Your Home

….A Cause of, and a Tool with which to Fight Climate Change

(Additional ideas are welcome)

The Home. Our shelter from the elements. We physically need one. But not at the comfort level many in the developed world seek. And not with the 25 windows and the vaulted ceiling and all of those things which I realize now that I write this that I actually have in my house. Ouch.

C02 from EPA

Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks. 1990-2015. EPA, 430-P-17-001.

The graph above shows the relative energy use leading to climate change that comes from our residences, via direct burning of natural gas in HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) systems and appliances, and from all those miscellaneous electrical charges in our houses. In addition to the area of transportation, fighting climate change can and needs to start right at home, not only in conservation – but in using our homes as tools in the climate fight to force industry and governmental change, and to help convince our neighbors of the benefits of going green.

How to do so falls into four categories:

  1. Think Small
  2. Buy Used, Buy Close, Buy Above
  3. Reducing Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Production at/in your Home
  4. Use your Home as Climate Leverage

The latter is one I believe many don’t think about – how a house/condo/apartment can be used as leverage to help others think/deal with climate change – so I recommend actually reading to the end of an article (horrors!) in this case. Shortly after this post, I’ll make this into a page on the site, and let it grow with ideas over time.

1. Think “Small”

In buying, renting homes, think small in terms of square footage. Even the smaller homes of today are relatively large compared to those of the past. Think back to what life must have been like 1000 years ago, 100, or 50 years ago. Did we need 5,000 sq foot homes? No – we were happy to have 1000 sq foot homes, with our own bedrooms, with kids in a different one (or two), to have bathrooms (!), and an indoor kitchen. I still remember as a kid going to my Uncle Wilbur’s and Aunt Edna’s ranch way out in the country and having to use the outhouse. At night. With the knowledge that Uncle Wilbur had once been bitten by a black widow spider while sitting down out there. Boy, were they and we excited when they built an addition and got one – just one – bathroom.

Now, today, what counts as a small house was a large one in the past. The current average size of an American home is 2679 sq ft: http://www.aei.org/publication/todays-new-homes-are-1000-square-feet-larger-than-in-1973-and-the-living-space-per-person-has-doubled-over-last-40-years/. Each person has far more living space – we don’t need to make it even larger.

So caveat here – I live in a 1,760 sq. ft. house (not including the basement), with 25 windows and one room with a vaulted ceiling. The previous family here raised 11 children in this house of three bedrooms. I feel guilty. BUT, a) it’s a 103-year-old house I am rehabilitating with only green materials; b) it was made to funnel breezes on a hot summer day; c) I won’t turn on the AC until it hits 90; and d) I RENT out rooms to ~two students/visiting scientists each year who need affordable housing. And I so plan to downsize when I retire.

1917669_1083826860546_527658_n

Ironically, my house actually still has an outhouse, but luckily indoor plumbing as well.

So main actions we can take when choosing a home:

  1. Think a decent bathroom, but think of an overall house sq. footage at least 500 sq feet smaller than what you otherwise would dream of. (Thanks to whoever (lost his name), from our ClimateSteps discussion group.) Besides, think how much cleaning a large house would need.
  2. If you can stand it for a while, think of a tiny house or a condo. Did you survive your 20s okay with just an apartment? Of course! Can you do it again – of course! One tends to expand into larger houses. Instead, live within the planet’s means. My friend Anita has taken this very much to heart. Here’s the blog of her building her tiny house. https://onceuponalilypad.wordpress.com/lilypad-tiny-house/. However, there are drawbacks. Example: https://grist.org/living/the-missed-opportunity-of-a-tiny-tidy-life/.
  3. Rent out rooms – this helps everybody. For the homeowner/condo-owner, this is one of the best sources of income, far beating out monthly interest on a CD; it provides affordable housing for others; makes efficient use of space, appliances, heat; and gives you the chance to convert people to green. (more below)

2. Buy Used, Buy Close, Buy Above

Also in buying, or renting homes – consider buying used homes, those close to work and shopping, and, definitely, definitely, those above future sea level.

Buying used. This is really critical. Sure old, semi-old houses take work, but they so have their advantages that I find outweigh the costs as a homeowner, as well as to the planet.

  1. Old houses have character and thus stories, whereas new glass/brass/and dark brown and white paint = boring. Retro is sweet, vintage is amazing, and antique is awe-inspiring.
  2. Old houses have strong hardwood and good brick as their bones.
  3. Yes, they can indeed be caulked and insulated to the eves.
  4. They are built for their climate.
  5. (You do have to watch out for lead paint, lead pipes, and asbestos. Read up on this.)

But more importantly, a used house saves the planet.

  1. Prevents sprawl on land that has CO2-absorbing, diverse plants on it.
  2. There is less buying and hauling of new materials over long-distances.
  3. Less killing of CO2-breathing trees.
  4. No vinyl off-gassing (reference coming).
  5. Luckily, old houses take well to salvaged materials, such as antique doors from Community Forklift, http://communityforklift.org/; or Habitat for Humanity’s Restores https://www.habitat.org/restores. Also, here’s a guide to reusing stuff: https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2017/07/fewer-co2-emissions-by-reusing-others-stuff/.

If not used, buy green. More and more developers are building green homes. Example: https://www.tridel.com/resources/home-buyers/helpful-articles/how-to-find-a-condo-that-is-truly-built-green/.

Buy close to public transportation, or where two wheels or your own two feet can take you. Example of benefits: https://mobilitylab.org/2018/01/24/arlington-residents-bike-walk-work-predictable-happy-healthy-journeys/

AND BUY ABOVE! If you buy, BUY IN A PLACE 20-60 FEET at least ABOVE SEA LEVEL! Don’t make the rest of us or our children pay for you to move later; we’ll be too busy helping those who have long been in communities move. Here’s a tool to help plot sea level rise: https://coast.noaa.gov/slr/.

3. In Your Home – Reducing CO2/Methane Production

We’ve all heard “turn-down-the-thermostat,” and there are many, many ways to make your house more efficient. But, first, think about how this chart applies to you: https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=96&t=3, which shows that the largest energy uses in the US are cooling, heating, lights, and refrigeration, in that order. Besides these key resources here, see more at the end of this article, and definitely “googling” provides LOTS of resources on how to save energy at home.

  1. Cooling
    1. I love, love this article about low-tech ways to cool, and we have shared it multiple times in our Facebook (FB) discussion group. Thanks Julia for forwarding this to us: https://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/10-overlooked-low-tech-ways-of-keeping-your-home-cool.html.
    2. Remember, your AC uses refrigerants that are greenhouse gasespotent greenhouse gases, if released.  The book Drawdown actually puts this as the most important thing to do in several scenarios – because refrigerants can have 1,000-9,000 times more impact as a greenhouse gas than CO2, and 90% of refrigerant emissions happen at the end of the life cycle of unit.  Always have your AC (and refrigerators) professionally serviced and recycle the refrigerants when done. Plus, keep the system as efficient as possible. That’s the only way to justify using these refrigerants. Reference: https://www.epa.gov/snap/transitioning-low-gwp-alternatives-commercial-refrigeration
    3. And speaking of, use Energy Star highly-rated systems, which are the most super-efficient systems.
    4. If you have no solar panels, put reflective paint/tiles on the roof to help keep it cool. (ref coming.)
  2. Winterizing/Heating
    1. Install a programmable thermostat. Boy is it nice to sleep in cool temp, but wake up to warm.
    2. Just search ThisOldHouse.com for ideas galore. (For example: https://www.thisoldhouse.com/ideas/upgrades-slash-energy-costs.)
    3. Of course, dress for success in keeping warm. (layers, that kind of thing – Carrie).
    4. Install a green roof, which has incredible insulating values – both in energy and sound. Here’s a blog I wrote from several years ago about the details of installing my green roof, and benefits: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/where-we-live/wp/2013/08/14/a-petworth-homeowners-green-roof-one-year-later/?utm_term=.04b7f9f2ca59. (It’s an update to an earlier WP blog series, which walks through the steps of installing my green roof.)
    5. Finally, just for fun: https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/your-home-vs-winter-let-these-game-of-thrones-quotes-be-your-guide.
  3. Lights
    1. Turn them off. Though it depends on the type of light. Compact flourescent lightbulbs (CFLs) should be turned off if you are going to be out of the room more than 15 minutes; all other lights should be turned off whenever you leave the room. https://energy.gov/energysaver/when-turn-your-lights.
    2. Replacing lights with LED bulbs is, of course, now much more affordable: https://www.realsimple.com/home-organizing/home-improvement/best-light-bulbs-for-home.
  4. Refrigeration
    1. As noted above under Cooling – watch those refrigerant chemicals, which are greenhouse gases. Get the fridge serviced professionally, and have the refrigerants recycled.
    2. Keep your freezer full – this reduces energy use. It’s not as critical for the fridge but still helps (If not with food, here’s how you can: https://home.howstuffworks.com/appliances/energy-efficient/freezer-efficiency-tips.htm.)
  5. Windows
    1. Caulk, caulk, caulk your windows. I decreased my energy bill by $70 a month when I did that.
    2. Get at least double-paned windows, if not triple-paned – and don’t go for aluminum. They suck at energy efficiency. (Reference 1, Reference 2, though neither have the word ‘suck’ in there.)
    3. Close the curtains/shades during winter at night (open those that get the sun during the day), and vice versa summer. That’s what they were originally made for, not for decoration (well, and for privacy). As a general rule, each square foot of window that you insulate at night saves about 1 gal. of oil or nearly 1.5 cubic feet of gas a year,” said thisoldhouse.com. There are many energy efficient options (cellular shades, solar shades; thisoldhouse.com and many other sites available through a web search.)

Other actions

Overall, there are multiple efficiencies/actions that can be taken. I am reading an article now about which ones provide more bang for the buck, and will see if I can order the below. But definitely, cost savings would also be achieved. In fact, in a survey conducted testing how people estimated cost savings, ” If she resembles the average respondent, she will underestimate potential savings by a factor of nearly three [for certain items.]” (Dietz, 2010.).

  1. Get an energy audit. Many local communities provide free ones, while utilities can charge. But if you think you’ve plugged all the holes in your house, this can help you find the ones you’ve missed.
  2. Check out local rebates and other resources. “For example, Pepco [a DC region power company] provides LED bulbs, surge suppressors, etc., at no cost if you have an energy audit.” (Diane)
  3. Install renewable energy sources where possible: solar, mini wind turbines, or geothermal systems. “A study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, found that installing solar panels adds an average of $20,000 to your solar home’s value,” (real estate reference.) There’s also another reason discussed further below. More info will come in future posts.
  4. Change all appliances to electric so they can run off of renewable energy. I did freak out my friend Paul, an avid cook, in our FB group by suggesting removing natural gas appliances, which includes the gas ranges cooks love to use. My reason: natural gas is not as clean as folks think. Natural gas is methane, which is worse (34x!) for the environment than CO2 (Also see this reference.) Natural gas extraction (fracking) can allow large quantities of methane to escape; wastes tons of freshwater; introduces “secret” ingredients pumped into water underground – which will eventually contaminate our water sources; and, well darn it, causes earthquakes (References: Union of Concerned Scientists and the many scientific references they utilize). And if we burn natural gas in our homes, it still produces pollutants, including nitrogen oxide (which is why it’s recommended you have a vent hood) and, of course, and CO (carbon monoxide, which is why you need a detector) and CO2 .

However, because of the energy put into manufacturing appliances, you don’t want to switch out recent gas appliances for electric – unless you donate them to someone, but think electric or geothermal (for boilers) when you need to buy.

Also repair when you can, if you have an efficient system; repair folks actually exist. It can help save shipping fuel as well as manufacturing emissions (Diane.)

More references with ideas are at the end.

5. Gardens, Walkways and Drives soon will be its own page. But in the meantime:

The yard, i.e., soil and plants – all absorb CO2 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/brand-connect/ucdavis/a-climate-change-solution-beneath-our-feet/.) On our block, which contains 26 row houses, two neighbors completely covered their entire backyards with concrete. Most have lawns. Several of us are gardening, only one edible (yep, that’s me.) Don’t cover your lawn in concrete.

    1. If you remove invasive species and replace with native plants, you’ll support all sorts of pollinators and wildlife – and looking out the window will be much more interesting. (Diane, via our FB discussion group); Carrie wrote: “For a dual purpose (pollinator conservation, as well as water retention and filtration), I would add bioswales in parking areas, and turn parkways (hell strips) into pollinator patches, and front lawns of foreign grasses into small meadows, woods and hedges- using native vegetation only, of course.
      415966_3741218573678_1160788230_o

      Corn deep in the heart of Washington DC.

      Go further, and convince your local community to follow suit. Then make it really meaningful ecologically by planning a connection between two points of natural habitat (see Sarah Bergmann’s http://www.pollinatorpathway.com/).”

    2. Plant your food. (B.J.)
    3. Trees help shade the house (Diane); and thanks Carrie, for this article: http://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2018/02/every-homeowner-is-urban-forester/.
    4. “Many state, county, and city governments offer programs and training in green landscaping, xeriscaping (landscaping with native plants without irrigation or watering), and such green activities as making and using rain barrels. These are often very useful and pleasant courses that help hook you up with those in your community that are trying to become more green.” (Diane again – thanks).

4. Use your Home to Lead Change in Others

Whether a house, apartment, or condo, you have a “base of operations” and a valuable asset/tool to help fight climate change:

  1. Diffuse communication.
    1. Signage. A nice sign out front about ‘save the planet’ or ‘help us fight climate change,’ will catch people’s attention. (The mailman will become brainwashed). As you want to make a positive impression, not put people off, the sign should be pleasing, welcoming. The “Welcome Your Neighbors” yard sign has been very successful. Carrie in our group has had positive responses from her neighbors about her wildlife and native habitat sign. Partly due to that, “there’s a LOT less mowing from ten years ago, and NO MORE leaf bagging or burning on our entire block!” Just be careful about what the sign is made of – many of the first companies that come up make the signs out of vinyl, and have a carcinogen label.  But some companies are now printing eco-friendly. Oh, and take the sign in and out, so people don’t become acclimatized to it. 🙂
    2. Showing off examples, e.g., rain barrels, rain gardens, green roofs, hanging laundry, landscaping to prevent flooding, and native landscaping for pollinators/wildlife. A number in our group have gotten questions about their EVs, hybrids, rain gardens, etc… As Jason says, planned or unplanned, you become an ambassador for new (or old) techniques. Neighbors are always interested in other people’s yards. They will ask, so use your home to tell the tale.

Note. When flying the laundry flag, make sure you do it in the backyard, and keep it tidy and short, but also use it as a chance to say hello to neighbors.

Jason also forwarded a study on “how having solar panels can influence neighbors to also install solar.” It is not a strong effect in the study, but potential confounding variables are expense and time. (I need to reread it, but it was interesting.)

  1. Active communication – put it out there.
    1. When I installed my green roof, I had an open house specifically for neighbors on my block (eight came).
    2. Also, due to my posting pictures in the neighborhood listserv about my rain barrel install (here’s someone else doing the same thing), and due to just seeing it [picture], a number of people on my block are now interested in installing rain barrels, as the city provides them inexpensively (https://doee.dc.gov/service/riversmart-homes-rain-barrels), though the wait is long. I need to work with some of my neighbors to continue the impetus.
    3. Blog about it. I blogged in the Washington Post about the process of installing my green roof, and have offered online to give tours to anyone, anytime.
    4. Pipe removal. Installation of efficient, green products is a chance to communicate about climate change, of course. But you can go a step or two further.
      40890_1410965678812_34022_n

      An old natural gas light fixture in my home, that occasionally smelled of gas. I removed the pipes to it. Too dangerous.

      For instance, once your need for gas is gone, a wake-up call to the natural gas industry is to ask for them to shut the gas off to your house at the street, and to tell them that you are removing the pipes. It also will be eye-opening to the plumber, though he’ll still appreciate the money. It’s on my horizon.

    5. Which brings up the next part. Talk to your contractors, landscapers, etc., about why you are doing what you are doing. (Thanks Julia). I gave my main contractor a book on green building as a thank you for some work.
  2. Next step: use your house as a tool/leverage for change
    1. Speak up at formal condo, neighborhood association meetings. Your home or condo is a solid foot in the door for discussions at condo complexes, in home owner associations, community associations, and even in city council meetings – more so than renting (though democracy is not supposed to give preference.) But if you have property that can be affected by development, your voice is very valuable.
      1. Immediate neighbors in many cities (e.g., DC) have a say in development. Say yes to neighbors installing solar. Do think about what is best for the planet, and less about NIMBY (not in my backyard.) make it YIMBY. 🙂 Phrase from: https://www.motherearthnews.com/renewable-energy/wind-power/home-wind-power-zm0z13amzrob
      2. If you are a member of a condo association, you have a captive audience. Your fellow condo owners/the board have to at least listen, and I’m sure that you can come up with something that people will like as an initial, inexpensive first step. Once that step is done, people will feel proud, and perhaps another can be taken. Once the second step is done, the condo can begin to advertise their greenness, and values can go up.

“Other “green” and energy-efficient home upgrades also increase the selling price of your home – in California, homes with green labels sell at an average price premium of nine percent.” (Real Estate Reference 1, Real Estate Reference2; the same is true for apartment buildings: https://www.rentecdirect.com/blog/environmentally-friendly-rentals-the-value-of-going-green/).

Be the heart and soul of the condo. Examples include: working to get solar panels, green roofs, energy efficient boilers, and rain barrels installed, as well as the use of low VOC (volatile organic compounds = bad stuff) paint when repainting, insulating the building envelope, starting composting, etc. Also, when it comes time to hire a property manager or purchasing agent, make sure there are green requirements (e.g., identifying eco-friendly products and incorporating any eco-rating) built it into job descriptions at all levels (thanks to Tim.)

3. Refinance/Divest your Mortgage. As I noted in my 2017 Climate Resolutions, I refinanced my mortgage – taking my money from a pipeline-supporting bank, and giving it to a small, regional bank. And I saved money in the process. Divest.

4. I wonder if there is a way to turn your insurance company green? Besides asking them to.

5. Go paperless; insist on your utilities going paperless.

6. Impact “the Grid.” Besides increasing your energy efficiency, installing renewable energy resources exercises your right to have a say in the future development of our electric grid system. You force the future of distributed grid energy to come sooner, where condos, houses, and apartment buildings provide the energy, not the coal plants. This is where people are really leading the change (thanks Brian for permission to share).

capture-solar-in-portland-e1519666786736.png
Here is an interesting tool to view solar potential, although Portland seems to be doing okay (see above.) https://blog.google/products/maps/shedding-light-solar-potential-all-50-us-states/.

7. Note, if you have solar or wind on your house already, it becomes easier to convince others and not appear a hypocrite when you argue for city ordinances for others to follow. Anyway, love this article here about one person making a difference: https://insideclimatenews.org/news/17072017/south-miami-florida-solar-roof-rules-sea-level-rise-teenager-activism.

8. Similarly, plugging in an electric car could someday help power the city. More about that under the Travel/Transport page later.

9. Support work-at-home options. Having a home where you can have an office provides a means to advocate for this option at work, where transportation CO2 production is completely taken away. (Thanks Richard!)

a. This effort can get others to think about the issue of transportation, pollution, and more.

b. But if you can walk or bike to work, do consider how much it would cost to heat your home office, compared to an already heated office building – and how it is heated.

10. Share resources. I have a friend who lives in a housing co-operative, where there’s a party-house with a commercial kitchen, a shared-cost water recycling facility, and more. Then of course, there are my friends in condos with great party places on the roof. Sweet. But you don’t need to be part of an association/co-operative to share resources. Through my neighborhood listserv, I have borrowed tools, neighbors have borrowed my tools, and my friend Susan just got me to join the local Buy Nothing group on Facebook. There are such things as neighborhood hardware sheds. There are 26 houses on my block alone, do we each need a lawnmower?

11. At that house-warming party your friends are coming to, ask for only green gifts.

12. Fight eminent domain. Most of you will never experience this, but some will. My parents might, as a coal strip mine comes closer to their house. They do not own the mineral rights to half of their land, so it is very hard to argue against eminent domain. But my Mom can! I am still very proud of my Mom, who forced such a detailed contract to be written with an oil company who wanted to dynamite the land to analyze for potential reservoirs, that they never came back. Luckily, with the crash of coal, the strip mine expansion is moving more slowly. Anyway, I’ll try to find resources here for folks to refer to.

3. Finally, use your home as the “base of operations.”

1. Throw a vegetarian/vegan potluck(s) (reducing meat-eating reduces CO2 – see chart referenced at top). My friend Max and I plan to have one this spring.

2. Rent out rooms to students. I have rented out my rooms – and do you know how many students I have taught to recycle over time? Nine. Nine students who had never recycled in their lives, who I had to teach what could and could not be recycled. The great thing is – most of them even went as far as composting and several tell me they can’t ‘not recycle’ now. Alanna (who recycled before she came, and who is sitting here agreeing with this statement) is even addicted to composting now.

3. Host bookclubs, discussion groups, action groups at your home.

Home is where the resistance is.

Additional Resources:

  1. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/diane-maceachern/want-to-reduce-the-climat_b_5725888.html
  2. https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/climatechange/what-you-can-do-about-climate-change_.html
  3. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-change-begins-at-home/

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