Thursday, January 14, 2016

Home and Hearth

In a state that is one of the top three in home mortgage foreclosures and in a neighborhood that has greater than 10% vacancy, it's hard to justify investments in one's dwelling unless you are destined to remain in place regardless of the market. It becomes a speculative decision which includes factors of the local economy, energy prices, and climate-driven demographic shifts.

In our case, I believe these factors favor energy upgrades to our home only as a long-term investment or if the energy savings payoff begins within three years. I see our local economy continuing to be buoyed up by the national security apparatus, of which our portion is Naval Air Systems (NAVAIR). I see grid electricity becoming more scarce as the fracking bubble bursts and coal gets left in the ground. Finally, the climate-driven migration of westerners to the east will probably take a decade or so to begin.

The net result looks to me like the value of homes in Southern Maryland will not fall too heavily before they start to recover sometime around 2025. Our own lower tier neighborhood, the Chesapeake Ranch Estates (CRE), will fall harder and recover slower than most. Becoming a municipality would ameliorate CRE's decline, but that looks politically dubious. However, if the Board of County Commissioners realizes how badly they ignored our concerns over the Cove Point gas plant LNG expansion, they will approve our municipality petition as consolation.

There are a host of things you can do to save energy in your home. We have a dishwasher that costs us an estimated $35/year in excessive energy usage over the newer Energy Star models. It recently leaked slowly into our kitchen floor and through the basement ceiling, causing over $10,000 in damage. After twisting the stingy arms of HMS, our home warranty company, I expect this old dishwasher to be repaired, after which I plan to sell it and get a newer model (and fire HMS - they should have replaced it outright).

While solar power looks slightly uneconomical for us at this point, I would consider installing a solar water heater. Water heating consumes about 18% of a typical home's energy. Over three years, cutting my electric bill by 18% would total to about $1,000.  Perhaps a DIY installation of a solar water heater would make sense.

Before that, the project that looks most lucrative is to augment our electric heat pump with a wood-burning stove that could potentially shave a whopping 45% off our electric bill! So now we are looking at about $3,000 saved over three years. Rather than rely on pellet fuel, I will have to look into rocket stoves.  I produce lots of kindling in the process of making biochar. If it can make my home heating costs disappear, making more sticks would be no problem. I can picture us being warm all evening in the basement watching the glow of a real fire, then retiring upstairs with the risen heat to comfort us throughout the night. It's a picture that, in the end, makes mechanized heat less desireable than the more labor-intensive way.

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