DJC Green Building Blog

5 tips to improve home energy efficiency

Posted on April 15, 2011

In honor of Earth Day next week (don't even get me started on the Earth Day advertising pitches and products I've been getting), here is a short list of do-it-yourself tips to improve home energy consumption. The tips are courtesy of Gretchen Marks, vice president of marketing for Washington Energy Services.

  1. Seal the leaks around windows and exterior doors. This is easy to do, and will help your home
    U.S. EPA photo
    keep the heat in. Caulk, spray foam or use weather stripping and it will have an impact on improving your comfort and reducing utility bills. If you don’t want to fuss with this, contact a handyman, or a reputable window, insulation or painting company. Many of them provide this service.
  2. Fix your insulation situation. Insulation is typically the #1 way to save energy in your home. According to the Department of Energy (www.ornl.gov) “heating and cooling account for 50 to 70% of the energy used in the average American home. Inadequate insulation and air leakage are leading causes of energy waste in most homes.” And according to EnergyStar, you could “save up to 10% of your total annual energy bill” just by sealing and insulating.
  3. Clean and seal heating ducts. Almost 20% of the air that moves through your duct system is lost due to leaks and poorly sealed connections. Over time, ducts can sag or collapse. Vermin and other animals can chew holes in crawl space ductwork. Ducts can also come apart at the seams. When this happens, any air that should be going to the rooms in your home is instead being wasted by ending up in your attic, your walls, or under your house. If duct tape was used on your ductwork originally, it's best to have it replaced with aluminum or foil tape. Traditional duct tape deteriorates quickly. Metal seams should be cleaned and then sealed with duct mastic, which doesn't crack and creates a permanent seal.
  4. Let your equipment breathe. Your heating and cooling systems depend on a flow of air to maximize their efficiency. Homeowners can take easy steps to help change the furnace filter, and check for leaves/debris around an outside heat pump or air conditioner. A clogged air intake outside or dirty indoor furnace filter limits air flow to the equipment and causes it to function inefficiently. It can eventually lead to costly breakdowns and repairs. This is similar to changing the air filter in your car. Electronic filters typically need cleaning at least twice per year and paper filters need replacing. Check your product warranty for your manufacturer’s specific instructions.
  5. Open those registers. Many people close floor registers to push heat into certain parts of their house. Since about the late 60's the products installed in homes have been forced air furnaces. These are designed for a specific amount of air to flow thru the furnace while operating. The ductwork is designed for this amount of air also. When air registers are closed it reduces the airflow and allows heat to buildup in the system. That heat has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is up the flue and out of your house. Closing 1 or 2 registers is fine in rooms that get too hot. Keep as many registers open as possible so your furnace can operate at maximum efficiency. This is the same for heat pumps and central air conditioning.

Not sure where to start to make your home energy efficient? Consider a home energy audit. A certified audit uses the latest technology to analyze your house, and show you how your home uses and wastes energy. This will also help you prioritize what you can do to get the most energy savings. Learn more about audits at www.bpi.org or look for audit providing companies in your local area.

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Is the smart grid the new smart phone?

Posted on February 4, 2011

Recently, a story of mine appeared in the DJC called "Smart grid experts say AEC firms should start getting ready." It's about the smart grid, and how it will likely affect many aspects of your life - from the space you live in, to the car you drive to the way you use energy.

If you haven't read it, I suggest you do. One of my sources, Mani Vadari, Battelle's vice president of

The potential smart grid. Image courtesy GreenBeat.
electricity infrastructure, compares the smart grid to the smart phone. Even 5 years ago (2006) who'd have thought they would be so ubiquitous as they are today? At that point, I had just gotten my first iPod a year before and was still spellbound by it. I had a Razr (ugh). I think I knew one or two people that had Blackberries but they didn't seem useful to me in the least.

Vadari said there's a ton of money heading into this industry and the game changing technology, if it's not already here, isn't far off.

He said the idea of a green building will change from a minimal energy user to an energy producer. As more people get electric cars and pull energy from the grid through buildings, he said a structure that produces extra energy would be ahead of the curve.

“You've got to start thinking holistically because if you just lean more into the grid, you're not helping your carbon footprint,” Vadari said.

Vadari said more thought will be given to combining technologies to save and produce energy, or to achieve multiple goals. For example, he said windows and roofs could become energy-producing solar cells, forcing changes in the market as no one will want traditional windows and roofs anymore.

We're just at the beginning of the smart grid now, with regional demonstration projects funded by the stimulus in motion in all corners of the country. Regionally, Battelle is leading the $178 million Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project. Electric cars, like the Nissan Leaf, are just coming to market and charging stations are just beginning to be installed.

But the potential for the smart grid and its related technologies to change our lives is huge. There's no telling now which direction will move quickest but changes could include market-priced energy with monitors that allow you to control when you purchase energy based on price; electric cars; and homes and buildings that produce energy and feed it back into the grid.

Is there anything -- energy wise -- that you're excited about or looking forward to? Would love to hear your thoughts.

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Giuliani says clean tech is America’s next big market

Posted on September 29, 2010

This week, I interviewed former Mayor of New York and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani on clean tech. The story is in the DJC here and nicely sums up our conversation. But if you're interested in why

Rudy Giuliani. Photo By Katie Zemtseff
Giuliani is interested in clean tech or what he thinks the next big thing or heck, whether he likes Seattle or not, I suggest you view our discussion.

The discussion is split into three video interviews. Here they are:

Click here for part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmR1WlDAJ4o

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTNYT65chrU

Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwjH09FjsFU

Enjoy!

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Redecorating windows in an energy efficient way

Posted on March 10, 2010

I recently received this blog post from Richard Moyle with Horizon Window Treatments in New York. For those of you considering new window treatments, I thought it provided a nice overview on redecorating windows. Here it is:

So you want to re-decorate your windows, but you want to do it the most energy-efficient way possible,

One window treatment
to not only lower your utility bills, but reduce your carbon footprint as well. Fortunately, it is very possible to do this. All you need to do is look for a couple of things when selecting window treatments.

First, you want to make sure that the treatments you are choosing are made from renewable materials. If you are going the wood treatment route, only buy wood that is Forest Stewardship Council certified. FSC accredited certifiers evaluate both forest management activities and tracking of forest products. If not using wood treatments, go with natural fabrics like cotton, silk or hemp for draperies. Buying local is also helpful when it comes to energy efficiency. The shorter distance the material has to travel, the less energy it takes to get to you.

All window treatments offer some insulation, but some will provide more than others. In order to determine how much insulation is provided by a specific window treatment, you want to look at what is called the R-Value. This rates the treatment’s effectiveness in averting heat loss. You also want to evaluate the treatment by its Shading Coefficient, which is the measurement of heat coming through the window. A window treatment with a high R-value and a low Shading Coefficient would make for the ideal selection.

Air quality is third and final characteristic to look for in a window treatment. Plastic and faux wood blinds might contain polyvinyl chloride which releases carcinogenic dioxin into the air during production and contains plasticizer called phthalates, which can set off respiratory problems and inhibit the body's hormonal systems. Again, choosing treatments that are made of renewable materials can help you avoid these problems.

While it may be impossible to find a treatment that adheres to all of the specifications above, knowing what to look for can help you find the treatment that is best for you and the environment.

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Help some students out with 5 minutes of your time…

Posted on March 3, 2010

Recently, I received an e-mail from a senior studying business at Seattle Pacific University named Jamie. The student said they are part of a team writing a comprehensive business plan regarding a power strip that automatically shuts off power in stand-by mode. Turns out two of her teammates have created a working prototype, which will participate in a number of competitions.

The student, Jamie Durbin, sounds pretty excited: "We are super passionate about our product: it would save

Is this your home?
energy and save consumer(s) $100+ on their annual energy bills. We are seeking venture capital at the competitions to launch our product line and hopefully serve the environmentally-minded (smart) consumer."

Basically, the device senses when something switches to idle mode and can turn it off, saving energy.

Sounds kinda cool, eh? Here's where you can help: Jamie's team needs 1,000 respondents to an online survey. If you click here and spend 5 minutes, you could really help them out.

Overall, the product seems pretty handy. Even though I have power strips, there are often times when I simply forget to switch them off. Having a device do that automatically would take care of those moments.

Here's a description of the product:

The controlled outlets have four main functions.

1) Able to sense when an appliance switches to idle mode

2) Able to turn the appliance off after a period of time in idle mode.  To achieve this functionality, the device will monitor how long an appliance has been in an idle power state and remove power when it has been in the idle mode for a user specified period of time.

3) Able to restore power to each appliance once the user wants to use the appliances again.  When the power is cut, the device will use a motion sensor to determine if anyone is around the device. If the motion sensor is tripped then it will reconnect power to the appliance; when the user turns the appliance off the cycle will begin again.

4) MOST IMPORTANT, the device will reduce power consumption.  The maximum expected consumption of the power strip itself will be under 1 watt. It will completely eliminate the standby power for the controlled appliances.

What do you think? Are they on the right track? If you think they are, answer the survey and help 'em out.

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Electricians: the next hot profession

Posted on February 10, 2010

Are electricians the next hot profession?

Houston Neal just published an interesting post on the topic at The Software Advice Construction Blog.

Electricians
Neal says "electrical contractors" will transition to "energy contractors" to support the green construction market, and that the profession will grow tremendously.  Neal cites a study by the American Solar Energy Society of Boulder, Colo. that says renewable energy jobs for electricians will grow about 900 percent by 2030, just in Colorado.

Neal calls this "a coming renaissance in electrical contracting." However to really benefit, he says electricians need to focus on changing now by gaining the right skills, promoting green credentials, and updating their bidding process to win green electrical jobs.

It's a pretty extensive and interesting post. But it makes me wonder, what other professions this applies to? If there is a coming renaissance for electricians, what other trades or jobs could see huge growth or significant change? What do you think?

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Silver lining of the recession: better homes?

Posted on January 22, 2010

There's a story from yesterday's Associated Press which is absolutely fascinating, not just for what it says in print but for what it says between the lines.

The story, called 'Homebuilders Sticking with Less-Is-More Approach," talks about housing trends at the International Builders' Show in Las Vegas.

An efficient townhouse project in Discovery Park that targeted LEED platinum certification
The Salveo. An efficient townhouse project in Discovery Park that targeted LEED platinum certification

There's a few things in the story that caught my eye:

  • According to a survey from the National Association of Home Builders, the average size of an American house shrank about 100 square feet last year to about 2,400 square feet while the percentage of homes with three or more bathrooms fell for the first time since 1992.
  • Builders said they're less likely to build homes this year with outdoor kitchens, media rooms and sunrooms. The next generation of homes is more likely to have a walk-in closet in the master bedroom, a laundry room, energy-saving windows, energy efficient lighting and appliances and an insulated front door.
  • Up to a quarter of all new homes built last year received an Energy Star rating. That's up from 11 percent in 2007.
  • Solar energy continues to be a big draw.
  • And pricey green products won't be driving the recovery. Many homebuyers are eschewing energy-saving features and recycled products that don't offer enough quick savings.
These points send a pretty clear message to me: less waste.  Less waste of space, less waste of energy and less waste of money. Do we really need outdoor kitchens and sunrooms? Energy saving appliances and an insulated front door seem much more practical to me. And in today's economy, practicality is key.
The last three points taken together are really interesting: there are more Energy Star certified homes, solar energy is a big draw, and people are eschewing pricey green products. While pricey green options can help you get higher on the Energy Star scale, you don't need them to be green. The perception that you need expensive items to save energy is really just wrong.
In reality, a lot of the best measures you can take aren't very expensive at all...  but rather require sealing of cracks, caulking of holes and consideration of how you use energy in relation to a house as a whole. So the fact that buyers aren't willing to pay more for these pricey measures makes a lot of sense to me. Why should you pay more for those features... when you can make small changes at home first that have a larger impact?
In October, I attended a CityClub lecture on what it would take to turn all our old buildings green. At that talk, Todd Starnes of Puget Sound Energy said windows, which are expensive and often the first thing homeowners consider when looking at energy upgrades, are not the most cost effective measure in energy efficiency. The most beneficial and cheapest thing, he said, is insulation, followed by sealing a home's cracks. Then he suggested sealing ducts before making a big purchase like furnaces or windows.
Maybe the fact that home buyers aren't buying pricey green products means they're getting smarter about what is worthwhile, what is best for the environment and what can save them energy at the same time.
Smaller houses are also an interesting topic, especially considering how sizing relates to green homes. This week, the DJC published a story I wrote on a recent survey by Seattle-based GreenWorks Realty that looked at new homes sold in the Puget Sound area between 2007 and the end of 2009. Ben Kaufman, author of the study and owner of GreenWorks, said people buying green homes in King County are buying smaller and better designed homes. On average, the green King County home was 600 square feet smaller than non-certified green homes.
Personally, I'm a fan of small, compact, well designed space. Of course, I'm also a product of my generation (Gen Y). From what I've read, my generation is much more likely to give up space in exchange for being in the thick of things. In September, Deanna Sihon of New Home Trends said that soon, my generation will be driving the housing market so companies need to understand what we want to remain relevant to our buying interests. She said Generation Y wants smaller, higher quality housing that is well designed.
Are these points hopeful? To me, they show nationally, we might be moving towards more sustainable housing. Maybe, just maybe, one silver lining to the recession will be a trend towards more efficient and thoughtful homes. What do you think?  What are other silver linings?
(P.S. My blog formating software is acting wacky so I'm bolding the beginnings of paragraphs to give you an idea of where paragraphs should begin....)
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Not at Greenbuild this week? Come discuss the recession, green development in Seattle!

Posted on November 9, 2009

How will the recession affect green buildings, codes and development?

It's a timely question and one I've been wondering about for some time. It also happens to be the topic of a panel discussion I am moderating on Thursday evening for the Cascadia Region Green Building Council at

What to do?
Seattle University.

The event features a number of great panelists: Michael Weinstein of the Urban Innovations Group, Bruce Herbert of Newground Social Investment, Jayson Antonoff of the City of Seattle Green Building Program, Ric Cochrane of King County Green Tools Program and Aaron Fairchild of G2B Ventures. Come eat, drink and discuss with us! The discussion costs $10. To register, go here.

However, our event is not the only good thing happening on Thursday evening. If you're not at Greenbuild, here are a number of local things to keep you interested:

On Wednesday and Thursday, Alex Steffen of Worldchanging.com will host a two-day lecture to flesh out a pathway to a great sustainable future. On Wednesday, the lecture is called "A new Global Future," and on Thursday it is called "Seattle's Bright Green Moment." Each lecture costs $5.

On Thursday, Tacoma will host a talk on its Center for Urban Waters. The center, an environmental research space, is seeking LEED platinum certification. The talk costs $10 at the door or $7.50 in advance. More info here.

On Friday and Saturday, the Northwest Energy Coalition is hosting its fall conference on energy efficiency. The conference features a keynote talk by Rob Bernard, chief environmental strategist for Microsoft, and multiple panel discussions. More info here.

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Does solar work in Seattle? Yes, if you’re the aquarium…

Posted on August 18, 2009
Teams install the solar panels

In June, the Seattle Aquarium installed its first solar hot water demonstration system. The system preheats water used in the second flood cafe by way of five solar panels that are located on the building's south facing wall.

A press release from A&R Solar Corp., the company that installed the system, says the solar system isn't just doing well. It says the solar collectors are offsetting almost double their expected amount. Reeves Clippard, president and co-founder of the company, said if solar works this well in Seattle, "the rest of the country has no excuse not to act now."

Honestly, I don't really know what to make of this. It's a good thing that the system is performing so well. But a system that produces double what the models said it would makes me wonder what exactly that baseline was. Then again, we have had an amazingly hot, bright and sunny summer.

The system has a monitoring device that will eventually allow visitors to see how it is performing in real time. It uses Heliodyne Gobi flat-plate solar hot water collectors.

An outside view of the solar and the aquarium
Looking up at the panels
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What Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. had to say in Seattle this morning

Posted on March 6, 2009

This morning, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. keynoted the BuiltGreen Conference 2009 at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. It was not your typical green conference keynote.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Most talks focus on one topic and explore it. At green events, that talk is usually centered around a project, a theory or a problem that we need to fix. This talk was mostly political and discussed everything from the benefits of "true free market capitalism" (many), to how the Bush administration tore down environmental rules and tenets (disastrously), to who was who in Washington, D.C. politics (lobbyists), to how much mercury human beings have in their bodies (a lot), to how the press has covered these issues (very poorly).

Honestly, he spoke about so many different things I don't really know what to tell you, dear reader. So I'll start with energy.

Kennedy spoke a lot about the energy grid. The largest technical problem in weaning ourselves off oil, he said, is that we don't have a grid that can handle new sources of energy like wind or solar. Developing a system that would reach every American home would cost $1 million per mile, he said, or $150 billion. It's a one-time expenditure, he said, and would benefit national security. He said we've done it before with computers and the Internet; all we have to do is make the commitment.

He also said we need to change the way the energy business works. Utilities today, he said, benefit by creating and selling more energy. We need to redevelop it to focus on conservation. "We have to change that incentivized system," he said, "So that they can make the same money by getting people to conserve, not consume."

He also spoke a lot about a business he is a part of called Better Place. Better Place is a venture-backed company that seeks to build an electric car network based on today's technology. Kennedy said the company is beginning with Israel, where it hopes to transform the market over the next three years. The company will give electric cars away for free - made by Renault and Nissan - to anyone who signs a contract with the company. Under the contract, the person owns the car while Better Place owns the car battery (which costs $20,000). The company pays itself back by charging a premium on the power the car needs to run, outlined in the contract. He said the company has similar contracts with Denmark, Australia, Hawaii and north California, and would love for all of North America to follow suit.

"The electric car is the way this country is going to go," he said.

Kennedy also took a hit at the mainstream media, calling it "negligent" in reporting important stories over the past decade. Instead, he said the media has become entertainment rather than information, which appeals to the prurient interests in the reptilian parts of our brains. Ouch.

Were you there? If so, what did you think was the most interesting thing he said and how would you rate his speech?

P.S. The information Kennedy shared about his personal levels of mercury (if he were a woman, he said a doctor told him his children would have cognitive impairment) was pretty frightening. If you want to test your mercury levels, visit the Waterkeeper Alliance, another organization Kennedy is affiliated with, here.

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