EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 7, 2007

Green light to a big adventure

Judith Holt "The New Hearth"

Meet the O'Briens. They are about to launch a big adventure in energy savings.

Donna and Kevin O'Brien are parents of great kids | Ann Marie, Rosalie, Danny and Thomas | who range in age from first grade to high school. Kevin commutes to Wakefield and Boston for work. Donna spends much of her time driving the children to school and activities.

The O'Briens live in a 3,000-square-foot home built within the last 10 years. It is average size for Andover and is up to building code in terms of insulation, ventilation, and other important energy savers such as insulated windows. They have vaulted ceilings in some rooms, oil heat, and an electric water heater. Sound familiar? They are like a lot of families in Andover.

The O'Briens are my good friends and neighbors, and they have agreed to participate in an analysis of their energy use. In doing so, they are taking on another task in their already full schedules, so I am grateful for their enthusiasm.

It was a challenge to get together with all of them because, as with most families, the kids are off in different directions | a dance class here, a study group there, a ball game in an hour. At a carefully orchestrated meeting (because they had to eat dinner and be off again), we discussed the project. I asked why they wanted to do this. The most honest reason came forth when the kids said they hoped this would help them "save money so they could go to Disney World and have more money for college." They were not aware what impact they can have and had not seen any films or presentations on global warming, which we will do as part of the project. But I believe they, like other homeowners, can have a big impact on energy use. Some 50 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from the built environment.

We agreed to evaluate their overall energy use and each of them chose to do a special project. These projects will be done as a family and individual projects will be done by each child. Here are some of the projects they will tackle:

r Lighting | They were eager to set up a tracking system for the lights to keep tabs on when the lights are on and off. We are going to add up how many lights they have and how often they are on or off. Then we will calculate the impact of changing some of the bulbs to more efficient bulbs.

r Driving | Donna and Kevin will track the number of miles they drive. Donna takes her children to school every day and to many activities. Kevin commutes and will calculate the carbon footprint of this daily drive.

r Computer and small appliance use | Ann Marie will evaluate the use of the computer and try to determine the value of putting it into the sleep mode versus turning it off. At what point does it make sense to turn it all off? She will also try to learn how much energy her hair straightener device uses and if it continues to use electricity if plugged in, but not in use.

r Washing dishes | Rosalie is going to evaluate whether it's more efficient to wash dishes by hand or with a dishwasher. She believes this will be a good science-fair project. Besides, she does most of the dishes, so she is motivated to come up with the most efficient approach.

r Electronic games | Danny will attempt to evaluate how much energy a Play Station II uses. He will come up with five less energy intensive alternatives to his Play Station.

r Watching TV | First-grader Thomas looked at me earnestly during our meeting and asked, "Can I have watching TV?" He will explore how much electricity is needed for a cartoon and will compare the energy use of the three TVs in the O'Brien home. They have an HD big screen TV in the family room and two regular TVs. Each uses a different amount of electricity ... we think.

r Solar | We will evaluate the installation cost, the long term cost and benefit for installing solar photovoltaic cells and solar water heating.

I will be helping them where needed and will write instruction sheets for all the projects. Instructions and how to sheets will be available on the Andover Townsman Web site for readers to use. The Townsman also provided a Web-cam for the O'Briens so they can film their progress. Once we get underway, you can watch their videos on the Andover Townsman Web site, www.andovertownsman.com.

The O'Briens agreed at their meeting with me that they will become aware of their use of energy and will know, firsthand, what they can do to reduce their environmental impact. They hope to become a model for all of us, showing us what we can do to reduce our own energy use.

Andover resident Judith Holt founded Holt Design, a residential home-design and project-management firm. She is a certified energy auditor, who was appointed a Smithsonian Fellow for work in the solar field.