Article courtesy of Denver Green Streets’ Greg Ching. Published 4/1/11:
In April 2009, Steven Chalk, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office Of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy, testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Committee on Science and Technology. Chalk stated that “the Nation’s 114 million households and more than 74 billion square feet of commercial floor space accounted for nearly 40% of U.S. primary energy consumption, as well as 73% of electricity and 34% of natural gas consumption, energy bills totaling $418 billion, and 39% of Carbon Dioxide, 18% of Nitrogen Oxide, and 55% of Sulfur Dioxide emissions.”
When I shopped for a mountain home in 1995, I chose to buy an existing all-electric 1976 home with the idea of a deep-energy retrofit rather than building a completely new structure. Over fifteen years, I have reduced my utility bills to the point that I now generate more electricity than consumed annually. Although my home has two wood burning stoves, I rarely use them (except to entertain company, or for atmosphere on the coldest nights).
Retrofitting existing homes requires careful planning but can provide tremendous financial and psychological rewards. You can phase improvements incrementally as your budget allows, too. Keep in mind there are new residential energy financing options such as the Bank of Colorado Energy Star Mortgage if you want to upgrade faster than rising energy costs.
There are two primary approaches for improving your home’s energy performance and reducing its operating carbon footprint.
This is where you play General Contractor
Start off with a home energy audit!
Here are a few links I’ve chosen to give you additional ideas once you’ve reviewed your audit. I can’t recommend this site funded by the Governor’s Energy Office enough. Go there first.
Keep in mind that new information is constantly emerging. These links below are just a small sample of what is available.
Insulation is probably the very best investment you can make in your home. Just inexpensive caulking can do wonders for reducing drafts. Many people, including me, made the mistake of investing in expensive solar panels before exhausting conservation measures. One of the “crimes” the roofing industry could prevent is advising homeowners needing a new roof that they could potentially add insulation such as Structural Insulated Panel (SIPs) before re-roofing. Of course, you should consult a building engineer first.
At my house, I’ve used SIPs, blown cellulose, recycled blue jean insulation, and foil bubble insulation (around hot water pipes and HVAC ducts). Be very careful if you do your own insulation. If done wrong, you could invite future mold problems; for most people, I recommend hiring an experienced professional with good references.
Super-insulation is the holy grail of insulation. If you super-insulate you may not need much if any heating or cooling. Right now, if I have a packed living room party in the winter, I usually need to open a window or turn on air-conditioning. But the fact that my house typically requires winter heating suggests I’m not there yet.
My original idea was to attach at least 4 inches of rigid foam to my cedar siding (without removing it) and put wood-like, woodpecker-proof, fire-proof Hardie Panel over the insulation. Concerns about moisture (and potentially mold) stopped me. Everyone else said I needed to remove the existing siding first.
Fortunately, I found a terrific product that allowed me to attach over my existing wood siding. This R-ETRO insulation system has been fairly easy (as I save labor costs by working with my general contractor Solar Works Construction) to install. I hope to finish this summer…I’m not into winter construction if I can avoid it!
Before moving to Boulder, my Berkeley art deco bachelor pad had a beautiful skylight brightening my favorite living room nook. Whether it was afternoon or moon light that corner drew many a visitor’s attention. The only problem was that it leaked heat badly in the winter. Natural sunlight via light tubes would have been a perfect solution trapping heat in the winter and keeping heat out in the summer.
Twenty years ago, I remember Compact Fluorescents (CFLs) were bulky, slow to turn on, and expensive – something approaching $30 per screw-type bulb. I tried but many of the bulbs didn’t fit in my fixtures then. The cost of solar panels drove me to convert all my incandescents in 1999. CFL adoption today is above 20% for all residential lighting as many of the color, size, and cost issues have been solved. More exciting is that consumers today have warm, instant-on, dimming Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs available around $25 each. Two years ago, I stopped buying CFLs when Costco for a while sold early model (and some early failure) $10.99 LED screw-in lights. The LEDs I purchased more recently are much brighter though they cost 70% more…you do get a better bang for your buck after two more years development.
As an experiment, over the last few months I’ve replaced some of my kitchen ceiling recessed lights using the (discontinued Costco $10.99) Lights of America 3.5-watt LEDs with brighter LEDs over work surfaces. I’m quite satisfied with the $19 Feit Electric 6.5-watt LED as a general replacement but for folks wanting an even brighter light the $27 Sylvania 8-watt LED works great. In my living room, I’ve been using experimenting with a $22 fully dimmable Sylvania 8-watt LED. All of these new generation bulbs have the soft white (some people call yellowish compared to fluorescent’s blueish) color you’d expect in an incandescent bulb – look for 3000 Kelvins as the color temperature if you want to match common incandescent bulb colors.
- Tubular Skylights
- LED Lights v. Incandescent
- New LED’s
- Major Advantages and Benefits of LED Lighting Technology
South facing windows that heat your winter home are part of any good passive solar design. The challenge is that these same windows should be blocked from overheating your summer home. New treated windows and insulated frames are a distinct improvement over double-paned windows of years past. However, even they can do better with an insulated window covering. Over a decade ago I chose quilted insulated shades on tracks. You can even decorate them for a personal touch.
Aside from upgrading major appliances such as your refrigerator and furnace, one surprising area of savings is your toilet. It’s amazing how much water we flush down every day!
Ultra low-flush toilets can also save you money especially if you are on a well where you have to pump the water up. I have been using one-pint flush Sealand 510 Plus toilets for the last decade without problems.
About the same time I bought solar panels (pre-Amendment 37 rebates) I got rid of my electric dryer. It didn’t seem to make sense why I had humidifiers running yet needing to dry wet clothes. In Colorado’s arid climate, my clothes dry overnight. I have a couple indoor drying racks …this also works great in the summer time or under a ceiling fan.
One of the things I correct helpful house guests is to avoid hand washing their dishes. I believe dishwashers do a more efficient job. But not everything can go into the dishwasher. So when I hand wash dishes, I save my dishwater for my compost pile. My cheapest efficient appliance is a plastic basin I put in my sink and a 5-gallon bucket I leave outside of my kitchen door.
Solar Thermal lacks the glamour photovoltaics (solar electric) get. Yet, the payback is often much quicker. In my house, I use a drain-back solar hot water system to heat my domestic hot water. The backup is an air source heat pump for cold cloudy days. This heat pump is tied to a conventional electric hot water heater that has never been turned on!
In my spa building, I heat my covered indoor therapy pool to 96 – 97 degrees Fahrenheit primarily by solar reinforced by geothermal (on cold cloudy days) and ultimately backed up by a high efficiency propane boiler. Pool heating is expensive as each desired pool degree higher can add 10% or more to your annual operating cost. I believe I got a short 5-year (or less) ROI on my spa solar thermal system given these unique heating needs. Most people keep their swimming pools below 80 degrees but on sequential sunny winter days it’s not unusual to see my therapy pool temperature over 90 degrees just from solar thermal.
Even as a kid reading science fiction, I always wanted to live in a solar powered house. But it took me until 1999 to finally put up a 2-kilowatt system using 64-watt plastic coated panels. In 2009, for slightly more space and cost, I put in a 10-kilowatt system using 225-watt black glass panels. This almost 500% improvement just showed how far the price of of solar electric dropped in one decade due to rebates, technology improvements, and competitive pressures. Sadly, I suspect my solar panels will long outlive the companies that installed them. (One got absorbed and disappeared. Another declared bankruptcy.)
For the last two years, I’ve produced much more power than I consumed as it’s taken me much longer than expected to decide on a Plug-In Hybrid conversion. I waited for conversion costs to drop as well as news on new electric cars. I learned it doesn’t pay to produce more energy than you need – for my annual surplus Xcel Energy paid me only one-quarter of the rate I pay them. I expect my plug-in hybrid conversion will consume this surplus going forward.
- Components of A Residential Solar Electric System
- Solar Electricity Basics
- Selecting a Solar Contractor
SMALL WIND TURBINES
If you live in a windy area, a residential wind turbine complements other energy investments. After all the sun doesn’t shine at night. And it’s often windier in the winter time when you need more energy. I almost invested in a vertical axis wind turbine company before the slowing economy hurt my consulting practice.
Small wind technical improvements continue. While uncommon now, I expect more and more urbanites will discover what ranchers and other more rural folks have been using. Issues about operating noise, bird deaths, minimum heights, minimum start-up speeds, maximum speeds, maintenance, and zoning are being tackled. I currently don’t own a small wind turbine but I see small wind as the next great residential push.
- Wind Electricity Basics
- Residential Wind Power – Residential Wind Turbines
- Residential Wind Power – Wind Generators & Wind Turbines for Residential Applications
- Wind Powering America: Small Wind for Homeowners, Ranchers, and Small Businesses
- Wind Estimator
- All small wind turbines – Portal to the world of Small Wind Turbines
People are surprised when I tell them that my home’s primary heating and cooling is via the earth. Huh? I explain that a ground source heat pump acts like a refrigerator moving low grade heat from one location to another. In the summer, heat gets put in the ground; in the winter, heat is taken out of the ground.
My contractor Radiance Corporation implemented a request to integrate the existing solar thermal with a new geothermal system, using the earth as a heat storage battery when solar hot water is unneeded. Since then, Radiance Corporation has been refining this synergistic solar banking technique even for commercial buildings.
I breathe much better now in the winter as I burn less wood. If you currently have an electric furnace, you might check out geothermal. It’s far more efficient than traditional electric HVAC systems.
- Geothermal Heating
- Federal Tax Incentives for Residential Geothermal Heat Pumps
- Experiments in District Heating
In the spirit of full-disclosure, I contacted a Boulder home performance improvement company that I had made a small investment in. I asked Eric Doub, CEO of EcoSmart Homes (www.EcoSmartHomes.com) for advice for folks who wanted to be their own general contractor.
He recommended a building science book by Joseph Lstiburek called “Builder’s Guide to Cold Climates” published by Building Science Press in 2006. It can be ordered via http://www.buildingscience.com
Doub offered more links below to develop an integrative approach.
Additional On-line Resources:
- What’s Working
- Building Green Inc.
- Building Science Corporation
- Green Building Advisors
- ReGreen Program
- Building Knowledge
- Saturn Resource Management
- Minnesota’s GreenStar Program
- Best of Building Science
- Building America Program
- Journal of Light Construction
- Energy and Environmental Building Association
- Ft. Collins Utilities
- Efficiency First
- Ecofutures Building, Inc.
- Boulder Green Building Guild
- Center for Resource Conservation
After you’ve completed your home performance upgrades, it’s a good idea to repeat the home energy audit to know if your improvements worked. Of course, monitoring utility bills for the next few years will give you an actual Return On Investment (ROI) when you compare the savings with your total efficiency expenditures. Be sure to factor in rebates and tax credits!
Work with a team that can help you optimize decisions – a one-stop approach for home performance upgrades.
For the majority of people, a “one throat to choke” approach may save both time and money as it could take you years to properly digest all the information referenced above.
Doub warned “The Home Performance Industry is growing rapidly. There are many ‘Single Measure’ companies out there who will recommend their product because that is what they sell, not because you will reap the greatest rewards from that measure. ‘You need insulation, because we sell insulation.’ Or windows. Or furnaces.”
Continuing with more advice, “look for a company that is on the frontier of the emerging home performance industry, a company that will be your trusted adviser in providing you comprehensive, turnkey service for comfort, health, and energy improvements. The whole-house approach is essential for you to be happy, and for your home to be safe: Don’t air seal and insulate without taking care of moisture sources such as in your crawl space; only reduce air leakage to the point that your furnace and water heater are operating safely, and so on.”
If you live in Boulder County, you may also want to investigate the EnergySmart program – free to Boulder County residents. The free Home Energy Assessment does include a blower test and infrared camera which is part of any reputable energy audit. You still need to be your own General Contractor but you get an advisor.
Last but not least, Denver Metro residents should enter the Fox 31 and KWGN Channel 2 Home Green Over Project. One lucky winner will be announced on April 22, 2011 and receive an energy performance remodel of their home worth up to $75,000!
Denver Green Streets wishes to acknowledge the people involved in making this special publication possible. The research for this report would not have been achievable without the generosity and tireless effort of Greg Ching, who has worked many late nights to complete this article. Additionally, Greg has first hand knowledge on this topic after retrofitting his Colorado mountain home.
Greg’s home was highlighted in a 2006 article published by The Center for ReSource Conservation.
About Greg Ching – Street Scene Columnist
Greg Ching, Chief Sustainability Officer of The Solar Gardens Institute, was given credit by Representative Claire Levy as the inspiration for the Colorado Community Solar Gardens Act.
As a Community Sustainability Services Consultant he led projects from high tech to high touch. Greg is a former software engineer & sales executive now Colorado Licensed Massage Therapist specializing in Phenomenal Touch ® and Watsu ®.
About Eric Doub – EcoSmart Homes
The authors gratefully acknowledge Eric Doub, CEO of EcoSmart Homes whose counsel and research were invaluable in the preparation of this report. Eric’s company EcoSmart Homes focuses on performance upgrades in existing homes for comfort, health, and energy savings.
© 2011 Denver Green Streets