Author Archives: Benjamin Hardy

Everything You Need to Know About Engineered Wood Siding

An eco-friendly alternative to wood that does not sacrifice looks for affordability.

Whether it’s called SmartSide, Catawba, or TruWood, engineered wood siding products all claim to have a technological edge over their real-wood counterparts. These products are engineered to eliminate flaws, resist deterioration, and be cost effective to install and maintain.

LP Building Products’ SmartSide line of siding and trim is made up of wood strands that are coated with a resin binder and compressed to create a board of superior strength. Each SmartSide piece is also treated using LP’s SmartGuard zinc-borate treatment system to protect against termites and rot.

The boards are coated with a moisture-resistant overlay that is embossed with a cedar-grain pattern for an authentic appearance. “The process of treating each wood wafer with zinc borate, using a heavy-duty exterior glue, and pressing the product under heat and pressure, results in one solid piece of wood,” says Ben Skoog, Business Marketing Manager for LP’s SmartSide. Both LP’s SmartSide and Collins Products’ TruWood siding are sold in longer 16-foot boards for fewer seams and less waste.

Engineered wood siding is easier and less costly to install than real wood siding. It is lighter in weight than wood and features advances that make installation easier, like LP’s SmartLock self-aligning edge design. Engineered wood siding can be purchased pre-primed, ready to paint, or pre-finished in any number of finish options, which reduces the field and labor time once installed.

Collins and LP products both offer 30-year transferable warranties on their engineered siding systems. LP’s SmartSide also adds a seven-year, 100 percent labor and replacement warranty.

Fiber Cement Siding
Fiber cement has been around for nearly a century and, like engineered wood siding, has certain advantages over natural wood. While it was once made with added asbestos, fiber cement siding today is made from a mixture of Portland cement, cellulose or wood fiber material, sand, and other components. It can be formed into a variety of siding patterns, have a smooth or embossed face, or be textured for a cedar look. A special curing process leaves the final product with a low-moisture content, making it resistant to warping and conducive to paint application.

The product’s main selling point is its durability: It is resistant to harsh weather, insects, and rot. CertainTeed and Cemplank back their products with warranties comparable to those offered by engineered-wood siding companies—CertainTeed’s WeatherBoards fiber cement siding comes with a 50-year limited transferable warranty. Fiber cement is also marketed as fire-resistant, making it an ideal siding choice for homes in wildfire regions. Installed much like real wood siding, fiber cement siding comes in the same lengths and widths as wood siding and is installed the same way. It is more difficult to cut than real or engineered wood, and manufacturers insist that installers wear masks and goggles to protect against the harmful dust produced by cutting.

Affordable building products are defined by purchase price, installation costs, and maintenance. Engineered wood siding costs about half the price of real wood, is available in 16-foot lengths, and can be ordered pre-primed. This all adds up to huge savings in time and money on the building site. Fiber cement siding also costs about half as much as real wood, is virtually maintenance-free, will hold paint three times as long as real wood, and is easy to clean. With strong warranties for durability, homeowners can be assured that little additional money will go into maintaining the siding.

Not Yet Perfect
Engineered siding does have its flaws. Moisture remains a common enemy, and the engineered wood siding industry has suffered a number of class-action lawsuits due to moisture-related problems stemming from product imperfections and installation errors. “Our earlier attempt at engineered wood siding, called Inner-Seal, was not made or treated the way SmartSide is and the result was product failure,” explains Skoog, Since the revamping of their siding line, SmartSide products have been installed on more than 1.5 million homes.

Fiber cement siding is also vulnerable to moisture invasion, particularly if installed incorrectly. Failure to properly install fiber cement siding can lead to mold and rot in the sheathing or structural supports. Installation is also a concern with fiber cement siding—it weighs about 1.5 times as much as wood, and requires special tools for cutting.

Green Products
These engineered products are considered environmentally friendly since they help to prevent widespread clearing of trees for building purposes. Both fiber cement and engineered wood use wood wisely and have little negative impact on our forests. In fact, Collins Products TruWood engineered wood siding is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent organization that recognizes wood products taken from forests in a managed and socially responsible manner.

Green Occupations: Educating Builders and Brokers

Programs and certifications are springing up countrywide, all aimed at legitimizing the home builder as a green home builder.

Green Building


Defining Green
Despite all the progress that has been made to educate consumers and home industry professionals on all things green, there remains the important matter of defining what “green” means. To date, no universally accepted “green home” standard exists. Programs like the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) have established criteria in place for certifying a residence with the “LEED for Homes” (LEED-H) award, but even within the LEED rating system there are numerous performance levels that can be achieved by an aspiring green home.

“We like to think there are shades of green,” says Ryan Moehring of EcoBroker International, a green certification program for real estate professionals. “We believe a property with several green features is better than a property that has none.” 

In 2008, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) released its National Green Building Standard, which established an industry-wide standard by which green buildings are measured. The NAHB offers the guidelines for sale on its web site, for $31.95.

Building Green
When a consumer wants to build a green home, he wants a contractor who has some knowledge and experience in the matter. Enter the burgeoning industry of green builder education. Programs and certifications are springing up countrywide, all aimed at legitimizing the home builder as a green home builder. 

Green Builder College offers one such program. Offering courses in Green Building, Energy Basics, Energy-Efficient Homes, Managing Moisture, and IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) Fundamentals, the Green Builder College awards the Green Builder certification to those who complete all the courses and successfully pass a final certification exam. Level 1 Green Builder Certification— costs $700 and requires 40 credit hours. “The certification helps differentiate our students, which include builders, developers, remodelers, and designers,” says Sara Gutterman, co-founder and CEO of Green Builder College, which has expanded its curriculum to include advanced green certifications.

The USGBC also has green building education opportunities by way of online courses, private workshops, and “webinars,” which are online seminars. Three levels of offerings range from the introductory 100-level courses designed for the newcomer to the 300-level courses for builders ready to implement the LEED rating system in new construction projects. Costs range from $25 for an online introductory course to over $300 for full-day workshop training.

Additionally, the USGBC Web site features an Educator Provider Program (EEP) list of education opportunities that meet USGBC Professional Development Committee criteria and guidelines. Builders in search of advanced education on “green building theory, techniques and trends” can search the list for a suitable program, and consumers looking for a suitable green builder might screen prospective contractors by their successful completion of one or some of the EEP courses listed.

In addition to enrolling in green education courses, more builders are designing and building homes to meet certain green home criteria. LEED-H is one of the better-known green home certification programs, but Energy Star also has its “Energy Star Home” designation for energy-efficient homes.

There are statewide and regional certifications that are available to homebuilders, as well. Built Green is a Colorado-based certification program under the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver that rates and certifies new home construction and remodels as “Built Green.” Like LEED-H, Built Green has a builder checklist of required green features. Consumers looking to build a certified green home should inquire within their state home builder association for a list of certification options and certified builders and contractors.

Educating builders on green practices is not exclusively for purposes of new construction. The American Society for Interior Designers (ASID) and the USGBC have recently partnered to develop “REGREEN,” a best-practice guideline for green remodeling projects. The program’s guidelines are available on its web site and it offers Learning Programs to educate professionals on the best practices for a green remodeling project.

Brokering Green
Building a green home isn’t for everyone. For those in search of a green home that’s already built, look for a real estate agent who is current on the green industry; they need someone who has identified the green homes on the market and knows what it means to be green. EcoBroker International offers certification courses to brokers and agents looking to get that edge on the green real estate market. “We offer a three-course curriculum that educates real estate professionals and provides them with EcoBroker® Certification,” says Moehring. The three courses touch upon all things green, including the ins and outs of energy efficiency, securing finances to include green features and marketing oneself as a “Green Professional.” The certification program, which started in 2002, can be taken online and costs $395, a fee that includes textbooks, a one-year membership to the Association of Energy and Environment Real Estate Professionals (AEEREP) and the ability to list green properties on the company’s Web site,

A program like EcoBroker is also designed to meet the needs of the green home seller. A homeowner who has invested in green features will want a real estate agent who can understand—and sell—those features to a potential homebuyer. “A real estate professional who knows the value of those investments will be able to better sell the home,” adds Moehring. features a search engine to match consumers with Certified EcoBrokers® in their area.

The growing education of builders, buyers and sellers on green home trends and features is one more vital step in elevating the awareness and importance of going green. It’s ultimately up to the consumer to drive demand for even greater knowledge and construction of green homes and green home features.

What Is Greenwashing?

Guilty parties span a wide spectrum, from product manufacturers to businesses who have no direct investment in sustainable building but would like to attract green-conscious customers.



What Is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the practice of falsely advertising one’s product, company or practice as “green,” or sustainable, for purposes of increased revenue or clientele. Guilty parties span a wide spectrum, from product manufacturers to businesses who have no direct investment in sustainable building but would like to attract green-conscious customers.

In the residential green building world, guilty greenwashers can include builders falsely claiming “green builder” status, manufacturers peddling sub-standard or untested “green” products to contractors, or real estate agents wrongly claiming green status for the homes they work to sell. Consumers and professionals alike can find themselves victims of greenwashing.

How Consumers Can Avoid the Greenwash
Whether building or buying, the consumer is susceptible to greenwashing tactics. When hiring a general contractor (GC) to build a green home, the consumer should look for a few key elements.

For starters, the GC should have green building education, whether as a member of one’s state Built Green program, a LEED for Homes accredited professional, or a green builder certified by one of the education providers listed on the U.S. Green Building Council’s website.

“Consumers should make sure the builder has shown some investment in green education, but they should also do their own research into the builder,” says Kathleen O’Brien, author of The Northwest Green Home Primer, a green home guide for builders, remodelers, and buyers. Asking for references and past projects is a good idea. It is also important that the consumer inquire into subcontractors, as well, and ensure that they have experience with green building techniques and practices.

The consumer should also ask about a performance test for the home, which will determine the effectiveness of many of its green building elements. “The only way you are truly going to know if the home was built right is to do a performance test,” insists O’Brien. The test may cost an additional couple of thousands of dollars, but it is worth it.

Homebuyers in the market for a green home will have their own challenges when trying to avoid greenwashing. Fortunately, MLS listings are now stating if a home is certified green or energy-efficient through programs like Energy Star, LEED-H, and Built Green.

Inquiring into past performance tests on the house is another smart move. A home with green features may have had help from a private performance-testing contractor who subjects the residence to a series of energy-efficiency and air quality tests to determine strengths, problem areas, and possible solutions. Records of past performance tests will better educate the homebuyer on the effectiveness of the home’s green features and its green needs.

Lastly, when choosing a real estate agent, it is advisable to look for one who has green home education. Certifications like EcoBroker and agencies like Greenworks Realty are gaining credibility for qualifying agents and brokers to understand and accurately sell green homes and homes with green features. EcoBroker provides education to real estate professionals on green home-related issues, and designates them as EcoBroker certified upon successful completion of the program. Specialty agencies like Greenworks Realty work the green home markets, and stay current on green home features as well as green homes for sale in the area. Even when going through a green-savvy agent or broker, the homebuyer should know what to look for. “Consumers should ask for a checklist of what is in the house,” says O’Brien, including energy and water-efficient products or appliances, as well as any other green features.

How Builders Can Avoid the Greenwash
Builders can also be victim to greenwashing tactics, largely on two fronts. The first concerns the burgeoning green education industry, in which courses, certifications and colleges all purporting to qualify the enrollee as a “green builder” are springing up in states across the country. Professionals in the green building field,including contractors, architects, and designers,  would do well to thoroughly investigate a certification course before investing money and time. In addition to evaluating the course curriculum, one should look at the affiliations of a self-described green certification course or college. You should ask for any endorsements they might have, says Andrea Lewis, program manager for the Sustainable Building Advisor Institute, a nonprofit green building certification program that offers a 9-month course educating building professionals on how to green-up their practices. Endorsements from known entities such as the USGBC carry a lot of weight, and potential enrollees should look to these first when exploring education options. The USGBC’s Education Provider Program is a good source of green education for building professionals, as well.

Contractors should also be diligent when selecting “green” products to use in their projects. “Third-party testing is a must,” says O’Brien. Often, the marketing representative for the company selling a product as green isn’t the best source of accurate information. Instead, the builder should consider speaking to the technical department and ask to see the material safety data sheet to explore the green qualities of the product in question. Where indoor air quality is a big component of green building, the potential toxicity of a product must be taken seriously.

Looking for a credible ecolabel is another option. Energy Star, WaterSense, and GreenGuard are just a few of the ecolabels one can look for in a product; these three labels designate a product as energy-efficient, water-efficient, or beneficial to indoor air quality, three critical ingredients in any green building system. A longer list of ecolabels can be found at, and features a growing list of tested and reviewed green products specific to the building industry.

A little education can go a long way in avoiding the greenwashing that is infiltrating the building industries. Professionals and consumers owe it to themselves, the industry, and the planet to take proper steps to keep from being a greenwashing villain or victim.

Electricity in the Modern Home

Electrical Outlet


A home’s electrical system is prone to wear and tear. Regular testing and evaluation of receptacles, switches, and breakers can prevent dangerous situations down the road.

Electrical Upgrades—GFCIs and AFCIs
There are two electrical upgrades that should be installed to protect your home: ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) and arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs). GFCIs protect against electrical shock caused by ground faults or leaking electrical current. These devices monitor the current in a circuit and interrupt or stop the flow of power to that circuit if a spike or loss of power is detected. In new construction, GFCI receptacles are required by code in bathrooms, kitchens, and garages, on outdoor outlets, and in crawl spaces or unfinished basements.

“Anywhere there is the chance of contact with water or the ground, there should be a GFCI,” says Brett Brenner, president of the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI). “It’s estimated that GFCIs accounted for roughly a 70 percent reduction in electrocutions,” he says. GFCIs are also available as circuit breakers installed in the panel, giving ground fault protection to designated circuits in the home.

Arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) protect a home against electrical fires. ACFIs protect against fire-causing arcing much like GFCI’s protect against stray current. When an arc is detected, power to the circuit is interrupted. Arcing can be caused by any number of factors, including damaged or worn wires, incorrect wiring, and loose or wet connections. Newer AFCIs are able to distinguish between dangerous arc faults and normal arcing caused by fluorescent lighting and some dimmers and switches.

“AFCI’s give great fire protection to homes with older wiring,” says Mike Holt, licensed electrician, electrical inspector, instructor, and founder of Mike Holt Enterprises, providers of educational resources to those in the electrical profession and related fields. Currently, the National Electric Code requires AFCI breakers for circuits providing power to bedrooms, living rooms, family rooms, and other common rooms in new construction. The cost for an AFCI breaker varies by manufacturer, but consumers can expect to pay around $30 to $35 apiece.

Some old homes were designed to run off less power than the modern home. Most states have a 100 amp minimum requirement. Homes running under that service could consider an upgrade to bring them to between 100 and 200 amps, which could run upwards of $2,000. Homeowners should evaluate their power demands first. “A homeowner can have an electrician test the system with an amp meter while all the big loads are on,” says Holt. “If the draw is over 75-80 percent of the service size, you might consider an upgrade. Otherwise you should be fine.”

Routine Maintenance and Testing
Both GFCIs and AFCIs come with test switches and should be tested every thirty days.  Testing a GFCI is straightforward: Press the “reset” button on the receptacle. Plug a lamp into the outlet and turn it on. The light should be on. Press the “test” button. The “reset” button should pop out and the lamp should turn off. Push the “reset” button once more; the lamp should turn back on. If the test does not work like this, the receptacle is faulty and should be inspected by a professional.

Homeowners should also make routine checks of their receptacles and switches. Loose receptacles and switches,  as well as burn marks around outlets and receptacles, should be addressed immediately. Prompt repairs are also necessary if a receptacle is glowing or hot to the touch, or if a homeowner feels a tingle or similar sensation when touching something metal inside or outside the home.

Appliance cords, extension cords, and rarely used lights, like Christmas or patio lights,should also be inspected. “If a cord is worn, or the ground is broken, throw the cord away,” insists Holt.

One indicator of a potential wiring problem is if certain lights dim or brighten intermittently and for no apparent reason. “Lighting that flickers or acts erratically is a sign,” says Holt. Lighting can experience a momentary decrease in brightness when a large load has just started, or when a cycling appliance (an iron, for instance) is in use. If this is not the cause, homeowners should seek professional help.

Avoid Electrical Hazards
Extension cords and surge protectors are two commonly misused electrical devices. Extension cords are intended for temporary use only, and must be used as rated. Holt takes an even more conservative approach, warning that “Extension cords should not be used in the home.” If you require an extension cord inside, you’re better off installing another receptacle. Also, extension cords should never be used to extend the range of a surge protector,  and surge protectors should not be linked to one another or overloaded.

The use and installation of generators has become a hot topic in the electrical community. Improper installation of a generator can lead to serious dangers in the home, to neighbors, and to utility workers addressing an outage. “Too many people are plugging their generators right into the panel without a transfer switch,” says Brenner. This can result in dangerous surges to houses on the grid, or fatal injury to workers restoring power.

Before doing any digging outside the home, homeowners should call “811.” This free national number connects the homeowner to professionals who will come to the home and mark the buried utility lines, preventing potentially fatal hazards.

Undertaking a project involving the home’s electrical system should not be taken lightly, and homeowners should hire a licensed electrician to handle maintenance or upgrades. “Working on the electrical system is a lot more dangerous than it appears,” Holt says. “Misconnecting one wire can result in death. It’s just not worth the risk.”

Easy Ways to Green Your Home

A green home can happen in small, inexpensive steps, and here's how.

Ways To Go Green


Every green-minded homeowner dreams of solar panels, high-efficiency windows and low-flush toilets. The reality check can be a discouraging one: These features, while great for the environment and money-saving over time, can come with a sobering price tag. There is good news for the determined, however. A green home can happen in small, inexpensive steps, and the homeowner won’t need a costly contractor for most of them.

Water Control
Reducing the home’s water consumption is an easy and important green step. Low-flow faucets, aerators, and showerheads are very inexpensive, easily installed and make for effective water-savers. These devices can save you money on two fronts: by lowering the water bill and lowering energy costs by reducing the amount of water that needs to be heated.

The EPA’s WaterSense program certifies and labels bathroom faucets and faucet accessories as meeting the program’s strict water-saving standards. A growing list of faucets from Delta, Moen, and Price Pfister are available for the homeowner looking to replace a water-hogging faucet with one that meets or exceeds WaterSense’s 1.5 gallon per minute (gpm) standard. Delta’s Lahara line of bathroom faucets boasts four models that carry the WaterSense label, with prices ranging from $130 to $230 per faucet set.

For a more affordable alternative, an aerator or spray flow device might be the way to go. WaterSense-certified aerators and flow regulators from NEOPERL are easily installed and can be purchased for as little as $4. Bill Davis, founder and president of Utility Savers, in St. Petersburg, Fla., insists that water-saving faucet accessories is one of the quickest devices to payback: “We have a hotel that is saving 20 million gallons of water a year just by using a water-saving aerator,” says Davis. With faucet accessories that reduce water flow to as little as 0.375 gpm, a household can experience payback in less than a month. Furthermore, the aerator is one of the easiest products to install. “It takes less than a minute,” adds Davis.

Low-flow showerheads, although slightly more expensive, are another easy way to save water and money. These products reduce a typical 2.6-gpm shower experience to 1.0 or 1.5 gpm with little or no reduction in quality and can cost under $20. They require a little more DIY know-how, but the average homeowner should find it’s a project that can be completed without help from the plumber.

For an even less expensive water-reducing shower accessory, homeowners should consider a pressure-compensating shower control valve, which works with the existing showerhead to reduce water flow to anywhere from 2.0 to 1.5 gpm. These products can be found for as little as $9.

Landscaping alterations can vastly reduce water usage, as well. “Hardy and native landscaping features can be low-maintenance and water-saving,” says Kathleen O’Brien, author of The Northwest Green Home Primer, a guide to building, remodeling, and buying green. In her Northwest region, dry spells that stretch as long as five months are common. These regional climate considerations are important when selecting lawn and garden alternatives that can survive on very little rainfall over a long-term period.

Indoor Air Quality
Indoor air quality (IAQ) has become a widely acknowledged pillar of a green home. Unlike energy and water-saving improvements, however, IAQ investments do not see a “payback” by way of reduced utility bills. In fact, some homeowners may feel hard-pressed to see any reason at all to write checks for improvements to something that can’t be seen and probably won’t impress the neighbors. But with asthma cases on the rise and increased awareness of off-gassing products and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), more consumers are considering the health (and health-cost) implications of the home’s IAQ.

The GREENGUARD Environmental Institute certifies a wide range of IAQ-related products within the home, from construction materials to furniture. Replacing a home’s entire existing insulation or flooring with GREENGUARD-certified alternatives may not be the most budget-friendly approach to greening up the home, but selecting a healthier paint can be. ECOtrend offers a line of indoor paints that is one of only a few to earn the GREENGUARD label. The ECOtrend paint is made with collagen from the inner membrane of eggs, which acts as the main binding ingredient and replaces many of the harmful VOCs and heavy metals found in other paints. “Our paint is also antibacterial and releases negative ions, which both also benefit the air quality,” says Anthony Bak, sales manager and vice president of the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company. Starting at $32 a gallon, ECOtrend’s indoor paint sits on the cheaper side of the higher-end paints but is also far less expensive than many of the competing green paints on the market, which can cost anywhere from $40 to $60 a gallon.

Inexpensive Energy Savers
Energy savings are always a focal point in a green home. Purchasing Energy Star-rated appliances is an easy step to take, but it’s not necessarily the easiest on the budget. Before a homeowner considers changes to the home’s energy-consuming devices and systems, an energy audit should be completed.

“Homeowners need to have a diagnostics done on the home,” says O’Brien. “For $500, an auditor can evaluate the whole home to determine where energy is being lost.” The Building Performance Institute (BPI) trains and certifies contractors to understand a home’s performance and interconnected systems. Through the institute’s Web site, a consumer can locate a BPI-accredited contractor by ZIP code and specialty (such as HVAC, Building Analyst, Shell/Envelope, etc.). Evaluating the home’s overall performance will help prioritize energy-saving steps and provide a plan toward longer-term improvements. “Addressing the building envelope is 50 percent of the battle,” says O’Brien. Free energy audits can be added to the growing list of incentives that many cities and towns have in place for green-minded homeowners. A call to the local utility companies will determine if a complementary examination of the home’s energy system is available.

Sealing up the home can be an easy and inexpensive energy-saving project. The Energy Star web site is a great resource and guide for locating and addressing a leaky or a drafty house. Replacing or adding insulation can be easy or hard on the wallet, depending on the type and amount of insulation, but sealing up air leaks might only require caulking or spray foam, which is certainly affordable.

Weatherstripping is another effective and fairly inexpensive energy-saving step. DIYers will require a short list of tools (hammer, utility knife, tape measure, self-adhesive foam), and the less tool-savvy can usually turn to a weatherization contractor and have the job done for a reasonable cost.

If you’re still using a mercury thermostat, make the switch to a programmable replacement. The initial $100 investment can see payback in half of a heating season and can save thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the product. The electronically challenged might seek the help of an electrician for installation, though the actual process is fairly straightforward and do-able by those with even the most basic knowledge of the home’s electrical system.

Greening up a home doesn’t happen with the snap of the fingers, but it shouldn’t require breaking the piggy bank, either. With a little time and a little money, any home can be well on its way to saving energy, water, money, and the environment.

Building a Smarter, More Efficient Window

Advancements in technology have improved heat and light control for today's homeowners.

Window Technology


Homeowners love windows — the light they bring, the views they frame, the feel they give to homes. Energy experts hate windows — the heat they bring, the heat they drain, the added energy consumption they cause. The race is on to develop the technology that will allow homeowners to place windows wherever they want without fear of skyrocketing energy costs.

Low-e Coatings
Windows have continued to improve over the years, first with insulated glass units that provided a buffer zone of air between two panes of glass to reduce the heat loss incurred by single pane units during cold weather. Improvements continued with the advent of low-e or low emissivity coatings. These microthin metallic coatings reflect heat, sending it back where it came from. Low-e coatings significantly improve the thermal quality of insulated glass units, helping homes to stay warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Adding argon or krypton gas fill between these coated panes adds to the insulative properties of the window unit.

At the high end of available window technology is spectrally selective coatings. The coatings are applied to the panes of glass to reduce heat gain by blocking selected rays from entering the home. This enhancement to low-e coated glass helps further reduce heat loss from inside and heat gain from outside. It also serves to protect furniture and fabrics within from sun bleaching. With gas-filled, spectrally selective coated glass in a well-constructed insulated glass unit, the R-value of a window can approach that of a well-insulated wall. Still, short of drawing the shades or awnings, beating sun challenges all windows and causes solar heat gain that can compromise any energy budget.

New Window Technology
Companies are now researching technologies that will allow maximum visible light to enter the home while blocking the rays that cause heat buildup within the home. Enter switchable windows that respond with a flick of the switch to darken, lighten, or almost completely block the sun from entering living space. Technology already exists to bring switchable privacy glass (SPG) to homes, but these windows don’t block heat gain or ultraviolet (UV) light penetration. SPG changes from clear to milky white when switched, which allows light to enter the interior space while the view is blocked from outside. Marvin Windows brought this technology to the residential market, but was forced to abandon it due to quality problems.

The prize will be to discover a switchable tinted window that responds to light and heat gain by absorbing rays while allowing light to penetrate. The only problem is that any such technology must clear a number of hurdles before making it to the marketplace. Many companies are in competition to develop an electrochromic or chemical window solution that can darken and lighten windows at the flick of a switch or by automatic sensor.

Building a Better Window
The key stumbling blocks are threefold: durability, thermal stability, and reliability with regard to switching. Gentex Corporation, a Zeeland, Mich., company, known for its electrochromic automobile mirrors that automatically darken and lighten to eliminate glare, is undergoing its own tests for electrochromic windows.

“We’ve made increases in durability, fairly significant ones,” says Tom Guar, Vice President of Chemical Research for Gentex. Still, the goal has to be to produce a window that can stand up for 20 years. “When you think about it, it’s a pretty tough environment,” Guar says of the stresses a window designed to absorb heat must endure. “If you think about your glass pane absorbing great amounts of light and heat, it will get very hot, maybe even crack the glass,” he says.

Add to that susceptibility to water penetration, which is a problem for all insulated glass units (IGUs), and oxygen penetration, and there’s a lot to overcome. Marvin struggled with making sure the film adhered to the glass and the seal remained undisturbed. Any future product will need to address the same issues.

Sage Electrochromics, the Faribault, Minn., makers of SageGlass, has developed an electrochromic window technology that has passed all four levels of testing by the Department of Energy. Electrochromic coatings are much like low-e coatings in that they are comprised of a series of inorganic layers applied to glass. A storage layer holds lithium to power the transition while the electrochromic layer changes from clear, to tinted, to dark. The entire reaction is set off by an electronic signal received from a switch. Sage is now seeking to partner with glass and window manufacturers to create a product that will be available to consumers for home use.

Making Window Efficiency Affordable
“I think their technology is very good,” admits Guar. Still, as he sees it, the key will be to produce a window that is affordable, reliable, and durable. The manufacturing implications are huge, he says. “Handling large sheets of glass is non-trivial,” Guar says. Covering that glass with a chemical film is even harder. “It’s not an easy thing to accomplish,” Guar says. Still, the right partnership would make the glass available to window companies who feel they could provide a dependable seal for this technology. The fact that Sage is partnering with Honeywell to provide the switching capability gives a great boost to their product.

Granted, there are technologies available that use advanced chemical solutions to address energy efficiency. Heat Mirror, from Southwall Technologies in Palo Alto, Calif., is an excellent product that was developed to insulate glass from heat loss and heat gain. Heat Mirror windows have an insulative reflective barrier that is suspended between the panes of glass. It is spectrally selective and allows visible light to enter while blocking near infrared rays that cause heat buildup. It functions like a third layer of insulation and greatly increases the R-value of walls with windows. But, while the R-value with Heat Mirror windows is exceptional, the cost for insulating windows of this caliber is very high. And they’re not switchable.

The key to winning the high-efficiency-window race, most experts agree, is the development of an affordable technology that can be mass produced and last for the lifetime of a standard window warranty.

For consumers, electrochromic technology may revolutionize window placement and home design, allowing designers to place windows on west-facing facades without sustaining the incredible burden that a beating western sun places on the air-conditioning system. It may also mean designing for the glorious morning sun that so many homes currently avoid. Better yet, since this technology is device-controlled, it can even be programmed to darken or lighten automatically so that indoor climates can be effectively controlled even when the homeowner is absent.

Smart Water: Faucets, Heaters, and Systems

Learn about devices for controlling energy-saving home water systems.

Photo: Flickr

Consumers who are thinking about conservation, convenience, and green issues alike will find an enormous range of “smart” water accessories designed to improve upon both the home’s water system and usage.

Healthy Fixtures
In 1986, the federal government severely restricted the presence of lead in pipes and solder used in residential plumbing fixtures. Many homeowners mistakenly believe that because their home was built after 1986, their plumbing and water fixtures are safe from lead issues. Not so, says Eric Goldman, president of MGS USA, an Italian stainless-steel faucet company with USA headquarters in Boca Raton, FL. “Brass faucets have lead in them, and they have soldered pieces, which contain lead.” The current limit on lead in pipes and fixtures is 8 percent, but many on the anti-lead campaign believe leaching of lead into the water poses a dangerous risk, particularly to children.

MGS markets high-end stainless steel faucets, using recycled metal and without solder or lead, with kitchen faucets in itsVela collection listed at about $1,600. For those who want better water without the high price tag, other lead-free options exist.

Both Federalloy of Bedford, OH, and EnviroBrass of Denver, CO, have been producing lead-free brass and bronze alloys for use in plumbing fixtures and faucets. Concast Metal Products of Mars, PA, started as a resource to the metal industry and a way to increase awareness of low-lead or no-lead alloys for use in plumbing fixtures and faucets. Homeowners looking for healthier drinking water should consider a low- or no-lead faucet alternative, and look for fixtures that contain lower lead levels than the maximum 8 percent.

Instant Hot or Cold Water
The water accessory market is saturated with “instant” devices. Smaller, under-the-counter hot water dispensers are proving an economical convenience for the busy kitchen, supplying instant hot water for perfectly brewed coffee or tea, easy dishwashing, quick hot cereals, and ready-to-drink baby bottles. The EverHot from Bradford White is a half-gallon under-the-sink unit that can supply 190-degree water in a flash, with a 60-cup-per-hour capacity. The 110-volt system uses less electricity than a 40-watt light bulb and costs $350 to $500, depending on additional accessories and faucet style selection.

On the flip side is the instant cold water dispenser, such as Bradford White’s EverCold, which is installed under the sink as well. The InSinkErator is an all-in-one under-the-sink product that combines an instant hot water dispenser, a water chiller and a filtration in one packaged unit. InSinkErator’s mix-and-match options allow for any number of combinations with prices that can range from $200 for the hot-water only dispenser to over $900 for the hot water, filtration, and water chiller units.

Tankless Hot Water
Whole-home tankless water heaters like Rinnai’s line of interior and exterior products save on water heating costs and can pay back on the upfront costs in a handful of years, but they can still be quite an investment. The tankless system is an alternative to the traditional hot water tanks that require constant heating — and thus, constant energy use.

Heating water can account for up to 20 percent of a home’s energy costs. In a conventional gas or electric storage tank water heater system, the water is heated to a set temperature. This temperature is maintained through periodic operation of the system, whether or not water is being used. Excessive heat loss through the walls of the tank or the system’s flue results in more frequent operation and higher costs.

Tankless systems, also called instantaneous or demand hot water systems, heat only the water that is being drawn through the system. The tankless units will vary in size and application from larger, whole-house designs to smaller, under-the-counter products used for individual bathrooms, dishwashers, or clothes washers. Systems will be rated by gallons-per-minute (gpm) of heated water, with costs as little as $200 for 1-gallon-per-minute units to over $1,000 for units that can heat as much as 5 gallons per minute.  

Drip Irrigation Systems
The hot, dry spring and summer months have home’s lawns thirsting for water. Many regions of the country face serious water conservation issues, however, which force homeowners to make tough decisions about landscaping.

One water-saving alternative is the drip irrigation system, which installs above or inches below the ground and supplies a steady, low-volume supply of water to the roots of grass, plants, and flowers. Drip irrigation systems eliminate water waste due to overwatering, surface evaporation,  and wind drift water loss associated with watering by hand or sprinkler systems. Starter drip irrigation kits can be purchased for as little as $50 and often come with the tubing, pressure regulators, and parts necessary to assemble and install a complete system. A system that can cover a entire home garden costs $200 to $600 on average.

More advanced systems can include digital timers to regulate the schedule and duration of cycles or a shut-off device that can automatically detect rain and moisture. Online retailers like DripWorks and The Drip Store offer whole kits, parts, and guides on buying and installing a drip irrigation system.

Selecting Modular Home Builders and Manufacturers

How to buy, and build, prefab

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Modular homes are constructed in a factory and assembled on site. Since modular homes are factory-built to exacting standards, it is the work of the builder to marry the component parts and complete any remaining finishes.

How to Find a Builder
The process of building a modular home starts with the builder. “Consumers are either going to look for a manufacturer, or they are going to look for a builder who deals with modular homes,” says Steve Snyder, executive director of the Modular Building Systems Association (MBSA). If they start with the house, homebuyers can scan manufacturers’ websites, look at model floor plans, and review a list of certified builders in their area.

Once a manufacturer is chosen, the road leads back to the builder. “When a buyer gets in touch with a manufacturer, he or she will be referred back to a builder in their area who has a relationship with the manufacturer,” says Snyder. The consumer then buys the modular home through the builder, not the manufacturer.

“Modular home manufacturers are suppliers of modules to a builder, much like a lumber yard supplies the site-built homebuilder with supplies,” says Thayer Long, vice president of public affairs for the National Modular Housing Council (NMHC). The builder represents the company and will be responsible for callbacks or complaints.

Some consumers wish to start with a builder who deals with modular homes. Modular home associations like the MBSA feature online resources to help consumers learn more about the product and the process, or check out a directory of builders, vendors, and suppliers. “Our site has a map of the U.S. — you can click on a state and find manufacturers who ship to and deal with builders in that state,” says Snyder.

Modular Additions
Modular additions are growing in popularity as homeowners choose to improve their present homes rather than move. “People are looking to add space to their homes,” says Andy Gianino, founder and president of The Home Store, an organization that acts as both dealer and builder of modular homes. “In-law additions are popular for aging parents who need more support, or families who need the extra help with the grandchildren.”

“Homeowners can add a modular addition to the side of their home, or they can add to the top of the home, creating a second story,” Gianino says. Adding a modular addition is like any addition to a stick-built home — permits and site preparation are required. A builder who works with modular homes should be contracted to do the work and assist the homeowner in selecting a design.

Adding a modular addition to create a second level requires an engineer to assess the strength of the first floor and determine what will need to be done to the existing structure to ensure that it will support the weight of the addition. “The engineer will tell the general contractor what will need to be done to beef up the first floor,” says Gianino.

To install a modular addition, there must be adequate access to the home. Modules are shipped on trucks and not all homes can handle a large truck on site. Modules are hoisted into place by crane, which also requires adequate space on site.

There are potential cost-saving benefits to adding a modular addition. As with all modular construction, the cost of labor is significantly less than for a site-built addition. Modular additions are fast, reducing the headaches and confusion of construction. The addition will also be ready to close in and move into much faster. “For the homeowner adding a second story, the amount of time that the home is exposed to the elements is much less with a modular addition than with a stick-built addition,” says Gianino.

Energy Efficiency and Green Building
By nature, modular homes are built tough. The added materials used to construct modules strong enough to withstand the rigors of travel from factory to building site often result in a tighter structure. This can mean a more energy-efficient home, right out of the factory. “The tighter seal of a modular home means less heat lost in the winter, and less cool air lost in the summer,” says Mike Younus, general manager of New England Homes, a modular-home manufacturer in New Hampshire.

Homeowners can often specify certain products and additions that bolster a home’s energy efficiency. Adding blown-in insulation in the attic or walls is one upgrade, as are low-emissivity windows. Homeowners interested in enhanced energy savings should choose a manufacturer who offers the option to add energy-saving materials to their modules.

Building a modular home is a green process because the modules are constructed in factories, meaning less material is wasted or discarded during the construction process. “In many factories, they use very big precision equipment to cut materials the right way the first time,” says Gianino. “Since the manufacturers are building in volume, they will find uses for all the scraps and extra materials.”

“The green building concept is starting to catch hold, and the market is starting to change,” says Younus, whose company, New England Homes, is already exploring the use of mold-resistant drywall, blue-treated lumber, and other products aimed at improving the indoor air quality of the modular home. Younus adds that consumer interest in green building and energy efficiency will determine how quickly the modular industry moves to add more energy-efficient options.

Sorting Waste After Remodeling

Remodeling Waste


Homeowners who plan to undertake a do-it-yourself job should know the difference between waste and salvageable building materials. Communities and builders are giving incentives to reduce waste and practice better recycling as first steps toward a more responsible building program. Homeowners may opt to manage the construction waste themselves or hire a professional service so that they can spend time on the remodel without worries about managing construction debris.

Recycling and Salvage
In some municipalities, recycling is no longer optional for homeowners or contractors. Portland, OR, requires sorting and recycling of materials at jobsites where the project permit exceeds $50,000. Any homeowner looking to take on a project should check into local recycling requirements before beginning the job. Materials such as rubble (which can include concrete and asphalt), corrugated cardboard, metals, and woods, are all examples of construction and demolition (C&D) waste that can and should be recycled. Local waste-management resources will provide information on what can be recycled and where to take various materials.

Salvage is an age-old, practical building tactic that reduces waste, lowers disposal costs, and can lower material costs through reuse of materials. Homeowners and contractors can shop at salvage yards for discounted materials that have been recovered from other sites. Similarly, a homeowner or contractor might choose to “deconstruct” rather than “demolish” the remodel site in order to reuse certain materials from the existing structure. Not only does salvaging of existing materials save money in purchasing costs, it will also save on disposal costs. Homeowners who hire a contractor for their remodel should inquire into salvage options to save money and reduce unnecessary dumping.

Waste Disposal
Some C&D waste materials are unusable and must be taken to the dump. DIYers should compare the costs of roll-off bin rental, waste removal, and/or dumping fees. Some hazardous wastes, including paints, toxins, lead, and asbestos, may require an additional fee or a removal specialist. At dump sites, dumping or “tipping” fees may be calculated by volume of materials or by weight of materials. The weight of waste materials is usually calculated by weighing the truck or vehicle before and after dumping. The National Association of Home Builders issued a survey result that showed average remodeling waste-removal cost at around $600 per home, which included fees for removal and disposal.

Waste Removal Contractors
Commercial contractors, residential contractors, and DIYers alike can hire a professional waste-removal company to deal with material waste at a jobsite. Depending on the company, fees may be based on volume or weight of waste. 1-800-Got-Junk is a waste-removal company that originated in Vancouver but now includes over 280 franchise partners in Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia. “We do free on-site job estimates prior to taking a job,” says Lindsay Peroff, Public Relations Manager for 1-800-Got-Junk, “and our estimates are based on volume of the junk that is to be removed.”

Waste removal companies like 1-800-Got-Junk often have financial incentives to recycle the materials that they remove from a job site, as this will reduce their dumping and disposal fees. They make frequent trips to charities, salvage yards, and recycling centers before toting the last of the load to the landfill. “Homeowners concerned with the environment like to know that the waste-removal company they are using will recycle,” adds Peroff.

Hiring a waste-removal company may also preclude the need for a roll-off bin, since the company can typically remove waste from the jobsite as it accumulates. In some urban settings, it can be challenging or impossible to set up a roll-off bin, so homeowners and contractors hire a waste-removal specialist. These companies will insist that hazardous materials be kept separate and will usually dispose of these for a fee.

Residential Sprinkler Systems

Despite the statistics, home fire sprinklers have yet to become code-mandated in new-home construction, and few homeowners who have the option choose to include this life-saving investment in their home.


Eighty percent of fire deaths occur in residences, with over 3,000 people dying per year in U.S. house fires. Despite the statistics, home fire sprinklers have yet to become code-mandated in new-home construction, and few homeowners who have the option choose to include this life-saving investment in their home.

The Case for Home Sprinklers
Common misconceptions about sprinkler systems (also called residential fire-protection systems and residential fire-suppression systems) prevent people from including one in their home. The fear of a misfiring sprinkler head and the belief that a room fire activates the entire system are two such common misconceptions.

“Hollywood movies show sprinklers going off everywhere,” says Roy Marshall, executive director of the Residential Fire Safety Institute (RFSI). “This is what people think of, and it’s unfortunate.” In truth, occurrences of misfiring sprinkler heads are extremely rare (one manufacturer claims the chances to be 1 in 16 million), and systems are designed so only the sprinkler heads directly affected by the heat of a fire become activated, not the whole system.

A residential sprinkler system will save a homeowner money in the event of a fire. When activated, a sprinkler head will spray 15 to 20 gallons per minute. “Eighty to ninety percent of fires are put out with one sprinkler head,” Marshall says. Water damage from fire suppressed by a home sprinkler system incurs an average of $2,200 in costs; water damage from a fire suppressed by a fire department adds up to an average of $45,000. “The sprinkler head will put out the fire before it grows,” says Marshall, “while the fire department may take 15 to 20 minutes to get there, and when they do they are dumping 250 gallons per minute and chopping holes in the roof to put out the fire.”

In some states, residential sprinkler systems are now required by code in new construction and certain-sized remodels.

Stand-Alone vs. Multi-Use Sprinkler Systems
There are two main types of residential sprinkler systems: stand-alone and multi-use. Although both systems rely on the home’s water supply, a stand-alone system utilizes its own piping, and may need a back-flow device. Stand-alone systems will use flexible plastic or copper tubing. If a home relies on a well for water, a storage tank and pump will be necessary to ensure an adequate water supply for the system in the event of a fire. Storage tank size may vary depending on system size, and some codes require a minimum-sized tank. Scottsdale, Ariz., for example, requires a 550-gallon minimum storage tank for residential sprinkler systems running off a well.

The water in stand-alone systems does not circulate, and might be susceptible to stagnation, depending on the piping used. “Our orange plastic tubing will not corrode or leave any sediment,” says Jack Wilkinson, vice president for Genesis Fire Protection Inc. “There is no maintenance required.”

A multi-use sprinkler system shares the home’s plumbing pipes; every time water is run anywhere in the home, fresh water moves through the pipes. This type of system ensures that in the event of a fire, non-stagnant water will be released. Multi-use systems are installed during new-home construction, and are engineered specifically for the home. Additions or remodels that seek to expand upon a multi-use sprinkler system can be quite difficult.

Residential sprinkler systems will include a flow alarm that sounds an alert when the system has been activated. An alarm bell installed on the outside of the house can alert neighbors to system activation if the homeowners are not present. Some systems can be designed to alert the local fire department in the case of activation, and others can tie into a home’s security system.

The sprinkler heads used in these systems will vary by manufacturer, but most are heat activated. Some feature a bulb filled with a special liquid that expands at a consistent rate when exposed to heat — at a designated temperature the bulb will break, activating the sprinkler head. Other sprinkler heads might have a soldered link that melts at a certain temperature. One sprinkler is usually enough to provide coverage for an average size room. Larger rooms may require two. Residential sprinkler heads come in a variety of designs that range from the commercial-looking metal spoke head to sleek, décor-friendly discs.

Installation, Retrofit, and Cost
The easiest way to install a home sprinkler system is during new construction, although retrofits are possible. Both types of systems can be stand-alone or multi-use and are usually installed by specialized installers. It is common to see contractors offering both fire safety and security installations and services. In some areas, a plumbing contractor may install the system.

Installation time will vary depending on the size and nature of the project. In a retrofit, installers might use the home’s plans or measure up the building to draw up a system plan, do an estimate, and write up a proposal for the homeowner to sign off on. Once a system is designed, a permitting process may apply. “It takes about 30 to 45 days for the permit,” says Wilkinson, who adds that a two-story, 3,000-square-foot installation might take a week to ten days to complete, depending on variables like open trusses, solid joists, attic and crawl spaces.

The cost of a home-sprinkler system will depend on a number of factors. A new-home, stand-alone installation can run anywhere from $1.00 to $1.25 per square foot, while a retrofit could cost $5 to $6 per square foot. The RFSI has its own calculation, estimating the cost of a system to be about “1 to 1.5 percent of the cost of the home,” says Marshall. Additionally, insurance companies can offer discounts to homes with fire-suppression systems. These discounts can range from 5 to 15 percent.