When it comes to advocacy, the old adage of actions speaking louder than words holds true. So when you hear Wil Pineau and his wife Gwen touting the benefits of energy efficient construction to anyone who will listen, they can point doubters to their own home to prove it, writes Journal journalist Basia Pioro.
At about $300 a month, the electricity bills at their new 3,000-square-foot two-storey detached house are the same or lower than those at their previous residence – a 1,000-square-foot condo.
“We’ve been environmentally conscious for a long time, and when moving up to a bigger house we thought we should do it right,” said Mrs. Pineau.
“We were building in the height of the spike in CUC prices, so it was a major consideration.”
While electricity bills for Cayman Islands residents have been dropping thanks to low oil prices this past spring, oil is once again creeping upward past $60 a barrel.
And if the recession may begin to ease – contrary to what some top economists are predicting, a recent report from the Associated Press argues some investors see crude as a safe haven from inflation, and they’ve pumped money into oil futures on the expectation that oil will get more expensive as the economy improves.
Cayman has one benefit in that fuel prices lag the United States by about two months, as they are calculated at the time the fuel is purchased and not at the current world market price.
That gives residents an idea of how much they will be paying for fuel, and therefore electricity, a few months down the road. However, a better indicator of how much you could be paying is the energy efficiency of your home.
Back to basics
Lindsay Scott has a keen interest in energy efficient construction here in Cayman, playing a key role in making the solar-powered home in South Sound built for Frank Banks and his family a reality.
He’s trying to get the message across that energy efficiency considerations start with proper insulation – in walls, attics and through the use of energy efficient windows. It’s a key factor that allows appliances and air conditioners to do their jobs properly in stead of wasting your electricity dollars.
“In Cayman, you are paying per kilowatt hour four times what you are paying in the US,” says Mr. Scott.
“In the US you pay 11 cents, in Canada it is 16 cents, and here it is 21.4 cents or 26.15 cents if the fuel factor is at 11 cents,” he says.
“It’s safe to say it may go up to 22 cents, where you could be paying up to 40 cents per kilowatt hour in the near future.”
Mr Scott did an 18- month history and saw he was paying four times as much as US consumers.
“But that means on the flip side, every dollar you invest in insulation will be paid back to you in a quarter of the time it would take in the US,” he said.
The New York Times recently reported that in Austin the municipal utility estimates that it takes about five years for the typical homeowner to save enough money on utilities to pay for the initial upgrades, and hundreds of dollars a year in savings continue after that. In places where energy costs are higher or codes are weaker, the savings could be even greater.
It also noted that California reports that it has reduced energy consumption in new houses and commercial buildings by 75 per cent over the three decades that strict energy-efficiency building codes have been in effect there.
Likewise, a new home built today in Florida, a state that also has a strong energy code, is nearly 70 per cent more energy-efficient than a home of the same size built when codes were first enacted in 1979, according to the Florida Solar Energy Center, a state-supported research institute.
Not just homeowners
But the custom home builder is concerned with another large sector in Cayman – renters.
“Not only are tenants in Cayman spending a tremendous amount of money on rent, they are also paying a fortune for energy,” he says.
Mr Scott encourages renters to try to convince their landlords to embrace energy efficiency.
“If your lease is up, look to the air conditioner, the air handler and the water heater. Having the right ones will save you a lot of money,” he says.
CUC has produced a number of consumer energy guides that offer a wide range of energy efficiency tips.
So when choosing a rental unit, or if renewing a lease, Mr. Scott recommends tenants review what’s in the CUC pamphlets to familiarise themselves with the kinds of questions they should be asking their landlords.
It’s all connected
For example, air conditioners have a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio rating. According to CUC, units in Cayman should be rated 13 or higher. Many in Cayman aren’t, and with a lifespan that is typically five or so years, aging units should definitely be replaced.
It’s a relatively simple process to check the unit’s serial number on the manufacturer’s website to find out its SEER rating.
Furthermore, Mr. Scott points out that if the unit is noisy, it’s likely corroded and not running efficiently anymore.
But that’s not the only part of a home’s climate control system that matters. In central air systems, a component called the air handler sucks the home’s warm air past cold freon coils which cool it, and then the cooled air comes out of the air ducts back into the home’s living spaces.
“If the air handler is in the attic, and the attic is not insulated, you have a problem,” says Mr. Scott.
“In Cayman, an uninsulated attic gets extremely hot during the day. The warm air from the home flows through the hot attic, to the air handler, and then back through the hot attic before it reaches the living space.”
And if the ducts that pass through the attic aren’t insulated, the cooled air quickly heats up before it even reaches the rest of the house, doubling the problem.
Insulation levels are specified by R-Value, which is a measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat traveling through it. Most ducts have an r value of zero or one, meaning they have no insulation.
“That’s the point of insulating the attic, and that is what you need to fix if you want your central air conditioning system to be efficient,” says Mr. Scott.
The next thing Mr. Scott recommends looking at is the hot water heater.
“While the other two items may cost somewhat more, a new energy efficient water heater costs $300 dollars at the most,” he says.
Where there’s a will . . .
At the Pineau residence, home to the couple, their son and their two dogs, as many environmental considerations were addressed as possible, including water conserving toilets, a salt water pool, and locally sourced furnishings, but the focus was on energy efficiency.
The Pineaus say they would have done even more but it was hard to find certain products in Cayman and hard to find contractors experienced and willing to do the work. And some technologies, like LED lighting, were too expensive.
“We did everything we could to mitigate our energy use,” says Mr. Pineau.
“The house has outsulation – the block construction is wrapped in insulation. We blew iciynene insulation into all of the roof space and into the first floor, and ensured the attic was completely sealed, and we sealed the vents under the roof.”
Even on a very hot day, the temperature in the attic is moderate. The airtight house is served with an air purification system.
The couple worked with Polar Bear to put in two 20 SEER air conditioner units, one for upstairs and one for downstairs. The units provide zoned AC for each room.
“Our windows and doors are impact graded hurricane resistant to keep air pressure at a particular level so house remains cool during day, and we have used marine seal for extra air tightness,” he says.
They also turned to propane to cut costs.
Their stove and dryer run on propane, as does their Norlitz tankless water heater, the first such unit to be installed in the Caribbean. Appliances are EnergyStar rated – even the flat-panel liquid crystal television was bought for energy considerations.
All lighting is low voltage wherever possible, and silhouette shades on the windows further reflect heat from entering the home.
The couple decided to make all the changes even before lower duties on energy saving fixtures were introduced in late 2008.
“I would encourage anyone upgrading their homes to do this as it does impact monthly operational cost,” said Mr. Pineau.
He said that he is also exploring the possibility of installing a small wind turbine to power the home.
He says that the process did have some challenges, citing a big learning curve in Cayman when it comes to energy efficient construction.
“A lot of contractors are not familiar with the technologies, and in some cases you are battling the contractor to convince them you can build using new materials,” he said.
“In effect, you are educating the contractors as much as you are educating yourselves.”
He is also taking further action on the need to fill the knowledge gap. In his role as CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, he organised a special vendor display of environmentally friendly and energy efficient products.
“The more people that understand the technologies the better for the community,” he said.
“I am a living example of what learning about this can accomplish.”