July 1, 2010

The 1st Year: Evaluating Our Energy Consumption

One of Dan's desires has been to get off the grid. Or at least to become more energy self-sufficient. It's a huge dream however, and whether or not we can actually do it, I don't know. It seems that most alternative systems produce less electricity than a typical consumer uses. The first step then, is to evaluate our usage.

Our first full month here was June 2009. We bought the place on the last day of April and during May, we were back and forth, cleaning this place up and gradually moving things over as needed. A year later we have a year's worth of electric bills, and can analyze how much energy we used and why. It's in kilowatt hours and looks like this:

June - 610 KWH
July - 587
August - 747
September - 412
October - 390
November - 446
December - 938
January - 976
February - 1308
March - 856
April - 357
May - 414

Our (almost) 1500 square foot house is all electric including air conditioning, heat, cook stove and water heater. The biggest factor of course, is weather. Our yearly temperature range is about 20° to 100° F, which is roughly 6° to 38° C. Even so, there are other factors worth noting.

~ June, July, and August we used the air conditioner. Not only temperature, but humidity is a big factor here. We didn't use the AC everyday and kept the thermostat set fairly high. We used it not just for cooling, but for dehumidifying as well.

~ August was the month I did the most food preservation (canning & drying). Clothes drying was done outside on the line, weather permitting.

~ July and August were our hottest months. September, things cool off considerably.

~ December we sanded, stained, and sealed our dining and living room floors. Because we currently don't have central heat, we used radiator type space heaters to keep the room and floor temps within the product usability and drying range (50° F/ 10° C). Even then it took several days to dry the supposed 24 hour drying stain, and then several more for the sealer, which required two coats.

~ January, February, and March were our coldest months. We used our wood heat stove, plus two space heaters. One we kept in the kitchen/back bath where we take showers. The kitchen is at the back end of the house and didn't get much of the wood heat, even with fans. The heater here, was kept on low at night and turned up some during the day. The other was in my studio/computer room, for day use only. We closed that room off at night to keep the heat in the central part of the house. There are lots of (old) windows in the studio (pics here) so it doesn't retain heat very well.

~ February (big usage spike) we got the chicks, and so had a 250 watt heat lamp going 24/7. Usage of this tapered off later in March.

~ We had a very cold, rainy winter, which meant more machine drying of laundry.

How can we cut back during our peak usage months? Because our house is shaped like a long rectangle (floor plan here), getting heat from the wood stove in the front living room to the kitchen and back bathroom was difficult, even with fans. One thing will be replacing the HVAC, so that we don't need to use space heaters during the coldest months. I shared our research in this earlier post. Also I'm hoping to eventually find a reasonably priced wood cook stove, which will supply heat as well as decrease the need for another heat source. We are working on some of the insulation issues, which will also help.

What alternative sources are realistic for us? We've been researching that too, but with less than hopeful results.

Solar? We do plan to put a passive solar water heating system in. But for heating the house, the expense would not be worth it. Not only because we only need heat for about three months of the year, but also because we had lots of rain this past winter and virtually no sun.

Wind? Winter and spring were windy, enough to make us research wind turbines. Here's one that produces 538 KWH per month with an average windspeed of 12 mph. That would certainly help. Price? Only $9499.99 not including shipping and installation. True, there are tax credits for wind energy, but those only help folks with enough money to pay for the thing in the first place. Tax credits don't help low to moderate income folks like us. A loan? Well, we don't do debt. Even so, according to the Wind Energy Resource Atlas of the US my area, with its average of less than 12.3 MPH winds, has very little wind energy potential.

So where does that leave us? Sun and wind are the darlings of the alternative energy set, with good reason. Unfortunately, they obviously aren't suitable for all parts of the world. The bottom line is that we've still got our thinking caps on.

Related Posts:
2010 Goals: Evaluating Heating & Cooling
Self-Sufficiency? Still Just A Dream


Theresa said...

You guys are really on it as far as energy consumption. Not using the space heaters will scale usage quite a bit. The other thing I was thinking as I read your post was getting an energy star dryer, since dry clothes are a must in winter when it's the hardest to get them dry...
I am sad to say our energy use is MUCH higher. We have the electric fence, heated water buckets in the winter and Gene works out of the home. No ac though and the ceiling fans and attic fan do a good job keeping things bearable and are efficient. No chicks either. ;)

maggie said...

I have found that when it comes to reducing heating costs, the best bet is to increase insulation. Also, simple things like pulling the blinds down when the sun goes down make a big difference for us. Have you looked into baseboard heaters for the tricky areas? I don't have them, but I think I have read that the newer ones are much more efficient than the older ones/space heaters. Can anybody else comment on whether that is true?

Anonymous said...

Geo-thermal air or ground exchange and on demand hot water heaters are energy saving. You have probably looked into these. We have outside blinds to shade the windows in the summer, no AC and our temps get up to 40C in the summer. But we don't have the humidity. All doors and windows closed during the day to keep the house cool, then open at night to hopefully cool it down again.

Leigh said...

Theresa, I doubt there's any 'one size fits all' here, obviously. I probably wouldn't replace my dryer just for energy star, but it's something to keep in mind when mine finally does go to dryer heaven.

Maggie, a lot of folks have told us that. Indeed it's in the plans, but will probably go fairly slowly due to money availability. We do the blinds thing and you're right, it helps. I'll have to look in to more energy efficient space heaters. Hopefully someone reading will have some input on that.

Evelyn, I would absolutely love to go geo-thermal, but it's out of sight for us financially. And as I mentioned, we wouldn't take out a loan. We do plan to add a passive solar hot water heater on the roof, and I think that will help. Currently we don't have an whole house attic fan, but I do use window fans to draw in cooler air in the evening and morning (at night too when Dan's home), then close up for the rest of the day. I'm able to keep the house around 10 to 15 degrees F cooler than outside temps, but the humidity often negates that! :)

Renee Nefe said...

I think you're on the right track for the best solution for your house...more insulation to keep your house at the desired temperature.

Here we are looking to replace our windows sometime soon. We want something more energy efficient possibly with some uv protection also. I would love to be able to plant more shade producing trees near the house, but it just isn't feasible for us.

livingourway said...

We are looking into a solar water heater. I believe that would take away a large percentage of our energy consumption. A Gas stove/oven is also supposed to be more efficient than electric (we don't have that either).

Katrien said...

The first step is to be aware, and you're that. I love also that the two of you are SO together on this!
Do you own a Kill-A-Watt (I think it's called)? The device plugs between machine and outlet and lets you know exactly how much electricity it uses. I must say we were surprised by some of our readings.
How about installing an other, perhaps homemade woodstove on the outskirts of the house? A thermal solar heater underneath the window?
Are you keeping an eye on water, trash and gasoline as well?

Leigh said...

Renee, it's too bad you can't plant more trees. Of course, they do take a long time to grow! I've been thinking about some trellises on the afternoon sun side of the house. Something that could offer shade in summer, but let sun in during winter. Or some of those skyscraper sunflowers!

LivingOurWay I'll be interested in your solar water heater when you get to it. We think we can make one fairly inexpensively and that it will help quite a bit.

We've discussed gas for cooking, water heating, and heat, but hesitate. One thing is that we'd have to have the gas lines put in. The other is the volatility of gas prices. Prices could skyrocket in the future and there wouldn't be anything we could do about it. That's not so say we've ruled it out altogether, just hesitant.

Katrien, Dan has a builder's book that gives estimates on power usage of various appliances. It's something else we ought to calculate. We haven't really kept track of the other items you mention. Water we know we can decrease with graywater and rain catchment systems, though we may not get them in as quickly as we'd wish. Haven't thought about trash, though we are conscientious in that area. Gasoline we don't use a lot of. I make 2 trips to town per week, and Dan is a driver, so he drives to work one or two times a week and leaves his truck sit.

m said...

Back in the mid '80s, I helped my father construct a passive solar water heater which was then placed on the east side of my parent's house in north London. This continues to top up the hot water system. As my father died in '88, it has since been a bit of a headache when my mother had changes made to her central heating system. From memory, the frame is a big wooden box with black plastic lining it. We hired a pipe bender for the weekend and bent lots of copper piping. It sits fairly low on the side of the house, half way between the two stories. At the moment its viability is being threatened by possible extensions on the next door house which may block the low winter sun. Needless to say, all the calculations were made by Ray on the back of an envelope using a slide rule.

Julie said...

Yes our heat is gas and I have a gas stove and dryer. We don't use the heater at all because of our pellet stove. And I hang all but one load to dry. And the stove dosn't get used much but there is only two of us! I would love to get solar on our house but I think that will be awhile!

Cathy said...

M built an arbor around our only west window - I can't tell you what a big difference it has made. The vines haven't gotten tall enough to shade but there is lattice on the top and sides which do shade that window.

I hear you on the solar/wind/geothermal costs. The best thing we've found is lined drapes over blinds in the windows. We keep the furnace set at 65 and haven't run our A/C yet this summer (but not much humidity here). I replaced the dryer (when it died) with an energy star and was stunned at the difference in the bill. I line dry clothes in the basement (has windows and don't have to worry about wind/blowing sand/rain/birds etc. That has made a difference.

We do want more tube solar skylights and on-demand hot water heaters. We'll get there eventually.

Leigh said...

Mary, the solar water heating unit you describe is something similar to what we have in mind. Interesting you used copper tubing. I think the ones I've seen plans for use PVC. Of course, it isn't for drinking water, so that may be ok.

Julie, I think you are in a part of the country that could get some good use from solar. We had two months without sun last winter, so it really ruled out solar for something we need to depend on. I hope you can get to that someday!

Cathy, that's encouraging about the arbor. I'm thinking about covering our entire bedroom wall in blankets next winter if we don't get to the insulation in the walls!

Anonymous said...

I gasped when I first saw your kWh for June, since yours are so much lower than mine. But I decided to compare, and, interestingly enough, my Massachusetts usage for Dec, Jan, & Feb were quite below yours! Go figure, except January was exceptionally warm around here. I readily admit to excessive usage of the A/C. I once lived in a two-story house where the entire western side was planted with a row of what grew to be one-story lilac bushes. In summer they were the best air conditioning ever, besides being good to look like in the spring. So the suggestion by someone of an arbor might be a good idea for you, too. --Sue in MA

Leigh said...

Sue, you're right, one person's usage really can't be compared with another's. You didn't have baby chicks to keep under a heat lamp in February, I did! Geography, size & condition of home, weather, etc., don't make such comparisons very realistic. The Riot 4 Austerity website has a calculator which is interesting and fun to use, enabling one to compare their usages in 7 categories to national averages. I don't find averages useful information though. For example we are two persons and my DH is gone a good part of the week. How can that be compared in any category to a family of 4 via averages? Of course, I haven't really read through all their material. In the end, I think it's better to make personal goals and compare personal progress on an annual basis.

I really do want that trellis or arbor. I would have done it this year, but DH plans to do some work on that side of the house, so it will have to wait until after he's done tearing up there!