The New Conservative

My greening begins.

February 2008By Comments

Illustrations by

1. AC is far away and works too hard
2. Water heater needs a “blanket”
3. French windows allow heat and air to escape
4. Attic insulation has a value of R-9
5. No floor insulation
6. Incandescent lightbulbs waste energy
7. Wall insulation has fallen

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been much more than an armchair environmentalist. Sure, I had some tree-hugging inclinations in college, when I participated in a protest to block the removal of some oaks on the University of Texas at Austin campus (mainly as a way to meet girls, actually). I’ve sent checks to some pompously named organizations like Save the Planet USA now and then, and I’ve been known to have had a barroom argument or two on the subject. But for most of my life, the environment was a comfortable abstraction.

It’s not just that marriage, a career, and the inevitable political ennui of middle age dampened my verve for green. It was also the rhetoric. Take global warming: Though I had a vague sense living in Dallas that there might be something to it (it’s hard to ignore forty-odd 100-degree days in one summer), for every article I read on the subject that said ying, there was another that said yang. Like many people, I figured the real truth would just never be known—a topic relegated to debates by Al Gore and others—or that the planet was supposed to self-destruct on a particular schedule, with or without man’s participation.

Katrina was my epiphany. There was something so raw and visceral about the savage hurricane that all the back-and-forth prattle about global warming, and environmentalism generally, suddenly took on new meaning. Here was a brute visual for climate change and the damage it could wreak. This couldn’t be a coincidence, not when we in the Southwest were suffering a years-long drought and Northeasterners were scratching their heads about blizzards one day, balmy sunshine the next. So I studied up on global warming and our role in it. I even read Gore’s almost soporifically thorough An Inconvenient Truth. Saw the movie. Browsed Web sites on the issue, pro and con. And I finally made a decision. I was going green.

I am not naive enough to believe that one person can change a problem as colossal as global warming, but millions of one-persons can. So I’m not going to say that it’s too late for a guy like me to start acting. How can I, given the numbers? As the United Nations’ Climate Change 2007 report warned, the CO2 in our atmosphere as of 2005 “far exceeds the natural range of the past 650,000 years”—which means that temperatures, ocean levels, and erratic weather patterns will increase faster than we thought. I probably won’t be here, but our great-grandkids are going to miss Houston, and maybe even Beaumont.

So where to start? I began with the first thing I could wrap my head around, ecologically speaking: my house. My wife and I have owned this lovely fifty-year-old two-story in Highland Park for more than twenty years. It’s quaint and comfortable, even pretty from a certain angle—and mainly, paid for. But, unlike the green-built starter homes going up in surrounding suburbs such as Frisco, ours is woefully energy-inefficient and environmentally incorrect.

Our journey to greenness was going to mean rehabilitation, and we needed the right people to set us on that path. After some online hunting and a few calls, I found three specialists to assess our home: Tom Mayfield, the proprietor of Mayfield Thermography, which employs infrared imaging to find problems such as air and water leaks or insulation deficiencies (; a workup on your house costs $650); Patrick Kelly, an expert in green construction and remodeling at the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency; and Jon Bennett, of TXU, who performed an energy audit. (Kelly’s and Bennett’s services are not available to the public, but you can go to TXU’s and the EPA’s Energy Star Web sites, and, for informal calculators on the state of your house, or call the Energy Star hotline, 888-782-7937, to speak to a specialist. Also, major utilities like TXU provide a list of contractors who can perform audits on specific elements such as insulation and AC.)

This was like asking for a comprehensive physical exam from three different doctors. While Mayfield wandered the house shooting thermal images of my walls and ceilings with something that looked like a camcorder, Kelly prowled the exterior, examined my roof, and stuck his head in my attic to check insulation and ventilation. Bennett, who visited a few days later, performed much the same routine. Though I learned a lot about my house’s R-values—or resistance to heat and cold flow, a measure of energy efficiency—boy, did these guys tear my precious abode a new one.

“These French windows are probably about R-1,” said Kelly in our living room. “There’s so many of them, they’re like a wall, and a wall needs to be R-15 or so.”

“Yeah, and that downspout over by the kitchen,” said Mayfield. “It’s just gushing water right onto the roof. That’s a no-no.”

“You’ve got your AC at one end of the house, and you spend most of your time—in the TV room, the master bedroom—at the other end,” observed Bennett. “That’s making that AC work way too hard.”

On it went. The good news was that I’d just lucked into buying an efficient AC unit, a sufficiently green gas cooktop, and an energy-saving pump for my water heater; all three experts also liked the fact that I’d bought a programmable thermostat (even if I hadn’t yet learned how to program it). But, jeez, the bad news. It ranged from easily fixable problems—my incandescent lightbulbs are energy wasters and contribute to greenhouse emissions; my water heater needs a “blanket” to keep hot water hot—to the more complicated: My attic insulation is fifty years old and has a value of R-9, when the EPA recommends it be between R-38 and R-49; my wall insulation has sunk in places, creating cold spots and a value of R-9 instead of the requisite R-11; and my floor, which has no insulation in the crawl space beneath, basically has no R-value when it should be R-11. Then there were gutter problems, attic ventilation problems, and the fact that my French windows, which make my house bleed heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer, could use replacing with double-pane or tinted versions. Oh, and I’ll need to look at installing another AC unit so that we can “zone” our cool air between upstairs and down.

I confess to having had bouts of defensiveness with each examination. What had I unleashed here? But I know enough about myself at this stage of life to accept that whenever I get defensive, it usually means that someone has a good point. So when Kelly showed me how to program my thermostat, I took notes. (For the cold months, we set it to stay at 70 degrees during the day, starting at six a.m., and to drop to 62 degrees at ten p.m.; I’ve already noticed a difference in how often the unit starts and stops.) I’m getting bids from insulation companies, and I’ve begun lightbulb shopping. For a measure of what I’m up against—and to gauge my progress—I’ve even determined my carbon footprint with the EPA’s online personal emissions calculator (see “Progress Report”).

More important, I’m now armed with the information to begin my exploration of green, a journey I will chronicle every other month over the next year. My goal? To critically examine all aspects of what makes a purportedly green lifestyle—energy efficiency, water conservation, recycling, composting, Xeriscaping, the whole nine yards—and determine how feasible, practically and intellectually, it is for one person to make changes. Let my greening begin.

Progress Report:

This month’s effect on my carbon footprint, wallet, and happiness.

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