Posted by: Li Ling Young | August 27, 2012

The Energy Freakshow

Hi folks.  Welcome to our stream of consciousness about living in a resource-constrained world.  In Spring 2012 we bought our first house.  Now we’ve got a lab for our energy curiosities.  We are: Nicholas, an electrical engineer, designer and installer of renewable energy systems with Building Energy; Li Ling, an energy consultant with Vermont Energy Investment Corp.  Also living here: two shorter humans with great skin who occasionally eat a meal with us, and a dog.

The original energy freakshow is a building where desperate attempts to manage energy are manifest in the building’s systems: a house with a coal burner in the basement, a kerosene space heater in the kitchen, a wood stove in the living room, electrical heat tape on the plumbing, window quilts, a humidifier and, needless to say, high energy costs.  Auditing homes over the last dozen years Li Ling has seen an entertaining array of such oddities.  But as I write this and consider what else might be an energy freak show, I see that nearly all our buildings, and even products like a television or a car, are freakshows in their way.  Using energy bluntly to solve problems has become widespread among all industrialized processes.  Did you know that the glass doors on beverage coolers at the corner store have heaters in them to control condensation?  A heater in a cooler!?  And then there are freakshows like this…  We recently went shopping for a wood stove.  It was a hot day (the cheapskate in me thought this would be a good time to shop for a wood stove), so after we looked around at the wood stoves arrayed in front of the store I gratefully headed indoors assuming it would be air conditioned.  No disappointment there, but as I moved into the showroom, what should I see but three or four of their models gaily fired up with gas or wood burning away.  I shuddered to consider how the cooling system had been sized for that store, and how hard it must be working on an August afternoon with a few wood stoves working at cross purposes.

Is our house an energy freakshow?  Not more so than any typical suburban house built in the 50’s.  There is the wiring that makes Nicholas yelp when he gets a look at the inside of an outlet box, and there is the carcinogenic insulation in the attic; there is the heating device the size of a smart car in our basement and the faucets that gush water so fast it splashes onto the floor.  But for the most part these are well within the bounds of standard, unimaginative building practice.  What we plan, however, is a new kind of freakshow: one where careful integration of systems allows a highly simplified and energy-effective climate controlled residence.  We’re freaks about energy.  We measure the amount of condensate our water heater makes; we know that our cookstove is the biggest connected load; we graph our electrical usage day-by-day; we know when it’s less energy intensive to have the window shades open and when to have them closed; we cook pasta with the lid on (well, only Li Ling does this.  Nicholas is Italian and would never compromise the pasta like this).  We’re geeked about energy, and that’s what makes our house an energy freakshow.

If the money doesn’t run out, and the lead paint, asbestos and sagging framing don’t get the better of us, the energy systems in our house should be simple.  This is the real experiment: how simple can we make it by thinking hard about how everything interacts and being willing to make unconventional decisions.  The house might not be a freakshow, but the process already is.

Kindly,

Li Ling


Responses

  1. Very interesting, and well written!

  2. Congratulations on this exciting collaboration! It draws naturally upon your two converging and well informed viewpoints on what makes for clean living today in your 1950s’ suburban home. As Li Ling put it, ”If the money doesn’t run out, and the lead paint, asbestos and sagging framing don’t get the better of us, the energy systems in our house should be simple. This is the real experiment: how simple can we make it by thinking hard about how everything interacts and being willing to make unconventional decisions. The house might not be a freakshow, but the process already is.”

    Looking forward to more of the show!


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