Green design needs green behavior to work.

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

We’ve spent a great deal of energy and money over the past few years trying to reduce our over-all carbon footprint. Much of this has come in the form of thoughtful planning and design, environmentally conscious purchases and energy saving design features from SIPs walls to in floor radiant heat. After just over a year of living in our new “green friendly” home we have some hard data to determine how we’ve been doing.

When our initial Home Energy Audit was completed in February of 2008 it was estimated that we would spend an average of $120 a month on our electric, heating and cooling needs based on the makeup of our homes.  The actual results from one year of use showed that we were above this estimated mark, and spent on average $180 a month. Our natural Gas consumption was really good (right around the estimated amount) even with the slightly elevated costs of fuel this winter. Much of this could be attributed to the passive solar design of our house, and our active role as home owners to make sure our shades were open and closed at the appropriate times so that we could harness this free energy source. On several sunny (but very cold days) last winter when the temp was around -12º our home stayed a toasty 72º without the furnace running during the daylight hours. Although, our natural gas consumption was within the estimated range or electric was not.

Having had our solar audit done just this past fall we knew that our home electricity consumption was high. Some of this was as a result of phantom loads from appliances, several work computers being used regularly during the day and of course some careless personal habits, like leaving lights on in rooms that weren’t being used or not unplugging unused electronics. What is most disturbing about the number being high for our electric is that we’ve done a lot of simple things like replacing most of our lights with florescent bulbs to mitigate some of this consumption. Yet we were still on average using more energy than I think a household of 4 should be. Since our fall solar audit we have seen a reduction in some energy use by introducing power strips in certain areas to help stop unwanted energy consumption from phantom appliances, as well as the introduction of some new dimming florescent light bulbs into areas where they previously weren’t available. But the truth is we still could be doing a lot better. The biggest thing that needs to change for this to happen is to improve our energy use habits by being more aware of our consumption practices. So how can we do this? I know there have been many times where I have walked up stairs after dinner, only to find that the boys had left every light, tv radio and computer on. Then this weekend while watching a show called Wa$ted on Planet Green I learned of a great way to monitor your homes energy use at all times, with a product called the Cent-0-meter. I wasn’t able to find much on this specific product but I found another similar product called the PowerCost  Monitor ™   which basically does the same thing. For around $120 to $150 you can get a single device which tells you at all times what your home is using for energy and what it’s costing. This small investment seems well worth it, if it can help keep me aware of unwanted waste and improve our families energy habits.

The PowerCost Monitor and Cent-a-Meter (shown above) offer a wireless up to the minute tracking of your homes energy usage. 

Although our electricity consumption was a bit high there was one area where I felt we did outstanding in my opinion—water consumption. According to various studies the average consumption of water per person in the U.S. is 30,000-40,000 gallons and for a family of four, like us, between 120,000 to 160,000 gallons a year. With that said, as a family last year we used almost exactly 60,000 gallons of water. Although, still not a number to scoff at by any means, it is significant. Considering that this usage included the watering of a newly laid sod lawn and plants this summer, which marked our highest period of consumption in mid-summer.

So why were we able to keep this so low? On top of the dual-flush TOTO toilets and low flow faucets, we selected to help us reduce our water consumption, we also were very mindful of our usage. We used rain capture barrels in various locations around the house and then used that water for plants. Our sump pump which is very active all year around was used as a watering aid for our lawn throughout the summer and we practiced good water management, by limiting the length of our showers and turning the faucets off when brushing our teeth or other simple daily activities.

I think doing an audit of your family’s energy and consumption practices is really enlightening. For me it was a  reminder that all the green products, good planning and intentions are only maximized when you take the time to practice responsible behavior.  My hope/plan is that by next year we are able to reduce both our consumption of electricity and and water significantly. By doing so we’ll not only lighten our impact on the environment but reduce the cost on our wallet.

Retro Fit

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

In our old house we had a fairly nice sized master bedroom, especially when considering the period and style of our home. However, it was oddly shaped making the location and positioning of our King-sized bed very limited, and as a result we had no side tables in our bedroom. Not having side tables meant that the placement of things link lamps and alarms clocks were nowhere within reach.  This inconvenient lead us to make sure that although, we were not doing a bedroom that was significantly larger than our old one we were going to ensure that it was designed to accommodate our bed.With one solution there always seems to come another challenge. In our case the added space around our bed provided us with ample room on both sides for side tables. However, we didn’t own any side tables, nor were we in the mood to spend $300 to get some of the ones we had seen  and liked. We considered building our own side tables but then Stacy found some affordable (around $120) hi-gloss white cabinets via CB2, a division of Crate & Barrel that offers modern furnishings at lower price point.

When the tables arrived they were easy to assemble, going together much of the furniture from IKEA (except a little more square based, on our previous experiences with this type of assembly).  PLacing thetables up to the sides of our bed we came to the conclusion that they were a bit low in relationship to the height of our bed. Not to be frustrated or discouraged by this we decided to remove the legs on the tables and mount them to the wall using some 3 1/2 framing screws, being careful to place to the screws behind the divider shelf so they would be obscured from view. The final result is well positioned floating cabinets at each side of our bed, and the next challenge, find side table lamps that better fit the space.

The master bedroom at our old house was a nice size, but the strange shape and positioning of doors meant the location of the bed was very limited.

The tables were too low for us to be able to access the shelves or see an alarm clock clearly.

By mounting the tables to the wall we were able to raise them to a height that better fit with the bed.

Picking paint might be harder than painting

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Although, Stacy and I have decided to largely leave our walls white and use artwork to add the color and texture to the rooms, our two young boys were clambering for some color on the walls in their rooms. So after several trips to the home improvement store, dozens of paint swatches taped to the wall and some negotiating we settled on some colors.  You would think that all that was left would be to run to the store, pick-up some paint and put it on the wall. However, picking the paint color was just the start.

One of the often times overlooked elements of building a home that is friendly on the environment, is making sure that the environment of the home is friendly on you. For us this has meant trying to make conscious decisions to select low or No VOC  (Volatile Organic Compound) products. It started with our builder Benedict and Associates and their use of construction adhesives and carried on through to the materials our cabinetmaker Eastvold Custom used to build our cabinet boxes all having this feature. With all this in mind we weren’t about to throw away  all that planning thoughtfulness by using just any paint, especially in our kid’s rooms.

I remember a few years ago when we first began our house project I started seeing ads for a paint called Mythic that featured ZERO VOC. To be honest, at the time I had no idea what VOC’s were, why not having them was good and why I should care. But the paint had a cool looking retro label that caught my attention, and I was compelled enough to visit their website. As it turns out that new home smell that so many people talk about, is actually the off-gassing of VOC’s and cancer-causing toxins that are emitted for years.  So recalling this information, along with the added knowledge we gained while doing the research for our house, we decided that we should make sure we had a paint that was Low or NO VOC. However, when I went to find a retailer of Mythic I was surprised that I could find only two in the Twin Cites, and both were well outside of my reasonable driving range for a gallon or two of paint.  Not to be discouraged, and knowing that some of the other paint manufacturers were aware of the “greening” of America we decided to look around. To our surprise we found a several options from Sherwin William’s, HarmonyBenjamin Moore’s, Natura  and even a very affordable new line from Dutch Boy called Refresh.  Or final decision was to go with the Dutch Boy because it was readily available at our local Menards store just down the road, and on top of that it comes in those great easy to pour, non-rusting containers that Dutch Boy is famous for.

So after all the research and analysis, I have to say that it I was very pleased with our decision to use the NO VOC paint. Because we had several days of painting over the weekend, I would normally  have expect our house to have the strong smell of latex paint in the air, this however, was not the case. We were actually able to quickly pull the boys rooms together once the painted had tried so they could once again sleep in their own rooms without the worry of them waking up feeling sick from the fumes — a not so little thing when you think about.

Mythic was the first paint I had heard of that featured NO VOC.

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In recently major paint manufacturers like Benjamin Moore have added products like their Natura line  that offer low or NO VOC.

The Dutch Boy Refresh line of paints is a co-branded product with Arm & Hammer that eliminates paint odors and has No VOC.

taping off stripes.

the first stripes are painted.

After giving the first color the appropriate amount of time to dry we were able to tape over the first color to give us a crisp transition between colors.

The final finished wall. 

fuel for thought

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

The furnace system uses a large hopper which can hold several bushels of corn of pellets lasting for sevaral days of heating.

A close up of the furnace.

The A-MAIZ-ING-Heat furnace system can be tied directly into your current duct work.

With the rising costs of fuel and the extremely prolonged stretches of cold weather many of us have been experiencing here in the north people all over are looking for alternative energy sources to help supplement or replace there current heating needs. One of the most popular means of doing this is corn fed or pellet fed stoves and furnaces.

Recently some family-friends of my, Frank and Lois Cernohous, installed a new corn burning furnace in their 100 year old farm house in Western Wisconsin. For a farm family who has a ready abundance of fuel (corn) at their disposal this type of residential system is a perfect solution. But it got me wondering if corn burning furnaces are a viable, logical solution for those of us without the advantage of having a fuel resource right in our backyard.

The furnace system that the Cernohous’ used is from a Minnesota Company, KC-Cornburners, and the furnace system is called The A-MAIZ-ING-Heat® Furnace. Doing my research I discovered that there are several sellers of the The A-MAIZ-ING-Heat® Furnace, all of whom have purchased the rights to manufacture and sell the bottom-fed biomass system under this name. This localized manufacturing and sales model means that the cost of shipping these systems and the environmental impact associated with it are greatly reduced making a much green option. Additionally, because it is designed to burn both corn and wood pellets, this system has some distinct advantages over stoves that burn only corn. Many of us who live in areas in the Upper-Midwest where access to corn is easy and affordable could probably easily find a resource for meeting our fuel needs. However, crops can be a somewhat unpredictable resources (just ask any farmer) with various fasctors playing into the season yield. While at the same time, the growing popularity of E-85 and other ethanol based auto fuels have driven up demand, and thus the cost of corn to new highs in the past few years. However, the use of biomass wood pellet which can also be burnt in the A-Maiz-ing Heat furnace come from various manufacturing sectors as a waste product. The demand for these biomass pellets have resulted in pellet plants being opened up around the country making this additional fuel resource viable alternative for many more people.

So just how does a biomass furnace work?  A corn or biomass furnace like the The A-MAIZ-ING-Heat furnace can be tied into a your conventional duct work. The systems are thermostatically controlled and have a hopper that holds and feeds the fuel into the furnace to regulate the temperature and fuel consumption. These hoppers generally hold about 5-7 days worth of fuel so the system does require some regular maintenance, but certainly less than say a wood burning fireplace. The waste material from burning also will require some regular maintenance but again this will depend of the amount of fuel that is used and the actual fuel selected (corn burns a little cleaner than wood or other biomass materials).

After reading up on it I can’t say that these systems are for everyone or that you’ll see them replacing more traditional Natural Gas systems anytime soon, but if you don’t mind doing a little maintenance work and feel you can find a dependable resource for your fuel than it’s certainly worth taking a look at. Or if your feeling a bit more entrepreneurial, maybe it’s time to open a up a pellet supply company and start in an home delivery maintenace service—just a thought.


Sunday, November 23rd, 2008


This past year our house was an award winner for energy conservation and design from SIPA (the national organization for the Structurally Insulated Panel Industry). As a result of this honor an author of several home books by the name of Sheri Koones contacted us in consideration for our house to be featured in her newest book about pre-fab homes. Our house isn’t traditionally what most people invision when they say pre-fabricated homes, but because the walls of our house were constructed of SIPs in a factory our house is consider a pre-fab.

Late last week I received my second call from Sheri Koones letting me know that our house had indeed been selected to be featured in her latest book. I will be provideing her a couple of different images of the house for publication. One of the images that was requested was that of the house being constructed of the SIPs panels while the second is a finshed exterior shot. Since the current leafless surroundings of the house are less attractive than some of the shots taken this past summer when we had full foliage, I’ve decided to include one of those images instead.

So what does this type of recognition mean. My hope is that 20 or 30 years from now some of the awards and recognition mean that our house is valued at more than if we would have built something a little more traditional, and a lot less energy efficient. I would imagine the energy efficiency part will prove to be true, but as far as the recognition paying dividends, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Solar energy alternative

Monday, November 10th, 2008

Determining Site location for the panels.

This device helps to measure solar viability during peak hours.
The Kill-A-Watt device helps measure phantom consumption in your home.

With the rising costs of energy putting the pinch on many people’s disposable income, the idea of adding a supplementary energy source (that isn’t tied to the world economy) is very intriguing. This is something that we had originally thought about when our project began but based on some initial research appeared to be financially restricting so we decided against it at the time. Looking back at it, this one of he decisions I wished I would have researched more closely before writing it off. Then this past summer while doing a story on the Eco-Experience at the State fair I met Rebecca Lundberg Owner and President from Powerfully Green. They were featuring a few of the products and services they offer on the Eco-house design and I struck up a short conversation with them about what they offer.

What struck me as most intriguing about Powerfully Green was their consultative approach to solar energy installation. Instead of giving me the typical answers about rising energy costs or guilting me with some environmental responsibility statement they offered solutions to home energy consumption as key. Telling me that one of the services that they do is a site inspection and home energy audit to both assess the viability of solar as an option, but additionally to help the home owners to find ways to reduce their home energy needs. This was something I had not heard of before from the various solar installers I had talked to in the past, so I made arrangements to have an audit done for our house.

Solar site survey
Rebecca and Dan from powerfully green showed up in the later afternoon about a week ago to do the energy audit of our house. This was obviously somewhat different than the one we had done for our EnergyStar rating as it was based on our current needs and consumptions and our potential to off-set those with a solar supplement.

We started by making a trip to the roof of our house where Rebecca and Dan where they did an audit of our site. They started by measuring out the surface area of the roof and all the potential objects (vents etc.) that would be obstacles to work around. Then using a couple of different tools they determined the ideal direction for placement (straight south), and measured the solar potential of the roof during the prime between 9am and 3pm. From there we determined where the system would need to come down off the roof and into the electrical connection to provide service. In our case because we face directly south and have almost no obstructions making or house the ideal setting for both a solar water heating system as well as a photovoltaic solar energy system. After doing the solar site assessment we made our move inside to review a few of our latest energy bills and talk about proper system sizing.

Selling us knowledge
What you would normally except at this time was to get a hard sell on the size and type of system that you need, but instead what we got was quite the opposite. Instead of telling us we needed a system that would completely take us off of commercial energy dependence Rebecca and Dan advised us on ways that we could actually reduce our overall need. Using a little devise called a “Kill-a-Watt Meter” we made a trek through our house identifying devices that were carrying phantom loads. These are devices such as most cable or satellite box receivers that appear to be off to you and I, but are actually continually pulling energy into them at al times. The most surprising was our coffee maker which was taking a good 20 watts and hour when off and unbelievable 900+ watts and hour when it was on— and apparently this is quite common as Rebecca new right where to go to show us the main culprits. From there they shared with us a couple of simple tricks to manage your energy waste through the use of simple things like connecting your devices to power strips and turning the entire strip off when not needed. The Average Minnesotan uses about 815 kwh a month. By just implementing a few of these simple techniques you could easily cut that amount in half and potentially even more if you were really diligent about it. This type of awareness helped them reduce their home energy needs from about 600kwh a month to roughly 200kwh meaning a significant reduction in the size of their system and cost of their month bill to the energy company.

Sizing the system
At our house we use slightly less than the monthly average of 815 kWh a month at about 750 kWh a month. this meant that on an average day we used about 25 kWh. Every kWh per day is equal to 5 200 watt solar panels. However Rebecca recommended against installing a system that met 100% of your need. In part because it was easy to reduce your consumption but additionally because as energy becomes more of an issue more and more of your home appliances will become better at energy conservation. This means that in a few years your system would quickly become over sized for your homes needs, and you would have over invested in the technology. Instead she encouraged us to first try and reduce our use through simple conservation methods and then determine what would be a cost effective system to help supplement our energy needs.

Offering up solutions to both supplement my energy needs with a solar energy systems but more importantly to advise us on ways we could actually reduce our demand, lowering the size and cost of the system we would require by decreasing our over-all energy needs. This type genuine interest in helping me to reduce my energy consumption in an effort to decrease my costs and decrease my carbon footprint was proof to me that Powerfully Green were in this for all the right reasons and that I could trust their advisement. I don’t have plans to put in a system right now but maybe in a few years we’ll make an invest in one, for now we are working at trimming our energy needs on a daily basis.

If you’re interested in a site survey like the one we had you can contact powerfully green via their website and for a small fee they will come out and conduct an entire home audit along with generating a report of their findings for you to reference to.