Brink Family’s Renewable Transition

By Chloe Rychick 

Toni Brink and her husband, Nick, were well into their renewable journey when they signed the Marbletown 100% Renewable pledge in early March of 2021. The two have been married for over 45 years after meeting and living in rural Central Pennsylvania up until a few years ago. Their current home is owned by their daughter Marisa, and her husband of 20 years, Wyatt Pileggi, an “eco-wise” contractor who dedicated a year to remodeling, reconfiguring, and updating the 1960-built home to maximize energy efficiency, ventilation, and comfort. The house was gutted, reinsulated and weather-sealed, re-roofed and re-sided with steel for strength, endurance, pest resistance, energy efficiency, easy maintenance, and appearance.  The original concrete slab floor was insulated and covered with ceramic tile over electric heating coils in the bathrooms. An air-source heat pump (mini-split) provides air-conditioning and most of the heating, assisted by the baseboard heat when outside winter temperatures plummet. The Pileggis were not new to this process, having built their own home up the road 20 years prior with geothermal heat and extensive insulation.  In the rest of the house, cork flooring was installed; this material is known for its sustainable and insulative properties.  The Brinks say the cork is also very easy on their feet.

The 900-plus square foot cottage sits on a gentle slope with a generous number of insulated windows and vaulted ceilings, making the small home seem spacious. Toni and Nick chose Energy Star appliances and enjoy cooking with induction rather than gas or electric coils, enjoying the efficiency and immediate response of induction. Clothes drying is on an Amish-style clothesline outdoors or with their compact combination washer-dryer which utilizes ventless, moisture condensing technology to dry clothes. The previous owners loved gardening, and the Brinks enjoy seeing their pollinator-friendly plants thrive and reseed themselves “with beauty and abandon.” They continue reducing the lawn by planting fruit and nut trees, shrubs, vegetable gardens and native pollinator-friendly plants. They use an electric battery push lawnmower and string weed trimmer, and an electric plug-in leaf blower vacuums dry leaves and makes mulch for the garden.

The Brinks’ house was evaluated for solar roof panels, but effective use of solar would require removing many trees. Weighing the trees’ benefits, such as protecting the house from extreme weather and moisture, they nixed the idea and instead chose community solar. Marbletown subscribes to a Community Choice Aggregation Program which ensures that part, if not all, of their electric supply is drawn from renewable sources, and also saves them money on their electric bill.

In early February 2022, the power went out from a devastating storm.  A State of Emergency in Ulster County closed all but emergency county offices and services and limited road use to essential vehicles. Toni and Nick were left in their all-electric home without electric power.  Their small emergency supplemental gasoline generator was outside covered in almost an inch of ice as temperatures dropped to nearly 0o F. Inside they watched the temperature slowly decrease from 75o F to about 50o F over the first 24 hours. By erecting a pop-up bottomless tent over their bed, they were able to stay warm through that first night.

The most important feature of riding out the storm were their concerned neighbors and family, said Brink. While the Pileggi’s geothermal home was also without electricity, their previous commitment to insulation thwarted the threat of their pipes freezing. Toni and Nick spent the next two nights there, and a propane heater was used in the Brink’s vacant cottage to ensure the pipes didn’t freeze. In the future, the Brinks hope to solve the need for auxiliary power during an extended power outage such as this one- perhaps through the use of the 12 volt battery in their electric car, or a solar storage battery. For now, they maintain friends, family, and a conscientious son-in-law are their best resources for staying resilient and safe in an emergency.

While the transformation of their lifestyle has certainly been made easier by having a contractor in the family, the Brinks demonstrate a path others can follow by getting to know people with expertise and re-imagining possibilities, one step at a time. With the help of her home and community, Brink and company are able to maintain resilience in the Upstate climate. They are practitioners of the classic “Reduce Reuse Recycle,” as well as  Refuse (to purchase and support unsustainable and unjust entities) and let things Rot (to encourage composting, fermentation, and regenerating carbon in the soil).