Adventures in Reducing our Carbon Footprin

by Brian Durham

My girlfriend McKinley and I have been working on making our home as energy efficient as possible for the past two years.  We’ve found a few things that have worked well for us and hope to share some knowledge here, as well as a few nerdy spreadsheets.  I’d love to hear any ideas that have worked well you that we haven’t thought of yet!

This past August, McKinley and I purchased a home on James Island, South Carolina.  At 2,200 sq ft, this was a big change from our 1,050 sq ft condo.  I had completed all the standard energy efficiency steps to make our condo as energy efficient as I could.  I had the windows re-framed to make sure we weren’t letting any outside air into the home.  We only had 15 light bulbs to replace in the entire place, so buying new LED bulbs was no problem at all.  We installed a Nest smart thermostat which paid for itself in just a few months by lowering our electricity bill $20-$30 per month.  During our renovation, we bought all new energy star kitchen appliances.  One of the main reasons we purchased the condo was its proximity to my office, just under a mile away.  I road my bike to work every once in a while, so I felt good about not sitting in traffic adding CO2 to the atmosphere every day.  Since adding solar panels to the roof of a shared building was not an option for us, I was content knowing that I had done about as much as I could from an energy efficiency perspective.  The last year in the condo our highest electric bill was $116 (August) and our lowest was $72 (December).

We took a couple of weeks to move into the new house, slowly moving things over during the weekends.  The original dumb thermostat was in the house (actually a dumb thermostat for both floors of the house).  The home had been a rental for several years, so every light bulb was the cheapest incandescent available.  When received our first bill just twenty days into owning the house, I was shocked to see that we owed $250.  It was time to go to war.

Step one was to pull the Nest off the wall in the condo and get our AC unit under control.  Then I went through the whole house and took a light bulb inventory, possibly the nerdiest thing I did in 2016.  I counted every bulb in every fixture in the house and made a note of the existing wattage and bulb size needed.  It turns out I have 95 light bulbs to replace.  NINETY-FIVE!  I was starting to miss the condo at this point.  I found out that our utility, South Carolina Electric & Gas has a discounted light bulb store, allowing you to buy 15 light bulbs each year for about 10% of the cost.  I bought 15 bulbs for our recessed lights at $1.50 a piece that were on Amazon for $5 each.  The rest I found on sale at either Costco, Home Depot, or Amazon.  The LED bulbs vary in wattage from about 8W to 2W for the candelabras and under mount cabinet lights.  Also, I’ve found that 2700K warm white is the closest color to the traditional incandescent light that most people like.  I could go on for an hour about light bulbs now, but that will get pretty boring.  If you have any questions about LED bulb, please ask!  I’ll be happy to send you links to the bulbs I recommend; I spent way too much time researching them.

Bulb Inventory

Another awesome program SCE&G offers a free home energy audit.  A technician came over to the house on Friday afternoon and took about forty-five minutes walking me through everything I could do to reduce the electric bill.  Our water heater was not insulated, so he provided us with a free insulating wrap.  Our water heater was also turned up about 30 degrees to high (I learned that your water heater ideal temperature is 120 degrees) which he estimated was costing us $10-$20 a month.  He also pointed out that the heat from the screen on the Nest can sometimes trick the thermostat to measure air temperature incorrectly and recommended we always set the temperature to a few degrees lower than we want it.  I learned a lot from the energy audit, so I highly recommend you see if your utility offers something similar, it was also great to learn from a fellow energy nerd!

So let’s recap.  I replaced the dumb thermostats with Nests (I recently bought a second used on eBay for the upstairs), adjusted our water heater, and swapped out our lights with low wattage LEDs.  I believe our appliances are about nine years old.  We could probably buy new ones that are a bit more efficient, but they’re working fine, so I’m going to stick with those for a bit.  So as far as I can tell there are only two things left, and they’re the big ones.

Solar Panels and an EV.

When buying a house, everybody has their “must-haves.”  At the top of the list for a GIS/energy nerd like me was a southern facing roof.  The one thing I didn’t like about living in the condo was that we couldn’t invest in a solar panel system.  Our roof faces directly south and is begging to have solar panels put on so about a month into owning the house I started making phone calls to local providers.

Sweet, Sweet Southern Facing Roof

Typically, the way this process works is you submit a form online with your address.  A technician or sales agent will use some form of a GIS to look at your roof and do some quick, initial modeling to see how many panels will fit on your roof using some combination of aerial photography and/or LiDAR data.  They run some calcs on their end, see what panels they have available, and give you a price.  I received quotes from three local providers as well as Solar City.  The numbers I got were all over the place, but I decided to go with Hannah Solar out of based out of Atlanta, Georgia.  I felt that project manager was the most knowledgeable and he worked out a great deal for me.  We will be having a 7.8 kW system going on the roof at the end of this month.  The cost ended up at $3.00 per watt with 26 LG Neon2 black solar panels making up the system.  The SolarEdge inverter will be in our laundry room, and the system will be plug and play ready for eventual battery storage like a Tesla Powerwall.  The electrician will also be running a 240v plug to our garage so we can add an EV charger eventually.

The total cost of the system is about $25,000.  We have a federal tax rebate that covers 30% of the entire system cost.  The federal incentive is supposed to remain in place until 2019, but who knows what will happen with the new administration coming into power.  We also have an additional 25% state tax credit, so we only have to pay 45% of the actual amount.  That comes to a little less than $12,000.  One of the great things about doing this in December is that we should have all the tax money back in just a couple months.  We plan on paying this off by allocating the same $250 per month to energy.  Except now instead of all that money going directly to SCE&G, we’ll be paying SCE&G around $70 per month and putting $180 towards paying off our system.  We’re looking at roughly seven years for the solar system to completely pay for itself.

We’ll have a net-meter set up which we’re guessing will offset 60%-70% of our energy use.  The estimate is based only off of our first two months of energy use, so I’m hopeful that everything I’m doing from an energy efficiency standpoint might be able to offset even more than that.  From start to finish the process of putting solar panels on the roof has been about a two-three month process.

So I THINK the last thing left is an EV.  I reserved a Tesla Model 3 the very first night of pre-orders earlier this year.  However, that is still at least a year and a half away.  Since I used to live less than a mile away, I bought an old 1994 F-150 dirt cheap.  I wanted a vehicle that I’d be able to sell for the same price I paid for it when it came time for the Tesla to roll around.  Since I wasn’t driving very much, I didn’t feel guilty about the emissions.  But since we moved, I have a 20-30 minute commute each way.  After this presidential election, I found myself doing quite a bit of self-reflecting.  I am constantly talking about combating climate change and striving for energy efficiency, yet I’m driving an old dirty truck for an hour 5 days a week.  It was time to start researching.

After looking at all the options, there are a surprising amount of used Nissan Leafs out there that are out there for $6,500-$10,000.  EVs have virtually no maintenance, and electricity is dramatically cheaper than gasoline.  My commute is only ten miles each way, so the 80-ish miles the Leaf gets on a charge is more than enough for a couple of days.  After adding up all my maintenance costs for my old truck (yearly average $2,364) and gasoline (yearly average $1,431) that comes to $3,799 per year and a monthly average of $316 per month.  $316 per month for an old beat up truck!?!  I could have a great car payment with that money!

After doing the math for a Nissan Leaf, it averages about 4.2 cents per mile driven.  My roundtrip commute is 22 miles putting me at $4.62 per week, $18.48 per month, and $240.24 per year.  The Leaf just has a couple of small maintenance items each year under $200 total.  Compare that to $3,799 I’m spending just by driving my truck.  So by driving a Leaf, I will end up saving $3,376 per year!  The car will pay for itself in just two and a half years of driving it, pretty crazy.  I test drove one for the first time this past weekend and McKinley and I were both surprised by how well it drove.  It looks dorky on the outside but is pretty sweet on the interior.  So now I’m patiently on the look for a great deal, but I’m going to work on making this happen!

Truck vs Leaf Spreadsheet

Well, I did enjoy typing all of this out, and I hope someone else will benefit from everything we’ve learned trying to reduce our carbon footprint.  It certainly takes a lot of upfront money (aka finding good 0% APR credit cards with rewards) to be “green” if you are starting from scratch.  I know there are plenty of things I’m missing, what are some things you’ve done to reduce your CO2 emissions in your routine or become more environmentally friendly?

If I can do anything to help you out, I’d love to hear from you!

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