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The G.O.R.E. Project: Getting Your House Off Oil

The following article is excerpted from The Carbon-Free Home by Stephen and Rebekah Hren.

Puttering around your own home, you may think the possibility of freeing it from fossil fuels to be somewhat remote. As our culture has progressed down the route of enslavement to fossil energy, a massive amount of infrastructure has been cumulatively built all around us to tap into its high energy flows. You’re probably wondering, “Is it really possible to live a life without fossil fuels that doesn’t resemble the squalid existence of a peasant in the Middle Ages?”

The answer, of course, is a resounding “Yes!” We do not have to abandon civilization and live in a cave or tiny cabin to retrofit our lives for fossil-energy independence. It will take dedication and, yes, initially, much time, effort, and money. As a reward it brings freedom from the polluters and the war machine, the shifty politicians and their moral compromises to “preserve our American way of life,” a life, in fact, of utter hopeless dependence. And as the price of fossil fuels climbs steadily upward, instead of being dragged into poverty you’ll save more money year after year. With every step it brings a lifting of the shame that haunts us, the shame of being a member of one of the most intelligent species on earth but seemingly unconcerned with the health of the planet or its other residents. Once you’ve made up your mind and planned out your strategy, you can once again hold your head up high as you hike through the woods, knowing you respect each plant and animal you see and are acting accordingly to stop the world from burning. As your home sheds its fossil-energy shackles, you will know that as the last great oil fields descend into senescence and the mad addicts’ scramble for the dwindling supplies of crude becomes ever fiercer, your own home and life will stand as a beacon of hope to all those around you being dragged down into the quagmire. Instead of despair they will see a lifeboat to salvation.

Everyone who picks up this book will have a different style of house in a different climate and setting, and a different set of skills. Nevertheless, some general guidelines will be helpful.

If you are a homeowner, you must assess whether your home is worth converting. You are considering venturing out on a long-term commitment that will cumulatively require a lot of time and money. If you worked hard, two or three weekends a month, say, it will probably take two to three years. Working a more leisurely weekend every month or so it could take five or more years to retrofit a home. Even if you do a lot of the work yourself, you will probably still spend a rather large quantity of money. To make our home carbon free, we spent $40,000 on materials, and we did the work ourselves. If you hire out a lot of the work, the cost could easily be twice that, although you will greatly speed up how fast the work is accomplished.

How well built is your residence? If you live in a deteriorating trailer, it’s not going to be worth it to spend this kind of energy and money on retrofitting it, since trailers and many other prefab homes typically don’t last more than a quarter century. But if you live in a prefabricated home or are just renting your home, don’t panic. Although you won’t want to launch a fullscale conversion to carbon freedom, there are plenty of simple steps you can take to reduce your use of fossil energy, as we’ll explain later in this chapter.

If you live in a solidly built home that is way out in the boondocks, then you probably have to drive almost everywhere. Making your home fossil-fuel free when you have to fill up your car twice a week with gasoline isn’t ideal, but it’s still a huge improvement. Suburban and exurban development poses special problems because by its nature it requires vast inflows of energy, mainly because where folks live has been segregated from where they work, shop, and play. We’ll talk about some broad solutions to this dilemma in chapter 11, but don’t forget that any reduction in fossil-energy use benefits both you and the planet. Of course, if you live in a suburban or rural setting because you’re near your means of employment, then that’s a different story.

Ideally, then, you own a well-built home that is as near as possible to where you work, shop, and play. This first step is quite a large one! It could easily take a few years to save up the down payment and to find such a home. But part of the motivation for us in writing this book is the hope that we can teach others from our own mistakes, like building an energy-conserving home in the middle of nowhere. If you do not start out with a home that meets these criteria, you will undoubtedly get stuck partway down the path to fossil-energy independence. Then to make it all the way could likely mean starting over from scratch.

If you are renting or not yet in the home of your choice, there are still quite a few projects that can be done. Building a solar cooker or an evaporative cooler for your food, for example, can be a great introduction to many of the fundamental principles of heat and renewable energy, and you can take them with you when you move! Peruse the list of renter-friendly projects in the “Table of Projects.”

Conservation comes first. For homeowners and renters alike, unless you have already been extremely conscientious in your energy use, the first step toward a carbon-free home is conservation. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit in this area, including many simple behavioral adjustments that can dramatically lower your energy use. The energy diary described in chapter 3 is a great way to familiarize yourself with your own specific energy budget. In the same chapter we also discuss installing a whole-house minute-to-minute electricity meter, which is another great way to learn where all that energy is going.

Familiarize yourself with your energy and water bills. How does your consumption compare to the average in your area and to that of your neighbors? Before you seriously undertake any of the larger renewable systems described in this book, your own household’s consumption should be at least a third less than the average. We have met and read about lots of folks who live on less than a kilowatt-hour of electricity a day per person, about one-tenth of the American average of 800 kWh per month per household.3 Once you get your own consumption down low enough, solar electricity and other renewable systems suddenly become much more affordable, because you’ll be able to get by with smaller systems and the price will come down accordingly.

Finding time and money. A carbon-free home may seem desirable, but you may be wondering how on earth you’ll find the time and money to do it. It’s more than likely that the reader of this book is not average, but on average a two-adult household owns two cars and each adult watches four hours of television a day. A recent study4 found that if a two-adult household could eliminate one of those cars and instead bike and use public transportation the annual savings would be over $6,200! So if car and television use were cut in half, the average two-adult household would have 28 hours of extra time a week and over six grand a year for retrofits.

Many of the projects described in this book start saving you money as soon as they’re installed. Insulation and window and door sealing are very inexpensive and can save tremendous amounts of heating and cooling energy. Solar hot-water heaters have higher up-front costs, but once you install one, you see a $20 to $40 monthly savings on your utility bills. Every time you spend money on an energy-saving device, you pay a moderate up-front fee but then have much lower monthly energy costs. The average household spent $2,100 on energy bills in 2007,5 much of which you will eventually eliminate. For example, we spend less than $50 a year on our energy bills, primarily on ethanol (grain alcohol) for our cookstove. We have only one car, and that runs on waste veggie oil, so we save the $2,700 of average vehicle fuel costs as well. Combined, this amounts to $11,000 of annual savings ($6,200 plus $2,100 plus $2,700). And as energy costs rise, this savings will only increase.

Another financing option is your local bank. Investing in energy-saving devices that will actually pay for themselves is a no-brainer for many lenders. Utility companies are also surprisingly liberal with loans for energy-saving devices. These financing methods can allow you to install renewable energy systems while still paying roughly the same monthly bills as before—except now there is actually an end date to when you have to stop paying! And don’t forget to look up the numerous federal and state tax breaks available (see the resources section of this chapter for tax information online databases).

Beyond these options, quitting the fossil-fuel habit requires reorganizing your life to match your new priorities. While many of the projects listed in this book are hard work, there is often an element of creativity in hands-on construction that produces a sense of satisfaction once completed. There are hobbies that are productive and enhance your quality of life, and there are hobbies that are a drain on your finances and time. Reconfiguring one’s life, hobbies, and priorities to go with the energy flows of nature rather than being opposed to them is, we believe, inherently self-rewarding and consciousness-expanding, and can save you a bundle of loot to boot.

Making an action plan. From a practical standpoint, devising a broad plan of how to proceed, along with an estimated budget and timetable, will help ensure your eventual success. We highly recommend labor trades as part of your plan. Labor trades with others working along similar lines not only save money but also will greatly expand your knowledge. It’s often the case with many of the larger projects that twice as many hands makes things go more than twice as fast. In most cities and towns, there are several environmental groups meeting regularly. These are great places to start looking for potential labor trades. A few nationwide groups are listed in the resources section.

As you draw up a plan, you’ll likely need to address landscaping issues. Do you have access to enough sunlight? You cannot live off your annual income of solar energy in the shade. It is a sad fact that if large trees block most of your sunlight, chances are you will forever be dependent on fossil fuels to run your home. A landscaping strategy that harvests some of the larger trees for timber, firewood, and mulch and replaces them with shorter edibles like fruit trees should be adopted. Other landscaping issues can provide quick energy relief for very little effort, such as trellising vines for shading. These are discussed in chapter 10.

Part of the planning process is to evaluate your skills in various fields. Where certain skills are lacking, stick with the simpler projects. For instance, if you have very few plumbing skills, then you could start out with something like installing a rain barrel or some simple graywater diversion. If your carpentry skills are wanting, then you could try starting out with an evaporation cooler or insulating your fridge. For each activity, we’ve listed the general skill level required, so you’ll know if it’s something you should be trying to tackle or not. Almost every library and used bookstore has loads of how-to books on things like plumbing and carpentry that cover the basics of these trades. Picking up a few of these and perusing them will teach you a lot very quickly, and probably pay for the effort involved in obtaining them in a few minutes by preventing common mistakes.

Broadly speaking, it’s better to do some things before others. Some activities have a higher return on energy saved per cost and time, while doing certain things first will hinder other activities. You probably don’t want to spend a great deal of effort on biogas production for a relatively small amount of cooking gas when you have not yet reaped the much more substantial energy rewards from installing a solar hot-water heater, for instance. Likewise, putting up photovoltaic panels on your roof and then deciding you want to have a metal roof for rainwater-collection purposes would mean having to redo much of the PV installation.

In very general terms, here are some thoughts on what we think should be addressed sooner rather than later:

  • Behavioral changes: These are simple and reap immediate rewards. They include steps such as replacing incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents, air-drying clothes, and lowering the temperature setting on your water heater.
  • Adding insulation: Almost every house could use more insulation. Generally speaking, the older your home, the more poorly insulated it was initially. Priority should be given to attics, where heat escapes, and to northern walls, where lots of cold comes in. Unless you live in a very warm climate, Zone 8 or higher, you must have insulated walls to ever hope to achieve fossilenergy independence. Of course, what you’re trying to keep warm or cool is your body, and insulating should start here, as should cooling. An extra sweater, wool socks, and some thermal underwear when it’s cold and fans and cold showers when it’s hot are amazingly effective.
  • Reducing the use of electric-resistance heat: Wherever you can eliminate electric-resistance heat (turning electricity into heat), the energy savings will be substantial, even if you have to replace this source of heat with another fossil fuel. Burning coal, turning it into electricity, transmitting it hundreds of miles, and then turning this energy back into heat, whether it’s for your toaster, your heat pump, your dryer, or your water heater, results in inefficiencies that waste more than three-quarters of the original energy.6 Address these electricity-to-heat activities first, preferably replacing them with behavioral changes or renewable energy systems. If you can’t live without them, replacing these appliances with gas-fired versions can still significantly reduce your use of fossil fuels.

Installing active renewable energy systems such as solar electricity should be one of the last things you tackle, even though they are undoubtedly some of the coolest things on earth and you’ll be champing at the bit to get to them. Active systems are distinct from passive solar designs that collect solar energy and turn it into heat without any moving parts. As you reduce and/or eliminate superfluous electrical appliances from your home, you may even find your need for any electricity to be not worth the trouble. More than likely, you’ll want a few photovoltaic panels (or, if your situation is right, a wind or water turbine), but making this the last priority will ensure that you have to spend as little money as possible on these very expensive items. The energy return on solar electric panels, while undoubtedly positive, is relatively low compared to lots of simple conservation strategies. The energy return is definitely much lower for solar electric panels than for solar hot-water panels. Between the two, we strongly recommend you direct limited funds to solar hot water first.


  1. Energy Information Administration (www.eia.doe .gov).
  2. American Public Transportation Board.
  3. Alliance to Save Energy.
  4. U.S. Department of Energy—Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: “A Consumer’s Guide to Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy,” and the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability “Overview of the Electric Grid.”

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