Monthly Archives: July 2007

Consumption challenge update: Simple changes cut my water bill in half!!!

Our new water bill just arrived, so I thought it’s a good time to weigh in on the water component of the summertime consumption challenge.

I’m surprised and excited to report that we have reduced our water usage by two-thirds and cut our bill in half when compared to the previous few months.

Sounds like we cheated right? The two changes that likely most affected the decline were 1) replacing a leaky sprinkler valve, and 2) fixing a leaky toilet.

Here are the updated charts, with the bold part showing the consumption challenge months:


I didn’t realize the impact of these two water problems, and I would have caught them sooner had I paid more attention to my bills. My recommendation to anyone interested in reducing their water consumption (and bill) is to do the following:

  1. Start your investigation at the top. Take a look at your bills and do a few quick calculations to figure out whether your consumption really makes sense. Could you really by using 400+ gallons per day, or is there a problem somewhere? Awareness goes a long way to curbing consumption. See how this chart illustrates:
  2. Meet your meter. Find the lid, pop it off, and with everything in your house off, check to see if it’s running. If it is, you know you have an issue.
  3. If you suspect something odd, call your utility company. I did this and was surprised at how helpful they actually were. They checked the meter for me free of charge, and have offered a refund when I show them documentation that I fixed my leak.
  4. Seek out high bang-for-your-buck changes. No matter how short a shower I took, I would never have dented my overall consumption without fixing my leaky toilet. Focus on fixing the most egregious water wasters, like overwatering your lawn, and you’ll see a bigger change than with other habits.

Insulation 101

Heating and cooling makes up more than half of a typical home utility bill. A high-impact, low-cost way of making cool air last longer is through insulation. A well-insulated home’s utility bills can be 30% lower than those without. Most homes aren’t well-insulated — 80% of those built before 1980 have less than the recommended level of insulation, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Here in Texas where the sun beats down on the roof and elevates attic temperatures, making sure the attic is well-insulated has a great impact on A/C usage.

How much insulation should I have?

It depends on where you live. Insulation is rated in R-values, which is a measure of heat transfer. The higher the better. Check out this map and chart from the DOE:



Where I live I’m supposed to have R49 in the attic.

How do I know the level of attic insulation I have now?

If you have an unfinished attic with an access door you can pop up into, take a ruler and a flashlight and make note of what you see. Here’s a link to a chart that you can check to find out what you have in your attic.

I have about 5 inches of blown-in fiberglass insulation, which equals about R15. An interesting rule of thumb is that to get to R38, which is recommended for a lot of people, it would take 10-15 inches of insulation, depending on the type.

What do I need to add?

Subtract the R-value you determined you have from your recommended R-value, and that will give you the amount it would make sense for you to consider adding.

There are several approaches to adding insulation. You can hire someone to do it, which will cost from 25 cents to $1 or so per square foot installed, depending on the amount and type added, or you can do it yourself. Home centers sell the blow-in cellulose kind for $6-7 per bag. The R-value you get out of a bag depends on how thickly you blow it in. At R13 thickness, one bag covers 40 square feet. Thus, for my 2000 square foot home, adding R13 insulation would require 50 bags. When you buy more than 20 bags, the home center will rent you the blower for free.

Air leaks and weather stripping

IMG_0063, originally uploaded by espeedy123.

If you were wearing an Armani suit, would you wear a clip-on tie? If you bought an super hi-tech HDTV, would you hook it up to your old VCR?

Likewise, if you spent a small fortune installing a fancy front door, would you adhere brown sticky foam around the perimeter of the edge of it to seal out air?

Thus the hot topic for today — the Hands On discussion of options for weather stripping your exterior doors.

OK so maybe I’m a snob. I encourage you to comment and tell me as much. I just know that I’ve priced a lot of doors lately for the flip house, and I own a pretty decent (if neglected) front door. I know how much they cost, and I just can’t get into that foam. And the foam stuff is what I keep seeing energy experts talk about.

I know I need weatherstripping. I don’t need a blower door test to tell me. I can feel a bit of air around the door, and in a couple spots I can see sunlight. And according to Lowe’s, a 1/8″ space around an exterior door is equivalent to a 2×2 inch hole in the wall!

I visited the two major big box hardware stores and found foam and some vinyl. I think this is perhaps one of those items you might need to shop for elsewhere. I checked a premium hardware store here in Dallas called Elliot’s, and a roll of brass flashing long enough to go around my door was just under $20.

Here are some resources I found helpful that I thought might help others:

Rain barrel story runs in Dallas Morning News

rain barrel story, originally uploaded by espeedy123.

Check out my story on rain harvesting in today’s Dallas Morning News.

Tour my flip house

Complete with Spanish language music.

Four reasons to hire a sprinkler repair guy instead of doing it yourself

fixing the sprinkler valve, originally uploaded by espeedy123.

Yes, it’s great to be able to do stuff yourself. And yes, this is supposed to be “Hands On.”

But sometimes, it’s easier and better to hand a project off to someone who knows what they’re doing.

One example? Sprinkler repair. I would advise anyone who thinks they have a problem with their automatic irrigation system to hire a professional to repair it. I knew a couple weeks ago I had a slow leak on my property, and I suspected the sprinkler. Near a couple heads on the side of the house the ground seemed wetter than it should be, but it was tough to tell given the 45 straight days of rain we’ve had. I logged onto my favorite referral site Angieslist and found a popular company called Billy Jack to come take a look.

I’m glad I handed this project off, and here’s why:

  1. The repair guy diagnosed my problem immediately, and it wasn’t what I thought. Knowing as little as I did about sprinklers, I figured maybe the head was broken or a pipe busted near the head. Turns out the problem was a broken valve 50 feet from the head itself.
  2. Unless you installed your system, you may possibly have trouble even locating where some of the parts are you need to fix. My system has 10 zones, and for each zone there is a separate valve, buried in the ground and covered with a round plastic cap. My thick St. Augustine turf had completely obscured these — I never even knew they were there. To find them, the repair guys put some sort of electrical meter in the ground, and used headsets to somehow detect valve locations. Not very DIY.
  3. The system involves water and electricity. A dangerous mix! An electrical current is required to open and close valves. The repairers knew where to cut it off. I didn’t.
  4. Do you really want to dig a bunch of holes in hundred degree heat? OK so this isn’t a very positive DIY attitude, but it is true. Why waste time digging holes when you could spend time on other more fulfilling DIY tasks!

Five curb-your-consumption behaviors you can start right now

When it comes down to it, there are just two ways to curb your consumption:

  1. Change the products/systems around you, or
  2. Change your behavior

It’s a pretty simple idea, but I think it’s an effective way to start breaking down a really complex problem — how do we go about consuming less?

In case you don’t want to (or already) replaced some bulbs/installed low-E windows/bought a rain tank, here are…

Five curb-your-consumption behaviors you can start right now

  1. Raise the thermostat one degree. Over half of most home energy costs during summer go toward cooling. Raising the thermostat one degree can result in significant savings, some say up to 10%, on your overall energy costs.
  2. Only do full loads. The average American family of four washes 540 loads a year, which consumes up to 21,000 gallons of water. The average family also does more than 150 dishwasher loads annually, which uses about 1,500 gallons. Doing two fewer laundry loads a weekand one fewer dish load a week could save 4,500 gallons of water/year.
  3. Hand wash dishes like Martha does. Washing dishes is one of those things that no one ever really sits you down and tells you how to do it. Maybe it should be. A kitchen faucet can distribute upwards of 3 gallons per minute, and I can’t tell you how many times I visit someone’s home and see them wash with the water running. The right way to do it is with a hot wash tub on one side, and a hot rinse tub on the other. Just like Martha suggests. Continue reading

Organized truck = organized contractor? Hmmm…


Catching up on my TiVo I noticed that NYC real estate guru Barbara Corcoran shared her tips this week on hiring a contractor. Among other tips she suggests that a disorganized truck indicates a contractor may make a mess of a job. I am not so sure but will start making note of who rolls by the flip to test this theory.

She makes two very good points about terms and payment — retain one-third of the intended price until the job is totally finished, and discuss up front what change orders will cost. I think we may get burned on the latter there, and I’ll blog about that soon.

Seven ways to find a better contractor

eddie at work, originally uploaded by espeedy123.

This is a photo of Eddie, our do-it-all contractor we’ve hired to work our B. street flip project. He’s quite handy, and his regular daytime gig is working on a crew that renovates high-end Dallas homes. He’s a family contact, and we were lucky to find him with capacity to do this job on his off hours. Another bonus — he pretty much started the very moment we took ownership of the house. In this photo, he’s rebuilding a shower valve, which I’ve come to find out is “extra” work not included in his initial bid, but that’s another post altogether…

Despite my growing sense of unease about these ill-defined “extras,” I’m not sure what we would have done without him. I tried calling other contractors to find out what they’d do the same job for, but I learned quickly how difficult they are to find for small scale, quick turnaround jobs like this one. I find it personally frustrating because there’s work I’d like done on my own house, and I’m not really sure who to go to, given that Eddie doesn’t travel to where I live near downtown.

Apart from Eddie, I’ve not hired any other general contractors, but based off of hiring professionals for smaller jobs like plumbing, and asking people who are in the know, here is my advice…

Seven Ways to Find a Better Contractor

  1. Join Angieslist. This user-supported site facilitates finding contractors based on real ratings and feedback from customers. Homeowners enter info about their experiences with contractors. Theoretically it should help you make a better decision. And, if a contractor totally rips you off you can give them Fs and hopefully save someone else from your misfortune. It costs about $50 a year.
  2. Troll for contractors. Within a two block radius of my house there are 3 major renovations going on. I’ve walked through all three in the evening when they’re vacant, and I’ve approached the workers at two of those during the day to get their business cards. Think of it as an on-the-job interview. When you poke your head in during the day you can pretty accurately asess the vibe. If there’s three guys sitting around drinking Budweisers, steer clear. If you can’t believe how much better the place is looking than your own outdated digs, it’s worth asking them if they’ll help you out too. Continue reading

Five ways to spend your spare $85

This week the Dallas Morning News reported that the unusually cool and wet weather has resulted in lower utility bills. Based on the averages published in this story, people spent about $85 less in June of this year than the same time last year on water and electricity.

The writer takes the piece in an odd direction midway through by asking a consumer credit counselor what people should do with that money. Save it, she said, not surprisingly.

My suggestion? Spend it on something that will reduce your energy and water bills, whether the weather gets hot or not! Here are five ideas for what to do with your spare $85.

1. Buy 10 CFL light bulbs.

They use 70% less energy than their incandescent counterparts and last 10 times as long.

2. Buy a programmable thermostat.

For every 1 degree you lower the thermostat, you save 10% on electricity.

3. Get an A/C tuneup.

A large percentage of these have efficiency problems, inadequate airflow, or other problems that could be solved to increase utilization.

4. Plant a tree in a west facing exposure.

A U.S. energy dept. model says that 3 trees planted in the proper places could save the average house $100-200 / year on energy. Learn more at the Pioneer Thinking website.

5. Get an insulating blanket wrap for your water heater.

It costs about $20 and reduces standby heat loss. Instructions are here.