Beating the Heat During the Hottest Summer on Record
Updated: Sep 20, 2020
The northern hemisphere is just finishing up the hottest summer in recorded history...again. California is on fire. Oregon is on fire. Landscapes in the Arctic are on fire. In many places, the permafrost is no-longer permafrost... because it is on fire. Our Gulf Coast has just been pummeled by its second devastating hurricane this year. Last year at this time, we were in pretty much this same boat too. For those who have never paid much attention to the Indigenous people, or to the scientists who have been telling us for decades that we have to take care of the earth if we want to have a livable future, now would be a great time to start.
The rising temperatures and worsening natural disasters are fueled by the 1.5 trillion tons of CO2 that humanity has dumped into the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The fires and the melting permafrost are now dumping their own CO2 into the air in a feedback loop. According to the best information available, humanity has 9 years left to significantly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, or risk causing our planet's climate to spiral out of control in a way that could potentially annihilate our own society. While there have been a few hopeful developments in 2020, world leaders' net response has been to funnel even more money into subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. To top it off, the US is just a few weeks away from irreparably damaging the Paris Climate Agreement. It can seem like the rational individual is powerless in the face of such massively bad decisions, but the worst thing we can do is to give up trying.
About this time last year, we wrote a blog on a 100 degree September day as we listened to the sound of our air conditioner, refrigerator, and freezer, powered mostly by fossil fuels, all running at the same time. We had long ago made a plan to take our home "green", and were just about to start on that journey. Looking back a year down this road, the experience has been a really positive one. In this spirit of not giving up, we'd like to share some of that experience:
The most important key to making a home green is to make it efficient. This is just common sense. In our case, we were building a new home, but all of the things mentioned below can be done for an existing home too. There are often some up front investments to make, but in the long run going green saves you more money than you invest by permanently reducing energy bills. There is even financial assistance available for some parts of the process. For an existing home, going green starts with an energy audit. One of the largest concentrations of this blog's readers are in the Durant, Oklahoma, area. OG&E offers assistance with home energy audits and other energy efficiency services for its customers here.
For our home, we made our roof white, and the wall exteriors a light, earth tone color to reflect the hot summer sun. We limited the number of windows on the west side of the house. We super-insulated our walls with open cell foam insulation. We purchased insulating windows and doors, put up insulated curtains on our windows, and cut insulated foam panels to put in our western windows on the hottest afternoons. We purchased LED lights, Energy Star Certified appliances, got an electric tankless water heater, and set up a mini split system for our heating and cooling needs.
That sounds like a lot of expenses, but some of these things actually saved us a lot of money on day 1. For example, the mini split system cost us about 1/2 as much as a central heating and air system would have, and that is without even considering the added cost of installing duct work required for central air. With a little trial and error, we learned to set up two separate mini split systems. One large unit provides heat and air to the upstairs and living room. A small unit covers our bedroom. With the measures taken to insulate the home and reflect the sun, that small bedroom unit set on 78 degrees keeps our most-used living spaces at a comfortable temperature even when it's 95 outside. We turn it off when we're gone and the house cools off again in about 3 minutes when we get back home. The 1% of the time that we need more cooling, we turn on the larger unit for a short period. This keeps our home far cooler than our old home was even with its central air running continuously. It also saves a lot of money on energy costs and prevents literally tons of climate-changing CO2 from getting belched into the planet's atmosphere.
Going green doesn't always have to be fancy. One of our best decisions was putting up a simple clothesline in our backyard (made by our friend Ed), instead of buying an electric clothes drier. That saved us $700 right off the bat. A year in, and we can honestly say that we still look forward to the 5 relaxing minutes spent outside hanging up each load of wash. These loads of wash, cleaned with cheap, scentless, biodegradable soap, smell amazing when dried on the line - like sunshine. Each of these line-dried loads of wash also saves us about $1 on the electric bill (compared to our old dryer that we had to run at least twice to dry a load). That works out to $12/hr, which is pretty good pay just for hanging up laundry. With all of the extra loads of wash we've done this year to help slow the spread of COVID, that clothesline has saved our bank account about $400 in energy costs. Every load dried on the line also saves about 3 lbs of C02 in the atmosphere. All told for the year, this simple clothesline has saved our bank account $1,100 and prevented about 1,200 lbs of CO2 from going into the atmosphere. Hard to think of a better investment than that.
The 12 solar panels on our roof have provided for 100% of our home's energy needs in the past year, and put about 1.2 Megawatt hours of clean electricity (or roughly the amount of energy that a large power plant produces in 4 seconds) back into the grid for anyone to use. Solar has been a great option for us, but it doesn't necessarily make sense for everyone. If you're interested in powering your home with clean energy, but can't put solar panels on your house, there are many services that allow you to power your home through clean energy offsets.
A single clothesline, or even 100 million green homes are not going to save our planet from careening into an unlivable future as long as companies are still dumping billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Every ounce of fossil fuel that does not get burned is a victory for our future, but arguably the most important thing about a green home may be the little daily reminders it provides that humans are connected to the earth around us and depend on its well being for our own. Enough people having that awareness carries the potential to accomplish something big.
In this vein, the US elections are only a few weeks way. Up and down the ballot and across parties, please consider which candidates' policies are the most in line with objective reality when it comes to the climate and the future. Generations to come are depending on us. If you are a US citizen of legal age living in Oklahoma, all you need to get set up to vote can be found here. Register today.