Monday, June 29, 2009

Butterfly ready

We haven't seen any monarch butterflies this year at Mill Creek yet, but our milkweed is poised and ready for their arrival.
These plants, Asclepias syriaca, growing among
the shrub roses are "volunteers," started from seeds from a plant that grew last year nearby.
Besides this common milkweed, we also have some swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, growing nearby. The common milkweed began blooming about a week ago, coincidentally just about the time that monarchs first arrived on the scene in our part of the world. The monarchs are attracted to the milkweed flowers for nectar, but more so to the plant's leaves as a place for females to deposit their eggs. Milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars will consume; without the important host, monarchs would not be able to survive.

Deposited on the underside of milkweed leaves, monarch caterpillar eggs hatch four or five days after being laid. An enormous eater, the tiny caterpillar consumes 2,700 times its weight and molts five times during this stage of its life cycle, before beginning the next phase by constructing a protective, shiny emerald-green case ringed with golden dots, called a chrysalis. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar, now called a pupa, rebuilds itself into an adult butterfly, all within the span of about 10 days to two weeks.
The emerging butterflies live about two to six weeks as an adult, migrating north to reproduce, the females laying eggs and starting another generation, likely the last of four since early March, when the process began in a fir forest in Central Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains. (Other overwintering sites are in Florida and Baja, Calif.) Each generation of monarchs is pre-programmed to migrate a few hundred miles north, reproduce and die -- excepting each season's last generation, which lives through each winter. Usually in Southern Canada by late summer, each of these butterflies somehow knows it must fly south several thousand miles, back to the very forest, if not the same tree, from which its great-great grandparents hailed. There, it will cluster with groups of tens of thousands per tree until starting the annual process again next March.

There are many types of milkweed, all of which can serve as host to monarchs. Milkweed "sap" contains a poison, cardenolides or cardiac glycosides, which is similar to the heart medicine digitalis. It is poisonous to most vertebrates but harmless to monarch caterpillars, which ingest vast quantities of the substance and then maintain high levels of the poison throughout their life stages. Vertebrate predators either learn to steer clear of monarchs and milkweed through a onetime bad-tasting experience; others just seem to know instinctively to eschew and not chew the poison source.

CadMur Manor is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat and a certified Monarch Waystation. You can have your home certified as well. Contact the NWF or for details.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Eastern prickly pear, Opuntia humifusa, June 27, 2009, at CadMur Manor. First Blooms of summer appeared a couple days ago. One of our favorites!

Cool times at CadMur Manor... so far

The tech from Vendor X stopped by Thursday and did his magic to our central air condenser unit outside. He gave the 10-year-old system a shot of R-22 refrigerant and injected a dye pack at the height of the 90+ degree day. The dye will be used to help find our leak. By nightfall, the house had reached 80 degrees. We're at a comfortable 73 now, Saturday at about 3:15 p.m. He gave us enough of the R-22 to last a couple weeks.

Vendor X will return July 9 with an ultraviolet light to look for the dye, somewhere along the coils, valves or line. Where there's dye, there's our pinhole leak. We hope the refrigerant lasts that long and that the leak is easily fixable.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Learning how to be cool

I spent a lot of time over the last five days on our air conditioning system. My hope is that if you found this posting and are considering repairing or replacing a home central air unit, you might learn from my experience and save yourself time and aggravation. If this is helpful to you, please consider doing an act of kindness for a loved one or even a stranger. Here is my story.

CadMur Manor was built in October 1998 with everything we wanted: 2-car garage, front porch, aesthetically pleasing design, good insulation, and efficient appliances. Brand new everything.
All was wonderful until the first warm day of 1999, when the a/c didn't work in its inaugural test. The builder sent someone to charge the system with refrigerant. As it had been overlooked in the cool fall, the builder said, it was merely an oversight. A couple years later, same situation. No cooling. The builder was out of the picture, and so began our first service call on our dime. Probably a pin-hole leak, the fixing of which was cost-prohibitive, we were told. Charged once again, the refrigerant lasted a couple years. And then we repeated, every two or three years. Thus begins my long lesson in home HVAC.

Growing problem
After 10 years and three or four fresh loads of refrigerant (known to most of us by the brand name freon) something changed. A charge of refrigerant last summer was depleted by this spring. Was the "leak" growing? I asked the a/c guy about fixing the unit, as I did each of the other times. Same response: these leaks are small, almost impossible to detect, and by the time we pay someone to find and fix them we could have bought a new a/c unit. This time, the a/c guy du jour added something new: the builder hadn't put a protective pad under our outdoor unit, which led to its sinking into the soil and its coils and condenser coming into contact with excess moisture and corrosion, which explained the leak(s). The unit is as good as gone, he said. It might hold another charge through the summer, but we were going to need an entire new system. We opted to take our chances in 2009, crossing our fingers as we did so, and commit to doing what's necessary next spring. Ka-ching.

We've already depleted our wallet quite a bit on all these service calls. But the environment has suffered, too, because of our leaky central air conditioning, a well-respected Lennox system. The refrigerant in the system is harmless, so long as it stays where it's designed to stay. But if allowed to escape, the HCFCs in the freon contribute to damage to the ozone layer. (Federal laws require technicians to capture and recycle refrigerants. A/C professionals can't just release freon into the environment like one would by letting the air out of a tire.) Our failure to deal with this system effectively is antithetical to our commitment to being conscientious environmental stewards. Determined to rid ourselves of this cognitive dissonance, we would use this summer to research and look at an alternative that's most economical as well as energy efficient and environmentally friendly.

That was a cool plan that lasted almost two months. The system failed just hours before summer began last Saturday, June 20.

I put out a call for advice Sunday to my Facebook friends and the Twitterverse and got some recommendations for some reliable HVAC dealers. I followed up with several leads, called the last a/c guy I worked with and another guy who was recommended to Sophie by a co-worker.

The cool players
  • Vendor X was first on the scene Tuesday. He's the guy recommended by Sophie's friend at work. He said he could fix the current system or replace it. He disputed a number of things the last a/c guy had told us.
  • Vendor Y came Tuesday evening. Same story as with Vendor X. Repairing and fixing are both possible and recommended over purchasing a new system.
  • Vendor Z came Wednesday morning. He was the same a/c guy who charged the system a couple months ago. Our system is shot, beyond repair. Vendor Z recommended a Luxaire Acclimate 8T Series High Efficiency Central Air Conditioner, 18+ SEER Efficiency. Price: $6,000, more than double what either of the other vendors estimated for a new unit, if we even needed one. (The picture above is not the one Vendor Z recommended, but it may as well have been for the amount of money he quoted.)

  • The several vendors who had charged my unit were all doing so against standard protocol and perhaps violating federal clean air rules. By knowingly filling a unit with a leak, they likewise knew that the refrigerant they were using would not stay contained in the system. They should have advised me to find the leak, not nearly the impossible task I had been led to believe (see below)
  • The pad under the air conditioner isn't the culprit Vendor Z said it was. Pads are nice, but not necessary if the unit is placed properly, which they both said it was. The unit was level and secure, atop a bed of stones that drained water away effectively. Vendors X and Y said the unit had pretty much normal wear and tear and showed no signs of being obsolete.
  • Vendors X and Y were skeptical that the leak had grown worse since the last charge, only a couple months before. More likely, they said, the unit had not been fully charged
  • There might be good reason to replace my unit, but repairing it was recommended. Vendor Y quoted a price of $900 to repair. Vendor X gave an estimate that ranged from $200 to $600, although he acknowledged it is possible there might be damage in the condenser that might necessitate purchasing a new unit.
Finding and fixing the leak
  • I chose to work with Vendor X, who had the most knowledge and experience. He will be out Thursday afternoon, June 25, to look for any obvious leak, fix it if found or take additional steps to find the leak
  • If not found easily (by a "bubble test") Vendor X will fully charge my system with refrigerant and inject a dye pack. This is considered standard protocol and within clean-air guidelines; although the refrigerant will undoubtedly leak into the environment, it's being done in conjunction with a diagnostic test that will determine the place of the leak and lead to its repair
  • Vendor X will return in two weeks, July 9, with an infrared light to assess where the dye, and thus the refrigerant, is leaking. It could be in one or more of several places. The location of the leak(s) determines the cost of labor and materials
  • When the leak is found and the cost is better known, we will have the option of choosing to get a new unit if the cost warrants it
  • Vendor X's bottom line: the leak could be caused by a worn $2 valve or it could be much more complex. There are several other more serious but not-likely defects possible, but chances are they will find the leak and total cost of repair will be as quoted above
Repair costs, broken down
  • Known costs: $80 service call + $40 for the dye pack
  • Variables: Refrigerant (probably about $75) + labor + materials if required
  • Total: $200 to $600 (Vendor X's estimate)
Why buy a new unit?
Although I may not invest in a new system, I learned a lot during my discussions and research. Buying a new unit may actually be the best option. With rising energy costs and efficiency advances, the best reason to replace an existing system is to be green, both for the environment and for the pocketbook. An energy-star rated system today is about 50% more efficient than the 1998 Lennox system that came with our house.
To motivate sales of newer units, the Federal government is allowing 30 percent tax credits on qualifying purchases of new central air systems. (Many other energy-saving purchases qualify for existing homeowners as well, including windows and doors, insulation, roofs (metal and asphalt), water heaters, geothermal heat pumps, solar panels, solar water heaters, small wind energy systems and fuel cells. Some are limited up to $1,500, through 2010; some are available at 30 percent with no upper limit through 2016. Check the Department of Energy for more information.)

Refrigerants are cool
  • Freon is DuPont's trade name for its chlorofluorocarbon and hydrochlorofluorocarbon refrigerants, commonly used in air conditioners and refrigerators. It was developed in 1928 as a non-toxic refrigerant alternative for gases such as ammonia, methane and sulfur dioxide, which could be deadly if leaked from a refrigerator.
  • Freon is odorless, tasteless and nonflammable. Its known dangers to humans are that it can replace oxygen in a closed environment and the chlorine in the gas damages the ozone layer. Freon stays in the upper atmosphere for about 100 years
  • Venting freon or not using approved recovery equipment can result in substantial fines
  • Anyone working with freon must be licensed; failure to obtain licensure can result in substantial fines
  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) e.g., R-11, R-12 -- most damaging to the ozone layer, these refrigerants were phased out in the U.S. in 1996 and in the rest of the
  • Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), e.g., R-22 -- used in most home cooling systems today. Developed by Honeywell, R-22 will be phased out totally by 2030. On Jan. 1, 2010, manufacturers will not be allowed to produce R-22 for use in new refrigerators or air conditioners. In 2020, manufacturers must cease production of R-22 altogether. Homeowners must cease using R-22 by 2030
  • Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), e.g., R-410A -- the refrigerant used in all new systems. It contains only hydrogen, fluoride and carbon and no ozone-damaging chlorine. Allied Signal, now Honeywell, developed the refrigerant
Cost and efficiency considerations -- what I needed to learn about being cool
  • EER (Energy Efficiency Ratio) -- the higher the number the better. The formula for EER is BTUs / Watt Hours; an EER of 10 uses less energy than an EER of 5 to produce the same BTUs
  • SEER is EER adjusted for seasonality, since we don't use air conditioning every month. Our current Lennox system is a SEER 10. The systems we were presented are SEER 16 and SEER 18
  • "Split systems" (a condenser unit outside and an air handling unit inside at the furnace) that are older run at one speed. They're either on or off. When they're on, they run at full power. Most newer units can run on two speeds, low and high. By running on low, usually 80 percent to 90 percent of the time, the units are much more efficient than the single speed systems. Important: if selecting a variable speed air conditioner, the furnace blower must be able to vary its speed as well. Since we have an on/off furnace blower as well, selecting a variable speed air conditioner would not work any better than a single speed system. (Vendor Z's recommended system is a dual speed. He said he could make it work with our existing furnace up to specs and achieve dual-speed savings. Vendors X and Y both disputed his assertion.)
  • To qualify for a tax credit, the air conditioner must be at least SEER 14 or 16, depending on whether it's a split or package system
  • Energy-saving formula -- our energy savings with a SEER 16 unit is about 50 percent over the SEER 10 unit we have now. We estimate that our a/c costs us now about $75 a month, for four months a year, or $300 for the season. By saving 50 percent, we would save about $150 a year -- possibly much more as energy prices increase
  • Payback formula -- a newly installed SEER 10 Goodman brand a/c unit will cost $2,990 installed, including tax. (Vendor X will credit us for initial attempts to identify the leak if we choose to buy a new unit.) The difference between the cost of a new unit and fixing the old unit is about $2,500 ($2,990 - $490 approximate to repair). Our payback time is almost 17 years ($2,500 / $150 = 16.67).
  • Other factors: if the cost of repairs turns out to be $1,000, the payback formula turns out to be 13.3 years (($2,990 - $1,000) / $150 = 13.28 )
  • If the cost of energy goes doubles over the next 10 years, the payback period accelerates more dramatically. E.g., if the annual energy savings are $250, the payback period is 10 years ($2,500 / $250 = 10); Average energy savings of $375 yields 6.7 years ($2,500 / $375 = 6.67)
Tax credit effect
Our hypothetical 16 SEER unit qualifies for a 30 percent tax credit -- a dollar for dollar deduction from our total taxes paid to the Federal government (as opposed to a tax deduction). This changes all of the formulas above to our advantage, starting with our purchase pr
ice: $2,990 - 30 percent = $2,093
  • Payback period with the tax credit and current energy costs will range from 7.3 years to 10.7 years, depending on how much repair costs used in the formula
  • Payback period could accelerate to as little as 3 years by maximizing the repair cost and the energy savings (($2093 purchase - $1,000 comparable repair cost) / avg savings of $375 = 2.91 years)
Current Status, June 25, 2009
  • Try to find simple leaks
  • Charge unit today and inject dye pack
  • More research on energy savings, cost per year for a/c with current vs. new
  • Inspect July 9 and determine cost for repairs
  • Re-calculate
  • Repair or replace
Follow up post: I want my HVAC -- follow-up, July 20, 2009

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Jupiter's beard

Jupiter's beard (Centranthus ruber) at CadMur Manor. Also known as red valerian and keys to heaven, JB is indigenous to the Mediterranean, as is Sophie. The plant first found its way to England in the 16th century and later to the New World via settlers. It can spread quickly and be on the invasive side (:- ( But it's fairly easy to control and is an excellent plant for pollinators. It blooms from now until late summer / early fall and likes well drained soil with full sun.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ohio Supreme Court rules against Home Rule and Cleveland

As expected, the state's highest court today sided against the concept of Home Rule, upholding an Ohio law striking down local residency rules requiring city employees to reside in the municipalities that employ them. The decision ensures a reduction in the quality of life and housing values in neighborhoods like Mill Creek,West Park, South Hills, Shaker Square and other pocket havens for police officers, fire fighters and other city workers. While an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is possible, it's a happy day for those workers who fought for their right to choose where they wish to live and a dark day for many other city residents, including me.

Sophie and I moved to Mill Creek 10 years ago in large part because of the high percentage of homes occupied by Cleveland's police officers, firefighters and other city employees. Conservatively, 1 in 10 of our neighbors is a city worker, who unlike his or her counterpart in most of Cleveland's suburbs, is among the wealthiest of city residents. (By contrast, when I went through the Shaker Heights Citizens Police Academy in 2007, I asked many of the 73 police officers on the force where they lived. None lived in Shaker. They were sure that one or two of their brethren were residents of the affluent, inner-ring suburb, but couldn't name them.)

The city of Cleveland workers have good gripes and sound reasons why they want to move to more stable, safe neighborhoods, better schools being high on the list. However, every person employed by the city knew the conditions for employment here, and all made the best of the situation, finding private schools or magnet schools and living in the best neighborhoods they can afford. A handful even kept phantom addresses in Cleveland while making their unofficial homes and sending their kids to schools in nearby suburbs.

While everyone is now free to leave for greener pastures, those of us who remain -- including the majority of city workers who will stay here -- wait to see how bad it will get. Will there be another mass exodus in addition to those newly emancipated, driven perhaps by fear of the final destruction of an already deteriorating urban center? What of home values, dwindling tax collections and the effect to the already struggling municipal school district?

Our housing values have now taken three major hits in the last couple of years. First was the state's initial legislation outlawing residency requirements, making houses in neighborhoods like Mill Creek less desirable. Next, the crumbling economy beginning last year -- brought about by a $3 trillion war of choice in addition to a multitude of other sins and lack of moral leadership -- brought home-buying virtually to a halt. Finally, today's Ohio Supreme Court decision, confirming the legality of the state's far-reaching action.

Will we rue the day we bought into the promise of a really cool neighborhood that's safe and secure, diverse and close to everything we love and now our home of 10 years? Only time will tell. I remain hopeful, but with a healthy dose of skepticism.