Friday, November 6, 2009

Environmentalist, or Just Cheap?

You could call me an environmentalist, and that’s fine, but my obsession with becoming more energy efficient and resourceful has as much to do with the prospect of saving money as it does with environmentalism.

It started over ten years ago when I began converting our light bulbs to compact fluorescents. And when the furnace died last year, we had new high efficiency furnace and central air units installed. But like the compact fluorescents, those are automatic no-brainers.

Last spring when it became clear that our old gas powered lawn mower was on its last leg, I went a little further. I bought an electric mower with a built-in battery.

It’s no heavier than a regular mower, has a bag, and a nifty single-touch height-control lever. I plugged it into an outlet in the garage right where I once kept its gas powered predecessor, charged it overnight, and in the morning had enough stored power to mow an acre.

No more hauling gas cans to the station and storing them in the garage. No annual tune-ups. No more stubborn pull cords. Just lift a lever and it runs.

Granted, the electricity has to come from somewhere and often that’s a coal-powered plant. But not always. The power plant north of Noblesville in Riverwood has been converted to natural gas, scrubbers can be put on coal-fired plants and wind generation is on the rise. And I’m reducing ground level ozone - that stuff that leads to summer no-zone alert days when you’re asked not to mow lawns.

This fall I used that electric mower to turn my yard leaves into fertilizer and mulch for the vegetable garden. I mow the leaves instead of raking, gathering them in the bagger. I dump some of the chopped leaves in the garden and turn them into the soil to recharge it for next year. The bulk of the chopped leaves are piled behind the garage to decompose over the winter. Once I’ve got the garden going in the spring, I use this leaf-mulch to mulch around plants. This returns yet more nutrients to the soil and holds in more moisture, requiring less watering.

That makes fewer leaves for city pick up, less money spent on chemicals and fertilizers during the growing season, and less water used to grow the plants. And the pulverized leaves left behind among the blades of grass on the lawn will be fertilizing it next spring and summer (I also cancelled my lawn service last spring).

Last spring I bought two rain barrels from Hamilton County’s Soil and Water Management offices. They came with hardware that connects the enclosed barrels to downspouts to gather water. I found a 3rd, identical barrel for free and built a platform from scrap lumber behind the garage for all three to sit on. I plumbed the barrels together so that the water from one flowed to the others. I hooked them up to the garage downspouts and dropped a little pump that had been gathering dust in the garage into one of the tanks. A hose from the pump ran to the yard-side of the garage. After the first heavy rain I was able to water the lawn and garden with rainwater. Those 3 tanks together hold 165 gallons of water, which could be gathered from one long day of rain.

I did the rough math, and it will take about 3 years for this rain barrel investment to break even and start saving me money, which I’m willing to wait for, but I’ve also got water for the plants during the next drought, which has value in itself.

And that garden did pretty well this past summer. There was romaine lettuce, spinach, and broccoli in the spring, and tomatoes, peppers, basil, and carrots in the summer. Mid-summer I planted more lettuce, spinach and broccoli for fall. The lettuce is done, the 2nd go-round of spinach failed (not sure why) and the broccoli is coming on. I also put in an asparagus bed this summer, which is another long-term investment. I can’t harvest any until the spring of 2011, but again, I’m willing to wait. The little wispy, fern-like starts are promise enough.

Environmentalists will say I’m helping the environment because I’m growing my own food at home and buying less stuff shipped across the country. That’s great. But I like doing it, regardless.

Last month our water heater died. So I made the leap. I had a tankless water heater installed5. Out with the old 50-gallon behemoth that wastefully maintained hot water all night while we slept and all day while we were at work. The new model only heats the water we need, and better yet, it never runs out. Should take about 3 years to break even on the extra expense, but it comes with a 25 year warranty, so for 22 years I’ll be saving money every month.

I also get $150 rebate from the gas company and a $780 federal tax credit for installing it.

Some of this stuff – the high efficiency furnace, the tankless water heater, even the compact fluorescent bulbs cost more initially than their less efficient counterparts. But I’m a firm believer in the old saying, “Penny pinchers pay twice.” The larger investment today means less expense in the long run.

And if it makes the environment cleaner, well that’s pretty cool, too.

1 comment:

  1. And you make it all sound so easy! Seriously,though, I'm all for what you're doing. I love the idea of water barrels. If only we could convince our association to let us have sheds, I can think of so much more we could do! Thank you for your inspiration!