Homes Built of Concrete Garner Increased Interest in Wake of the Marshall Fire  

Last week’s column focused on ways that homes can be made more fire-resistant, but there’s only so much you can do to protect wood frame homes from wildfires that are driven by hurricane force winds. Looking at neighborhoods where every home was reduced to its concrete foundation, it’s not hard to question that common method of construction.

Reader Peter Deem made me aware of the use of insulated concrete forms (ICFs) to construct the entire “envelope” of a house and pointed me to Don Clem of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, which has a local office in Denver. That organization, along with its Colorado affiliate and several concrete companies, sponsored an 18-townhome project in Woodland Park for Habitat for Humanity of Teller County last summer. Here’s a picture of those townhomes under construction:

Photo by Sara Vestal, Teller County HFH

I was first introduced to the use of ICFs when I participated in the 1994 Jimmy Carter Work Project on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation in Eagle Butte SD. The 28 homes in that project were conventional wood frame (“stick-built”) homes, but the concrete foundations were poured into ICFs. An ICF replaces more common wood forms which have to be removed from the foundation after it cures. The ICF provides insulation in the form of two inches of expanded polystyrene (EPS) both inside and outside the foundation. After seeing it there, I was surprised not to see ICFs in widespread use for foundations by production builders over the past 27 years.

The ICFs being promoted now are for above-ground use for exterior walls, and there are even ICFs for pouring concrete flat roofs. (More commonly, there are concrete tile sloped roofs, including one on the house Rita and I once owned on Parfet Estates Drive in Golden.)

While concrete is a non-combustible material, the EPS insulating layers will melt with direct flame, but it does not act as a fuel source, will not promote flame spread, and will not release harmful gases. In addition, the ICF would be protected on the outside of a home by siding — for example, a fiber cement siding like Hardieboard, which is not combustible, and the flames would probably only be present briefly during a passing wildfire. The interior would be covered by drywall, as with a stick-built house.

Speaking of that, there is still the question of combustible vegetation such as juniper bushes that are close to your house. Another reader made me aware of Phos-Chek, the same fire retardant that you see used by aerial tankers to attack wildfires. While that chemical is red, it’s available in a colorless concentrate that you mix with water and apply using an ordinary sprayer to the vegetation around your home.  A single bottle of Phos-Chek sufficient to make 5 gallons costs $59.99.  You will need 5 to 20 gallons depending on the amount of vegetation you want to cover. Click here to view a KNBC news segment about a Malibu homeowner who saved her home from the Woolsey fire in November 2018 thanks to an application of Phos-Chek to the grounds around her house three months earlier.

In last week’s column I also mentioned that the soffit vents typical of homes with unconditioned attics can allow embers to enter the attic, igniting an interior fire, but I neglected to mention that there are ways to fireproof soffit vents to keep that from happening.

Another way that concrete homes are being built is using 3D printing pioneered by Icon, an Austin TX-based company which is currently building a 100-home Texas subdivision in partnership with Lennar using that process. Icon built its first 3D-printed home in 2018 as a proof of concept, following which they built a community of 3D-printed homes in Tabasco, Mexico. Here’s a picture of a Habitat for Humanity 3D-printed home in Virginia:

Just as desktop 3D printers work by applying multiple layers of material following a computerized template, Icon’s huge 3D printers apply multiple layers of concrete. See www.IconBuild.com for more information about this company, which, by the way, has NASA contracts to build 3D-printed structures on the moon and on Mars. Their primary mission, however, is “to re-imagine the approach to homebuilding and construction to make affordable, dignified housing available to everyone throughout the world.”

Their home page goes on to say, “the audacious mission of Icon is to revolutionize homebuilding, and our team’s expertise and determination have already made this dream a reality. Our team has a passion for design, engineering, and elegant software. We have decades of experience in sustainable technology and construction innovation.”

Building with concrete is both less labor intensive, less expensive and more sustainable than building with lumber. It’s significant that one of America’s biggest builders, Lennar, is working with Icon to build those 100 concrete homes in Texas. That project should provide facts and figures about the practicality and economy of building with concrete that could be a powerful influence on the rest of the home-building industry.

Last Week’s Fire Disaster Is a Wakeup Call for Building More Fire-Resistant Homes  

My column on Nov. 29, 2018, followed the wildfire that took out the entire town of Paradise, California.

Last week we experienced a similar tragedy in our northern suburbs of Superior and Louisville. The difference was that this fire was driven by hurricane force winds that are all too common along the foothills.

Those winds weren’t limited to that area, and it was clear to Rita and me that a spark on Lookout Mountain (to which our home backs) might well have led to a similar catastrophe for the city of Golden. There’s no way to stop a fire driven by such winds.

You probably noticed, as I did, that the fire spared some houses while completely consuming adjoining houses, so perhaps it’s possible to increase the chances of being one of those skipped houses in a future wind-driven wildfire. Was it just luck, or did those homes have any features that may have helped spare them?

Today I’ll describe some features that might increase the chances of a home being skipped.

In high wind or low, it’s important to recognize that fires spread from home to home primarily by wind-blown embers. You’ve probably heard of insurance companies requiring homes in the “wildland urban interface” to create a “defensible space” around them by removing trees and other combustibles within, say, 20 to 30 feet of the home.

Useful as that might be, it’s more important that burning embers from further away not land on combustible material such as dead leaves, shrubbery, a wood deck, or a shingle roof.

There’s a useful website on this topic, www.DisasterSafety.org/wildfire. One of the links on that website that you’ll find useful is “What to do if a wildfire is approaching your home.”

California is, understandably, a leader in researching and rating building materials based on their fire resistance. Cal-Fire’s 48-page handbook dated Dec. 14, 2021, lists construction materials in 7 categories: decking; exterior windows; exterior wall siding and sheathing; exterior doors; under-eave protection; vents; and non-wood roof covering/assemblies.

If I were to invest in making my own home more fire resistant (which I am seriously considering in the wake of last week’s fires), here are some of the things I would investigate;

Metal roofing: I like the look of what is called “stone-coated steel” roofing. It looks from a distance like wood shake roofing. There’s an HOA in south Jeffco which requires wood shake roofing, but it will allow this kind of metal roofing. (It does not allow the more commonly used composition shingle roofing.)

Roof sprinklers: I have often thought it would make sense to install sprinkler heads at strategic locations on my roof to wet the roof if a fire is approaching. I’m going to ask a plumber about this concept. Sprinklers that douse the exterior walls might also be a good idea. I found on Amazon a kit of 2 roof sprinklers with gutter, wall or fence mounting and 50 feet of hose for $179.95, but I   like the idea of permanent sprinkler heads with through-the-roof plumbing, which I think my HOA would find less objectionable.

Motorized rolling metal shutters: I have seen these installed on a few Jeffco homes. They’re marketed for privacy and security, but they completely cover the windows when lowered and would surely help protect against fire. Some such systems allow the shutters to be operated via an app on your smartphone. One vendor is www.SomfySystems.com. Think of this as another reason for having a home battery backup system (which we have ordered) in case of power failure.

Non-combustible siding: The most common siding being installed by local builders is “HardieBoard” from James Hardie. Although it can be mistaken for wood siding, it is actually a non-combustible fiber cement product. It’s only 1/4 inch thick, however, so it only provides short-term protection and does not qualify as fire resistant, so it matters what is underneath it. (Refer to that Cal-Fire handbook of siding products.)

Special attention should be paid to the underside of roof overhangs, balconies and decks, where flames can be trapped. Roof soffits in most homes have vents which combine with vents on the roof to circulate outside air through the attic.  Unfortunately, this design can also allow the introduction of wind-blown embers into the attic. One way to eliminate these vents is to do what Meritage Homes did in building Arvada’s Richards Farm subdivision. The insulation of those homes is closed-cell foam sprayed onto the underside of the roofs, rather than the more typical blown-in cellulose or fiberglass batts resting on the floor of the attic, as is found in most homes. The attic in such homes becomes conditioned (i.e., heated) space, eliminating the need for soffit and roof vents. Meritage probably didn’t consider that making the homes more energy efficient in this way had the added benefit of making them more resistant to ember intrusion in a wildfire.

In past columns, I have promoted the all-electric home for sustainability and health reasons, but last week’s fires have provided another reason for doing away with natural gas. A large number of homes that were not destroyed are nevertheless enduring days and possibly weeks without natural gas for heating during some bitterly cold days. If any of those homeowners had switched to heat pumps for space heating and for hot water (as I have recommended), they would not be affected by the long delay involved in restoring gas service to their neighborhood. That might be an additional inducement to make the switch away from natural gas.

Homeowners in that area are being urged to boil water, so they might consider buying a countertop induction burner, which can boil water in one or two minutes, versus 10 or more minutes on a conventional range. I found 110V models online for $49-79.

It is not uncommon for homes to have “safe rooms” to which homeowners can retreat in case of a home invasion. If such a room were constructed in a basement with cinderblock walls, a metal door, and a concrete-and-metal ceiling, it might double as a survival room in the event of a wildfire when evacuation is a risky alternative. Given the increase in tornadoes due to climate change, it could also serve as a tornado shelter.

Although I have not researched it, I would guess that taking some of these precautions — especially metal roofing and the rolling metal shutters — might help to reduce your insurance premiums, as well as to possibly save your life and property in case of wildfire. 

Realtor Magazine Features All-Electric Home Trend  

This week’s email from Realtor Magazine featured “13 Home Trends Stealing the Spotlight in 2022,” and I was pleased to see that trend number twelve was “All-Electric Homes.”

I could have written it myself! I can’t improve upon the wording, so here it is, verbatim:

     More homeowners understand the importance of “decarbonizing” everything from products to transportation, and especially their homes, says Chicago- and Boulder, Colo.-based architect Nate Kipnis of Kipnis Architecture + Planning. “The way we can best do this is by eliminating all fossil fuels use from houses and including induction cooktops rather than gas for cooking, which offers safer, faster, and more even cooking,” he says. Kipnis recommends using either an air-source heat pump (mini-split) for the HVAC system or a ground source system (geotherm-al). The big payoff, he says, is that renewable energy has become the cheapest form of electricity generation.

Must Read: ‘From Homes to Cars, It’s Now Time to Electrify Everything’  

Every now and then I read an article that I am compelled to share, because it simply “nails it.”

Such was the article by Saul Griffith, published Oct. 19, 2021, on the Yale School of the Environment website, http://www.e360.yale.edu, and re-posted Nov 30, 2021, on GreenBuildingAdvisor.com.

Here’s a link to the full article: https://e360.yale.edu/features/from-homes-to-cars-its-now-time-to-electrify-everything.

The thesis of that article is summarized as follows: “The key to shifting away from fossil fuels is for consumers to begin replacing their home appliances, heating systems, and cars with electric versions powered by clean electricity. The challenges are daunting, but the politics will change when the economic benefits are widely felt.”

The diagram above right shows what can be electrified in a home. Rita and I are most of the way there. This fall I purchased an electric snow blower to complement our electric lawn mower, weed eater, leaf blower and automobiles. Earlier this year I purchased a heat pump water heater to complement our heat pump hybrid furnace. (Hybrid, because it still burns natural gas when the outdoor temperature dips below 30° F.)

All these electric devices are powered by the sun, thanks to our 10-kW solar PV system installed when we bought our home in 2012.  Because we still cook with gas and occasionally burn gas in our furnace and fireplace, our Xcel bill is still around $35-40 per month, but we’re doing our part to “electrify everything.”

You can do that, too.

The central thesis of Saul Griffith’s article is that we have little control over the supply side of energy, although there are encouraging signs of it becoming less dependent on fossil fuels.  But we have total control over the demand side of energy:

“We don’t have a lot of choice on the supply side, but we have all of the choice on the demand side. For the most part, we decide what we drive, how we heat our water, what heats our homes, what cooks our food, what dries our laundry, and even what cuts our grass. This constitutes our ‘personal infrastructure,’ and it is swapping out that infrastructure that will be a key driver of the global transition from fossil fuels to green energy.”

According to Griffith, who co-founded the non-profit Rewiring America, there are 280 million cars and trucks in America, 70 million fossil-fueled furnaces, 60 million fossil-fueled water heaters, 20 million gas dryers, and 50 million gas stoves, ovens and cooktops. Until now, the conversation has been about making each of those fossil-fueled appliances more efficient, earning “Energy Star” ratings.

But the real goal should be to replace them with electric appliances burning the increasingly green electricity which is being generated by our electric utilities.

A common refrain from people regarding electric cars is that they are not really zero emissions because of how the electricity is generated. I myself was originally reluctant to buy an EV because I didn’t want to “switch from burning gas to burning coal.”

However, that argument overlooks the relative efficiency of electric motors.  In a fossil-fueled car, only 20% of the energy in the fuel is propelling the car. The rest is waste energy, primarily creating heat which then requires more fuel to cool it. In an EV, 90% of the energy from the battery propels the car. There’s almost no waste energy.

An suitable analogy to the gas-powered car is an incandescent light bulb, in which light is a byproduct of heating the filament. It’s no surprise that the LED light bulb uses about 20% of the electricity of an incandescent light bulb for the same amount of light, because light is the primary product of the LED, not a by-product of waste energy.

Because of its relative efficiency, even if an EV is charged from electricity created entirely by coal, its carbon footprint is far below that of a fossil-fuelel vehicle. The same applies to today’s highly efficient heat pumps for both space heating (and cooling) and for water heating.

Griffith’s point is that more efficient fossil-fueled appliances won’t get us where we need to be to save the planet from catastrophic climate change. We need to get to zero emissions, which is only possible by going all-electric in our homes and vehicles as our electric utilities make their inevitable transition — whether incentivized by government or simply by the economies of renewable energy — to clean energy.

You, like me, will love the effects of this transition to all-electric living. Imagine a future where carbon dioxide is not a household poison; where motorcycles don’t disturb the peace and quiet of our streets and canyons; where semis slow down quietly because they are putting energy back into their batteries instead of using loud and polluting engine braking; where our neighbors aren’t disturbed by loud lawn mowers, snow blowers and leaf blowers; and where children no longer suffer health problems from their own school buses or playgrounds next to highways.

You, like me, will appreciate the ease of use and near-zero maintenance of electric devices. My snow blower, lawn mower, and leaf blower start by pushing a button or pulling a lever and never need a tune-up, refueling or oil change.

Griffith is not arguing that everyone should immediately swap out their fossil-fueled cars or appliances but rather avoid replacing them with newer ones. Cars, for example, can last for 20 years, and gas furnaces for 15 years. When they need replacing, make the smart choice and replace them with their electric counterparts. You’ll be glad you did five or ten years later when their resale value has evaporated due to public recognition that they became obsolete before you purchased them.

Here’s More About Our Planned ‘Net Zero Store’  

By the time you read this article, Golden Real Estate’s move from 17695 S. Golden Road to 1214 Washington Avenue will be well underway.

Last week I announced that we will be transforming our old office space (which Rita and I own personally) into the home of a new venture Ty Scrable and I are calling The Net Zero Store.  It will be a one-stop shop for “all things sustainable,” selling and/or brokering products and services designed to reduce your home’s carbon footprint.

Among the products we will be selling or promoting are the following:

Solar Photovoltaic and Solar Thermal Systems

Sun Tunnels

Heat Pump HVAC Systems

Heat Pump Water Heaters

High-Efficiency Windows

Various Kinds of Home Insulation

HRVs and CERVs for Home Ventilation and Air Quality

Induction Cooktops

Condensing Clothes Dryers

Sustainable Countertop Choices

Electric Vehicle Charging Stations

 Among the services we will offer directly or through vendors are the following:

In-Home Consultations With a Sustainability Coach

Energy Audits

Blower Door Testing

Testing and Mitigation for Mold, Radon, Asbestos

Advice Regarding Electric Vehicles

ADUs and Tiny Homes

Webinars and In-Person Events on All Aspects of Sustainability

Reading/Video Lists for Further Study

Styrofoam Recycling

Unlike other stores, everyone you encounter at The Net Zero Store will be knowledgeable in all these areas. Ty and I are in the process of creating partnerships with vendors of these products and services. If you have a product or service you think should be featured in our store, please call Ty at 720-281-6783.

We are also recruiting volunteers to serve as sustainability coaches.

What Are the Steps You Can Take Toward Making Your Home Net Zero Energy?  

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the idea of saving money, which will happen when you convert your home to “net zero energy.” So, what are the steps you can take to get there?

Net zero energy” means that your home generates more energy than it consumes. With “net metering,” your electric meter runs backwards when your solar panels generate more electricity than you’re using (on a sunny day), then runs forward at night, resulting in zero (or less) net consumption of electric power.

Solar power gets more affordable every year. When I purchased my first 10-kW solar photovoltaic system 15 years ago, the cost was over $60,000, but Xcel Energy gave a rebate of $4.50 per watt, so I got a check for $45,000 from the utility, reducing my net cost to $15,000. Nowadays that same system would cost as little as $15,000 with no Xcel rebate but a 26% federal tax credit.

While you can generate your own electricity, you cannot generate your own natural gas, so terminating natural gas service is key to achieving net zero energy. This involves some major system changes if you are currently heating your home and your water using natural gas, cooking with gas (including with a gas grill) and have a gas fireplace.

There are electric alternatives to all of these uses of natural gas, and you’ll appreciate that eliminating natural gas also eliminates the possibility of a gas explosion and of carbon monoxide poisoning (unless you have a gas powered car).

Heating your home with electricity used to mean installing baseboard resistance heating units in each room, but that is so 20th century. Nowadays electric space heating is done far more efficiently (and evenly) using heat pumps.

Gas forced air furnaces and water heaters are considered to have a 15-year life expectancy, so when yours fail, think of that as an opportunity to adopt heat pump technology for both functions. And a heat pump eliminates the need for a separate A/C unit, since it heats and cools.

Gas furnaces and water heaters generate heat by burning gas. A heat pump moves heat, similar to what A/C does. (How heat pumps work) It cools your home by moving the heat out of your house. If you put your hand over the external compressor unit while it’s cooling your home, you will feel the heat that was moved from inside your home. In heating mode, the process is reversed, and the heat pump moves heat from outdoors into your house. It may surprise you to know that when it’s freezing outside there is actually heat that can be moved from outside to the interior of your house, but it’s true. (Heat pumps work in extremely cold climates) Our office has been heated solely by heat pump since November 2017, and ever since there has never been a day when the system failed to keep our office at 70°F or warmer.

A simple one-unit 12,000-BTU, 29.3-SEER ductless mini-split system from Fujitsu can be found online for $1,961. That’s a small unit, suitable for one room or a garage (a great application!). For our office, we bought a Mitsubishi system in which a single compressor drives three separate wall units, each with its own thermostat.

A heat pump water heater (which I installed at our home) has the compressor built into the unit, above the tank. You can feel cool air emitting from it when it is heating water. I suggest putting it in a wine cellar where it’ll keep the room cool without buying a separate A/C unit.

For cooking, you’ll be amazed and delighted by the induction cooktops that are now widely available. I saw them used on a cruise ship for both cooking and warming surfaces, and the chefs loved them. (Modern cruise ships have eliminated natural gas because of the fire hazard.)

An all-electric home will, of course, demand more electricity, but Xcel Energy now allows you to install enough solar panels to generate double your electrical usage over the prior 12 months. That is more than enough to cover your new electric space heating, water heating and cooking needs, with capacity left over to charge an EV, too.

An important first step in pursuing net zero energy for your home is to reduce your need for energy, and the easiest and cheapest way to do that is to improve your home’s insulation. I had Dennis Brachfield of About Saving Heat blow cellulose insulation into the exterior walls (not just the attic) of a 1940s bungalow I owned, and I was astonished at how much more comfortable the house became. Even if your exterior walls have batt insulation in them, there is still space in the walls to blow in cellulose. (How to insulate an old house)

I learned something interesting from that experience. We all know that walls can radiate heat, such as a brick wall in bright sunlight. Well, walls can also radiate coldness, or suck heat. The air temperature in my bungalow before and after blowing in insulation was the same, but I felt warmer and burned less gas.

You can go beyond improving the insulation of your exterior walls and attic. There are numerous places that allow cold into your home, especially around your windows. Whether or not you install triple-pane Alpen windows, as we did at our office, caulking around the window frames and elsewhere can reduce the energy needed to heat your home.

A blower door test done by a contractor will identify the air leaks in your home. Insulating your attic with blown-in cellulose and your crawlspace with plastic sheeting will also reduce your home’s energy needs whether from gas heating or your new heat pump. (Insulating crawl spaces)

Of course, many homes, especially in older neighborhoods, can’t benefit from solar power because of shading from trees or insufficient south-facing roof area, but you can purchase community solar. (This is also a good solution for condos which have no roof at all.)

The way community solar works is that you invest in solar panels that are part of a solar farm in some distant pasture. The electricity generated by your panels in that remote location is credited to the electric meter for your home or condo. One advantage of community solar is that when you move, you only need to change which meter gets credited with your solar production.

Other ways of reducing energy use include replacing CFL or incandescent light bulbs with affordable LED bulbs and “daylighting” your home or office. (Batteries + Bulbs sell 8-packs of 60W LED replacement bulbs for $6.49, tax included, after $15 instant rebate.) We have “sun tunnels” in our home and office to bring daylight into interior spaces. In fact, on a sunny day we don’t need to turn on any lights in our office. It’s great— and saves energy. We had Design Skylights of Evergreen install Velux sun tunnels at both home and office.

Would you like one of us to visit your home for a private consultation about the sustainability possibilities in your home? Email me at Jim@GoldenRealEstate.com.

Arvada City Council Buys Into a Developer’s False Narrative That New Homes Must Have Natural Gas  

It’s sad to see elected officials not taking the time to learn about new technology, especially technology that contributes to abating the effects of climate change.

Such is the story unfolding in the city of Arvada, where the city council — historically super friendly to developers — has bought into a false narrative by a developer/builder team that all-electric homes are not affordable or desired by today’s home buyers.

This is happening despite the fact that Arvada is itself home to a well known model of affordable all-electric homes in the Geos Community located west of Indiana Street and south of 72nd Avenue.

Geos Neighborhood

The Geos Community was partially built out several years ago without any natural gas lines. Home heating is by geothermal and air source heat pumps. Cooking is on induction cooktops. Heat pump water heaters provide the domestic hot water. Solar panels on each home provide all the electricity needed for these and other needs, making all 26 current homes “net zero energy.”

Before the Geos Community could be fully built out, its original developer was forced into selling due to a divorce settlement. Otherwise the remaining 250 homes — a mix of townhomes and single family homes — would have been built to the same net zero standard.  The new developer had promised to do so, as described in a Nov. 17, 2020, post on MileHighCRE.com, but it reneged on that promise and is in the process of installing natural gas lines to the new homes, greatly annoying and angering the owners of the original 26 homes.

The fossil fuel industry duped all of us by promoting methane as a “natural and safe” gas for use in homes. This gas is highly heat-trapping (80-100 times more so than carbon dioxide), prone to explosion and causes many health issues (see Electric4Health.org). During the last decade Colorado added an average of 20,500 residential  gas customers each year. BigPivots.com reports that our state now has 1.8 million residential gas customers. That trend needs to be reversed. There’s no need to keep building home reliant on natural gas.

Geos homeowners appealed to Arvada’s city council to deny the developer a permit for the gas lines, but the city declined to do so. The neighbors, however, are not giving up and have 267 signatures (including my own) on a petition to reverse that decision. The City of Arvada has advised the current Geos residents that this issue is closed.

Arvada should be proud that it is the home of the country’s first “geosolar” community which has, among other honors, been featured several times in the Metro Denver Green Homes Tour. I myself have produced narrated video tours of three Geos homes for that tour, which you can view here, here, and here.

As part of its COP 26 coverage this week in Glasgow, CNN will air a segment on Geos as a home building model to be emulated, essential for addressing climate change.

Event Tonight (Oct. 21) Is About Heat Pumps, “The Overlooked Climate Solution”

Michael Thomas is founder and head of research at Carbon Switch, a climate research company on a mission to decarbonize America’s homes. He will be speaking this evening at Jefferson Unitarian Church, 14350 W. 32nd Ave., Golden. All are welcome (masks required). The event begins at 7 p.m. but is being recorded if you can’t make it.

From Carbon Switch website

Michael Thomas argues that heat pumps are “the boring climate solution we need to pay more attention to” because they offer massive savings for heating and cooling and substantially reduce carbon emissions. (They were key to Golden Real Estate making its office net zero energy.) Thomas will also talk about why cold-climate states like Maine have some of the best opportunities for heat pump adoption while climates like Colorado will be harder to electrify with heat pumps.

His research has been featured on NPR, CNBC, WSJ, and dozens of other national publications. He has also written for The Atlantic, FastCompany, and Quartz. www.carbonswitch.co

The event will be recorded and be available on the CRES Youtube channel.

Metro Denver Green Homes Tour Is This Saturday, Oct. 2nd

It is my honor to be part of the team which creates a new tour of solar and sustainable homes on the first Saturday of October year after year. This is our 26th year!

Last year, the tour was entirely on video, featuring the “Best of the Past 25 Years.”  You can still view last year’s videos at the URL http://www.2020GreenHomesTour.info. Register for this year’s tour, which is both virtual and in-person, at http://www.NewEnergyColorado.com.

Regular readers of this column are probably aware of Golden Real Estate’s commitment to sustainability. Our Net Zero Energy office, in fact, was one of the “homes” on last year’s virtual tour, as was my personal home.

Originally called the Golden Solar Tour, we decided several years ago that being solar wasn’t enough. To be included in the tour, homes had to be “green” in many other ways, and the technology we have put on display in recent years has been impressive. I myself learn something new every year, and creating the video tour of each home on the tour has been a great privilege and learning experience!

One of the homes this year is a 1979 two-story home owned by Martin & Bettina Voelker. This year they got rid of their gas forced air furnace and installed a geothermal system to heat and cool their home. This involved drilling three 300-foot deep wells in their backyard to take advantage of the constant 55-degree earth temperature. A heat pump raises the fluid circulated through those deep pipes to heat the home in the winter. This is more efficient than raising sub-zero outdoor temperatures with the more common  air-source heat pumps like we have at Golden Real Estate’s office. In the summer, it cools the 55-degree fluid further to cool the home.

Ron Suliteanu’s home in Golden Gate Canyon also has a ground-source heat pump which provides heat through both a radiant floor system and three wall-mounted units which resemble mini-splits but which provide their heat through fluid heated by the ground-source heat pump, something I didn’t know existed.

Passive solar design is also growing in popularity, and several homes on this year’s tour incorporate passive solar design in their sustainability mix. The tour includes 4 new construction homes, two of which are Passive House certified (top-of-the-line building code) and two of which are near Passive House standards.

Laurent Meillon’s home in Lakewood taught me a lot about solar thermal systems, which Laurent sells and installs. If you’re not familiar with solar thermal, it involves circulating water (or glycol) through black panels which are roughly the same size as solar photovoltaic panels. The sun heats the liquid in the panels which is circulated through a 1,000-gallon tank inside the house. That fluid gets as hot as 150 degrees. Coils within that tank circulate water for domestic hot water use (showering and cooking, etc.) and for circulation during colder months through the baseboard hot water heating system. Solar thermal panels were popularized during the Carter administration, well before solar photovoltaic systems became popular for generating electricity. Many homes still have those Carter-era solar thermal systems, but many of them are out of service for one reason or another. Laurent’s company can inspect the solar thermal systems in those houses and get them working again — and explain them to the home owners, who may have inherited the system from a previous home owner but have no idea how they work.

One home on the tour was chosen for its urban farming aspects, including composting, a greenhouse and a chicken coop.  The owner thanked me with a dozen eggs, which were delicious!

From 3 to 5 pm (same as for our EV Roundup below), you can visit a nearby “growing dome” at 509 9th Street, a short walk from the American Mountaineering Center at 710 10th Street, where you sign in for the in-person tour and return at 5-7 p.m. for a green expo and reception.

Our Commitment: Keeping Styrofoam Out of Landfills

One element of Golden Real Estate’s commitment to sustainability is our acceptance of polystyrene in the Styrofoam Corral behind our office on South Golden Road. Perhaps you have wondered what we do with all that Styrofoam.

At least twice every month we fill our truck with what everyone (including us) calls Styrofoam, but that’s a brand name. The generic term is expanded polystyrene foam, or EPS. We take each truckload to Centennial Containers southeast of Peoria Street and I-70. There the material, which is 95% air, is “densified,” compressed into those foot-square bars shown at right, which are then stacked on pallets each weighing over 1,000 pounds. One of our truck loads might make just one of those bars of compressed material! Eventually a semi trailer filled with those pallets is taken to an American company which recycles those bars into new polystyrene or other plastic-based products.

We used to take our loads to Alpine Waste’s recycling facility located northwest of the I-70/I-25 interchange, but they ship their densified polystyrene to China. When China cut down on accepting plastic waste from the United States, we switched to Centennial Containers and have found them easier to work with, too.

Our polystyrene recycling is only one part of Golden Real Estate’s commitment to sustainability which won us our second Sustainability Award from the City of Golden in 2020. Since receiving our first award in 2010, we transitioned our building to Net Zero Energy in 2017 by removing our natural gas meter and installing a heat pump mini-split system to heat and cool our office electrically. Our 20-kW solar photovoltaic system provides all the electricity for powering our office as well as charging our five Tesla vehicles and providing free EV charging to the general public in our parking lot.