Looked at Correctly, It Costs No More to Build (or Buy) a Sustainable Home

“Conventional wisdom” says that it costs more to build a solar powered, highly sustainable or net zero energy home, but that’s not really true if you look at the issue a little differently.

As you surely know, such improvements reduce the operating cost of a home. Solar panels, for example, can virtually eliminate your electrical bill, if your system is sized correctly. They can even provide free fuel for your cars — if they are powered by electricity.

Super insulating your home can reduce the cost of heating it, whether by natural gas or electricity (using a heat pump system). Ditto for installing triple-pane Alpen windows and doors.

If you go all-electric, you not only save on the natural gas or propane you consume, you can have your gas meter removed, saving on the base cost of being connected to the gas distribution network. As a commercial customer, Golden Real Estate, saves over $600 per year from having removed our gas meter, since that’s what Xcel Energy charges before a business uses a single cubic foot of natural gas.  The savings is lower for residential customers.

So, yes, it may cost more to go all-electric, but the return on investment is substantial over a pretty short period of time.

But consider the following. Whether you build or buy a home with these cost saving features, and whether or not you pay a premium for them, you will likely be financing your home with a mortgage.

Let’s say, conservatively, that you pay an extra $50,000 or even $100,000 for those features, and it adds that amount to the principal of your mortgage. Your monthly savings from those solar panels or that heat pump system or those Alpen windows and extra insulation will be far in excess of the increased monthly payment for your mortgage.

And if you make those improvements in a home you already own, you can take out a Home Equity Line of Credit (or HELOC) to pay for them, and the monthly payments will again be less than your monthly savings.

Looked at it this way, does it make any sense at all to build a home powered by fossil fuels, that is not solar powered or that has “normal” insulation and have higher monthly cost of ownership, starting from day one?  Of course not.

You can apply the same reasoning to the purchase of an electric car. You could go with the conventional wisdom that electric cars are more expensive and you should wait until the price comes down, but that thinking substantially misrepresents the cost of ownership.

I haven’t purchased gasoline for my electric cars since 2014, during which time I have saved tens of thousands of dollars on gasoline as well as on repairs on components that don’t exist on an EV, such as transmission, engine, fuel pumps, water pumps, timing belts and so much more.

And I have never had a catalytic converter stolen — or lost any sleep after reading about the epidemic of such thefts in my city.

Forgetting for the moment that there are indeed EVs which cost no more than their gasoline-powered equivalents, even if you paid $10,000 more for an EV than you might for a gas powered car, the cost of financing that difference is far less than what you’ll save on fuel and repairs.

If I have changed your thinking about making your home (or transportation) more sustainable, here’s what you can do.  First, attend this year’s Metro Denver Green Homes Tour on October 1st. You’ll be able to visit a dozen or so homes whose owners have taken steps to make their homes more energy efficient or even net zero energy. You’ll also visit a home builder who is building net zero energy homes. If you can’t visit some of these homes in person, you can view the narrated video tours which I have created for most of them.

(You can also — right now — take video tours of 16 homes that were on this tour in previous years!)

You can register for the tour — and see those videos — at www. NewEnergyColorado.com.

And if I have changed your thinking about the cost of buying or owning an electric vehicle, plan on coming to the Electric Vehicle Roundup (mentioned below) which occurs the same day, October 1st, as the Metro Denver Green Homes Tour.  If that date doesn’t work for you, there are many other EV roundups in October around Colorado. Find those other events online at www.DriveElectricWeek.org.

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.

Green Home of the Month Is on Lookout Mountain

This Lookout Mountain home owned by Ron & Gretchen Larson has no natural gas service. Instead it has radiant floor heating using water heated by the sun and stored in a 10,000-gallon tank. The original section of the home won first place in the very first solar decathalon in 2002. In addition to extensive solar thermal panels and evacuated tubes, the home has 7 kW of solar photovoltaic panels to provide all the electrical needs of the home. It also has passive solar features and two wood-burning stoves.  Take a narrated video tour with Ron Larson at www.GreenHomeoftheMonth.com.

View the full playlist of last year’s Metro Denver Green Homes Tour at  NewEnergyColorado.com/2020-tour-homes.

Green Home of the Month

Jen Grauer in her kitchen

Each month we feature a different home from the 2020 Metro Denver Green Homes Tour. With 11 kW of solar panels, super-insulation, induction cooktops and ground-source heat pumps powering eight hydronic mini-splits throughout this 4-level, multi-generational home, the owners have a monthly Xcel Energy bill of $5 to $10 per month — even after charging their electric car. I learned a lot from this home! You’ll really like the sustainable design elements of the kitchen. Watch my narrated video tour at www.GreenHomeoftheMonth.com. Or click on this thumbnail:

Do You Own a Green Home?

The Metro Denver Green Homes Tour is looking for homes to feature on its next tour, October 2nd, 2021. If your home has features that would make it a good addition to this fall’s green home tour — super insulation, solar, HVAC, etc. — contact Sheila Townsend at sheilactownsend@gmail.com or Jim Smith at Jim@GoldenRealEstate.com.

Take a video tour of a different home from 2020’s Metro Denver Green Homes Tour every month at www.GreenHomeoftheMonth.com.

Green Home of the Month on Genesee Mountain

Each month we feature a different home from the 2020 Metro Denver Green Homes Tour. This Genesee Mountain home on Chief Hosa Road is owned by Barry Rosenberg and Lee Fisher. It is all-electric—no propane. The architect was Peter Ewers, who specializes in Net Zero Energy homes, and this is one of them. The solar panels (grid-tied) provide all the electricity to heat the home, cook, provide hot water and everything else, including charging their Nissan Leaf. The home has straw bale walls with stucco on the north and east sides of the house. The foundation was poured using Durisol brand ICFs (insulated concrete forms). The well water is purified using UV light. You’ll learn a lot from this home! See my video at www.GreenHomeoftheMonth.com.

April’s Green Home of the Month

Each month a different home from the Metro Denver Green Homes Tour is featured at www. GreenHomeOfTheMonth.com. This month’s selection is the Larsons’ home on Lookout Mountain. It has no natural gas service. Instead it has radiant floor heating using water heated by the sun and stored in a 10,000-gallon tank. The original section of the home won first place in the original “Solar Decathalon” in 2002. In addition to extensive solar thermal panels and evacuated tubes, the home has 7 kW of solar photovoltaic panels to satisfy the electrical needs of the home. It also has passive solar features and two wood-burning stoves.

Green Home of the Month

The Metro Denver Green Homes Tour is every October, but you can take a video tour of one of the best “green homes” of the last 20 years at www.GreenHomeoftheMonth.com. The January 2021 Green Home of the Month is Rainer Gerbatsch’s home in Arvada’s net zero energy Geos Community.

If You Missed Last Saturday’s EV Roundup and Green Homes Tour…

You can view a short video report about last Saturday’s Electric Vehicle Roundup at Golden Real Estate on my YouTube channel. The shortcut for accessing my YouTube channel is www.JimSmithVideos.com.

And you can still tour the homes on the 26th annual Metro Denver Green Homes Tour by clicking on “Playlists” on the same YouTube channel.

Sustainability, Starting With Solar Power, Can Be Your Key to a More Affordable Lifestyle

The first Saturday of October is when the Metro Denver Green Homes Tour happens, and this year the tour is better than ever because it’s virtual. What that means is that instead of having to visit some or all of the homes between 9 am and 4 pm on a single day, you can watch short videos of each home. It’s possible you could “visit” all 16 homes and the one business in just one or two sittings at your computer and likely learn more about their sustainable features than if you had visited them in person. That’s what I call a green tour of green homes!

Since I shot all those videos myself and thereby learned all those homes’ sustainable features, you can consider me an expert on what’s new and exciting as well as what’s old and proven when it comes to making a home sustainable.

The theme this year is the Best Homes From the Last 25 Annual Tours. The home owned by Rita and me is on the tour, and since I just turned 73 I’d like to share with you how making our home sustainable also secured for us an affordable retirement — if and when I retire!

It all starts with solar power. Nowadays you can install enough solar panels on your home for under $20,000 so that you never pay Xcel or your other electrical provider more than the cost of being connected to their electrical grid. With Xcel Energy, that’s under $10 per month. The electricity you use is free, created from the sun.

You need to be connected to the grid, because the grid functions as your “battery.”  Your electric meter runs backward during the day when you’re creating more electricity than you use, and it runs forward at night. Your goal is to have it run backward more than it runs forward.

Plan ahead and buy enough electrical panels so that over time you can replace your  gas-fired appliances with electrical ones — a heat-pump water heater, a  heat-pump system for heating and cooling, and an electric range — and replace your gas-powered car with an electric one. Now everything in your life is sun-powered!

You can buy a used electric car for under $30,000 or even under $10,000 (Google “used electric cars” and see for yourself) and never buy gasoline or pay for an oil change or tune-up again and probably never have an expensive car repair either. Buying a used electric car is smarter than buying a new one because there’s hardly anything to go wrong with an EV — no transmission, timing belt, motor or hundreds of other expensive parts that could fail. See the article at right about our electric vehicle event. It’s the only in-person part of the tour.

So there you have it. Once you’ve paid off your mortgage (or transitioned to a reverse mortgage), the only costs of living in your home will be your property taxes and water bill, plus $10 per month for being on the electrical grid.

Be sure to “attend” this year’s tour of green homes. Register at www.NewEnergyColorado.com/home-tour. It’s free, although you will be asked for a donation. Another feature of the tour this year is three video presentations.

Hear Bill Lucas-Brown from GB3 Energy on “Reducing your Carbon Footprint with an Electric Mini Split”; John Avenson, from PHIUS.org and Steve Nixon from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory discussing “New Home vs Renovation: 2 alter-native Paths to Zero Energy”; and Peter Ewers from Ewers Architecture Golden presenting “All Electric Buildings, the Key to our Energy Future.”

Below are twelve of the videos in the YouTube playlist which you’ll get to view when you register for this year’s tour.