Thursday, December 08, 2005

Insulation, Solar, and More, Oh My!

On the 15th, after we got back from our anniversary weekend, I had McHale Insulation blow R-13 cellulose insulation into the exterior walls, completing the major insulation projects we're in a position to do. The two smaller things we can do, as far as insulation is concerned, are to put insulation on our hot water pipes and improve the insulation of our furnace ducts (more on the latter later).

"They" say that the first 6 or so feet of hot water pipe should be insulated... Home Depot has 4-packs of 3-foot 3/4" pipe insulation foam for $4.97. I'll have to try to see how much I think I actually need - at that price, I would guess it is not entirely unreasonable to do all of the exposed hot water pipe... I mean, I probably have less than 100', so that's a little more than $100. Not that I have any information about what it does to the heat retention, really.

Yesterday, after much deliberation, I finally made a decision on solar, and today I signed the contract and paid the deposit. I narrowed the choices down to Sun Light and Power and Marin Solar, based a little on whether they came out to the house to see the site for themselves and stayed within the primary constraints I gave them (wanted to use only the flat roof), a little on how significant their operations are, and lastly on power production & cost considerations. The first knocked Real Goods out of the running, the second took out Berkeley Solar Electric and Sesco Electrical, although all three of them were pretty competitive on price.

Ultimately, the decision between SLP and Marin was fairly tough. They've each been around a long time, though SLP's been doing solar for 29 years while Marin's been at it only 5. They each have relatively significant operations - SLP's big enough that they actually stock the panels, which are the hard equipment to get, so they're able to start much faster than most, and while Marin is obviously somewhat smaller, they're clearly not just a couple guys in a van with good intentions and some knowledge but limited experience. As long as the rebate reservation is in time to qualify for the current rate, ability to do the installation isn't all that important... what's a month or two's delay for a Solar installation in winter against the 25-30 year expected life of the system?

I'd been leaning pretty heavily toward SLP, in part because they're bigger, they operate a pretty green business, and they have been around longer and may have a slightly better chance of being around longer in the future. Of course, there's not really much reason to think that Marin's going to have any problems any time soon - solar's a growing business, and as demand increases world-wide, supply will eventually go up, prices will eventually come down, and it'll grow still more. So, we finally decided on Marin because their bid costs just 10% more but will produce nearly 25% more power and result in greater savings.

So far, we're seeing about a 20% decrease in electrical usage because of the new washer and dryer, which are not only substantially more efficient per load, they are much larger, enabling us to do fewer loads. That decrease puts us at around 5600 kWh of usage per year, of which about 5000 will be produced by our new solar system. Now I can just buy Renewable Energy Certificates from PV USA Solar to offset the rest for $25 a year. They only sell the credits per month, so I'll just buy one each January & that'll be that.

They have a sister site called Certified Clean Car, where I can actually offset the Prius' emissions by buying, essentially, enough renewable non-CO2-producing energy production to offset the need for some power plant somewhere to produce the equivalent CO2. For the Prius at 8,000 miles a year, that costs only $34.99! For the '97 Pathfinder, it would be 59.99 and for the '93 Accord, well... their calculator doesn't cover the V6 for some reason... just sent them an email. Wow... this is pretty cool... I might just have to do both of these!

Anyway, the solar installation ought to be able to start around the end of January, assuming that the rebate reservation comes back by then... it's all done FIFO, so it may take several weeks, but the per watt amount is based on when it is filed, so we'll be at $2.80... it drops to $2.60 on the first, I think.

The solar system will cost us about 18,400 or 20,100, depending on whether we are able to take advantage of both the state and federal tax credits. At the moment, I have to assume we'll only get one, because the state credit (this is different from the state rebate), which is 7.5% of the unrebated cost, expires at the end of the year, and may be based on getting the system permitted, paying for the system, or installing the system, depending on whom you ask. The fed credit is 30% of the unrebated cost, up to $2000, and is based specifically on putting the system into service (i.e. tying it to the grid) on or after 1/1/06, so we will definitely get that.

The 2004 Form 3508 for the solar credit asks the following questions, to which each answer must be yes to qualify (I'm abbreviating to relevance to me, and emphasizing as well):
  1. Did you purchase and install the system in 2004?
  2. Is it a PV?
  3. Is it rated for 200kW or less?
  4. Is it solely for electricity generation?
  5. Is it primarily for my (family's) energy needs?
  6. Are all components certified by the California Energy Commission?
  7. Does it have a 5-year warranty?
Assuming the same questions apply on the 2005 form (when it comes out), modified to refer to this year, the answer to each of these is yes, except the first, because while I could pay for (purchase) it this year, it is too late to have it installed (which doesn't necessarily mean placed into service). If I'm lucky, sometime during the course of the year, the legislature will decide to renew the credit for 2006, and if they do, it will most likely be retroactive to the first of the year...

In other areas of the quest for energy efficiency, I had Sustainable Spaces out to do a performance appraisal on the house. It cost $395, which they will credit back to me if I have them do any work. What they basically found is that the house may as well have a 12 x 26 inch hole in the wall, because of how fast air is exchanged between the house and the outside. I find the results reasonably interesting, and they are willing to bid for things even though they don't think they may make the most economic sense... I hope that they will do that, and I will definitely be asking how much gain there is in each item, which will give them plenty of time to tell me they don't think the item is cost-effective.

So far, they seem to want to
  • replace the 80% furnace that is nearly 3 times the capacity we need with a combined hydronic forced air furnace (uses hot water from the hot water heater to heat a fan coil to transfer the heat to the air and then blow the air through the ducts into the house)
  • replace, resize, and insulate the duct work; between the large gaps in the plenum, any additional leaks in the duct work, and the relatively minimal insulation on the ducts, we're losing a significant portion of our heat energy through the ducts before it even gets into the house, not to mention that the furnace is pulling more air from the crawlspace (cold & dirty) than the house (warmer & cleaner)
  • add a heat register in Rachel's room (not to mention that I've long thought of putting one in the laundry room under her room and am now thinking we might want to have one in the front entry and one in the downstairs hallway, either in the wall next to the stairs opposite the laundry room or in the riser for one of the steps)
  • install a PV system (I'm already doing that, and with the company they recommended when it didn't look as if they could size it fast enough)
  • seal the crawlspace; this one I'm not really sure about... I more or less understand the notion that having it be sealed makes it part of the building envelope and could help reduce energy usage, but since they also call it out because they claim it's wet down there, I'm a little confused - haven't seen much evidence of it being wet...
The thing I'm disappointed about, and that they are saying won't be cost effective is air leakage through the attic. According to their stats, we're losing 27% of heat through air leakage into the attic and then outside. Ideally, they'd go up there and seal the top plates so that hot air getting into light switches and fixtures and electrical outlets can't get up into the attic. The problem is that there's a ton of insulation blown in up there that will make it tough to do that sealing work... it cost us almost $1200 to put most of that insulation up there (there was some already), so I don't know if I want to have them take a whole bunch out and then put it back, but I'm very disappointed that we won't be able to do that sealing...

I'm also asking them for information on solar hot water... from what I understand, you basically have a secondary holding tank (60 gallons to go with the 50 in my hot water heater) filled with water that is heated by a solar panel or two on the roof. This water is fed to the water heater in place of cold water (i.e. the cold from the main goes to the solar hot water system instead of to the gas water heater) which means that the water heater doesn't have to do as much work to get the water hot... it still has to use gas to keep the water in it's internal tank hot and to heat the water coming from the solar tank to the set point, if it's not already there, but that should be a lot less than dealing with cold water coming straight from the main.

What I'm a little confused about at the moment, as I write this, is why someone told me that you can't use a demand water heater instead of a storage water heater... as long as you have a storage tank being managed by the solar hot water heater, I don't really see any reason that the gas heater would have to have a tank... Will have to look into this more, but I don't think it was Sustainable Spaces who told me that? Not sure now... After a bit of searching, it seems as if you still have to have a storage tank, but the tank doesn't itself have to be a water heater, and that, as I thought, you could have a demand heater in place of the regular storage water heater to fill the difference between what the sun gives and what you actually want. This probably is particularly important if it is cold and particularly for several days and the water in the storage tank has time to cool down significantly...

So, before I go to bed late for the second night running, I'll mention the other big project underway right now... a few days ago, I rearranged our bedroom enough to uncover the chest that has a lot of our pictures in it. It has about 100 rolls of slides, about 60 rolls of negatives, and 4 APS rolls, and that's without the 5 photo storage boxes full of yet more rolls of film... OK, I just had to look - they have around 80 rolls, all negatives. Of that total (around 240 rolls of film), at least 50 or 60 are from our wedding and honeymoon. And somewhere, we have the medium format negatives from our wedding photographer.

Last night, I pulled out a bunch of the boxes of slides and started going through them with my little light table (holds 6 slides at a time) and no loupe. Put about 30 slides that were not in boxes back in their boxes. Weeded out a LOT of the slides. Had a great trip down memory lane with stops in 88, 89, and 96 through 99, but I was up until 1. Today, I borrowed a loupe and a real light table from my co-worker, Dr. Rick. I'll start by going through all the ones I weeded out, just to make sure that there aren't any I really ought to keep. I think I want to get the slides out of the way first - since they are positives, it is much easier to tell whether they are any good. With the negatives, I have a feeling I may have to be comparing them to the photos, which will take even longer! Of course, the only negative strips I can toss are the ones that are completely hopeless, so I don't know exactly how I'm going to keep track of which are worth scanning and which are not.

And then, of course, there's work, where I'm busily trying to get J's work done while hoping that M takes long enough to sign that I'll be able to free up a reasonable portion of my time for them... I really ought to have gone to bed at least an hour ago...

I haven't even mentioned that we went to KFOG's Concert for Kids last Saturday... I was there mostly to see KT Tunstall, who was fantastic. She's going to be at Cafe du Nord on 1/31, and I was able to get tickets on Sunday! Aqualung was also good, though I don't know their music well and they were too loud at times and too hard to understand. Madeleine Peyroux, I'm just not a big fan of... her band was great, and I'm sure she's really good, but jazz simply stretches the definition of World Class Rock (KFOG's slogan) a bit too far beyond the breaking point. We were hungry, not having had dinner, and left during her third or fourth song.

The best part was either KT's commenting on her being a "demented one-woman band" or her breaking a string (the G-string) and playing Black Horse and a Cherry Tree "without pants, as it were."

The weirdest part was this woman who got up and started dancing in the aisle... hopelessly uncoordinated... clapping approximately in time to, but OFF beat. Definitely drunk, probably from being at the 'Gormet Soiree' before the show. At some point, someone from her row came to tell her, we thought, to sit down because she was blocking the view. Shortly after that, we started smelling vomit. The alcohol-laden kind, which is particularly nasty smelling. It turned out that the woman the 'dancer' came with had thrown up on herself... now why neither of them tried to get her out of there or go get help, I do not understand, but boy was it disgusting! They did wind up leaving after KT's set was over, and the house staff brought down one of those big rolling mop buckets and did some mopping, which helped immensely. But it was really, really weird!

No comments: