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Friday, March 04, 2011

My teachers weren't lazy, incompetent, greedy, overpaid or thugs

By Kenneth Barbalace

For over two weeks now I have been reading about the unprecedented peaceful protests in Wisconsin over their governor's efforts to bust public employee unions, particularly teacher unions, and to cut teacher compensation. What I find most distressing about this is that to achieve the goal of busting public employee unions in states across the U.S., nationwide there has been in the media the demonization of teachers as lazy, incompetent, greedy, overpaid thugs. I remember Mrs. Hale from 4rd grade and she was none of these – neither were Mrs. Jones, Mr. Baker, and so many other teachers I had, whose names slip my mind. Now granted, at the time I thought some of them were mean for always assigning lots of homework, but how many kids prefer homework to playing?

For a multitude of complicated reasons that I won't go into I moved very often growing up and as a result went to many schools. I'd estimated that I attended over a dozen different schools from kindergarten through college and as a result I've had too many teachers to count. What I remember from the blur of childhood is how kind, caring, and dedicated the vast majority of these teachers were. What I also remember were the simple well worn cars that so many of my teachers drove. Very often the teacher's parking lot could have passed for one of those bad credit used car lots we have all seen.

Growing up I attended all kinds of schools, both public and private, in so many parts of this country. I even attended Little Wound School in Kyle South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which still stands out as one of my favorite schools. From all of the schools I attended and all the teachers who taught me, I can safely say that teachers don't teach for the money. They teach because they love children and want to dedicate their lives towards helping build a brighter, better educated future.

I am not in a union, never have been and probably never will be; rather I am self employed. Like so many American's, my family struggles to stay in the middle class. I pay self-employment taxes, state and federal income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, and I probably pay taxes on my taxes. Guess what, I don't mind paying my taxes because I want the things those taxes pay for. I want well trained and dedicated fire fighters and police officers protecting my town. I want good roads that get plowed after every Maine snow. I want environmental laws and regulations that are enforced to protect the water I drink and the air I breathe. If a disaster strikes my community, I want to know there will be someone there to help us recover. Most importantly, even though I do not have kids, I want the children in my community to get the best possible education.

Quite simply, I want quality dedicated public employees. Yet if we keep denigrating working in the public sector and cutting their benefits, we will not attract and retain the talent we need to provide the services we want. I've never known a wealthy teacher, fire fighter or police officer. I've never seen a teacher driven to work by their own chauffeur. It wasn't public employees who made the credit default swaps and other financial schemes that caused our financial crisis. Public employees are our friends and neighbors; they face the same struggles the rest of the ever shrinking Middle Class face. We need to stand up for our neighbors and their right to collectively bargain and we need to stand up against the corporate greed and tax dodging that got us into the current economic mess. Fire fighters and police officers protect what we have, public works employees maintain our infrastructure, and teachers are an investment in our future.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Home Weatherization Paying Off Big Time

By Kenneth Barbalace

Over the past year or so (2009-2010) we undertook a series of weatherization and energy conservation projects on the home we bought in 2009. The first thing we did before undertaking these projects was to have an energy audit conducted (you can read about the energy audit here). Although the audit cost us $415, it was a very important first step in weatherizing our home as it helped us prioritize projects to make sure we used our weatherization budget in the most cost effective manner possible.

I'm way behind on my plans to document the projects we undertook, but now that I have a year's worth of energy usage data collected, I do have some hard figures to report.

We replaced our boiler at the beginning of November 2009, replacing a 20 year old oil boiler with a 96% efficient gas fired boiler. We don't have actual numbers on the fuel usage of the old oil boiler as we had replaced it before having gone through a winter with it. With that said the disclosure provided by the previous owner stated that she used 1,200 gallons of fuel oil per year (for heat and hot water). In our first full year with the new boiler (2010) we used 760 gallons of propane (for heat and hot water). Due to the BTU difference between a gallon of fuel oil and a gallon of propane, this works out to the equivalent of around 500 gallons of #2 fuel oil. We didn't even take extreme measures to save on heating by reducing our thermostat to sweater temperatures; rather keep our thermostat set at a comfortable 72ยบ F.

That's right, based on what the previous owner reported, we have already reduced our home's annual fuel consumption by around 58% and this reduction is accomplished without sacrificing comfort.

It should be noted that due to contractor delays and call backs, the bulk of our weatherization projects weren't completed until March of 2010, so three of the months of propane usage (the coldest months of the year) were before weatherization was completed. Our weatherization projects during the winter of 2009-2010 included adding insulation to the attic, applying two inches of spray foam insulation to the rim of the floor joists in the basement, and air sealing wall/ceiling joints in the attic. This past summer we gutted and totally renovated our bathroom, including replacing the exterior wall insulation. In the fall of 2010 we undertook more air sealing projects to eliminate drafts between the wall and floor joints, better air seal doors/windows. We also undertook repairs to some of the weatherization completed by our weatherization contractor that had come undone.

It will be another full year before we see annual fuel consumption figures that include all of the weatherization projects we have thus far completed. However, I can compare December 2009 (the first full month on our new boiler) to December 2010. In December of 2009 we used on average 5.03 gallons of propane per day or approximately 156 gallons for the entire month. In December 2010, we averaged 3.48 gallons of propane per day or around 108 gallons for the month (the equivalent of 71 gallons of #2 fuel oil). This works out to around a 31% reduction in energy consumption as a direct result of weatherizing our home.

In real dollar terms, in December 2010 propane cost us $3.059/gal or about $270.60 for the month. If we had not weatherized our home and as a result had used the same amount of propane in December 2010 as we did in December 2009, it would have cost us around $477.20 or $206.60 more than what we actually spent. We don't yet know what our annual energy savings are. If, however, December of 2010 is any indication, it is very significant. Certainly from a monthly budget perspective the amount we pay on our weatherization loan is way less than what we would have spent on the extra energy we would have been using otherwise.

You may not be able to control how much energy costs, but you can certainly control how much energy you need to use. Even if you have to take out a modest home improvement loan to pay for it, weatherizing your home can be one of the best investments you make. You may not be able to reduce your energy costs by as much as we have, but done right your savings could be substantial. Conducting an energy audit and carefully planning out your weatherization priorities will help ensure that the cost of servicing the loan is less than the amount of money you will save on energy costs.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Using cool nights for a cooler home during the day at no cost

By Kenneth Barbalace

In cooler climates like here in Maine, even as we swelter through hot summer days we still typically enjoy cooler, more comfortable nights. Even when temperatures push above 90°F (32°C) nights can drop to around 70°F (21°C) at night. This temperature swing provides for a cheap and easy means of helping to keep a home cooler on hot days without the need for air conditioning.

The strategy could be summed up with four words: "which side is cooler." At night when the temperatures drop below indoor temperatures, open all your home's windows to allow in this cooler air. In the morning before work, and/or before the outside temperatures rise above indoor temperatures close all the windows and in unused rooms, close the blinds. Closing the windows will keep the hot air out and closing the blinds will reduce solar heat gain.

The "which side is cooler" tactic will be particularly effective if your home has been weatherized to reduce drafts, has plenty of insulation in the attic and has proper attic venting. The attic insulation and venting is particularly important as they will reduce heat transfer from attic to the living space and reduce attic heat gain respectively.

Over the past couple of weeks we have been routinely experiencing outdoor temperatures over 90°F (32°C) by mid morning. Despite this, but deploying the tactic of opening windows at night and closing them in the day, we've been able to keep our home's indoor temperatures below 80°F (27°C). It may still be warmer than we prefer inside, but it is not uncomfortably hot and we haven't felt a desperate desire to go buy an air conditioner.

Obviously this tactic won't work if brutally hot days are followed by sweltering hot nights. For those climates with cooler night time temperatures, however, this could tremendously reduce/eliminate cooling bills while providing for a comfortable home even on really hot days. Best of all, there is no cost to deploy this home cooling strategy.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Replacing windows & doors usually isn't best way to save energy

By Kenneth Barbalace

With all the home energy efficiency tax credits being offered up to home owners, I have observed a predictable uptick in advertising related to home weatherization goods and services. Not surprisingly, much of this advertising is targeted towards getting consumers to buy new energy efficient doors and windows. The thing is is that for most consumers replacing doors and windows WILL NOT result in the best possible return on investment (ROI) in regards to cost vs. energy savings. For most consumers, the best possible ROI on the money they spend on home weatherization is normally to add a significant amount of insulation to their attics (up to R-50 or 15" of fiberglass/cellulous) and sealing drafts in the home (e.g. simply adding weather stripping to doors/windows, caulking door/window trim, and sealing other sources of air leaks).

Window and door sellers go all out to sell replacing windows and doors with new energy efficient ones, but it must be understood that in the most extreme cases, going from a single pane of glass to a triple pane Low-E II window only takes that window from an R-1 to an R-3.5 in a best case scenario.

The best time to install energy efficient windows and doors is either when a house is first being built OR when the existing windows/doors need to be replaced because they have reached the end of their useful service life (e.g. 30+ years old).

Unless the windows are really old and can't be effectively sealed, the most cost effective means of dealing with inefficient windows is to caulk and weather strip the windows and maybe add the clear heat shrink plastic window weatherization film over windows in the late fall. These are cheap fixes and when properly done will provide just as much energy savings as replacing the windows, at a fraction of the cost.

We recently had an energy audit conducted on our home and did a lot of weatherization work on it. In our case, upgrading our windows to Low-E energy efficient windows would have had a return of investment of 1.4% and would have taken 72+ years to pay themselves back. The best use of our money was to insulate the attic and our rim joists and reducing air heat loss (sealing wall/ceiling joints, putting gaskets behind electrical wall plates, sealing window/door trim, etc.). Our energy audit projected a ROI 34.8% with a payback of 2.9 years on properly insulating our attic, and a ROI of 29.5% with a payback of 3.4 years for reducing air heat loss. Quite simply, adding proper insulation and air sealing our house will have saved us enough money in energy costs within the next 5-7 years to actually pay for replacing our windows and doors where as replacing our windows and doors will never save enough money in our life time to pay for the other weatherization work even though the costs would have been similar.

Don't be fooled by advertising, when it comes to weatherizing your home and reducing your energy costs. Do your homework and get an energy audit before undertaking any projects to make sure the money you spend will truly save you the most possible money on energy costs. If your primary reason for wanting to replace your windows and/or doors is to save energy, take care of other weatherization projects first.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Could Maine be Energy Self Sufficient in Ten Years?

By Kenneth Barbalace

Yesterday I attended a meet and greet for Pat McGowan who is one of seven candidates who are running for the Democratic nomination to be the next Governor of Maine. One of his key agenda items is to continue Maine on its path to energy self sufficiency within ten years. This would be accomplished through harnessing a diverse array of renewable energy sources.

McGowan's stated that this is totally achievable as within about a year Maine could have a maximum capacity of 400 megawatts of electricity from wind energy. This would be equivalent to almost half the power capacity of the 900 megawatt Maine Yankee nuclear power plant when it was operational. This would be enough electricity to power somewhere around 150,000 homes.

Based on data I compiled from the Natural Resources Council of Maine website, Maine currently produces a maximum of 175 megawatts of wind power, with an additional 202.5 megawatts under construction and up to 229.5 megawatts currently in the permit application process, with even more projects being studied. All told, the short range maximum wind generating capacity either currently operational, under construction or undergoing permitting is over 600 megawatts or around 1.6 billion kilowatt hours per year of electricity. This would be enough electricity to power the equivalent of nearly 250,000 Maine homes. Assuming permitting went reasonably smoothly all of this power generating capability could be online within a couple of years, with more proposed wind farms still in the works.

From permitting application to fully operational Maine will have brought online 2/3 the electrical generating capacity of the now decommissioned Maine Yankee Nuclear power plant. This will have happened in a fraction of the time it would take to permit and build a modern nuclear power plant for a fraction of the cost and none of the long term risk. Furthermore, the wind farm projects are spread out across the state bringing desperately needed local jobs to communities across the state. Best of all, this will be zero CO2, clean, renewable energy with none of the hazardous waste or pollution that is produced by nuclear or fossil fuel based power plants.

Could Maine really become energy independent within ten years? Well, at least from a power generation standpoint, the answer is yes, this is a very achievable goal. Maine won't be able to do it on wind power alone, but if wind generation capacity is coupled with solar, hydro and tidal energy projects we could become the first state in the U.S. to have a 100% renewable energy grid. We will, however, still need to work really hard to reduce our dependence on oil, especially when it comes to heating our homes.

Maine Wind Farms and Production Capacity

Source: Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Last updated: 3/4/2010

LocationOwner OperatorMax Capacity (MW)Number of TurbineskWh/yr Produced/ ProjectedPhase (year)Equivalent # of Maine homes supplied
LiveBeing BuiltProposedLivePermit ApprovedPermit Applied For
Mars Hill, AroostookFirst Wind42.028200725,000
Stetson Ridge, Washington CountyFirst Wind57.038169,269,000200923,500
Beaver Ridge, Freedom, Waldo CountyPatriot Renewables, LLC4.5312,500,00020082,000
Kibby & Skinner Townships Franklin CountyTransCanada66.066.043357,000,000200950,000
OakfieldFirst Wind51.034135,000,000201020,000
Lincoln, Lee, Winn, Burlington & Mattawamkeag, Penobscot CountyFirst Wind60.040168,000,000200923,500
Stewart-Bald Mountains and Briggs-Burnt Hill, Highland Plantation, Somerset CountyIndependence Wind130.548360,000,000200948,000
Jimmey and Owl Mountains, Washington CountyFirst Wind25.51781,468,000200911,500
Vinalhaven, Knox CountyFox Islands Wind, LLC4.5311,600,0001,500
Spruce Mountain, Woodstock, Oxford CountyPatriot Renewables, LLC20.01155,000,00020108,500
Saddleback Ridge, Carthage, Franklin CountyPatriot Renewables, LLC34.519106,000,000201016,500
Sisk Mountain, Kibby and Chain of Ponds Townships, Franklin CountyTransCanada45.015120,000,000200917,000

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