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Save Water: Turn Off Lights. Save Energy: Fix Leaks

Isn’t that title a bit mixed up?  Not once you understand the relationship between water and energy. Simply put, it takes energy to distribute water all over town as well as treating wastewater. Likewise, a considerable amount of water is required to produce energy. Approximately 4 percent of the nation’s energy is used in the distribution and treatment of water.  It’s no surprise that locally, SAWS is one of CPS Energy’s largest customers. So when you have a water leak, not only is water being wasted, it takes a little bit of energy to maintain water main pressure to feed the leak. Leaks are one thing. Letting water run too long is a more serious matter and does lead to measurable energy loss. According to the EPA’s WaterSense webpage, letting your faucet run for 5 minutes uses as much energy as leaving a 60-watt light bulb on for 14 hours.

Then there’s the energy required in heating water. If you are not already using solar energy to heat water, the energy required to heat water for bathing, washing dishes, and other uses is considerable. We know you are already saving some of this energy by using only cold water to wash clothes, right? If you are using electric energy to heat water, the national average indicates ¼ of your total electric use goes to heat that water!

What about the other side of the coin? How much water is used to produce electricity? Again, not counting renewable energy from solar, landfill gas, and wind, we get most of our electricity from coal-fired and nuclear power plants with a little bit now and then from natural gas-fired power plants. These are just ways to heat water to produce steam energy to drive turbines. As you might imagine, a lot of water is required by power plants to produce electricity. That’s why power plants are located next to reliable sources of water such as lakes. According to research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), for the Department of Energy, these types of energy generating plants (called “thermally driven, water-cooled energy conversion cycle” or “thermoelectric” plants) required 0.47 gallons of water for every kilowatt-hour of energy measured at the customer’s meter. This is primarily from water lost to steam evaporation during the energy production process, not water running through the plant and returning to the lake or other water source.  In San Antonio, CPS Energy claims that currently, 11 percent of our energy comes from wind, landfill gas, and solar sources. That means 89 percent of our energy is from thermoelectric plants. So, for our particular mix, it takes 0.42 gallons of water used for every kilowatt-hour of energy measured at our home electric meters (assuming no water is used in the production of electricity from our wind, landfill gas, and solar sources).

So, if leaving your water run for five minutes uses as much energy as leaving a 60-watt light bulb on for 14 hours, remember too, that leaving a 60-watt light bulb on for 14 hours means another 0.35 gallons is lost to produce that energy.  When you are careful about your water use, you’re saving energy. And when you save energy, you’re saving water. Makes you feel good to do both, doesn’t it?

Check on Design~Build~Live Often

Just up the road about an hour or so exists our good friends and green cousins up in Austin. Design~Build~Live is a group of folks who get together and sponsor a large number of affordable hands-on workshops in all types of natural building techniques. Their monthly meetings, similar to the meetings held here in San Antonio, focus on green and sustainable living issues. I have decided not to post all of DBL’s events here. I might miss a few that you might want to attend. Instead, please go directly to their website on a regular basis to get all necessary details for each event. Hit the link to their site (as well as the link to San Antonio Sustainable Living) found in the “Green Resources” section on the right margin of this page for the latest information of natural building events to be found in our area.

A Wolf in Green Clothing

This morning, I received from Amazon.com a recommendation for a book, “LEED Materials, a Resource Guide to Green Building,” by Ari Meisel. To be honest, the only thing I know about this book is the information provided by Amazon. I have not read this book. However, part of the information supplied by Amazon included sample images of the cover and inside sample pages of the book indicating specific materials and the LEED categories each of the materials can claim LEED points for.

One of the materials highlighted was a particular brand of artificial turf. “Artificial turf” is a euphemism for “plastic ground cover” just as much as “downsizing” is a sanitized way to say a company fired a lot of people.  So, besides the color, what’s green about plastic ground cover? The obvious answer is that with nothing but plastic to eat, there are no pesky bugs or weeds, so there’s no pesticides or herbicides needed. Hooray. With no need to grow or maintain anything, there’s no need for fertilizer, mowers, trimmers, and blowers. Big woop. Water for irrigation is forever eliminated. Everybody rejoice! We now have the ultimate green lawn solution handed down by DuPont et.al., to free us from our awful, problematic, and polluting lawns, right?     Not so fast.

For starters, with intelligent landscaping practice, beautiful lawns can be established with safe, natural methods that do not require chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, high water demand, or gas guzzling machinery. It’s possible, because examples of natural holistic landscaping exist. Lawns do not have to require more water than is expected to fall from the sky in any of our climate zones. Only those who insist on having monoculture lawns using turf species native to (usually) someplace else with more rainfall than us would require excess irrigation. Regarding plastic ground cover, some residential installations are actually watered by homeowners who report the plastic ground cover gets too hot.  Imagine that. Here in Central Texas, where cool is king, there are some who will give up cool grass lawns for hot plastic lawns. Why is the plastic hot? Simply put, physics and biology. Plastic ground cover is dark green and does not use solar energy to absorb carbon dioxide to produce oxygen. It just sits there, gets hot, and adds to the urban heat island effect.  Yes, that’s right, living plants absorb carbon dioxide (and other pollutants), produce oxygen, and reduce temperatures. LIVING PLANTS TRUMP PLASTIC EVERY TIME. Period. If I were writing the LEED guidelines (and unfortunately, I did not take the opportunity to comment on the documents as they were being written), I would not allow any project that installs plastic ground cover to earn any LEED certification. I am shocked that LEED points may be available for plastic ground cover.

Let’s talk about the health impacts of plastic ground cover compared to living plants ground cover. Look at the life cycle of both. Which is petrochemically based, contains lead (more on that later), needs to be totally replaced on a regular basis, and is not likely to be recycled? Uh huh. And which one has the capability to provide a wide range of beneficial inter-dependent biological cycles of flora, fauna, and water?

Let’s take a look at the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) summary on plastic ground cover. After testing a number of installations, and talking with representatives of companies that produce plastic ground cover, they determined the lead level in plastic ground cover might be transferred to children, but in acceptable amounts.  How much lead do you want your kids to be exposed to? The CPSC says that lead content of 10 micrograms per liter of blood is cause for concern. Any lead ingestion of 15 micrograms per day may lead to a lead content of blood at that concentration. To be fair, the major plastic ground cover manufacturers are now installing lead-free plastic turf. Still, in the summary, the CPSC recognizes that there are still older installations in place and that children should wash their hands after playing on these surfaces “especially before eating.”  In a letter written to CPSC Chairman Thomas Moore on May 15, 2008, Synthetic Turf Council President Rick Doyle expressed his appreciation that the CPSC would “ensure” that artificial turf would not be categorized as a “children’s product” and therefore would not be held to the same level of lead content limitation as required in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (HR 4040). For a look at this letter, scroll down to the bottom of this link.

Before this blog descends too deeply into details, I want to end with an observation relating to the question at the top of this page. Is the Ari Meisel book accurate? Are there LEED points available to the installation of plastic ground cover? If so, this is an outrageous example of poor green choices being awarded by the USGBC. I’m going to have to look once again at the latest versions of the LEED books to see if there exists language in the guidelines that reward this or any other greenwashing materials or systems. Perhaps I’m being unfair. I still believe in the core efforts of the writers of the LEED guidelines, that they have the best of intentions. I want to believe this is not a deception on the part of the USGBC, but merely another example of a product manufacturer able to use the language of the LEED guidelines to achieve favor; a wolf in green clothing in other words.  If that’s the case, hopefully, the USGBC will be able to find a way to rectify problems such as this. After all, plastic ground cover does eliminate pesticides, herbicides, and irrigation, but at what environmental cost?

Housing Trends 1950-2000

A builder once told me that the size of the average home has been increasing over the years because the size of the average family has been increasing. Rather than argue with him, I just mentioned that I doubted that that was the case, and I’d get back with him on that after doing a little research.

Going to the census records from 1950-2000, I found out that the size of the average single family house in 1950 was 983 square feet. By 2000, the average house size shot up to 2,272 square feet, a 231 percent increase! Maybe, the builder I was talking with might assume, that was to accommodate a similar increase in average household population. Let’s see. In 1950, the census determined the size of the average household was 3.0 people. Due to various social changes and predominately the divorce rate increase in the last half of the 20th Century resulting in two households per family for much of the population, the size of the average household in 2000 shrank to 2.5 inhabitants per house. That’s a decrease of almost 17 percent of house inhabitants during the same period the house size more than doubled. Or in other words, the average space utilized by a person in 1950 was 328 square feet. That includes that person’s share of all rooms, kitchen, hallways, and everything except for the garage. By 2000, the size allocation shot up to 909 square feet (a 277% increase).

Being able to settle the question of house size responding to family size, I went just one step further by determining the cost of construction per square foot. In 1950, the average house cost $11,000. That’s the equivalent of $60,700 in year 2000 currency adjusted for inflation. The average new house in 2000 cost $195,000. If you want to understand the most persuasive reason for designing an efficient house, using the figures I just outlined, the house built in 1950 cost the equivalent (accounting for inflation) of $20,200 per inhabitant. By 2000, the cost of a new house per inhabitant skyrocketed to $78,000 per inhabitant, almost a four-fold increase. It would be difficult to find anything else that increased at that rate in the span of fifty years.

This is not necessarily an argument for us all to live like families did 60 years ago, but honestly, was it really all that bad? Of course not. Sure families have more appliances and stuff today. And maybe there’s just no way you think you could live in a house 1/3 the size of the average house built today, but considering the cost of construction, if you could build a new house 2/3 or 1/2 the size of the average newly built house, think of all the money you could save. Possibly enough money saved to build a net-zero energy, high-performance house, I would imagine.  It’s worth a thought.

Arranging the Deck Chairs

Once the mighty liner hit the iceberg, arranging the deck chairs had no effect on the inevitable sinking of the Titanic. What does it matter if you are agonizing between bamboo or linoleum for flooring choices when your house is going to be a bloated six thousand square foot in size and you will be driving 150 miles a week just getting to and from work? There are some big-picture considerations that must be addressed before patting yourself on the back by ordering flooring from rapidly renewing resources.

As transportation costs rise (and no one argues they will fall), it becomes more important with regard to the number of trips you and your family will have to take requiring some kind of gasoline. It’s not so much an issue if you home school (or don’t have children), can work from home, and can grow your own food.  I’m certainly not in that category, but these are increasingly more important considerations. Once you have found a conveniently placed location to build, how much energy will you need to produce? That depends first of all on how energy efficient your family will be. Consider lighting, air conditioning/heating, appliances, construction of your building envelope (roof, walls, windows, and doors), the application of renewable energy systems, and of course, personal energy use habits. Even properly orienting your house on your site can make as much as a 15% difference in energy use. Don’t forget water. Will you be able to be connected to municipal water? Depending on your location, consider rainwater harvesting, even if it’s just for irrigation purposes. Related to that, what will your landscape look like? If you do not already have an established varied mix of native plants, establish one. Forget plants that cannot thrive in our climate, and definitely do not encourage invasive species.

Okay, once you have made sensible choices on these and a handful of other big-picture considerations, then you can obsess with fun things like paint color, furniture, and finishes.