Category Archives: Sustainability

Certified Green Homes Can be Even More Green Through Occupant Involvement

For homeowners choosing to purchase a new home, or design and build their new home, there are a plethora of green building certifications from which to choose. From NAHB’s National Green Building Standard, to the EPA’s ENERGY STAR Homes program, to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for Homes, to Green Globes, those opting to reduce their carbon footprint through sustainable design and conscientious construction methods have the luxury of a great first step toward attaining their goals through green building standards that have been researched, adapted, and improved upon during the past ten to twenty years. However, a certified green home is only as green as its occupants, and homeowners of less efficiently built homes and older existing homes, as well as renters, also have the power to make a significant impact through their daily energy and transportation habits in addition to their choice of appliances, lighting, and plumbing fixtures.

A thoughtfully designed, beautifully constructed new home that is built in strict adherence to the EPA’s ENERGY STAR Homes program requirements indeed has the potential to pave the way toward a sea change in residential construction practices and heightened levels of sustainable living. Many homeowners of ENERGY STAR certified homes choose lifestyles and behaviors that parallel their energy efficient home. Indeed, a visit to the EPA’s signature program’s website shows just how much carbon dioxide an ENERGY STAR home can save. But can this home have its environmental attributes torpedoed by a homeowner that opts for incandescent lighting fixtures instead of compact fluorescent or LED luminaires, constantly runs electrical appliances (even while no one is home), or chooses a thirsty, single occupancy vehicle over a bicycle for a short trip to the grocery store?

It is vital to “walk the walk” as we build green and continue to up the ante in residential energy efficiency. Increased levels of homeowner education and awareness will greatly contribute to the effectiveness of a green home. And how about the homeowner of the older, existing home in need of some energy efficiency retrofits, or the renter of an apartment? Are they to assume that they are unable to contribute to global carbon emission reductions, that they cannot lead sustainable lifestyles in their current housing?

Like the well-known Chinese proverb, the journey toward an environmentally friendly home and reduced carbon footprint begins with small steps. Changing out inefficient lighting, installing high-efficiency plumbing fixtures, insulating a tank water heater and hot water piping, opting for a ceiling or floor fan in lieu of the window unit air conditioner, caulking around windows (for renters, there is even rope caulk, a non-permanent product) and adding weather stripping to doors, adjusting set points of thermostats during heating and cooling seasons, choosing mass transit, or talking to a landlord about the benefits of an ENERGY STAR refrigerator are all ways that those with older homes or apartments can tread lightly despite having a less-than-airtight, under-insulated home.

As residential construction methods continue to improve and green building certifications become more and more prevalent, the proverbial rubber meets the road of sustainable living when it comes to the occupant’s behaviors and daily choices.

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Cut your Energy Bills in Half

As you may know, we moved to 1000 N. Elm Street back in February. The house was built in 1920 and eventually turned into an office building. Before we moved in, the energy bills were high.

Watch this video to find out how we are saving 45% on our energy bills and how we can help you do the same in your home and office, whether it was built 1 year ago or 100 years ago.

Experiences as an Electrical Utility Energy Auditor

By Aaron Martin, ESG Energy Analyst 

It is no secret that energy efficiency is here to stay. From homeowners to building managers to public utilities, we strive to maximize comfort, increase productivity, and enhance generation and distribution while simultaneously decreasing energy usage. As energy prices continue to rise, efficiency will very likely become the new norm. To paraphrase the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the term “green” may very well disappear from the modern lexicon as we replace older, resource-intensive methods and materials with modern, efficient alternatives.

Near the forefront of these efforts are the public utilities. The corporations that provide us with the energy we need to work and play have a vested interest in increasing efficiency and reducing demand. Avoided costs create added profits, streamlined services for customers, and funds for research and development. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the typical coal-fired power plant has capital costs of around $3,250 per kilowatt; given that such a facility has a capacity of approximately 500 megawatts, it goes without saying that your local utility would love to avoid building another power production plant.

Duke Energy is no exception in this regard. Their website has received an overhaul that emphasizes energy efficiency, containing graphical analyses and tailored data points for homeowners, and even features an energy efficient product shopping area. Over the past couple of years, residential customers may have noticed the promotion of more efficient lighting through the distribution of free compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). Duke Energy representatives have taken the subject of energy efficiency to local schools; during his kindergarten year, my son  came home one day with an energy efficiency kit containing CFLs and high efficiency plumbing fixtures (but as the son of an energy geek, these items were well known to him). Finally, Duke’s Smart Saver program offers residential customers financial incentives for purchases of select energy efficient heating and air conditioning products as well as home air leakage reduction services and insulation upgrades.

Over the course of the past three weeks, I acted as an auditor for Duke Energy’s Home Energy House Call (HEHC) program, during which time I visited nearly fifty homes throughout the Piedmont. Free for Duke Energy customers that own their own home (more about the HEHC program can be found here), the program features a visit by an energy expert who performs an abbreviated energy audit, as well as the distribution of an energy efficiency kit and additional CFLs upon request. The typical house call takes between 45 and 60 minutes, with visual inspections of heating and cooling systems and insulation levels taking precedence. Homeowners are interviewed on their energy usage habits, and then receive a customized report that can be used to increase the comfort and efficiency of their home.

For someone who is more accustomed to residential new construction testing, the experience of face-to-face communication with homeowners in homes built between the years of 1920 and 2008 was as rewarding as it was diverse. The houses I visited ranged from 800 square foot bungalows to 7,200 square foot mansions. When asked about the prime reason for scheduling the house call,  I estimate that approximately 50% attributed the appointment to high bills, 25% to comfort-related issues, and the remaining 25% to the desire for a general discussion on energy efficiency.  Though time management was a bit tricky during the first three to five days, I soon developed a rhythm that allowed me to thoroughly answer questions and address concerns while still accomplishing all items on the to-do list.

The homeowners were as diverse as the homes that I visited. While some people declined the free CFLs (one cited the dangers of mercury as a prime factor), most were very excited to replace their incandescent bulbs and begin saving money immediately. I was very encouraged to see the overwhelming desire to reduce electrical consumption and the overall interest in residential energy efficiency. Indeed, several customers will most likely pursue advanced home performance  diagnostic testing (a comprehensive home energy audit or duct leakage testing) in the near future. It was extremely gratifying to assist people struggling with expensive bills; in one instance I discovered a very large leak in a supply duct in the homeowner’s crawl space, which, when sealed, will result in significant savings. I was also able to identify an air sealing point at another home with an attached garage that will lead to heightened levels of indoor air quality and health and safety for the occupants.

But most of all, I feel very grateful to have had such a tremendous learning experience, seeing various construction styles, materials, and heating and cooling systems that I had not seen before, while helping homeowners increase the comfort, durability, and energy efficiency of their homes. Humans often focus on the negative, and with respect to large companies or other entities, on the products or services they lack. Perhaps it’s time to celebrate the minor victories. When American homeowners get excited about saving money and reducing their carbon footprint, everyone wins, and if the public utility is a driving force in making this happen, then more power to them.

 Sources:

(1) http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/capitalcost/xls/table1.xls

(2) http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/coalvswind/c01.html

Stretch Your Budget the Furthest

By Brad Fletcher, Energy Analyst 

When a homeowner engages in energy efficiency upgrades on their home, the list of possibilities can sometimes feel exhausting. Unlike a kitchen upgrade or the addition of a bedroom, a whole house energy efficiency plan may be designed and executed over an extended period of time. An energy professional will help homeowners find the incentives and/or rebates available for the upgrades they recommend. Homeowners, with the help of an energy professional, typically develop a hierarchy of upgrades based on the cost effectiveness of each improvement for the home. Here are a few to start with:

Air sealing and insulating the home is an investment ranging from $50-$2000. Keeping the heat in and the cold out makes practical sense and is often the upgrade that stretches the homeowner’s dollar furthest.

Replacing the lighting with higher efficiency bulbs such as Compact Fluorescent Lighting (CFL) or Light Emitting Diodes (LED) can cost between $5-$50 per fixture and result in a short payback period making this investment a no brainer.

In a typical home, the heating and air conditioning system(s) consume the most energy and cost the most to operate. Upgrades to the HVAC system can result in considerable savings. Improving the mechanical system can include duct sealing, thermostat replacement, cleaning and tuning or in some cases, replacement with a more efficient system.  These improvements can range from $50-$3000 depending on the size of the home and extent of improvements.

Replacing water fixtures may seem like an unlikely way to save energy, but installing low-water usage or aerated fixtures in your kitchen and bathroom will reduce the amount of hot water needing to be generated by a home’s water heating system. Improving the efficiency of faucets and shower heads can range from $2-$200 and save both energy and water.

Older kitchen appliances can consume much more energy than newer, Energy Star rated appliances. Replacing old appliances that have become one of your home’s largest energy hogs will not only cut your total energy cost, but improve the look of your kitchen as well! A combination of dishwasher and refrigerator replacement range from $1500-$3000.

While there are abundant opportunities to improve the efficiency of an existing home, there are even more possibilities that exist in new home construction. This is due to both the technology that can be applied during the construction process as well as the ‘blank slate’ approach where builders can utilize more stringent standards and design features to improve the energy efficiency of your house. When constructing a new home, be sure to speak with your builder about how they can help reduce the cost of operating the home.

If you’re building a new home or doing energy upgrades to your current home, an energy professional can work with contractors and homeowners to calculate which upgrades provide the homeowner with the biggest bang for their buck. Beautiful light fixtures and stunning floor coverings are amenities you are able to see every day while energy efficiency is an amenity you can also feel and see on your monthly utility bills. With a wide range of upfront investment possibilities, energy efficiency is the only investment that will pay you back!

Climate Change and Senate Bill 761

Written by Craig Whittaker

You have probably heard that the Obama administration recently drafted new energy policy concerning the reduction of climate change through more efficient power plants. While Obama has been carefully drafting energy policy that can be adopted without the approval of Congress, a little-known bill is coming before the Senate in July that also addresses climate change. The Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2013, known as Senate Bill 761, has broad bi-partisan support and the support of major business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This broad support makes this an energy bill with a future, and it’s easy to see why.

In a nutshell, S. 761 sets aside $250 million for states to help property owners retrofit buildings for greater energy efficiency and another $200 million for state and local governments that enact stricter environmentally-friendly building codes. The bill also requires that federal agencies cut the energy used by computers, data centers and vehicles. The bill therefore focuses on one of the best energy reduction strategies of all – that is, not using as much energy as we once used.

S. 761 is common sense legislation that provides incentives for the states to become creative with a relatively small pool of money that can yield huge energy & cost savings for years to come.   Let’s hope that the amendment mill doesn’t ruin the chances for Senate approval. If all goes well, the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2013 will become law in a few weeks and many more of the buildings that account for a large percentage of U.S. energy use will become more efficient.

Living Building Project Unfolds in Seattle on Earth Day

annie-pryorWritten by ESG Energy blog contributor and Warren Wilson College student Annie Pryor.

The Bullitt Foundation, which distributes grants for sustainable projects, has given birth to a living building.  Today the new building opens its eyes and ears in Seattle, WA. It will begin detecting and recording energy use in its large brain, and will be expelling waste through its digestive track (its composting toilets). But there’s so much more: this building, much like a flower, produces its own power through its solar panels. The building absorbs, filters, uses and recycles gray rainwater for all of the buildings’ hydration needs. You can’t even park on this living building premises. That’s right – to get there, one must run, skateboard, or bike. There are no concrete parking spaces.

Despite the obvious successfully green elements of the Bulitt Foundation’s new infant, The Seattle Times offered some criticisms to its status as a “living building,” differentiating living buildings from “deep green buildings.” These deep green buildings possess sustainable elements, but do not match living green building standards holistically. For example, projects that seek living building status cannot ship in materials over large distances, use toxic materials like Asbestos and Formaldehyde, or build on underdeveloped sites. They must limit building growth, protect sensitive ecological habitats, promote car-free living, protect and promote sustainable water usage, rely on sustainable energy sources (like solar power), maximize both physical and psychological health of tenants, residents and building users, and promote excellent indoor air quality. Deep green buildings may include some of these elements, but Living Green Buildings require the integration of all and more of these elements, as they are seen as essential components to creating a functioning living organism.

So does the Bulitt Foundation’s new creation qualify as a Living Building? Well, the Living Building challenge certification requires a building to operate for at least 12 months before it can be evaluated, as this certification depends on realized or actual building sustainability performance, not estimates.

For more information about other Living Building Projects, grants offered by the Bullitt Foundation, or criticisms on Living Building Projects visit:

www.livingbuildingchallenge.org

http://bullittcenter.org/news/press-clips/a-building-not-just-green-but-practically-self-sustaining

http://seattletimes.com/html/businesstechnology/2018728847_livingbuilding20.html

Stuck to Stucco

spanish-stucco-homesWritten by ESG Energy blog contributor and Warren Wilson College student Annie Pryor.

Today I fell in love with stucco.  Maybe it’s the multiple layers that fill in over each other, melding together to make swift, smooth pillars. Maybe it’s the simplicity of the installation process accompanied by a need for real skill and determination to make a clean and sharp product.  Then again, maybe it’s because, despite the high cost of stucco, the end product is totally and inexcusably worth it.

Stucco is not only a luxurious and aesthetically pleasing material. It’s strong and durable. Generally consisting of lime, silica, and cement, stucco operates as a concrete shell around a house or interior space. However, stucco is more successful in some climates than in others. Warm, dry weather is best for stucco houses; while stucco repeals water, it’s not often used in extremely wet areas, as it is not totally water resistant.

Stucco is sustainable and cost effective: it is particularly easy to maintain and can last for over fifty years.

Stucco is green: it can reduce sound pollution, acts as a fire retardant, and even fends off mildew, mold and rot. In addition, stucco keeps the hot air out during  sweltering summers and warm air inside during chilly winters.

Source: http://www.doityourself.com/stry/pros-and-cons-of-stucco-homes#