Photos: Green homes on the cheap

My experience with pellet stoves and energy efficiency shows that you don't need a million dollars for a green home retrofit.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

There are all sorts of tech geeks working at CNET. I'm an energy geek, both at home and at work.

So how do you do the "green building" thing? Well, if you're wealthy enough to hire a sustainability architect, you have a new home built with bamboo flooring and solar panels (and lots of closet space.)

Click on this image for a photo gallery of assorted green home retrofits, including a pellet stove. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

For all the rest of us, I've assembled a photo gallery on ways to "green" your lifestyle using some examples from my home. For a very thorough run-down of resources, check out "How to green your life" from CNET's Elsa Wenzel.

Biomass, baby
Perhaps the most unusual thing I did was have a pellet stove installed last year. It's my attempt to fuel my home with a domestic, renewable fuel: compressed sawdust.

Overall, it's great. It burns hot enough to heat the downstairs of our small home and a blazing fire is just a nice thing to have in your living room.

Is it green? Yes, because it's made from a byproduct of wood mills. If the wood is harvested sustainably, then it's renewable. The Pellet Fuels Institute, an industry group, claims that burning pellets is "carbon neutral" since trees capture the carbon dioxide from burning the fuel, but that's not something I've been able to verify independently.

Unlike old-fashioned wood stoves, they don't give off a lot of smoke, which I'd rather not breathe.

I think the biggest concern facing pellet stove owners--and the industry as a whole--is availability of fuel. A few years ago, there was a shortage that pushed up prices and made it hard to find fuel during the winter.

That's being addressed because there are more mills being constructed to boost production, said Don Kaiser, the executive director of the Pellet Fuels Institute, which is lobbying for renewable energy tax rebates on pellet stove purchases.

Even without a rebate, the economics on purchasing a stove look pretty good, at least for me and my New England home. A back-of-the-envelope calculation I did showed that our overall heating bills aren't going down dramatically when all costs are included.

But we did notice something remarkable when we looked at our older bills: natural gas heating prices have shot up, nearly doubling in the nine years I've lived in my home. So with an alternate heat source, I've got a hedge against rising, or volatile, fossil fuel prices.

Of course, you need storage space for your fuel. And if you have a bad back, don't bother. You need to lug 40-pound bags around to feed the stove as often as once a day.

Alternative energy sources aside, efficiency is really the name of the game in the home.

Experts refer to energy efficiency as an energy "source" all its own that should have the same incentives that renewable sources like solar and wind have. Still, there are some tax incentives for doing the basics like insulation in the attic.

Earth Day 2008
Click here to see all of News.com's Earth Day 2008 stories, photo galleries, and more.

Smart grid technology is starting to creep out into the power grid. For consumers, the most visible result will be some sort of in-home display that shows the cost of energy at a given time during the day.

Depending on the utility energy-efficiency program, consumers can choose to dial down their consumption themselves or have the utility propose an action as it did in a yearlong GridWise trial in the Seattle area. For example, the utility could turn the gas off from a dryer for a few minutes.

Overall, the GridWise trial found that it lowered consumers' energy costs by about 10 percent and took the strain off the grid during peak times, which could eliminate the need to build new power plants.

For starters, people can use smart power strips that cut down on the "vampire load" that most electronics pull even when they are idle.

For a more all-encompassing view on green retrofits, Elsa's piece offers many places to get more information. Also, last fall, I hosted an Ask the Editors forum on green buildings where many topics were discussed.

Another recent case study is Bill Nye (the Science Guy), who opened his 1939 home to the New York Times Magazine and offered his prescription for green living with style.