- 1:52 pm - Fri, Dec 31, 2010
The Next Big Leap
“So what can we do to keep homes improving from an energy efficiency standpoint?”
For a long time, answers such as “improve insulation” or “designed better HVAC” systems would have likely been what first came to mind. However, with new building guidelines, standards, and especially with the emergence of organizations such as LEED, Energy Star, and the National Green Building Standard coming to the main stage, a lot of what can be done from a design standpoint has been covered.
The title of this entry is more of a question, rather than statement, although it could be interpreted either way. What I would like to ask all of you is “What do you think the next big leap in building efficiency will be”?
My own person guess would be window efficiency and the introduction of this handy little material that some of you probably already know about. Its called “Aerogel”, and it has the potential to revolutionize window efficiency. Currently, glass is one of the most energy inefficient materials used in building construction. Even double, or triple pane glass tend to lose their effectiveness after approximately 10 years. At the expense of some partial degree of clarity, Aerogel, as a window insulator could drastically improve the efficiency of windows without (but with, would be better) the use of storm windows or plastic window wrap (you know, the annoying material you need to put up in the winter).
While not directly aimed at window insulation, take a quick look at the article below and tell me what you think. Cheers.
- 11:46 am - Fri, Dec 17, 2010
The Many Shades Of One Color: Part 2
To continue on from our last conversation, I would first like to offer a definition as to what I personally believe a “green product” should strive to do.
A green product can generally be defined as a product that, from raw material extraction, to end-of-life disposal, lessens its impact on the environment as thoroughly as possible.
While being mindful of the previously stated definition, I would like to ask each of you to look around right now, where ever you location, and think about how much of an energy investment the day to day items you see around you require.
Looking at my desk, I notice my travel mug, which contains 100% recycled content. However well intentioned the travel mugs design, the materials used (plastic, metals) still require large quantities of energy to manufacture. Even the most well intentioned and “greenest” products aren’t necessarily good for the environment, they’re just better than their counterparts. I cannot emphasize enough that green does not mean “no impact,” it means “low impact”.
Compact Florescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) use considerably less energy and last significantly longer than incandescent light bulbs. That’s great…right? Yes and no, because while their extended lifespan does help create less landfill waste and their reduction in energy consumption helps conserve resources, the ballast used for CFLs contains trace amounts of mercury, a toxic element that is commonly discarded into the trash and then our landfills with the disposal of the light bulb.
Electric hand dryers in bathrooms create reduce overall material waste, and because the paper processing procedure is very energy intensive, you’re helping to save that energy, right? Well sure you are, but many hand dryers are not so different from the hair dryer you might have in your home and they can use a lot of energy themselves. Additionally, paper, while produced from a very energy intensive process, is considered a renewable resource and does biodegrade relatively quickly.
The primary point I’m attempting to drive at here is that every product has its own strengths and weaknesses. More than anything, I hope that those who give this post thought realize that we’re marketed green products every day, but not all of them may have as many green qualities as we’re typically led to believe. Use your best judgment, stop and give pause when a product makes a claim about how it better serves the environment, and most of all, realize that no matter how green a product is, anything man-made has an environmental impact.
- 4:06 pm - Thu, Dec 16, 2010
Q: Just a hello and that I've enjoyed reading your blog. As it happens I live in an "old" 1926 house, am very involved with local historic preservation & neighborhood issues and am very interested in home energy issues as well, from the consumer side.
You've blogged about Energy Star hype. I'm in agreement. One additional point if I may, in our community we had a major downtown employer vacate their multiple locations and build a new leeds platinum certified building outside of town. I can appreciate they needed new facilities and a unified space. All the crowing about "green" though completely misses the fact that there were folks who walked and rode bikes to work and were able to walk to downtown restaurants for lunch. Everyone now must drive. There is no bike trail and walking is out of the question.
Much (not all) of the Energy Star new construction is taking place in sprawling, auto-centric planned developments far removed from services folks need to drive longer distances to... in my non-professional opinion.
Off topic, I recently became more aware of Kalamazoo via the book Kalamazoo Promise. Very interesting. Nice community. We drove around town on our way home from a conference in Novi.
Enjoyed your blog.
Thank you very much for the kind words. I apologize that I have not been terribly active as of late, but I hope to have a new post up pretty soon.
If I may ask, what style is your home? And I’m glad you enjoyed your drive through Kalamazoo. I think its a great place to live. Very active, lots of young minds and nice shops, and has just about everythign a larger city like Chicago does…but condensed into just a few city blocks.
- 3:48 pm - Fri, Dec 10, 2010
Energy conservation is the foundation of energy independence.
- 1:56 pm - Mon, Nov 29, 2010
The Many Shades of One Color: Part 1
Green is almost undeniably one of the most marketed colors as it relates to the environment, sustainability, and energy. But what exactly does “green” mean in relation to environmental and energy issues. More importantly, can a modern product or process really be considered green, and if so, by what benchmark? For example, we know that CFLs use less energy than incandescent lights, but does consuming less energy really make a product greener? To begin, the word green has ascended to a level much greater than simply a word describing a color, but a term that can imply a variety of definitions, standards, and phrases that are rooted in efficiency, conservation, environmental impact, etc. So let’s break “green” down for a moment. Green can imply any (but not limited to) of the following: High efficiency, conservation, organic, non-toxic, sustainable, renewable, recycled content, recyclable, bio-degradable, natural… Green is such a multi-faceted word that creating a simple definition would pose no simple task due to the sheer number of situations and contexts the word can have application in. However, English is no stranger to words that have different connotations and that are context specific. You could say, “The wind blew over our trampoline.” or “You need to wind the clock daily for it to operate”. You’re using the same word, but the context changes greatly depending on how you use it. Right now, I’m wearing a shirt with patches of green, but I don’t see any indication that this shirt is somehow more environmentally friendly than any other typical article of clothing. Alternatively, I could say that I’m wearing a green shirt…because it’s made from organic cotton in a facility powered by solar energy and was delivered to the department store by a truck that runs on biofuel created using the waste grease of local restaurants. So, green can have a variety of definitions based on how the term fits into a given context. Getting back to our original questions, we’ll need to explore some current products and ideas that are considered green so we can see just how environmentally conscious they really are, or are not. To be continued…
- 4:49 pm - Fri, Nov 19, 2010
Let’s Talk Preservation: Part 2
In my previous journal entry, “Let’s Talk Preservation: Part 1”, I briefly touched on why Energy Star certified homes, despite their high levels of efficiency, still inflict considerable damage to the environment. We know that Energy Star homes reach their certification by making use of high efficiency windows, appliances, insulation, and HVAC systems. However, regardless of how little energy a new home consumes, it still requires exceptional levels of energy to construct. Materials are shipped from all part of the country if not world, workers drive in from miles away, heavy machinery excavates foundations and other areas for utilities, and cannot even account for how much energy the fabrication and manufacturing of the homes individual components consumed. Even with their advanced levels of efficiency, an Energy Star homes energy savings would take a decade or more to just break even with the energy consumption invested in the buildings construction. The homeowner might pay less for energy, but paying less does not mean the house used less during construction. I live in a city with several vibrant historic neighborhoods containing dozens of beautiful homes. Through my experiences living in this city, I have become a preservationist not because I love old homes, but because as an environmentalist, I understand the importance of making good use of what is already available (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle). Older homes typically consume more energy than new homes, but not due to flawed design or intent. Generally speaking, a home, just like a car, is only as good as the components used for its construction. I would expect a brand new home to perform better than one that has existed for 75+ years. But hardly does that make an old home a lesser home. Think back to what I said goes into making an Energy Star home an Energy Star home. Many, if not all of those areas can be applied to an older home and achieve nearly equal, if not equal results if applied correctly. Therefore, I would encourage you, if you find yourself in the market for a new home to count out the older housing stock available. Many older homes have a lot of character and can function perfectly well as an energy efficient home. I’ve strongly believed in preservation and the rehabilitation of older homes for several years, advocating that a well maintained historic home can achieve reasonably comparable results to a brand new Energy Star home. You may even find a number of strong rebates available for reconditioning and renovating an older home. The federal and state governments currently offer a variety of tax breaks for energy efficiency related upgrades and some states (such as Michigan) will give you a tax credit equal to 25% of your expenses for helping to preserve older historic homes.
- 4:51 pm - Mon, Nov 15, 2010
Let’s Talk Preservation: Part 1
Every day, while traveling to or coming home from work, I hear an advertisement for new Energy Star homes under construction or ready for purchase. While I have the utmost respect for what Energy Star certification stands for and hopes to accomplish, I don’t believe I could ever own one myself. Energy Star and other similarly accredited homes offer quite a bit in terms of energy efficiency, but in terms of lessening the homes impact on the environment…I’m not entirely sure I could agree. Energy Star certified homes certainly have a lot to offer in terms of high efficiency insulation, windows, appliances, and HVAC systems. However, none of the aforementioned Energy Star home aspects are really out of the ordinary and could be applied to a home whether brand new or several decades old. Chances are pretty good that if you wanted a new home and worked closely with your contractor, you could implement most of the necessary Energy Star home aspects without problem. You’d essentially have created your own Energy Star home (although you may not receive the certification). New Energy Star certified homes shine when in terms of energy efficiency. However, regardless of how efficient the home, you’re still using an enormous amount of energy to extract, process, ship, and manufacture the materials needed for the home. All of the energy used to construct a new home would go toward the homes overall environmental impact assessment. Even some of the most efficient homes would require at least a decade before they broke even with the amount of energy saved when compared to the energy required during the new homes construction. So where does this leave us? Energy Star certified homes are designed to have exceptional efficiency when compared to typical building standards and effectively cost less money in terms of heating, cooling, and overall operation. However, I would like to present an alternative idea that centers on both energy efficiency and preservation. There are plenty of methods for combining the minimization of environmental impacts with energy efficiency. We’ll continue this topic in “Let’s Talk Preservation: Part 2”.
- 11:49 am - Mon, Nov 8, 2010
Its Not All About The “R”
A few months ago I had lunch with a friend of mine who recently bought an older historic home in southern Ohio. The subject of insulation and heating costs came up and we engaged in a bit of a debate over what kind of insulation to use. Now, I don’t believe either of us won, primarily because I don’t think an ultimately right answer exists for the topic we were debating. The topic you ask? “How big of a role does the R-Value really play in insulation on an application specific basis?” My friend had bought enough R-30 fiberglass insulation for his attic despite my attempts to encourage him to use a variety of materials, foam and fiberglass included. Now, don’t get me wrong, fiberglass can serve as an appropriate and effective insulation in a number of circumstances. Fiberglass is good for walls, and can conditionally be good for your attic as well. However, I view fiberglass insulation as similar to a nice fleece shirt or pullover. They can certainly keep you warm, but once the wind starts blowing, you feel it. In calm conditions, fiberglass can work very well to keep heat in designated areas, but does not excel as well as foam in preventing air movement, and that air movement can contribute to a considerable amount of heat loss. So what is the point of all this so far? Simple: Don’t assume that just because your insulation has a high R-Value, that you’re going to get the most effective results. My suggestion: If you want to use fiberglass in your attic, that’s fine. However, be sure to go in and use a good sprayed polyurethane foam around the exterior wall cavities, fascia and soffit. Anyplace that air may be able to infiltrate from the exterior (but remember that some ventilation is required). Once that is complete, then you can add in any fiberglass that you’d like. Remember, an R-Value is a measure of resistance to heat, not necessarily a resistance to air movement. So the next time you’re looking to insulate part or all of your home, just be sure to think carefully about what you want to do, and keep an open mind about the different methods available to reach that result.