Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Natural Gas Prices Are Soaring. Here's What You Can Do.

Up, up, up
Though it’s not getting much attention yet, natural gas prices are zooming upwards due to the cold winter the US has been experiencing. (Propane prices have been increasing as well.) If you use natural gas for space heating or hot water, these higher prices will necessarily be reflected in your upcoming utility bills. Though these higher prices are no doubt temporary, fundamentally the cost structure of fracking and drilling for natural gas is such that energy companies are losing money on natural gas plays at current prices and so have dropped drilling dramatically. Though current production is coasting along, some analysts say natural gas won’t be profitable for any new plays until it reaches $6/mmbtu. In November the price of natural gas was at $3.60/mmbtu. Today it is at $5.22/mmbtu.

What can be done to avoid inflated utility bills?

Short term, these might work:
1)  Install a programmable thermostat and actually program it. (It is estimated 40% of people who have programmable thermostats don’t program them.) The benefit to this is that you don’t have to constantly remember to turn the thermostat down at night or when you leave. It does it for you. Add a blanket to your bed and set nighttime temperatures to 60 -62. Drop temperatures while you’re away from home to 55 degrees. Yes, this does save significant energy even though your heater will be blasting for a short while to get temperatures back up when you return or wake up.
2)   Put on a sweater and reduce your household normal temperature two degrees. If your kids are comfortable walking around barefoot in the winter, your house is too warm! (Hello, I tell my kids, you don’t live in Tahiti!)
3)   Don’t light a fire in the fireplace. This may be counterintuitive, but when you light a fire, your natural gas-warmed air flies up your chimney, sucking out far more heat from your house than the fire contributes. However, if you have a fireplace insert or wood stove (even better a high-efficiency one), then burning wood will reduce your use of natural gas rather than increase it.
4)   Install a low-flow showerhead. There are good ones out there that use only 1.5 gallons of hot water a minute. This reduces the load on your hot water heater significantly. Wash clothes in warm or cold, not hot water. Let family members know that pajamas and towels should be used/worn more than once before washing.
5)   If your hot water heater is not insulated, read no further. Go insulate it right now. I mean it. Every home improvement-type store sells hot water heater insulating wraps/blankets.
6)   Feel around your doors and windows for drafts. Get ten dollars of weather stripping material and do what you can to reduce these drafts.
7)   Close off rooms not in use and close off vents to these rooms.
8)   Wear wool. I do this. A lot. The interior temperature of my house is 60 degrees as I write this.
9)  Get some exercise. Raising your metabolism through exercise will make a slightly cooler house still comfortable to you.
10) Consider drying your clothes outside on the line on sunny days.
11) Open your curtains for solar gain during the day; close them for their thermal properties at night.
12) Cooking doesn’t use much natural gas, at least not compared to space heating. In general I wouldn’t worry about cooking, however I do use an electric kettle to boil water and an electric crockpot for making broth.

Medium term

1)   Insulate, insulate, insulate. Best investment you can make. Heat wants to rise, so work on the attic first. Seal off the attic from air movement (insulation prevents heat from traveling, not air, so if air can travel, you’ll get heat losses from that), then make sure insulation is at least knee-deep.
2)   If your house is drafty, get a professional to do a thorough weather stripping.  (Note: if your house is drafty, 70 degrees can feel like 66. And if your house is not drafty, 66 can feel like 70.)
3)   If you live some place crazy like California, your walls may have no insulation in them. I’m serious. Ours didn’t. Blowing in insulation can fix this.
4)   Time to think about the underpart of your house—the crawl space or basement.  If there is no insulation between your warm, comfy house and the cold air beneath it, there will be an energy transfer, which means you’ll lose heat. It may seem silly to insulate the floor from underneath (and in many homes it is often not possible) but if you can, it does work.
5)   Seal your heating ducts or have someone do it for you. Poorly sealed ducts can reduce the efficiency of your heating system by 30%.
6)  Make sure the filter on your heater is not clogged and reducing your heating efficiency.
7)  If for any reason you need to replace your hot water heater, consider a heat pump version, or a solar-powered (with a heat pump back up) version. If you have a secondary hot water heater that is little used, consider putting in an on-demand system instead. Yes, up front costs for these new, more efficient technologies are higher, but some tax credits are still available and you might have local incentives from your utility as well. You’ll get the money back in lower energy costs within seven years even with natural gas at $4/mmbtus. (Faster with higher nat gas prices.)
8)   Double and even triple-paned windows. Windows are expensive, and the walls, attic and the underpart of your house are cheaper and probably more important to address. But if your windows are single-paned and drafty, at some point they will need to be tackled. I am really happy with the fiberglass-framed windows we’ve put in our house. They look very much like wood-framed ones, they don’t need paint, they seal tightly (locking out both noise and air transfer), and fiberglass expands and contracts at the same ratio that glass does, so it is not prone to warping like wood. In general they are more expensive than aluminum/vinyl but less expensive than wood.
9)  If you’ve got your house reasonably tight and live where it’s really cold, consider a heat-exchange ventilation system that reduces energy losses by transferring heat between outgoing and incoming air.
10) Consider replacing any large evergreens on the south side of your house with deciduous trees so you will get a solar gain in the winter but still get shade in the summer.
11) Do not rely on electric baseboard heaters or space heaters. They are wildly inefficient in terms of energy use, and as natural gas prices go up, so inevitably will electricity costs. A heat pump will cost you far, far less to heat your house.
12) If you replace your dishwasher/washing machine, get the lowest water use, highest efficiency-rated ones you can find.

The US is lucky it is so well-suited to solar.
Long term
1)   Let’s face it, long term almost all of us will be heating our houses (that have become very well insulated) via electricity with heat pumps. And those of us who live in regions that have above 4 kilowatt-hours per square meter per day solar potential (i.e. most of the continental US and Hawaii—check out the map) are going to end up with solar panels on our roofs. It’s a matter of when, not if. Heat pumps are now available that work in outdoor temperatures below zero degrees, and the technology will continue to improve. Big plus—if you live where it’s hot in the summer, heat pumps also cool! And they are more energy efficient at this than current air conditioners.
2)   If you ever have the opportunity/need to build a new house, be smart and make it zero net energy. Whereas it’s somewhat difficult to retrofit an existing house to be tight enough to be highly energy-efficient, it’s not hard at all when building one from scratch. Use passive solar where appropriate, insulate massively, make it air tight with a heat exchange ventilator, stick some solar panels on the roof, and put in a heat pump for the small amount of heating and cooling you still might need. It will only cost $10-$20K extra, and you’ll have almost no future utility bills. You will be all set for the rest of the 21st century!

Any other ideas to keep natural gas bills low? List them in the comments!