Author Archives: Maureen Blaney Flietner


Xeriscaping

Xeriscaping and water-friendly landscaping offer several benefits.

Xeriscaping

Photo: Flickr

New Attitude
The typical U.S. household can use 40 to 60 gallons a day on average just to water lawns and gardens. About half that amount is wasted through evaporation, wind, poorly designed watering systems, or overwatering.

A water-friendly landscape offers several benefits. Besides conserving a precious resource, it reduces the cost of that water both to the individual and to the larger community infrastructure, helps eliminate runoff pollution and erosion, and reduces yard upkeep.

Several concepts can be used as guidelines as you work with your regional challenges, site topography, scope, and budget. These ideas are called xeriscaping, or creating a landscape emphasizing plants with low water needs; natural landscaping using native plants; harvesting rainwater; and creating rain gardens.

Landscapes with Low-Water Needs
Xeriscaping (pronounced “zeer-i-skey-ping”) combines the Greek word “xeros,” which means dry, with the word landscaping. The Denver Water Department coined “xeriscape” as a way to market water-conserving landscaping. Its approach focuses on seven areas: planning and design, soil analysis and improvement, selecting proper plants, creating practical turf areas, irrigating efficiently, using mulches, and proper maintenance.

While many may associate the word with stark visions of cacti, succulents and rocks, in reality xeriscaping can mean great color and textures from drought-tolerant vines, groundcovers, grasses, perennials, and shrubs. Picture prostrate rosemary, yarrow, perennial verbena, and sedum, for examples. Vegetation is not limited to native species but can include exotics that can handle the soil types, temperatures, light, and rainfall. Contact local nurseries or extension services for best suggestions.

Xeriscaping emphasizes proper groupings of plants with similar water needs. A landscape might mix larger groups of plants that survive on local conditions or that need supplemental watering only occasionally with smaller areas that need more care.

Native Landscaping
Another route to a water-friendly landscape is with native plants, ones that have evolved in an area over thousands of years, adapting to the conditions.

Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes is a nonprofit organization that promotes the benefits of native plants. Started in 1977 in Wisconsin, the group now has chapters in 12 states. Executive Director Donna VanBuecken says the group has seen continuing membership gains. “With global warming and climate change, people have become aware that they have a responsibility to the environment,” she says. “One thing they can be easily responsible for is the environment that surrounds their home.”

Successful natural landscaping, however, is not as simple as throwing seeds on the ground, she says. The site must be prepared and all non-native species eliminated. The first three years mean pulling, tilling, and smothering non-natives, weeds, and turf grass.

Once established, though, native plants bring many benefits. According to the group, native plants do not require fertilizers, use fewer pesticides, require less water than lawns, don’t need to be mowed, provide shelter and food for wildlife, and promote biodiversity and stewardship of our natural heritage.

Rainwater Harvesting
An old idea is gaining new popularity in water-friendly landscapes. Harvesting the rain is a concept that goes back to ancient times. Today, its benefits have drawn the interest of countries, regions, states, and even custom home builders.

Stanton Homes in the Raleigh, NC, area now offers rainwater harvesting systems as a standard feature in select new homes and an option in all new homes. CEO Stan Williams says, “With current drought conditions in the Raleigh area, we want to offer solutions to homeowners interested in ways to keep gardens and lawns green. These systems are easy to use, and it’s amazing how far they can extend water usage for outdoor landscaping.”

To make this free on-site supply an effective way to handle landscape needs, homeowners need to plan for how much water could be available. The theory is that about six-tenths of a gallon will be collected per square foot of collection surface per inch of rainfall, so a 500-square-foot roof section directed to one downspout could collect about 300 gallons from an inch of rain. However, water is typically lost as rain splashes and the first collection of assorted debris is flushed out.

Calculate the square footage of the roof that drains to the downspout you plan to tap. Find your average rainfall amounts. Either size your barrel or collection tank accordingly or plan so overflow can be diverted from your building foundation. Rainwater harvesting companies offer options from single rain barrel kits to complete underground systems with pumps and irrigation lines.

Rain Gardens
Some areas of the country see feast or famine with rainfall. Rain gardens, another option for a water-friendly yard, are for the feast days.

Specifically planned at low spots in the yard, rain gardens naturally process the storm or surface water that is directed or naturally rushes there. The garden allows the water time to be taken up by flowering plants and grasses planted there as well as to soak into the soil. Correctly designed, the garden does not hold water long enough for it to become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Without a rain garden, that same water would rush away, causing erosion and carrying the pollutants it picks up along the way into public storm water systems or rivers and streams.

With their importance in controlling runoff, rain gardens have become a rallying project for several community groups. One such group, 10,000 Rain Gardens, is an initiative in Kansas City, MO, that combines the efforts of citizens, corporations, educators, non-profit organizations, and the government. Project Manager Lynn Hinkle says the “initiative has raised awareness of how each one of us can improve water quality in our community while improving the property values of our homes. Rain gardens are a beautiful way to make our city greener, cleaner and more livable.” Hinkle says hundreds of rain gardens have been built since the 10,000 Rain Gardens initiative was launched.

“Kansas City, Mo., has a goal to become recognized as one of the EPA’s greenest cities through our efforts to capture more raindrops where they fall,” says Hinkle. She says more businesses are looking at rain gardens and green roofs to help capture rain water. Schools have been the most active participants and churches have offered to hold rain garden training sessions to encourage stewardship of the earth. City government projects have begun to adopt green solutions and will measure the impact of rain gardens and bio-swales in reducing the amount of storm water runoff that contributes to flooding and pollution.

With such beautiful, practical and money-saving options available, it’s easy to make your landscape and your greater community truly green.


Geothermal Heating Systems

Heat your home sustainably with a geothermal heating system that harnesses the earth’s temperature.

Geothermal Heating

Photo: gleasongeothermal.com

Geothermal heat represents about two percent of the total heating market in the U.S., with more than 1.3 million systems installed. A geothermal system does not burn fossil fuels to create heat. It transfers heat. And that’s its charm: To transfer heat takes less energy than to produce heat.

How Geothermal Systems Work Geothermal Heating
To harness the heat stored in the earth, a geothermal system captures and converts that heat for use in the home. System components include a loop of pipe, a liquid to absorb and transfer heat, and a heat-pump unit to process the heat for use. To capture heat, liquid circulates through a pipe buried in the ground. As it circulates, it absorbs the earth’s stored heat, which remains constant at 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit 10 feet below ground level.

The heated liquid enters a heat pump unit. In this unit, the heat from the piped liquid is absorbed by a liquid refrigerant sealed in the unit. That refrigerant evaporates and is compressed, which raises its temperature to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Now a gas, the refrigerant passes through a heat exchanger where the heat is removed and pumped into the house. With the heat removed, the refrigerant cools. It returns to its liquid state and continues to circulate, continually absorbing and using the heat transferred from the earth through the piped liquid.

Efficient, Low-Maintenance Heating
Geothermal heat pumps have become quite efficient. Their heating efficiency is indicated by the coefficient of performance, or COP, the ratio of heat provided per British thermal unit (Btu) of energy input.

Energy Star-rated heat pumps have a heating COP starting at 2.8, meaning for every unit of energy used to power the system, 2.8 units of heat are supplied.

Geothermal systems are simple to maintain. A properly installed and buried loop can last nearly 50 years. The mechanicals are installed indoors and typically require only periodic checks and filter changes.

Closed-Loop Systems
Geothermal heating systems operate as either closed-loop or open-loop configurations. Determining which loop to use depends on site factors like soil composition, landscaping, and underground utilities.

A closed loop uses the liquid solution in a sealed piping loop installed horizontally or vertically underground.

Horizontal loops are used when there is enough usable land available. Pipes are installed in trenches dug about six feet deep and 100 to 600 feet long, depending on the size of the system.

Vertical loops are the only choice when there is limited space available, if the homeowner does not want landscape disturbed, or where many rocks would be encountered when digging. To install the pipe, small-diameter holes 100 to 400 feet deep are bored using well-drilling equipment. Vertical loops are connected to the house via a horizontal underground pipe. When boring for vertical loops, well-drilling codes apply.

A sealed system can also be placed at the bottom of a pond if there is a pond available on the property. Pond loops may be the most economical option because much of the excavation cost can be eliminated.

Open-Loop Systems
An open-loop system uses the heat from well water rather than heat from the earth. Groundwater, which also remains at a relatively constant temperature year-round, is carried into the heat pump unit and the heat is extracted in a method similar to the closed-loop system.

The water does not circulate but makes one pass and is eliminated. It might be released into a ditch, drainage tiles, or a pond. It might also be returned to the water table through a return well drilled into the ground. With concerns about declining and polluted aquifers, however, it’s important to check local conditions and codes before deciding on this type of system.

Costs and Payback
Initial installation and equipment costs for geothermal heat pumps vary with the maturity of the local market, type and size of the system, and the site. There is no doubt that the system will cost more at the start than a conventional fossil-fuel furnace.

If a home does not have ductwork, a homeowner may need to add that into the cost. However, a small home that uses baseboard heat may be able to forego duct installation.

Rough estimates put a geothermal ground-source system at $1,000 to $2,500 per ton of capacity. A ton of capacity, according to the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Management Program, translates to 12,000 Btu per hour. In heating climates, it is estimated that a ton of capacity is needed for every 550 square feet.

The cost appeal of geothermal heat is in the operating payback. The system delivers more energy per unit consumed than conventional systems, up to 400 percent efficiency compared with 75 to 90 percent efficiency for fossil-fuel furnaces.

According to Jim Bose, executive director of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, OK, an existing home with an older furnace could expect an efficiency improvement of around 50 percent by switching to geothermal. A new home with the best fossil-fuel furnace would expect an improvement of 30 percent.

Get the Most from Your Geothermal System
Don’t expect a new system to solve your heating problems unless you reduce your heating load. Seal all leaks. Check to be sure the weather stripping is in good shape and the duct system is not leaking. Eliminate drafts. Consider having a heat loss/heat gain/leakage evaluation done of the home.

Find a company that is certified, with people trained specifically in geothermal technology, and get more than bid. Ask for references and call those homeowners. Ask to see installations the company has completed.

Discuss the benefits of a hybrid system. A ground-source heat pump can be added to an existing forced-air furnace and use its blower. Dual-source heat pumps are less costly to install and more efficient than the air-source unit alone. Ask about variable-speed blowers and multi-speed compressors on the system to improve comfort and efficiency.

Consider the system’s ability to produce hot water. A device called a “desuperheater” can supplement the production of domestic hot water by using the excess heat when the system is operating. For those who want the system to provide for all hot water needs, there are some full-demand systems offered that use a separate unit for domestic hot-water use.


Green Home—Flooring

Flooring products have benefited from green technologies that serve the consumer as well as the planet.

Green Flooring

Photo: dehocorkfl.com

The interest in environmentally friendly floors is growing as people learn about deforestation, air quality, growing landfills, and other issues. Whether you’re a core green consumer, interested in health issues, or just looking for great products at a good price, homeowners can discover many eco-friendly flooring possibilities.

Issues of Concern
Many factors figure into the idea of green flooring. Those looking at hardwood or engineered wood floors have at least two concerns. “First, there is an increasing awareness today of the destruction of the world’s forests,” says Lewis Buchner, CEO of EcoTimber in San Rafael, CA. “Forests hold the vast majority of Earth’s plant and animal life. The destruction of forests is the second-largest cause of carbon emissions worldwide—more than all cars, trucks, boats and planes combined. People want to do the right thing and don’t want their flooring decision to add to this destruction.

“There’s also the issue of indoor air quality. Remember the fiasco surrounding formaldehyde emissions in the FEMA trailers housing victims of Hurricane Katrina? Most of those emissions came from the adhesives used to bind wood products together. These adhesives are also found in many engineered wood flooring products,” says Buchner. EcoTimber offers domestic and exotic hardwood and bamboo flooring, including prefinished engineered and floating floors with no volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde-free adhesives.

The growing amount of waste going to landfills is another concern. Shaw Industries is one such eco-friendly company. Keeping carpet out of landfills is a key part of its Green Edge program. Public Relations and Media Relations Specialist Mollie J. Allen says the company’s Evergreen facility in Augusta, GA, recycles Type 6 nylon (N6) carpets and rugs, the ones typically found in American households. The facility breaks down carpets to the raw N6 nylon and remanufactures it into new fiber that can be used over and over without loss of beauty or durability. Since it opened in February 2007, the Evergreen facility has recycled more than 87 million pounds of post-consumer N6 carpet. Visit Shaw Environmental or call 800-434-9887 to locate a designated collection site.

Shaw also has introduced Epic® hardwood which uses up to 67 percent recycled content. Epic’s dense inner layer, EnviroCore®, is composed of wood fiber created in the manufacture of other products, especially sawmill by-products that would otherwise be burned or put into landfills.

Mohawk Industries has a different kind of recycling in its business operations. Mohawk’s everSTRAND® carpet fiber is made using PET (polyethylene terephthalate) extruded from recycled plastic bottles. The company uses about 25 percent of the country’s recycled PET plastic drinking bottles—more than 17 billion since 1999. PET bottles are sorted, ground up, cleaned, melted, extruded into fiber, and spun into carpet yarn. Even the bottle cap and label are used, making the cores around which the carpet is wrapped.


Green Homes—Windows

Windows affect comfort, health, and energy bills. New green windows perform better than ever before.

Photo: elitelifestylesunrooms.com

Today’s advanced materials, better science, and new manufacturing processes make for high-performance window units. Those building new or wanting to replace inefficient windows with improved units have a lot of information to digest.

Window Components
A window’s performance is determined by three parts: the glazing, the sash and the spacer system. Measuring performance means looking at such factors as how the window conducts heat and transmits light. Follow a few simple steps to increase your windows’ energy efficiency.

1. Look for an Energy Star label
Energy Star is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. Its label confirms a window’s energy efficiency based on its impact on heat gain and loss in cold weather and heat gain in warm weather for a given climate zone. The labels pertain to four climate zones: Northern,mostly heating; North/Central, heating and cooling; South/Central, cooling and heating; and Southern, mostly cooling.

2. Review the label from the National Fenestration Ratings Council (NFRC)
The NFRC is an independent organization that rates and certifies energy performance in all windows. Its label lists several performance rankings. Understanding the ratings is key to making the right choice.  While some rating scores are clearly beneficial, others have to be interpreted to your specific needs.

  • U-factor. This measures how a window conducts non-solar heat flow. Ratings usually fall between 0.20 and 1.20. The lower the value, the greater the energy efficiency.
  • Solar Heat Gain Coefficient or SHGC. This measures how much solar heat gain is admitted through a window and then released as heat into a home. The lower the SHGC, the less solar heat it transmits.
  • Visible Transmittance or VT. This measures how much visible light comes through a window. Expressed as a number between 0 and 1, the higher the VT, the more light transmitted.
  • Light-to-solar gain or LSG. This rating, not always provided, is the ratio between the SHGC and VT. It gauges the relative efficiency of different glass or glazing types in transmitting daylight while blocking heat gains. The higher the number, the more light is transmitted without adding excessive heat.
  • Air Leakage. This rating is optional so you may not find it on some products. The lower the number, the tighter the window and the less air that will pass through cracks in the assembly.
  • Condensation Resistance. Another optional rating, it measures the ability of a product to resist the formation of condensation on its interior surface. Shown as a number between 0 and 100, the higher the CR, the better the product at resisting condensation formation. 

NFRC‘s chief executive officer, Jim Benney, says, “It is important for consumers to understand the impact that windows have on their energy bills. By choosing the right windows for their climate, homeowners can save more than 30 percent on their annual energy costs.”

“The two most important measurements are the U-factor, which indicates the rate of heat lost through a window, and solar heat gain coefficient, which measures how well a product blocks heat caused by sunlight,” Benney says. For example, he says dual-paned windows with low-e coatings are typically 20 to 25 percent better than uncoated dual-pane windows. Using gas-filling and warm edge spacers (low-conductance spacers to reduce heat transfer near the edge of insulated glazing) along with the top-of-the-line low-e coatings can reduce U-factors to 0.30, a 40 percent improvement.

Benney says that today’s window frame materials that are more energy-efficient and low-maintenance include fiberglass, wood/fiberglass composite, other wood composites, vinyl windows, and vinyl and aluminum cladding, as well as thermally broken aluminum.

3. Visit the Efficient Windows Collaborative (EWC) website
Check out the EWC web site, developed by DOE’s Windows and Glazing Program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research. The EWC is a coalition of manufacturers, research organizations, government agencies, and others interested in expanding the market for high-efficiency fenestration products.

Fact sheets provide details about different classes of windows for hundreds of locations across the country. A Window Selection Tool allows you to compare costs for a typical house by window type, city and more.

4. Download a simulation program
Get more information about window efficiency by downloading a simulation tool from the Berkeley Lab. While it does operate with some presumptions, you can personalize it with such factors as housing type, location, orientation, utility costs and characteristics of the windows you are considering. The software calculates approximate energy use and costs to help you compare windows.

5. Check with the American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA) and Window and Door Manufacturers Association (WDMA) 
While Energy Star and NFRC labels look at energy efficiency, two other labels look at window performance. The American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA) and the Window and Door Manufacturers Association (WDMA) each offer a window product line certification process. Their programs are based on their harmonized standards and those of the Canadian Standards Association.

The WDMA’s Hallmark Certification Program and the AAMA Gold Label Certification Program certify that a sample of that product met performance standards for air and water infiltration at the specified pressures, structural integrity and resistance to forced entry. Directories of certified products are available on their web sites.

WDMA Vice President of Technical Services Jeff Lowinski says that at times energy efficiency and strength are trade-offs. “The more air tightness in a window, the harder they might be to open,” he says. “Increasing the strength of a framing unit tends to make them more energy conductive.” He says consumers need to realize that whatever windows they choose, they must still comply with state and local codes.

Proper Design
Placement and size figure into how much benefit you will get from your windows. It’s important to properly position them to let in enough daylight to reduce the need for artificial lighting, yet it’s vital to recognize the needs of the various rooms and the local climate. Energy Star, for example, suggests the cardinal directions—north, south, east and west—be considered in locating windows rather than how their placement will affect your home’s street-side appearance.

A U.S. Green Building Council spokeswoman, Jennifer Easton, says glazing techniques should be balanced with size and layout. “The tendency to ‘over-glaze’ with large windows, especially in kitchens, may increase a room’s energy load,” she says. “Kitchen windows have different protocols than bathroom and bedroom windows, for example. Kitchen windows tend to be expansive and with little curtain cover, so energy performance is a priority.”

Bathroom windows should seal out moisture—a challenging task considering the moisture generated from daily shower regimes,” she adds. “Windows in wet bathroom areas, such as the tub or shower surrounds, are problem areas. Sills in these windows should be pan-flashed/sealed as if they were exterior sills. Two people taking one shower each day for 8 minutes is equivalent to approximately 1,000 inches of driving rain per year!”

The USGBC’s REGREEN handbook, she says, notes that “if different glazings are used on different orientations, as many green designers recommend, the optimal solar heat gain coefficient may be higher for south-facing windows, particularly in more northern climates. Many green designers also recommend selecting even higher-performance windows with triple glazing and two low-emissivity coatings in northern climates, in which case the U-factor could be as low as 0.20. Visual transmittance (VT) numbers should always be as high as possible.”


Green Homes—Window Treatments

Choose recycled and socially responsible materials to control light.

Photo: excitingwindows.com

From awnings, blinds and draperies to overhangs, shades and shutters, consumers have many options for window treatments. Careful selection can bring sound environmental benefits.

Reasons for Window Treatments
Window treatments are more than just decoration. Many are purposeful, says Bernadette Upton of EcoDecor in North Palm Beach, FL. Upton, who is a licensed interior designer, lecturer, and consultant specializing in environmental interior design, says the insulation and privacy factors of traverse draperies are the main reasons so many hotels use draperies for window treatments. In winter, they insulate against extremely cold temperatures, and in summer, they keep the high heat temperatures controlled.

Window treatments also serve to control light coming through windows or skylights. That light can cause: direct or reflected glare on television and computer screens, some fabrics and artwork to fade, and thermal discomfort, says Professor Russ Leslie, associate director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, and a practicing architect. “These problems are magnified when direct sunlight enters the room,” he says.

Leslie notes in The Lighting Pattern Book for Homes, a book he co-authored, that daylight sources to keep in mind are the direct sun; the sky, which can diffuse the sun’s light; and surfaces surrounding a building that can reflect sun or skylight into the home.

The U.S. Department of Energy suggests that window treatments offer a variety of benefits:

  • Window awnings. They can reduce solar heat gain in the summer by up to 65 percent on south-facing windows and 77 percent on west-facing windows. Light-colored awnings reflect more sunlight.
  • Window blinds. Whether they’re the vertical or horizontal slat-type, they are more effective at reducing summer heat gain than winter heat loss.
  • Window shades. Properly installed window shades can be one of the simplest and most effective options for saving energy. For greater efficiency, consider dual shades that are white on one side and heat-absorbing dark on the other side. Keep the reflective side always facing the warmer side: outward in cooling season and inward in heating season.
  • Draperies. Their ability to reduce heat loss and gain depends on fabric type and color. For example, the University of Florida found that medium-colored draperies with white-plastic backings reduced heat gains by 33 percent.
  • High-reflectivity window films. They can help block summer heat gain but their effectiveness depends on several factors, including size of window glazing area and window and home orientation.
  • Window overhangs. They can shade south-facing windows from summer heat and allow sunlight and warmth in during winter. Construction and orientation must consider such factors as latitude, climate, and window size and type.

Green Factors
Window treatments can offer many environmentally friendly attributes. They might enhance energy efficiency or be crafted of renewable or recycled materials; be created in manufacturing processes that reduce waste and re-use materials; originate from locally sourced materials to reduce transportation issues; or be created of healthy and safe materials with few or no chemicals and no volatile organic compounds.

Regardless of the green features, avoid “greenwashing” and look for certifications or other proof. (For more information, see the article Greenwashing.)

Victoria Schomer, of Green Built Environments in Asheville, NC, suggests also looking at design and usability. She says that certain window treatments, especially horizontal ones, can be huge dust collectors, a problem for indoor air quality. Look for window treatments that can be easily wiped off, vacuumed clean, or taken down and sent to a green dry cleaner. Be aware that those window treatments that feature stain and wrinkle resistance may mean the material contains chemicals that can affect indoor air quality.

Schomer says window treatments need to be positioned so that they do not cover HVAC vents. Blocked vents will suppress heating and cooling functions. While better-insulated shades, for example, can keep a home cooler on hot days or warmer on cold days, they do necessitate having to open and close them at appropriate times to get the benefits.

Assessing Your Needs
Upton suggests that window treatments may be the one place in home decorating that homeowners, even do-it-yourselfers, need to consult an interior designer or a window professional that specializes in green window treatments.

“There is much more to it than it seems, and there are many factors that need to be considered in addressing all facets of optimizing window treatments for energy, sun control, thermal comfort, privacy, etc.,” she says. Upton says those factors include:

  • Knowing what function you want the window treatment to serve.
  • Addressing the function first, then proceeding with appropriate decoration considering local materials, workrooms and installers.
  • Selecting materials that are sustainable, which can include recycled and recyclable content, and selecting paints and finishes free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to optimize indoor air quality.

Always look first to products that are manufactured locally, says Upton. “From an environmental stewardship perspective, it saves energy and it supports the local economy,” she says. “When we’re looking for the actual materials, locally harvested products such as wood should be the incentive, especially if the forest that the wood comes from is practicing certified forestry. Renewable resources are encouraged while rapidly renewable resources are encouraged even more.”

Marketplace Availability
Window treatments that keep green in mind are available from a growing number of companies. 3M, based in St. Paul, MN, for example, offers window film products that block 99 percent of the Sun’s ultraviolet rays, the primary cause of fading and sun damage. They are available through its authorized window film dealers. Its Sun Control Film also reduces glare and improves comfort, reflecting up to 78 percent of the Sun’s heat that comes through the window. For those in hot climates, that reduced heat gain can mean saving on air conditioning costs.

Another 3M product line, the Prestige Series, is a change from traditional films. It is transparent, has low reflectivity. and features superior heat rejection. Its no-metal technology avoids any tendency to corrode in coastal environments or to interfere with wireless devices. Because it is not dark or shiny, it does not change the interior or exterior appearances of your home.

Hartmann & Forbes of Portland, OR, whose handcrafted window coverings are available through interior designers, aggressively cultivates its environmental policies and procedures. Its roman shades and draperies are made from natural materials, including grasses, reeds and bamboo. Its ColourWeave Collection is handpainted using paints designed to exceed LEED environmental standards for VOCs.

Under the company’s environmental program Project Green®, Hartmann & Forbes has worked with eco-experts, including the University of Oregon’s Sustainability Management Department, to help the company minimize its environmental impact across the business.

Though not a manufacturer, Budget Blinds has a vendor network for its more than 1,000 franchise territories across the United States and Canada. It polled its Vendor Alliance and found several good choices for eco-conscious customers. Suzi Carragher, director of corporate communications, notes that the company does verify vendor claims against listings on Web sites of certifying bodies.

The company reports that products from its private label, Signature Series®, are certified by Green Built Home, a Wisconsin-based organization. That program reviews and certifies products that meet one or more requirements such as being Energy Star certified, Certified Organic, or certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Carragher says the manufacturer has instituted programs that have resulted in reclaiming 90 million gallons of water annually and recycling 75 percent of its overall waste, which has diverted 43 million pounds of waste from the landfill to recyclers over a decade.


Green Homes—Water-Efficient Plumbing Fixtures

Save water and energy by investing in WaterSense certified low-flow toilets and faucets.

Water Saving Faucets, Water Saving Toilets

Photo: allianceforwaterefficiency.org

Efficient Products
Managing the country’s water supply is a rising concern, yet many Americans are unaware of how much water they waste. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that each person uses about 80 to 100 gallons of water per day and a lot of it goes down the toilet.

One program raising awareness is the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program created in 2006. The voluntary partnership encourages consumer demand for water-efficient products and services, similar to the way the Energy Star program has created energy-saving awareness. So far, WaterSense has qualified products in two categories—toilets, and bathroom faucets and faucet accessories. The products have started to appear on store shelves with more available online or by special order. In addition, the marketplace offers options, such as waterless urinals.

Toilets
The first category targeted by WaterSense was toilets, the greatest home water consumer. The thought of more “low-flow” toilets may, at first, turn away homeowners. Some early attempts before WaterSense performed poorly as they tried to achieve the federal law of not exceeding 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf). One of their problems was requiring repeat flushes to remove waste.

But WaterSense specifications require both high efficiency and high performance. With new technology and design modifications, more than 60 toilets have earned the WaterSense label. They were independently tested and certified to perform as well as or better than their market counterparts while using an average of 20 percent less water per flush than the industry standard of 1.6 gallons. For those homes still using old toilets with 3.5- and 5-gallon flushes, the savings percentages are even greater.

These toilets accomplish the task using several methods: single flush gravity fed; pressure assist using a tank storage device or water line pressure; power assist using a small pump to force water at a higher velocity; and dual-flush gravity fed.

Kohler’s gravity-fed Persuade® toilet is one example that offers the dual-flush technology. Using a two-button actuator integrated into the top of the tank lid, the user can flush either 1.6 gallons or half that amount, 0.8 gallons, depending on need. According to Kohler, the latter flush option, if used routinely to remove light or liquid waste, could save a household of four between 2,000 and 5,000 gallons of water per year versus standard models. The Persuade features a skirted toilet bowl, which the company notes as significantly more hygienic than other models, and eliminates potential debris buildup around the trapway and bowl-tank connection.

Waterless Urinals
Another way to cut bathroom water use is something not readily considered for a residential setting. However, interest in waterless urinals at home is rising, says Klaus Reichardt, president of Waterless Co. Requests are coming from families with several boys at home, those concerned about water conservation and water and sewer costs, and from builders of large spec homes with his and her bathrooms.

The product does work in retrofits if there is enough space in the bathroom, says Reichardt. Often there is room enough, about two feet, for a urinal between the sink and toilet. The plumber only needs to open up the wall to provide a line to the drain line. There is no need for a water line.

The system is simple. The trap is filled with a liquid sealant that prevents sewer gas and odors from escaping the plumbing below. Urine is temporarily stored in the trap. As it accumulates, it overflows into the drain pipe.

On the assumption that a male resident might use the urinal three times a day, the water savings is more than 1,700 gallons a year, says Reichardt. In addition, products such as the Del Casa No-Flush® Urinal by Waterless are available in a variety of colors, including granite for a high-end look.

Bathroom Sink Faucets
It is estimated that there are 222 million residential bathroom faucets in the country and about 17 million new bathroom sink faucets sold each year for new homes or as replacements. The faucets, depending on age, operate at various flow rates. In homes with pre-1992 bathroom faucets, the water may come pouring out at from three to seven gpm. A faucet from between 1992 and 1998 may flow at 2.5 gpm. In 1998, new bathroom faucets had to meet the 2.2 gpm at 60 psi standard.


Green Homes—Sealing & Insulation

Opt for eco-friendly products to reduce drafts, save energy, and keep you and mother earth smiling.

Photo: newswatch.nationalgeographic.com

When your thoughts turn to energy efficiency and comfort, you may start thinking about new windows, a furnace, or an air conditioner. Experts suggest you take a step back. According to Energy Star, a national program from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, your most cost-effective move would be to first seal and insulate your home properly.

Assess the Problem
Start with a home energy audit, which can run from $200 to $400. While some homeowners may prefer to seek out leaks themselves, having a skilled set of eyes is almost more valuable than the specialized tests a professional auditor can perform.

Doug Maas, owner of A Closer Look Homes Inspections Inc. in Hortonville, WI, has audited hundreds of homes as a certified consultant under Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy program. He says each home has its unique problems. However, typically an audit might reveal homes that are leaky because energy conservation was not part of the construction process when fuel was cheaper. An audit might uncover a leaky home because improvement projects were incorrectly handled. Also, many homes were just not built to be as efficient as possible.

For Maas, a typical audit includes a blower door test, use of an infrared camera, a check for proper venting of combustion units such as a furnace or water heater, and inspection of insulation. His investigation also covers those areas that experience has taught him are likely to be typical air leak sites such as electrical outlets and where utility lines penetrate the house.

The blower door test involves a fan and measuring device in a doorway framework. The setup depressurizes the house and measures, in cubic feet per minute, the outside air drawn in through unsealed cracks and crevices.

An infrared camera reveals dark areas that identify where cold is penetrating the home envelope—typically basement walls and attic hatches, among other areas.

After homes have been sealed and insulated, an audit can also check to make sure mechanical equipment is venting properly. First the home is depressurized to a particular level by turning on all exhaust fans and shutting all doors and windows. Then a monitor is used to detect whether deadly carbon monoxide gas is being pulled into the home through any chimney backdrafts.

Follow Audit Advice
An auditor will list areas for potential improvements. Many homeowners can tackle the caulking, foaming and weatherstripping. However, depending on improvements needed, they may want to hire professionals for the insulation.

Sites to air seal are typically on the inside and will stop not only air infiltration but indoor humidity from getting into walls. Exterior sealing is more for keeping rain out of the walls than air leakage. Audit suggestions will be specific to your home. For example, one recent audit of an old home suggested that the owner seal: joints between outlet boxes and drywall; exterior wall penetrations such as the gas line, electrical entrance and dryer vents; and penetrations into the attic such as electrical boxes, wire and plumbing chases. Weatherstripping is suggested for attic hatches and doors.

An auditor will point out areas where insulation has been inappropriately installed or is insufficient. Getting the proper amounts in the right places will block heat loss in winter and heat gain in summer and keep a home envelope healthier. That same audit suggested that owners insulate an attic to an R-value of 40 to 44 with blown-in cellulose or fiberglass, secure rigid foam to the attic side of all attic hatches and insulate side wall cavities where infrared images revealed blown-in product had settled.

Air Leaks: What’s Your Number?
If you’re one of those homeowners who wants to get an idea of where you stand before hiring an auditor, the U.S. Department of Energy suggests this approach:

  • Pick a cool, very windy day.
  • Turn off your furnace.
  • Shut all windows and doors.
  • Turn on all exhaust fans that blow air outside, such as bathroom fans, to depressurize your home.
  • Light an incense stick.
  • Pass it around the edges of common leaks such as recessed lights, attic hatches, mail chutes, door frames, electrical outlets and switches.
  • Watch the smoke trail. If it is sucked out of or blown into the room, there’s an air leak that may need caulking, sealing, or weatherstripping.

Here’s a rough rating of air “leakiness” for homes and typical amounts seen in the experiences of Maas. CFM numbers will vary greatly depending on the square footage of the home, he says.

CFM Ratings

  • 500 cfm or less—Excellent
  • 500-1000 cfm—Good
  • 1000-1500 cfm—Fair
  • 1500 or more cfm—Poor

Typical CFM data

  • An old farmhouse: 4500 to 6500 cfm
  • A three-bedroom ranch built in the 1980s: 1800-3500 cfm
  • Average home today by builder not aiming for energy efficiency: 1500 cfm or more
  • Homes built today for energy efficiency: less than 500 cfm

Green Homes—Online Planning Tools

Homeowners have access to a growing variety of interactive green tools, on websites of government agencies, organizations, and businesses, that can be used to estimate potential financial and environmental returns.

Photo: energy.gov

What ifs” can be a great way to get the ball rolling on home energy-efficiency projects: What if you added more insulation? What if solar thermal heated your water? What if your old refrigerator was replaced with a more energy-efficient one?

Now homeowners have access to a growing variety of interactive green tools, on websites of government agencies, organizations, and businesses, that can be used to estimate potential financial and environmental returns. The tools cover many areas and their results include tips and resources. Before you log on, gather basic information about your home, including:

  • Electricity and fuel usage. Utility companies should be able to provide you with the amount of fuel (oil, natural gas, or propane) that you used last year, as well as the number of kilowatt-hours (kWh) you used either by the month or the year. Note the price that you pay per kWh.
  • Square footage.  Measure the length and width of your house. For example, a two-story house with an unconditioned basement might be 25 feet wide and 40 feet long. Multiply those numbers to get one floor’s square footage (25 x 40 = 1,000). Multiply that number by the number of floors of conditioned space (1,000 x 2 = 2,000) to get an approximate figure.
  • Appliance information.  Check your water heater, refrigerator, stove, clothes washer and dryer for such information as age, estimated amount of energy consumed, size, brand name, model number and any variable settings such as temperature on the water heater.
  • Window details.  If you purchased your present windows, look up the paperwork. Note their age and frame composition and whether they are double pane or have low-E argon gas. Count how many windows you have, get their approximate sizes, and note which directions they face.

The Home Energy Saver
Get a good start on what you can do to save money by using the Home Energy Saver, provided by the U.S. Department of Energy. The Home Energy Saver was the first Internet-based tool for calculating residential energy use. Nearly a million people visit the site each year; 90 percent of them are homeowners and renters.

Enter your ZIP code and general estimates of potential energy use and savings opportunities immediately pop up. Enter more details and click the calculator. A summary outlines areas that could need improvements and possible savings you might see. You can vary the energy-efficiency assumptions and retrofit costs as well and recalculate the table. The final detailed report is a good starting point for gathering specific costs and savings for your market.

Energy-Efficient Rehab Advisor
This tool, which also links to the Home Energy Saver, was developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help improve energy efficiency during rehab and renovation. Brian Sullivan, HUD supervisor for public affairs, says the tool can be used as a “blunt instrument to help determine cost savings” on home improvement projects. Sullivan noted that prices will vary anyway, depending on where people live.

The Advisor first asks for basics and lets you select a project. Choose “Whole House,” for instance, and it provides informative measures that would fit many homes of that age and type in your region. At the bottom of the page, there are links to other earth-friendly improvement tasks and other resources.

Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick
This yardstick will estimate the energy efficiency of your home. Enter basic information, including your utility bills for the year. In seconds, a quick efficiency ranking compares your home with homes similar to yours. It can be a real eye-opener and project motivator if your home is among the less efficient.

The yardstick’s quick summary also provides suggested energy-efficiency and savings targets and includes advice for how to obtain them. The various tips, such as “heat and cool efficiently” or “seal up your home,” then link to more detailed information. The site can help you understand your home’s possible problems and what you might consider to correct them—and save yourself money.

Personal Sustainability Calculator
Score your current level of personal sustainability with Greenprint, an interactive online tool that helps you identify and prioritize practical options for improving sustainability at home, at work, and in your vehicle. Johnson Controls, a global leader in automotive experience, building efficiency, and power solutions, partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council to launch this tool.

After you sign in with your gender, age, ZIP code or country, Greenprint challenges you to commit to new energy-efficient or sustainable behaviors. Data collected will be tracked to observe trends and to better understand how to accelerate change.

Solar Calculator
If one of your “What ifs” involves a form of renewable energy, this is one of the more user-friendly sites.

Thinking about PV panels for your home? After entering some information, a guide pops up listing incentives available, a system size range to handle part or all of your needs, and possible costs and benefits. The summary can link you with solar pros in your area who can do an actual site assessment to obtain a precise cost- benefit analysis.

The site’s calculations rely on solar radiation data by ZIP code from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Utility Calculator
Your utility’s website may be a good place to check for eco-friendly online tools. For example,Wisconsin Public Service (WPS), a natural gas and electric utility serving parts of Wisconsin and Michigan, provides both cost and savings calculators online for its customers.

The site’s savings calculators look at approximate energy usage and costs of refrigerators, heating systems, clothes washers and dryers, central and room air conditioners and offer advice about resources, costs, and energy savings of replacements. You can determine potential savings, addjust your online thermostat to see how you can cool that outflow in utility payments, and look at what money could be saved by installing energy-efficient light bulbs.


Green Homes—Lighting

Use less energy and create a healthier environment

Skylights

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Light from the Start
Today’s residential lighting considerations go beyond decorative fixtures. Lighting influences our general well-being. It plays a role in our energy use and the greater U.S. demand for energy and its implications, and our choices may cause light pollution or add toxins to the environment. Lighting planning even includes control and maintenance decisions.

Getting the best light starts in the design. Locating and designing a project properly can take advantage of free natural daylight, increase its impact throughout a home and reduce any potential for glare. Skylights, solar tubes, translucent room partitions and glass block walls or even varied interior wall heights can be ways to bring in the light.

Windows with high-performance glazing can make the most of daylight and great outdoor views but need to be appropriately placed. “Window area and orientation are important factors,” says Jay Hall, acting director of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes program, which is a rating system that promotes the design and construction of high-performance green homes. “The goal is to have large enough windows to let in sunlight without affecting the heating or cooling load. Proper orientation with overhangs or roofs can allow in plenty of light in winter while controlling the light in summer.”

Good planning also includes minimizing light coming from a home or property, according to the Lighting Research Center, a research and education organization devoted to lighting at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY. Low-reflecting surfaces and downward-directed lights are among ways to reduce the glow that ruins access to the night sky, light trespass on neighboring properties, and glare affecting passersby.

To keep occupants comfortable and safe, plan easy control over general, task, and accent lighting with accessible switches and outlets and adjustable-height fixtures. Make life easier as you age by shielding light sources, reducing glare, and providing greater contrast between transitional areas in your home.

Light Sources

Lighting Fixtures

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The lighting marketplace is evolving. When making your lighting choices, match your light source with fixtures that will ensure they perform properly and for a long time. Determine the light level, uniformity, and distribution of light, as well as the color of light you want. Figure in ease of replacement, both in actual physical access and market availability. Here are some options.

Incandescent lamp. Our major source of electric-powered light for more than a hundred years, it is basically a glass bulb filled with an inert gas that has a wire filament. Electric current is sent through the filament, which produces a high heat and some visible light. An incandescent’s typical life is 750 to 1,000 hours, however, it is inexpensive to buy. Under the 2008 Energy Bill, the inefficient incandescent will disappear by 2014.

Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL). This light has an electronic or magnetic ballast and a tube coated on the inside with white phosphor and filled with gas, including mercury vapor. Electricity flows through the gas, producing ultraviolet light that excites the coating, which then emits visible light. Some, but not all, CFLs are Energy Star-rated, meaning that they are supposed to meet government standards. The major benefits of an Energy Star-rated CFL include using about 75 percent less energy than a standard incandescent and lasting up to 10 times longer, meaning a savings up to $35 in energy bills over its extended lifetime. Among downsides: its mercury content and need for proper disposal, some may not work with dimmer or three-way switches, they should not be used in colder or hotter temperatures than manufacturers’ range and may burn out prematurely if turned on and off frequently. Most CFLs are being manufactured overseas, especially in China.

Solid-state lighting such as Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). According to the Lighting Research Center’s program manager and adjunct professor Patricia Rizzo, LEDs are semiconductors—materials that fall between those able to conduct (like metals) or insulate (like wood and rubber) electricity—and they have remarkable properties. They can act as conductors or as insulators; work at room temperature, at low voltage or with direct current; and can turn on and off almost instantly. While LEDs share all these characteristics with other semiconductors, Rizzo says, the difference is that, based on the materials used to make the semiconducting “crystal,” a byproduct is light. Among LED benefits are a long life of 50,000 hours or more, low voltage, and durability. Among their downsides are high initial cost and not being available for all general lighting needs.

Improved Lighting Efficiency

CFL Lightbulb

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Rizzo and her colleague, Jean Paul Freyssinier-Nova, lighting research specialist and research assistant professor, say there are several ways to improve home lighting efficiency. Among them:

  • Use CFLs where appropriate, such as table and floor lamps. Select CCTs, correlated color temperatures of 2700 to 3500 kelvins, depending on preference for how warm or cool light source should appear.
  • Indirect lighting such as linear fluorescents will maximize room surfaces as extensions of light source, soften shadows, reduce glare, and create impressions of brighter spaces. It’s also a good technique to conceal light sources so just the effect of the light is appreciated.
  • Dimmers on all incandescents will increase their life significantly and create atmosphere.
  • Use occupancy, or vacancy, sensors wherever they make sense, such as in kids’ bedrooms, laundry rooms, bathrooms, closets, basements, and garages.

Rizzo said the LRC has been cautious in recommending LED products up until now, but there are better products hitting the market. “In the area of downlights, undercabinet lights and cove lighting, we can safely say that certain LED products perform well and are becoming easier to install,” she says. “Heat sinks are integrated into the fixture design, and they can be plugged in or hardwired to run on 120 volts rather than requiring a driver to run on 12 volts.” She suggests viewing products to determine light warmth or coolness.

So, what light to choose? Each light source has its own characteristics and serves a specific function. “We still use the candle for mood and atmosphere,” says Rizzo. “For example, if you want to accent a piece of artwork, you will not do well with a CFL. It has no center beam punch, no filament, so you will just get a diffuse wash of light—no dramatic effect. Every source has its place in our lives.”

If you want to install eco-friendly lighting in your home, here are several tips:

  • If you use CFLs, check now with your local government to find out how to dispose of a bulb in case it breaks. According to the EPA, here are your initial steps. If a CFL breaks, a small amount of mercury escapes. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more. Do not use bare hands to pick it up; use disposable rubber gloves. If the bulb broke onto on a flat surface, scoop up fragments and powder with stiff paper and place them in a plastic bag. Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes and place them in the plastic bag. Seal the bag. If a CFL breaks on a carpet, remove as much material as you can using sticky tape. Once all visible material is removed, vacuum the area, remove the vacuum bag and put the bag and the sticky tape debris in a plastic bag and seal it. In both instances, place the first sealed bag in a second plastic bag and seal that bag. Dispose of the bags according to your community’s local disposal rules.
  • Since energy use for lighting homes is only around 10 percent, says Jay Hall, acting director for LEED for Homes, changing out many or all of a home’s incandescent bulbs may not make a huge impact for an individual—perhaps $100 a year—but it will make an impact in the larger picture. According to the Department of Energy, if every American home replaced just one light bulb with an Energy Star-qualified bulb, the effort would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year and more than $600 million in annual energy costs as well as prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars.

In checking for light output equivalency, compare lumens. If a 60-watt incandescent produces 800 lumens and a qualified CFL, at 13-15 watts, produces 800 lumens, you are getting similar light output but with differing amounts of power needed to produce that amount.


Green Homes—Heating and Air Quality

Sustainable, heatlh-promoting HVAC technology helps advance comfort in the home.

Home Heating and Air Quality

Photo: thermalboundaryeast.com

Where to Start
Today’s HVAC is more than just the equipment that heats, ventilates, and cools our home. It is the intersection of energy efficiency and indoor air quality—that point at which our home concerns can merge or collide, depending on how we address them.

There are many reasons for a home to feel uncomfortable, says David Lee, Director for the Residential Branch-Energy Star New and Existing Homes Program at the Environmental Protection Agency. You can put in an Energy Star-qualified air conditioner but if it is not installed properly or the duct distribution system is incorrectly designed or leaky, your home will still be uncomfortable. The refrigerant charge, the airflow across the coil and whether the air conditionier was sized properly can all play roles.

That’s why it is increasingly important to take a holistic approach when looking at your home’s HVAC. Instead of thinking that the only solution is to replace a furnace or air conditioner, first determine why your home is inefficient.

A no-cost way to get started is through the Energy Star web site. Gather a year’s worth of utility bills, click on the site’s Energy Star Home Advisor, and answer a few questions about your home mechanicals. You’ll get some recommendations to consider. Next, go to the Home Energy Yardstick, enter some basic data, and see how your home stacks up with other U.S. homes, your pollution output, and other possible improvements. Then, read the information on the site to get an understanding of what’s happening in this field.

Next, consider more specific advice for your home. A trained inspector could provide an energy audit. There are several state programs that certify inspectors and many of them are affiliated with Home Performance with Energy Star, the program from the EPA and U.S. Department of Energy. Ask a potential inspector what is included in an evaluation, what tests are conducted and if recommendations are by priority and might include any cost-benefit analysis. 

A Standard for Audits
Currently each home energy audit varies depending on the inspector. One might provide a blower door test and check insulation while another might inspect ductwork, use an infrared camera and check your faucets for leaks.

But that is changing. Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET)—an industry not-for-profit membership corporation headquartered in Oceanside, Calif., and national standards making body for building energy-efficiency rating systems—has proposed a national framework for the home energy audit process, according to Kelly Parker, a past president of RESNET, president of Guaranteed Watt Saver Systems Inc. in Oklahoma City, a professional engineer in 14 states and a LEED-accredited professional.

Parker says RESNET, working with the EPA and DOE, has proposed a standard that is currently undergoing review that offers three audit levels. A basic audit survey could be performed either free online, as with the Energy Star yardstick, or with an in-home survey. Its intent would be to refer homeowners to the next level if it’s determined that a home needs further analysis and the homeowner wants to invest in improvements. The second audit level would be a diagnostic audit costing between $300 to $650 that would include the audit survey and specific performance testing, such as blower door and duct leakage. The third level would be a comprehensive home energy audit that would include specific Home Energy Rating (HERS®) evaluation, diagnosis and proposed treatment, costing between $500 to $900. It could also include calculated energy and environmental savings with recommended improvements.

Heating and Air Quality - Vent

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Educated Homeowners
To get that smooth merging of energy efficiency with a healthy, comfortable home, homeowners must learn more and demand more.

Just buying high-efficiency equipment does not solve everything. That’s a misconception, says Laura Capps, director of Residential Green Building Services for Southface in Atlanta. Southface is a nonprofit that promotes sustainable homes, workplaces, and communities through education, research, advocacy, and technical assistance.

“The equipment efficiency depends on several things,” she says, “including the equipment being appropriately sized for the home and occupant activities, properly installed with a designed duct system that has been sealed and insulated and properly maintained. The key is to make sure the equipment chosen will meet the load of the home without being oversized and that the ducts installed will distribute that air appropriately to each room. Frequently the HVAC unit is replaced and the older duct work is left in place, which can be a sufficient solution as long as the ducts are the right size, installed correctly, sealed with mastic and insulated.”

Rule-of-thumb calculations for sizing equipment—so many tons of air conditioning per square foot of living area, for example—are no longer enough. Each home’s heating and cooling loads vary with its window area, air leakage, insulation levels, orientation, shade, and more.

Uhde says an HVAC installer needs to do three critical tasks:  perform an Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) approved Manual J load calculation, size the equipment based on the load calculation results, and provide a Manual D duct design. It’s important that homeowners be involved and educated since many contractors try to skip this step (even though most codes require it) and it is the most crucial step in the process. She says just asking for the Manual J is a good start.

HVAC in residential homes is changing and many contractors are still learning about what’s new. Homeowners can help educate themselves online. Some sites to check out include the LEED for Homes guidelines for new homes or the new ReGreen Residential Remodeling Guidelines.

Working with reputable contractors such as those training through Home Performance with Energy Star; certified through North American Technician Excellence, a nationwide certification program to ensure that qualifying technicians have a core set of competencies; or through local green building programs, such as EarthCraft House®, a residential green building program of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association in partnership with Southface, also can be of help.

Heating and Air Quality - Unit

Photo: shutterstock.com

HVAC by the Numbers
13 or more: Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rating. Thirteen is the minimum rating for air conditioners manufactured after Jan. 26, 2006. SEER is the ratio of the cooling output in BTU divided by the power consumption in watts per hour.

8 to 10: Heating Season Performance Factor (HSPF) rating. Eight to 10 are high efficiency ratings for air-source electric heat pumps. The ratio is determined by dividing seasonal heating output in BTU by the power consumption in watts.

83 percent and 90 percent and higher: Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) rating. The efficiency percentage at which Energy Star-qualified oil and gas furnaces start. It is a measure of the amount of fuel converted to space heat in proportion to the amount of fuel entering the furnace. However, a high percentage, such as for an all-electric furnace for example, must be balanced out with the cost of the energy.

1/2010: In accordance with the Montreal Protocol, the date after which chemical manufacturers may only produce R-22 refrigerant to service existing air conditioning equipment but not new equipment. Only pre-existing supplies, such as recycled R-22, could be used to produce new air conditioners and heat pumps.

1/2020: Date after which chemical manufacturers will no longer be able to produce R-22 to service existing air conditioners and heat pumps. The servicing of R-22-based systems will rely on recycled refrigerants.

R410A: A refrigerant substitute for R-22. It is a blend of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), substances that do not contribute to depletion of the ozone layer, but, like R-22, still contribute to global warming.

30 percent to 50 percent: The amount of relative humidity needed to make a home comfortable. Depending on a homes location, it might require spot ventilation or humidification or a whole-house humidification or dehumidification system.

70 percent: Relative humidity at which mold and mildew start to grow.

20 percent: Percentage of heating and cooling system efficiency you could be losing by having leaky ducts.

1 in 4: Number of furnaces in U.S. homes that are more than 20 years old.