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.

Xcel Energy Is Penalizing Small Businesses Which Offer Workplace Charging

Golden Real Estate is justly proud — if I say so myself — of having a Net Zero Energy office, meaning that our solar photovoltaic panels produce all the electricity needed to heat, cool and power our office as well as to the charge the five Teslas owned by our agents and me and offering free EV charging to the general public. (We have four EV charging stations at our office — two for our own use and two for the public.)

Meanwhile, Xcel Energy boasts that it is moving in the direction of 100% renewable energy and facilitating the adoption of electric vehicles. A big part of that is promoting “workplace charging.”

Xcel is right to promote workplace charging over, say, charging stations at retail stores, because cars are parked for up to 8 hours at one’s workplace — long enough to fully charge almost any EV using a standard Level 2 (240V) charging station.

So why is Xcel Energy penalizing small companies like Golden Real Estate which have already installed workplace charging stations for EVs?

As stated above, we generate all the electricity needed at our office on South Golden Road. Until this March, our monthly Xcel bill was under $11 every month — the cost of being connected to Xcel’s electric grid.

But now our Xcel bill is over $300 per month, even though we are still generating all the electricity we use. How can that be?  It’s because one day in March we drew over 30,000 watts of energy during a single 15-minute period, converting us automatically from standard “commercial” service to “demand” service. That means that in addition to the charges for electricity consumption, we are now charged for the highest amount of electricity that we draw during each month.

So our electric bill at Golden Real Estate is now over $300 per month regardless of the amount of actual electricity we consume during any particular month. To put it in numbers, we are charged about $15 per kilowatt for peak demand, and our monthly maximum draw of power is usually about 20 kilowatts.  Thus, we are charged $300 each month even though our net consumption of electricity is zero!

The only way we could draw over 25 kW of electricity at a given time is because we are charging cars at all four charging stations, something Xcel says they want to encourage.

When I communicated my dilemma to Xcel Energy, the response was to tell me that they’re introducing a new EV charging tariff later this summer. Unfortunately, the tariff requires that Xcel install the charging stations and offers nothing to those of us who were early adopters and already have charging stations in place.

Under Xcel’s proposed EV tariff, my penalty would drop to a little over $100 per month. But that’s still a $100 penalty.

The logical solution would be for Xcel to modify its commercial tariff to make the demand threshold 50 or 75 kW instead of 25 kW for forcing small businesses like us into their demand tariffs.

Now some good news.

I made these same arguments during public comments at a May 13th virtual hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) adjudicating an Xcel Energy rate case. This Monday, that ALJ published his ruling and cited my own testimony in ordering Xcel to increase its demand threshold to 50 kW.

I had made the same argument a couple years ago during public comments at a regular PUC meeting, but I got no satisfaction at that time, so I wasn’t expecting to be more successful this time, but I was.

Ironically, I had already written this column with no clue that the ruling was about to be handed down. Indeed, this column was uploaded to three Jeffco weekly newspapers Monday morning without this news.

The ALJ’s ruling has a few more steps before it is finalized.  Parties to the case can make final pleas and seek Commission reconsideration, akin to last ditch arguments, but I’m hopeful that my Xcel bill will return to $10.26/month soon.

Golden Real Estate Wins Sustainability Award

Broker/owner Jim Smith and broker associate David Dlugasch pose with the Golden Sustainability Award in front of their two Teslas.

Back in 2010, Golden Real Estate was awarded the “Sustainability Award for Business” from the City of Golden for the brokerage’s solar-powered office. Eleven years later, we have been awarded this recognition a second time because of how much further we have taken our passion for sustainability.

Back in 2010 we had a 5kW solar array on our roof — enough to power our office, but little else. We had a couple other features — sun tunnels to daylight our office reducing the need for artificial lighting, extra insulation to reduce the amount of natural gas needed to heat the office, and we accepted polystyrene (aka Styrofoam) for recycling.

Now, we have 2 ground-mounted solar arrays adding another 15kW of solar power, providing enough electricity to heat and cool our office with heat pumps and to power our five agent-owned Teslas as well as offering free EV charging to the general public. We had our gas meter removed in 2017 and now our Xcel Energy bill is $10 to $11 per month, which is the cost of being connected to the electric grid. We are now a “net zero energy” facility — and we’re taking two truckloads of Styrofoam to a reprocessing center in Denver every month.

Thanks to “net metering,” the electric grid functions like a battery, receiving our excess energy during sunny days and giving it back to us when we need it. We like to consider our office an example that other businesses can aspire to, and we are grateful for this week’s recognition by Golden. Click on the following 2-minute YouTube video tour of our net zero office:

Lakewood Earth Day 2021 features this video tour of Golden Real Estate’s Net Zero Energy office.

Environmental Film Festival Opens Virtually This Weekend: See the Films Online!

With Golden Real Estate’s commitment to sustainability, it’s only natural that we have co-sponsored the Colorado Environmental Film Festival for at least a decade, and we’re happy to co-sponsor it again this year.

The silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic is that events like this are going virtual, making it possible for many more people (including me!) to see any or all of the films at home and on our own timetable. In past years, I was lucky to see even a few of the films, especially since I also needed to man our company’s table in the festival’s Eco-Expo.

The festival runs from Feb. 12th to Feb. 21st at www.CEFF.net. The three-part mission of the festival, as stated on its home page, is:

Inspire: With a growing public awareness for the environment, CEFF aims to increase this groundswell through inspirational and educational films which help motivate people to make a difference in their community.

Educate: CEFF’s films and  programs help people build the knowledge and skills they need to make environmentally responsible choices.

Motivate: CEFF wants audiences to be a part of the solution to today’s environmental issues and motivates audiences to make a difference in their local environment.

This year’s festival has 75 films in 22 collections. You can buy an all-access pass on their website for $70 (less than $1 per film), a 5-collection pass for $35, or a 1-collection pass for $10.

As I said above, you can view any film at any time during the ten days of the festival, but once you unlock a collection, you need to view its films within 72 hours.

As in past years, the festival’s films include both shorts and full-length films. I’m getting an all-access pass and look forward to seeing as many as possible!

Although most of the films are “on demand,” selected films will be live streamed so that you can watch with the filmmaker and an audience and chat about it during the film and exchange comments, like on Zoom, afterwards. These live streams will be archived and can be viewed on demand later.

There will also be live online “lunch and learns” (one of which is a “Vegan Fusion Cooking Demonstration”) and the Eco-Expo will go virtual too, with live visits to the booths of exhibitors during five “happy hours.”

There will be an “Opening Night Watch Party” featuring a short documentary on electronic waste and a feature film, “The Story of Plastic.” At this event, awards will also be presented for the winning films in each of several categories. Again, if you miss this event, you can stream it later.

The “Closing Night Watch Party” from 7 to 10:30 pm on Feb. 20th is an exception. It can only be viewed live and will not be streamed on demand later. It includes two films, The Catalyst and Beyond Zero, that you cannot pause or rewind. These are summarized on the website. I’m looking forward to these in particular, since the first one is a 6-minute film about going net zero in a home, and the second is a much longer film about a billion-dollar global energy company that committed itself to going beyond net zero by 2020. You can watch a trailer for it on the website.

The festival also has a photography component, and one of the live events (viewable later) is a keynote speech on Feb. 13th by famed photographer Russ Burden, who will show his Serengeti photos.

Of the 22 film collections, several contain films on a variety of different subjects, but there are collections on individual subjects, including: Climate Change; Colorado Issues; International Issues; Oil and Gas; Public Lands and Parks; Rivers; Solar Power; Water Issues; and Wildlife. One collection features various short films. (Each of those links takes you to a page with a list of all the films contained in that collection.)

For the Eco-Expo exhibitors like Golden Real Estate, this year’s virtual format is a big win, because each “exhibitor” has a link you can click on to learn about that company or organization. In our case, you click on Golden Real Estate to view a short video tour of the sustainable features which have made our office a true “net zero energy” facility. You wouldn’t get that opportunity standing at our booth in the physical exhibit hall.

Other exhibitors you’ll enjoy learning about include GoFarm, Metro Denver Green Homes Tour, Citizens Climate Lobby, Luvin Arms Animal Sanctuary, Waste Management Recycling, Population Connection, and Tower Garden by Juice Plus. (These links become active on Friday, Feb. 12th.) I’m looking forward to seeing their videos, because in past years I was too busy manning our own booth to visit theirs!

The festival has always featured films by our youth (18 & under). This year there’s a live stream at 10 a.m. on Saturday the 13th called Filmmaking 101 for Young Filmmakers(also viewable later). Here’s a paragraph from the website: Any young aspiring filmmaker can join experts from Talk to the Camera for a fun, interactive workshop and introduction to the CEFF Youth Filmmaker Festival Challenge. Submit your storyboard to CEFF by Sunday, February 21…. Winner(s) will receive mentoring from a professional filmmaker in 2021 to help you complete and submit your youth environmental film for CEFF’s 2022 Festival!

There are some creative solutions to the lack of in-person events, including “Dinner and a Movie” on Feb. 13th & 19th in conjunction with Tributary Food Hall. You order a 3-course meal-to-go from the online menu for $40 including a ticket to one of the 22 film collections, and pick up your food between 3 and 7 pm to enjoy at home. If you already have the movie ticket, the charge is $35.

Visit the Virtual Festival Home for all the details and to buy tickets — http://ceff.eventive.org — and enjoy all the 15th annual Colorado Environmental Film Festival has to offer from the comfort and safety or your own home! That web page has a useful calendar showing all the events that are live streamed.

If You Want to Buy or Sell a Solar Powered Home, Call Us

Jim Smith and the broker associates at Golden Real Estate are especially knowledgeable about solar powered and sustainably built homes, so consider us first if you are contemplating buying or selling such a home. Between us, we own every model Tesla vehicle — S, 3, X and Y — so we’re experts in electric vehicles, too. Our solar-powered office is “net zero energy,” with no gas service, and our Xcel Energy bill is $10 per month (the cost of being connected to Xcel’s grid), so we know what we’re talking about. Jim’s home is near-net zero (because he still has natural gas service), and he has a large network of friends with such homes, at least one of whom is planning to sell in 2021. Call Jim at 303-525-1851 if you’d like to talk.

A High-Performance Car Can Kill You. A High Performance Home Can Save Your Life.

I have the best assignment on the steering committee of the Metro Denver Green Homes Tour — shooting video tours of the homes we choose to feature. Because of Covid, I’m taking that assignment more seriously than ever, because we may not have an in-person tour this year. (The tour is on October 3rd.)

I post these tours (along with the video tours of our listings) on my YouTube channel. Go there to check out some of the more recent tours.

Those videos, however, are limited in what they can convey in 7 to 10 minutes, so I must leave out a lot of what I learn during the lengthy orientation I get from each homeowner prior to shooting the video.

A good example was my tour last Saturday of Jen Grauer and Josh Renkin’s house in Denver. They scraped a house and built from scratch the best example of a “high performance home” I have come across yet — and I’ve seen a lot of high performance homes.

My 7½-minute tour of the house that Jen completed three years ago could not include a lot of what makes it such a good example of sustainability, so I’ll add to it here.

To be “net zero energy,” a solar-powered home like Jen’s has to be super insulated and super efficient in its use of energy. When a home is that tight, indoor air quality has to be addressed to make the home safe. That job is performed by an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV).

The ERV’s job is to bring in fresh air from the outside and to expel bad air while maintaining a healthy indoor humidity level. In the typical home, exhaust fans in bathrooms, kitchens and laundry rooms exhaust air to the outside, thereby drawing fresh air into the house only through whatever leaks exist around doors, windows and other penetrations of the home’s “envelope.” An ERV has one dedicated duct to exhaust air and another to bring in fresh, filtered air. This air is circulated through the house via multiple exhaust and fresh air vents around the home. In addition to maintaining indoor air quality, the ERV transfers some of the temperature (and humidity) of the outgoing air to the incoming air when there is a differential between the two.

Let’s say your home is 70 degrees inside, but it’s 100 degrees outside. The temperature of that incoming air can be reduced to, say, 75 degrees by passing it through a heat exchanger where it doesn’t mix with the outgoing air but acquires some of its temperature. Similarly if the outdoor air is below freezing, the ERV might raise that incoming air to, say, 50 degrees. (I could be way off on these numbers. I’m just trying to convey the concept.)

A conditioning ERV (or CERV) monitors the level of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the outgoing air. You can set a level that is acceptable (say, 900 ppm maximum) and the CERV will increase the flow of air when those levels are exceeded to bring them back to the acceptable range. Whereas an ERV runs 24/7, the CERV only needs to turn on to bring the levels of CO2, VOCs and humidity down to set acceptable levels. A CERV also has an internal heat pump to add heat or cooling. (See my videos of John Avenson’s and Jim Horan’s homes.)

In Jen’s case, in addition to an ERV, she made sure that the home was built with low-VOC products. For example, instead of using high-VOC particle board, her cabinets are made with zero-formaldehyde birch plywood and her island is solid maple and waterproofed with a zero-VOC oil. Her home has no wall-to-wall carpeting, which typically has VOCs in it. (These items are mentioned in the video of Jen’s house.)

Radon is another pollutant which seeps into every home through their concrete foundation walls and slab-on-dirt. To further improve air quality, Jen installed a radon mitigation system.

In summary, a high performance home can not only save you money in the long run (it costs more to build but nearly eliminates monthly utility bills), it can also create a home than extends your life through improved indoor air quality.

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.

Cohousing Community Coming to Arvada’s Geos Community

Cohousing communities have been built in Golden and Boulder, and one will be built in the Geos net-zero energy neighborhood on 69th Avenue, west of Indiana Street, incorporating the same net zero energy design elements described in today’s other post about Geos. Ten members are already signed up, including Norbert Klebl, the developer of Geos. When there are 12, design and construction work will begin.

At www.RalstonCreekCohousing.org you can watch some useful videos and learn about their monthly video chats and events. The community will consist of 20 or so units in a U-shaped condo-style building with main-floor common spaces and a courtyard facing Ralston Creek.

If you like the idea of cohousing, check out this one, which has the additional feature of being net zero energy.

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.