend on non-sustainable electricity and fossil fuels, no matter how much pleasure or convenience I get from the heat, light, and travel they provide. I. Hate. Those. Bills.

One of my great points of pride is that while we lived in a gas-heated house during the ’90’s, we put so much insulation into it each year that the heating bill never went up in 9 years, while the retail price of gas nearly doubled. (Hey – we take our accomplishments where we find them.) To put that another way, we cut our use of heating gas by nearly 50% over that 9 year period, primarily by insulating and weather proofing. We also made the house significantly more comfortable in the process, but it was starting at an appalling state, with no insulation in some walls, and curtains that blew in the breeze. Fortunately, our current house doesn’t have those problems, but that makes the savings less immediately apparent. Being fiercely stubborn (and cheap), I have continued on the path of energy savings for my pocketbook (OK, imagine one of those cheesy superhero voices…) and the world!

In one of my previous posts, I mentioned that my life has been partially deautomated. By that neologism, I mean that in our quest for power savings, we actively manage the temperature of the house. This is usually accomplished automatically through set-back thermostats and the like, but we want more! (Actually, eventually I want to eliminate those bills completely, but that is a much larger project. So far my computer, camera, cell phone, and MP3 player are solar. The fridge is next!)

We have a fairly large house with a wide bank of south-facing windows, which, when appropriately covered and uncovered, can provide a significant amount of our heating, even on very cold days. However, the key fact here is that they must manually be covered and uncovered, opened and closed. There is an art to managing the temperature of the house, because the heating “system” (and I use the word loosely) includes the solar gain, baseboard heating, and two woodstoves.

As anybody with a hint of interest in saving money or power knows, baseboard heating sucks. It costs a fortune, it is an energy nightmare, and the heaters themselves get so hot that they burn things… like wayward blankets, pillows that fall off the bed, lego that gets dropped and bounces into the heater, stuffed animals… I hate the baseboard heaters, and I think that they are so dangerous that it isn’t clear to me why they are still legal. However, ahem… it is what we have. Retrofitting for forced air or hot water is probably more difficult than just tearing down and building a new house, since we would have to live in the house while renovating, and I’ve Been There Done That. Unwilling. Besides that, the natural gas all goes through Nova Scotia on its way to somewhere else, so we can’t even get gas. This is the system we have to work with: Windows, wood stove, baseboard heaters.

I was going to claim that keeping the baseboard heaters from coming on is the highest priority, but in fact, the first priority is keeping ourselves warm. We live in a grey, windy, damp climate, so getting cold can be depressing. (This is not a clinical statement about the causes of SAD. It is just that when I get cold, I fall asleep, drag myself around, and become lethargic and mopey. My mammalian status is sometimes in question.) Keeping the house warm enough to keep me functional matters, especially since I’m home all day most of the time.

The second priority is keeping the baseboard heaters from coming on. We do this by keeping the thermostats set to 15 degrees (in rooms we aren’t using) and 17 – 18 in rooms that we are in. The intent is not to keep the rooms that cold; it is to make sure that we bother to keep doing the other things necessary to keep the house warmer than that. It is warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing, and warm enough that it doesn’t take several hours to reheat the thermal mass in the walls, but cool enough that we notice.

I realized the other day that there was an art form, or at least a craft, to managing the house’s temperature. The actions are different on a sunny day than they are on a cloudy one. When it is windy, we need to keep the woodstove running all day. On clear cold days, we need to make sure that the woodstove is lit about an hour before sunset, or the bedrooms will get too cold. During the cold seasons, we cover the largest windows with rigid panels of insulation at night, because they lose so much heat that it is uncomfortable to sit next to them. On hot days, we cover the windows in the day time and open them in the evening. A couple of times a day, I wander the house turning off lights and unplugging neglected vampires. It sounds like a lot of work, but once you get used to it, it amounts to a couple of minutes here and there, and I think it saves us money. Let’s put it this way: our annual power bill is about $1650 (heat, hot water, cooking, lighting, computers and all, for 6 people in a 2400 square foot house) and we spend another $700 on wood. I did an extensive search trying to find out how much it costs to heat a Canadian house (which usually results in “varies widely”), but our total bill is comparable to what CMHC lists for NS, excluding space heating. So I think it’s worth the effort.

What do you do to keep your energy consumption down? Does it work? Is it worth it? How do you know?

One response to “Paying Attention for $$$!”

  1. I have nothing helpful to suggest. I just wanted to agree with you about baseboard heaters. It’s all we’ve ever had, because we went from apartment to apartment to apartment to condo. I dislike that our thermostat only pretends to have actual temperature settings. It really has a clicky sound that means the heaters are either on or off. And that’s that. So I can’t set them slightly on the cool side — I can only turn them off for awhile, and then back on when it gets too cold. It’s aggravating.

    Why, too, are baseboard heaters always underneath windows? Could never figure that one out. Seems like most of the heat will just go out the window.

    You know what I really want, since we’re stuck with electric? Radiant in-floor heating. And solar panels. (Yours look lovely.) I’m saving my pennies and my dreams.

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