Friday, November 20, 2009

Heating Our Home with Wood

This past summer we had our roof re-shingled due to the massive hail storm damage (see blog post from June). While the shingles were off and several plywood sections needed to be replaced, we had the contractors (my cousin's business Triple L contruction) insulate the attic. We brought the insulation level from R19 to over R40. This made a big difference in the energy needs of our house! It has felt cooler in the summer, and retains heat better thus far in the winter. Our windows are another story...single pane from 1969. Beautiful to look out of over the wooded landscape, but terrible in terms of energy efficiency.

In addition to the extra insulation, we also started to seriously consider using wood to help heat our home. Propane prices have increased greatly, along with all other fossil fuel prices. I don't think we'll ever see fossil fuel prices go back down. They are certain to increase greatly over time. The total price we pay now for LP each heating season has tripled in the 8 years we've been in the house! This, despite keeping nighttime temps quite low, and daytime temps low when we are not in the home during winter week days. We had installed a programmable thermostat which made things very convenient. However, we do live in a woods and do have some access to dead trees we could consider for heating our home.

Our ancient fireplace insert is quite small and not very efficient. It adds some ambiance and does help warm part of the living room area. After researching outdoor wood furnaces that can heat the home and the water we would use, we decided the $10,000 + investment was not the best choice at this time. We found an indoor wood burning furnace that will integrate with our current gas furnace for the best of all worlds. It is also EPA approved for efficiency (up 76%) and low emissions. We spent a lot of time working on the installation...and it still is not completely electrically installed. Beth has had visions of me as the father on The Christmas Story, going to the basement to kick, scream, and cuss out the furnace on a daily basis. The directions are very vague, and looks like we'll need to hire an expert to get it compeltely hooked up and running properly. It's really, really hard for me to admit defeat. But, I think we need to call in an expert before I get socked to death.
This has not deterred me from USING the wood furnace. Other than one day where the gas furnace malfunctioned and continously heated the house to about 85 degrees, we have not used any lp gas this season. The wood furnace does take more oversight, but I've been really impressed by how much heat and how long it will burn a load of wood.

The other aspect of this is that I need to get out there and cut, haul, and split wood a LOT more. this is a lot of time and muscle required, but also is good honest work (and might help keep me in shape). It feels good to know I can gather the necessary resource for heating our home locally. The trees are a renewable source of energy, as long as we harvest respectfully and utlize this sustainable source responsibly. On the economic side, I've estimated we'll save over $1,000 dollars a heating season (typically Nov - April) with the wood furnace. This is a big savings, and will basically pay for the indoor wood furnace in three years! Beyond three years, the savings will accrue.

I know not everyone can heat with wood, but it is an option that may end up being one of the better ways we can locally source our energy for heat. One of the best things we can do in current times is to re-forest the landscape. Trees do an incredible number of functions to made ecosystems healthier and more stable, and provide many useable products in the future. It used to be that a nation's wealth was accounted for based on the health and spread of its forests. With the vast increase in wood burning technology and efficiency, and if you have access to a wood lot, and research what you are doing, it can be economically and environmentally sound.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Our Pork Chops vs. Their Pork Chops Part II

So, What gives? How can Payless sell pork chops for half the price that it takes me to raise mine from scratch? It has a lot to do with the cheap food policy promoted by the federal government and agribusiness corporations, cheap but wildly potent fossil fuels, and the dietary choices we each make.

Industrial U.S. agriculture produces the pork chops you can purchase at most grocery stores such as Payless. And, it produces those pork chops on a wide scale based on intensive use of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuel, minerals, and metals coupled with huge government payment programs to industrial agriculture. $11.3 Billion for commodity subsidies in 2006 alone. (An agricultural commodity, such as pork, is usually a food product produced on a large market scale.) This figure does not include "disaster relief payments or conservation ag payments...both of which would be unnecessary in a sustainable food production system. Some estimates show that the average U.S. taxpayer pays out around $300 annually toward agricultural subsidies to Uncle Sam...which then is distributed to the agribusiness giants. This amounts to $600 for most families per year.

Humans have been practicing agriculture for at least 10,000 years, but it is only in the last 60 or so years that heavy industrialization has occurred. So much so, that farmers are extremely dependent on synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fossil-fuel powered machinery. As a result yields have greatly increased during this period of time, along with an increasing population of mouths to feed. Yet, the overall efficiency of production has sharply decreased when considering the amount of energy used in the industrial system. Scientists estimate that the industrial food producing system uses from 3 to 10 times as much energy as it produces. This means for every kilocalorie of food energy produced 3 to 10 kilocalories of energy were necessary to produce it and get it to the stores, where we drive to purchase it. (The ratio is much worse 35:1 for beef produced in feedlots compared with grains) How long can we keep this up?

What does this have to do with the price of pork chops in Payless? In order to keep the price of those pork chops low, in spite of the very unsustainable use of energy and non-renewable resources, our government pays out big bucks to keep this industrial system propped up and functioning. Who pays for it? You do. I do. We all do. And our children will pay dearly if we don't get it turned around soon. Although the pork chops at Payless were going for 97 cents a don't see the hidden costs behind those pork chops on the sticker price. If you account for all of the hidden costs they should cost us at least $6-8 a pound.

We very much need a level playing field when it comes to food production politics. If we had such an environment, I bet we would see a rapid move to sustainable food production. A system where we retain freedom of choice and quantity of foods we eat, but we pay the appropriate price for the food with the heretofore hidden costs included in the sticker price. My guess is that we would likely eat fewer pork chops and meat overall, but that when we do purchase foods they would be coming from local growers using sustainable practices. This would have the desired effect of creating more niches for local jobs, our dollars spent would circulate within the local economy strengthening our communities, providing healthier food and healthier people.

Somehow we the people must get our elected officials to support real change in food production policies. But, in the meantime, we can choose whenever possible to eat food produced locally...even though it means we pay out of pocket twice....once for the food and once for commodity subsidies of the food we are not eating. There should be no "cheap food policy" because there really is no free lunch.

Oh, "our" pork chops are pretty darn tasty! But I'm hoping to find a way to feed a pig or two more sustainably in the future such that the ratio of energy in to energy produced is even more favorable.