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Improving my Oklahoma City home

After purchasing our home I did a lot of research to find improvements and modifications that had a high (& quick) ROI in regards to making our home more energy efficient and lower the cost of maintenance. One thing that irked me about this process was the feeling of “that’s great, but how does it apply to my specific situation?”

So I’ve put this short guide together to help others in my community (the Pleasant Grove addition in OKC).

The community I live in was built along OG&E’s “Positive Energy Home” guidelines, which really doesn’t mean much other than houses are built to code + a little extra insulation. These aren’t LEED certified buildings, just standard construction using reasonably modern materials and techniques.

That being said, I found room for improvement and have been working towards making those changes.

Disclaimer:

  1. I’ve not used any affiliate links, so I make no money off these products. These are my honest recommendations.
  2. Although I care very much about conservation and responsible stewardship, the goal of these recommendations is not to push an environmentalist agenda. I’ve worked in the energy industry for most of my career (coal, oil, and gas) and understand the necessity of these resources as well as their shortcomings. Above all, I believe I am practical – many of the items below have helped me save money and are not empty investments in a feel-good ideal.

Saving Power

HVAC

Climate control drives the highest use of electricity in most buildings – especially in Oklahoma’s wide-swinging climate. The first item I thermostat-4b500ba8055a84bd75a778d80d660669purchased for my home was the Nest Smart Thermostat. There are three thermostats in my home and so far I have replaced two of them with Nests, the third being in a lesser used area of the house.

The Auto-Away and Scheduling features on this thermostat have led to a rapid return on investment (about 1.5 years per), even with Oklahoma’s relatively low cost of electricity. OG&E provides their own “smart” thermostat as part of their Smart Energy program, but it is feature-poor and I believe more efficiency gains can be had with the Nest.

The OG&E thermostat would certainly be an improvement over the contractor-grade thermostats that come with the homes in my community and has the added benefit of being free.

Both the Nest and OG&E’s free thermostat are easy to install and work with the wiring in all of the homes in the Pleasant Grove addition.

Lighting

Personally, I think going through a house and replacing functioning light bulbs is a bit silly and wasteful. Unless a fixture is one that I know I am going to leave on a lot, I don’t generally swap bulbs unless they go out. I’ve not yet made the leap to LED-bulbs as the cost is still high, the color temp is still a little off, and I think there’s still work to be done on making the light from these bulbs more of a diffuse glow (and less directional spotlight), so CFL is my go-to.

My favorite CFLs are those that GE makes. The 13watt GE CFLs I’ve purchased are 1.) relatively cheap (you can get an 8-pack for $15) and 2.) closest in color temp to traditional incandescent at around 2700K.

Hot Water

The hot water heaters used in this community drive the highest percentage of our natural gas cost. Not because they are bad, but because that is the nature of hot water heaters. I briefly researched tankless hot water heaters and discovered they have a really long ROI that is hard to justify given the inconsistency of temperature and supply that they provide.

So far, it seems like the best bet for increasing efficiency is a thermal blanket. I’m currently researching options and will update this post once I know more.

Things to avoid

Attic fans, either traditional or solar-powered are to be avoided. There are companies in Oklahoma City that swear to their benefits, but so far everything I’ve turned up has revealed attic-fans to be snake-oil. Warm air in an attic is there by design, removing it with a fan removes that thermal cushion and sucks cooler air upward, forcing your A/C to run longer.

The only places attic fans should be used are in buildings that were designed with this sort of ventilation in mind or those that have been designed poorly. If a roofer or solar-company tries to sell you an attic fan, punch them in the face. I have heard of many roofers up-selling these during hail/wind repair.


Saving Water

Shower heads

41PwFhf4MzLThe shower heads that were used in this community’s construction aren’t terrible, nothing like the 5 gallon-per-minute-plus units that most of us grew up with. But there is room for improvement.

I initially looked at The Sweethome’s top recommendation of the Delta In2ition, but decided the high cost wasn’t justified and decided to go with its baby brother, the Delta 75152 that can operate at the standard 2.5gpm or can be switched to 1.85gpm.

Three-fifths of a gallon doesn’t sound like a huge improvement, but it adds up, and unlike other low-flow showerheads I’ve used in the past (looking at you summer-camp showers), this one doesn’t make you feel like you’re living in Soviet Russia during water rationing.

These shower heads pay for themselves in about a year.

Toilets

We have brand new toilets, it would be stupid to replace them with lower-flow models.

Sprinklers

We chose not to install sprinkler system given the low ROI-to-property value. The convenience these systems provide is not something that matters to us at the moment, but may be something we revisit in the future. That said, if you have a sprinkler system, Rachio makes a control unit that is effectively “Nest” for sprinklers. If I had a sprinkler system I’d buy one in a heartbeat.

If you choose to stick with the control system you have or water manually, remember that the best time to water your lawn is early in the morning when the relative humidity is highest. Watering during the day or into the evening will waste more water as the air can absorb water during those times and much of the water you use will evaporate off.

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Clothes Washing

This one was simple. High Efficiency top-loaders use the least amount of water and electricity (and they don’t get moldy like front-loaders). Dryers aren’t worth mentioning as they are inherently inefficient and there’s not much difference from one unit to the next.

We chose a pair of Samsung units from Hahn Appliances here in OKC. Their pricing was $100 less per unit than anywhere else we looked.

Outdoor plants

The landscapers our builders hired did a pretty good job of selecting Oklahoma-friendly plants – I’ve noticed lots of maples, which handle shrubdrought really well. OSU’s Oklahoma Proven site has been a good resource for finding plants that don’t require huge amounts of water or other special care to survive our climate.

Barberry (pictured) is one I’m considering as an addition to our backyard. Bitterweed as well. As much as I’d love a backyard full of ferns and bromeliads, it’s just not in the cards where we live.

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ID-WY Day 6 – The Wasteland

Craters of the Moon

Craters of the Moon

Motel 8 breakfast consists of overcooked eggs & sausage, a small container of yogurt, and watching a woman from the English Midlands scream at the hotel kitchen staff “to do their fucking job” upon being unable to get coffee out of a carafe. After she storms out, Terry turns to the small woman who had just gotten yelled at and tells her *he* thought she was doing a great job.

Our destination this morning is the Idaho National Laboratory, home of the Experimental Breeder Reactor and many other, wonderful nuclear-research things. We drive into the wastes of Idaho to visit the INL and discover that not only is it located in an impressive expanse of nothingness, its staff have done a poor job maintaining the visitor information on their website and the facility is closed to visitors until next summer.

Fortunately, another visit on our list is nearby – Atomic City.

The only picture of Atomic City that needs to have been taken. You're welcome, now you don't have to go there.

The only picture of Atomic City that needs to have been taken. You’re welcome, now you don’t have to go there.

If you ever come across an article or blog post recommending that you visit Atomic City, drive to the author’s house and punch them in the face. What was promised to be a “neat slice of Americana and the Atomic Age” turns out to be a ghost town full of mobile homes. The road leading away from Atomic City is more interesting than the town itself.

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So far, the morning has been a complete bust. We drive on to Craters of the Moon National Monument with drastically re-calibrated expectations.

“What lives here?” is the thought that fills my mind as we approach the park’s entrance. The surrounding area is a special kind of desolate, a black lava field that extends into the horizon. We discover the answer via a park ranger – mostly bats and some ungulates that wander through as part of their migration. The bats are at risk of some sort of fungal infection and we are asked to help protect them by signing a statement declaring that our clothing hasn’t been in any other cave system in the past ten years.

After our morning of disappointment, the park turns out to be rather interesting. There are lots of strange rock formations created by the lava flows, spires and sponges. It does feel a little other worldly and the name makes sense. Several caves have been created by collapsed lava tunnels and we descend into a few of them, enjoying the significant change in temperature. It is in the 90s on the surface, below ground we find frost and ice.

Looking up

Looking up

We have headlamps, but turn them off in a few of the caves to experience what could only be described as “true” dark. After several failed attempts to take pictures of the frost and ice, I made my first attempt at light painting.

Weeeeeeeee!

Weeeeeeeee!

We enjoy a PB&J-based picnic as a late lunch and leave the wastelands of Idaho for the slightly less desolate vistas of Boise. It turns out that Boise-proper is actually a decent city. The downtown is walkable and we find ourselves in the middle of a Basque festival, which seems to fit with Boise’s nonsensical ethnic make-up – Hawaiians and Basques are both big groups there apparently.

We eat dinner and watch Terry consume the least manly cocktails ever devised, then walk to a bar full of video game consoles and pinball machines. I discover that the concept of arcade games appeals to me more than the actual games. I think I dislike them even more in this environment as I tend to appreciate the social aspect of bars and the level of concentration required to play an old-school platformer rules out any socializing.

After an hour of burning through quarters a group of Furries walks in and settles that this is not the place for me. I watch Terry and Matt play a few more games before leading the trek back to the car.

The night is an appropriate bookend for what is becoming a yearly adventure trip. We started our journey with Idahoan-Hawaiian food and raptors and ended it watching an anthropomorphic fox mash buttons on Street Fighter.

 

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ID-WY Day 5 – Gimme steam

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I wake feeling better rested than any other night on the trip – perhaps due to a combination of a slightly warmer night and setting up the tent on a comfortable slope.

There is no more sausage and we are forced to fall back to oatmeal. Historically, this is the fork in the road that leads to either a return to civilization or the Donner Party. We will return to civilization later in the day… hopefully.

Camp is broken and we make our way south to the Painter’s Pots. The valley containing these pools of bubbling mud is almost entirely filled with steam.

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Making our way to the western exit of the park, we stop at Gibbon Falls to take pictures. Although the falls are impressive, I am disappointed that a.) there do not seem to be any gibbons and b.) that I am not very good at taking pictures of waterfalls.

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A final buffalo bids us farewell and we soon find ourselves in a seemingly empty corner of Montana. There is little, if anything, notable about the drive from Yellowstone to Idaho.

Panda Express for lunch in Idaho Falls, then down to Blackfoot to visit the Idaho Potato Museum. My expectations are low and when we arrive they are met appropriately. Aside from some spectacular whitewashing on why Idaho is a great place to grow potatoes even though it’s effectively a desert (“We can more accurately irrigate the crops”), the most entertaining thing about our visit is listening to Terry grill the woman who runs the front desk about the Idaho Potato Council’s executives and their recently launched (and completely bizarre) comic book series.

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I buy a coffee mug that depicts a potato-themed version of American Gothic and a Vitruvian Potato magnet.

Our next stop is the Collector’s Corner Museum, a recommendation from the Roadtrippers app. From the outside it looks like a bodega full of Precious Moments figurines. I tell Terry and Matt that I’m going to sit in the car if we find out they charge admission.

An elderly gentleman greets us, yelling towards the back of the building for his wife to turn on the lights because they have visitors. Partially inspired by both their charm and a burbling of sympathy for the obvious lack of foot traffic, I hand over five dollars to buy my entry.

The woman tells us that flash photography isn’t allows as she eyes our DSLRs. I frown. She says, “But if you want to take pictures of your friends standing in front of something, that’s OK.”

The interior of the museum is larger than it seemed from the outside and is filled with dozens of glass display cases. Some of the collections are moderately interesting – in particular, a knife collection contains several Nazi and Axis blades. I notice a number of swastika-bearing items I’m fairly sure are both difficult and in some cases, illegal, to purchase and collect.

The old man is a WWII vet and shares stories and a neat scrapbook with us that contains news clippings from the war. “Germans attack with robot planes” is one of the more interesting headlines.

His wife chimes in with random facts about each of the collections but seems to have a good sense of when she’s hovering and never becomes annoying. Both seem to love their collecting hobby and I can’t help but feel a little sad that the things they’ve collected (and the surrounding history) that matter so much to them won’t mean much to anyone in a few years.

I loathe junk, junk stores, and junk collections, often looking down my nose at people who are passionate about collecting “things”, but the tiny couple that runs the Collector’s Corner gets a pass (for all that my approval matters). I can’t manage any cynicism or spite towards them, even when I try.

Our home for the evening is a surprisingly clean Super 8. The front desk clerk gives us one of the few, decent, non-apathetic restaurant recommendations I’ve ever received from a hotel clerk.

I am normally dubious of any restaurant claiming to serve “kobe” burgers, but would recommend the Snow Eagle Brewery to anyone passing through Idaho Falls. Given that they serve high-point beer and I am very tired it’s possible that the burger was just OK and my recommendation should be taken with a grain of salt. But it is probably very good, possibly maybe.

 

 

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ID-WY Day 4 – Volcano everywhere

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The campground showers open at 8AM.  I am standing at the door at 7:50.

A 30ish woman of Eastern European origin scowls at me as she unlocks the door. She slogs through her morning routine, starting the hot water in each side of the facility and depositing cash into the cash drawer. Fifteen minutes later she seems to notice me again, sticks out a hand to accept my money, and shoves a towel into my arms.

I set my expectations low on the cold, half-mile walk to the showers, resigned that I would be presented with a small trickle of water slightly warmer than the outdoor temperature. The torrent of hot water and steam coming from the shower head is a welcome surprise.

When I exit the showers, the woman who greeted me is gone, replaced by an older, grandmotherly-looking woman who smiles and tells me to have a nice day.

We eat first sausage, pack our gear into the car, and leave the Grand Tetons behind as we drive toward Yellowstone.

My first impression of Yellowstone isn’t great. The southern entrance is packed with people and not much can be seen besides a low forest of evergreens. It feels very much like driving through a giant Christmas tree farm.

Soon after entering, we discover that the 15 mile road to Old Faithful is closed. However, the 80 mile road that loops around to it is not. A park ranger tells us we need to hurry to our campsite before all spots are taken for the day.

We claim our site and make a short trek to the Norris Geyser Field nearby. It is nearly overrun with tourists.  The geyser field is “neat’ but not what I would consider “pretty”.

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Bog of eternal stench

The air smells strongly of sulphur and we see several passive-aggressive signs detailing the damage that humans have done to the park and the nature contained therein.

“If you feed a bear, we’ll have to kill it, and you’ll be single-handedly responsible for the demise of an entire species.” (sic)

It is late afternoon and I am hungry. This results in me being short with Matt and Terry and making a firm suggestion that we eat after watching Old Faithful spout.

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The Old Faithful Grill provides the least-flavorful burger I’ve ever had – meat content somewhere south of 50%. I make up for it by buying a bag of Twizzlers and Reese’s Pieces which I proceed to demolish as we hike the boardwalks surrounding the geysers north of Old Faithful. These pools and geysers prove to be more colorful and interesting than the others we have seen during the day.

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I am finishing off my Reece’s Pieces as I watch a man jump off the boardwalk to retrieve an action figure he dropped into the mud below. Given that he is just a few feet away from super-heated steam and bubbling clay that is hot enough to melt flesh, I think I would have abandoned Tiny Hulk to fend for himself if it were me. Unfortunately, he makes it safely back onto the boardwalk.

The sun sets and provides us with the best view of the day – a scene that reminds me of pictures from Iceland and doesn’t match my expectations of northern Wyoming. Yellowstone has largely made up for its poor first impression.

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ID-WY Day 3 – Walk the planet

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Early on in the trip I noticed myself becoming frustrated and unreasonably impatient. It has taken two days for me to push down the anxiety created by operating in “go go go’ mode while everything around me is moving slower than I’m accustomed to. I do my best to adjust to the new pace. Still, I wake up early each morning, not wanting to waste daylight.

We have an aggressive plan for the day – a hike of somewhere between 16-20 miles (depending on which map we referenced and who we asked). Camp is at roughly 6000ft and we have been at this altitude for less than 24 hours. We are idiots, at least on paper.

Trail Greeter

Trail Greeter

It takes several miles before the hikers begin to thin out. As we push past one of the last large clumps of them, a man from Slovakia strikes up a conversation with us. He is summiting Mount Whitney in two weeks and asks me what he needs. I tell him climbing and cold weather gear but have misunderstood his question. He is asking what paperwork he needs to fill out.

He also asks us why so few Americans visit our national parks. I play into his implied bias and tell him it’s because Americans are fat and lazy. Terry is more gracious and provides the reasoning that most parks are far away from where people live.

We reach a junction we had identified as being our “must reach” goal and consider pushing on to a lake 3 miles further and 3/4 miles higher up the trail. Sore feet win the argument and we make our way back, running across a pair of moose on our way.

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Our return destination was a ferry dock that would shave 3 miles off of our trip. We arrive at the dock, excited to be finished with our hike, but soon discover that we have missed the last boat of the day.

Lake Dissapointment

Lake Disappointment

I borrow a pair of loaner trekking poles from the boat dock and lead the way back, and by “lead” I mean “callously abandon my companions as I hike/jog the last three miles of the trail”. Because trekking poles are awesome and sometimes leadership means letting your friends fend for themselves against bears and Korean tourists. I think that’s a Edmund Hillary quote.

Terry has requested we end the day at a high elevation for golden hour picture fun time so once we all arrive back at our car we drive up a nearby mountain that looks out over what seems to be unspoiled wilderness. While Terry is taking pictures, Matt and I watch someone in a rented RV repeatedly back into a bathroom building in the summit parking lot.

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As the sun sets, we head back to the camp site and discover that the showers closed thirty minutes before our arrival. I try to wash off some of the trail muck and sweat with a damp t-shirt and silently plot the murder of the facilities manager who decided an early switch to winter operating hours was a good idea.

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ID-WY Day 2 – The earth abides

Removed from established civilization,  humans revert to their tribal roots and their language evolves to match their new way of life. The second day into our journey the words breakfast, lunch, and dinner have fallen out of our vocabulary and have been replaced with first sausage, second sausage, and third sausage, respectively. Any meal that does not contain sausage is referred to as not-sausage.

The Gregorian calendar has also fallen to the wayside. We are initially confused as to why several of the locations we had planned to visit are closed, but eventually realize that it is Sunday. We watch a base jumper with a Red Bull parachute jump off of the Perrine Bridge as we adapt our travel plan.

Year 1 - Day of the Flying Red Bull

Year 1 – Day of the Flying Red Bull

The Minidoka National Historical Site moves up on our destination list. There’s not much left there – the buildings are almost entirely gone, but the history is massive enough to fill the empty spaces. Minidoka was one of many WWII-era internment camps where thousands of Japanese-American families were locked up after being removed from their homes.

It’s yet another dark moment in our history that many people don’t know about – a time when fear and paranoia drove us to lock people away in “relocation centers” just as we were fighting fascists who were doing the same.

But those were the good ole’ days. Baseball, apple pie, and neighborhoods safe enough to leave your doors unlocked at night. When someone waxes poetic about the America of the past, it’s a good sign that they know very little about the America of the past. Only the future is worthy of poetry.

Leaving Minidoka, I was submerged in thoughtfulness, but we did take time to stop and take hipster pictures of an old farm house, because there’s only so much introspection a person can handle in one day.

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Prairie air conditioning

We drove to Idaho Falls and discovered they had a well-reviewed zoo. I made friends with a goat in the petting zoo area and watched a monkey meditate.

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Once we had burned a few hours at the zoo, we decided to proceed into Wyoming. Our planned stop was an arch of antlers in Jackson Hole, but upon arriving, we saw that it was engulfed in retirees and RV tourists and quickly moved on to Grand Tetons National Park.

We arrived at the park at sunset, just in time to catch the last light hitting the mountain tops and to see two young deer butting antlers.

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A campsite was found and claimed, third sausage was prepared, and we settled in for what proved to be a very chilly evening.

 

 

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ID-WY Day 1 – Forests of Corn

Mural of pennies. Because, why not?

Mural of pennies. Because, why not?

Shortly after leaving the airport, I discovered that Boise, ID is the inexplicable home of several Hawaiian restaurants. There is probably some interesting tidbit of history about their origin, but I haven’t bothered to look it up. I also haven’t confirmed that there are, in fact, “several” of them. I’m just taking the Shaka Shack cashier’s word for it. He looked trustworthy, if not at all Hawaiian.

Belly full of pineapple coleslaw and wienerschnitzel-jerk chicken, I piloted the rental Kia Sorento (a well equipped if comically underpowered vehicle) toward the first stop on a week-long road trip – a reserve for birds of prey just outside Boise. It was a short visit.

An actuary, a programmer, and an infrastructure architect walk into a nature reserve. Docent says “We’ve got a ton of birds here.”

Actuary says, “Really?”

Docent says “Yep.”

Bartender says “Don’t listen to her; she’s a liar. Don’t listen to me either. I don’t even belong in this joke.”

They had six birds on display, one of which was a plush owl.

The bar set appropriately low for the trip, we made our grocery run at the origin of most wilderness adventures – Walmart.

Receipt:

  • Breakfast sausage patties (48 count)
  • Jalapeno-cheddar sausages (6 count)
  • Bourbon-cheddar sausages (5 count)
  • Hot Link-flavoured sausages (6 count)
  • Beef bratwursts (6 count)
  • Eggs (1 dozen)
  • Fig Newtons (1 package)
  • Fruit & Nut Trail Mix (1 lb)
  • Crystal Light (18 count / various flavours)
  • Apples (2 lbs)
  • Bananas (3 lbs)
  • Styrofoam ice chest
  • Small skillet
  • Spatula
  • BBQ tongs
  • Propane (1 lb)
  • Lighters (5 count)
  • Ice (10 lbs)
  • Pez (100 count)

Coincidentally, this was the same set of supplies purchased by settlers traveling the Oregon Trail in the mid-to-late 1800s – plus 50 bullets, 2 spare wagon wheels, and a spare axle.

We then followed our GPS to a mislabeled park set amongst corn fields. The park contained a gorge created by a massive shield volcano. It did not, however, contain any signage pointing us to the park we had intended to visit.

While looking for the missing park, Terry, one of my fellow travelers, demanded that we stop so he could run into a corn field. We pulled over and he disappeared into the green stalks. Minutes later he returned, proud owner of a single, industrial quality ear of corn.

We gave up on finding the park and proceeded to our next destination.

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Balanced Rock Park in southern Idaho contains exactly two noteworthy objects – a balanced rock covered in graffiti and a campsite, through which a muskrat-filled creek runs. I drifted to sleep listening to large rodents playing in the water and drunk, middle-aged Idahoans daring each other to jump in and join them.

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