When just being vegan isn’t enough: How and why I’m net-zero at home

A few months ago my wife and I moved via Los Angeles and New York City (in the latter I spent almost 20 years) to Rochester – the Great Lakes metropolis in western New York (don’t say “upstate!”) and live regularly protest I would never go). But my climate doomism and urge to settle somewhere with relatively promising long-term environmental prospects sent me on a lengthy, often upside-down search for a safer solution.

After exploring Vermont as an option (the ever-growing dairy-free options offered by Burlington-based Ben & Jerry’s might have something to do with that) but repeatedly finding little in our price range, we shifted our focus to the Tippy -Top of New York State. The TripTik for our trip became a mobile phone New York Times climate map; It provides long-term forecasts for heavy rains for that area that are as good as the United States (other places are expected to grapple with increasing raging wildfires, tornadoes, catastrophic floods, and devastating droughts).

Although I’d lived in New York for most of my adult life, Rochester hadn’t really been on my radar. As a city dweller in my 20s and 30s, all I thought when Rochester was mentioned (which was rarely the case) was, “It’s far away, isn’t it?” Now, in my mid-40s with a healthy dose of existential angst, the question arises: Not even close What, exactly?

leave town

Since Covid started and workplaces became more remote-friendly, Americans have started to decentralize — leaving big cities in favor of smaller ones with perhaps more space and affordability. I’m no exception.

In March 2020, my wife and I — along with our three little old dogs and a disgruntled cat — were all living in a one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, where we paid top dollar to live in the heart of the United States homosexuals. When the pandemic forced a nationwide shutdown, so did all the perks in our area — and even though I’d been working from home for years, my wife suddenly shared that space with me. Who needs a closet when you can turn it into a tiny office? Who needs a dining table when it could be the second office? And who needs a regular old side table when you can sneak a litter box underneath?

We needed a change (and we had to change the bedding). Also, the urban density of our neighborhood combined with too many common areas was further proof that this was no longer the right place for us. So we rented an RV (which I affectionately called our “RVegan”), loaded all the animals in (the cat more annoyed than ever, but also a total trooper) and headed east.


net zero

Once there, we rented intermediate accommodation in basically the middle of nowhere (on the northern tip of the Catskills, in case you got your map out) and spent all of our downtime figuring out where to move that would make us feel safer during a pandemic, safer long-term in terms of the climate catastrophe and safer as a queer couple (bags from our overland trip reminded us we’re not always welcome).

By the time Rochester became a real possibility, we had (sort of) warmed up to this area of ​​the country, which was new territory for both of us. With the goal of being in a climate-friendly place and living in a climate-friendly home, we walked many avenues before deciding it will be “The Roc” – or a hard place.

We had tried to build a house from scratch (way overpriced so I’m pretty sure the conversation lasted about 30 seconds and culminated in buying a lottery ticket); getting an eco-optimized prefab like the one offered by Vermod of Vermont (but Vermont land was too expensive for us if it was close to a walkable city); and moving to an already established net-zero community (like Ithaca’s iconic EcoVillage—but as vegans, we were not at all interested in our maintenance fees subsidizing their laying hen program as it was against our ethics). Getting an apartment (even a net zero apartment) was also off the table because we found it very difficult to navigate communal spaces during a pandemic (and let’s just say we don’t think Covid is the last pandemic to hit we will see—wump, wump).

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Apartment Search

Through the elimination process, we began to believe that the easiest way for us to have a net-zero home—that is, a home that produces the same amount of clean, renewable energy it requires—was to have an old home to upgrade it to meet our needs.

The prices of the homes in Rochester were affordable (at least compared to every other place we looked), and the energy efficiency company we found, ACES Energy, was immediately helpful in verifying a site with enough open space for their geothermal drilling and good roof lines for solar panels. Since ACES was willing to help us make our homes greener, we took the plunge and bought a 100-year-old tiny house in a quaint neighborhood within walking distance of everything that’s important to me: gay bars and vegan restaurants . No expensive West Hollywood rental required.

Since we built our nest last summer — and with the help of funding and some state and federal incentives — here are some of the changes we’ve made to transform our home into a net-zero home:

1 geothermal energy

This takes advantage of the constant temperature of around 55 degrees Fahrenheit that starts about 10 feet below the surface of our garden. In the winter we extract heat (it’s currently 8 degrees outside and 72 in our living room) and in the summer we enjoy cooling down by directing heat into the ground. Because it’s renewable energy, it significantly reduces our energy bill (it just takes a bit of electricity to blow air through the system).

2 sun

Solar panels also reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. There is a great cost to the planet when we consider the continued release of CO2 and pollutants into the air. Capturing the sun’s clean energy is an efficient way to avoid destroying dirty fossil fuels.

3 insulation

Said to be the backbone of efficient energy systems, the magic here is in giving your home a tight shell. The right type of insulation can also improve indoor air quality by reducing infiltrates and allergens.

4 triple glazed windows

Triple-glazed windows, much like insulation, are a necessary factor in sealing your home. Before they were replaced, 100-year-old windows only kept 25 percent of the heat in our home; the new triple pane windows now hold up to 98 percent. They are also resistant to condensation and usually pay for themselves in the long run.

5 hybrid electric water heaters

Eco-friendly heat pump water heaters reduce your home’s emissions and will have a much-needed impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in each of the 50 states over the next decade, according to the Sierra Club.

6 electric dryers with heat pump

A heat pump clothes dryer removes moisture by heating the air, then filtering and cooling it. As it condenses, this water collects in a tank, eliminating the need for venting to the outside—one less place for heat to escape.

7 electrification

Much like a new vegan slowly replacing their leather shoes with vegan versions as they wear out, we’ve taken the rhythm to buy appliances or replace them with high-efficiency electric ones when we leave. The first task since we moved in in the summer was a grill; how else would we season our Beyond burgers to perfection to complete our American summer dinners? My wife insisted an electric grill would be the ticket and it was. Next came the electric mower for the portion of the lawn that wasn’t dug up when the geothermal drilling was done. We recently got a snowblower (this is Rochester, after all). All are wired because my wife is very cheap — and because skipping the batteries helps avoid the environmental costs of lithium mining that we can’t avoid for the next phase of our journey: an electric car.

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Knowing that there would be an electric car in the future, when we were digging the holes for our geothermal heat, we also had an electrical panel installed in our detached garage. That way, when we’re ready and able to get that car, we can just install a charger. My wife and I are a one car household, although we choose to walk or bike whenever possible.

Together we’ve been vegan for 46 years – me 18 and my wife 28. Although our two main reasons for not eating animal products have been that we’re appalled at the way animals are treated – let alone the many disenfranchised workers exploited by the dangerous and inhumane livestock industry – a close second is that we want to do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint. And while we understand we’re in a privileged place to be able to make these adjustments (and even buy a home in the first place), our goal is to do our part to ensure these planet-friendly energy optimizations are not only scalable, but are for all available for free.

When it comes to the ravages of climate change, there is a clear disconnect between the mindset of those who want to do our part and our actual behavior. Much of this stems from gross injustices within the capitalist structure on which our society is built.

But just like veganism, perfecting the enemy of good does no one any good. Even if the steps we have taken to reduce our footprint are not available, the question arises: what is?

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