Pure Genius

Ed Begley, Jr.: My compost doesn't stink

Posting in Cities

The actor who has timed his wife's showers to calculate water usage is as 'eco' as they come. But fully greening his Los Angeles home (while preserving his marriage) wasn't always smooth sailing.

You gotta love a guy who stands outside the bathroom timing your shower, only to provide you with exhaustive figures on water usage.

But through all the bickering over the greening of Emmy-nominated actor Ed Begley, Jr.'s house, he and actress Rachelle Carson are still married and still entertaining us.

Begley, best known for his portrayal of  doctors--in the long-running TV series St. Elsewhere, and in CBS's recent comedy, Gary Unmarried--has documented the greening of his Los Angeles home in the reality show Living With Ed on Planet Green.

I talked to Begley last week, to find out whether he's made enemies of his neighbors, whether he considers himself a green snob and how much his compost really stinks.

Is your house self-sufficient year-round?

Never quite made it off the grid, even when I was single. Now there's more people living here. Then, I used $100 a year of power. Now, we shoot a TV show here and use a lot of bright lights; I drive a larger electric car; and I use $900 a year of LADWP [Los Angeles Department of Water & Power] Green Power. Plus, I need a certain amount of city water, because I'm growing food here.

You often say how it's economical to have an eco-house. How do you figure out what you're saving?

Just look at your utility bills and look at the previous year, and unless the weather or the rainfall was significantly different, you will be able to see the difference. In the case of lighting, you will right away see a change. Same with an energy–saving thermostat.

So you're saving money now, but how much have you invested to get your house functioning this way?

A lot. The investments were substantial on things like solar—which I did in 1990, when there were no tax credits or subsidies. But now I own the system, and I will continue to benefit from it, and so will my children. One of the great things about my current economic outlook—it's not so much that I have a lot of money, but that I don't need a lot of money. I'm invested in something that will give me such a return over the years. That's the real value.

How big is your house?

1,600 square feet.

How do you balance size and green?

That's the challenge. If you have a small house, you'd have to be real reckless or have very poor insulation to use a lot of energy. I made my 1936, 1,600-square-foot house very energy efficient starting in 1988. I've taken it as far as I can. I don't think I can do much more.

Your wife, Rachelle Carson, said that people who think you're an environmental hero should try living with you. On your reality show, you debate everything from shower length to driving versus walking. What is it about environmental issues that spark arguments between people who otherwise get along?

I've seen people around the country--a woman says, "I'm just like Rachelle," or a man says "I'm like Rochelle; leave your poor wife alone." It's kind of funny. Some couples are in accord in those matters. In the case of Rachelle, she cares deeply about the environment, so we find common ground. She wants things to look good, and I want things to work. And she loves the low bills.

What is the worst green fight you ever had?

Over the [orange] rain barrel. It started with the long showers. I begged her to stop and realized she wasn't ever going to stop. The solution, I thought, was the rain barrel. I brought it home. We were filming. She came home, shopping bags in hand, and said "What the hell are you doing?" I said, "I found a solution to your long showers by collecting rainwater." She said, "That's the ugliest thing I've ever seen. Get it out of the yard." I said, "What's uglier, this or the fish flopping in the mud because we've stolen their water? Would that be attractive?" We got into it, and it was real funny TV.

In 1970, you started driving an electric car and recycling. Are there things you are doing today that might be mainstream in another 40 years?

Yeah, I think there are things I'm doing today. The rate of acceptance is increasing--it won't be 40 years; maybe four or five years for some things. Like the gray water system I just put in, which takes water from the laundry, shower, tub, and filters that water very well so I can use it on my tomatoes and corn. It becomes a residential water system. It's called purple pipe water. We could do that in every home in America and drastically reduce the water we're wasting. Black water is different—from the toilet or garbage disposal. Greywater—a little soap , little hair, little bacteria-- it's not that much given the amount of water that's going through. It's not water you can drink, but you can certainly use it for your garden.

Tell me the truth: Does the compost stink?

No it doesn't. If it stinks, you've done something wrong. It should have an rich, organic smell, but if it stinks, you didn’t chop stuff up enough.

Have your neighbors complained about anything?

They haven't, only because they're saints. The solar panels aren't the kind of aesthetically pleasing things you can install today. I don't think it's too garish, but I'm not the only who has to look at it. They're very patient.

When you first installed the solar panels, you had some odd things happen, like buzzing from your stereo. What other little green snafus have you run into along the way?

That was the only real snafu—the 1990 install of the solar electric that used a square wave inverter—an energy efficient converter that's not sine wave. Nowadays, anyone can put in a pure sine wave inverter. I put those in back in 1992, and my life got groovy. Before that, it was buzzing on the stereo, clocks running fast.

What has been the biggest inconvenience about making your house green, or living in it after it's been greened?

That two-year period when I had the modified sine wave converters. Also, I was so rabid about not being on the grid and not using any gasoline in the early and mid-'90s. I didn't go to a gasoline pump once from 1989 to 1998. I still used my share of gasoline on Amtrak trains or Greyhound buses, but I just didn't buy it at a pump, which was quite a big commitment. Until I got a natural gas car, but those natural gas stations were few and far between.

My life didn’t get easy in every way until I got a first-generation Prius in August 2000. Then you could go get fuel like anybody and it would burn super clean, and you would get 51 miles per gallon. That was a good compromise. I still use it rarely--only 65 or so days a year. Three hundred days a year I’m on foot, bike, electric car or public transportation.

What's your assessment of Los Angeles' sustainability initiatives?

Mayor Villaraigosa has been very good on the environment. He was one of the people behind getting MTA to switch over to natural gas buses. He's tried to move us away from dirty coal and more renewables, and he's been good on public transportation.

What remains to be done in the city?

The program to plant a million trees and the Subway to the Sea plan, which I fully support. If we can get the funding, it would be great to move people around L.A. in a more efficient manner, underground. The natural gas buses are great, but there comes a point you can't fit any more buses on Wilshire Boulevard. It's just gridlock the whole way. So you have to go underground.

What are the top things industry can do to make it easier for people to be green in their homes?

  • Give people choices. We have them to a large extent. It's up to people to pick the things that are there. Sadly , people are still making the choice to buy incandescent bulb
  • Make bulbs that have a more pleasant [color temperature] for people like my wife. Rachelle is kind of opposed to those kinds of light bulbs and the LEDs because they are too cold. So they need to make them warmer, which they are starting to do.
  • Make those energy-saving thermostats more user friendly, where you can just touch the screen, and it walks you through it.
  • Hopefully industry will offer more low-cost solar choices. There's a wonderful A.O. Smith Solar water heater you can easily install on your roof. Make that readily available.
  • Make weather stripping easier to install and in general, make things more user friendly.

You've created a real haven in your house, where you can collect rainwater and cook your meals on a solar-powered stove. Is it hard for you to leave that and go into an environment that’s not as environmentally friendly?

No , I'm very zen about these things. I do what I do. People are afraid that I'm going to judge them—they drive up to meet me at a restaurant and say, "This is not my regular car! My Prius is in the shop!" But I'm not like that. If I judged people by their cars and homes I wouldn't have as many wonderful friends. If they ask my advice, which they do a lot, I give it. But I don't proselytize.

Photo: Ed Begley, Jr.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure