Homeowners Plunge into Green Living

Jun 14, 2013

Homeowners have asked how they can reduce their carbon footprint. So we visited a few people who’ve taken a deep give into green living, and they shared their experiences.

We start with the green odyssey of Paula Papanek. She bought one of the oldest houses in Bay View and moved in, in winter. “It leaked like a sieve,” she said.

Nine solar panels on the front of Paula Papanek's Bay View home; three more toward the back

Her initial response was to install new windows to reduce the draft and later, a programmable thermostat to minimize bills. Finally, though, to get through winter, she put a gas fireplace in the front room and closed it off with a curtain. “We’d be very comfortable in here, but you’d run to the kitchen to get something to eat (and) run back into this room where it was nice and warm,” Papanek said.

When the furnace went, Papanek decided not to simply replace it but to overhaul her energy system. She picked geothermal – it taps the earth’s internal heat. The drawback is installation – both the cost, it can approach $20,000 and the disruption. She lives on a small city lot. It’s beautifully landscaped now, but she says, "it looked like a bomb had gone off" when workers dug into her front yard.

Geothermal involves inserting tubes deep underground – to where the temperature is a constant 52 degrees, in her case. The system continuously circulates a liquid, always bringing it up at 52-degrees – compared with traditional systems that grab the air outside. A basement unit extracts what’s needed - heat or cold, blows it through the house and sends the fluid back underground.

Papanek was thrilled to stop using gas but still had electric bills because of the blower. She attended a city workshop on solar and decided to put an array on her roof. She takes particular delight scanning her bills. "I get two bills. One is a generating bill; one is a use bill. They subtract the other, and there is my total bill for this month: four bucks.”

Papanek repeatedly states how satisfied she is using clean energy and buying local. Helios made her panels, Johnson Controls some of the components, and area installers worked on her home.

Tony Berger also brags about the system he bought in Milwaukee, calling it, "the largest solar array in Riverwest.” He put 16 panels on his roof. “I had the room and decided I might as well put as many as I can, because the more power I produce, it just goes back to WE Energies and I get the credit for it,” Burger said.

Berger’s tall home was ideal. The solar panels need a southern exposure, with nothing blocking the sun. Since he installed them in October, his utility bills have been zero. “I’m not a hippie or anything. This all made business sense to me. I have a background in accounting,” Berger said.

Now he describes himself as obsessed with producing energy: "You get find of fanatical. You go around and turn off lights and check the app to see how it’s doing, especially on really sunny days.”

Tony Berger's home in Riverwest maxed-out at 16 solar panels

Berger says his only regret is jumping the gun. Riverwest is organizing a group purchase of solar panels, which would result in a discount. The typical house needs eight panels. The average cost of that system – after government incentives, is between $5,000 and $7,000. Matt Howard, director of Milwaukee’s office of environmental sustainability hopes Solar Riverwest helps the city win another round of federal money for its Milwaukee Shines program. It helps residents pay for solar.

Milwaukee has also offered residents the ME2 program. It's provided $100 energy audits. Howard says they’ve prompted 750 homeowners to make improvements. The most common - adding insulation where there’s little to none. “We have extreme temperature variations from winter to summer and we have a lot of older buildings in the city and so this is a very real need to people. They feel this every day. So this is a program that was really plugging a gap,” Howard said.

For homeowners of modest means, Wisconsin utilities have funded the program Focus on Energy. Its inspectors are checking the second floor walls of Jaime Malagon’s home on Milwaukee’s north side. “I don’t know if my house is insulated very well. We’re paying almost $300 a month. They are the experts. They will tell me if it’s expensive or not,” Malagon said. The program also creates energy efficiencies and offers low-flow shower heads and light bulbs.

Homeowners have a range of options these days, according to David Pekel, president of Pekel Construction and Remodeling. He mentions occupancy sensors; they turn off lights when no one’s in the room. Hybrid furnaces use whichever is cheaper at the time – gas or electric. Weather-stripping around windows and doors can also save energy and money, but Pekek adds, “it’s not a once and done approach. Things like caulking around windows, is something that should be checked on an annual basis.”

Mike Arney keeps close watch of his energy use. He, wife Margaret and their daughter live in Wauwatosa. He's jotted down a list of steps he’s taken; everything from putting a timer on the shower to paying more to WE Energies for green power.  “One thing I care about having clean air and a livable climate, and this is my way of contributing to that.”

Installing geothermal causes minor chaos at Mike Arney's (right) Wauwatosa home

Digging deep for free 50-degree temperatures

While Margaret is Mike’s biggest supporter, she teases him. “He's measured everything we own that uses electricity and put a little note on it about how much it uses. One time we went on vacation, he didn’t tell us this, but he put the house on about 50 degrees. We came back and the cats were all fluffy and the fish was deceased.” Mike added, that he feels bad about what happened.

The family has also taken big steps. It installed geothermal and Mike took a job within biking distance so the family could go down to one car – an electric one.

He even began meeting with interested neighbors. They each picked one or two changes to make. Arney says, "I was inspiring people to do air sealing and insulation. We did. People made changes, some of which are structural, others of which are habits.”  Arney says some simply lowered the thermostat and wore sweaters. According to his calculations, his block reduced its carbon footprint by 37,000 pounds, a good chunk of what the average American family generates each year.