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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Retrofit It

Air Date: Week of

Daniel Marcus works with fellow members of the band Dirty Little Locket Sarah Miller and Alan Stonebraker on their title song, "Surrender." (Claire Schoen)

Producer Claire Schoen takes a tour of a California home and finds out that it’s the little things that count in cutting energy bills this summer.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Keeping cool this summer means turning up the juice…but demanding juice, juice and more juice strains not just the nation’s electric power grid, it can also short circuit your budget .You could retrofit your house with big ticket items--things like solar panels or tankless hot water heaters. But, producer Claire Schoen discovered it’s the little stuff that really counts.


SCHOEN: David Johnston is President of "What's Working," a green building consulting firm. I met with him at a cafe not long ago, to get some ideas about tackling skyrocketing energy bills.

JOHNSTON: I don't know if you're in stocks and bonds, and got money in the bank at maybe 3% or 4% interest. You're looking at 20 or 30% return on your money by doing energy retrofits. It's the best investment you can make.

SCHOEN: This caught the attention of the guy at the next table who broke into our conversation to introduce himself -- as Daniel Marcus -- and told us a tale of woe about his own energy bill.

MARCUS: Typically it runs around $60 to 80 dollars. And suddenly went up to $160 which I, clenched my teeth and paid that. And then I got the real big surprise last month which was $250. Pretty detrimental to my pocket book! (Chuckle)

SCHOEN: I decided to pay Daniel a visit at his home. He's single and lives in small house in Berkeley, California -- with his roommate, Shawn.

[MUSIC: Daniel Marcus, Alan Stonebraker and Sarah Miller. "Surrender" from ‘Surrender’ (Dirty Little Locket – recorded 2006)]

MARCUS: I'm a recording artist. Uh, we're putting together an album called Surrender right now. It's a root rock meets nouveau techno album. And I manage to hold down a day job to support my fledgling career.

HODGE: My name's Shawn Hodge. And I'm a private guitar teacher and a musician.

SCHOEN: The two of them took me on a tour of their house. It was a textbook illustration of America's love affair with electronic devices.


MARCUS: We're in the living room.

HODGE: Typical living room with a TV and sound system.

MARCUS: Here's the kitchen over here. Electric stove, toaster oven, microwave, refrigerator with a freezer. This is my washer and drier. They reside in my garage. Takes up a pretty good chunk of energy. I have no double about that. (Chuckle). So this is my bedroom. Chargers for my phones and gadgets floating around. Alarm clock.

HODGE: I have a printer, I have a heater, I have a little hotplate. Computer, a lamp, over-head light.

MARCUS: Let's see in the bathroom. Electric shaver, hair trimmer.

HODGE: Keep my little goatee at a certain length.

MARCUS: Goat trimmer. (Chuckle)

HODGE: And then I have two amplifiers.

MARCUS: Our hot tub. It's a nice amenity. I really like it. And uh, you know keep it at 103, 104 degrees pretty consistently. (Laugh)

SCHOEN: It's a fairly standard setup for an America house -- well, except perhaps the hot tub -- but mainly filled with the gadgets of our modern lifestyle, that all add up. Then we moved on to Daniel's music room:

[MUSIC: Daniel Marcus, Alan Stonebraker and Sarah Miller. "Surrender" from ‘Surrender’ (Dirty Little Locket – recorded 2006)]

MARCUS: This is my recording studio. I have my recording system, computer, wide assortment of mikes, keyboards, various instruments, plug-ins, amps, preamps, and printer.

SCHOEN: While most of us don't have a home recording studio, we all have our own unique energy needs that are emptying our pocketbooks. Daniel and Shawn don't want to be shelling out big bucks for their energy usage. But they also don't want to be forced to change their lifestyle.

HODGE: The little clocks and phone chargers and..... I consider those pretty necessary in my life. They're not something that I really feel like I need to or want to give up.

SCHOEN: Do they really need to give up their phone chargers? Daniel and Shawn actually don't have a clue where their problem lies. It's just not something they think about.

MARCUS: I don't have time. So it's like for me, every little thing is like, "How do I make this go away really fast."

SCHOEN: Daniel's focus is not on home improvements, but rather on his music. What's on his mind right now is whether he'll be able to interest a visiting producer in his band's cover song.


STONEBRAKER: So, what should we play here?

MARCUS: Let's play "Surrender". That one's a pretty tasty little nugget. I don't think Pierro's heard that song.

[MUSIC: Daniel Marcus, Alan Stonebraker and Sarah Miller. "Surrender" from ‘Surrender’ (Dirty Little Locket – recorded 2006)]

PIERRO: Yeah, I think you guys have definitely achieved that with the whole thing. It's kinda of very, it’s folksy but it doesn't whine. (Laugh)

SCHOEN: Daniel's high tech home studio makes it possible for him to be his own engineer and mix demos right here.

MARCUS: What I'd like to do is actually reroute your tone through a compressor. And naturalize it a little. It will warm up the tone a little bit...

SCHOEN: Besides, Daniel and Shawn are not convinced that fixing up the house is going to save them enough money to make it worth taking time and effort away from their music.

HODGE: There are a lot of smart people in this country. A lot of educated people about finances. And people would be doing more energy efficient things if it was cheaper. But it's not, I don't think. You know, I might as well just pay the extra high energy bills and keep using energy.

SCHOEN: I decided to bring green building expert, David Johnston into the picture. He offered to pay a visit to Daniel and Shawn to assess their energy situation.


MARCUS: Hi there.

JOHNSTON: Daniel, good to see you. David Johnston.

MARCUS: David. Nice to see you again.

JOHNSTON: So, what should we be looking at today.

MARCUS: Ah well, tell me what I can do to be more energy efficient in my house, without having to sacrifice my gadgets or my high-tech lifestyle. (Chuckle)

JOHNSTON: Well, you're an All-American guy.

MARCUS: (chuckle) This is my roommate Shawn.

HODGE/ JOHNSTON: Hi. How's it going? Nice to meet you.

JOHNSTON: I hear you're a toy junkie too.

HODGE: I am. Just like most people I think.

JOHNSTON: So let's do the low hanging fruit, the stuff that's least expensive, that gives you a return in energy savings. Let's go back to the front door. And let's just take a quick look at it.

MARCUS: Yeah my door looks a little drafty to me... (Walking)

JOHNSTON: Anytime you have a penetration in the envelope of the building, there's an opportunity for air to get through. If you look right by the deadbolt there, what do you see?

MARCUS: I see daylight.

JOHNSTON: Air will gallop through there like wild horses.

MARCUS: Wild horses.

JOHNSTON: So we can see right here you can see this old weather stripping that's been here for 50 years. And simply... even a musician can do this.....

MARCUS: Oh, even a musician? (Chuckle) We're not handy at all.

JOHNSTON: You get sticky-backed foam that comes in a roll and you just wash this surface down real well fits right on that strip and so when the door closes it crushes the foam. So, that's costing you maybe 50¢ a day.

MARCUS: That will add up after a while.

JOHNSTON: It's significant.

SCHOEN: And.... then there is the hot tub.


JOHNSTON: So, can we open the top on your hot tub?


MARCUS: Hot tubs are one of God's gifts to humankind as far as I'm concerned.

JOHNSTON: Amen. (Laugh) Especially depending how often you entertain your vocalists out here.

MARCUS: I haven't talked my vocalist into my hot tub yet. (Both laugh)

JOHNSTON: I can feel right now with my hand six inches above the water, the heat radiating from the surface of the water. Can you feel that?

MARCUS: Absolutely.

JOHNSTON: So, one more layer of insulation. A foam that's cut out to fit the contour of the side and just lays on the top of the water.

SCHOEN: Another quick fix... Back inside, David took a look up into the attic.

JOHNSTON: Where's your furnace?

MARCUS: Up in the attic. Probably. (Chuckle) We think so. Some large device that whirrs from time to time is up above.

JOHNSTON: We'll pop it and we'll take a peek up in the attic. (Sure, sure)


JOHNSTON: Some insulation up here. Kinda spotty. There's some here. There's some there. I see holes everyplace. You're just throwing money right out through the attic.

MARCUS: The heating thing is still somewhat of a mystery to me.

JOHNSTON: What I would do is use bags of what's called dry cellulose.

MARCUS: Dry cellulose.

JOHNSTON: You can do it yourself, you don't have to pay anybody. So this is where an afternoon with a rake and a couple of buddies. And just bring as many bags of cellulose as you can get up here. And could literally save yourself a quarter of your energy bill every year. Just by putting more grey stuff up there. And it's really inexpensive.

MARCUS: Couple hundred, few hundred bucks...

JOHNSTON: Yeah, it's in the hundreds, not the thousands.

MARCUS: That's a good thing.

JOHNSTON: So it's going to serve you immensely.

MARCUS: Keep it cooler as well?

JOHNSTON: Oh, absolutely. Much cooler.

MARCUS: Cooler and hotter. So it's a win-win on both seasons.

[MUSIC: Daniel Marcus, Alan Stonebraker and Sarah Miller. "Surrender" from ‘Surrender’ (Dirty Little Locket – recorded 2006)]

SCHOEN: Then David turned his attention to Daniel's home recording studio.

JOHNSTON: Alright, let's look at the toy room.

MARCUS: Here is my music studio.

JOHNSTON: Well, it's quite a set-up. With your mixer and your computers and speakers and piano and that's a lot in one place. So when everything's fired up it's probably really sucking a lot of juice.

SCHOEN: In fact, all this equipment is sucking juice even when it's not fired up.

JOHNSTON: A lot of equipment, TV's, stereos, computers, even though they say they're off they're still drawing power. And that parasitic power is typically invisible to us. But it's still spinning the meter. And it's like having a hole in your bucket, it all adds up.

MARCUS: And I think when you say parasitic mode you're referring to...

JOHNSTON: Instant on. We want to turn on our computer. (snap) We want to be ready to log on instantaneously. We turn on our TV we want a picture instantly. And we're talking about, you know five seconds differential.

MARCUS: Right.

JOHNSTON: So, the way you address that issue, have an on/off strip on a power strip. And so when you leave the room, just hit the off switch on the power strip. And that absolutely kills everything. They do add up. It's like walking down the street and dropping dollar bills. And we wouldn't do that. We'd probably pick up a dollar bill if we saw it.

SCHOEN: After meeting with David, Daniel decided to pick up a few of those dollar bills -- starting with the attic insulation.

MARCUS: I'm definitely interested in putting in the dry cellulose. It doesn't sound like fun work, especially up in a dusty attic. But if it will save me a little money and keep my place warmer and more comfortable and then cooler and more comfortable in the hot months, then... Put down the guitar for a few hours and get out and do some grunty work. It's totally worth it.


INTERCOM: Miguel, please come to insulation. Miguel, insulation.

SCHOEN: Daniel located the insulation at a big-box hardware store not too far away.

MARCUS: So, hopefully this will be simple and easy. And I guess we're about to find out. Hello. Got a question for you. So, I need some insulation which is, um, dry cellulous.

MAN: This is the dry cellulous right here.

MARCUS: I could use a rake and just beat on it.

MAN: Yeah, you can just....

MARCUS: It'll come apart?

MAN: Sure.

MARCUS: So, I'll just grab a couple of bags and give it a try.

MAN: You have a cart?


MARCUS: Alright, so I'm hitting the touch screen. And I'm selecting English. (Beep, beep)

MACHINE: Insert cash. Or select payment type.

MARCUS: Service with a smile. But no smile.

MACHINE: Please take your change.

SCHOEN: Daniel picks up the band's bass guitarist, Alan Stonebraker on the way home.

MARKUS: We're going to be spreading dry cellulous around my attic.


MARCUS: But as a reward I'll let you jump in the hot tub.

STONEBRAKER: (Laugh) Well, now you're talking!

MARCUS: We have gloves, we have masks. Drag this stuff up the ladder.


MARCUS: OK, so, I'm up here in the attic with my rake and my little flashlight. And I've noticed that right here in the middle of the house there is almost no insulation what-so-ever. OK, so I guess I just sort of chuck this stuff out there, huh? And just trying to spread it around. It's a little like playing in the sandbox as a little kid. But it's hotter and dustier and not as much fun. Alan! When you joined the band did you know that you were going to get to do really fun stuff like this?

STONBRAKER: I had no idea. (Laugh)

MARCUS: Whoo! This is some work!

STONEBRAKER: Yeah, it's like stuff you do in the military. Like, all that crawling under stuff, and…
MARCUS: Alright. I'm becoming more intimately familiar with my furnace than I ever thought I’d be.

SCHOEN: So are most Americans actually going to tackle something like this? With the demand for electricity breaking records, David Johnston thinks that we better.

JOHNSTON: Two years from now, energy is going to be twice as expensive as today. That's going to get somebody's attention. But you want to be doing this now, because the longer you wait, that's just money that’s thrown literally out the windows.

MARCUS: This isn't something that I would have thought to have done if I hadn't met you guys randomly in a cafe. So, maybe a lot of people wouldn't think about or wouldn't know where to engage somebody with that expertise.

SCHOEN: Daniel was able to get advice from David who also works with a non-profit called Build It Green. Brian Gitt is Executive Director of Build It Green. But he says you don't have to live in Berkeley to get free advice on energy savings.

GITT: There are programs like ours all across the country. Over 50 regional programs on the ground today, that are doing very similar work to Build It Green. In the Midwest. You have them in the South. Atlanta, Georgia has had a really amazing program for over 20 years. This is really a national trend.

SCHOEN: Daniel has taken the first step towards retrofitting his house. Time will tell how much it will affect his bottom line. But there are national figures and they're promising.

GITT: According to the Department of Energy, simple, low-cost measures such as weatherization – which is, in essence, just filling all those little cracks and holes around your windows, around your doors and then adding attic insulation – can save on average about 30% on your home's energy bill.

SCHOEN: There are all sorts of other energy saving solutions homeowners can employ. For instance replacing a ten-year-old fridge with a new Energy Star model can save between $500 and $1,000 over the life of the machine. Plus there are all those parasitic appliances David was talking about.

GITT: A study coming out of Cornell University said that we're spending 3 billion dollars per year just on parasitic power. That's when the machine or the appliance is off. The average homeowner can save $200 per year by reducing this type of electricity consumption.

SCHOEN: So, imagine how much surge protectors could save someone like Daniel. Maybe he could even afford his hot tub.



MILLER: Great. Relaxing.



STONEBRAKER: We stay in here until we're wrinkled, right?

MARCUS: I find that after my fingers go into a complete prune state, that I've a really good sensitivity to the strings. Some say that's actually the key to our music. (laughter)

Marcus works with band members Sarah Miller and Alan Stonebraker on their title song, "Surrender." (Photo courtesy Claire Schoen)

MILLER: It's time to play some music.

MARCUS: Is it time?

[MUSIC: Daniel Marcus, Alan Stonebraker and Sarah Miller. "Surrender" from ‘Surrender’ (Dirty Little Locket – recorded 2006)]

SCHOEN: For Living on Earth, this is Claire Schoen, in Berkeley, California.

[MUSIC: Daniel Marcus, Alan Stonebraker and Sarah Miller. "Surrender" from ‘Surrender’ (Dirty Little Locket – recorded 2006)]



What’s Working – Visionary Solutions for Green Building

Build it Green – Smart Solutions from the Ground Up


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