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.

Here Are Some Things You Should Expect to Learn From a Professional Home Inspection

A home inspection is the best investment that any home buyer can make, providing you base your decision on the qualifications of the inspector and not by cost alone. In Colorado, home inspectors are not licensed, so look for one like Jim Camp of Metropolitan Home Inspections, who is ASHI-certified. Not only might you find a problem that you could get the seller to fix, but you’ll also learn things you need to know about as the future owner of that home.

The inspector will also show you where the utility shut-offs are located and how to operate them, which can be important during an emergency.

The cost of an inspection varies from one inspector to the next and depends on the size of the home or possibly the purchase price.  Expect to spend between $300 and $500 for the basic or standard inspection. Add-on services which I recommend include a test for radon gas ($100 to $150) and a sewer scope (also $100 to $150).

If a high level of radon gas (over 4.0 picocuries per liter) is detected, the buyer should demand that it be mitigated, which costs a minimum of $900 and as much as $2,000 if there is both a basement and a crawl space.

A sewer scope involves sending a camera through the piping from the house to where it enters the sewer line under your street.  Sewer lines in older homes were built with clay pipes which are prone to root intrusion and collapse.  If root intrusion is discovered, the seller will usually agree to have the sewer line cleaned and rescoped, and if there is a collapse or other break, the repair could cost several thousand dollars, so both tests are money well spent.

The general inspection should be scheduled as soon as possible to allow time for additional inspections as indicated. For example, the inspector may discover evidence of mold or mildew, termite infestation or structural issues, and you’ll need time to arrange those inspections. 

In older (pre-1985) homes, it’s common to encounter a Federal Pacific Electric or Zinsco panel, which can cost $1,500 or more to replace. The inspector should recommend further evaluation and certification by a licensed electrician and recommend its replacement since FPE and Zinsco lost their UL endorsement due to breaker failures resulting in electrical fires. An inspector will test electrical outlets for correct polarity and will also check for ground-fault protection on outlets located within six feet of any water source, such as kitchens, bathrooms, unfinished basements, outdoors or in the garage, etc.

He (or she) will walk the roof if possible (even though it’s not required) to look for hail damage as well as proper sealing around chimneys, etc.

In this article, I have touched on only some of the many tests and inspections which make the money a buyer spends on professional inspection the best money he or she will spend.

January Is National Radon Action Month. Here’s What You Need to Know:

Here in Colorado, about half our homes have elevated levels of radon, a naturally occurring gas created by the decay of radioactive radium in our soils. It is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Here’s a link for an excellent YouTube video explaining radon and how it’s mitigated.

Most real estate professionals, including the agents at Golden Real Estate, are well aware of this issue and will always advise the buyers we represent to have the home they are buying tested for the level of radon gas as part of the home inspection process.

Notice that I didn’t say to test for the presence of radon gas, but rather the level of radon gas.  That’s because radon gas is present even in “fresh” air. But it can concentrate when it seeps into your basement, crawl space and even your above-grade living areas.

Since a high level of this gas is considered a “health and safety” issue, a seller is essentially obligated to accept responsibility for having the radon level mitigated or to compensate the buyer for doing it after closing. 

At Golden Real Estate, we have a hand-held device smaller than a TV remote which we can lend to sellers prior to listing their home so they’ll know in advance what level of radon a buyer’s inspector is likely to discover. Ace Hardware has this same device for sale for $199.

There are less expensive mail-in radon tests that you can purchase at Home Depot or Lowe’s, but they’re also free at multiple locations — including from our office at 17695 S. Golden Road in Golden. These DIY kits should not be considered adequate for use in a real estate transaction.

During the home sale, it’s best to have a certified radon measurement contactor do the official test. You can find a list at www.ColoradoRadon.info. The test utilizes an electronic device which samples the air every hour over a 48-hour period. It can detect whether the device has been disturbed and whether there have been changes in atmospheric conditions which might suggest that windows or doors have been opened to allow fresh air into the house. Inspectors charge between $100 and $150 for this test, but it’s well worth the expense, especially if the results of the test show that the level of radon gas exceeds the EPA action level of of 4 picocuries per liter of air. If the test shows a level greater than that, the buyer can demand that the seller have radon mitigated. That typically costs about $1,000, so the testing is well worth the additional inspection cost.

Below is a diagram showing how radon is mitigated use sub-slab depressurization:

(from Wikipedia)