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Shopping for Energy-Efficient Windows

Shopping for Energy-Efficient Windows

Photo: Gretchen Grant

Is your blood pressure rising on the same schedule as your month-to-month heating and cooling bills? Relax—you can stop that cost-climb by choosing the right replacement windows. Yes, there’s a lot to learn and a lot to decide before you can choose the right energy-smart option for your home, but we’ve pulled together essential information you need in the 5 homeowner-friendly links after the jump.

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On the Deck

On the Deck

Photo: AllProPaintingco.com

This year the deck on our summer place turns 11. The deck isn’t vast, maybe 10′ x 30′—just the right size for evening gatherings or lunch for my wife and myself.

When I built it, I decided the decking material would be mahogany. Other woods like red cedar or redwood are great choices too, but I liked the grain pattern of mahogany and the silvery sheen it develops when left to weather naturally.

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An Army Wife’s Home Improvement Valentine

Her top-secret operation is transforming their house one DIY project at a time.

Designing and tiling the kitchen wall. Photo: Photograph by T.J. Felix

“Operation Chaos”: Outlining the Plan of Attack

“If you ever need anything done, ask an army wife,” says T.J. Felix from Manhattan, Kansas, otherwise known as the “Little Apple.”

Feeling guilty for not mailing her husband a care package nine months into his deployment to Iraq (her boys go stir-crazy in the post office), she came up with a secret mission — which she dubbed “Operation Chaos” — to conduct a series of home improvements with which to surprise him upon his return.

This was an ambitious campaign. “I didn’t know what ‘sheen’ was,” she admits. “I had to Google ‘sheen.’”

(For those in the same boat, sheen, or “luster” in a general sense, relates in this case to how much light a paint reflects from its surface. Paints that have a semigloss or glossy sheen reflect light whereas flat or matte paints absorb light.)

To get up to speed, she did online research, watched how-to video tutorials, consulted with a contractor friend, and set up a “top-secret” photo album on Facebook. Her friends and fellow army wives cheered her on from the virtual sidelines, offering advice and sharing resources, and occasionally mailing her materials. Sometimes, friends or family would come over to help babysit T.J.’s three children while she ran to the store or applied a coat of paint.

She worked her way through a long list of projects while her children napped. “I don’t mess around,” she says. “I don’t wait well.”

Her husband knew something was afoot, but apart from seeing the Home Depot bills, didn’t have knowledge of any of the specifics. His savvy army wife made sure to position the camera carefully when they would Skype so as not to spoil the surprise.

So, where to begin?

(L): Repainting the bathroom; (R): After repainting the bathroom. Photo: Photographs by T.J. Felix

Project 1: Painting the Two Bathrooms (two days each)*

T.J. decided to start by painting the bathrooms.

Paint Tools, Techniques, and Color Advice

On November 27th, she applied paint to the walls for the first time. Her neighbor had just painted her entire house and so T.J. asked her for painting advice, such as which brushes to use. T.J. taped a little, but found she did better freehand. The bathroom walls were yellow and so she applied two coats of paint to make them pale blue. In hindsight, she wishes she had picked something bolder. But “it’s staying for now,” she says. She’s already moved on to other projects.

At the time, she wasn’t aware of VOCs — volatile organic compounds — but said that the bathroom paint smelled quite strong versus the living room paint, which barely had a smell. Checking the paint cans the other day, lo and behold, the living room paint had a VOC level roughly 1/3 of the bathroom paint. Lesson learned!

Challenge:  Painting Behind the Toilet Tank

T.J. had been apprehensive about how it would work with the kids, so she started with the small bathroom while they napped, then moved onto the bigger bathroom. One complicated matter involved painting the wall behind the toilet. Should she remove the tank and do it right? Or stop short of the tank and hope that no one would ever notice?

Online, her Facebook friends gave her conflicting advice. One wrote in to say that no one ever removes the tank, that if you’ve lived in an older house and replaced the toilet, you’ll have noticed missing paint behind the tank. Her take? “It would be easier and quicker to remove the tank than tote three kids to Home Depot for a less invasive fix!” So she did it right. (Watch video: how to paint a room or visit Bob Vila’s community forum for painting.) 

* T.J.’s Disclaimer: “Keep in mind, all the time frames include caring for the kids. If the kids weren’t bothering me, everything would have been done much quicker.”

(L): T.J. shows off a difficult tile cut; (R): The finished tiled kitchen wall. Photo: Photographs by T.J. Felix

Project 2: Tiling the Kitchen (4 days including 1 day to grout the tile)

Next, T.J. decided to tile the kitchen walls — a project that was interrupted throughout the process as she didn’t have help with the children and then also for a few days while the family celebrated an early Christmas.

She says that part of what motivated her was “keeping up with the Joneses,” as many houses in her suburban area featured tile as part of their decorating schemes. But she also thought it looked like fun and asked herself how hard it could be. “I got very bold,” she says, “and went straight for the tile.” Her friends online egged her on, providing encouragement.

How-to Tiling Advice

She turned to a friend who’s a contractor for tips and pointers and went online to read some how-tos and to watch some of Bob Vila’s tiling videos. She used some of the kids’ construction paper and laid it out to get an idea for how the pattern would look. “I wanted to do it right and wasn’t 100% confident about making the pattern. I crossed my t’s and dotted my i’s,” she said. She shored up her base knowledge.

She bought a wet saw to cut the tile. It turned out to be cheaper to buy than to rent and she figured it would come in handy again in the future, especially as she and her husband plan to finish the basement once he’s home. (Watch video: one family finishes a basement.) “Some of the cuts were difficult, using a circular saw to cut a hole in a tile. I had to think outside the box…It was very challenging. I had to cut it three times,” she said.

Challenge: Working with the Backsplash

She ran into a predicament with the laminate backsplash, unsure if she should remove it and then tile or if she should just tile the wall itself. Her Facebook friends argued the merits for both approaches. This time, she decided it would be more trouble than it was worth to risk removing the backsplash. She left it as is and decided to tile the wall just up to the point where the backsplash ended.

She also made a sensible decision about the tile pattern. She had posted different patterns online to solicit her friends’ favorites. In the end, she found a pre-made decorative tile at Home Depot that featured a square of glass within a tile, versus having to perfectly position a tile of glass between ceramic tiles. She still had to make “u” cuts and ‘l” cuts, to accommodate the light switches on the wall. She accomplished the decorative look she wanted in a more straightforward way. (Watch video: touring a ceramic tile showroom or visit the Bob Vila community forum for floor & tile)

She learned a thing or two about grout — there are many color choices, and the color becomes lighter as it dries — and was pleased with the end result of a light grout color that contrasted with the tile color. She wishes the glass tile was centered better over the oven. Live and learn!

While tempted to put in under-cabinet lighting, she decided to wait for a contractor.

(L): Before decorating the living room; (R): After decorating the living room. Photo: Photographs by T.J. Felix

Decorating the Mantel (a few hours)

T.J.’s husband Nick was home for two weeks of R&R in August, and they had family photographs taken during this time by a photographer. T.J. decided to enlarge one of the photographs and place it over the mantel.

She used an online photo service, Shutterfly.com, to make the enlargement, and then had the frame custom-made, with a mat.

She asked her online friends what they thought of the size, and the consensus was that the mat would give the photograph more visual weight so that it wouldn’t appear too small in terms of dimensions over the mantel.

“If I had to do it again, I would have gone bigger,” T.J. says. Next time!

Updating the Window Treatments (4 hours to sew the drapes and install the curtain rod)

The next project leveraged Facebook and the regular mail as T.J. worked with an out-of-state friend whom she had met online to select drapes to complement the color of the walls and the furniture. T.J. sent her friend a video of the house since she couldn’t come by in person and tasked her with picking a wall color (T.J. almost left the color as is, but decided to change it regardless from a flat paint to an eggshell, a more kid-friendly choice). Her friend picked out fabric and paint samples and mailed them to T.J., who visited the same store in her hometown, Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores, to buy the fabric. She just had to figure out how much material she needed to buy. She took as her inspiration some window treatments that she had seen at Pottery Barn, although she confesses her drapes are more decorative than functional. Naturally, on Facebook, T.J. posted photos of the fabric swatches next to the furniture and the walls so her friends could weigh in with their opinions.

Painting an Accent Wall (2 hours total)

T.J.’s friend had recommended pale jade for the walls. But T.J.’s house has an open floor plan, meaning that she would have had to paint the kitchen and the living room this color, and she wasn’t sold on it. Then one Saturday, on a whim, she decided to paint an accent wall. Another friend had come over with a sample can and T.J. pulled out a brush to paint a little by the fireplace. Her friend said she’d watch the kids, and the next thing she knew, T.J. had run to Home Depot (where she’s a regular), come back, and painted the wall pale jade. All told, from the time she decided to do an accent wall to the time it was completed, just two hours had elapsed, and that included the drive back and forth to the store.

She’s still decorating the living room but hopes to be done before her husband returns home.

Bob Vila’s word of caution: Painting fast without much prep work can spell trouble later.

Project 4: Decorating the Master Bedroom (1.5 days)

In the master bedroom, T.J. painted, sewed curtains, and installed curtain rods. Her mother watched the kids while T.J. worked and shopped for supplies. She’s still working on wall decor but hopes to be done in time for the big reveal.

(Watch video: Bob decorates his Shingle Style home or visit Bob’s community forum for design & décor)

(L): Installed garage shelving; (R): The completed arbor. Photo: Photographs by T.J. Felix

Project 5: Installing Garage Shelving (30 minutes)

T.J. decided to tackle the garage. Her father, who she describes as “a diesel mechanic who’s lived in rural areas his whole life,” provided installation advice and went with her to purchase the materials. She bought the ClosetMaid system from Home Depot. He showed her how to knock on the wall to see where the studs were, which she did herself once he had left. She ended up using more studs to support additional weight.

She didn’t attempt to do the wiring herself. “My dad’s ‘old school’,” she says. “He wired his whole garage, to code. He knows what he’s doing. When he told me to get a professional to do the wiring, I got a professional to do the wiring.”

Project 6: Building an Arbor (nearly 30 days)

T.J. and her husband had designed an arbor when he was home on leave in August. After he returned to Iraq, she started working on it. It took her most of the month of September, though she didn’t work on it every day. She describes the project — complete with 12-foot boards — as “the biggest feat I’ve ever accomplished.” Both parents provided a form of assistance. Her father described how she should screw in the supports and rest the boards in order to do it without help, and her mother visited and watched the kids while T.J. screwed things in.

Wrapping up the Project

All told, from late November through late January, T.J. single-handedly painted two bathrooms, tiled the kitchen, decorated the living room’s mantel, accent wall, and window treatments, revamped the master bedroom, installed garage shelving, and built an arbor, all the while caring for three children under the age of four. This does not even include earlier projects, such as creating a vegetable garden so that her children could eat in a healthy way or devising a metal composting bin.

It will come as no surprise then, that T.J. hasn’t stopped there.

All that stands in between her and more home improvements for her Valentine is the non-obliging weather.

Once it gets warmer, future projects will include adding a cobblestone walk to the arbor and putting a solar tube in the kitchen. (Watch video: a salvaged house is outfitted with solatubes)

Says T.J., “I’ve done my research and I’m dying to get it done. I want to put a solar tube, like a skylight… it’s just so cold. The next time we have over 50 degrees, I’ll be up on the roof!”

Her husband is due to return home in two weeks, after a year away from his family. He just got promoted, and T.J. isn’t sure what that means in terms of their future whereabouts. She expects to still be in the house for a year, and plans to rent versus sell if they have to move. So all this “decorating to make up for nine months of no care packages” won’t be for nothing.

“Operation Chaos,” with its top-secret photo albums, clandestine discussions, online and offline maneuvers, has been a success.


Build Your Home in Advance

Panelized houses are more than just kits.

Alex Maness

When Ned and Anne Hammond began to consider what type of home they wanted to build, they did what most of us might do — they began to study every house they encountered. They originally thought building from scratch might make the most sense for their new home, which was to be located on the coast of Massachusetts. The Hammonds wanted to take advantage of the panoramic views. They also wanted their house to feel as open as the ocean it would overlook.

Related: Assembly Required: 10 DIY Kit Homes

Eventually the couple decided that building a panelized house would be the most resource-efficient strategy. After some consideration, the Hammonds hired Acorn, located in Acton, Massachusetts, to design and manufacture their home.

What’s a Panelized House?
A panelized house is a pre-engineered structure. The theory behind this type of construction is that when a building is pre-built in a controlled environment, the craftspeople will not be affected by weather, lack of materials at hand, or the other obstacles that arise whenever one is building a house on site.

Acorn’s portfolio of plans includes over 50 designs. The idea behind the stock designs is that the customer doesn’t have to pay to reinvent the wheel. Each home starts from a standard design and is customized to the client’s unique needs. While each home is individually designed and built, the buyer benefits from the discount on parts that are made in quantity.

After the designers and clients decide on a finalized plan, the manufacturer begins building panels and milling the components of the house. The coding of materials is a critical aspect in erecting the new home on its site. Each piece of material is marked with a unique number code. Acorn’s coding system basically consists of three series—the 100, 200, and 300. Each hundred represents a floor. For instance, 101 would be the first beam that would be secured on the first floor. After that 102 would be laid and then the rest of the series would be used sequentially. Although this is a simplified description of the code Acorn and other companies use, it gives an idea on how well organized the system can be.

Custom Design
The Hammonds’ home is very different than the original drawings. In most cases, a manufactured home can offer as much flexibility in design as one designed from scratch.

Ned and Anne chose a plan that met most of their basic design requirements. Like a post and beam house, the Acorn plan they chose did not rely heavily on interior load bearing walls, which meant there were several ways the interior could be divided.

One of the main benefits of panelized construction is that the manufacturer furnishes the customer with all the drawings and the materials to build the house. Acorn does not insist that their customers buy every material from them. For instance, if a client wants to include a unique type of roofing material, the company will deduct the cost of the package plan’s roofing from the total cost.

The Contractors
The two most important factors in building a house are the quality of the design and the quality of the people that execute the work. Building a panelized home does require some special training, and companies typically have a list of certified builders. Because the Hammonds had worked on several building projects with G.F. Peach, Inc., and were familiar with the above-standard work the Peaches and their crew do, they wanted to hire them to build their new home.

The one challenge of bringing the Peaches on board was that they had never put up a panelized home. Assembling a panelized home has much in common with traditional stick building, but there are some hints and procedures that will help the contractors save time and effort. The Peaches were able to work with the designers at Acorn to develop the necessary skills to properly assemble the Hammonds’ design.

Truckin’
Generally, all the house parts fit in a few truck loads. In optimum situations the builder stores all the materials on the site. Due to the ocean-front buffer zone and the city’s conservation commission’s requirements, the Hammonds could not do that. Instead, they had to load everything into a barn that was a short distance from the site. Instead of simply grabbing the next needed and marked 2×4 or 4×4 from a stack, the crew would have to anticipate as much as they could and haul materials from the barn every morning. If during the day they needed more materials, they would have to take the time to go down to the barn.

Weather and Knots
Because of the complications in the permitting phase of the project, the building phase began only a few of months before the New England winter set in. The local weather is relatively mild, but the ocean-front location is always unpredictable. Because the home’s basic framework arrives partially pre-assembled, the builder was able to win the race against mother nature.

Site Evaluation
Below is list of basic factors Acorn’s designers consider when performing a site evaluation:

  • The path of the sun throughout the year and ways to orient the house to benefit from natural solar gain and cooling efficiency.
  • Location of various rooms to receive sunlight at the appropriate time and to take advantage of the best views.
  • Which trees to keep, and which ones to prune or cut to maximize views.
  • Prevailing wind patterns for maximum heating and cooling efficiency.
  • The location of the well, septic system, and driveway, as well as other services such as water, telephone, electricity, and gas.
  • Low or wet areas, natural drainage patterns, steep slopes, or hidden ledges that might influence the location of the house.

Quick Tip: Pocket Door Solutions

Save space and improve accessibility with a pocket door.

Pocket Doors

Photo: hafele.com

Unlike left- and right-handed doors that can take up to 10 square feet of space, pocket doors slide into the wall, leaving room for furniture, artwork, and access. Pocket doors are recommended for easy handicapped accessibility. They can provide openings up to 32 inches wide, and be outfitted with access pulls for ease and independence.

Pocket doors should be purchased in kits, with nylon rollers and box tracks. Be sure to finish unsealed door edges before installation to prevent warping. Studs or furring strip should be sealed or wrapped in metal to prevent rubbing later on. Insulation can be added above the door to prevent heat loss.

Pocket doors can be installed singly or as a pair, and are available in all door styles, including panels, flush, divided light, and French. An average pocket door kit can carry a door weighing from 125 to 150 pounds. Specialty kits can carry doors weighing up to 200 pounds.


Quick Tip: Know Your Property

A fresh look at your plot may reveal surprises.

Plot Plans

Photo: godfreyhoffman.com

The Plot Plan
As you go about your examination of the property, update your plot plan (or sketch one if none exists). Incorporate substantial elements that aren’t represented: the garage, garden shed, or other outbuildings; the driveway and walkways; large trees; and established shrubs, gardens, and other major plantings. Don’t forget to indicate the house on the survey. Sketch its outline. Pace off distances and dimensions and try to keep these elements roughly in scale. You may be surprised by how putting what you know on paper helps you see it anew.

Easements
Not everything about your lot can be seen with the naked eye. Easements are rights of access that utility companies and the owners of adjacent properties may have to some portion of your property. If, for example, there’s an underground electrical service beneath the site of your proposed addition, you’re probably going to have to shift sites.

Are there any restrictions on your deed? Is there, for example, a right-of-way through the property? In one instance in a small Massachusetts town west of Boston, a friend of mine was horrified one day to receive legal notification that a road was about to be cut across his property, right through his vegetable garden. A previous owner had agreed to a right-of-way in the deed and, years later, a local developer took advantage of the option to construct an access road in order to build a subdivision behind my friend’s house.


Coping with Water Problems

While ensuring quality drinking water in the home is a good start, that’s only the beginning. Water quality also affects your quality of life and devices that use water.

Home Water Quality

Photo: benfranklintampabay.com

While ensuring quality drinking water in the home is a good start, that’s only the beginning. Water quality also affects your quality of life and devices that use water.

What Is Hard Water?
Results from the U.S. Geological Survey indicate that 85 percent of American homes are supplied with hard water. Hard water contains dissolved calcium and magnesium ions, commonly called “hardness minerals,” which can cause numerous problems and are usually contained in water from a well or a municipal water utility.

Water hardness is typically measured in “grains per gallon,” an indication of the quantity of dissolved calcium and magnesium. In amounts as small as one grain per gallon, water is classified as hard but most homes use considerably harder. Many families choose to soften their water with home water treatment equipment.

How to Recognize Hard Water
Probably the most recognizable symptoms of hard water are soap scum in the tub and shower, and hard-water spots on faucets and fixtures. That’s because hardness minerals react with soaps and detergents to form an insoluble, sticky residue that’s difficult to rinse from bathtubs, sinks, faucets, and fixtures. This soap residue is often left on hair, skin and clothing as well. Although not highly visible in these instances, the substance can cause drying and itching of skin, as well as premature fading and wearing of clothing.

Hard water causes other problems, as well. Over time, scale formed from continuous contact with dissolved minerals in water can cause damage by collecting inside plumbing and on the internal parts of appliances.

Hard water scale can also coat the inside of a water heater and drastically reduce its heating efficiency. According to a study commissioned by the Water Quality Research Council and conducted at New Mexico State University, water heaters work 22-30 percent less efficiently with hard water, driving up utility bills unnecessarily.

What Is Soft Water?
Soft water is essentially free of dissolved calcium or magnesium. Since calcium and magnesium are not present in soft water, no adverse reaction with soaps and detergents occurs. The result is the virtual elimination of soap scum and the corresponding reduction in time spent cleaning. Hair and skin can “breathe” more readily. And a study by the School of Consumer & Family Sciences at Purdue University found that that the life of clothing and household textiles was prolonged up to 15 percent when they were washed in conditioned water.

Soap usage can be dramatically reduced with soft water. Since the water is already soft, the cleaning agents lather more readily and work more effectively. Since less is needed, households can experience considerable savings on laundry detergent, dishwashing detergent, bath soap, hand soap, shampoo and many other cleaning products In addition, appliances operate more efficiently and last longer when using soft water.

How Water Is Softened
The basis for most water softening equipment is “ion exchange.” In this process, water is brought in contact with a bed of tiny beads that hold sodium chloride or potassium chloride ions. Then the calcium and magnesium ions “stick” to the surface of the beads, dislodging the sodium or potassium ions.

After the beads are completely exhausted (i.e., covered with calcium and magnesium), a solution is introduced to the system to wash away the calcium and magnesium, and replace the sodium or potassium (a process known as regeneration). After the extra solution is rinsed from the resin bed, the entire ion exchange cycle begins again.

There are three commonly used types of water softeners:

Single Tank, Electric Timer Water Conditioners. These systems perform all functions automatically, but rely on an electric timer that initiates regeneration at preset intervals (usually every other day at 3:00 a.m.), no matter how much of the system’s capacity has been used. Regeneration can occur too often and decrease efficiency, or not often enough and allow hard water into the home. Since these units typically employ only a single softening tank, only hard water is available to the home when they regenerate.

Single Tank, Electric Demand Water Conditioners. These newer units measure water usage to determine the best time to regenerate. But such systems are typically not as efficient as systems that employ two resin tanks. If regeneration is necessary at a time of the day when soft water may be needed, they must wait until a more appropriate time to regenerate so hard water isn’t introduced into the home. To do so, single-tank DIR units must employ a reserve capacity of softening resin to make it through the rest of the day. If the reserve isn’t large enough, the home must use hard water until the system regenerates. If the reserve is too large, the system won’t be used to capacity but regeneration will occur anyway, wasting water and regenerant.

Twin Tank, Non-Electric Demand Water Conditioners. Twin tank systems measure water usage and regenerate only when the system has been used to capacity for optimum efficiency. Because twin tank systems automatically switch from tank to tank as they exhaust, they are able to provide a continuous supply of conditioned water, 24 hours a day. Some systems even use soft water to clean themselves to improve efficiency.  An advantage of these systems is that they do not have electronic components, which are susceptible to power outages and can be expensive to repair.

Some water contains troublesome elements or has characteristics which can make it very unpleasant to use or damaging to things that it touches. Among them are iron, manganese, hydrogen sulfide, and acidity.

Iron
Iron typically rears its ugly head as rusty orange and brown stains, streaks, or spots on clothing cleaned in a washing machine. Stains also appear on bathtubs, sinks, and faucets. Even very small amounts of iron can cause problems, and iron stains can be difficult to clean unless special solvents are used. Iron can also clog pipes and damage the internal parts of water-using appliances. Iron is generally found in well water, although city water users are not immune from the problems associated with it.

No matter which form iron appears in, there is a solution available. Typically one of the following two methods is used:

Water Conditioners. Common home water conditioners can remove average amounts of dissolved iron from a family’s water supply. When a water supply has dissolved iron, water drawn from the tap appears clear but turns a color when left in a cup.

Multi-Stage Iron Removal Systems. When iron is not dissolved (ferric) or appears in excessive amounts, a specialized iron removal system may be required. Aeration equipment or chlorine can be used to change the dissolved iron into ferric iron, which is filterable. The ferric iron can then be removed by special automatic backwashing filters, leaving the water clean and clear. In some cases, special filters can perform both the oxidation and filtration functions.

Chlorine
Chlorine is typically used by municipal water suppliers for disinfection, but it can dry skin and hair. Chlorine can also be inhaled in shower steam; some question the long-term health effects it has on the body.

Chlorine can be easily removed by installing a carbon filtration system where the water enters the home. Combination systems that soften and dechlorinate water are also available and eliminate the need for separate softening and filtration systems.

Hydrogen Sulfide
Hydrogen sulfide (commonly referred to as “sulfur”), although not a cause of staining, leaves water with an obnoxious “rotten egg” odor that makes it unbearable to drink, cook with, or even bathe in. Because it is a weak acid, hydrogen sulfide can also promote corrosion, and its presence in the air causes silver to tarnish in seconds. High concentrations are flammable and can be poisonous.

Luckily, hydrogen sulfide can be removed using a specially designed sulfur system that employs sulfur removal media. Such systems typically eliminate the need for expensive, multi-stage configurations that require several pieces of equipment.

An excessive amount of hydrogen sulfide can be removed by first using aeration or chlorination to convert it into elemental sulfur, a yellowish powder that can be removed with filters. The process works similarly to that which is used to filter iron from water.

Acid Water
When water is acidic, it must be neutralized before causing corrosion of plumbing and fixtures, or damage water-using appliances. A neutralizer containing calcite is often used to reduce water acidity. As water flows through the tanks, the calcite dissolves into the water and neutralizes its acidity. It also adds hardness minerals to the water, which can then be removed by a water conditioner.


What Is a Zero-Energy House?

Homes that produce as much energy as they use + sustainable living = a green and happy earth.

Zero-Energy Homes

Photo: mybigtopics.com

A zero-energy home (ZEH) produces as much energy as it consumes over a year’s time. The only way to achieve this is through energy-efficient design and practices coupled with energy-producing technologies.

Reducing Energy Demands
In addition to a lifestyle committed to energy conservation, building a zero-energy home requires energy-conscious design and technology. “There can be no compromise on anything,” says Danny Parker, Principal Research Scientist for the Florida Solar Energy Center. How the house is oriented and designed are as important as the photovoltaic panels used to generate energy.

Reducing the energy demands of a home is the most important first step in creating a ZEH. “The key question is: ‘How do I reduce the loads in the building to be as minimal as possible?’ ” Parker says. The answer will vary regionally, as the nature of those energy demands depends largely on climate. A home in Minnesota will face significant heating demands, while one in Florida will consume most of its energy cooling the house. “You need to pull out all the regional tricks,” Parker says.

To that end, designing and implementing an energy-efficient HVAC system can reduce energy loads by as much as 80 percent. For a home in Florida, using light-colored roofing tiles and spectrally selective windows will reduce the heat load of the building, and that, in turn, reduces the demands of the cooling system. Internally, Energy Star-rated refrigerators, washers, dryers, and other appliances will also lower the energy required in the home.

Producing Energy for the Home
Zero Energy Homes - SolarpanelsWhen a home is designed, built, or retrofitted to be as energy-efficient as possible, the second step is to employ energy-producing technologies, starting with the sun. Solar thermal technology uses the sun to heat material that is then stored thermally for later use. This technology includes hot water systems. Solar thermal systems are cost-effective solar solutions and are priced far less than their photovoltaic (PV) counterparts. “Solar thermal doesn’t get into the 4 or 5 digits in cost, like PV can,” says Tim Merrigan, senior program manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Once a home is energy-efficient and set up with solar-thermal water and heat collection, PV technology adds the electricity-producing component that helps bring the energy tally to zero. PV technology harnesses the power of the sun to generate electricity that is collected as direct current (DC) and either sent to the power grid for credit or transmitted to an inverter within the home for use as household AC electricity.

Either way, surplus energy is typically sent back to the utility to power other homes and credited against the energy producer’s usage. Federal and state incentives can drop the price of these systems, and resources are available to builders, contractors, and homeowners to determine how big a system will be required to generate the necessary amount of energy for the home.

Monitoring Energy Usage
Maintaining a zero-energy household requires a commitment to a zero-energy lifestyle. Parker compares the ZEH to a hybrid car: A hybrid car is designed to get remarkably high mileage, but driving it irresponsibly will result in average or poor mileage. ZEH owners must monitor energy usage and make energy-wise decisions at all times. Energy monitoring devices like “The Energy Detective” and the “EUM 2000” allow homeowners to monitor real-time energy usage in the home and root out inefficient energy drainers. “You become real concerned with the Watt,” says Parker, and how to eliminate every single one. Monitoring devices let homeowners see actual energy usage and can inspire them to make efficiency changes like installing compact fluorescent lightbulbs or purchasing equipment with wattage in mind.

In order to keep energy usage as close to zero as possible, homeowners should calculate in kilowatt-hours (kWh) the average daily production of their system. Parker advises people to use the Florida Solar Energy Center’s method for calculating daily energy production. “You take the kW rating of the system and multiply it by 4,” says Parker. “That will give you the kWh per day that the system can be expected to produce.”

Parker suggests homeowners use 3.5 or 3 for the cloudier Pacific Northwest states and 4.5 or 5 for the sunnier Southwest states. Then match daily energy expenditure to daily energy production to keep the home at zero energy.

Forecast for Zero-Energy Homes
“The truth is, there are far fewer true zero-energy homes out there than people think,” says Parker. It is more accurate to say “near-zero-energy,” in most cases. “Homes in California are getting to 50, 60, and even 70 percent to zero-energy,” Merrigan says, adding that the Department of Energy’s goal for a “marketable” zero-energy home by 2020 could be attained even earlier as continued research brings costs down and federal and state incentives increase.
Even with cheap technology and incentive-reduced cost, however, homes built in some parts of the country will only benefit so much from the addition of solar technology, due to low kWh per day measurements. Additionally, the trend in certain areas of the home industry—home entertainment and home office, in particular—points toward the popularity of technology that increases energy usage, rather decreasing it. “Everyone wants the 50-inch flat screen plasma TV,” says Parker, “but no one thinks about the fact that it draws 400-500 Watts.”

Investors in a zero-energy home should also be wary of the payback trap. “People are always asking about payback,” says Merrigan. “They should be thinking that this is an upgrade — an investment — just like upgrading any part of the house.” Like finishing a basement, adding a bathroom, or installing a pool, investing extra in a home that approaches or achieves zero-energy is an investment that will increase over time. “Whatever value you put into the home, you will get back,” Merrigan adds.


Plugging Up Leaks with a Home Energy Audit

Identify energy-loss areas to cut costs and increase comfort.

Home Energy Audit

Photo: shaneshirleysmith.com

Homeowners are looking for ways to conserve energy and still make a positive impact on the environment. Here are some constructive ways to tighten your home’s energy consumption and save both energy and money.

Bank on these Benefits
Heating and cooling are the greatest energy demands in your home, comprising 56 percent of energy usage, according to the Department of Energy.

An audit will increase your home’s thermal efficiency, which is the overall ability to keep heat inside in the winter and keep heat out during the summer months. Since every house is different, only a home energy auditor can tell you the specific locations within your home that need attention.

“People get an energy audit analysis for reasons other than energy drain and economic benefits,” says Katie Ackerly, research assistant at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) in Washington, DC. “It can increase the value of your home along with improving your comfort.”

A careful examination of how the whole house operates will increase air quality. Additionally, Ackerly says, replacing your current HVAC system with a more efficient unit will reduce the noise level in your home because the new equipment is much quieter. A couple other benefits: increased speed and efficiency of hot water delivery and, upon completion of the audit, you gain a better working knowledge of how your house functions.

But the real payoff comes when the professional auditor completes the assessment and provides a quantified list of areas that need attention.

Dan Gibson, owner of Home Energy Advisors in Ballston Lake, NY, says, “The list allows you to move ahead to make good decisions about borrowing money to complete the needed changes.” And it makes good sense to borrow that money for home energy improvements since you’ll be reducing your energy expenses in the long run. The scientifically based home audit provides a prospective lender the supporting methodology that will sustain a loan application.

In today’s green-conscious world, you may be able to secure a new house energy mortgage, or if you currently own a home, you may quality to refinance an existing loan.

Tuning Up the House
Energy auditors may use one or a combination of methods to assess a home: a blower door, infrared camera, a duct blaster to test ducts for leakage. They may also provide their reports in a variety of ways: a spreadsheet for utility bill analysis, a list of needed fixes, etc. Homeowners can expect to pay anywhere from $200 to $700, as the price varies due to location, size of house and complexity the layout.

He then inspects the windows, doors and the exterior to make sure everything is tight. Next, Gibson tackles the insulation in the attic and the basement. “I do a solar access survey to see if there is any opportunity to use the sun,” says Gibson. “Some people have great opportunities but never take advantage of the sun’s energy-saving benefits.”

He uses an infrared camera to look for cold spots throughout the house, explaining, “some of those cold spots might be missing insulation or have cracks letting in cold air.” Using a blower door test that depressurizes the house, Gibson diagnoses major leakage in the basement, the attic, porch overhangs and the garage.

He summarizes his findings for the homeowner under categories that include big and small opportunities and health and/or safety issues. Although it’s not a part of the investigation process, Gibson tells his clients about the incentives and credits available. “At the end of this phase,” he says, “the clients have enough information to decide to go ahead with the second phase by completing the improvements. They will know the opportunities, how much it will cost and how much they can save.”

In the second phase of the assessment Gibson uses computer software to build an energy model of the house. He includes the walls, windows, doors, heating system and type of fuel used in the house. Then he takes the existing energy bill and compares it to the model to see if the dwelling is consuming as much energy as the model estimated. He gets rough estimates of all the improvements being considered and then does a cost-benefit analysis to see just how much money and energy can be saved by each improvement.

When Gibson meets with the clients again, they review all the results and the homeowner decides which improvements they want to do. If the clients want him to do the work, he finds qualified contractors to complete it.

At the conclusion of the audit and corrections, Gibson says he will run one final test to determine exactly how much tighter the home is; he also runs an additional safety test to make certain the appliances are vented properly.

The Green Home Upgrade
“Having an energy-efficient home is like having an insurance policy against rate increases,” explains Harry Ford, administrator of the California Building Performance Contractors Association (CBPCA) in Oakland, CA. “It’s a way to set your house apart from others.”

Selling a home with green improvements just got easier. ‘There is a growing demand among buyers for energy-efficient homes,’ says Ford, whose association works closely with the Home Performance with Energy Star program. A national program with the Environmental Protection Agency, the program offers a comprehensive, whole house approach to home energy audits in 19 states across the country with more states coming on board soon.

Contact your utility company directly to see what programs they offer, call an independent energy auditor or put your “do-it-yourself” cap on and look for assistance with several organizations, including the Building Performance Institute and their Home Performance Program with Energy Star or Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET).

Homeowners may be eligible for utility, local, state and federal rebates or tax incentives for energy-efficient upgrades. See the DSIRE, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.


Building a Sunroom Planter

Though often considered outdoor pieces, planters can be both functional and beautiful inside the home, especially in an enclosed porch or sunroom.

Sunroom Planter

. Photo: thenaturalhome.com

The first addition to the sunroom in the Season 13 Modern Colonial home was a simple cedar planter. Built by Bob Ryley in the project house’s workshop, the planter’s basic design was given a little extra flair with some resourceful saber saw work.

The first step in constructing the planter was to rip the boards to the proper width on a table saw. Working from rough sketches created earlier, the 1-by-12-inch boards were trimmed down to a width of 10-1/2-inches.

The rough stock for the decorative end pieces were cut to length with a compound miter saw. The plans called for an overall height of 16 inches.

To create the planter’s decorative feet, Ryley created a series of intersecting circles using a simple compass. The front-facing legs displayed a simple S-shaped curve; the end caps used a more intricate pattern.

The decorative patterns for the planter’s feet were cut with a saber saw. Before cutting, the pattern was first scored with a utility knife. The scored line prevented the saber saw blade from tearing the wood along the pattern.

Once cut, the feet’s rough edges were smoothed using a drum sanding attachment on a drill press. Sanding removed the saw’s blade marks and corrected any small deviations from the intended pattern.

Ryley used a biscuit cutter, a specialized tool that routes an oval-shaped notch in the board’s edge, to create a recess for a wooden fastener called a biscuit. A corresponding notch was routed in the adjoining board, and the two pieces were glued and butted together.

The decorative end pieces were fastened with nails. Once the outer frame was assembled, a flat board supported by cleats was dropped into the assembly to form the bottom.

The finished planter was placed under a large picture window. Additional braces had been added to create extra strength where boards were butted together.