Our Path to a Green Home

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Tompkins Weekly 8-20-2012
by Shira Evergreen

When my partner and I moved to Ithaca from New York City in 2008 it was with a goal to live as sustainably as possible. We went on the Green Buildings Open House tour organized by Cornell Cooperative Extension and, inspired by what we saw, started exploring the possibility of building our own eco-friendly home from scratch, using a combination of salvaged and natural materials like wood, earth and straw. After months of investigation, we decided that we didn’t have the resources to buy both land and materials, not to mention the countless hours involved in planning and building.

In our minds, the next best thing was to buy an existing house and make it as energy-efficient as possible. While this would mean getting a mortgage, an idea that we were resistant to, we realized that this was the best path to home-ownership for us.

We found a great little one-story house on  .79 acres and secured a mortgage with Alternatives Federal Credit Union and an additional smaller low-interest loan from Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS) that would be deferred for three years. We also took their first-time homebuyers class (invaluable!) and applied for a forgivable grant that would mean we would get over $30,000 of work done to make improvements to the house. As long as we live in the house for eight years, we won’t have to pay a penny back. That’s a pretty amazing deal!

Having made the documentary “Empowered: Power from the People” during our house-buying process, we were very keen to get into renewables but we knew the first step was making the house as energy-efficient as possible. To that end, we invited Tompkins Community Action to perform a free energy audit. The full report they provided let us know where our house could use improvements. We used this information to help inform the work that INHS funded.

INHS coordinated a group of amazing contractors including ISAAC Heating, Sparks Electric, Parrott Plumbing and others as they enhanced our humble house over the course of a year. The most important pieces from a sustainability standpoint included replacing single-paned windows with double-paned ones, installing weatherproof doors, adding blown cellulose insulation to our attic space, sealing areas of air leakage, and improving venting in areas where moisture was getting trapped. They also replaced our old furnace and water heater with brand new, much more efficient models and replaced part of our roof that was in disrepair.

We learned from our friends at the Ithaca Biodiesel Cooperative (featured in “Empowered”) that we could run biodiesel in our oil furnace. Biodiesel, which is created by filtering and processing waste vegetable oil with methanol and lye, is usually associated with use in cars, but has the potential to significantly reduce the need for fossil fuels in home heating. We were able to get a 20% blend delivered to our house by Ehrhart Propane & Oil. We learned that any higher percentage would void the warranty on our new furnace, but we’re hoping this policy will change in the future and we can go for 100% biodiesel.

After all of these steps, our home is noticeably more energy-efficient. It is remarkably cool inside during the hot summer months, only running a fan occasionally, and the thermostat can be set several degrees lower in the winter with much cozier results than before the additional insulation was added.

Our goal is to get away entirely from fossil fuels, so the next step we are embarking upon is having a solar system installed to provide the electricity for all of our appliances including our new electric hot water heater and an electric stove we got through Freecyle so that we can replace our gas stove.

A few months ago, we got in touch with Renovus Energy, the oldest local installer of renewables (also featured in “Empowered”), and explained that we wanted to get photovoltaics installed but had no money to put down. Renovus is amazing in that they navigate all the financing and rebate options on their customer’s behalf. They told us about a new lease-to-own option run by Sunpower, a national company based in Portland, Oregon. We learned that we could pay about $70/month for twenty years to have a system installed that would meet all of our energy needs.

Alternatively, Renovus explained that SunPower offers an option to prepay our lease for about $9,000, which would save us over $9,000 over the twenty-year loan term. While we didn’t by any means have that kind of cash lying around, this seemed like too good a deal to pass up so we applied to Alternatives for a home improvement loan for that amount and we will pay it off over five years for about $215 a month.

The energy bill we will no longer have to pay can go toward this monthly cost, and we are likely to overproduce and actually get a credit from NYSEG at the end of each year. We have signed the paperwork and are looking forward to the installation of our system this fall!

All of this to say that if you don’t think you have the means to lower your home’s carbon footprint, think again. There are amazing programs for low-to-moderate income families in this community, which make going green more accessible than ever!

Shira Evergreen is a filmmaker and designer at Shirari Industries and a board member of Sustainable Tompkins.

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