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. 

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.

Here’s a Postscript to My Earlier Post About All-Electric Homes

Some readers were surprised to read my column promoting the all-electric home as a cost-effective contribution to the mitigation of climate change.

If you’re thinking of 20th Century home construction, promoting the all-electric home would make little sense. Electric baseboard heating has its place, but no longer as a whole house solution. One advantage of it is that each room can have its own thermostat, so you’re only heating rooms when you use them. For the heat it produces, however, it is many times more expensive than using a mini-split heat pump solution. Recently I showed a home where a heat pump mini-split was used to heat a detached and insulated garage which doubled as a workshop. That’s a great application for that kind of heating — also because the mini-split can cool the garage in the summer, not just heat it in the winter.

There has been a revolution in the development of electric appliances, too. The induction cooktop, for example, is a highly efficient replacement for earlier electric ranges or cooktops which used resistance-based cooking elements.

Another change from the 20th Century: you can now generate your own electricity with highly affordable roof-top solar photovoltaic installations.