Thursday, June 26, 2008

Humphrey House in TOH

After adding soy-foam insulation to our kitchen remodel, we were contacted by This Old House magazine to ask us about the experience. Well, they wrote up our interview in a Q&A format in their "Green House" column in the July/August magazine issue. We just found out that the issue is entering newstands and mailboxes. Hooray!

And although this photo might imply otherwise, you can not eat the foam! :-)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Going Tankless: Part II (for Real)

Remember when our water heater went out and we thought about getting a tankless water heater? Ah, the memories. It was in May 2006, but it seems like only yesterday that I was replacing that thermocouple. Wait, that's because it was yesterday! What do I mean? Well, the thermocouple went out again already.

Yes, I fear the 23-year-old water heater has reached the end of its useful life. I've replaced the thermocouple again, but how much longer can it go on? It's time to replace the entire water heater. Since the old beast is so layered with sediment that it won't even fill up our bathtub, this replacement isn't exactly a shock to us.

In fact, after it went out in 2006, I actually found someone on our beloved Craigslist selling a tankless water heater that had been installed in a mulit-family home for a few months. While the owner was glad at the energy savings, the residents weren't too happy when four people tried to shower at once.

If you aren't aware of the main performance difference between tankless and regular water heaters, the tankless design can't accommodate the same flow rate (gallons per minute) as a traditional heater. But as long as you get the right size, it isn't a problem. For exmaple, the unit I purchased is a Takagi TK2 which supports two major appliances. So although we never do laundry at the same time as showering, in theory, with this tankless heater, we could.

So while we limp along on our old standard heater, I contacted my good friend Jim, to help with the tankless installation since he has the exact same model. Also, there are some unique install considerations for these. Since tankless water heaters burn so efficiently, you can't use a standard exhaust duct... it has to be double-walled stainless steel. Jim also installs solar thermal water heaters, so he could help me install this so that if I ever wanted to go solar later on and use the tankless as a supplemental backup (a common configuration) there would be room to cut in the solar piping. Anyway, here's another photo of it during the installation process.

As you can see, the space-saving design is already a bonus as it tucks away into a 2'-wide space between the furnace and a foundation wall. I've already got plans for the area where our old water heater currently rots rests. Anyway, we're not quite done with the installation just yet, but we'll be wrapping things up very soon.

Our Painting's Time has Come

Last week we received a letter we'd been dreading for awhile. Our village has a Property Standards department, and every few years they take a "neighborhood walk" and cite homes that are in violation of miscellaneous dangers such as missing downspouts, rotted wood, missing handrails, garages in need of repair, missing address numbers, and improper parking surfaces (e.g. your lawn).

Well, what did they find when they came around to Humphrey House? A Violation waiting to happen! Yes, our poor, hapless paint has seen much better days. While I don't have any closeup photos of our currently dire straits, there are many posts from the past with photos that give you an idea. We've known all along that painting was going to be inevitable - Jen even created some super neat color scheme ideas when we first moved in. But now its official:

"Scrape/paint the wood members on the home, fascia, soffit, trim, and front entrance. Reinspection: August"
Gulp. So now its back to the color drawing board. In fact we ordered a book specifically focused on bungalow exterior colors. This looks like an involved project with a quick timeline, and we may have to call in some professionals. Maybe we can even find some stucco-friendly and eco-friendly exterior paints for Humphrey House's facelift.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Real-time Electricity Pricing - 1 Year Later

So last May, we signed up with ComEd's Residential Real Time Pricing (RRTP). This is a relatively new program that allows consumers to pay variable rates for their killowatt-hour usage instead of the standard fixed rate that most residences are on. This is in addition to ComEd's Nature First program that ANYONE can sign up for now and get $10 per month back from ComEd.

To briefly recap the RRTP program, the idea is basically that during times of the day where there is high demand on the electrical grid (such as during the day), rates are higher than the fixed rate, and during times of low demand (at night) rates are much cheaper. The idea is to get people to shift behavior to times when electricity is cheaper, thereby reducing demand on the electrical grid at the macro level, and saving individual consumers money on their utility bills.

In practice, I've found this mostly to be the case, but the window for cheaper electricity is smaller than I would like. Like most families, we use most of our electricity in the early evening hours, and frequently into the late evening hours too. Generally, rates aren't dirt cheap until after midnight, but since appliances like dishwashers, washing machines have delay-start timers on them, we can delay running them until 3 am when we pay 2 cents per kilowatt hour, as opposed to running the dishwasher right after dinner which would cost on average around 8 cents / khw.

Anyway, ComEd has a third party group manage the program, and they have a nice website that allows enrollees to check what the predicted prices are for the day so we can plan activity accordingly. But sometimes actual prices (in red below) are much different than the expected prices. Here is today's graph:

Now, the actual price (in red) doesn't normally have the large trough - this is quite unusual, but reflects the lack of grid demand we had after a thunderstorm and cold front moved through Chicagoland around noon today. Temperatures aren't the only indicator of cost.. there are all kinds of factors, and sometimes the rates get very screwy. At one point last week, the hourly rate was up to 23 cents / kwh! There is an online group of ComEd RRTP customers that have all kinds of thoughts, opinions, and tips on the program, and the price spikes and service fees are a favorite topic of discussion.. Some have even been driven out of the program by them.

But what about Humphrey House? Well, compared to the average family, we're relatively high consumers of electricity (an ongoing battle), but one of the other neat things on the website is a monthly comparison that shows your bill on RRTP vs the standard rate and shows. So now that we have been on the here's how we have done for the entire year we've been on the program:

Some months we saved more than others, and some months we actually spent more by being on the program, but overall, we've saved a total of $167 over the entire year with the real-time pricing program. In thinking about the way energy is shaping up in the future (costs keep rising), I'm tempted to think the RRTP program will be sensitive to fluctuations and it may make sense to cancel out of the program, but I think for the time being we'll keep on it and keep trying to curtail our use during the peak hours.