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Get Ready for the Emergency Prep Fair!

By Lois Smith, Marketing and Outreach Manager

Want to learn how to stay safe when a power line comes down, or maybe just need a reminder on how to use your fire extinguisher? Looking for emergency rations for your car in case you’re driving when the Big One hits?

Look no further than the annual Berkeley Emergency Prep Fair taking place this Saturday, March 18th from 10–2 at LeConte Elementary School.

A joint effort of the Berkeley Fire Department and the City of Berkeley, the event takes place every spring in an effort to make sure East Bay residents are ready for an emergency of any kind. Community Energy Services, with its home repair programs focusing on safety, and its seismic safety program, will have a booth at the fair as well. Come by and say hi!

Lois and Evan at last year’s Emergency Prep Fair

As the City of Berkeley website explains,  “A city’s resilience is defined by the ability of the community to survive, adapt and thrive no matter what acute shock or chronic challenge it experiences.”

These challenges can take many forms, as my colleague Evan and I learned while staffing last year’s fair.

Safety can come in the form of making sure your pet has an up-to-date licence, preparing an emergency plan for you and your family, or attending a first aid training through Berkeley CERT. The fair even provides extras like free bike repairs, emergency supplies and activities for kids.

We hope to see you there! More information about this year’s fair can be found here.  

If you want to know more about Seismic Safety and how you can get help preparing,  Contact CESC.


Lighting the Way

When SmartLights Outreach Specialist Evan Riter gets a lead on a business that may be interested in saving energy and money, he’s immediately on the case. He’s eager to spread the word about saving energy, saving money–and making it happen for small and medium-sized businesses.

CESC’s SmartLights program is designed to help Bay Area businesses use energy more efficiently. This program offers free start-to-finish technical assistance and instant rebates, paid for by PG&E and MCE Clean Energy as directed by the California Public Utilities Commission, to help defray the cost of upgrading or repairing existing equipment. SmartLights can help with comprehensive lighting retrofits, refrigeration tune-ups, controls, and seals replacement, and referrals to appropriate HVAC programs. But some jobs are as simple as replacing out-of-date lighting with the newest, most energy-efficient lighting, LEDs.

Once Evan has a conversation with a potential client, he finds it pretty easy to convince the business owner or manager to participate in SmartLights and upgrade lighting or other energy-using appliances in their business. The decision means better lighting and lower energy bills.

Evan especially likes it when a SmartLights job is simple enough that he can handle it himself, rather than bringing in an in-house or external contractor. It means that he can make sure the customer is satisfied, because he is there in person gauging reactions, and he conducts a brief interview on the spot to find out if they are satisfied. He also leaves the client with his contact information and lets them know they are able to call him at a later date to fix anything that they are not happy with.


“I have a background in lighting. I designed and built exhibits for museums for about 25 years. I’ve also worked with live theatre doing lighting, so I understand some of the more esoteric concerns of businesses like beauty salons or art galleries. They are very concerned with color temperature (the warmth or coolness of the light), beam spread or width, and other lighting issues that influence the atmosphere of the business. I’m able to ask the right questions to understand what they need so that the project can go as smoothly as possible.”

On a few occasions, especially with hair salons, he has received a follow-up call about the quality of the light emitted by the new lightbulbs. What first seemed just right has become, after a week or two, too bright or harsh. In these cases, Evan happily returns and trades out the unwanted bulbs for those with a softer or warmer tone. That’s something that some contractors may not be  willing to do.

Evan notes that aesthetically inclined clients love the results they are getting. ‘I did a job at an art gallery in Sausalito called Galerie Elektra. Galerie Elektra cut its electricity bill in half. We replaced MR16s, little tiny round halogen bulbs that give out bright light, with LED equivalents. There was a lot of savings, because each of those bulbs was 50 watts. We replaced them with bulbs that were about 7 watts each. When you’re talking about over 100 bulbs, the savings adds up.”

Evan sometimes gets turned down, perhaps because some people suspect it must be too good to be true. However he is so persistent that most of his contacts turn into clients. The work is usually almost free to them, since the reimbursements typically cover the cost of the new lighting. And the savings are impressive. “The more they do, and the greater the difference between what they had and what they’re getting, the more savings they get. We do sometimes replace CFLs, because, depending on quantity, switching to LEDs can still add up to a pretty nice savings per month.”

Do you know of a business that could benefit from an energy upgrade? Call Evan! at SmartLights.

Going Green in West Oakland

If you’re serious about trying to lessen the impact of your own actions on the environment, you may have looked into the environmental practices of the businesses in your community before choosing a shop or vendor. Or perhaps you are concerned about how pollutants generated by local businesses may harm you, your children, or others in your community. For people who live or work in West Oakland, with air pollution many times higher than in the rest of Alameda County, encouraging businesses to take up more sustainable practices is paramount. Yet even if small businesses in that neighborhood want to make needed changes, they may lack the resources to do so.

Thanks to a grant from the U.S. EPA Region 9, Community Energy Services (CESC) partnered with the Alameda County Green Business Program and the California Air Resources Board in 2016 to create Green West Oakland. Part of the Bay Area Green Business Program, which not only verifies that businesses meet higher standards of environmental performance and offers public certification that consumers and neighbors can trust, Green West Oakland also provides support to local businesses to help them comply with environmental regulations and take actions to conserve resources, prevent pollution, and minimize waste. The goal of Green West Oakland has been to increase Green Business Program participation and awareness in the underserved West Oakland business community.

CESC recently attended a celebration and press event in honor of Green West Oakland’s work (held at Mandela Foods Cooperative, one of the newly certified businesses). The event showcased business leaders who participated in the program, EPA administrators involved in the grantmaking, leaders from the organizations involved (including CESC’s Martin Bond), and others involved in the project. Check out our great video about the event!

With support from Green West Oakland, twelve businesses have begun the certification process through the Green Business Program, and dozens more have become aware of opportunities to improve their business practices. Congratulations to the twelve businesses in West Oakland that are in the process of becoming certified as Green Businesses!


Brown Sugar Kitchen
Sandy Walker/Ellen Webb Dance Foundation
La Bonne Cuisine (recertification)
OMSS Truck Scales & Mini Mart
Zella’s Soulful Kitchen
West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project
Craig Communications
Every Dog Has Its Day Care
Mandela Foods Cooperative
Starline Supply Company
Pipe Spy



The Green Business Program tracked the environmental impacts of the Green West Oakland Project, and it has made a difference!

Are you interested in greening your business or helping a local business to do so? Although the Green West Oakland project has been completed, the Alameda County Green Business Program still offers technical assistance and incentives to many types of businesses towards Green Business certification. CESC also helps small and medium-sized businesses with energy-efficiency upgrades including lighting, refrigeration and referrals to HVAC programs. Contact us now.

Alameda County’s Choice for Green Energy

If you live in Alameda County, greener electrons are coming your way soon.

timeline-ebce-imageOn October 4, 2016, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to pursue community choice energy aggregation for Alameda County and its cities. This decision, which you probably haven’t heard about, since it hasn’t yet gotten a lot of coverage in the media, means that most Alameda County residents will be buying cleaner and greener electricity from a local public agency by the summer of 2017.

Alameda County is one of many localities in California that have made the decision to create a community choice aggregation. MCE Clean Energy (previously known as Marin Clean Energy) has been serving Marin County since 2010 and now some areas in surrounding counties. Sonoma Clean Power came online in 2014.

Alameda County is now set to form a local public utility called East Bay Community Energy (EBCE), which will be governed by a Joint Powers Authority called the East Bay Community Energy authority. EBCE will be able to buy renewable energy on the market, work with energy providers to create new sources of renewable energy, or build its own local clean energy projects. EBCE will sell this energy to customers within its jurisdiction.

Now that EBCE has been created, thirteen cities and Alameda County (on behalf of unincorporated areas of the county) are deciding whether to join EBCE. Most cities are predicted to join in order to meet climate change goals. Once a jurisdiction decides to join EBCE, it will automatically become the electricity provider of clients living in that city.

For example, imagine that you live in Oakland. Currently you receive electric energy from PG&E; PG&E generates the energy, delivers it to you through the grid, and then bills you for it. If Oakland decides to join EBCE, starting next summer EBCE will provide the generated electric energy, and PG&E will deliver it to you and bill you for it. You will have the option to choose to remain with PG&E to generate your energy, but if you do nothing EBCE will be your new provider.

The change will be more than just a change in ownership or name. The real difference is in the way the energy is generated, and possibly also a change in price. Currently, for most customers, 30% of PG&E’s electric power is generated from renewables such as solar power and wind power. EBCE has not yet determined the makeup of its power portfolio, but it has done some preliminary analysis to determine consumer costs for various portfolio options:


If all goes as planned, in less than a year you may be buying electricity generated from a locally controlled, not-for-profit agency, with proportionally more renewable sources and at a lower price than you currently pay. EBCE states that in addition to cleaner energy at a lower price, it also aims to provide greater price stability than PG&E does. Currently PG&E’s rates change several times over the course of the year. EBCE predicts needing to change rates only once a year.

Customers with solar power will probably benefit from the switch. EBCE states on its website that it will try to “increase the value of local solar” to the owners of photovoltaic (PV) systems. MCE Clean Energy currently provides a premium to its PV system customers, paying them retail cost of the energy they generate (plus one penny) and the ability to cash in any surplus.

Indeed, EBCE will be making systemic changes in energy production and storage to benefit the environment and the local economy. According to Al Weinrub, Coordinator of the Local Clean Energy Alliance,

“Community Choice represents an economic development platform for providing both environmental and economic benefits to the County–lower GHGs [greenhouse gases] and more jobs, for example. The purpose of ECBE is to optimize electrical services for Alameda county, toward a net zero community. Demand reduction, changing load profile, when energy is used, battery storage; these are all part of creating a better system.”  

Although many details still need to be worked out, ECBE will encourage energy conservation in its local communities as part of this better system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to create healthier communities, and to reduce costs. Energy efficiency is cheaper than purchasing power from other sources, and energy demand will continue to rise. According to CESC Executive Director Martin Bond, “ECBE has several opportunities to encourage energy efficiency upgrades for residents and businesses in Alameda County. ECBE can apply directly for energy efficiency rate payer dollars from the California Public Utilities Commission and run its own energy efficiency programs, which is what MCE Clean Energy has done. Alternatively EBCE can work with the existing East Bay Energy Watch (EBEW), a local government partnership between PG&E and Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, to provide energy efficiency programs, like CESC’s SmartLights Program.” In addition, ECBE is a not-for-profit, and in the future excess revenues can be been reinvested in larger capital projects.

Will you literally receive solar-powered electrons from EBCE? No. EBCE uses a wonderful analogy, comparing energy in the grid to money in the bank in a networked system. “It’s like when you deposit $100 into one ATM and later take it out of another ATM. It’s not the same $100, but it is your money.”

Want to get involved? You can attend a Steering Committee meeting or upcoming City presentations and City Council meetings where membership in the Joint Powers Agency may be considered.

The Carpet Was Making My Asthma Worse

Did you know that carpets can make someone’s asthma symptoms worse? Asthma sufferer and Richmond resident Dessie Miller, 75, found that out after receiving a visit from CESC.

Hear Dessie in her own words in CESC’s new video.

Earlier this year, when Dessie enrolled in CESC’s Home Repair Program, she hoped to get help with minor health and safety repairs in her home. But thanks to support from Contra Costa County, Kaiser Permanente, and Chevron, CESC was also able to bring her services and education focused on improving indoor air quality for those who suffer from asthma. Through the Healthy Homes Program, CESC inspects a client’s home for sources of asthma irritants and makes upgrades to improve indoor air quality.

 Hard-surface flooring is a good choice for those with asthma because it’s easy to clean and harbors fewer allergens

Hard-surface flooring is a good choice for those with asthma because it’s easy to clean and harbors fewer allergens.

When CESC visited her home, Dessie learned about items that can cause poor air quality, including her old carpet. CESC ripped out the carpet and installed a hardwood floor, which helps her breathe easier. “They gave me a hardwood floor in my bedroom, because the carpet was making my asthma worse . . . I don’t cough as much, so I’m thankful for that more than anything because I can sleep better at night.”

CESC repaired an exterior vent and installed smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and provided other allergen and environmental treatments in addition to installing new hardwood floors. When CESC performs a Healthy Homes visit, technicians look for mold, sources of moisture that can cause mold, peeling paint, possible asbestos, pet dander, pests (or items that might attract pests), pesticides, poor ventilation, and poorly functioning stoves or heaters. Solutions might include vacuuming with an HEPA filter, removing asbestos, installing filters in the heating system, repainting walls, removing items that attract pests, or fixing leaks.

A big part of the program is education. CESC also provided personal education to Dessie about ways to reduce asthma irritants in the home and to understand the improvements CESC was making at every step of the way.

Learn more about how CESC helped Dessie in our latest video about our residential programs.

Watch the premiere of this video and support CESC’s residential programs at our event Rock the Warehouse later this month.

Saving Energy One Client at a Time

By Erich Guglielmelli, CESC Construction Technician

Erich makes improvements on a client's home

Erich makes improvements on a client’s home

In my work as technician for CESC’s residential energy efficiency programs, I’m fortunate because I get to help clients reap the benefits of weatherization–protecting your house and its interior from the elements, particularly from wind, sunlight, and precipitation, along with lowering overall energy costs for keeping your home a comfortable temperature.

I love touting these programs that benefit low-income families, but I know that sometimes what we can do has limitations. We often run across severe issues that are outside the scope of our program. What do I see? Childcare issues, unsanitary conditions, extensive home repair needs.  There is so much need out there. We do as much as we can to quell that, but there is so much more need.

Yet sometimes we do make a big difference. A while back, we worked with a client from Martinez whose doors faced the wind, making her house cold and uncomfortable. You could practically feel the wind blowing inside the house. On our visit, we made some repairs and closed up some of the drafty spots with weatherstripping. A few days later, the client called in to let us know that the repairs made a huge difference. She said that she can stand in front of those doors and stay toasty warm. Her heating bills had been reduced significantly. In fact, we help many clients lower their bills with insulation and weatherstripping. Almost every client will see some kind of meaningful reduction in their energy bills. We also install efficient lighting, new microwaves, and new energy efficient showerheads.

In the Energy Savings Assistance Program, before we can take any measures we are required to check that the home’s gas appliances are not leaking any natural gas or emitting any carbon monoxide. If there aren’t any leaks, then we can perform the upgrades necessary to seal the house tighter against the weather: adding or repairing insulation, sealing cracks, and weatherstripping doors and windows. If there are such leaks, it might cause a health hazard to seal the house. In those cases, we stick to water- and energy-efficiency measures such as showerheads and lightbulbs. In the work that we do through a similar program called LIHEAP, when we spot gas leak issues we are permitted to make the needed repairs. In those cases we can take weatherization measures, and we can also improve ventilation, if our tests showed that the house is sealed too tightly.

Because we offer and work with diverse programs, we do have some flexibility. Last week, I worked on an energy efficiency job in Richmond. An exterior door was completely shredded and needed a repair–well, really a replacement–to keep the house protected from the wind in cold weather. Unfortunately, the door was framed in raw two-by-fours. To replace that door, I would have had to rebuild the frame completely. Such a job was outside the scope of the Energy Savings Assistance Plan, and so I was not able to fix the door that day. Luckily, all was not lost. I ended up referring the client to one of our Home Repair programs, which can make the repair.

I’ve been at CESC for about three years. I think most people would call me a “people person.” Before coming to CESC, I worked with autistic kids in Milpitas, a job that I loved. When I heard about the job here, I was attracted to the work CESC does (I grew up plumbing with my dad), but I worried that I wouldn’t be able to interact with people very much.

I was wrong to worry. Interacting with our clients is a big part of what I do.

First of all, we educate the clients. Whatever the home improvements we make, I take the opportunity to explain what we are doing. For example, when I replace a 120W incandescent bulb with a 13W efficient lightbulb, I explain that they’ll get the same amount of light but at 10% of the cost. I’d say that about 70% of the clients we work with in the program are enthusiastic about the energy savings in such an upgrade. By the time I leave, the client has a better understanding of how to conserve energy (and how such conservation will lower their energy bills). We hope that the client spreads this knowledge to friends and families. Although most of our recruitment is through door-to-door canvassing, we also get many clients who found out about the program through neighbors or friends who have been clients of the energy efficiency programs.

Second, we earn the trust of our clients. I think one of the most important things I can do for a client is to listen respectfully to what he or she has to say. Some clients are distrustful of people they don’t know coming into their homes. I remember a woman in a neighborhood of Oakland where we saw bullet holes. We knocked on the door, and the client yelled that she could take us on (physically). She eventually let us in but maintained her distrustful attitude for a while. We spent the afternoon chatting with her and made some small changes in the house that made a big difference. We sealed wall cracks that opened to the outside and installed light switch plates over bare electrical wires. By the end of the day, her attitude had completely changed. She was so grateful for the difference we had made that she took a selfie with us.

Could you or someone you know benefit from one of our residential energy efficiency programs? Please help us spread the word. We all benefit when a member of our community uses energy more efficiently.


Preaching the Gospel of Saving Water at Off the Grid

By Lois Smith, CESC Marketing & Outreach Manager

Lois Vanna

Me showing off our prize wheel

It’s a lovely night at the parking lot of Pastime Hardware in El Cerrito, where my colleague Evan and I have set up our folding table and decorated it with a prize wheel, literature and surveys, and plenty of fun prizes. Around us, East Bay residents stand in line for the food trucks, enjoy the music, and eat at plastic chairs set up along the street. Food trucks purr, and the rhythmic beat of a Ska band permeates the air. Across the way, a young man sells gelato out of a small van. A little girl wearing pink plastic pumps keeps visiting our booth in search of prizes. I let her spin the wheel a few times just for fun. It turns out her mom works at the burger truck nearby. On my dinner break, I munch on smashed potato fries and grilled Bok choy (delicious) from the nearby Slightly Skewed truck, one I’ve visited several times before. Others report that the donut truck is irresistibly tasty, particularly the salted caramel donuts. I’ve had those before, but this time, I resist.

Why, you might ask, am I spending time at El Cerrito Off the Grid? The answer is that CESC (in this case, my colleague Evan and I) are here on an outreach mission with Energy Upgrade California to spread the word to community members about ways to save energy. The person who made this happen is Elle Santos, Off the Grid’s Partnerships & Amenities Manager. Elle has been in her current role for a year, and she explained to me her goals in inviting nonprofit partners to table at OTG events: “I envision nonprofit partners as our neighbors who want to uplift the neighborhood and sometimes, they just need a little support. I believe that by allowing them to connect with the communities they serve, through platforms like Off the Grid, we can not only empower our neighbors but also create a stronger sense of community.” 

Evan Flashlights

Evan shows off LED flashlights at our Off the Grid booth

Now more than ever, community empowerment is needed :  climate change is real and brings with it devastating consequences for our environment and for generations to come. The good news is there are small things we can do to make a difference in our state and in our communities. I used to think that my own small actions would make almost no difference, but studies show otherwise: showering for one minute less can actually save 550 gallons of water every year. Saving time in the shower also saves the energy required to heat the water. But let’s just focus on the water for now: 550 gallons is a significant number. And while 550 gallons in itself will not solve the drought, it’s gratifying to know that if my neighbors are all saving 550 gallons, those gallons add up fast, and the effects of those many little sacrifices will become many times greater.

Luring both kids and adults over to our booth with our engaging prize wheel and environmentally friendly swag, we talk to Off the Grid-goers about tangible things they can do to conserve energy in their community and their home. Right now we are focused on water saving, and we show a mom and her teenage son our low-flow showerheads. The mom is intrigued and asks us what’s so special about these. Water-saving showerheads use less water than older showerhead models. This small and easy household upgrade can account for over 2,900 gallons of water saved per person per year. Another useful trick we employ at my house is a warm-up bucket to catch cold shower water while the tap is heating up. This water is then used to water the plants. 

Participants fill out surveys about why they save energy. I’ve found from our surveys that most of our community members feel responsible for the impact they make. Almost everyone responds that they believe that their contribution to saving energy does make a difference and is something that matters to them.  Engaged residents like these seem to appreciate our presence here, and so does Elle Santos: “I think that CESC has been great in educating folks about energy conservation.”

An older lady stops by our booth to chat, and gushes about the nearby gelato truck. “I’ve been an ice cream freak all my life,” she confesses, “And their mocha ice cream is the best I’ve ever tasted! Really.” “Treat yourself,” she encourages me before making her way home, carrying a cup of mango sorbet for now and a bag of ice cream pints for later.

Once the event winds down, I pack up our gear and wave goodbye to the lovely crew, hoping that my humble efforts tonight in spreading the word to a few more people in the community, over time, might just make a meaningful difference.

6 Easy Steps



Birkenstock Brightens Its Bottom Line

Lois Case Studies 085

If you’ve ever driven on US 101 near Novato, you’ve probably seen this funny-looking building on the west side of the highway with multiple pointed roofs sticking out at strange angles. The sign reads Birkenstock, but for five years the large building stood empty. In 2008 the company needed to save costs, so they moved to a different Novato location.

In 2013, office manager Nancy Moock was tasked with moving the Birkenstock USA office back to its original 93-acre Novato site. At 37,000 square feet, there was ample room for the now-booming company to continue to grow in this distinctive building.

Once the company was re-settled in its original home, Moock decided it was time to update the lighting. After a referral from MSM janitorial supply company, CESC’s  SmartLights program provided a no-cost lighting assessment of the property and presented the business with a detailed report of the projected cost and long-term energy and financial savings of the project.

For Moock, the decision to proceed with the project was a no-brainer. She was tired of having to replace burned-out lights all the time and is delighted to learn that their new LEDs should last for a very long time. Moock was also happy that she no longer had to manage contractors or deal with ordering new lights: “With SmartLights, we didn’t have to do either of those. These guys were great, they were efficient.”

Birk lighted wall

Walking through the spacious halls of Birkenstock USA, one notices the lighting immediately. The space feels open and light, and the Birkenstock sandals on display in the lobby were artistically illuminated. The new lighting was the final touch needed on the beautiful property, and a great way to showcase all that Birkenstock has to offer. Nancy confirms that her office agrees: “Our staff all noticed that the lights were better – it was a nice, softer light – the feedback has been really positive: ‘Wow, this is great!’”

In addition to aesthetic improvements, Birkenstock has saved  money, energy, and carbon emissions thanks to the project. The SmartLights program rebate covered nearly 50% of the cost, making the initial investment much more manageable for the company. Now the company is saving over twelve thousand dollars a year thanks to the new lights, and they’ve removed over 38,000 lbs of carbon dioxide from the environment, the equivalent of taking 10 cars off the road for a year.

Know a business that could benefit from a brighter bottom line?  Call SmartLights for a free energy assessment.  More details here.


By Martin Bond

Helicopter picThe 2015 movie San Andreas is about a 7.1 earthquake that destroys the Bay Area. San Andreas is a fictional movie, yet it is based on an all-too possible reality. I sometimes wake up in a mad panic when a large truck rumbles down my street. Is this the One?

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, this is the reality of living in earthquake country:

The next major earthquake on the Hayward Fault — inevitable any time now, experts say — will be the Bay Area’s own Hurricane Katrina, affecting more than 5 million people, causing losses to homes and businesses of at least $165 billion and total economic losses of more than $1.5 trillion, scientists warn. The analysis came from the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, from Risk Management Solutions, a scientific and engineering firm in Newark, and from the Association of Bay Area Governments. Their view of the past and future was sobering. Records and geologic trenching show that five major quakes struck along the Hayward Fault between 1315 and 1868 — an average of one every 140 years. The 140th anniversary of the last big one fell on Oct. 21. 2008.

I live a few blocks away from the Hayward fault! The Rock was able to save his family, with the help of a helicopter. I don’t know if I can get a helicopter—but I there are some things I can do to get ready for the next earthquake.

Here’s what I’ve done so far.  I started with the easy and low cost options:

Simple Stuff:

I have been in two earthquakes: during the 1989 Loma Prieta, I was in Oakland, and during the 1994 Northridge, I was in Santa Barbara. During these earthquakes, I learned anything not strongly attached will fall.

Secure Furniture and Wall Art

*I moved heavy frames, pictures, knick-knacks, etc. away from above beds, seating areas and windows.
*I secured heavy pictures with strong hooks into wall studs.
*I attached bookcases to the wall by ‘L’ brackets, for cheaper IKEA shelves, and Quakehold! straps for furniture I did not want to damage.
*I secured electronics and TVs.

Earthquake Kits and Supplies

I put together a couple backpacks with some basic first aid, flashlights, small blankets, simple tools, etc. I put a bag in each car, as well as one at the house. We have several gallons of water and extra canned food as well.

Make a Communications Plan

Where should the family meet up in case of an emergency? Where to go if the first location is not available? Is there someone out of the area to call if local phone lines are tied up? In the aftermath of a major disaster, your cell phone is unlikely to work—partly because everyone else will be trying to use their phones at the same time, and partly because local towers may also have been affected by the disaster. We have busy lives and it is good to know where to look for family members when an emergency happens.

A Little More Complicated:

Install an Automatic seismic gas shut off valve

I was motivated to get this installed once I learned it gave me a 5% discount on our homeowners’ insurance. This motion-activated device will automatically shut off the gas during an earthquake. (It has been triggered a few times, although is easy to reset.)

Strap the Water Heater!

Make sure the water heater is securely attached to wall studs.

Install a Flexible Gas Line

I had a flexible gas line to my stove installed to replace a rigid pipe, which could break.

A Lot More Costly:

Earthquake Insurance

Most ordinary homeowners insurance policies do not cover damage from earthquakes. In California. a nonprofit group California Earthquake Authority (CEA) offers earthquake insurance. Often with a high deductible, this insurance protects against the complete loss of your home.

Secure the Chimney

We have a Tudor-style house with a high peaked roof. This means our chimney is 9 feet above the roof line. We knew the chimney was cracked when we bought our house, and it took us awhile to get around to fixing it.  When the chimney mason came out, he let us know building code required us to add iron bars securing it to the frame of the house. Now I know the chimney will not be what falls first.

Seismic Retrofit

The best way to make an old house safe is to bolt the frame of the house to the foundation. The primary purpose of earthquake retrofitting is to keep the house from slipping off its concrete foundation — making the building safer and less prone to major structural damage during an earthquake.
Seismic retrofits are costly; however, there is a new grant program for select communities, called Earthquake Brace and Bolt . Up to $3,000 is available for homeowners to cover the cost of a seismic retrofit.  I applied this year, and we have a seismic retrofit scheduled for later this summer.  

The Bay Area is “Earthquake Country.” There is a high probability that at least one earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater will occur here before 2030. When the next earthquake hits the Bay Area, the destruction and damage will be catastrophic. We must prepare ourselves and our most vulnerable neighbors for this eventuality.

If you want help to get started with simple preparations, contact CESC’s Seismic Safety program.


Killing Those Watts

By Janet Stephens

I’ve always been interested in saving energy, first in order to save money and second to reduce my impact on the environment. Over the years I have invested in energy-efficient appliances and compact fluorescent light bulbs, and I do things like dry laundry outside on the line when it is practical. I knew I was doing a pretty good job, because I always got a high score on those “report cards” that PG&E sends out.  Until recently, it told me that I was doing about as well as possible, using less energy than the most efficient similar-sized houses. And solar energy companies have told me that I don’t use enough electricity to make solar panels cost-effective.

After I made two important changes in my life, getting married and working at home, the report card still said I was doing well, but not great. We were using slightly more energy than most efficient similar-sized houses. When I learned about a tool called the Kill A Watt from CESC, I was curious to see if I could discover more about our energy use.

Testing the wattage of my 19-year-old refrigerator

The Kill A Watt is pretty easy to use, although there are some limitations. Here’s how it works: Plug it into the outlet of an appliance whose energy use you want to test, then plug that appliance into the Kill A Watt itself. The tool shows a number of things, such as volts and amps, which my physicist husband understood immediately, but which luckily I could ignore. For monitoring energy use, I found that I only needed to use two buttons: KW/Hour (a toggle button) and occasionally the Watt button.

To measure how much energy the appliance uses over time is simple: leave the appliance plugged in for a few hours or days (the longer you leave it plugged in, the more accurate average you will get). Then return to the Kill A Watt and press the KWH (for kilowatt hour) button. The Kill A Watt displays the number of kWh used. If you press it again, the display toggles to the length of time that has passed since you plugged in your appliance. Write these two numbers down! Once you unplug the Kill A Watt, these numbers disappear.

A kilowatt hour is a unit of energy that is used by utilities to measure how much energy they are delivering to you–and that they can charge you for. My microwave oven at its highest setting uses 1000 watts, or 1 kilowatt. If I ran the oven on high for one hour, it would use 1 kWh of energy. If I had the microwave plugged into the Kill A Watt for that mega-session, the Kill A Watt should show 1.00 kWh and 1:00 hours duration. If I used a 30 watt light bulb for the same amount of time, the Kill A Watt would show .03 kWh.

I investigated the energy use of my refrigerator, which is 19 years old. I left it plugged in for almost four days, and the device showed 3.92 kWh and 86.25 hours elapsed. To find the hourly average, I divided kWh by the number of hours and got .0454 kWh per hour. On my tiered usage plan with PG&E, we are charged about 18 cents per kWh if we stay within the allotment that the tier allows (and we almost always do). That means that my refrigerator costs about 20 cents a day to run, or about $5.95 per month. Next to the space heater in my garage, which costs between $25 to $29 a month to run, my refrigerator turned out to be the most expensive electrical appliance we use. Since I use the space heater only in the coldest months, the refrigerator is probably the most expensive.

Surprises? My super efficient dishwasher and clothes washer use even less electricity than I had anticipated. The dishwasher costs us about $1.96 in electricity a month and the clothes washer about 40 cents. On the other hand my computer setup in the garage office uses quite a bit more, about $3.20 a month in electricity.

Frustrations? The Kill A Watt is rather large and covers up second sockets in the wall or in a power strip, making it difficult to run a test while keeping your other appliances connected in their usual spots unless you use an extension cord. You can’t use the device to test light fixtures, and I wasn’t able to use it with my 220-volt dryer.

After I saw a New York Times article that said that about a quarter of all residential energy consumption comes from devices in “idle power mode,” I did try looking into the “standby power” usage of some of my electronics. My investigation showed only minimal energy use (rounded down by the Kill A Watt to 0) by everything except my MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro appeared to use almost as much energy when in sleep mode as when in active use.

Overall our electricity use is pretty low. I guess the next step is wearing thicker sweaters in the garage, turning my laptop off at night, and investigating rebates for appliance upgrades. I would also like to buy electricity from a source that guarantees more renewable energy in its mix. I’m excited to learn more about community choice energy, which, if it comes to the East Bay, could allow me to do just that!

Janet Stephens is a freelance writer and fundraising consultant.