Home Builders Are Not ‘Getting It’ When It Comes to Building Sustainable Homes  

Last week I worked with a buyer looking at new homes. One community we visited was in central Arvada; the other was just north of Golden at the corner of Hwy. 93 and 58th Ave.

Neither builder was even offering upgrades such as solar panels, heat pump HVAC systems, or induction cooktops.

Yes, they were enhancing the insulation of their homes, but little else.

And, speaking of solar panels, neither builder was building into the design of their homes an orientation that would favor solar panels on the roof. One had unnecessary peaks or dormers on their roofs that would seriously inhibit the usefulness of the roof for installing a solar photovoltaic system.

The heating systems in both communities were gas forced air furnaces, which I consider obsolete. Such furnaces require the separate installation of an A/C compressor to provide cooling. I asked if an upgrade to a heat pump system was available, and it wasn’t.

These are silly and unnecessary design flaws in any new construction. A heat pump HVAC system provides both heating and cooling within one unit. It is the preferred choice in Europe and Asia, but our builders seem to know only gas forced air furnaces with a conventional A/C add-on.

New-build homes are typically equipped with conventional gas water heaters, while it would be just as easy and cost little more to install a highly efficient heat pump water heater, as I have done.

Geothermal heat pump systems are the “gold standard” when it comes to energy efficiency and sustainability in new home construction. Retrofitting an existing home with geothermal can be prohibitively expensive, but on a dirt-start build, it would be easy to drill geothermal wells in the middle of the basement or crawl space before installing the foundation and building the house. There’s even more efficiency in a dirt-start subdivision, because the drilling rig could go from one unit to the next, drilling 10, 20 or 100 geothermal wells in one area.

I have written in the past about the Geos Community west of Indiana Street and 68th Avenue in Arvada, where all the detached single-family homes have geothermal heat pump systems, and all the townhomes have air source heat pump systems. They also have heat pump water heaters and induction electric ranges, and all have south-facing roofs with solar panels providing all the electricity to run each of those systems. There is no need for natural gas service to the homes.

Geos was intended to showcase the cost effectiveness of all-electric homes using geothermal and air source heat pump systems and orienting the homes for maximum passive solar as well as active solar efficiency. But it seems that builders are slow learners. The developer who purchased the lots next to the previously built Geos Community felt it necessary to install natural gas service to all its new homes currently under construction “because buyers want gas,” much to the understandable dismay and anger of the Geos Community residents.

There is similar inertia in the HVAC industry itself. It’s hard to find an HVAC company that even understands the advantages of heat pumps for heating and cooling homes. It is so much easier for them to do what they have learned to do, even though it represents an obsolete technology. I have heard countless stories of homeowners whose forced air furnace needed replacing and who were unable to get their HVAC vendor to sell them a heat pump system. Most HVAC vendors just want to keep doing what they already know how to do.

(I can recommend a couple vendors who specialize in heat pump systems and even geothermal drilling. Ask me.)

This is not unlike the problem with car dealerships and electric vehicles. If you go to a Chevy dealer and ask about the Chevy Bolt EV, the salesman will often bad-mouth the Bolt and try to sell you a non-electric model that he loves to sell and requires no learning on his part of new technology.

This guest speaker at the April meeting of the Denver Electric Vehicle Council was a man who, having bought a Chevy Volt in 2012, convinced a Texas Chevy dealership to let him be a salesman of EVs exclusively. Other salesmen started sending him buyers who expressed an interest in EVs, and he quickly became the number one seller of EVs in the state of Texas. It helped that hardly any other Texas car dealership had a salesman who was comfortable selling EVs. Their loss.

Getting back to home construction, we need and the planet needs home builders to be more educated about the wisdom and relative ease of building energy efficient, solar-powered, all-electric homes with a passive solar orientation and design. It’s not that hard to learn, but we need to overcome the inertia built into that industry just as with the automotive and other industries.

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.