With this post I’m switching to another subject that, when I’m not writing fiction, I spend time researching and thinking about: energy and its sources and uses. Since there are many connections between energy and water (energy is used to pump and transport water, and in the case of hydroelectricity, water is used to make energy), when I'm energy blogging I’ll sometimes talk about water was well.
Whether it’s due to peak oil or a hurricane, war in the Middle East or a heat wave, there are many factors that could create spot shortages in energy, could cause prices to rise sharply in the short term, or could gradually but inexorably inflate energy costs in the long term. Although different energy forms are not completely interchangeable (for example, electricity cannot easily substitute for oil in the US without major upgrades in our electrical grid and transportation infrastructure) they are fungible enough that a shortage of any one of them will cause prices to rise for all. Even without natural disasters or wars, I expect short term we will see gasoline prices increase (unless the economy tanks sharply, pulling commodity prices down with it), and longer term we will see electricity prices rise significantly for peak hour use (i.e. periods of max air conditioning).
So, to make your family resilient either in the face of a temporary shortage or a longer-term escalation in price, here are some simple, highly cost effective technologies you can employ. Though some may seem laughably obvious, the majority of Americans employ only one or two, and often even those ineffectively.
1) Attic sealing and insulation. Very simple, fairly cheap, and yet not nearly as widely used as it should be. It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between movement of heat and movement of air. Insulation prevents movement of heat but if there are gaps, holes, etc, between the lower floor and the attic, it won’t prevent air movement. At any temperature, air moving across the skin makes us feel cooler than we otherwise would, so sealing up these holes and gaps is a good idea. If you already have some amount of insulation, someone may need to go into your attic, pull back that insulation, look for gaps and then seal them with caulk, expanding foam, or rigid foam board insulation. Then you (or a service) can add insulation until it’s about knee deep. If your house is now drafty and poorly insulated, you can save as much as ½ to 1/3 of your monthly winter heating costs. Remember also that heat wants to rise more than it wants to travel horizontally, so insulating your attic is more important than replacing single pane windows unless they’re very leaky and drafty.
2) Ceiling fans. As stated before, at any temperature, movement of air across the skin makes us feel cooler than we otherwise would. So in the summer months, ceiling fans are a great way to combat heat using far, far less energy than air conditioning units. In South Carolina I noticed many houses and shops use both air conditioning and ceiling fans so that the air conditioning can be set at a much higher level—say 80 degrees—and still be quite comfortable. A ceiling fan can save you as much as 40% of your summer cooling costs. Ceiling fans are more energy efficient than floor fans, but they are also more work to install properly.
3) Programmable thermostats. Don’t heat or cool your house when you’re not there to benefit! And at night use a blanket or a ceiling fan to help warm or cool you to a comfortable temperature. Programmable thermostats cost about $35. They are not all that difficult to install or program, though, sadly, 40% of Americans who have programmable thermostats never actually program them. (Ouch!) During the winter, take advantage of this simple technology to a.) automatically turn down the heat when you’re gone to 55 degrees, (most pets can do ok with 61 degrees), b.) turn the heat down at night to whatever temperature keeps you comfortable under a couple blankets, and c.) turn on the heat an hour before you get up so the house is pleasant again. You can experiment with the settings that work best for you, but heating the house up to 70 degrees 24/7 costs you way more than you need. In the winter, our house generally varies between 55 degrees at night and 63 degrees during the day, but I’m willing to wear lots of wool. (I also encourage my kids to use those other little technologies called sweaters and slippers.) In the summer, leave the air conditioning off until an hour before you’re going to return home. Or you could leave your blinds closed during the day and when you come home, open up the house to the cooler evening temperatures and use a whole house fan to push the hot air out and pull the cool air in. Another low tech tip—plant deciduous trees on the south side of your house that will shade the house in the summer and let in warming sunlight in the winter.
4) Bicycles, racks, and panniers. The bicycle is one of the most efficient machines mankind has ever devised. It takes less energy per mile to go by bicycle than by any other mode of transport, including walking. For most terrains it’s easy to cover a mile by bicycle in six or seven minutes. For distances under two miles, when you factor in time to walk and park your car, it’s generally as fast to bicycle as drive. And you don’t need to be Lance Armstrong kitted out in Lycra! You can wear regular clothes, ride an upright bicycle at a leisurely pace and be no sweatier or tired than if you’d spent the minutes strolling your neighborhood. To make your bicycle useful for errands, get a rack with panniers. This will allow you to carry two grocery bags full of stuff with ease—the load will be on your bicycle, not on your back! If, like me, you live in an area with hills, consider an electric bicycle. These are substantially more expensive but they essentially make the hills flat and can be an excellent car substitute if an oil shortage arises.
5) Water Filters. Why pay for bottled water if you can filter water from your tap that tastes as good for a fraction of the cost? Having a good filter on hand also means you can tap many sources of water in case of an emergency (say an earthquake, hurricane or tornado) that shuts down the water supply system. There are many filters on the market--one I like is the Big Berkey water filter. From their website:
Even if you don’t use a filter to reduce chemicals in your normal drinking water, in a crisis it might be handy to turn water from a rain barrel, creek or pond into safe drinking water. For some reason, Berkey doesn’t ship to California or Iowa. (I think it has to do with these state’s laws.) Remember, as gasoline prices go up, any liquid shipped by truck is bound to increase in price as the shipping weight involved is substantial. If you really like carbonated beverages, you can get a home carbonator like this for around $100.
This system removes pathogenic bacteria, cysts and parasites entirely and extracts harmful chemicals such as herbicides, pesticides, VOCs, organic solvents, radon 222 and trihalomethanes. It also reduces nitrates, nitrites and unhealthy minerals such as lead and mercury. This system is so powerful it can remove food coloring from water without removing the beneficial minerals your body needs.
So five simple, inexpensive technologies that can vastly improve your family’s ability to weather an emergency or save you nearly their upfront cost the first year by reducing your energy (or bottled water) bills. I hope you'll give them a try.