Autumn in the North Cemetery.

Sixty miles west of Boston, Massachusetts there is the small New England town of Sturbridge. Located at the junction of I-90 (The Mass Pike), and I-84 it has become known as the "Crossroads of New England". The town was first settled over 300 years ago, and like other small New England towns it has grown just enough over the years to be in a difficult place today. How do we embrace the future without forgetting how we got to our present? How do we attract the right kind of growth, and maintain who we are? And, what about our culture out here in Central Massachusetts?

These pages will cause one to think about how to protect what we have, our future direction, and how to move on in the very best way.

Those thoughts, and other ramblings, will hopefully inspire more thought, conversation, action, and occasionally a smile...

...seems to be working so far

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Changing Systems Is Way Easier Than Changing Behaviors

Our house was built in 1858.  In the attic there are log rafters, and in the basement the floor joists are logs as well.  Over the years indoor plumbing was added, electricity wired from room to room, and central heating installed.  Each service matured over time, and some new innovations melded with the old.  Our boiler is not that old, but works very well with the old cast iron radiators in all the rooms.  The old iron plumbing has been slowly replaced over the years by copper pipes, and most recently PEX (polyethylene) piping.  They all work well together, but as time goes by, one generation of pipe is replaced by the most modern pipe.

We stopped using the boiler in our furnace to heat our domestic hot water in 2012.  First, in July we converted the new bathroom over to on demand hot water use, and in November we converted the entire house to the on demand system since the electrical cost had not gone crazy, and our oil consumption was heading down.

On December 28, 2007 we received our last oil delivery for that year for a grand total of 1273 gallons for the year.  This was our first full year in our home.  The oil was not only used for heat in the heating season, but for domestic hot water needs year round.  That's a lot of oil.

Now, keep in mind that the house is over 150 years old, and although there have been improvements over the years, it still is an old house.  An old, uninsulated house.  The only insulation we have found is a some old rock wool insulation in the attic flooring, a bit of blown in insulation in one exterior wall, and none in any of the other walls.  Essentially there is plaster and lathe, air space, and the exterior wall.  Not a good combination for New England winters.

At the end of 2007, on December 14, we had 19 windows replaced with Harvey insulated windows.  The house insulation would have to wait a bit.  The following year we used 264 less gallons, and at an average cost of $3.36 per gallon that year we saved $887.04.

Not bad, but I expected more.  The following year, 2009, we saved an additional 399 gallons of oil.  How?  I think we were just a lot more vigilant, and the set back thermostat we had installed the previous year was making a difference.

In 2010 our oil usage went up to 972 gallons.  That winter must have been a cold one, but still, I expected to save oil, and here I was using more.  Still, no insulation in the walls, just the new windows.

So, at the end of 2011 we saved 29 more gallons from the previous year at 943, but it was not as low as it had been in 2009.  It was time to think about the insulation, or make some other changes.

We planned to renovate the second floor bathroom in 2012, so the insulation took a back seat again, however, if the renovation was done right, we could still save oil.

After talking to our heating oil man, and getting a whole bunch of ideas about different hot water systems we opted to go with an on demand electric system.  I had always thought it made little sense to heat water in anticipation of using it, instead of as needed. Heating in anticipation was a hold over from when plumbing was moved indoors, and an option was given to heat the bath water on the stove, or have it on hand in the boiler for when you needed it.  Very modern and convenient at the time, but not very thrifty today.

At the end of 2012, after converting our hot water heating needs to an on demand system, our oil consumption has gone from the high in 2007 of 1273 gallons to only 709.6 gallons in 2012!

That is a 44% saving in oil with only the new windows, and a new hot water system.  Imagine what the savings would be like if we had put insulation in the walls!

So what about the electric usage?  Did it go up with the on demand hot water system, and eat up all those oil savings?

We started up the on demand hot water system in late July of 2012.  Our kilowatt hours for July of 2011 was 868, and in 2012 went to 988.

         2011                                                 2012

September  626 kWh                     September   533 kWh
October      561 kWh                     October       519 kWh
November  420 kWh                     November    833 kWh
December  723 kWh                     December    603 kwh
January      570 kWh                     January       889 kWh          whoops.

What the heck happened in November of this past year is beyond me.  Too early for Christmas lights, but I think someone discovered the new bathroom ceiling electric heater.  It was also the month that the whole house went on the on demand system, but that happened late in the month, and the following month was much lower.

At the end of 2012 we not only saved oil, we had saved more electricity in the final month of the year than the previous year by 120 kWh!

I was waiting to see what the last 30 days had wrought, and today I found out.  (Insert frowny face here)  Our electricity (kilowatt) usage went way up compared to last year, and last month.  Since our electrical usage is not dependent upon the winter weather, and our kWh usage was very good last month, the things that would actually increase the amount of kWh used would be things that we have complete control over.  There is a portable electric heater on the sun porch that we use to occasionally bump up the room temperature.  Apparently, we have been using it far more than would be wise.  We hardly used it at all in December.  The bathroom ceiling heater is used, as it should be, but I think we need to be a bit more judicious before we flip the switch.

ADDENDUM:  December 2012 National Grid bill was for 603 kWh over only 25 days for 24.12 kWh per day, and January 2013 kWh was 866 over 35 days equaling 24.7 kWh per day.  So the electrical use did not increase substantially compared to December, or November.  January 2012 had 603 kWh over 25 days for 19.89 kWh/ day.  Comparing the two months of January, a year apart, shows there was an increase in kWh usage by 19%, and an oil savings of 25%.

(sigh)  The Human System is the hardest to regulate.

Seems that all the systems are all functioning as they should, and intended to work, but it the human system that actually needs tweaking.  Which leads me to a few additional changes that need to be done.

The first is a behavior change. Of course, if staying warm in the bathroom when bathing, or showering is important, and we can tolerate the increased electricity bill every month, then so be it.  Within reason, of course, and if our carbon foot print increases to a size 12 EEE, and harmony is maintained, well then, so be it.  It will become the comfort vs. planet argument, and that is one that is fought in every household.

In addition to what I've already mentioned above, decreasing our oil consumption is a goal we work on everyday, and are both on board with.  We also don't blast the heat all day. We'll turn it up if the house gets around 61.5 F during the day, or if it gets a bit chilly in the evening.  At night,  it sets itself back to 58 F.  We don't have it go much above 64-65 f.  Iron radiators have a way of letting the heat linger longer than forced hot air.  Mary will also throw my sweatshirt at me, if I complain about being too cold at other times.  She's got a good aim, and she usually hits my hand as it's reaching for the thermostat.

Effective human system at work there.

Insulation is something I will look more into this coming year.  If you know of anyone, locally, that blows insulation into older homes, drop me a line.  We always prefer to go with a reputable, local company.

In the meantime, the next purchase is to buy a Nest thermostat for the house.  Not familiar with the Nest thermostat?  It was developed by the man responsible for designing the iPod, and iPhone.  Many of those that helped with the development were former Apple people.   To learn more about just how this team re-invented the thermostat read this article, and how it can reduce your heating bill beyond what a traditional setback thermostat can, view the video below.

Review: The Second-Generation Nest Thermostat

In the meantime, check out this video.  The thermostat is available at Lowe's.

We can save both money and energy by a spending a little, or a lot to do it.  Whether it be new windows, new hot water system, new thermostat, or new behaviors, they all will work.

Good luck, and let me know how you've done, and I'll let you know where the kilowatts fall next month.


  1. I don't know if your electric meter was read on the same schedule as mine, but my December bill was for 25 days, my January bill was for 35 days. Perhaps that explains your up and down monthly usage.

  2. Thank you for pointing this out. Duh, Wally. I refigured the kWh usage , and posted an addendum within the original post. A ten day difference in the service period would definitely affect the numbers. Something so simple. I appreciate the oversight monitoring. :-) I will also post an update as well.

  3. Insulation should have been your first upgrade. Checkout or call (866) 527-7283 and schedule a free energy assessment. They can set you up with cheap insulation and rebates/special financing. The program also includes free cfl light bulbs and programmable thermostat (not the Nest though). The assessment is free and should be the first step in any energy improvements to your home.

  4. MassSave did send a team out and do an assessment in the fall of 2011. The insulation cost through them was somewhat more than the estimate we had received a couple years prior. They offered great advice, and excellent programs.

  5. I have two of the Nest thermostats, Wally. They also work with my Android OS phone. Of course I have the interface on my Android and iPad tablets. They are amazing little devices and it's great to be able to turn up the heat when you're several hours away from the house so it will be warm when you arrive home. We go away frequently, so this is a very nice feature along with telling you what's going on at home while you're away. It was a little hard to drop $500 on two thermostats, but with two zones in our home, I wanted to get the complete picture. Here's little secret: If you stop by the post office, you can get a coupon for 10% off anything at Lowes. It may be only $25 off per thermostat, but every little bit helps.

  6. Thank you for the first hand information! I am sitting in 80 f heat in Kissimmee right now and trying hard not to think of what awaits us on our return this weekend. Looks like a trip to Lowes is in order, but first the Post Office!!


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