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It's Always Something

Gilda Radner had it right. It's always something.

For about a year, I have been plodding along in an attempt to convert my charming but energy-inefficient Victorian house into a charming and more efficient home. Like most Americans, I don't have the money to start afresh and build the perfect solar-powered water-saving straw-bale house. And truthfully, I don't have the inclination either, because I like my place. I'm like most Americans — indeed, most people in the world — hoping to make the best of what I have.

That means I'm stuck with retrofitting, which means that I'm also stuck with figuring out for myself what will work and what won't. Contractors love new buildings; they have control over labor, costs, and profit, in a way that retrofitters don't. Put up a new stud wall and you know what you've got. Tear off the plaster in a century-old house and — well, you never know. One time in Alaska I tore off some nasty old paneling on the first floor and found that the previous builder had run out of money at right about that point. There were no actual studs in the wall. What was holding up the second floor was a series of "studs" nailed together from leftover pieces of 2x4. One such "stud" was made of fourteen pieces, none longer than 10 inches. Replacing them with actual studs, while not having the house fall down around me, was quite the challenge.

So retrofitting doesn't frighten me, although I didn't go into this project thinking it would be easy. Over the past year I've made some modest improvements in my house's carbon footprint. I've installed more fluorescent bulbs, especially in high-use areas. I've cut down on using lights, enjoying real daylight more often. I've installed floor switches on machines that drain electricity even when they're off, and I'm pretty good about remembering to use them. I've replaced four of the leakiest windows, having found a provider who will actually sell an individual window rather than a whole-house lot. But I have not, I'm afraid, made good progress on some of my more ambitious plans: whole-house fan, new water heater, and more insulation in the walls.

For one thing, it's hard to get professional help with these larger projects. It took me months to find a solid, informative plumber who was willing to price out an on-demand water heater for our place. I had such a heater in Alaska, and it worked superlatively for years, using about six bucks of propane every month for all our hot water. In Chicago, our current gas-fired water heater has a 50-gallon tank that it keeps continually hot, the better to provide our bath when we return from a ten-hour workday or a two-week vacation. I deplore the energy it wastes heating water, but turning off the gas would be neither easy nor safe, and I deplore blowing myself up even more.

Last fall, when I found Pat Kilcoyne, a plumber from a fishing town in the west of Ireland that I know well, I was almost delirious. He works with a friend, David Sullivan, whose ancestors must have also come from the seaside, because the name is known as one of the great Irish families descended from seals (okay, twist my arm: the others are MacNamara, Flaherty, and Conneely). David has an alternative energy consulting practice in Chicago, and he was delighted to pass along Pat's number. Pat and I had a great chat, as much about Ireland as about water heaters. But I was just about to leave to take students to Ireland for an arts festival, and Pat would follow not long after to do some ancestral sleuthing, and so we agreed to talk six weeks later.

One thing led to another, and it was three months before I got back in touch. By that time, Pat had retired. But his friendly son Neil was just as eager to help. We set a date, and Neil came out to delve around the basement and explore water-heating options.

The Kilcoyne company had installed several on-demand (or tankless) hot-water systems in Chicago, for people who wanted to conserve energy. Neil knew the system and the costs. But — and Neil shook his head when he told me this, because he tries to find alternative energy systems when he can — they weren't working very well. Neil asked me about my Alaskan system, a Paloma® that heated water from a tank buried in the front yard. Such systems are fairly common in Fairbanks, where the water may be unpalatable or unreachable by conventional wells. Burying our tank below the frost line cost us thousands of dollars less than drilling a well down into potentially undrinkable ground water. And the system worked like a dream.

But in Alaska, the water in the tank was warmed slightly by the 55-degree temperature below frostline. In the city, Lake Michigan water pours through the pipes, in winter, at a temperature very close to freezing. The tankless system thus must heat the water 20 degrees more than my Alaska heater did. That heating costs energy — and money too, of course. Neil had recently removed tankless heaters for people who were disappointed by getting lukewarm water at a higher-than-expected price. Also, city water additives caused the systems to clog and to need servicing.

What were my major concerns about the current system? Neil asked. I told him that I didn't like heating water when I was nowhere near using it. I told him I was interested in saving energy, and that I wasn't interested in examining payback periods because the future of energy cost was too unpredictable. He told me that he'd do some research and get back to me with ideas.

He got back to me this week. His first idea had been a gas-fired system with an easy on-off ignition, so that we could simply turn the thing off when we were away. But he found that the systems were oversized — made not for homes, but for industrial-sized buildings. However, there was a smaller electric unit that could be turned off with a wall switch. It would cost around a thousand dollars, not counting the extra electrical work needed to pop a switch up to a handy location. I have to be honest with myself: If I have to go into the basement to turn off the water heater, I'm likely to "forget." Making systems easy to use is going to ensure that they ARE used.

So why am I invoking Gilda Radner? Because, just when I'm thinking I've been offered a reasonable way out of my hot-water confusions, I realize that I have to consider the cost of heating the water in the tank whenever we've been away. If I turn the heater off when I leave for work, will it devour more energy to heat back up when I return? Will there be any savings at all except when we are away for several weeks? Would it be better to heavily insulate the current water heater, invest in a whole-house fan for summer cooling, and stop using the air conditioner?

So I'm back to the calculator. Prices on the new water heaters will go up in June, so I must decide soon. But swapping one heater for another, at a total cost of perhaps $1,300, is acceptable only if it results in some savings of energy. At this point, I'm far from certain it will.

It's always something. Stay tuned.

Graphics Credits

  • water heater, courtesy of G. Kozakiewicz.
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