Tuesday, April 12, 2011

reducing your resource use... and staying married

Just a little warning: This post is going to be less about the actual ways you can reduce the amount of resources you use and more about how you can do it and still stay married. And it’s probably going to ramble on a bit.

I started thinking about this when I found out about Kathy Harrison’s new book, “’I Can’t Believe You Think That!’ Relationship Struggles around Peak Oil, Climate Change and Economic Hard Times”. You can read a teaser blog post here:

How to ruin a perfectly good argument about peak oil, climate change or economic troubles.

When I read the post I immediately forward it to my wife. Yes we are still married despite our share arguments about how to adapt to the coming changes but there have been plenty of times when the actual adaptation she or I was contemplating turned out to be much easier than the conversations about what to do. It wasn’t so much reducing our electrical usage as it was deciding to do it, how to do it and making all the other minor decisions that go along with major change. I’m not going to list out strategies for handling loved ones during the process of adaptation. Rather I am just going to share some of what my family has experienced.

A little background: My wife and I have been married almost 10 years. We’ve know each other for more than 20. We are in our mid-30s and have 3 and 5 year old daughters.

When I first started talking about "resource depletion" I didn’t use such swell sounding phrase. Back then it was all about “peak oil” and all the changes that would come as a consequence. Not the more nuanced discussion that takes place on many websites today but the more alarmist rhetoric that ruled the Internet back when Matt Savinar’s now retired website was about the only information on peak oil. My friend Todd used to call it “the black page of death”. To my wife’s horror I went through the classic 5 stages of grief as I mourned the end of civilization on account of peak oil and wallowed in stage 4 – Depression.

It was no surprise then that when I finally broke out into stage 5 – Acceptance- my wife looked with skepticism on all the plans I was beginning to make. She didn’t want to get sucked into the same sort of depressing vortex that had befallen me. She wanted nothing to do with anything that was related to peak oil. I can say I blame her. I had a tough time and it took quite a while but eventually she and I were able to talk more openly about all the changes that might be prudent now that we were facing, together, a world where fewer resources, energy and otherwise, would likely be available to us.

One strategy I stumbled upon was to make it tangible for her; to make the changes something she could track. In December of 2007 we had our house sealed and insulated. You can read about that here. It was an important step towards reducing the amount of energy our household consumes. On the list of errors in judgment I would attribute to myself, I scheduled this construction project for late in my wife’s second pregnancy. It also took place over the course of 3 consecutive Fridays instead of 3 straight days in a row. That had to do with the contractor’s schedule but it also meant cleaning up the dust and the mess three separate times. Another misstep of mine. However in the end our house was tighter and cozier and quieter and I was happy. We were happy. But Jennifer’s happiness was most obvious on the first day of the following month. That was the day she received the first natural gas bill after a month of having the home improvements in place. Our energy use had dropped dramatically- down more than 50% compared to the previous January’s bill.

Now you may be thinking that she was excited about all the money we were saving and she was. But that was not the main reason behind her giddiness as she read me the numbers out over the phone. (She had called me at work with the news, unable to wait until I got home.) For her, seeing the reduction made it real. It also made it into a game. How much less can we use in February vs. last February became the goal of our energy reducing exercise. Turning down the thermostat or putting on a sweater or wrapping the hot water heater with insulation was not longer just another pain-in-the-ass request by her husband. Now it was a move in the game aimed at even further reducing our next month’s natural gas bill. Who knew my wife would ever utter phrases like, “therms used per month?”

In fact our NG provider’s website allows you to compare any two months from the last several years of your usage. And they don’t just track therms. They track the average monthly temperature, nights with temps below 40 degrees, days in the billing cycle, cost and other stuff. Our most recent bill arrived today and was pretty impressive.

We’re down from 57 therms used in March 2012 to 24 therms used this year. Unfortunately our NG provider doesn’t keep records online going back to the time before we sealed and insulated our home. The first year after doing so we saw on average a reduction of about 50%. That means it is likely we went from more than 100 therms in previous months of March to now using on 24 therms. That is a pretty significant reduction.

So you might be wondering how we further reduced our NG useage in the winter of 2011-12. The answer,

A Vermont Castings Encore woodstove. Now I don’t plant to get into the pros and cons of different heating systems in this post. What I do want to talk about is the theme of cooperation and compromise among family members while adapting to change. The stove pictured above is beautiful and it came with a handsome tax rebate (although not as big a rebate as was described to us by its salesman) and we have greatly enjoyed having it but… it was more expensive than the stove I would have purchased. In fact I would have been happy with a used stove, one that wasn’t really attractive at all. My wife however fell for the VC Encore. She liked the way it looked. I like its efficiency rating and quality reputation and so I agreed to spend more than I would have spent on the stove of my choice in part to satisfy her desire to have this particular stove.

Some of you might think this is silly -that in our time of change the last thing we should be worried about is compromising with a spouse for the sake of aesthetics. But I would argue against that sort of thinking. True if the extra money hadn’t been there or was strongly needed for another project then it would have been foolish to spend it on the upgraded stove. But the decision was made as a team and was therefore possible and carried out rather smoothly.

Incidentally she didn’t grow up with a woodstove in regular operation so she was unprepared for the twigs and the ash and such that seem to mess up the area around the stove. She dealt with that though, her borderline obsession with a clean floor, and I did my best to clean up after reloading the stove beyond what I would have done if I lived on my own. More compromise.

Another added benefit was the house was much warmer than the 58/62 degrees we were used to the previous few winters. My wife really liked that. It’s not that we tried to keep it a lot hotter but when you’re trying to get a stove to the temperature at which it combusts gases instead of releasing them into the atmosphere you tend to end up with at least a few rooms warmer than 62 degree. But I digress.

So just how did we decide which projects to take on, how much to budget and some sort of order for getting them done? How did we do it together? That will be the subject of my next post.


AnthaReddy said...

I'm pretty sure a lot of people out there will find this blog of yours very helpful.


Jon Lorisen said...

Compromise, for aesthetics or other reasons, is always a great thing. My efforts to reduce our waste have gone a lot smoother once I got my involved as a partner and explained what I was trying to do and why.

Kim said...

Great article! You don't see this topic written about and it's pertinent. Thank you.

I would be interested in knowing if you considered a cook stove?

Mind sharing what you spent on insulating your house?

My hubby and son (who is 6) are planning our first power off weekend :-)