The Carbon Footprint of an Empty House

I have been on break from teaching this semester (I am teaching summers instead), which means that I have been able to enjoy a snowy February at our cabin in the Adirondack mountains. One of the great things about our off the grid cabin is that it uses no energy when it is empty (which is most the time) – the solar panels keep the batteries charged, the wood stove is cold, and with a composting toilet and no running water, there are no pipes to freeze.

Not so with our regular residence downstate. When we leave that house empty in the winter we have to keep the heat on to keep the pipes from freezing (it would be a little too much trouble to drain and winterize the pipes if we are coming back in two weeks). We usually set the thermostat as low as it will go – 45 degrees – which is plenty to keep the pipes from freezing.

Natural gas is the biggest single category of my carbon footprint – 236 ccf of gas last year works out to 2800 lbs of CO2 at the EPA conversion rate, and my share of that (two of us sharing the house) was 1400 pounds – three quarters of a ton out of my four ton budget. That’s the equivalent of 70 gallons of gasoline.

Ironically, we use less gas to heat the house in the winter when I am home than when the house is empty.  That’s because I can usually feed the woodstove enough that the gas heat only comes on on the coldest of nights. But with no one to feed the woodstove, the house temperature drops, and the gas starts burning.

This month, Robin came back downstate several times for meetings and office facetime. Robin is a little less religious about feeding the woodstove than I am, so naturally she turns the gas heat back up (don’t worry “up” is still quite cool, sweater temperatures). Last time she got back to the cabin she said, “Damn, I forgot to turn the heat down.” So we heated an empty house for ten days. Naturally, I was worried about blowing my carbon budget on an empty house. . .

So I checked the gas meter when I got home to see how bad it was. We burned 57 ccf of gas for the first three weeks of February – 680 lbs of CO2. This compares to 33 ccf (400 lbs co2) for all of January, and 39 ccf (470 lbs co2) for all of December – months that were about the same temperature, but either the heat was down or I was home to feed the woodstove.

Robin, who is very patient and indulgent with this whole carbon counting thing of mine, said “Don’t worry about it, since I left the thermostat up, you can put it on my carbon tab.” 

Except. . .  Robin doesn’t exactly have a carbon tab (my life will be a success if a can get just one other person, maybe my spouse for starters, to keep track of their actual carbon footprint . . .). So half of that February heating bill goes on my carbon tab. Next home improvement project: get one of those internet enabled remotely controllable thermostats for the house. . . .


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