Sunday, February 1, 2009

It's Not Easy, or Inexpensive, Being Green

Building in the country will force us to revisit assumptions and calculations about how much we are willing to pay for a so-called green or sustainable home.

Hey man, using photovoltaic cells or wind turbines to generate your own electricity sounds awesomely cool and progressive, doesn't it?

Maybe so, but when you get an estimate of $25,000 or more to install a medium-capacity system, your enthusiasm turns into a 10-second pause, followed by a "hmmm."

In the case of Rancho Santa Clara, electric generation is only part of the expense. We need to build a very large cistern for rain collection to back up spotty water service from a community well; satellite TV service (there's no cable) and satellite Internet service (there are no land-line phones). The last two are not exactly energy savers but the result of living off-grid.

To that add a solar water heater; costlier plumbing fixtures such as dual-flush toilets to save water; two on-demand water heaters at each end of the house to back up the solar system; and state-of-the-art appliances to conserve electricity, propane and scarce water.

Should we install double-glazed windows, which cost twice as much as regular wrought iron windows commonly used in Mexico, in order to save heating fuel? A considerably more expensive baseboard heating system instead of the fumey and highly inefficient fake fireplace logs used in most homes?

At this point, I'd like to paraphrase the late Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen's quip about federal spending: "A thousand here and a thousand there, and pretty soon you're talking real money." (Dirksen was talking billions of dollars.)

Your private crusade to reduce your home's "carbon footprint" suddenly gets expensive, perhaps alarmingly so. Something's got to go.

Indeed, a top-of-the-head estimate suggests that all this energy-saving whiz-bang may add as much as 25 percent to the cost of building Rancho Santa Clara.

On second thought, better make that a 20-second pause and a double "hmmm."

Except for a few items, most notably solar panels for electricity and a rainwater catchment setup, most of these decisions are yet to be made. But we've tried to develop a system for dealing with these options somewhat rationally, using three considerations.

First, is it necessary?

Second, is it cost effective, that is, is the investment likely to pay off within, say, ten years?

The final vector is admittedly the fuzziest. I'll call it "eco-virtue", that warm feeling you get from doing your share to combat (pick one or all) global warming, vanishing rain forests, depletion of natural resources or other looming environmental calamity. You do it because you feel you should.

Generating our own electricity and collecting rainwater easily qualify as necessities. There's no electric service to the ranch and we have no faith that the community well system is going to supply us with water in the long term. Baseboard heating also may qualify: Both Stew and I are allergic to the gas fumes from the ventless gas fireplaces used here.

A solar water heating system, on the other hand, doesn't really qualify as essential. We could do just fine with a cheapo propane water heater and forget solar and/or the two on-demand water heating units.

But depending on the cost of the unit, solar water heating may pass the payback test. We've heard of solar water heating rigs going for as little as $3,000 or as much as $8,000. We now probably pay around $30 a month for propane for water heating--it's hard to segregate the exact cost--or $360 a year.

If we spend $4,000 for a solar system it likely would pay for itself in ten years, especially since the price of propane in Mexico will continue to increase yearly. There's also a possibility (we've heard different stories) that a solar water heater could feed into a baseboard hot water system, saving a bit more propane and money.

Any system based on solar energy is a no-brainer in San Miguel, where a full day without sunshine is rare.

Things getting iffier regarding a decision to install double-glazed windows and doors. The standard in San Miguel are custom-made wrought iron units that are usually drafty and let in the dust during the dry season. The green choice clearly is double-glazed windows but they are twice as expensive as the conventional wrought iron models, or as much as $20,000 for a house full of them, according to a guesstimate by the architect.

Are we going to save $10,000 in heating costs over ten years? Doubtful. But there's the comfort factor of airtight windows during the winter plus no maintenance. How much is that worth? We'll find out in a few months and decide.

Then there's eco-virtue, that satisfying, even a tad smug, feeling you get from doing your share to protect the environment.

In San Miguel's expat community, the breezes of eco-virtue perhaps blow a little more strongly than in other places.

For one thing, Mexico may be 20 years behind the U.S. in environmental laws and public awareness. Glaring environmental problems such open sewers and mountains of garbage are not distant history but recurrent sights that shock foreigners no matter how long they've lived here.

Among American retirees, many of them of a liberal, even hippie-dippy bent, eco-virtue can become a competitive sport too, as in "my compost pile is bigger than yours" and "I recycle gray water, so why don't you?" Retirement, and all the free time it brings, no doubt facilitates the pursuit of environmental correctness.

At least one "permaculture" community several miles outside of San Miguel, and populated mostly by Americans, has reportedly imploded largely because of the ecological fundamentalism of some of its members and the resulting infighting.

For those not familiar with the term, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines permaculture as "an agricultural system or method that seeks to integrate human activity with natural surroundings so as to create highly efficient self-sustaining ecosystems."

At the permaculture colony we visited, serious debates would flare among the residents over someone's plans to add a second story to their house, bring in a telephone line or an electric connection or even an exterior paint job considered too jarring. What is considered "sustainable"? How many trees must each resident plant? Of what kind? Can the buzz from an overhead electric line harm one's brain? Should composting toilets be mandatory? What's wrong with conventional septic tanks anyway? Who knows? Who decides? Who cares?

In our case, Stew and I have opted for pragmatism: We'll do the most we can but within the strictures of budgets and common sense.

For example, we plan to spend a bit more on a new generation septic system that recycles all the home's gray and black water and turns into water that can be used for landscape irrigation.

That rules out composting toilets--sawdust, pitchfork and all--which we consider disagreeable and downright medieval.

As more houses go up around Rancho Santa Clara, so far all of them built by Americans, a healthy pragmatism is emerging. Two houses were built with conventional red brick and cement; one with a new type of aerated cement blocks; another with recycled field rocks and the new blocks. A young couple from New York has mentioned they'd like to use rammed earth construction.

Our house is likely to use adobe blocks, and so far we are the only ones talking about using solar electric panels. Other homeowners have signed up with Mexico's government-owned electric utility, one saying that solar was just too expensive and complicated.

So be it.

Whatever green features our home eventually includes, just thinking about them has altered how we, two individuals, view our relationship to the environment. Unlike living in a condo or a house in Chicago where the provision of such necessities are taken for granted, at Rancho Santa Clara we have to consider even the most basic elements of nature and survival--the sun, the wind, the ground and particularly water, whether it comes from the sky as rainfall or from a hole in San Miguel's desert ground.

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3 comments:

  1. We didn't want you guys in our permaculture anyway. Baseboard hot water is for guys from Chi-Town who can't stand the cold.
    Signed, Hippy Dippy

    ReplyDelete
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  3. You have made home construction in Mexico an interesting topic. Thanks.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

    ReplyDelete