Howdy, family and friends! I hope y’all had a great summer weekend. It was the closing day of Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort, aka A-basin, which officially concluded the 2018 ski season. We were fortunate to have Vail’s Epic Local Pass this past winter, which allowed us to sample a handful of top-notch ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains. Now the wait begins for the next winter!
Colorado is unfortunately going through one of its driest years. The snow packs in the Rocky Mountains, which supply majority of the agriculture, residential, and business water usage in the Greater Denver Area, is at 2/3 of its average capacity. As outdoor enthusiasts and local residents, we are very concerned and are always thinking of ways to conserve water and other natural resources.
The goal of making a greener home has been guiding our daily life and renovations all along. Today, I want to share with you different ways we have been implanting to reduce our energy footprint. While some of these strategies require permanent changes to one’s residence, most of them can be adopted by renters as well.
1. Reduce Heating and Cooling with Insulation
One of the biggest renovation projects we tackled is adding insulation to the attic. We did it completely ourselves including retrofitting rafter vents under our 4:12 roof, which was very labor-intensive.
After bringing the attic insulation from R13 to R60, we have noticed significant decreases in our monthly utility bills (electricity + natural gas). Instead of $120 per winter month, we spent $80 without restricting usage. We still yet to see how our house performs in summer, but in days like today that is 90 degree, it is below 75 degrees inside our house and another few degrees cooler in the basement. Despite neighbors’ air conditioning humming non-stop, we hardly need to turn ours on.
To be clear, adding insulation does not automatically save us a lot of money. Our attic insulation costed us over $800, while our monthly saving on utility is ~$20. A greener home sometimes require more upfront investments and is not necessarily saving money during the time of home ownership. But for us, it is more important to reduce energy usage than saving a few hundred bucks.
What if you are renting your home? One simple way of adding insulation is to add textile on your windows and doors to reduce thermal loss. Stopping leaks around windows and doors with weather strips or door snakes are also effective ways of insulating a house.
2. Cool the House Naturally
Our house has most of its windows facing east or west. Our bedroom and kitchen get bright sun in the morning, and the living room and Slav’s office get warm in the afternoons. We often have cool breeze from the mountain (northwest) in summer nights. Opening all the windows after sunset to allow cross ventilation effectively cools down the house. It also exchanges the air nicely – we love to sleep with the window open in Spring and early Summer nights to smell all the blooms in our yard. In the morning, we close all the windows to prevent the indoor air from heating up too quickly.
We also installed blinds on most of our windows. These blinds block fair amount of sunlight while allow air to penetrate. In summer, we close the bedroom blinds in the morning to block the morning sun, and in the afternoon, we lower the blinds facing west. It makes a big difference on how much the rooms heat up.
3. Energy-Star Appliances and LED Lighting
One of the first upgrades we did is replacing all the light bulbs with LED. We found very affordable LED light bulbs from the Habitat for Humanity for only $1.5 per pop, which makes the whole upgrade under $20. We also upgraded the work light in the garage to LED.
The old garage tube lighting:
The new LED work lights – brighter and consuming less energy:
In addition to indoor lights, we also replaced the outdoor lighting to motion sensitive LED lights. When we bought the house, all the outdoor lights are 600W stadium lights which project a couple hundred feet far, which is totally bizarre.
The old stadium lighting at the back door:
The old stadium lighting in front of the garage:
It was replaced with a motion-sensitive LED lighting:
On a similar note, we have selected all Energy-star appliances whenever we needed an upgrade, such as the furnace and HVAC system and the washer and dryer combo. More importantly, we replaced our 50 gallon water heater with a tankless model, which offers great performance and saves lots of gas.
As of today, the only appliance that we yet to upgrade is our electrical stove. Gas stove is significant more efficient to operate than electrical stove, and both Slav and I prefer its performance. We are waiting for the ultimate kitchen overall to pull the trigger.
Some of you might ask: what about electrical dryer? If gas stove is greener than electrical ones, shouldn’t dryer be the same? The answer is: absolutely! We do have an electrical dryer for now, which is too expensive to replace. But we do have a trick to use it less frequently:
4. Smart Laundry Strategies
Slav and I both grew up air-drying our laundry, which means hanging the wet clothes outside to dry in the sun and wind. It is somehow a taboo in the States, but with a private yard (which will soon be completely closed off from the street), we can air-dry our laundry without any neighbor seeing it. Since we moved into the house, I have already been drying blankets, duvet, and sheets outside, even in winter. The strong Colorado sun dries any heavy items within an hour, which is pretty much how long our dryer takes. More importantly, the air-dried clothes and sheets come back smelling like sunshine, bringing back fond memories of a happy childhood.
How much energy are we actually saving by air-drying our cloth? An average dryer uses 3.3 kilowatt hours electricity, and the average time of a drying cycle on our machine is about an hour. If we do two loads of laundry a week, air-drying clothes will save us 6.6 kilowatt a week and 343.2 kilowatt a year. It might not be a big money saver (keep in mind that if you do more than two loads of laundry a week, this number multiplies), but since the sun does the job directly and just as fast, it just does not make sense to use the energy from sun indirectly (fossil fuel) with an additional carbon footprint of average 2400 pounds a year.
Washer and dryer rank the second- and third-most energy-hungry appliance in average households, right after the refrigerator. Therefore, in addition to using our dryer less, we also make sure that we use our washer more efficiently. We have the habit of airing out clothes, which means most of our clothes do not get washed after just one wear. This practice not only saves on energy consumption, but also saves the clothes themselves. On a typical week, we have only one load of laundry including all the towels. These smart laundry strategies not only reduce our carbon footprint, but also cut down the time of laundry to almost nothing.
5. Reducing Irrigation with Shade, Mulch, and Drip Irrigation:
With 5~10″ of annual participation here in Colorado, we certainly pay a lot of attention to our irrigation water usage. For one, I do not plant annuals at all. And all the perennials I planted are drought resistant.
We plant trees to introduce more shade to our yard. A thick layer of wood chip mulch reduces evaporation from the ground.
When we have to irrigate, drip lines and soaking hose greatly reduced water waste and surface evaporation:
6. Eating Local
What if one lives in an apartment, has to use laundry facilities, and has no yard? Believe or not, eat local produce is one of the most important ways to reduce personal energy consumption. Average fresh food item travels ~1,500 miles from production to final purchase, results in 13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Even wonder why all the tomatoes are the same size and in perfect shape in your grocery store? It is reported that 40% veggies were discarded during production solely for their appearances. And all the lost were factored into food prices we pay everyday. Buying from local farm or farmers market cuts down the middle man and significant increases the farmer’s profit while cutting down our food cost. A win-win in my book.
But what do we gain as a consumer by eating local? Absolutely. Without the requirement for transportation and long-term storage, locally harvested food is allowed to grow to its full maturity and therefore is fresher and more nutritious. Local farmers usually use less or not at all synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and they often practice permaculture which is much cleaner and more sustainable for the environment. Because of all these reasons, locally grown food tastes better, and are almost definitely healthier for us.
We are lucky to be surrounded by several CSA (community supported agriculture) sites. We get weekly veggie share from these CSAs for ~20 weeks each summer, and during the rest 32 weeks, we shop from the local produce stores. We also get mushrooms, farm-raised eggs, and fresh fruit from local farms throughout the year. In addition, we have been growing our own salad garden and a few kitchen staples.
An additional advantage for us to have vegetable gardens is water conservation. Believe or not, 50% of household water is used for landscape irrigation. And turf is particularly thirsty. In comparison, vegetable gardens with drip irrigation saves 60% of the irrigation water on the same square footage. Who does not want better tasting food and less water usage?
7. Waste Management
Not only we do only one load of laundry per week, we also produce only one 10-gallon bag of trash per week.
Where does the rest go? To our compost bins!
We have two 18 Cu Ft compost bins for kitchen waste. They are layered with household “brown” materials such as dryer lint, paper towels, egg cartons, shredded cardboard boxes, and even ash from our fire pit. Majority of our household waste, if not recycled, are composted here. These bins close tightly to prevent small animals from coming into our yard.
We also compost all the yard waste right here in the ranch. There are multiple ways to do open compost, and the way we chose is the simplest – called “Chop and Drop“. Fall leaves and grass clippings are pilled up along the back fence, as you can see from the picture above. Our climate is cool and dry, so it takes a bit longer than average (~a year) before we get usable compost (without any watering or care). Leaves from last fall will be added into our fall garden beds.
We always cut tree trunks and big branches into firewood, which eventually end up in our compost bin as ash. Small branches are shredded into wood chips and used as mulch. Together with compost, these practices completely eliminate yard waste from our yard.
8. Saying No to Single-Use Plastic
Most of us recycle. It is part of the daily life now and we are all feeling better putting a plastic bottle into a recycle bin, as if it does not impact the environment. But in fact, lots of plastic we consume, including soda and water bottles, are single use and cannot be or are very hard to recycle. So even though we put a bottle into the recycle bin, more often than not, it will be picked out, by hand, at the recycle center and thrown into trash. In fact, the single-use plastic list is fairly extensive: straws, plastic cutlery, coffee stirrers, fountain soda containers, plastic bags, and most food packaging are single-use plastic. Before we can implant more advanced technology to recycle these plastic product more effectively, the only way to reduce our environmental impact is to use less plastic.
We are lucky to live in an encouraging environment for reducing plastic use. Most of the grocery stores here sell bulked items so we can save on food packaging. Lots of people use fabric shopping bags and their own water bottles. We have stopped buying bottled water for years and always bring our own container for hot and cold drinks. When dining out, I pass on straws and plastic utensils. At home, we try to consume less plastic wraps and ziplock bags with silicone lids, Glasslock product, mason jars, and silicone storage bags. Cutting down plastic use is tricky but we are doing our best.
9. Riding Local
One major strategy for cutting down our carbon footprint is public transportation. It is not restricted to our household, but it makes a big impact to our day-to-day routine. My work is a 30 mile away from my home, which takes 50 minutes to commute back and forth with traffic. I choose to ride bus to work every day, which saves me over $2000 on gas alone and probably another a few thousand dollars on car maintenance. On top of that, I avoid emitting 14,848 pounds of green gas every year according to this calculator.
I also use public transportation whenever I can. My bus pass is only $27 per month and grants me unlimited ride to airport, sport games, and downtown Denver where good restaurants accumulate. Not driving in traffic and paying for parking makes life a lot less stressful on the days I need to relax. And no designated driver is ever needed!
1o. Switching the Household Energy to Solar and Wind
There are many ways to reduce our energy usage, but we still use some. The good news is, the energy we use does not need to come from fossil fuels. Being in the highlands with little rain, our home has great solar potential. We cannot cash a solar system just yet, but we can still switch our household energy source to wind and solar thanks for the options our utility provider gives. If you are renting, you can also switch to renewable using community based solar energy or wind equivalent. It costs just a little more monthly in our area, but grants that our energy is 100% renewable.
Simple Life, Less Consumption
This is a very long post. If you stick to the end, you probably have already making an effort to reduce your carbon footprint and conserve natural resources. So thank you! It does take some effort to start, but everything we do actually made our life simpler and easier. I have little trash and laundry to deal with. Our home is very quiet without the noise from laundry, dishwasher (we do not have one), or TV (again, do not have one). We eat fresher, healthier, and tastier. And we breathe fresher air by keeping the window open and gardening outside. Little things like sweeping the floor instead of using a vacuum, or hanging laundry outside by hand, are in fact very soothing in their own ways.
What do you do to reduce carbon footprint? Do you have any suggestions for us? If you have not taken the #PlasticFreeChallenge, please join us for a month of effort of using as little single-use plastic as possible. We appreciate it, and these sea turtles do too!