Saturday, December 11, 2010

It's Official! 2nd place in CT Zero Energy Challenge

On Wednesday the 8th I got the call from CL&P concerning the CT Zero Energy Challenge results and was congratulated for our second place finish. Not that it was a big surprise since everyone's HERS values were announced months ago and that's how the contest was judged this year (next year there are a variety of factors which greatly level the playing field).
Reviewing the 1st and 3rd place finishers, I can't help but pat ourselves on the back for achieving what we did on such a limited budget. The other winners' homes are obviously big budget undertakings that easily push (though I'm just guessing) into the million dollar range. We did ours for less than a third of that. They hired consultants, architects and specialty builders. Karann and I designed, planned, engineered (with over-the-phone consultations from a few sources) and finished the house ourselves. Our builder, Dave Nugent, kicked ass for sure but this was his first "green" house.
Their houses are big (4000 sq. ft. plus), high-end homes unattainable by most, which I think sets a bad example of "green" building. Ours is a modest (some would even say large, if you live in the real world) home at 2670 sq. ft. And I know $320k is still a lot of money but at least it's reasonable for a custom (near) zero energy home, especially since the return on investment is already paying dividends; our electric bill is non-existent ($16 service fee every month) and we've purchased two, 100 gallon tank-fulls of propane in the last year and a half.
Now don't take this like I'm down-playing the accomplishments of the other winners (ok, maybe a little bit) but I do respect that they're setting examples that hopefully their other rich neighbors may follow.  Maybe this will set a whole new trend of "keeping up with the Jones". Every neighbor trying to make their home more energy independent than the next.
In the meantime, I hope Karann and I have inspired the average, middle-class person to use some ingenuity, take a little time, and put in some sweat equity to make an energy efficient home that, you too, can be proud of.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Best Green/Energy Efficient Home in CT!!

On November 9th, 2010, Jeremy and I attended the HOBI Awards (Home Building Industry Awards) sponsored by the Connecticut Home Builders Association.  Our general contractor, Dave Nugent from Greenworks Builder, won the award for the "Best Green Energy-Efficient House" in CT for our house.  It was exciting to see our house displayed on the huge screen in the banquet room at the Aqua Turf, where everyone was dressed to the nines and people we didn't even know where speaking of our house with the highest praise.  The food wasn't too bad either.  We were amazed by many of the award winners, and even the categories, "Best Spec House Over $6 Million" or "Best Custom Home Over 12,000 square feet".  I am NOT kidding about these categories.  Many homes had jaw-dropping details and it reminded me of the incredible wealth in this state.  I guess a recession just doesn't effect people who can afford 12,000 square foot homes and the costs to maintain them.  It's no wonder that the loudest gasp from the crowd occurred when the emcee was describing our house and stated that we built it for $125 a square foot.  That budget likely barely covered the landscaping costs for some of the homes.  Regardless of how out of our element we were, we enjoyed the night and were pleased that Dave won such a prestigious award.  

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Boy and His Chickens

After grad school I spent a summer as a volunteer park ranger in southeast Alaska.  In addition to my ranger duties, I also spent two weeks as a replacement caretaker for a fishing lodge while the regular caretakers were on their honeymoon in the "lower 48".  While there were many highlights and adventures that summer (the postcard perfect landscape, endless salmon fishing, numerous brown bear and moose encounters), I found myself most amused and enamored with the small chicken flock that pecked and scratched around the small cabin I stayed in.  I guess without electricity and running water, you find entertainment in the simplest things.  Since then, the idea of chicken ownership seemed to fit well into the plan of owning land and building a sustainable house.  While I've never had any experience farming, nor aspired to be a farmer, the lure of fresh, salmonella-free eggs, and the nonstop entertainment of plump little red hens running free was overwhelming.  So when the opportunity arrived to adopt 5 rhode island red hens, I took it.  Jeremy helped me build a coop for the hens and, surprisingly, Oslo has become the primary chicken tender (hee, hee, nice pun).  He's named every one according to personality (Beauty Queen, Reliable Runny, Stripe, Peta and Polka) and handles them as much as they tolerate.  Oh, and we eat fresh eggs often.  With everything we've accomplished with our house over the past year, I have to say that those little chickens pecking in my yard make me feel as if I've truly "arrived". 

Monday, September 13, 2010

NESEA Green Building Home Tour

I wanted to mention two events happening in the next month.  The first is the NESEA Green Building Home Tour on October 2nd from 10 to 4.  Our house will be included on the tour and you can get more information at the NESEA website.
Also of interest is a Passiv Haus (Passive House) workshop sponsored by the Solar Energy Assoc. of Connecticut on October 9th at 2pm in Manchester, CT conducted by the New England Passive House Alliance.  
I recently made a presentation to the Solar Energy Assoc. of CT on the design and performance of our house (my first Power Point presentation!) and I found the organization to be great source for information on renewable and alternative energy and energy efficient building.   Their members include people from a broad range of backgrounds and disciplines including architects, engineers, builders, educators, activists, and students.  Check it out!

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Case Against Geothermal

After being asked about a zillion times by a house tour participant where my geothermal system was, I decided it was time for me to clearly state my opinion of geothermal heating systems.  As I said, this is only one persons opinion, and with any decision involving spending copious amounts of money, one should conduct thorough research, and talk to as many people as possible, while considering the backgrounds and motives of "experts" before proceeding.
We decided a geothermal system was not right for our house for the following reasons:
1) Cost.   A geothermal system is going to run $25K plus (mostly higher) and that only includes wells, piping, pumps, etc.  You still need ways to convert that 52F water to either heat or cooling for your house. 
2) Limitation.  As stated in reason one, you're only getting water to 52F, which is fine for cooling, but in our climate (Northwest Connecticut) we heat our houses much more than cool them, so you still are going to need energy to convert that 52F water.  Most homes with geothermal use heat pumps to harvest the energy (via temperature differences). This is, obviously, a very simplistic way of looking at it, but it was pointed out to me by an engineer friend that it equates to running a whole-house refrigerator/condenser 365 days a year.  Doesn't that seem excessive??  A well insulated house in CT should not require a whole lot of AC, so heating is your primary concern.  In my subjective opinion, geothermal is better suited for mid-Atlantic states, where the AC is running more than the heat.  
3) The conundrum.   Geothermal systems use huge amounts of electricity to pump the water down and then back up the geothermal wells.  The solution I hear THE MOST regarding this problem is "Well, you can just install more photovoltaic (PV) panels to offset the added electricity use and cost."  Every time I hear this, I usually want to: A) scream,  B) stifle a well rehearsed, but condescending explanation of the "less is more" sustainable building theory, described below, or C) ask "With who's money?" The later answer about who is paying is an interesting conversation in itself, because the current state of rebates in CT right now that include PV and geothermal systems means that lots of people are actually paying for these systems, not just the homeowner or home builder.  
4) The less is more sustainable building theory.   The whole idea of building more sustainably SHOULD BE to use less, being materials, energy, land, whatever,  NOT to build systems that can operate your 10,000 SF mansion cheaper.  People will likely call me un-American for this, but what the heck.  Building smaller IS building greener.  Smaller houses use less materials, use less energy, and are less expensive to operate and maintain.  Hopefully, our fascination with purchasing lots of stuff that we don't need, and can't afford, and building houses to hold all this stuff is coming to an end, thanks in part to the Great Recession.  
Case in point (Boy, I'm going to get in a lot of trouble for this one), the likely winner of the CT Zero Energy Challenge is a house that few people could afford to build and no bank would touch a mortgage for it.  This is because so much money was spent on the renewables and heating and cooling systems, there is no way an appraisal would justify the costs.  It has something ridiculous like 65 PV panels, many just to run the systems in the house including geothermal.  The goal of the Challenge is to promote energy efficiency/green building and to show builders and homeowners that they can achieve net zero energy.  How can you expand your mission when your poster project is so unattainable. 
5) Matching the technology to the scenario.  All the previous points notwithstanding, I do believe that geothermal can work correctly and efficiently under the right conditions in the right project, but the current craze for geothermal means the technology is being used in places where it is neither effective or beneficial.  There was an article recently in the Waterbury Republican  American newspaper in their Green Living weekly series (our house was featured one week) about a guy who recently installed geothermal.  The article praised the system then ended with a breakdown of costs.  I'm quoting numbers here from memory because I couldn't find the article online to verify my facts, so forgive me if I get my numbers wrong.  He spent $28K for the system and the first two years didn't save anything due to electric costs (his costs actually went UP!!).  So he spent more money for different pumps and to rework the system and achieved a savings of $1200 on the third year.  The cost benefit analysis proves this technology was not a good choice for his home.  

The geothermal craze won't end soon enough for me.  Then maybe I won't have to explain that our geothermal system is located in the basement, then gleefully watch as the hapless fool looks for the basement door.   Unfortunately, CT has started a geothermal rebate program that is fanning the flames of misinformation and the "experts" pushing these systems are drillers making fortunes on installing them, and don't care about operating costs for the homeowners. Such is life.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

State Sponsored Home Energy Audits

The state of Connecticut has a Home Energy Solution, HES, program that provides home energy audits to home owners for a great price of $75.  It includes a walk through inspection of the home, a door blower test to determine air leakage in the house (a great value in itself- ours costs $350), and insulation evaluation, appliance inspections, and air duct inspection and test.  Air sealing and weather stripping will be done afterwards to stop major air leaks.  The technician will also make recommendations on capital improvements to make your home more energy efficient.  With this program there are rebates and discount loans available for capital improvements (I assume like windows and insulation).  The CT Energy Efficiency Fund sponsors and subsidizes unsecured loans through AFC First and the rates are great - 0% to 2.99% depending on how much you borrow.  The state website for the HES program is   
For information on the loans go to 
This is a pilot program so nobody knows how long it will last.  Probably until the stimulus money that funded it is gone.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On the Outside

Now that summer is beatin' down our door, we've been working on the outside of the house.  I built 2 raised garden beds out of local hemlock from the mill down the road and filled them with topsoil/compost mix.  We also built some flower beds around the house and planted edibles and native plants.  Due to the expense of good quality native plants, I'll have to fill the flower beds over time.  For now I just planted things like squash and melon, so the beds wouldn't be so bare looking this season.  Our other big item is a 20' by 15'  blue stone patio that was built by Peter Ledda Landscaping.  We were very pleased with the masons who built it, including a small stone retaining wall (step) on the driveway side.  They were able to use stone from our property.  Apparently, we have great stone here and lots of it, so I'm thinking of all sorts of projects for the future.  Likely some more walls and flower bed borders.  We used blue stone from New York and I think it goes really well with the house and the native stone we incorporated in the patio.  They also poured two footers at each outside corner of the patio so we could add posts for a large pergola over the patio.  We'll definitely need the shade on summer days.  We've been working on a design and thinking about materials.  Jeremy is going to visit the CL&P substation near his business and see if he can pick up pieces of some old utility poles for the posts.  Hopefully we can get some without too much creosote on them, nasty stuff!  If not, then we'll probably use hemlock because cedar is really scarce around here and very expensive.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Enough with the Fluff!!

OK.  So the last several posts have been on the fluffy side and it's high time I try to put that engineering degree to some use (my parents will be so proud).  I know many of you have been wanting more details on the mechanicals and I have been holding off writing about the performance until we had a few good months of operation under our belts, so to speak.  
Here's an overview...we have solar thermal collectors for hot water generation.  The heated glycol from the collectors goes to a 80 gallon Steibel-Eltron tank, that has dual heat exchanger coils.  The bottom coil is for the closed solar loop and the top coil is for the backup heat (also a closed loop), which is provided by a Takagi on-demand water heater.  Hot water in the tank supplies domestic hot water to the house and hot water for the radiant heat system (after going through mixing valves to cool the water prior to entering the PEX water lines).  This system is called an "open system" because drinking water is going through our radiant lines.  The radiant system consists of three loops in our concrete slab on the first floor and "staple-up" radiant tubing on the second floor.  The slab thermostat is a floor sensor that keeps the floor around 69 degrees and the second floor radiant is controlled by a typical thermostat.  We have a third set of radiant loops located deep within the three-foot earthbox under the slab.  The purpose of this set of tubing is two-fold.  First, in the transition months (Spring and Fall) when plenty of sun is available (and thus excess hot water is produced) we send hot water into the earthbox radiant loops, essentially "storing" that heat in the mass where it will passively help to heat the house.  This Spring we found this greatly reduced the amount of time the slab radiant heat turned on (and thus reduced the use of propane).  The second purpose of the earthbox radiant is simply as a heat dump for the system when the tank gets to hot.  Minimum temp for the tank is set at 120 degrees and the max temp is 165 degrees.  We have found that the heat dump will occur once on a really sunny day and only when I'm not using a bunch of hot water (i.e. laundry day).  The dump results in heat going to the earthbox for approximately 20 minutes.   We have NOT seen an increase in the slab temperature (or interior house temperature) more than 1 or 2 degrees due to this, even this week when we had two days over 90 degrees.  This can be attributed to several factors; first, the huge thermal mass of the earthbox and slab, and its ability to absorb the extra heat.  Secondly, we positioned the solar panels to optimize the winter sun (they receive more shading in the summer than winter due to their position next to the house), thus reducing the solar gain and heat generation in the summer.  Lastly, like photovoltaic panels, evacuated tube solar collectors are more efficient in cooler temperatures.  Radiant Floor Company designed the system and calculated the energy loads.  They also supplied all the parts and we hired a heating contractor, Paul Martin, to install the system and the solar collectors.  We did not take advantage of the CT solar thermal rebate program, because we already had a relationship with Paul and did not want to switch to a CT "approved" installer to get the rebate.   Paul is a distributor of  SunMaxx Solar thermal systems.  The evacuated tube solar collectors (hot water generation) were installed in January and it took about 6 weeks to get the control settings and sensors placed properly and get the system running optimally.  Until then, we were burning through an uncomfortable amount of propane.  By the middle of Feb. we were seeing excellent results.  We used about $145 worth of propane in Feb and $90 worth of propane in March, and the last propane fill up was on April 19th for $79.  Since then the propane system has only run briefly on one rainy cold day.  Keep in mind that propane is our backup energy source for hot water for BOTH domestic hot water and space heating in our radiant systems.  We are a family of four.  In a typical year, we would likely use more propane, but it has been unseasonably warm this spring.  All in all we are thrilled with the performance of the house and mechanical/solar systems.  I hope to include some graphics/tables of our energy use in future posts.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tree House and Big Rocks

The past three weekends we've been working on several projects down by our brook.  Jeremy's friend, Al, built a stone wall for us around our fire pit.  We figured he would just pile up the stones found in the area where it appears that an old wall stood, many New England years ago.  He did more than that...he built this gorgeous semi-circle stone wall with flat sides and top, an enlarged stone fire pit, and built a small stone border around a sitting area by the brook, where I can sit and watch the kids play in the water.  The first weekend Jeremy rented a small bobcat excavator which he used to move some of the biggest rocks and some really large stumps from the area.  We also built two rain gardens which will hold the rainwater from two of our roof downspouts and allow infiltration.  We've planted native species that like to have wet roots.  It's a wonderful idea and I'm anxious to see if it solves a bit of our runoff issues.
Last weekend I built two 10' by 5' raised garden boxes from hemlock I purchased at the sawmill near our house.  Cedar is hard to find here and very expensive.
Jeremy started building a tree house.  He's been doing research on tree houses for years now, and was excited to start on one.  I think it's quite an ambitious project, but he never had one as a child and I think he's wanting to make up for that.  Oslo, of course, is very excited, and cheers Jeremy on from below (the framing of the structure is still too precarious for Oslo to be helping out directly).  Once the floor is built he'll be up there plenty.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Our First Award!

The company that manufactured and installed our structural insulated panels, Timberline Panel Company, entered our house in the annual building excellence competition held by the Structural Insulated Panel Association.  Out of over 80 applicants who entered nationwide, our house won 2nd place (Honorable Mention) in the residential category.  We are so excited to have been recognized.  You can read more at the SIPA website.  Congratulations Jeff Brooks and the rest of the Timberline team!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Solar Clothes Dryer

Spring is's time to take that laundry outside to dry.  Hardcore energy conservationists probably dry their clothes outside in the winter too, but I'm a bit too wimpy for that.  In the winter I dry my clothes on drying racks inside.  But now that it's warm and sunny I'm using my NEW breezecatcher drying rack.  I just purchased and installed it several weeks ago and I LOVE IT.  Jeremy says "you're getting old when your excitement for the week is hanging your laundry up to dry".  But seriously...going outside on a sunny day in April, watching and listening to the robins, seeing my solar panels pumping free hot water into my house, and using my new clothes dryer is a great experience.  I highly recommend it.  

Monday, April 5, 2010

15 minutes

In the past six weeks we have hosted a number of reporters for interviews and tours for newspaper articles on our house.  We've had 5 articles written, including one today in the Waterbury Republican American, that had some of the best pictures so far.  There was a great art shot of our urinal, of all things, a Kohler waterless urinal.  And in the print version they printed several color pictures of Nola on the stairs and playing on the concrete floor.  Jeremy says cute kids sell papers.   It's been fun to see all our hard work be recognized and to be able to tell about our experience building the house.  The PR blitz is in preparation for the Solar Home Tour sponsored by PACE for our home on this Saturday, April 10, from 12 - 4.   So far 76 tickets have sold and PACE expects a flurry of last minute purchases, a real "hit" in the eyes of the organization.  Jeremy and I are going to be busy for those four hours... however, we will have a number of our venders here to help us answer questions about the house.
The other exciting development is that I finally met with a landscape architect that specializes in native plants.  Lisa Turoczi, from Earthtones Nursery, came up with some great suggestions for our "blank canvass" around the house and for some areas down by our brook.  I'm looking forward to getting some plants in the ground around the house and get the birds and other critters back.  I'm not getting anything to my bird feeder because there is no other habitat to attract them. 
Next post will be an update on our solar hot water system (Spring version) and photos of my new solar clothes dryer.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I've been waiting for a clear day following a fresh snowstorm to take some night pictures.  I think they turned out nice.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Too Much Light

We invited our good friend, Dave Emond, over to our house to take some professional pictures of the inside of the house. Unfortunately, it was actually TOO sunny and bright inside and we were getting glare in all the shots. Here are a couple nice ones he captured. The top picture is taken from the dining area looking toward the stairs and kids play area (the cleanest it's ever looked and will ever look again).

The other picture is of our bedroom - I wanted to show everyone how the sliding barn doors turned out. We used these beautiful solid wood doors salvaged from an office building remodel. Most of the doors were full view glass doors, but we used the only solid door for our bedroom. Most of the doors in the house were traditional swing doors, but in two places we used this inexpensive barn door hardware that we found at Tractor Supply. Tractor Supply came through for us on two occasions when we couldn't afford the expensive designer look we wanted. We used galvanized hog fencing for the railing on the stairs and balcony at the cost of $39 for a 10 foot sheet!! And our building inspector was fine with it because it had small enough holes. And then we found this sliding door hardware at a fraction of the cost of the stuff we were originally pricing out. So we are really embracing this whole barn theme, after all. We finally got some fresh snow yesterday, so tonight I'm going to try to take some outdoor shots as the sun goes down. The house looks awesome at night with the light shining up out of the cupola windows.

Friday, January 22, 2010

We're in Hot Water!

Our solar (hot water) panels were installed in the finals days of 2009.  We've been running our system, as designed, for two weeks using the sun to heat our water for both domestic hot water use and space heating.  We have four SunMaxx solar panels which consist of 20 evacuated tubes per panel.  For those who want more technical information on evacuated tube collectors, please use the link and I won't bore the rest of you with details.  We chose the evacuated tube (ET) collectors over the more common flat plate collectors for two reasons:  1)  the ET collectors are much more efficient in cold and overcast/cloudy conditions and would, therefore, be better in the winter when we need hot water for heating our house, 2) to get the btu output needed for space heating we would have needed 10 flat plate collectors to do the same job, requiring much more space and sun exposure.  I may get disagreements from experts on this, but it seems that flat plate collectors, which produce lower water temperatures, are great for domestic water heating only.  ET collectors can produce very high temperature water (170 degrees) so your system must be designed to accommodate this.  Our system is designed to store the high temperature water and then uses several water mixing valves that cool the water before it enters PEX tubing either for domestic use or in the radiant tubing.  It's what is called an open system where domestic water actually goes through our radiant tubing, where it is cooled (heat transferred to the floors) and returns to the system either through the mixing valves or to the bottom of the storage tank to be used again.  Moving backwards in the system, our tank is an Eltron Steibel solar tank with two coils (heat exchangers) inside.  The bottom coil is where the solar loop transfers it's heat and the top coil is where the backup heat enters via a Takagi on-demand water heater.  Here is a general schematic of the system; ours is the second to last picture on the page titled "Open System with Solar Tie-in".  

Friday, January 8, 2010

Let the Sun Shine On

After much anticipation, our solar systems are operational (mostly).  Our photovoltaic (PV) system, for electricity production, was installed during two very cold and windy days right before Christmas.  It consists of a DC power inverter and 38 roof panels which will produce about 7.6 KW of power, more than enough for our energy efficient home (minus the hot tub which we haven't yet figured out how best to connect to the solar hot water system).  We applied for the PV system through the CT Solar Leasing Program, a program within the CT Clean Energy Fund, where we lease the system.  After having our house "approved" for it's inclusion in the program, i.e good sun exposure and a CL&P (Northeast Utilities) customer, we signed a 15 year lease for the system.  The net amount of our lease is the cost of the system minus a 60% rebate from the CT Clean Energy Fund, and minus a large federal tax credit that the leasing company receives for purchasing the equipment.  This resulted in a very small monthly payment (about 1/3 of the typical monthly electrical bill for this size house.  After the term of the lease is up we can choose to purchase the system at current market value, or renew our lease for an additional 5 years at a greatly reduced cost, or remove the system.  No matter how you look at it, we couldn't find a single reason not to proceed with the program.  1) There were no out-of-pocket costs and we now have a small, locked-in monthly price for our electricity - our monthly lease payment plus whatever CL&P is going to charge us to mail us a net metering bill (which should be zero energy use averaged over the course of a year, 2) Talk about "green" more efficient can you be than to use power at the point of generation - no losses in transmission and it's CLEAN power, and 3) we hope that technological advances and lower costs for these systems will be a reality in 15 years and we'll have many options when our lease is up.  We used Alteris Renewables, and were exceedingly pleased with their professional installation.   Right now our system has been inspected by the local official and CL&P showed up today to install our "net meter" that will spin in both directions.  It's our hope that we will be able to flip the switch ON any day now and start producing clean, free power.  What a liberation!
UPDATE:  Today we received approval from CL&P to turn on the inverter and start receiving power from our panels.  So at daybreak tomorrow morning we'll flip the switch with a toast over coffee and waffles.