Home Front Part 4

oil out, solar in--it's not as straightforward as it should be

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My husband Mike and I have made the leap. Tomorrow, our oil tanks get pulled from the basement, and on Monday our contractor Chuck Reiss and his team arrive to start installing a solar electricity and hot water system that should meet about 113% of our electricity usage. That means we’ll be putting energy back into the grid. The switch is expensive (around $42,000) but we’ll be getting about half the cost back between state incentives and federal tax credits. We’re also making all the improvements to our existing home that Reiss recommended when he did our energy audit back in June. We’re replacing recessed ceiling lights, reinsulating the basement and replacing the walk out door, adding a foot of additional cellulose to our attic, and we’re tearing down one side of a pink fiberglass insulated wall and foam insulating it instead. Because our house will then be so tight, we’ve got to add an air intake for our woodstove.

And we’ve taken it one step further: Reiss tested our furnace, and deemed it very inefficient. So, we’ve decided to get off fossil fuels (save our gas stove and backup heaters). We’re ripping out our old oil-burning furnace, and replacing it with a second wood stove and two Renais–tiny, efficient gas heaters that will only fire when we’re traveling and unable to fire up the stoves.

We live in the woods in New England, so heating with wood is the best solution for us. We cut primarily dead trees from the woods behind our house, and that’s our heat source for winter. In the past we’ve also gone through about 500 gallons of oil per 12-month period for heat and hot water. We purchased a second wood stove (which also qualifies for federal tax rebates) and we’ll have one on the main floor and one in the basement.

Which takes me back to yesterday when I started making phone calls to get our two 250-gallon oil tanks removed. I called my fuel company, Northern Coal and Oil, and was basically told to get lost, that they weren’t interested in removing my tanks because I was not going to be a continuing customer, and that they “had more than enough work with their continuing customers to deal with my tanks,” and that they had no recommendations for who to call to get them removed, but to remember that if I just hired some guy that he likely wouldn’t be insured. Not terribly helpful, and so much for end-of-life-cycle responsibility.

One of my neighbors cut hers out and it’s on her lawn. I’ve seen people roll them off the edge of their property along with their discarded cars, washing machines, etc. Turns out that is totally illegal. In Vermont, the sludge and anything else inside that is more than 5% petroleum is considered hazardous waste. If you release more than two gallons of hazardous waste into the environment, if has to be reported and you have to clean it up. If you don’t report it and someone finds out, the state will contact you and invite you to clean it up. For 5-10 gallons of sludge per tank leaked out into your lawn, it’ll probably set you back $1000 to clean it up yourself, said Mark Roy, Chief of Underground Storage Programs at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. Contaminate water and it will cost more. If you don’t clean up your spill, you will be facing penalties to cover whatever it costs the state to clean it up, plus legal fees that could total thousands more dollars.

After my oil company dissed me, I called another oil company and asked for a recommendation. They put me in touch with an organization here in VT that was going to charge me over $1000 to remove the two tanks. I Googled and found an insured environmental consultant from New Hampshire who is willing to drive five hours round trip to pick up my tanks and dispose of them in an appropriate manner for about half that. Since then I’ve been advised that I could remove the sludge myself, take it to the local hazardous waste depot, and then drop the unwieldy 275-gallon tanks at the recycling center and put them in scrap metal. Sounds messy, and I am pretty confident they won’t fit in my Prius, so I’ll pay.

I’ll also apply for the grant available through the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation to offset the cost of disposing of my fuel tank responsibly. The irony: It’s unlikely that I’ll qualify because I am switching to solar instead of sticking with oil. The program is paid for by the half-cent-per-gallon tax on heating fuel, which also helps pay for cleanups resulting from home heating oil spills. So, priority is given to families replacing their oil tanks with new oil tanks.

Anyone else had frustrating and expensive experiences trying to be a responsible and green home owner?

-Berne Broudy