High efficiency condensing tankless water heater at Sharon and Len’s house

This “Neighbor Spotlight” is one of a series about ordinary people in Needham doing extraordinary things to be a better neighbor to planet Earth. Please be inspired!

In the last post, I wrote about Sharon, the woman who plants trees. In this post, Sharon and her husband, Len, return with a different story, this one about taking the time to go along with the frontier technological progress, improving the energy efficiency of your lifestyle as it becomes technologically and economically feasible to do so.

Sharon and Len moved into their house in 1970, almost 50 years ago. Some readers may not remember, but the 1970’s were (also) a heyday for environmentalism and energy conservation. Back then, solar panels and EV’s were just a futuristic vision; to save energy, you turned down the heat and put on a sweater, which Sharon and Len did (this is still a good energy saving policy, by the way). Sharon and some other Needham friends sewed window quilts and attached little magnets; these went over the windows at night to keep out cold drafts. Len pressed lengths of rope into the cracks of the window sashes to make them tight during the winters.

That’s what made sense back then. Eventually, in the 1980’s technology had progressed and it became economically feasible to blow dense-­packed cellulose insulation into wall cavities. When low-E glass double-glazed windows became good and economical enough, they added large south­-facing windows to improve passive solar gain. When CFLs came along to replace incandescent light bulbs they did that, and more recently, they changed over to LEDs. They put spray foam insulation around the basement sills.

Each one of these changes nudged their overall energy use down a little more. By 2011, their house was unique enough to be one of those featured in the Needham League of Women Voters Green House Tour. Interestingly, as I spoke with them, it became clear that recently, there has been a clear uptick in the frequency and the impact of the energy upgrades in Len and Sharon’s story (proving that this is a fantastic time for improving your home energy efficiency!).  In 2000 the old inefficient oil furnace had been jettisoned for a very small, highly efficient Dunkirk furnace and Beckett flame-retention oil burner. In 2008, some of the first floor radiators were replaced with more efficient radiant floor heating, a single project that reduced heating energy use by about 9%. In 2014, they made one change that wiped out the entirety of what remained of their electricity bill: 14 PV panels were installed on their roof as part of the Solarize Needham campaign. Most recently, they replaced their 50 gallon hot water tank with a high­ tech tankless water heater that recaptures waste heat (by condensing the combustion gases) and incorporates a re-circulator to reduce water consumption, so that up to 95 percent of the energy input is transformed into usable hot water (in an older conventional hot water tank this can be as low as 50 percent). Finally, in September, because lithium-ion batteries have become cheaper and available for home use, they will install a Tesla PowerWall 2 backup system in their basement to allow use of the rooftop PV panels during a power outage.

It is not entirely clear what technological updates will make their way into Sharon and Len’s house next, but, since technology keeps moving forward, we can be confident that there is more to come ­when the time is right!

Read other “Neighbor Spotlight” posts. 

Babette Wils is a Needham resident and active Green Needham volunteer. Babette is stepping down from a career in international education consulting and stepping into a career as a food forest farmer. Read more from Babette at her BigFoot Gardens blog.

Neighbor spotlight: Going with the Technology Frontier

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