The same light bulb has been hanging over Janat and Jack Parker's kitchen table for 19 years. Even though its light isn't as peaceful and ambient as one he might buy today, Parker is waiting patiently to replace the extended life bulb he bought when he built the house. It's serving its purpose: saving energy so that less harmful fumes fill the air. Parker has been waiting just as long for the rest of the world to realize the same concerns and join his crusade for conservation. Like the light bulb’s surely imminent demise, perhaps the time of awareness has just about come.
“I really think people don't want to hurt others,” Parker says. “It's a matter of people choosing what do they want in order to do what they want to do. In things like automobiles, they're choosing one that pollutes more, uses more resources and hurts other people more – that’s the worst thing of all.”
Parker maintains that if people understood the ramifications of their actions, they would choose the best things for themselves and others, that is, the choice that doesn't pollute or pose other risks to health and safety.
Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor-in-chief of Natural Home and Garden Magazine, agrees. “People want to do the right thing, and they're realizing they don't have to compromise anything to live by these principles.”
As a founding professor of Florida International University and its Environmental Studies Program, Parker has done his best to help educate people about how to make the most of the energy we use because of the environmental consequences of burning coal and oil - fossil fuels.
Like altruism, environmental awareness and green building design aren't new ideas. Solar water heaters were the norm, rather than the exception, in Miami in the 30s and 40s, until fuel became a cheap commodity after World War II – cheap in terms of cash, that is. The long-term cost paid for using electricity generated by fossil fuels has been the environmental damage.
“The World Health Organization reports that three million people each year die from the effects of air pollution – three times as many as die in car accidents,” Griggs Lawrence told members of the U.S. Green Building Council at its annual conference in Austin, Texas.
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that emission of soot particles – mostly sulfate and nitrate, increased by nine percent from 1999 to 2000. More than 65 million people in the U.S. live in counties where soot levels exceed federal regulations. Air pollution has been linked to respiratory illnesses, pulmonary disease, lung cancer and asthma, one of the fastest growing diseases in children.
“[When it comes to green home building,] the first question is always about economics, but that's not really very important," says Danny Parker, principal research scientist at the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida. Danny was once Jack Parker's student at FIU. Their shared name is coincidental, but their shared interest is of universal concern. “You take responsibility for your impact in terms of what it takes to create the energy you use. The numbers are shockingly large. It's useful to know about ways to reduce that if you're conscientious.”
Jack Parker and his wife built their South Florida home in 1984, creating it as a working model of energy efficiency. They have dual air conditioners and use them as needed, yet spend only $30 to $60 per month on electricity. Strategic use of shade trees, windows and fans helps keep a cool breeze flowing through the house, as well as an abundance of natural daylight, cutting down on electricity usage. Taking care to purchase light bulbs and appliances that get the most from the energy they use helps extend the efficiency as well. Faucet aerators, low-flow showerheads and toilets help conserve water. A solar water heater provides 90 percent of the home's hot water.
“When buying something for your house, it's not that difficult to consider environmental implications that are less polluting,” says Parker. “The easiest way is to buy something that uses less energy.”
But, he emphasizes, it's not necessary to sacrifice comfort for cost. Every innovation in his home has been dutifully tested by Parker's two daughters and his wife. Janat Parker is a native of Canada whose tolerance for heat is admittedly limited.
“You know it's comfortable if I can stand it!” Janat Parker laughs as she leads a tour of the home, demonstrating how the clerestory windows allow a cooling breeze to flow through the house. She points to a “thermal chimney” over the kitchen cooking area that draws heat up with a fan and out through a high window. “This works so well that you can never smell my holiday dinners through the house – a little too well, I guess.”
Danny Parker reports that the typical Florida home uses about 17,500 kilowatt hours (kWh) each year at a cost of .09 per kWh or $1,575 per year, about $130 per month. “The electricity used to create that power would release the following amount of pollutants: 155 pounds of sulfur dioxide, 84 pounds of nitrogen oxides and 19.4 tons of carbon dioxide.”
The Florida Solar Energy Center of the University of Central Florida says that the typical Florida home expends 33 percent of its energy on cooling, 15 percent on refrigeration and 14 percent on hot water. Space heating and pool pumps consume 10 percent each and lighting, cooking, clothes drying and miscellaneous uses (cell chargers, computer, TV, stereo, etc.) consume the remaining 18 percent.
Some measures can increase energy efficiency without costing any more at all – like choosing white tile or white shingles over darker colors of the same material, although choosing tile over shingles costs about $10,000 more. A white roof color can reduce the cooling load by 20 percent, according to Danny Parker. Using a radiant barrier can reflect nearly 90 percent of radiant heat, but its cost effectiveness is diminished by half if it's not installed when first building the house.
Parker's light bulb is a perfect example of one of the simplest and most effective steps homeowners can take to reduce energy usage, its cost and its impact on the environment. Griggs Lawrence says there are now 1.8 billion CFLs in use worldwide.
Replacing standard light bulbs (4 for $1.69 last 1,000 hours and use 60 watts of energy) throughout the house, including in high-hat recessed fixtures, with compact fluorescent bulbs can make a tremendous difference. General Electric says that one CFL is the equivalent of 12 standard bulbs. Although the CFL bulbs cost more (1 for $7.99 lasts 12,000 hours using only 15 watts of energy), they're paid for in savings in two years. After that, as Jack Parker points out, you're just saving money.
“CFLs use only 25 to 35 percent electricity as conventional incandescent bulbs, and they last ten times as long,” says Danny Parker. “An 18-watt CFL substituted for a 75-watt incandescent bulb will save 570 kWh ($46) over its useful life, keeps half a ton of CO2 and 20 pounds of sulfur dioxide out of the air, and nine bulbs out of the land-fill!”
Jack Parker just installed a high pressure sodium lamp in an outdoor fixture at his home. He says it puts out a soft, yellow light, much different from the harsh mercury vapor lights of the past. “You pay a little more for the bulb, but efficient lighting is one of the most cost effective things you can do,” he says. “You can buy a pack of compact fluorescent bulbs for $5 a piece, they use energy at one-fifth the rate of a regular bulb and they last a long time. Each one will end up saving you $50 – that's about as good an investment as you can ever make.”
Another major energy user in the home is the air conditioning system. There are many ways to reduce its drain on your electric supply. It's not cost effective to replace a working system, but when it is time to buy new, spend a little extra for a more energy efficient model – a generally good and cost effective practice when purchasing any appliances. Looking for the Energy Star label is a good rule of thumb. Jack Parker recommends buying an AC unit that has a SEER rating (seasonal energy efficiency ratio) of 12 to 14 (about $2500). He suggests buying a slightly smaller unit than before or than recommended by standard formula – it will cost less and dehumidify better. Spend the savings to buy a unit with a higher SEER, he says.
Proper maintenance of the system is a good way to ensure that it runs efficiently, and the FSEC suggests carefully monitoring the thermostat, setting it to kick on a degree or two higher than usual, perhaps 79 or 80 degrees, but not so high that humidity will develop – molds and mildews present other environmental problems and must be prevented.
Reduce the load on your air conditioner by reducing the heat introduced to the home. If building a new home, have air conditioning ducts run through a dropped ceiling rather than in the attic to knock off another 20 to 30 percent of the AC use.
Shade windows with awnings, trees or dark films to keep the heat out of the house. Dr. Parker says that his strategic ecological landscaping is an important features in his green design. “The trees are cooling the entire house,” he says. “It's designed to use not too much water, provide maximum shade and to facilitate breezes coming into the house. In mild weather the vegetation cools the breeze before it comes in. It's called primary passive cooling.”
The Parker's have a top-end solar water heater that heats 90 percent of their water. Heating water represents 25 percent of the average electric bill in Florida. A solar system owner can achieve an overall 20 percent annual energy saving. The cost varies from $2000 - $3500 or as low as $1000 to provide for 40-50 percent of usage. It's much higher than an electric water heater, but when averaged against electricity cost savings over the life of the equipment, a family of four can save an average of $288 annually. The system will pay for itself in about seven and a half years, and will continue to operate cost-free for another 12 and a half years.
Further benefit, of course, is that using solar means you're not using fossil fuels, so you're helping the nation to reduce its dependence on foreign oil and you're not producing harmful emissions which pollute the air, contributing to respiratory illnesses and global warming. For a list of licensed solar contractors, call the Solar Hotline, 1-800-59-SOLAR.
Green design in building is a concept that is rapidly growing. The U.S. Department of Energy says more than 350,000 energy efficient homes have been built in the U.S. With today’s crunch on fossil fuels, new strategies are quickly forming to increase fuel economy.
Jack Parker continues working to educate others while Danny Parker continues to explore new and better ways to conserve energy and curb pollution. “When people are ready [to build energy-efficient homes] we'll know exactly what to do.”
He thinks that when electric bills hit the $200 a month mark people will be more interested in finding ways to cut back the cost.
“Environmental ethics are hard to find,” says Thorn Grafton, a Miami architect who helps recycle older homes to be more efficient. "But as people’s values begin to change and as they’re interested in teaching their kids about the neat ways that the world works, we can take advantage of it. That’s a real important way to sort of carry on and develop traditions that involve the ways that we live on the earth and interact with the earth’s forces.
“I think I’m making a good decision to focus my practice on environmental and green design. I may end up with more work than I can handle very quickly.”
In the meantime, Griggs Lawrence cites a fact offered by Energy Star: If every household in the United States replaced their next bulb with an Energy Star model, it would be equivalent to removing one million cars from the road. “Makes you wonder how many light bulbs it will take to change the world….”
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