Saturday, August 31, 2019

How We Increased Our Home's Efficiency by 48 Percent!

I recently scheduled an energy audit with my utility company, Ameren Illinois, I was actually inspired to do so because I was preparing for my one-hour, live interview with the Citizens Utility Board.  Since I was disseminating advice on reducing your utility bills, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to schedule an energy audit of my home.

Our family qualified for a free audit and energy assistance through Ameren Illinois' Home Efficiency Program, aimed at helping low and moderate income families increase the energy efficiency of their homes. Here's a look at the chart from the Ameren website.

Number of Persons in HouseholdMaximum Income
The application process was very easy. Our income was verified and within 24 hours and we received an e-mail, stating that we qualified for the program.

*Please note: I received no compensation of any kind for this review, except that which I qualified for through the Ameren Instant Savers Assessment Program. *

The ball got rolling quickly, with a follow-up phone call from Ameren Illinois, my utility company. An energy specialist was slated to arrive at my home within the week.

Our auditor, Travis, arrived promptly at 9am. What a great, informative, helpful guy! He explained the process to me and it quickly became clear why it takes an average of three hours to complete an audit. They are thorough! I mean, this is far more extensive than any inspection I have been through to buy or sell a home!

We immediately discover three problems!

A bright yellow handheld device with a thin, flexible metal rod protruding from the top was slowly waved over the surface of all items, which used natural gas. This combustible gas detector emitted a beep, which increased in intensity and volume in the presence of natural gas in the surrounding air. The reading it takes, known as the L.E.L. - Lower Explosive Limit, is actually able to detect finite levels of gas leakage. Apparently around 50 percent of homes which are tested have some amount of gas leaking, yet the homeowners know nothing about it.

Checking for gas leaks

We turned out to be one of the 50% - twice over! There was a leak right where you see the snakelike projection in the photo. In a scary turn of events, the beeping machine also found that the gas shut off valve for our dryer was leaking.

In a final blow, Travis noticed that the hot water heater exhaust pipe had been improperly installed.

Improperly fitted water heater exhaust pipe

That crimped edge in the center of the photo shouldn't be showing. That portion of the extension should fit securely up against the receptacle at the top of the ceiling.

The problem is that improper alignment can allow the gravity-fed exhaust from the water heater to escape into the room, creating a build up of carbon monoxide. This was not something to be ignored.

The gas was turned off at the street as we awaited a rescue team to arrive to fix all three problems. First, an Ameren journeyman replaced the leaky valve in the front of the house with lightening quick speed. Then, the inspection was put on "hold" for an additional 60 minutes, while a local contractor came out to repair both the leak in the dryer line and the hot water heater exhaust pipe.

Air flow is tested with a puff of smoke

The shiny, new water heater exhaust pipe was tested for backdrafting with a puff of artificial smoke.
Everything was now in proper working order!

All problem areas rectified, we were back on track and once again testing my home's energy efficiency.

More common problems unearthed

I learned a lot as the process turned up more areas of concern. Travis was incredibly gracious and kept up a nice stream of conversation, orally downloading facts, figures, and information as I plied him with questions.

Clogged Central Air Cage

Clogged central air conditioner cage

The vents for our central air were completely clogged. Apparently, you can direct a spray of water from a hose through them and easily clean out the organic material - on in our case, mostly seeds from local, prolific, cottonwood trees.

The big problem with this condition is that the coating of grime causes additional load on the AC unit. The motor must work harder to move air, shortening the length of its life and raising our utility bills.

To fix the situation, we would need to direct a gentle stream of water between the top and side of the unit, spraying outward to remove the debris and clean out the dust, dirt, and debris. This, same procedure should be followed every spring, before turning on the central air unit.

Dirty dryer vent exhaust 

Lint collected at the exit of the dryer vent

Most homeowners, me included, don't think to periodically examine the state of their dryer exhaust. We should! Dryer vent fires are quite common, but the possibility can be drastically diminished when the entire vent is vacuumed out once or twice year.

The Building Flow Leakage Test!

The Blower Door 

The final part of the inspection was something called a building flow leakage test. My front door was covered by a bright, red canopy with a large fan in the bottom, center quadrant.

As I gazed at the contraption, my mind raced back to the hazmat scene from the 1980's movie, "ET". This really did look eerily similar.

Measuring air pressure and flow

I watched, as numbers on this electronic continued to climb, telling the tale of just exactly how quickly air was flowing through my house, even with every door and window closed!

Our blower door test revealed a final number of 11.0 ACH50. The average home measures about a 10 ACH 50. However, one must compare this number with that of new construction: a 4.0 ACH 50.

So, what did all these figures mean to me, the homeowner? Travis quickly broke it down to layman's terms. It was significant that my score was10, because any level between 10 and 15 actually represents a fairly significant leakage problem. Main, but not surprising, problem points were areas which provide a natural bridge between the outdoor and indoor air.

Our main problem areas included:  

Our whole house fan - a major area for leaking air

  • My centralized, whole-house fan
  • My bathroom exhaust fan
  • Our jalousie-windowed back door
  • The top plates of our interior walls, where they met the roofline

We got new thermostat, smart power strips, and more!

Nest Programmable Smart Thermostat

Before leaving, Travis installed a number of power-saving devices in my home for free! It's all a part of Ameren's Instant Savers Assessment Program! These included: 

  • Two smart power strips (to help reduce vampire power)
  • New low-flow faucet aerators (To reduce water use and reduce strain on the water heater)
  • New LED lightbulbs (To reduce energy usage)

New, low-flow, faucet aerators replaced this old, bulky unit.

As the process concluded, Travis, once again reviewed the problem areas in the house and ensured that I now understood how gaps were allowing a continuous exchange of air from indoors to outdoors. My house was far leakier than I had ever anticipated! He left, assuring me that everything could be fixed.

We did, however, have a small financial commitment to make to the process. As homeowners, we had three minor problems, which would need to be brought up to code before project completion. The repairs would cost us less than $300.

In the meantime, a second, and even more thorough examination, would be performed by Todd Abercrombie of EverGreen Home Energy Consultants. Todd would then provide us a with a list of detailed, prioritized, actionable steps and connect us with one of Ameren's trusted, locally-owned program allies.

The next step in the process

Once again, I didn't have to wait long. I received a call from Todd within a week. Arriving at the agreed upon hour, he, first, repeated Travis' initial tests, to ensure that the calculations were correct.

They were.

There was a clear flow of heat from the centralized whole house fan

In addition to verifying the original energy loss numbers, a thermal imaging camera was used, to aid in defining the exact amount of heat loss, The device was aimed at doors, windows, near the ceiling, at the roofline, through the whole house fan, and, finally, up the bathroom exhaust.

Heat escaping where the top plates meet the downward sloping roofline. 

This was pretty cool technology! I was able to physically see heat radiating through unseen holes in my home.

Todd explained that even brand new constructions contain some air flow. Although the numbers looked pretty high to me, Todd said that he had seen worse and reiterated Travis' assertion that just a few upgrades could provide me with a significant reduction in heat or cooling loss. 

The next week I received an extensive, final, detailed report with a prioritized list of both necessary and suggested projects. Todd also recommended and connected us with Central Illinois Insulation, an Ameren energy program ally. 

What our certified Ameren trusted partner did for us

The crew from Central Illinois Insulation were absolutely remarkable! Being in an attic on a blazing Central Illinois summer day brings about visions worthy of inclusion in Dante's famous Inferno. But, they labored tirelessly and cheerfully, putting forth their best effort in less than ideal working conditions. 

Replacing the Bathroom Exhaust Fan

A new Panasonic energy efficient bathroom fan

The new Panasonic Whisper Green Bath Exhaust Fan is vented properly and "hums", rather than rattles when in use. It keeps moisture at bay even when a teenage boy is standing under running water in the shower, singing through multiple verses of his favorite songs. I was very impressed with how effectively the new fan wicked steam from the room.

Sealing the Backdoor

A plexiglass  panel on the inside, seals leaks from the jalousie window.

This was a little tricky. We really didn't want a replacement door. I like being able to look from the backdoor into the garage. But, the original jalousie windows were like a leaky sieve. Tim Wagenbach, owner of Central Illinois Insulation, took on this task personally. He found a piece of plexiglass and had it cut to the perfect size. Then, he custom fitted it over the top of the existing window frame. It was the perfect solution!

Sealing cracks in the attic and adding insulation

New insulation helps keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. 

Previous to the improvements, my attic only contained maybe six inches of very old, squished insulation. It's no wonder the attic and roof were the main sources of heating and cooling loss for my home! They were the spaces, which allowed for the greatest degree of conductivity between the interior and exterior spaces.

Sealing, in the form of foam, caulk, or solid materials were applied to areas like the chimney base, top plates, wiring penetrations, plumbing penetrations, the kitchen soffit, and the whole house fan.

We had one additional request for the attic project, a plywood walkway so that the whole house fan could easily be reached for yearly maintenance. We opted to pay out-of-pocket to have the workmen to do this for us.

After that, insulation was blown in to a factor of R-49.

Adding a whole house fan cover

The new fan cover fits tight against the ceiling, but is easy to remove to put the fan into use. 

The final area of concern was our whole house fan. Unlike many people, we actually use our whole house fan, especially in the spring and fall, when nighttime temperatures drop and the humidity is also low. So, plugging it up permanently was not an option.

Instead, an insulated, magnetized specialty cover proved to be the perfect solution. The interior of the cover is insulated, providing an additional R-factor. Yet, the durable cover is also easy enough for my older boys to grab the magnetized corner to remove it when we are planning to use the fan.

The cost of the project 

The cost of these home improvements was nearly $4000 and was completely covered by Ameren's Energy Efficiency Home Audit program! Our only out-of-pocket cost was that of paying to have three minor items replaced and brought up to code and the cost of laying the plywood flooring in the attic. It was less than $500. 

Final report 

The final report showed an amazing 48% increase in air efficiency! 

While our initial blower door test CFM level had been 11.0, the post-improvement test revealed a new number of 5.8! New construction is built to a code of 4.0. That means our home's level of air efficiency is now very close to that of a new build!  The results were even better than Ameren's initial projections! Everyone was well-pleased, deeming the project a rousing success!

Does this mean my utility bills will drop by half? 

No. It's a measure of the reduction of the overall air leakage of my home. It is one of the metrics used to determine how air moves through a structure, which affects its ability to effectively and efficiently heat and cool. 

Have I noticed a difference?

Yes, I have! 

  • Our central air, which seemed to be running constantly, is now taking long "breathers" before turning on, rather than continuously cycling. This is happening even though the weather has remained hot and sticky. 
  • I can stand in the hallway and no longer feel the heat of the attic radiating through the closed whole house fan. 
  • Although we've not had a full bill cycle since the improvements, we did just receive our August utility bill, which was under $200, a record low for us in the midst of hot summer heat and humidity! 

Do I recommend the program?

Absolutely! If you live in Ameren Illinois' service area, check the on-line chart to see if you qualify for the program. Every single person involved in the process was incredibly polite, giving their time and knowledge and treating us with the utmost respect.

Special thanks to: 

  • Suzanne at the Ameren home office, who answered my initial phone call and processed our application with lightening fast speed. 
  • Todd Abercrombie, owner of EverGreen Home Energy Consultants, who did a thorough, top-notch job, coming up with such a detailed, thoroughly thought through action plan
  • Tim Wagenbach, owner of Central Illinois Insulation and his amazing crew, who worked for hours without complaint in my sweltering hot attic to install the new insulation and complete the rest of the project upgrades. 
  • Ameren Illinois, who offer great service to the customers in their service area. 

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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Let's Go "Nuts" With Seasonal Produce

Every week during the growing season I share with you ideas for planning your weekly menu around readily available, fresh, delicious, local produce. It's literally one of the least expensive means of saving money on your grocery bill.

This week, I decided to"go nuts". 

That's right! Every single one of these recipes features fresh farmers market produce paired with some kind of nut.

Zucchini, basil, chickpea soup

This soup was amazing! It features a puree of basil, nuts, and garlic. That's right! You make a simple pesto and then stir it in to the soup at the very end. The finished soup is bursting with fresh flavor that will keep you coming back again and again for another bowl!

20-Minute Vegan Creole Green Beans

This is an exclusive, Under the Median, Cheap Eats recipe. Growing up, I begged my mother to make Creole green beans. I loved the smoky, salty flavor of the ham or bacon. As a vegan, I wanted to recreate that experience without the meat. So, the 15 year old sous chef and I got to work this week in our kitchen. This recipe gives you all the flavor you remember, without added fat, cholesterol, or salt.

Scalloped Carrots Topped With Almonds

Scalloped carrots topped with almonds

I introduced you to scalloped carrots in last week's CSA post, when I talked about 5 ways to scallop vegetables. My version used the Allrecipes version for inspiration and topped it with a sprinkling of chopped almonds for extra crunch. 

Carrot Top Pesto

Pesto is always a good idea! Having it in the freezer is an even better idea! I make a large batch and freeze it in small yogurt containers. Just fill the containers, freeze, pop out the pesto cubes, and throw them in a labelled freezer bag. One cube will nicely cover 8-10 ounces of cooked pasta.

Almond Tomato Spread

This recipe comes from Martha Stewart. I didn't add the olive oil, but the finished spread was absolutely perfect for dipping with tortilla chips or raw veggies.

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Easy 20 Minute Vegan Creole Green Beans

As a child, I begged my mother to make classic Creole green beans, flavored with ham or bacon. I would eat them by the bowlful. Many years later, as a vegan, I wanted to recreate that flavor without any added fat, salt, and cholesterol.

Grabbing my faithful black cast iron skillet, the two junior sous chefs and I spent one afternoon creating this recipe for you. A splash of low sodium soy sauce is responsible for the salty flavor, while a capful of liquid smoke adds the illusion of meat.


1 pound fresh green beans 
1/2 cup water (divided use)
1 medium red onion - chopped
2 cloves garlic - minced
1 1/2 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce 
1 capful (about 3/4 tsp.) liquid smoke 
1 Tbsp salt-free seasoning (I like Costco brand)
1 Tbsp onion powder
2 large tomatoes - chopped
1/4 cup chopped almonds (optional) 


Wash the beans, stem, and snap into 1 inch pieces. Set aside. 

Heat 4 Tbsp of water in a medium sized skillet. When the water is hot, add the chopped onions and garlic. Cook until the onion and garlic are lightly browned. If needed, add water 2 Tbsp at a time to keep the vegetables from scorching. Add the remaining water, spices, and green beans to the pan. Place lid on pan and cook for 10 minutes. The beans should be bright green. There should be just a little water left in the bottom of the pan. Add soy sauce, chopped tomatoes, and liquid smoke. Cook another 5-7 minutes. 

Sprinkle with chopped almonds. Serves 6. 

For a FREE, downloadable PDF of this recipe, click here

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Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Community Approach to Ending Food Insecurity

I recently attended a half day symposium on food insecurity and ongoing efforts in my community to insure that healthy food is available to everyone.

Author, Andy Fisher, co-founder of the Community Food Security Coalition, and keynote speaker at the "What's Our Recipe" half day seminar, puts the percentage of  US households dealing with food insecurity issues, at 11.8%. This number seems pretty low, until you realize that statistic represents 1 in every 10 households in America.

What is "food insecurity"? 

Food insecurity is, very simply, the physical lack of enough food in a home and the absence of monetary resources to purchase more. As far as my limited research could tell, food insecurity does not really include any measures of the nutritional nature of the food being provided for yourself, your partner or spouse, or your children. In other words, there are no markers to designate or differentiate between eating a Standard American Diet or choosing a healthier whole foods plant based diet. 

In 2006, the USDA developed a new sub-set of four standards to describe food insecurity, ranging from "high food security" to "very low food security".  

Does your family suffer from food insecurity? 

Want to see how the USDA would characterize your family food patterns? Here's a PDF of the forms and questions they use to determine food insecurity

I took the survey and discovered that our family is considered to be mildly affected by food insecurity, not because there is not enough food available, but because our lean budget somewhat limits the types of food and total amount which can be purchased each month. 

What does all this have to do with living Under the Median? 


Although no one person is immune from the possibility of experiencing hunger in their lifetime, the statistics skyrocket when you begin looking at those who make a less-than-average income. The lower your income, the greater percentage of the total money available in your budget must be spent on food.

Using my family as an example, even though we have lived above the poverty level (but, for the most part, beneath the national median), most years we have had to allocate more than the generally suggested 10-15% guideline for food.

 USDA Guidelines

Following the instructions on the USDA website, I calculated the "thrifty" food budget for our family of five. It was just over $764.00 monthly. I find that number to be astronomically high! Seriously! I cannot imagine having that much money to spend on groceries! It would, in fact, be well over 20% of our income.

I, apparently, have an unbelievably low monthly grocery budget of just over $400 for five people. In fact, my actual budget numbers are $450 per month total for both food and household items like shampoo and toilet bowl cleaner.

What does food insecurity look like? 

As I, along with my two junior sous chefs, listened, Andy Fisher painted a picture of the face of hunger as a reflection of two major factors: 

  • Poverty
  • A lack of political power

I don't think any of us would argue the validity that living from month-to-month on a budget which does not provide enough resources to provide basic food, clothing, and shelter would be devastating on a number of different levels.  One is often faced with a series of seemingly untenable choices, when money is that tight. 

So, what are we to do? 

Fisher suggests a combination of labor, hunger, and environmental groups to spearhead programs, designed to reach out to the needy and offer viable solutions and a virtual ladder out of poverty. 

Partnership for a Healthy Community

Partnership for a Healthy Community is a committee, comprised, at the time of this writing, of twenty local organizations. After receiving a $40,000 grant, the search committee quickly assembled a dedicated group of volunteers, who were then empowered to hit the ground running.  

Project #1: Cooking Matters Program 

The Cooking Matters Program represents the premier voyage of group's efforts. They set out to discover why people eat the way they eat. Survey participants most often cited "time" as being one of the major reasons that they felt the goal of eating healthy was difficult for them to achieve. 

After synthesizing the results, a committee of local nutrition and outreach specialists decided to focus on:  

  • offering WIC Education
  • utilizing a toolkit for making nutritional changes
  • sponsoring worksite wellness events

Project #2: Increased Healthy Food Options

This second committee was formed by a combination of local medical and social service professionals. Their target is to increase the inventory, options, and availability of healthy food in our community. 

What does this mean for you?  

I recognize that I have readers from all over the globe. No matter where you live, you can search for a group with whom to align yourself. You can help make an impact in your community. You can help end hunger. Remember, not all help is monetary. No matter your personal income, you have something to give

Here are some objectives and resources for you. 

These objectives and programs are currently either being currently utilized or are ready to be implemented in my city. 

HEAL (Healthy Eating and Active Living)

Materials from the USDA's Healthy Eating and Active Living division can be used for free, by any group in addressing food and poverty issues. 

Your turn!

What does food insecurity look like to you? How can communities best work toward providing every person with access to healthy food? What is your locale doing to address this problem? Leave me your thoughts in the comments. 

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