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Green Building Curmudgeon

How to Solve the Energy Puzzle

Stop worrying about clean and dirty power; focus on your thermostat

Energy solutions are right at your finger tips We need to learn how to turn off our HVAC systems and be comfortable in a wider temperature range.

The disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has generated endless news stories and opinion pieces on the state of our energy industry and how to “fix” it. Most of the conversations address two key points: independence from foreign oil and alternative energy. Strategies on the first point tend to be limited to expanding domestic drilling capacity. Regarding alternatives, suggestions range from wind and solar to nuclear, biomass, and clean coal. What I find most troubling is that there is so little discussion of conservation. Few people seem to be interested in considering how to get along with less; they simply expect there to be a technological solution that allows us to continue our excessive consumption habits unabated.

The tough stuff

Conservation is not hard, but finding the will to actually do it can be challenging. For most of us, it takes significant behavior changes in our day-to-day activities to conserve energy resources. Driving less, buying less, recycling more, saving water, and using heating and air conditioning more sparingly all require changes in our behavior and expectations.

For most of us, driving less is the biggest challenge. Zoning regulations over the last 50+ years have carefully separated most homes from businesses, eliminating walking and biking as effective transportation methods in most areas. Changes in driving habits will come slowly, unless, as seen in the last price jump, gas prices go back over $4 per gallon; then suddenly people figure out how to drive less.

Buying less stuff has happened organically, concurrent with the recession and tightened credit. I like to think that it is unlikely that our spending habits will return to the frenetic pace of recent decades, but I am often surprised at how short our memories can be. Recycling is more common, even required in many communities, but unless there is a concerted effort both to reduce packaging waste and to better incentivize reuse, we will continue to create too much trash with less room to dump it.

Water efficiency is one of our best hopes for conservation. Cities and states have finally recognized the need to conserve and are putting appropriate regulations in place to do so.

The comfort/convenience question

I think Steve Mouzon stated the comfort/energy situation best in this excerpt from his new book, “The Original Green”: “Our ancestors had a comfort range of probably 30 degrees Fahrenheit.” We are physically capable of reasonable comfort between roughly 60 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Yeah, 60 is kind of cold, but you can dress warmly; and 90 is kind of hot, especially in humid climates, but you can dress lightly and use fans and manage. However, few people are willing to do this. In most climates, windows are closed and HVAC equipment runs much of the year, often when the outdoor temperature is perfectly moderate.

So, why don’t people just turn off their HVAC and open windows more often? I see it as a two-part problem. First, in most places, energy costs are too low (my apologies to those who heat with fuel oil). Second, and more important, it takes effort. Most people lead very busy lives, working long days away from home, so it’s difficult to make the frequent changes needed to manage their energy use better.

I have the luxury of working at home, which allows me to monitor indoor and outdoor temperatures and humidity throughout the day. Whenever the temperature outside is close to a comfortable level, my windows and doors are open. This summer, I only use air conditioning when the outside temperature climbs over 82 (or if I have guests in the house), allowing me to open the house almost every evening until about mid-morning, when I close everything up. I keep the AC set at about 84, use fans judiciously, and dress for the weather (you don’t want to see what I’m wearing as I write this). My house isn’t perfectly comfortable, but it is bearable most of the time. I am willing to live with some slight discomfort to cut down on my power use, and I am here to manually manage ventilation as needed during the day.

Our long-term challenge is twofold: How do we encourage people to learn to widen their comfort range, and provide them with the tools, the time, and the wherewithal to manage their homes to use less energy on a daily basis?


  1. John Brooks | | #1

    Stop and Go ... Cruising and Latent Loads
    Maybe your strategy makes sense in a poor performing Home.
    I wonder how much Energy you would really save with a Good Enclosure.

    A seminar that I attended (sponsored by Austin Energy) seemed to question your strategy.
    You need to consider the hygrothermal storage of your structure and contents (furniture & stuff).

    You are charging your house and contents with heat and moisture that you will have to remove later.
    Austin Energy seemed to suggest that the Latent Load could be significant.

    I wonder what Michael Blasnik thinks?
    My guess is that in a good enclosure it would cost very little extra to be comfortable.

  2. John Brooks | | #2

    Thermostat at 84
    I just reread your post... 84 is pretty darn warm
    my comment about removing heat does not apply...
    But the latent load is still something to consider.

  3. Expert Member
    Carl Seville | | #3


    My house is old and inefficient. No wall insulation, all plaster and wood framing, spray foam in the roofline and floor help keep the load down. I agree that if it was a newer and/or better house, keeping the temperature more even would be better. Regardless, if the humidity and temperature outside are comfortable, it still makes sense to open up and ventilate until it gets too hot or cold. That goes to the core of my point - we need to actively manage our homes instead of just running HVAC all the time.

  4. Jay | | #4

    Cooling Strategies...
    Although I have an air conditioner, I try to use other means to keep cool and use ac only when it is in the mid-to-high 80's for a period of time or, like Carl, when I have guests in the house.

    My cooling strategy revolves around maximizing the use of my whole-house fan. I live in MI and when the nights are cool enough (50-67 degrees), I run the whole-house fan before I go to bed in the evening and before I leave for work in the morning. This is usually cools the house enough to keep it cool for the entire day as long as the temperature does not go above 85. I also make sure that all of the windows are closed during the day and most of the west-facing windows without tree cover are covered with shades. If the evening temperature stays above 68 degrees, I still run the fan in the morning to get the temperature as low as possible and then I will run the ac for about a half an hour or so to cool it bit more, but mostly to reduce the humidity that occurs when the dew point is high (as it usually is when the night temperature stays so high). With this strategy I run the ac mostly when it is cooler (68-72 degrees) which uses less energy and allows me to go the rest of the day without turning it back on. I will, however, turn the ac on when the temperature in the house gets in the 76-82 degree range (depending on the humidity), but this does not happen very often.

  5. J Chesnut | | #5

    i'd still worry in a cold/ very cold climate
    Yes I believe the vast majority of people in affluent nations should change their behavior. I also agree that the current concept of 'comfort' is a critical obstacle to overcome. I am often taken aback by the vigorous resistance people have to sacrificing their comfort. (People who aren't comfortable also aren't very productive which is another source of great resistance)
    However in my circumstance changing behaviors is not enough. My wife and I live in a single family home in a cold climate. I consider myself very frugal and my wife is from another country and shares a greater range of behavior and temperature tolerances. But the amount of energy it takes to heat our home even to very modest standards of comfort doesn't warrant a worry free life. Yes, I'm responsible for making the house even more energy efficient but it would take the order of $250,000 worth of energy renovation to approach a worry free lifestyle.
    Behavior changes in building stock whose orientation, distribution, design and construction took for granted endless energy input during unseasonable weather is a small step forward in the extreme climates. An important first step I would agree; but I am still waiting for people to envision regional specific livelihoods that fully acknowledge the state of the world's resources and consider with more sophistication how much energy we deserve to use for heating, cooling and all the other conveniences most of us have come to take for granted.

  6. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #6

    Agree with frist two paragraphs
    Carl... Did you somehow read my mind to post your first two paragraphs? I agree. Then you
    fell short. We shouldn't be so scared of raising the cost of E. Raise it painfully... slowly till people take the hint and change their lifestyles. The rich can still have choices, and democracy, freedom, capitalism survives.

    Long commutes should somehow be killed off. Bikes, walking local work, local food production, local markets, town squares full of people on their feet that's living. Visit Mexico... the town squares are so full of life. Yes... They have huge problems... so they need the good we have... we need the good they have.

    Zoning has been a huge mistake. the law of unintended consequences... in full display.

    Tax energy. Balance the federal budget. Change zoning laws. Two extra weeks vacation for all workers that walk to work.

  7. Joel Key, LEED AP | | #7

    Only in America
    Only in America does a do someone leave a 4000 square foot energy guzzling home, drive a gas guzzling SUV 25 miles across town to the Home Depot, buy a CFL, drive the gas guzzling SUV 25 miles back across town, screw in the CFL, drink a bottled water and pat themselves on the back for helping to save the environment.

    I agree with what is written and wish it were that easy but the majority, strike that, the vast majority of people will not sacrifice comfort. I am an HVAC and plumbing contractor who is also a LEED AP and BPI Building Analyst and I can tell you that everyone is gung-ho for green until a bead of sweat forms on their forehead. The answer is to weatherize, seal, PROPERLY ventilate, and design efficient HVAC systems. And my pet peeve BUILD SMALLER HOUSES, no reason exist that I can think of as to why a family of three needs 3500 square feet to live in, oh yes the comfort thing again, silly me I forgot.

  8. Doug on the Oregon Coast | | #8

    How to Solve the Energy Puzzle
    Where we choose to live has to be factored into any solution. On the Oregon coast - due to near constant wind and moderate highs in summer - I just open windows for cooling. I lived for many years in Atlanta, Ga in a double wall house with R40 walls, an R60 roof, tree cover that blocked western sun completely and properly sized overhangs, but I still used air conditioning from June through mid September. My bills were much smaller than my neighbor's bills, but we did not open up the house in the summer because there were practically no days with both moderate temperature and humidity. In Oregon, I am now in a heating only climate with the normal winter low being about 30 degrees which makes an energy efficient building (better than some LEEDS buildings, but less efficient than Passive Haus) essentially or totally zero heating and cooling. The only way I know to have climate influence location is with energy prices.

  9. Edwin G, LEED AP, EIT | | #9

    I enjoyed very much this post. It is truly interesting how people's comfort evolves, and how people perceive comfort. I agree even more with the last comment from Joel. I'd like to read an article on how huge houses are getting and how people are in general building greener, but a lot bigger. This is the problem I see with normalizing to square footage instead of to occupants. 4,000 square feet single family detached homes with two car garages are a big challenge.

    Additionally, rebound effects are a severe threat to energy efficiency. Picture someone who insulates their house and suddenly decides it's OK to turn the thermostat up in the winter. This is why I think the next wave will be some sort of feedback, sub-metering system so we can actually know how much water/energy is being used and where.

    Anyways, thanks for putting the word out there that this energy crisis is an issue of demand as much as it is of supply.

  10. C in Manhattan, NYC | | #10

    Personal Comfort Zone
    When you make statements like, "We are physically capable of reasonable comfort between roughly 60 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit," I have to ask "We" who? This is really true only for active, healthy adults. Young children, the elderly, and people in chronic or short-term poor health (and that's a lot of people) aren't that adaptable, and even healthy adults doing sedentary work may find that the standard 68°, for example, is too cold. What most healthy active adults don't understand is that for people whose internal heating and cooling controls are not performing adequately, adding clothing or using fans can't entirely compensate.
    I'm all for the general concept of conservation. I live on the top floor of an apartment building, and one couldn't live here (under the roof) happily in summer without air conditioning. But I added a ceiling fan to the living room, which makes a big difference and allows me to put off turning on the A/C.
    So, yes, conservation is vitally important (I'm happy to say that, though I have a driver's license, I've never owned a car), but conservation has to be promoted and undertaken realistically, recognizing the varying needs of individuals. Otherwise we just turn people off to the whole concept when we take a cookie-cutter approach.

  11. Giles blunden | | #11

    Changing the norms of indoor comfort
    One of the biggest problem I see in a commercial space is the needs of a very few tend to establish the norm The one person who keeps there home at 70 in the summer becomes acclimated to that and is uncomfortable at 75 deg. to answer this problem individual control and zoning is the answer.

  12. Steve Dearlove LEED AP | | #12

    One of the biggest challenges
    One of the biggest challenges of designing in the north east (I am an arhcitect) is our huge temperature swings. They range from -25C to +35C, so as a designer it becomes a real challenge as to who is your master.

    Our last house north of Toronto was complete gut an drenovatoin to a century log home The addtion was standard 2x6 construction; nothing fancy. We had a reflecting galvalume steel roof, light coloured wood siding and a forced air system. In the heat of the summer, when we could get a solid week of 29-35C (85-95F) humid weather, I would close all windows (which there were many), cover the south and west windows and turn the furnace fan on so that the low cold air return in the basement would suck the cool basement air into the system and re-distribute it. The ground floor never made it above 25C (78F). Ceiling fans in the second floor made those areas tolerable. This was a very successfull design strategy.

    Unfortunately, my problem was that it was a bitch to heat in the winter. (The fact that the chinking in the log portion didn't help.)

    So, given we are primarily a heating demand and not cooling demand environment, my new house has a dark roof and dark siding and has a radiant floor heating system. I just moved in, so time will tell if all the theory works in practice. But the new place has been designed for passive solar heating and uses thermal mass. It also has ample operable windows to allow for any type of cross-breeze. At night, the thermal mass stores the cooler temperatures to carry into the hot days. Already this season, the place has become hotter on the ground floor (26.6C or 80F) than the previous place. But I felt that it was better to sweat a little in the summer than be a fossil fuel pig in the winter.

    If we're going make it to the other side of the pending crises, I believe we have to use ALL tools in our toolbox to to keep project civilizatoin going.

    Moral: Design to your predominant environmental conditions, and learn to tolerate the other.

    PS to "C in Manhattan". Your point is valid, but what did elderly, young, infirmed and other non-active healthy adults do for the past 20-100 centuries? Methinks we've become very spoiled.

  13. C in Manhattan, NYC | | #13

    Reply for Steve Dearlove
    The answer to your question, "what did elderly, young, infirmed and other non-active healthy adults do for the past 20-100 centuries?" is simple. If they or someone else wasn't able to put another log on the fire or move them closer to the fireplace, or bathe them with water to lower their temperature, they got sick or sicker and perhaps died. Most of our modern longevity is thanks to our cushier living conditions (including better food and hygiene)--not modern medicine. Also, in earlier times, people in general modified their activity level as temperatures changed, and if temperatures became intolerable, they hunkered down and did as little as possible until conditions improved..
    Yes, we've become spoiled--we expect to be able to do whatever we want whenever we want--any time of day, any kind of weather. We want to go 24/7. We make artificial light and artificial climates. We don't do siestas or rise with the sun and go to sleep soon after sunset.
    But back to the subject of the vulnerable. Most healthy people who haven't spent any time in the land of the sick and infirm don't understand life from that perspective. It's next to impossible for healthy people to accurately imagine that life, and they tend to hear complaints from that quarter as whining. So much of life is like that--you don't really understand something until you've experienced it.
    From experience, I thoroughly understand the concept of thermal mass, for example. The building I live in was built of brick in 1909--no brick veneer, solid brick. In summer I call it the Brick Oven. It's amazing how much heat from the sun it can store. In spring and fall I appreciate that heat retention, because when it's sunny, I don't need heat from the furnace. After a very hot summer day, though, it's frustrating to find that even with fans bringing in 75° outdoor air in the evening, I can't get the indoor temperature below 85°. And, Steve, you're learning from experience the downside of living in a house with dark siding and roof when it's summertime; luckily you anticipated it and hopefully you anticipated accurately.
    So, yes, we are adaptable, subject to individual physiological differences, current state of health, personal expectations and experience. (Supposedly there's even a gender difference here too--with women generally having less muscle mass than men, which would mean that even when just sitting, most women are generating less heat most than men. This has been suggested as the cause of the "thermostat wars" between men and women. Perhaps to increase our adaptability, those of us who can should spend more time in the gym.)
    There are physical comfort zones and mental comfort zones, as well. It's good to test and venture outside of both.

  14. Doug McEvers | | #14

    Carbon tax
    Energy conservation is rarely voluntary, we are as Neil Young sang, "The Restless Consumer". A carbon tax is the answer to getting a handle on energy usage with the large users paying a large carbon tax. The carbon tax fund would be used for weatherization programs, mass transit , a move towards sustainable agriculture and terrestrial carbon sequestration.

    We have tried the voluntary conservation effort and little has come of it. Former President Jimmy Carter was vilified for his urging Americans to conserve. While we point the finger at the Chinese for not doing enough they are zooming past the US in renewable energy spending.

    $4.00 gasoline aided the economic slide in this country and with oil near $80, little has changed in the last few years. We could very easily cut residential energy consumption in half and start on a course of energy responsibility, insulation and air sealing work wonders in all climates.

  15. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #15

    The restless consumer.
    Whatever the solution is, it will by necessity require an overhaul of people's expectations for way of life. There is absolutely no way that industrial society's present expectations for way of life can be sustained for any meaningful length of time. Even if our looming energy problems could be addressed tomorrow, there is still the problem of how to deal with the diminishing supply of other resources critical to the stability of our way of life. Behavioral changes are the only changes that have an effect across the board.

  16. Steve McCarthy | | #16

    behavior and a carbon tax !
    The only thing that really gets peoples attention and results in action is when the price increases. So you think the population is growing, don't give a tax credit for every new baby. Want to reduce fuel use?
    add a two dollar carbon tax for every 100,000 btu"s of energy.
    I guarantee behavior change and resource conservation.

  17. Steve Pitchford | | #17

    Solving energy puzzle
    Carl, You forgot reason number three - Security! I too try to control my thermostat and love to utilize my window blinds and sometimes the windows and doors to control sunlight, breezes and fresh air. But with great reluctance and care. Even though I have a court yard and security gate entry and two big dogs and live in a nice neighborhood I've been robbed more than once and had my new truck stolen from my driveway - between 11PM and 7AM. The sheriffs deputy said it was probably already in Mexico as he was taking my report. I was a little hot under the collar and had to go inside and cool down.

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