Buyers Benefit From Having an Agent Who Knows Home Systems and Sustainability

One of the reasons I enjoy showing homes to buyers is that I get to educate them about home systems and how they work, as well as identify the sustainable and not-so-sustainable features of each home.

The agents at Golden Real Estate have a thorough understanding of home systems as a result of our combined decades of experience and hundreds of transactions. In addition, we have taken classes on energy efficiency, insulation, solar power and home construction which allow us to serve buyers better when we show them homes.

Together, for example, we toured the model homes at Richards Farms when they were under construction, where we learned, among other things, about that builder’s foam insulation process.

There are so many aspects of energy efficiency and sustainability. Everyone by now knows about solar photovoltaics — creating electricity from the sun. Our office has 20 kW of solar panels, but having solar power is only the beginning. It’s how efficiently you use that power that makes the difference.

Heating and cooling is the biggest user of energy in any home, and the number and variety of HVAC systems have become more extensive and more complicated, and we understand and can explain them. They include: gas forced air heating and compressor-based air conditioning (most common in Colorado and much of the country), hot water baseboard heat, hot water radiant floor heating, wall-mounted heating panels or strips, heat pump mini-splits for both heating and cooling, hybrid heat-pump with gas forced air (which Rita and I have in our home), ground-source heat pump for both heating and cooling (the “gold standard” of efficient heating and cooling) — and let’s not forget heating with wood or wood pellets!

Windows can vary greatly. Double-pane windows may be standard now, but a Colorado company, Alpen, has made a name for itself with triple-pane windows and now quadruple-pane windows.  Recently I wrote about John Avenson’s Westminster home, in which some of his south-facing Alpen windows have micro-etching to divert sunlight toward the ceiling of his kitchen, a high-tech alternative to reflective window shelving, which we saw when we toured a newer building at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Skylights are so 20th Century. Today’s modern replacement are sun tunnels (Solatube is a leading brand), which are great for illuminating interior rooms. Just last week I showed a home with five Solatubes in it, lighting up the living room and an interior bathroom amazingly well from the mid-day sun. My buyer didn’t realize they weren’t ceiling light fixtures until I pointed them out. (We have two sun tunnels in our home illuminating our windowless garage and laundry room, and we have four sun tunnels in the Golden Real Estate office. We don’t have to turn on any lights on sunny days!)

A knowledgeable agent can also point out passive solar features of a home, which others might not recognize. These include proper window configuration, wide overhangs above south-facing windows, thermal masses in south-facing sunrooms, and deciduous trees providing strategically positioned shade in the summer but allowing more sunlight in the winter. I like to see (and point out) cellular shades, especially vertical ones covering patio doors for cold-weather insulation.

Often I notice that the listing agent didn’t mention the features (such as the Solatubes) that my buyers and I recognize as selling points. Of course, when doing the narrated video tours of our own listings, my broker associates and I don’t miss the opportunity to point out those features. And, of course, we are sure to mention those features in the MLS listing.

Many agents miss the opportunity to write a separate description on the MLS for each individual room. It’s not a mandatory field, but it’s the best place to mention a room’s Solatube, heated floor, porcelain tile, hardwood or other feature.

Discover Arvada’s Geos Community, Where the Homes’ Energy Costs Are Essentially Zero

That’s what it’s like for Jim & Patty Horan, who bought their 3-bedroom, 3-bath, 2,135-sq.-ft. home at 15062 W. 69th Place in Arvada’s Geos Community. They paid $525,000 for it three years ago (July 2017). 

Like all Geos homes, this one has no gas service. With only 6kW of solar panels on the roof, the home is heated by a ground source heat pump. It draws heat from the earth via a 300-foot-deep loop under the home. The heat pump uses very little electricity during the summer to further cool the 55° fluid in that loop, and not much more energy during heating season to heat that fluid to 100 degrees.

On Saturday, June 27th, Jim Horan gave me a tour of his home which I recorded for this fall’s Metro Denver Green Homes Tour. You can view the video at YouTube.com/jimsmith145.

Geos Community’s website describes it as “Colorado’s first geosolar development” and is the only subdivision I know that’s built entirely “net zero energy.” There are developers building solar-powered communities like KB Home’s subdivision on the northeast corner of Hwy 93 and 58th Ave., but they don’t come close to being net zero.

There’s a term for such homes — “greenwashing,” which Wikipedia defines at “a form of marketing spin in which green PR and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly.” I’ve always marveled that those KB Homes were built with many of the solar panels installed on north-facing roof surfaces.

Getting back to the Horans’ home, there’s more to going net zero than having solar panels and a ground-source heat pump. Those features must be coupled with energy saving features so that the limited number of solar panels are enough to meet the home’s energy needs — with energy left over to charge an electric car.

Here are some of those features which I covered in my video tour with Jim Horan.

First and foremost is the passive solar orientation of the building with lots of south-facing windows and a south-facing roof for solar panels. Also, there are overhangs above each south-facing window designed to shade it from the sun during the summer while allow full sun in the winter when the sun is lower in the southern sky.

Next, the building’s “envelope” has to be very tight. That starts with foam insulation blown onto the interior surfaces of the roof and exterior walls, replacing the blown-in cellulose and fiberglass batting typical of tract homes built by other developers. The windows are Alpen triple-pane windows which also have foam-insulated fiberglass framing. (Fiberglass is better for window framing than vinyl – not as prone to aging and warping.)

Those elements make a house too air-tight for healthy living, so an energy recovery ventilator is installed which constantly brings in fresh air, using a heat exchanger designed so that the heat (or coolness) of the air being exhausted is used to heat or cool the fresh air being brought into the house. A heat pump within this device, called a CERV, provides further heating or cooling of that fresh air as needed.

In the townhomes at the Geos Community, the CERV works with an air-source heat pump mini-split instead of a ground-source heat  pump to heat and cool the home year-round.

Have you heard the term “indoor air quality” or “sick building syndrome”?  It refers to high levels of CO2 or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can build up in a home, especially in a home as air-tight as the Geos homes.

The CERV monitors both CO2 and VOC levels in the house and will bring in additional fresh air when those gases exceed the level set by the homeowner. (The Horans have the level for each gas set at 950 parts per million, or ppm.)

What are VOCs?  If you can smell it, it’s probably a volatile organic compound. Examples include new carpet smell and, worst of all, cat litter smells.

Two appliances in Geos homes also contribute to their low energy load. One is the Bosch condensation clothes dryer, which pulls in cool, dry air from the room. The air is heated and passed through the clothes; but instead of being vented outdoors, the air travels through a stainless steel cooling device or heat exchanger. It does heat the room it is in, so the Horans choose to dry their clothes on an outdoor line during the summer, even though their heat pump could handle the additional cooling load if they didn’t do that. Home Depot sells the Bosch 300 “ventless” dryer for $989.

The other appliance is the heat-pump water heater. It has a heat pump above the tank which transfers the heat from the room into the water. I’ve written about this product before. Home Depot sells a 50-gallon Rheem model for $1,299 which earns a $400 rebate from Xcel Energy and another $300 in federal tax credit if purchased by December 31, 2020. Because this appliance emits cold air, it’s in a pantry which the Horans keep closed in the winter and open in the summer. (I would put it in a wine cellar or in a room with a freezer, which emits hot air — a symbiotic arrangement within one room.)

As you are beginning to gather, building a net zero energy home is best done from scratch, when the additional cost is less than retrofitting a home. (My home is net zero in terms of electricity, but we still burn $30 to $50 of natural gas each month, and it takes twice as many solar panels for my home, which has about the same square footage as the Horans’.)

You may be wondering how much more it cost to build the Horans’ house, which they bought new in July 2017. To answer that, I searched all the comparable homes (2– or 3-story, between 1,500 and 2,500 square feet within 1 mile radius) sold during the summer months of 2017, and I found that the $246 per finished square foot paid by the Horans was actually below the median price ($253 per finished square foot) for the seven comparable sales. And those homes probably pay thousands of dollars per year more for electricity (and gas) than the Horans.

If you want to learn more about Geos community, give me a call at 303-525-1851 or visit the Geos website, www.DiscoverGeos.com.

John Avenson of Westminster Is a Committed Teacher of Energy Efficiency

The sponsors of the annual Metro Denver Green Homes Tour, held on the first Saturday each October, are preparing to “go virtual” in case an  in-person tour is not allowed.

John Avenson’s house at 9988 Hoyt Place, Westminster

That will be accomplished by creating online video tours of the most notable “green” homes featured over the past 20 years. Since I’m on the steering committee for the tour and have the equipment and experience from creating video tours of homes for sale, I volunteered to create those video tours, starting with John Avenson’s home at 9988 Hoyt Place in Westminster.

By clicking here, you can view the 41-minute video tour, led by John, which I created last Friday. It is highly educational.

John Avenson

Many people, myself included, have created homes which can be considered a “model” of sustainability, solar power, and energy efficiency, but John is surely the only homeowner who has turned his home into a classroom for teaching it. He even posted pictures and diagrams throughout the house with instructional content about this or that feature, as you will see on that video.

He also hosts monthly Passive House meetings in his home theater which are also streamed online. They can be found at www.meetup.com/Passive-House-Meetup-S-W-Region/

John’s house was originally built by the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI, now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory or NREL) in 1981 using then-state of the art technology, but John has diligently, and at great personal expense, kept retrofitting his home with newer technology, which he is happy to explain to visitors and which he explains on the 41-minute video.

CERV monitor screenshot

For example, because of increased insulation and Alpen quadruple-paned windows, he was able to get rid of SERI’s supplemental natural gas furnace, installing a conditioning energy recovery ventilator (CERV) which is powered electrically. His grid-tied solar PV system provides all his home’s energy needs and has reduced his Xcel Energy bill to under $10 per month — the cost of being connected to the electrical grid.

Some of the technological innovations featured in my video with John were new to me. For example, the Alpen windows across from his kitchen have horizontal micro-etching which redirects the sun’s rays 90° upward to his ceiling instead of straight through the glass, reducing the need for lighting.

John provided his email address in the video, saying that his “learning center” is open 24/7 and that he welcomes all inquiries and visitors.

Interested in Net Zero Living? Discover Arvada’s Geos Community!

I love showing homes in Arvada’s Geos Community to buyers individually, but there’s a live Zoom presentation sponsored by First Universalist Church of Denver next week which will teach you all you need to know about this great community.

Register for that meeting (Tuesday, May 26, at 7pm) by going to https://bit.ly/FirstU_GEOS.

The homes and townhouses in this community are not only “net zero,” they are “net positive,” creating more energy than the homeowners use, including when they charge an electric car. The homes are so well insulated that they need no furnace, only a CERV, which also monitors and maintains indoor air quality.

Our Newest Listing Is a Case Study on How to Achieve Net Zero Energy at Home

6187 Terry Way in Arvada’s Sunrise Ridge Subdivision – Just listed at $450,000

By JIM SMITH, Realtor

Regular readers of this column know my commitment to sustainability. Our office is Net Zero Energy, with our 20-kilowatt solar PV system providing all the energy to heat, cool and power our office plus charge our four electric cars, while also providing free charging to the public. My home is also solar powered, satisfying all our electrical needs, although we still have natural gas service.

Readers may also recall me saying that the most affordable way to invest in sustainable features is to buy a home which already has them, since the investment in sustainability pays for itself over time but rarely returns what you paid for it in the resale value of your home.

The home I just listed at 6187 Terry Way in Arvada’s Sunrise Ridge subdivision is a good example of that. The seller, like me, is fanatical about sustainability and has invested over $80,000 in solar power, insulation, daylighting, and other improvements, but the listing price of $450,000, while higher than for a comparable home with a higher monthly energy bill, recovers for the seller only a fraction of her investment.

Meanwhile, whether or not you are interested in purchasing a terrific 2-bed-room patio home, let me use it as an example of the ways you can invest in sustainable features for your own home.

I’ve written in the past about Steve Steven’s 1970s brick ranch which he took beyond Net Zero. I did a narrated video tour of it when it was on the annual tour of solar homes, and it took over 40 minutes to describe all its sustainable features!

This home, however, is a 2002 frame-built tract home that was constructed with above-average but below-optimum energy and insulation features, leaving plenty of room for improvement.  And improve it the seller did!  (You’ll understand why, knowing that she is Steve Stevens’ significant other!)

What follows is a run-down of the improvements which brought this home’s electrical bill down to the cost of its connection to Xcel Energy’s grid. In fact, the home is beyond Net Zero Energy to Net Carbon Positive, meaning that its excess electrical generation more than compensates for the natural gas being used for cooking and heating. On top of that, the seller charges her electric car in the home’s 2-car garage.

Here are the sustainability highlights:

First, of course, a 4.4-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system was installed on the roof. Having done that, the next tasks involved reducing electrical demand so that 4.4kW of solar PV would be sufficient.

Of course, all incandescent, fluorescent and CFL light bulbs were replaced with LED bulbs and fixtures. That alone reduced the electrical load substantially.

Next, five 14- and 22-inch diameter Velux sun tunnels were installed, bringing natural light into all the rooms, nearly eliminating the need for artificial lighting except at night.

Next, all the appliances, including the central A/C unit, were replaced with high efficiency Energy Star-rated models. In the case of the kitchen appliances, they are all stainless steel.

At this point, the electrical efficiency was pretty much maxed out, so attention was given to reducing the natural gas load for heating the home.

Additional cellulose insulation was blown into the attic, bringing it up to an R-100 rating — more than twice what you’ll find in the typical production home. We have a picture of this home after a snow storm, showing the snow melted off the roofs of neighboring homes but not off this home’s roof — clear evidence of good attic insulation.

The rim joist (accessible because the basement is unfinished) was insulated to R-50. This area of the house, I’ve found, is the most neglected area of any house when it comes to insulation. It’s where the joists for the main floor sit on the home’s foundation. Most home builders stuff some fiberglass insulation between the joists, but they don’t enclose that fiberglass in plastic. Cold winter air easily infiltrates through loose fiberglass insulation. It’s the plastic sheeting which stops that air.  And closed-cell foam sprayed between the joists further inhibits air infiltration.

Next, the windows and patio door were replaced with Energy Star-rated Champion products. Improving the windows further was the installation of insulating Hunter Douglas blinds.

Those are the improvements which made the home more energy efficient, bringing it past New Zero Energy. Other improvements worth noting which add value to this home are the large deck with seating on the sunny south side of the house, the beautiful oak Murphy bed with wall storage in the guest bedroom which allows the bedroom to be used as an office, and the 240-Volt wiring in the garage to provide EV charging.

Since this is a “paired home,” the  party wall already had double-wall construction with insulation which reduced the transmission of noise between the units, but my seller added a third wall which consumed 5 inches on the her side of the party wall, into which cellulose insulation was blown, creating an even better sound barrier.

I hope this article has inspired you to improve the energy efficiency of your own home, even if it hasn’t inspired you to call your agent or me at 303-525-1851 to arrange a private showing!

You can view a video tour of this  listing at http://www.ArvadaPatioHome.info narrated by me. It’s just like an actual showing!

NOTE: Showings begin on Monday, March 23rd.

The 14th Colorado Environmental Film Festival Is Feb. 20-23

With our area’s historic reputation for environmental responsibility, it’s not surprising that Golden is the birthplace and home of the nation’s leading film festival focused on environmental issues. And it won’t surprise you that Golden Real Estate has been a sponsor of CEFF for most of the festival’s life.

I love how this festival is structured, combining local, national and international films — including by children — in both short and feature-length formats. The festival’s opening reception and award ceremony (with film screening) on Thursday, February 20th, is free to attend, as is the reception and Eco Expo on Saturday, Feb. 22nd, where you can enjoy free food and beverages as you visit 20 or so exhibitors of environmentally friendly products from home hydroponic towers to solar panels, to companies which can make your home more energy efficient. We’re sharing Golden Real Estate’s booth with Good Business Colorado, whose membership includes over 210 like-minded businesses committed to sustainability.

You can peruse the 60 films being screened at www.CEFF.net. The films are bundled into four screening sessions on Friday and Saturday — 10 a.m. (10:30 on Saturday), 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. — plus the 7:30 p.m. free session on Thursday and two afternoon sessions on Sunday that will feature the films which won awards. The website lists and describes the films included in each session. You can purchase tickets on the website. Prices range from $9 for a single session ($4 for children under 12) up to $20 or $25 for a day pass and $65 for an all-access pass.

There are two theaters for each session, and each session includes 2 to 5 films, depending on length. The Friday morning session (CEFF 4 Kids) is limited to students, including those who are home-schooled, by advance reservation.

The films explore the undeniable and inescapable interconnection of Earth’s ecology, societies and economies. Audiences will be entertained and will leave inspired, surprised, motivated and transformed through events that will involve audience members and filmmakers in thought-provoking dialogues and forums about the films.

Still photography is a big part of each year’s festival, too, with environmentally themed photographs adorning the walls of the American Mountaineering Center, where the festival takes place. On Friday at 5 p.m. there is a photography reception, with a keynote address at 6:30 by photographer Cheryl Opperman on “The art of communication through photographs.”

The Eco Expo opens at noon on Friday and Saturday only.  Look for us at our booth!

Passive House Technology Underlies Going ‘Net Zero Energy’

“Passive House” is a concept born in Germany as “PassivHaus” but growing in popularity here in America. Although its primary focus is on reducing the heating and cooling needs of a home through proper north/south orientation, the placement of windows, and roof overhangs, it also includes design elements that make a home better for its inhabitants. It has many other positive impacts as well, including healthier and quieter spaces, greater durability, and greater comfort for inhabitants.”

Prior to the oil embargo of 1973, home builders did not concern themselves much with making homes energy efficient, but that all changed as we quickly realized how dependent we were on foreign countries for fossil fuels to heat our homes and fuel our cars. Homes built before then were poorly insulated, drafty and less healthy.  (For example, lead-based paint wasn’t banned until 1978.)

The passive house concept took off in America as a result of that wake-up call. The “Lo-Cal” house created in 1976 consumed 60% less energy than the standard house at the time, and the concept continues to mature.

If you participated in any of the “green home” tours that Golden Real Estate co-sponsors each fall, you’ve learned about various passive home strategies in addition to “active” strategies such as solar power, heat pumps, geothermal heating, and energy recovery ventilators.

When “active” systems are introduced to a home with passive house design, they work more easily to create the ultimate goal of a “net zero energy” home — one which generates all the energy needed to heat, cool and power the home and, perhaps, charge the owner’s electric vehicles.  Without passive house design features, you can still achieve net zero energy, but it may require substantially more solar panels to compensate for such factors as inferior orientation, fenestration (windows) and insulation.

You can learn all about passive home technology, including trainings and public events, online at www.phius.org. Also, search “Passive House SW” at www.meetup.org for local events.

An excellent example of new construction which combines passive house design with smart active systems in the Geos Community in Arvada, which you can learn about online at www.DiscoverGeos.com. The homes in Geos are all oriented to maximize solar gain in the winter, but also designed for sun shading in the summer. Some have a geothermal heating, while others have air source heat pumps and conditioning energy recovery ventilators (CERVs). The CERVs installed in the Geos homes not only provide heat when needed but also track the level of CO2 and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air and adjust their function to reduce those levels, thereby improving indoor air quality.

None of the Geos homes uses natural gas, just solar-generated electricity.

Is Your Gas Furnace or Gas Water Heater About to Fail? Consider a Heat Pump

A reader called me last week because her gas furnace had quit working and, knowing my expertise regarding sustainability, she wanted my advice on replacing it.

I told her that this was an opportunity to do something other than buy a new gas furnace.  I told her about my Carrier “Hybrid Heat” furnace which uses an air-source heat pump for heating as well as cooling and only burns gas when the outdoor temperature dips well below freezing. With her solar panels, it’s possible she won’t even pay for the electricity consumed by the heat pump, and her gas consumption will plummet.

That hybrid system would use her home’s existing ductwork, but, since she has a one-story home, I suggested she consider a ductless mini-split heat pump system like the one we have at our office. I gave her the name of the vendor who installed both my home and office systems who could advise her which system was best for her.

I also suggested that she look into replacing her gas water heater with a heat-pump model when it fails.  My gas water heater is over 15 years old, so I’m thinking of replacing it before it fails. Home Depot sells a Rheem 50-gallon heat pump water heater (model #XE50T10HD50U1) for $1,299. Best off all, Xcel Energy gives its customers a $500 rebate for purchasing it.  I have enough solar panels to handle the extra electrical demand and eliminate much of my current gas usage, which is mostly for water heating, since I have that Carrier hybrid furnace. Our only other gas usage is for cooking and grilling.

Your Car Battery Could One Day Be Your Home Backup Power

Perhaps you, like me, have considered investing in a home battery system — not to go “off grid” so much as to survive blackouts. Simply having solar does not give you such protection, because when the grid goes down, your solar panels do not generate electricity. That’s required by power companies, because they don’t want you pumping electricity into downed power lines as their technicians work to repair them.

Personally, I’m holding out for a future in which the energy stored in my EV batteries can be tapped to power my home during a blackout.  There’s a term for this called vehicle-to-grid, but a more accurate term would be vehicle-to-home, since it would be done in isolation from the grid.

Because I have two EVs with combined battery capacity of 170 kilowatt-hours, I have a lot of stored power available to me at any time, even if those cars are not fully charged.  For example, 100 kilowatt-hours can provide 5,000 watts of household electricity for 20 hours.

There are commercially available inverters for creating a 120-volt outlet in any car, either gas or electric, but inevitably some automaker — probably Tesla — will create an interface that allows for the electricity stored in one’s EV battery to be tapped for household use during a blackout.

Several electric trucks are going to hit the market in 2020 and beyond, and each will have 120 and possibly 240-volt outlets for field power, which is a good start. You could run an extension cord to power critical home appliances. 

My Advice on Buying Solar Panels and Electric Cars

By JIM SMITH

In the wake of last Saturday’s green homes tour and electric vehicle showcase, I’d like to share the advice I give to people who ask me about investing in solar power and buying an electric car.

As much as I wish it weren’t so, you will not recoup what you spend on solar panels, insulation and other green home improvements for your home when you sell it. As with any improvement, you will receive a percentage of what you spend, but it will not be anywhere near 100%. Only make those investments because you’ll enjoy the comfort and savings for at least a few years — and because it’s the right thing to do.

Regarding electric cars, I recommend buying a used EV. The used car industry has yet to properly value used EVs. Currently electric cars are devalued the same way gas cars are devalued, which doesn’t make sense. Consider a 4-year-old gas-powered car with 100,000 miles on it. You can probably get it for half its original price, because so many components, such as transmission, timing belt or fuel pump, are worn and might fail. But none of those components exist in EVs. There are under 50 moving parts in a Tesla. The same age EV is simply as good as new.

A used Tesla built before mid-2017 is an especially good deal, because lifetime free supercharging transfers to the buyer (unless purchased from Tesla). I’ve seen many Tesla Model S cars for sale online under $40,000, less than half their original price. Here’s one I found just now on autotrader.com….