The DIY Network Sifts the Green Options

blog this new houseWhether you are a realtor, contractor or homeowner, the learning curve is essential, and the people at the DIY network look like good interpreters of the dizzying galaxy of options. The “Green” building movement is already full of grinning hucksters, and the consumer cannot safely pursue energy independence without a big self-education learning curve. Sorry. Or you could just follow my page. The Do It Yourself movement has become a tremendous resource for beta-testing self-styled green products and features in modern homes. Linked below, a list of green ideas is evaluated by DIY enthusiasts on a new TV show, This New House.

Passive Solar at Your House, Right Now

                                       blog sunset window                                                           Sunset through dirty windows, as shown at left, is beautiful. But it’s not efficient. Clean your windows, at least the south and west facing windows, and pull those drapes aside to let more sunight in, especially now while outside temperatures are moderate and the sun is still high and able to deliver comforting heat to your home.

   You don’t have to mortgage your house to get into the passive solar game. Figure out which windows in your house, if you haven’t already noticed, get the most sun, and put them to work for you. If you’re having trouble locating the most solar-friendly windows, follow your cat around one day. Modest-sized south facing windows can transmit as much as 15% of the house’s heat load, depending upon many factors, results will certainly vary. But the gain is always in the positive, and it doesn’t cost you anything but a little thoughtful planning.

   You can, of course, spend thousands of dollars replacing all the windows in your house with low emissivity argon barrier double glazed windows. And if you want to, go ahead. But if your budget doesn’t allow for that, substitute your brain for your credit cards and get those south facing windows working for you. When it’s colder, and here in New England it certainly will get colder as the year wanes, we’ll check in again and give you some additional strategies for covering those windows at night after they’ve worked for you all day. Be careful washing those second floor windows, please.

Green Builder Shares Wisdom

blog pepitone green builderAttended an open house/ green building discussion at 419 Norwich Road in Salem CT yesterday. Jim Pepitone, green builder, showed off the distinctive features of the home, his second in this area, for sale at 359,000 on 4 acres of land. The link below is his first green project in the area, a few miles away in Montville. The takeaway for this short post is: green features raise the price of a building by a smaller fraction than anyone would think, in this case about 10% overall. We’ll revisit this topic and point out things builders can do to inch toward energy-efficient building in a very conservative industry.

Point of Use Hot Water Heaters

blog point of use heaterWe solar contractors generally disparage electric tank water heaters, except when used for solar storage. But sooner or later, solar is going to let you down, in cloudy weather or when it’s very cold, and you’ll need hot water for dishes, hands, cleaning and filling the pasta pot (who wants to wait for that cold water to boil?).

Whatever backup system you use to close the gap between solar and the American lifestyle, it has to be available all the time, not dependent upon the solar equipment at all, and capable of supplying your assessed need for hot water until the sun replenishes your tanks.

Consider putting a little tank of electrically heated water under your kitchen sink. Two, three, five gallons of water, kept hot all the time (you can have a switch if you can plan those solar outages an hour in advance), ready to fill a pot, wash your hands, feed the dishwasher (yes, the dishwasher has a heater, but it lengthens the cycle by about an hour waiting for it), and even draw a mug of water for tea, almost hot enough to brew the leaves, can be had for the price of some electric power and an upfront cost ranging from $500 to $1000 US. How long will it take you to pay that investment off? Not sure that’s the right question.

   What you’re buying with your money is convenience. It’s not easy to calculate a payback on that. If you’re able, by means of two or so installed point of use heaters, to turn off your backup, whether it was a gas fired boiler, oil fired tank, or big electric tank, you may save enough energy from that idle system to give yourself a payback on the point of use heaters. But showers and laundry are not served by these relatively tiny devices, and you may need to use your backup hot water source just to keep those important services going. Go ahead. Tell me you wash all your clothes in cold water, all the time. Ok; I believe you. I don’t; and I don’t recommend it, unless you dry them thoroughly at rather high temperature. Don’t make the world a better place for all those bacteria, allergens and dust mites you want to remove from your clothes. Do you think you’re making them dizzy in the spin cycle?

   For houses with multiple baths, long piping runs, and several occcupants, point of use water heaters can be a real convenience and an energy saver. I say if your hot water source is less than thirty feet from your faucets, tank insulation and a timer are your best tactics. You can decide whether a significant upfront investment and the privilege of turning off your backup source for the day balance for you economically and energy-wise.

Electric Tankless Water Heater Caveats

blog electric tanklessWe’ve posted on tankless water heaters before, but an inquiry from a client prompts us to revisit some of our reservations about tankless units. Wonderful idea, of course, good for energy, wish i’d thought of it myself, and all; but do your homework and keep your eyes open. Claims made for tankless heaters are larger than they seem in real life.

  First, flow rate. You need at least three gallons per minute of hot water at 125 degrees fahrenheit to operate a laundry machine, dishwasher, shower, kitchen sink or any combination of two faucets or appliances in the house. if your teenager is in the shower and you go downstairs to start the dishwasher, you will be cited by Family Services in this litigious society, for cruelty to a teenager. Sharing the output of a tankless electric unit is dicey. And families living in multi-bathroom houses will, sooner or later, need to share that output.

   Second, power needs. The only electric tankless that begins to fill the bill for a family is something like the Bosch AE 125 . The power requirement of this water heater is app. 125 amps at full load. Do you have a 100 amp service feeding your entire house, as I do? Fuhgeddabouddit. You can’t install electric tankless in your house. Do you have a 200 amp service? Expect to give away 60% of that capacity while using hot water, which means that you can’t operate your electric range, air conditioning, and clothes dryer all in tandem with this water heater. You have to do what we call “load management,” in which you stop to think, ok, toaster is 110 watts, dryer 4500, range is 8000 unless I only use one burner, turn up the air conditioning thermostat, and,,,, ok, now we can do hot water. And if you have electric heat, you’ll have to shut some of it off to avoid an overload, even with a 200 amp service. No, you can’t have a 300 amp service on a house, not without paying lots of money. Perhaps in the “home of the future.”

   If it’s just two of you in the house, or if the kids only come home for Christmas, this all may work out well. You can save up to 25% over electric tank hot water by virtue of  lowering your standby costs (the expense of keeping the tank hot and losing heat to the surrounding air). If your house is large, full of kids, or if you have a big kitchen and you’re always in it, beware.

    Electric tankless water heaters are growing in popularity, and they should. But i’m always concerned when a past or potential client buys one off the internet and asks for a quote to install it. My bill for installation will commonly exceed the cost of the water heater, if indeed I can even shoehorn it into the house’s electrical system. Then I’m delivering the bad news, the phone goes “click,” and the unhappy client is off down the road to a plumbing company which knows not-so-much about electrical loading and is willing to take the client’s money for installing an inadequately sized unit. Happens several times a year.

  Other technologies are more practical. Oil, natural gas, LP gas, almost any fuel other than electric power makes for a better performance in water heating, due to the ability of those fuels to deliver larger amounts of energy instantaneously to the water, exceeding electricity by far in the critical category of  “recovery rate.”  Watch your loading, watch your pricing, beware of claims made by salesmen bearing gifts, and consider all  your options. Sometimes a heavy insulation blanket and a simple timer can turn an old electric tank into a lean, mean green machine, for a lot less money.

Don’t Plunder Our Energy Future in CT

blog electric kitchen antique

The photo at left is an early 20th century ad piece courtesy of the CL&P website. It depicts a “Future Kitchen” in which electric appliances and facilities stand ready to do the heavy work and make the kitchen a safe, pleasant place in which to work. The artist could not have dreamed of the extent to which our 21st century kitchens depend upon large supplies of electric power to function. Whether modern, highly energy-hungry kitchens and homes are good or bad, we’re unlikely to return willingly even to the simple facility in the picture.

Connecticut’s annual power consumption increases by about 2.5% per year, and CL&P is running to keep up with the demand, particularly the increasing peak summer demand as New England embraces air conditioning as a summer necessity. CL&P presently operates two nuclear generating facilities, Millstones 1&2, both located in Waterford. The utility also operates two coal-burning plants and a long list of natural gas-burning plants fed by pipelines from long distances. New gas burning plants are proposed, but construction has been halted on two projects due to financial considerations. A recent explosion at a gas burning facility in the commissioning stage resulted in five fatalities and a public rethinking of the wisdom of locating large central generating plants around the state vs. buying power generated from outside the state and paying a premium for transmission losses.

Today, March 23,  the Connecticut State Senate Finance Commission meets to consider a proposal to divert funds allocated for renewable energy projects around the state to the General Fund to meet budget shortfalls. “Securitization” of Clean Energy Funds, allocated not from taxes but from utility surcharges, would effectively halt the progress of renewable energy growth in CT by ending subsidies for residential and commercial wind, hydroelectric and photovoltaic (solar electric panels on roofs) energy installations, leaving only corporate entities like CL&P and others in a position to invest in energy generation. The measure would  effectively permanize the monopoly CL&P now holds over the energy future of Connecticut.

This link will connect you to a press release in which CT Governor Jodi Rell commits the state to a goal of 20% renewable energy consumption by 2020. The sleight of hand that would buy from hydroelectric sources out of state begs the question of energy independence as well as energy costs. Connecticut residents pay about 20 cents per kilowatt hour, as high as any state in the lower 48, exceeded only by Hawaii. The future of renewable energy in CT is tied to the future of consumer independence, reasonable power rates and the public’s influence over energy policy in this state.

Concern for the environment in American politics is at an ebb. The recession has focused our attention on the issues rubbing us raw: jobs, taxes, the failure of American corporation too big to fail, and the need for little taxpayers to shoulder a heavier burden to keep the whole system from tanking. But the long view is not an expendable luxury. What we do now will start affecting us a little next year, and a lot in ten years, when power rates will be even higher, and Connecticut taxpayers along with all Americans will see energy take a huge bite out of our ever-decreasing real wages.

The artist who drew the Future Kitchen above could not have dreamed of the appetite Americans would develop for the convenience of electrically powered devices in every room of the house. But that artist was a veritable visionary compared to the CT legislators who would consider selling our energy future for the little good the money might do in a bad financial (and political) year.

Solar PV Primer, Simple Concepts

blog pv rooftop  The house at left is roofed with solar panels. No doubt there’s a real roof under there, but someone has cleverly configured photovoltaic panels to cover the roof so neatly that the eye sees only tempered glass and aluminum frames. The roofing material under the panels will not deteriorate, seeing no sunlight, clomping feet or ice and snow, so its life should be at least as long as that of the panels. The panels are attached flat to the roof, with a slight standoff for cooling air, so wind forces should not be a problem in heavy weather.

Note, if your eyes are that good, the shadows of the small trees in the foreground. They indicate that the azimuth, or compass orientation, of the roof is exactly or nearly south-facing, and that no nearby features like trees or other building threaten to shade the panels any time during the solar day (popularly reckoned to be between 9 AM and 3 PM).

No nearby power lines appear in the photo, so it’s hard to be sure whether the panels feed directly out into the local utility wiring (or grid), or to a battery bank designed to power the house after sundown, or a combination of the two functions (bi-modal, it’s called). 

A tiled roof in the background, along with mountains, suggests either a western US or possibly European location, places where solar panels are considered more progressive than kooky, and where local governments subsidize and encourage responsible photovoltaic installations. The local power supplier, or utility, may be purchasing the panels’ output at its own retail rate (net metering is the industry term), or it may be paying a “feed-in tariff” of up to twice the retail value of the power, a practice widely used in Europe and Canada to encourage the installation of solar electric arrays.

The residents of this house (subtle signs indicate this may be a barn) may spend some time each day accommodating their routines to the flow of solar power. They might operate their heaviest electrical loads, i.e. water pumps, refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes dryers, water heaters etc. while solar output highest, using their own power rather than purchases kilowatt-hours. They might adjust their lifestyles subtly to decrease power usage in the evening, using only lights and small loads while only battery current or expensive utility power are available.

Or, if the system has no “backup,” they may go about their business with no thought of loads, since the grid power simply flows into the house at night the same way the solar power flowed out through the meter all day. The local availability of sunlight, or “insolation,” may be as little as 2 kilowatt hours per day per square meter, or as high as six kilowatt hours per day per square meter, depending upon latitiude, climate, compass orientation and shading. The panels themselves may be as little as 12% efficient in transforming uv radiation into electric power, or they may be as much as 20% efficient, according to the quality and cost of the equipment when purchased. The panels, by their appearance, are not homemade, or if they are, they are meticulously framed and sealed. The wiring that connects them to each other is high-grade silicone with a sunlight-resistant coating, and the “inverter,”  thedevice that transforms the panels’ DC output into AC power usable by house loads, also synchronizes that AC output to the grid power for resale.

This primer, with links, is meant to bring your thinking into the picture with solar PV and the role it may/will play in your life in the future. Next time you’re driving past a house with panels on its roof, picture yourself living in it. Solar power on the roof doesn’t mean less fun for people living under those panels; to the contrary, there’s something natural and comforting about being linked to this life-giving power source in a positive and profitable way. But you humans, if you go out there, use sunscreen.

Tight is the Best Possible Green for Windows, Doors

blog window infiltrationThe infrared photo at left shows radiant heat loss (yellow and red shading) in a typical residential window and door. It also reveals that the most grievous heat loss (purple, violet, almost black shading) takes place around the trim and edges of the opening. This is air infiltration, and it is your deadly enemy in keeping your house warm and dry and free of mold.

We’ve posted before on the hazards of air infiltration and moisture, and we’ve urged you all to arm yourselves with caulk, foam in cans, and sticky weatherstripping to fight the crannies that permit heat to escape and air to come in while you’re trying to heat or cool your house. Only in temperate spring and fall weather here in New England do we blithely throw open our windows and share the environment indoors and outdoors. In either high summer or deepest winter the potential for unpleasant temperatures and moisture accumulations indoors and makes climate control increasingly not just a luxury.

Enter the capitalist economy. Don’t fuss about with all that caulk and foam, say the strident voices on the radio and television; we can change your house’s energy performance in a jiffy with 1. new energy-efficient vinyl replacement windows, 2. new energy-efficient vinyl storm doors front and rear, 3. safe, energy-efficient blown-in insulation in attic and walls, no damage to your interior, 4. new, safe, “permanent” energy-efficient vinyl siding with optional foam insulation backing to save you lots of energy and money. And they take credit cards, and they have financial experts standing by to mortgage your house for the full amount.

No sudden moves, now. Will replacement windows perform startingly better than the wooden sash windows or vinyl double-hung you have now? Not if you reduce or eliminate air leakage ( infiltration) through and around your old windows. Then your old windows will perform nearly as well as any window on the market, give or take 15%. Surprised? Same story with the blown-in insulation and the vinyl siding. The best deal of the lot is the vinyl storm windows and doors. They reduce infiltration almost completely through your entry doors. The rest of the “home improvements” won’t pay for themselves any time soon.

The article linked here is from Journal of Light Construction on the subject of replacement windows and their rate of payback based on improved energy performance. The math doesn’t work. It takes a LONG time to payback the investment on new windows, doors, siding, and blown-in insulation. What takes a SHORT time to pay back? Anything that tightens your house, closes cracks, tightens doors and windows, and reduces air infiltration in and out. That’s the magic of home energy. Air. Stop it going in and out, you stop energy from being stolen from your house and your budget.

The boring conclusion is:  nothing makes as big a difference in your house as caulk, foam and weatherstripping. Big ticket stuff like windows and viny siding works, eventually. But caulk and foam and gummy weatherstrip work today. If you hire a remodeler, handyman or do it yourself, it still works if you do it right. And it’s not too hard. Don’t hock the ranch before you’ve done the chores, ok?

The Math of Lower Thermostats

blog star trek snuggies pose

The trio at left are wearing Vulcan Snuggies, intergalactic precursors of the recent lounging garment fad. Apparently on Vulcan they keep their drafty old cavern dwellings cool to save energy. I take a neutral position on Snuggies, except that they do qualify as comfortable indoor apparel to keep a body warm in a cold room. In dormitories they compensate for stingy thermostat settings regulated by central computers.
But at your house, with four walls and your heating system between you and the howling wind, the math of heat loss makes a compelling argument for warm clothes and lower thermostat settings. If your walls are sealed and insulated to an average of R10 including windows and doors, and if your outside wall exposure totals about 3000 square feet including ceiling, the formula in the wiki link yields a heat loss of 18,000 btu per hour at ten degrees outdoor temperature and 70 degrees inside. Decrease that to 60 degrees inside temperature and the heat loss goes to 15,000 btu per hour. And, at 50 degrees inside, it drops to 12,000, a 33% decrease in energy loss. And Snuggies only cost 20 dollars US or so. And they make them for your dog.
You don’t have to work a miracle on your roof with PV panels, or smuggle some neutrons out of the Millstone power plant on your way home, or buy a miracle Shaker heater. You can work the basic math of heat loss with your thermostat settings. But you’re going to need some warm, comfortable clothes to stay happy and well. It doesn’t have to be a Snuggie, it can be a robe, vest, jacket or sweater. Or just a warm companion. That’s the best I know for empowering us little folks against the financial bind of winter in New England.

Mr. Obama Goes to Copenhagen

blog copenhagen huffington

The Huffington Post uses the photo at left to illustrate the President’s speech at the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change. The President’s tone is severe, disappointed, almost grim. Hit the link to see the text of his remarks. His disappointment centers around the many wrenches being thrown into the process of dealing with climate change by both undeveloped and developing countries.

China, the world’s most egregious polluter by a comfortable margin (with the USA running a clean second), is balking at the proposed cap-and-trade and sin tax measures that would both penalize major polluters, like China, and provide carbon credits for more slowly developing countries (read most of Africa) to use or possibly to sell to polluting nations to earn badly needed cash for their own programs. Even the African nations, and others in similar circumstances, are demanding the right to “grow dirty” for as long as they want, citing the poor record of the US, China and other industrial nations over the last two centuries as polluters.

Unwilling to accept a progressive cap-and-trade system like the one under consideration, the poorest nations at the conference are demanding either huge monetary concessions in return for their cooperation with carbon emissions limitations, or an exemption that will allow them to pursue economic growth at an advantage while the larger countries accept limited carbon emissions standards.

With these mulish denials ringing in his ears, Obama warned us that we can either act now, and decisively, or return to the table to have “these same stale conversations.” That must have stung the Chinese and Africans…..

So what can you do at home to persuade the Africans and Chinese to think globally and accept the limitations of  “low carbon growth?”  Not much directly, sad to say. But if Americans were to show a national will to conserve, take charge of our own carbon footprints (this link is to an earlier post on that topic), and show a preference for lower-impact houses and cars, the message would not be wasted on a world which has looked to us for almost two centuries as trendsetters and innovators. It looks bad for us to be stuck in our denial of climate change and the inevitable scarcity of energy. Enlightened, attentive leadership is what we demanded when we elected Barack Obama. Enlightened leadership is what the world expects of us, and they have shown their willingness to follow suit. They want our blue jeans, they want our sneakers, they want our cell phones, and they’ll want our energy policies when we have some worth sharing.