Tulus Simatupang of British Columbia, Canada won the Grand Prize for the 2013 Digital Photo Contest sponsored by The Nature Conservancy. The photo that won is of a heron in flight with a red-winged blackbird. It was a top choice by judges and also received the most 1st place votes from supporters. Visit The Nature Conservancy here to see all of the results for the contest.
What green building techniques and design options make sense? Which ones save you, the homeowner, a few greenbacks in the long-term? Here I’ll share my experience with energy efficiency choices while building a two-story, 40 ft. by 20 ft. home addition. But before I jump into the details, I’d like to tell you I opted to be the “Homeowner General Contractor” (Homeowner GC) for our addition project. Let me explain.
I have more than a few years of project management experience as well as an extensive environmental consulting background. I’m a registered professional geologist, entrepreneur, and the former publisher/editor for environmental magazines. For the record, I know a little bit more than your average homeowner about the environment and what “green” really means. So what do you do when it comes time to consider green building techniques and make purchasing decisions for a construction project?
For starters, I did my homework and extensively researched building methods and the science behind numerous green-building recommendations. Once I understood how certain things worked (or didn’t work), it was a lot easier to evaluate not only the building design choices but also the sub-contractors bidding on the tasks at hand. One more thing, before making the final decisions I loaded up the spreadsheet and ran the numbers. I wanted to know the potential return for the green investment (ROI). After all, green is the color of money as well.
Below I’ll explain a few green building techniques I went with for our addition project based on my findings. And in addition to that, why the investment was made to upgrade beyond local building code requirements, in certain cases.
Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) – Walls only (not the floors or the roof): Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) were chosen for the walls. I went with 6 1/2 inch SIP walls with an R-Value of 24. In our area (Central Virginia), this exceeds code requirements. One important thing to note: SIPS “perform” at a much higher R-Value than a stick-built wall. For example, a 4 1/2 inch stick-built wall with R-13 insulation likely only gets you around R-9 performance. SIPS perform a lot better. You can either spend a little more for a SIP wall upfront (with respect to material costs) or pay more in energy bills month after month, after month… Several builders and General Contractors I interviewed told me SIPS cost too much compared to stick-built walls; they really don’t when all aspects of the project are considered. Below are a few reasons why.
Significantly less labor is required to put up a SIP wall compared to a stick-built wall. The SIP walls were installed in three days. A comparable stick-build 6 1/2 inch wall finished with insulation and electrical chases cut in would have taken about three weeks; according to the local builders/General Contractors that I interviewed for the job. With SIPS you generate less waste at the construction site which means less labor moving trash around and less waste disposal fees. You also save on labor when it comes time to run the electrical wires; chases are cut into the SIPS at the factory and it takes less time to rough-in the electrical. Another benefit is the fact that you need one less sub-contractor involved in the project given you don’t need to wait for the walls to be insulated once they are put up (they come insulated). I could go on but I won’t. Once you truly understand all of the construction costs involved with the walls, the numbers tell the story. SIPS are worth the investment and the ROI is hands-down better than a stick-built wall based on the true cost of construction. I have more information about SIPs here for those interested.
Conditioned Crawl Space
For our addition, I basically had to have a crawl space – the existing home my wife and I were adding on to has a crawl space. We wanted level floors going into the addition. Therefore, a conditioned crawl space under the addition was added to the project cost. If you “must” have a crawl space, condition the space. For me it was a no-brainer; less moisture under the floors, less air infiltration, fewer rodents/insects, and a conditioned crawl space allowed me to run the HVAC ducts under the floors in “conditioned space.” I’m convinced it saves energy and maintenance costs associated with the HVAC system. For the crawl space wall insulation, I went with 2″ Thermax on the exterior walls and a 10 mil liner. I considered a 20 mil liner but the 10 mil liner was sufficient given I don’t plan to store anything in the crawl space or frequent it often; the 10 mil liner seems plenty thick to me.
When designing the roof trusses, I increased the “heal height” (where the roof meets the top wall plate) by a foot. Why? The extra foot of space on top of the wall plate (basically, in the attic) allows more attic insulation where you need it; at the pinch point where the roof meets the walls. According to several energy efficiency studies I came across while researching, homes lose a lot of energy where the insulation basically goes to zero thickness where the roof line meets the walls. This made sense to me so I had the truss engineers add the extra heal height. It didn’t add much to the costs of the roof trusses.
Rainscreen – Underneath the Siding
To lower the risk of wall rot, it makes sense to provide a ventilated air gap between your siding and your sheathing. I went with an advanced building technique for the siding known as a rainscreen. SIP manufacturers, as well as many experienced siding professionals, recommend “rainscreens” for the exterior walls under the siding. Rainscreens using furring stripes are also recommended if you are using spray-foam insulation on your walls. It is smart building science and I believe it might be code a decade from now – already is in some jurisdictions. Basically, a rainscreen allows the wall to dry out much more efficiently. Even with Tyvek house wrap (which we also used), the walls under your siding will get wet and you want them to dry. Rainscreens allow that to happen.
Rainscreens do add additional costs to the siding budget; both in material and labor. In our case, I removed the old pine-board siding from our existing home since we wanted consistent siding for the entire home. We ripped the 3/4 inch pine-board siding and used it for furring strips for the rainscreen. This reduced our material cost of construction but added more labor costs. On the other hand, the rainscreen lowers your long-term maintenance costs (less frequent painting, siding replacement, etc.) and extends the life of your walls.
Our rainscreen includes Cor-A-Vents to enhance performance. Cor-A-Vents allows the gap between the siding and the sheathing/Tyvek house wrap to vent and stops insects from getting behind the siding. The Cor-A-Vent added to the overall project cost as well. For more information pertaining to rain screens, read All About Rainscreens on the Green Building Advisor website.
Energy Efficient Water Heater
I purchased and installed a GeoSpring Hybrid Electric Water Heater (GE GeoSpring 50-Gallon Hybrid-Electric Heat Pump Water Heater – ENERGY STAR) to lower our energy costs. This water heater is a significant upgrade from your standard water heater. Although it costs more than the typical water heaters, it pays you back year after year. It is one of the most efficient 50-gallon water heaters, using 62% less energy and saving $365 a year on utility bills (SOURCE: GE GeoSpring). What makes this water heater so energy-efficient are the compressor and evaporator that are incorporated into the unit to draw in ambient heat from surrounding air, using two variable-speed fans. When in heat-pump or hybrid mode (warmer months), the unit exhausts cool, dry air; it lowers humidity and cools the room while heating the water. Basically, the water heater is an air conditioner too.
For more information on energy efficient water heaters, read Choosing the Best Energy Efficient Water Heater.
Upgraded HVAC System – Conditioned Space
I replaced our existing HVAC system which was 13-years old while building our addition. We needed a HVAC system for the addition and we needed a replacement for the old unit serving the rest of the house. During the design phase, I decided based on extensive research that the best thing to do was install the new HVAC system inside the building envelop. Therefore, we built a utility room, conditioned the room (it is heated & cooled), and subsequently located the new HVAC unit inside instead of in an unconditioned attic. Also, the majority of the ducts are now within conditioned space. Locating your HVAC system and ducts within conditioned space reduces your energy use, lowers maintenance costs, and extends the life of your HVAC system. It is a good investment if you think about it during the design phase of the construction project. It really doesn’t cost much more to do when it is considered early in the design process.
I found several articles that discussed the energy loss associated with second floor joists and the rim board that holds the joists. When joists are set on the wall plate the joists/rim extends to the outside of the wall. Insulating a rim is difficult to get right and it is a common area for energy loss according to energy audit results. A better way to build includes hanging the second floor joists “inside the building envelop” (joists don’t contact the outside at all – no need to try and fill every void at the end of the joists at the rim board). Hanging the joists inside is more energy efficient and results in a stronger building according to engineering data (search online, numerous articles support this conclusion). The figure to the right shows how we constructed our addition with hanging floor joists.
Energy-Efficient Dryer Vent
One of the easiest things I did to further reduce air infiltration and save energy was replace the old dryer vent exhaust seal (Energy-Efficient Dryer Vent Seals – HEARTLAND Dryer Vent Closure). I replaced the “builder grade” exterior dryer exhaust vent with one designed for energy efficiency; it seals when not in use. The old vent was basically a hole in the wall and the washer/dryer area in our laundry room was freezing cold during the winter. The new vent was inexpensive and easy to install. Basically, it lets warm air escape when open and prevents cold air (or hot air in the summer) from entering when closed. The dryer vent seal also prevents insects and rodents from entering your home. Any homeowner with basic DIY skills can install one and start saving money right away. I could not find one at Home Depot or Lowes so I purchased our dryer vent online.
How did we do?
Our electric bill received the other day (January 2014) was LESS than our January 2013 electric bill even after adding about 1,600 sq. ft. of additional space to our home. I was amazed given it was a really cold January this year and we added our energy efficient water heater to the home before January 2013.
Nest, the company that makes what they claim to be the “next generation thermostat” is facing a few challenges. Out-dated HVAC systems, Wifi connectivity, and vocal, unhappy customers during a national cold spell are in the forefront in today’s news. TechCrunch discusses the situation on a recent blog post here. You can learn more about the product and read reviews on Amazon – Nest Thermostat product info and reviews.
I seriously considered purchasing a “smart” Nest thermostat when we built a large addition on our home last year. We upgraded our HVAC system throughout the home. We installed a Carrier Infinity HVAC system and Mitsubishi Mini-splits. The Carrier is a 3-zone system and 3-thermostats; the mini-splits have their own thermostats. In our case, the cost of the Nest for the potential savings appeared questionable when compared to other energy saving investments and the respective ROI (6″ walls, insulation, smart building techniques, etc.). Today’s programmable thermostats are pretty good w/o being “smart” – the stupid things have worked (always) as advertised.
On Nest’s website they claim, “Programming thermostats is complicated and irritating – but an un-programmed thermostat can waste 20% of your heating and cooling bill. So the Nest Thermostat programs itself.”
Programming our standard thermostats wasn’t complicated or irritating – it was simple. One control panel programs all three; it took about 20 minutes. I focused on energy savings when I programmed them; tweaked them during the first few months. I likely have them set for less demand then the Nest would allow based on living habits; I only turn them up/down when I feel uncomfortable in the home. They appear to be saving us money without the need for software upgrades, wifi connectivity, etc.
WRT energy conservation and saving money, the smart thing to do is focus on containing the energy you generate; over insulate the attic, stop air infiltration, etc.
Simple is a solution.
Traveling for the holidays? To improve your gas mileage consider changing your oil and air filter to improve your ride. I’m always amazed at how much better my car runs after changing the oil and air filter. What else can you do to increase your fuel mileage?
Make sure your air pressure in the tires is right or slightly over-filled. Also, change your “cabin air filter” – just changed mine. It was nasty, filled with leaves, dust, etc. The automobile service center that changed my oil wanted $50 for a cabin air filter. That’s just too much to pay for a cabin air filter. I declined and picked one up at Advanced Auto on the way home for $19 and changed it in the parking lot in less than 5-minutes.
Not all cars have a cabin air filter but most newer cars tend to have one. If your car has a strange odor when you turn on the heater or air conditioner, or if it seems like the fan doesn’t work like it once did, it is likely time to change your cabin air filter.
Why change your cabin air filter?
Changing your cabin air filter (you can buy on from Amazon) does several things for you: improves the air quality inside your car, reduces strain on your heating and cooling system (less maintenance and wear), and a new air filter allows you to run the fan at lower speeds which improves gas mileage.
How do you change a cabin air filter?
It is relatively easy. In most cars, the cabin air filter is located behind or just under the glove compartment. I found a great website that includes videos on changing the cabin air filter; they had a video for all of our cars. Check out: Car Care Kiosk. It is an excellent website for automobile maintenance and “how to” automobile maintenance videos.
Can you benefit from a Cool Roof? Or are you better off investing in more insulation? No doubt, a cool roof can help many building owners save money while protecting the environment but not everyone should rush to get one.Your money might be better spent on attic insulation depending on where you live as well as your specific attic situation.
The U.S. Department of Energy has published an excellent guidebook on cool roofs (link below). The guidebook was created to help builders and home owners understand how cool roofs work. Read more
Earlier this year, I wrote a post on the Pros and Cons of Geothermal Heat Pumps (GHP). As it turns out, there is more to the story. I am in the process of evaluating HVAC systems for an existing home that is getting an addition. The addition is almost the size of the existing home; a new HVAC system is required as you can imagine.
After looking into several HVAC options with a focus on GHP, the consensus is to first focus on “tightening” the envelope of the existing home while considering the most effective methods of building an energy efficient addition. And, do this before worrying about your HVAC considerations. For my wife and I, it comes down to “first things first.” And, first on our agenda is “air infiltration” and insulation.
We are currently building an addition to an existing 1930s home. Understanding the energy use in the existing home and the addition we are building (or the home/addition you plan to build) is, IMHO, by far the most important aspect of HVAC considerations that come later. A “tight” home requires less energy to heat and cool, which in turn requires a significantly smaller HVAC system. And, what that means is a much lower overall energy bill.
It is important to note that lower overall energy use “increases” the “pay back time” required to recover the additional capital costs of a geothermal system.
Paying to “save energy” by investing in better windows, doors, and stopping air infiltration (conditioning your attic and crawl-space, for example), gives you the highest ROI (return on your investment). But, investing in “energy efficiency” leaves you with less money in the overall project budget. So, you need to consider this, is it better to invest in a GHP system or first invest in energy efficiency?
Cutting a big energy bill in half saves you a lot more money than cutting a relative small energy bill in half (basic math). For example, a poorly insulated home may have a $400/month energy bill on average, cut that in half and it saves you $200/month ($2,400/year). But, a “tight” home of the same size (sq. ft.) may only have a $150/month energy bill; cutting that in half only saves $75/month ($900/year).
Over the course of 1-year, the difference is $1,500/year and $15,000 over 10-years. My point here is if you have a well insulated home (SIPs, conditioned attic and crawl-space, great windows and doors, etc.), the initial capital cost of geothermal systems (GHP) requires a lot more time to “pay you back” because your overall energy use is low and so is your savings, in the short-run.
Say you have or plan to build a tight, energy efficient home and your monthly utility bill with a traditional HVAC system is projected to be the $150/month example above. Say installing a GHP cuts that in half to $75/month. If the GHP system costs you $15,000 more to install than it takes over 10-years to “break-even” (I’m assuming the $15,000 in the bank would be worth more 10-years from now; maybe $20,000).
What I have concluded after a significant amount of research is this; a home that uses significantly less energy because it was built or remodeled to be very energy efficient may not benefit “financially” all that much from a GHP system due to the initial capital cost involved.
Unless you have a huge McMansion or you are using the GHP to also heat a pool, etc., may I suggest you run the numbers for your project? And, definitely consider the best solution of all, invest in cutting your total energy use by “tightening” up the home and stopping all possible avenues of air infiltration.
In short, first take a hard look at the energy efficiency of your home or project before considering any of the possible HVAC systems. There are several new HVAC technologies (mini-splits, high efficiency heat-pumps using air – traditional type systems) that are making GHP a hard sell for energy efficient homes of say 4,000 t0 5,000 sq. ft. or less.
Is reducing the price per barrel of oil a step in the right direction? If so, Envion Inc. claims they are leading the charge towards a green future with the introduction of a plastic-to-oil conversion technology. According to the manufacturer, the Envion Oil Generator is a first-of-its-kind technology that converts plastic waste into synthetic light medium oil for less than $10 per barrel.
GreenCar Magazine has a story (press release) here: Waste Plastic to Oil Conversion Process Produces Oil for Less than $10 barrel.
The Company’s principal activities focus on production, as well as ongoing R&D dedicated to advancing the efficiency and range of applications of the Envion technology. More information can be found at www.envion.com.
Given the opportunities and consumer awareness, many companies have long since jumped on the "Green Marketing" bandwagon. And, green marketing is now mainstream.
Jacquelyn Ottman provides her views and trends based on years of experience. Her article, published on the Harvard Business blog, is a good read. Here’s an excerpt and link to the full story:
At the Sustainable Brands ’09 conference in Monterey earlier this month, I couldn’t help noticing how far green marketing has come since I started my consulting business in 1989. Back then, we didn’t call what we did "sustainable branding" — we practiced "environmental" or simply "green" marketing. And we didn’t have a conference to go to in Monterey!
The shift reflects the fact that the target demographic for green marketing is not the "educated women, 30-49, with children" of yesteryear, but one of many possible segments of a dynamic consumer base that now embraces 66% of all U.S. adults. Full story: Green Marketing Really Has Gone Mainstream
Definition of “Green Marketing” at wikipedia.org:
The term Green Marketing came into prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The American Marketing Association (AMA) held the first workshop on "Ecological Marketing" in 1975. The proceedings of this workshop resulted in one of the first books on green marketing entitled "Ecological Marketing."
The first wave of Green Marketing occurred in the 1980s. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Reports started with the ice cream seller Ben & Jerry’s where the financial report was supplemented by a greater view on the company’s environmental impact. In 1987 a document prepared by the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own need”, this became known as the Brundtland Report and was another step towards widespread thinking on sustainability in everyday activity. Two tangible milestones for wave 1 of green marketing came in the form of published books, both of which were called Green Marketing. They were by Ken Peattie (1992) in the United Kingdom and by Jacquelyn Ottman (1993) in the United States of America. Read full definition of Green Marketing at wikipedia.org here.
Oil Obit/PR News/smart fortwo/Bloomfield Hills, MI: – smart USA applauds President Obama’s signing of the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) Bill, also known as “Cash for Clunkers”. In fact, smart is the “Number 1” U.S. brand in fuel efficiency and is the only car company that already exceeds the new fuel efficiency requirement, recently set by the Obama administration, which mandates an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.
The Bill is intended to replace older, less fuel efficient vehicles with those that are more environmentally responsible. The smart fortwo is the vehicle that truly meets the intent of the CARS program. It is the most fuel efficient non-hybrid vehicle offered in the United States delivering 41 MPG on the highway. The smart fortwo is also certified as an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) by the California Air Resources Board, and is an Environmental Protection Agency “SmartWay” vehicle which recognizes its low greenhouse gas and air pollutant scores.
Under the CARS program guidelines, the smart fortwo will qualify for the highest voucher level of $4,500 upon the trade in of an eligible vehicle. When this voucher amount is applied to the purchase of a new smart fortwo, smart USA will be offering payments as low as $99 per month for qualified customers*. The program is expected to launch later this summer when the Federal government officially begins allowing consumers to take advantage of the trade-in voucher. However, interested consumers can learn more about the smart USA $99 per month offer by visiting www.smartusa.com. smart USA has set aside a limited number of vehicles for immediate delivery with the official launch of the CARS program.
“The smart fortwo is the ideal vehicle for the environmental benefits that the “Cash For Clunkers” program was originally designed to support. As a society, now is the time to live smart by consuming less and conserving more, and that’s exactly what buyers of the smart fortwo will achieve for a very low monthly payment and very low cost of ownership. As the Number 1 brand in fuel efficiency we are excited to add to the growing number of satisfied fortwo owners throughout the United States. Although only on sale for just over a year in the U.S., there are already 32,000 smart fortwo’s on the roads of America joining over 1 million smart fortwo owners throughout the rest of world who are proving everyday that conserving can also be a whole lot of fun”, said Dave Schembri, President of smart USA.
Additional smart fortwo Info
The smart fortwo is one of the most economical cars on the world’s roads today. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2009 Fuel Economy Guide, the 2009 smart fortwo is the most fuel efficient, non-hybrid vehicle in the United States, ranking fifth overall in fuel efficiency behind four hybrid models. It is also the most fuel efficient two-seater in the United States. A state-of-the-art, compact, three-cylinder gasoline engine sits at the rear of the new smart fortwo. The engine capacity is 61 cubic inches, the output is 70 hp (52 kW).
The 2009 smart fortwo achieves an average of 41 miles per gallon on the highway according to 2009 EPA regulations.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Designations
The 2008 smart fortwo has been classified as an Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) by the California Air Resource Board (CARB) for its extremely low exhaust emissions. The vehicle’s catalytic converter is positioned close to its engine for a quick response. An electric pump blows fresh air into the exhaust port when the engine is cold to almost completely oxidize the carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC) and render them harmless. A ULEV is a vehicle that has been verified by the California Air Resources Board as emitting up to 50 percent less polluting emissions than the average for new cars released in that same model year.
In addition, the EPA, through an automatic internal process, has listed the 2008 smart fortwo on its Green Vehicle Guide Web site as a “Smartway” vehicle. Smartway vehicles are good environmental performers and considered the “greenest” vehicles on the market.
The Smartway designation is given to vehicles that score a six or better on each of the Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Scores and achieve a combined score of at least thirteen.
The smart fortwo received an EPA Greenhouse Gas score of nine and an Air Pollutant score of seven (out of a possible ten). The fortwo’s combined score of sixteen well exceeds the minimum requirement of thirteen to qualify for Smartway, and the high Greenhouse Gas score puts the smart fortwo just short of hybrid status.
Low emissions, low consumption
To ensure adherence to the low emission and consumption values, even with different fuel qualities, the U.S. versions have a lower compression ratio (10.0:1 instead of 11.4:1). This measure enables the engine to run closer to optimum combustion under a high load, resulting in low emissions and low consumption coupled with maximum driving fun.
The sandwich tank made of multi-layer plastic (high density polyethylene) minimizes the fuel vapors escaping into the atmosphere. Emissions are below 0.5 grams of HC per day. The tank module has an active charcoal filter that returns fuel vapors to the tank.
The engine is mounted transversally in front of the rear axle, and is slanted at an angle of 45 degrees towards the rear. Gas exchange is controlled by four valves per combustion chamber. The variable spread angle of the camshafts is controlled electronically for better torque at low revolutions. The camshafts are driven via a maintenance-free chain.
ABOUT the smart fortwo and smart USA
smart USA Distributor LLC, headquartered in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., is the exclusive distributor of the smart fortwo in the United States and Puerto Rico and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Penske Automotive Group, Inc. The smart fortwo is a brand of and is manufactured by Daimler AG. This technologically advanced vehicle achieves 41 mpg on the highway and is an ultra-low emissions vehicle, as certified by the State of California Air Resources Board. The vehicle is 8.8 feet long, 5.1 feet tall and 5.1 feet wide and comes equipped with many functional and safety features found in most luxury models. smart is currently sold in 36 other countries, and more than one million smart fortwos have been sold since 1998. The 2009 smart fortwo is available in five trim levels ranging in price from $11,990** to $20,990**. For more information visit the smart USA website – www.smartusa.com.
** For 2009 models. Excludes tax, title, registration, destination charge, options and other dealer fees.
smart is a registered trademark of Daimler AG.
ABOUT PENSKE AUTOMOTIVE GROUP
Penske Automotive Group, Inc., headquartered in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, operates 311 retail automotive franchises, representing 40 different brands and 25 collision repair centers. Penske Automotive, which sells new and previously owned vehicles, finance and insurance products and replacement parts, and offers maintenance and repair services on all brands it represents, has 160 franchises in 19 states and Puerto Rico and 151 franchises located outside the United States, primarily in the United Kingdom. Penske Automotive is also the exclusive distributor of the smart fortwo through its wholly-owned subsidiary smart USA Distributor LLC. smart USA supports over 70 smart retail centers in the United States. Penske Automotive is a member of the Fortune 200 and Russell 1000 and has more than 14,000 employees. smart and fortwo are registered trademarks of Daimler AG.
*Financing for qualified buyers available through Daimler Financial Services at authorized smart center dealerships registered in the CARS program. Not all customers will qualify. Subject to credit approval by the lender. $99 monthly payment based on customer trade-in of an eligible vehicle qualifying for the CARS $4,500 voucher level and a 36-month balloon loan with $0 cash due at signing and a final balloon payment of $6,667 at the end of the loan term and a $13,335 MSRP which includes the destination charge and excludes tax, title and dealer fees. 5.9% APR financing for 36 months at $11.32 per month, per $1,000 financed. Restrictions apply for eligibility for the $4,500 voucher under the CARS program; please see www.cars.gov for details. Offer only applies to new and unused 2009 smart fortwo model vehicles. Visit your dealer for complete details on this and other finance offers.