The Billing History Shows How the Water Flows in this Old House

An analysis of 14 years of water bills for this house shows some interesting results. The big surprise is in its surprising consistency.

For various reasons, the 14-year period of study includes residency of a wide variety of people, from hard-core eco-conscious to careless energy hogs and from traveler to homebodies. The house has also been home to a broad range of total number of residents. At times the house has had as few as two residents. At other unusual times as many as eight. Most typically, the house has been home to three or four people, or an average 3.5 people.

Water use has been plotted by both total household use, and per person. While there is quite a range of water use patterns, overall there is surprisingly little variation of water throughout the year. There is not an obvious seasonal pattern overall. The few aberrations represent toilet water leaks, or unusual outdoor gardening projects.
water use total for household

If we throw out the aberrations, the 14-year average of household water use is 11.39 CCF (hundreds of cubic feet) every two months or 4,262 gallons each month.
water use per person

The individual water use on average for the same period is 3.36 CCF every cycle, or 1,368 gallons a month.

Water is coming to be recognized as a precious resource. It’s price from the City is beginning to reflect its value, and the cost will almost certainly continue to rise. All this data on water use is helpful for moving forward toward water conservation as we green this bungalow.


First Solar Year!

It’s official!  It has been over one year since we installed a solar electric system on the house.  It has been quietly working away producing electricity every day, with virtually no technical problems.  So far, so good!

We were not quite net-zero on electricity this year.  Energy use in the house was higher than normal and the energy production was about 11% lower than expected.  Perhaps the lower production was due to the record-breaking rainy spring this year.  But even so, the Washington State solar incentive for the 4.034 kWh produced will reap a bonus of $605 in addition to the free electricity.

System Rating Average production if in Germany 3.680 kWh
Expected Target Average production for Seattle 4.536 kWh
Actual for First Year Production for year ending 8/31/2013 4.034 kWh

Daily energy production varied quite a bit all through the year, depending on weather and day length. The peak production day this year was 25.5 kWh on June 18, 2013.  The lowest day produced a mere 0.3 kWh on November 19, 2012.  The daily average through the year was 11 kWh. The chart below shows the overall energy production pattern, as well as the variability.

Graph of first year energy production

Solar electric production chart 9/1/2012 to 8/31/2013

Now we begin another year. Hopefully by the time we complete the next lap around the sun, we’ll have a better idea what it will take to be net-zero for electricity–or even a completely solar-powered home.

Solar Electric Production in Rain or Shine

What is the difference between a sunny day and a cloudy day?  Up to four times the amount of solar electric power!!

Here is a comparison of two days in August with very different weather.  On August 13, 2013 there were clear blue skies all day.  Two days later on August 15, there were dark clouds and rain all day.  Although the day length was almost identical, the solar production was dramatically different, as this graph below shows.

Solar power rain or shine

Side-by-side comparison of power production for sunny day and dark cloudy day

The clear-sky sunny day produced 21.4 kWh of power, with peak production of almost 2800 watts.  The rainy day with thick dark clouds 2 days later produced only 5.1 kWh — about one quarter of the power — with peak production of 1100 watts.  Not every rainy day is as dark as it was on the 15th and even then there was decent power production, but clearly clear skies makes a big difference.

Being nice to Bees: Moving Problematic Nests

Before reaching for that can of bugspray or calling the exterminator when you discover a nest of bees in your yard, consider being nice to the bees!  It is widely known that honeybees have dramatically declined in numbers for somewhat mysterious reasons to the point that agricultural production has been threatened.  It is less well known that bumble bees are also endangered and that they are also important agricultural polinators.

When bees build a nest some place which is problematic, beekeepers can safely remove them and find a new home for them.  This summer when bumble bees built their nest in my worm bin, it was problematic for me.  Bumble bees are not aggressive — except when defending their nest.  Each time I opened the worm bin lid to use it, they became aggressive!  It became impossible for me to use the worm bin.  My worms were starving and I couldn’t  compost!  I called for help from Jerry the Bee Guy.

Bee removal expert ready to get to work!

Bee removal expert ready to get to work!

This bee expert captured one of the worm bin bumbles and determined this was Bombus Californicus — the California Bumble Bee, which is common throughout the west coast from California to British Columbia.

Bombus Californicus

Identifying bumble bees as Bombus Californicus

He scooped the honey-filled wax nest out of the worm bin bedding and put it in a plastic bucket with a lid.  Some of the bumble bees came along with it.  Then he used his insect net to catch the bees flying around.  He also captured bees with his special bee vacuum he created from a shop-vac, a plastic water jug, and flexible hose.   In total he captured about 30 bumble bees, including several large queen bees.

Bee Vacuum

Vaccuming up stray bumble bees

He’ll set them up in a new nest location several miles away, so they won’t come back here!  The queens he captured will hibernate this winter and then fly away in the spring to start new bumble bee nests.  Here’s wishing those queen bees good choice of nest sites and a productive season next summer!

Solar Electric Report for a Rainy Spring in Seattle

The Spring report is in… and it’s showing lower-than-expected solar electric production for the sunny side of the year.  Could this be caused by the almost record-breaking levels of rain during the month of April?

Solar electric production from March 22 through June 21 this year was 1,464.04 kWh (1.46 MWh).  This means an average of 15.91 kWh per day during this 92-day period — considerably less than the 24 kWh average daily production I had predicted in an earlier post.


The peak production day was 25.5 kWh on June 18.  The lowest day was April 27 with only 3.38 kWh of electricity produced.  Seattle got almost 6 inches of rain during the month of April — twice the recorded average for April, and just shy of breaking the recorded-history record of 6.53 inches.  Even the month of May had more rain than average.  The question is, what was June’s excuse?

Spring Solar Electric Production
A chart of solar electric production between March 22 and June 21, 2013.


Urban Polinators: Bees in Your Backyard

Most residential yards have ornamental flowers which offer free nectar to bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  Some yards may even have fruit trees or berry bushes which need pollinator insects for fruit production. An urban environment needs pollinators for sustainability.  This means bees in your backyard!  A healthy outdoor environment needs bees, and bees need a healthy outdoor environment — all the more reason never to use pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or any other toxins in your yard!

Bumble Bee

A Bumble Bee pollinates a California Popppy

Bees need a safe place to call home.  Urban honeybees are usually required by law to be kept in specially-made mobile hive boxes and are subject to various rules and regulations intended to keep harmony with neighbors on small city lots.  The City of Seattle allows as many as four honeybee hives per lot.  To accommodate typical property line setbacks, a rooftop is the best place to put the hives.

Honeybee hive box on industrial roof

Urban beekeeper inspects honeybee hive on rooftop in industrial area

You can purchase or make nest boxes for bumblebees, mason bees, and other types of bees.  Ideally the bees will chose to use your bee house in your carefully selected location, rather than taking up residence in your attic, exterior wall, or somewhere else that would be very problematic.  But if you do find bees living somewhere undesirable, or honeybees in a swarm outside their hive, local beekeeper volunteers are willing to come collect these valuable insects and safely take them away to a new home.


Vermicomposting: Fast, Easy Composting — with Worms!

Got worms?  If you don’t, consider getting some!  Vermiculture is a fast easy way to turn your food waste into rich compost fertilizer to help your garden grow.  Table scraps, vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds, pizza boxes, used paper towels and napkins can be combined with newspaper, cardboard, leaves, or lawn clippings to feed the worms in your worm bin.  In just a few weeks you will have fine finished organic compost which is highly desirable for vegetable seedlings.

Seattle Tilth in the Good Shepherd Center by the Community Garden at N 50th and Sunnyside sells red wiggler worms for vermiculture.  For $11 you can pick up worms-to-go in a paper take-out container.

A properly maintained worm bin has an earthy smell like the freshly watered rich soil of a potted plant or the aroma of a commercial green house.  Worm bins take many forms and sizes.  They can have multiple modules or one single compartment.  They can be made of wood, plastic, cloth, or pottery.  They can be kept outside, in the garage, or even inside your house.  They can even be cleverly disguised as a piece of furniture for your kitchen or livingroom!Large Worm Bin

The key to a happy healthy good smelling worm bin is keeping plenty of bedding which is moist but not soggy.  For more information, it’s hard to beat the classic book on the topic:  Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof.


Worms and worm bins are an important piece of the sustainability solution, because they make composting your own garbage so easy, even for homes with limited outdoor space.  Some cities (like Seattle) have a special garbage pickup for compostable food waste which cuts down on garbage going to landfills and create a valuable compost source.  But the financial and environmental costs for the pickup trucks can be avoided completely by composting garbage yourself at home with worms!

Solar Electric Production on the Dark Side of the Year

Having a solar electric system is great during the sunny summertime, of course!  But what about during the dark rainy winter season?  Here’s a look at some of the data on our electric production so far, with a focus on the first half of the dark side of the year when the nights are longer than the days.

A Dark Quarter Data Sample

91-Day Data Sample (9/22 – 12/21): Equinox thru Winter Solstice

In brief, it looks like we’ll get 22% of our annual electric production during the darker half of the year. Between the Autumnal Equinox (September 22) and the Winter Solstice (December 21), our Enphase Energy reports show a total energy production of 477 kWh. That means a total dark-half production of 954 kWh — assuming the period between December 22 and the Vernal Equinox (March 21) is similar.  In a previous post, I estimated a total annual production of 5265 kWh (based on a 30-day sample around the Autumnal Equinox).  Logically, the sunnier half of the year should produce around 4311 kWh, or 78% of the annual production.

Enphase Energy Report 9/22-12/21

Electric production 9/22 – 12/21

Within the 3-month dark-half data sample there was a peak day production on Sept 27 of 15.1 kWh and low day on Dec 19 of 0.33 kWh.  The average daily electric production was 5.24 kWh — about enough to power a single 1970’s-era refridgerator (or 4 newer Energy Star models).  In contrast, the expected sunny-side average daily production will be almost 24 kWh.

In conclusion, don’t expect the electric meter to run backwards much during the off season.  But it’s still producing something usable — even during those dark rainy winter days.

Superinsulating the Attic: An easy way to improve home energy efficiency

One of the easiest ways to dramatically improve energy efficiency in an older home is to insulate the attic.  It’s a job that takes an insulation professional only a couple of hours to do, and besides the benefit of saving energy over time, it immediately makes the home more comfortable.  And quiet!!

Inches and R Value

Inches & R

Since heat rises, attic insulation is far more important than wall insulation.  Typically, most houses in American today have 3 to 6 inches of insulation in the attic.  This translates to an insulation value of about R-10 to R-15.  Adding enough insulation to make the attic “superinsulated” (14 inches of insulation for R-38 value, to 22 inches of insulation for R-60 value) typically costs around $1 per square foot.  Our recent project of adding R-30 cost less than $1000, and for this investment we expect a payback in 2 to 3 years.  We chose to finance the project through our account with the gas utility, so that if we were to move the next residents would take over the payments on the investment along with being able to reap the energy savings benefits.  According to an Energy Star study, the typical American house could use as much as 20% less energy for heating and cooling after some relatively inexpensive and easy improvements.  This typically means a 10% reduction in total house energy use.  These improvements include sealing common types of air leaks around the house as well as adding R-23 of attic insulation and insulating the floor over crawl spaces.

R10 Attic Insulation

Spraying fiberglass into an attic which had less than 4 inches of insulation (approx R-10)

Above and below are the BEFORE and AFTER shots of our recent attic insulation project.  We hired the job out, and were very glad we did!  The professionals have access to better equipment and have the experience to be able to spread the insulation around evenly.  The new fiberglass matterial feels like synthetic cotton balls.

Superinsulated Attic

An attic newly superinsulated with fiberglass insulation (R-40+)

Our recent project included adding ventilation baffles to ensure good air flow in the attic.  The final step was sealing and insulating the attic access hatch.  Our attic hatch is a square peice of sheet rock.  It was sealed by putting a rubber weather-strip around the perimeter.  For insulation, the access hatch was just surrounded by strips of insulation batts, and then one batt laid across the top.

We have been appreciating the quiet and comfort of having a superinsulated attic.  Now we wish we had done this sooner!

Going Green as an Investment Strategy

There are many environmental benefits to a housing model of on-site power generation, energy conservation, and alternative water use.  And it turns out, it’s not such a bad investment!

For the Earthship Biotecture model of green building, the only utilities needed are rainwater and sunshine, provided for free by nature.  These extreme-green buildings are totally off-grid, for energy, water, and wastewater.  The utility bills are essentially $0.  For growing families, retirees, or anyone else on a limited budget, that’s a big plus!  For those considering doing green retrofits, it’s an interesting challenge to incorporate similar “green” elements into an existing house, both for the environmental benefits and the financial ones.

No utilitiy bills for earthship biotecture building in Taos NM

Look Ma, no utility bills! Earthship Biotecture building in Taos, NM

For typical houses, utility costs vary quite a bit, of course, by the house, the residents, the region, and the utility company.  But let’s assume that between water, sewer, gas, and electric utilities for a house, the average cost is more than $165 a month — more than $2000 year.  And let’s assume it’s possible to either completely unplug from all these utilities, or at least reduce the annual bill by $2000 a year through a green retrofit.  While that type of retrofit might be an interesting science project, would it be an extravagant waste of money?  How much could one spend on the retrofit and get a good financial return?

To earn a perpetual annual income of $2,000 from an investment getting 5% return, that requires an investment of $40,000.  But saving money is a better investment than earning money, because you don’t have to pay taxes on money saved! A penny saved is more like a penny-plus-a-third earned — depending on your tax bracket.  To pay that $2,000 a year utility bill from taxable income, you need to earn around $2,500, which at 5% would require a $50,000 investment.  So if you think 5% is a good rate of return for an investment, then you could justify spending up to $50,000.

But wait, it gets better!  There are rebates, tax credits, and tax deductions available for many of these green investments.  That $50,000 investment might only end up costing $40,000.  So that 5% rate of return, just became 6.25%.

And what about utility rate increases?  Most likely, utility rates will increase faster than the rate of monetary inflation. To meet new regulations, catch up on deferred maintenance, accommodate development, and encourage conservation, inflation-adjusted utility rates could easily double just over the next decade.  So 10 years from now, that $40,000 investment would be earning the equivalent of $5000 a year — or a 12.5% return on investment.  Not too bad for a low-risk investment with a high-yield for a sustainable future!