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.

All-Electric Homes (and Buildings) Are Central to Mitigating Climate Change

As much as we Americans love our gas fireplaces, gas ranges and gas grills, we need to recognize that the move to an all-electric home, with the electricity being generated using minimal fossil fuels, is central to the goal of mitigating the effects of climate change.

And it can be a good future, especially if you’re able to generate all the electricity that your home and cars use.

That’s the future Rita and I have created for ourselves. We have 10 kW of solar panels on our Golden home, enough to heat and cool our home and charge our two electric cars. Our forced air furnace only burns gas when the outside temp dips below freezing. Otherwise, a heat pump provides all the heat we need. And recently we replaced our gas water heater with a hybrid water heater that heats all the water we need using its built-in heat pump. It has a standard electric heater coil in case we need faster recovery.  (We never have needed faster recovery.)

Yes, we still have a gas cooktop and gas fireplace, and our BBQ grill is plumbed with gas. I can picture us moving to an induction electric cooktop, electric fireplace and electric grill, but for now we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we have drastically reduced our carbon footprint and our monthly energy bills with the use of heat pumps for heating, cooling and water heating, as well as by driving EVs.

A December article on axios.com reported that some progressive jurisdictions are now banning gas hookups in new residential and commercial construction. According the article, 40 California municipalities, starting with Berkeley in 2019, have banned the installation of natural gas service in new construction.

The most common argument against this anti-natural gas trend relates to the cost of electric heating vs. gas heating, but the people who make that argument are probably thinking of conventional resistance heating, such as baseboard electric heating.

Resistance heating is similar to your kitchen toaster, sending electricity to a coil causing it to generate heat.  There is a more efficient way to heat, however, which is to use a heat pump. A heat pump moves heat instead of generating heat, and the cost is as little at one quarter that of resistance heating for the same BTU (heat) output. Here’s a article comparing the two kinds of electric heating.

Moreover, a heat pump can provide both heating and cooling, merely by reversing the direction in which it moves heat, replacing both the gas furnace and electric air conditioning unit which most of us have in our homes.

Another argument against increased electrification is that electricity is itself created by the burning of coal and natural gas. The current fuel mix of Xcel Energy in Colorado is 36% natural gas, 32.5% coal, and the rest renewable energy (mostly wind). The company’s goal is 55% renewable by 2026 and 100% “carbon-free” by 2050, so it makes sense to start now replacing gas appliances with high efficiency electric ones such as heat pumps.

Keep in mind, too, that we can generate our own electricity at home and on our office buildings, taking advantage of “net metering,” paying only to be connected to the electric grid. With net metering, Xcel’s grid functions like a battery, taking excess electricity from our solar installations during the day and delivering it back to us when the sun goes away — or when our solar panels are covered with snow!

Green Home of the Month for March 2021

   Steve Nixon is a project manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He had this home built to his specifications in 2012. It has many passive solar features, solar photovoltaics, and a heat recovery ventilator, which are all explained  at GreenHomeOfTheMonth.com. Outside, it has a buffalo grass lawn requiring no water or mowing, and drip irrigation for its garden.

Solar Tax Credit Expires Dec. 31st

If you have been contemplating the installation of solar on your home, it’s time to get off the fence, since the 22% federal tax credit expires Dec. 31st. Your system has to be operational by the end of the year, so don’t wait too long. I purchased my first 10-kWH solar system in 2004 and paid over $60,000 for it, receiving a $40,000+ rebate check from Xcel Energy. Those rebates are long gone, but the same system costs a little over $10,000 now.  Time to buy!

Here’s an article from Realtor magazine with advice to give homeowners considering a solar photovoltaic investment. You’re also welcome to call me, Jim Smith, at 303-525-1851, or email me at Jim@GoldenRealEstate.com.

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.

Don’t Miss This Important Documentary on Solar PV

We watched this program when it aired on PBS a few weeks ago, but I’ve registered for an online screening this Thursday, Dec. 10th, 7 to 10 pm, because it will include a post-screening panel discussion about the topic of roof-top and community solar programs, which are under attack by utilities in different states. Here in Colorado, we’re blessed with a government which is supportive of clean energy, but that’s not the case everywhere, and there is always the risk that a less friendly government on the state or federal level could frustrate the goal of moving away from an economy based on fossil fuels and to an economy based on clean, renewable energy. Click here to register for it on Eventbrite.com.

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.

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.

Our Newest Listing Is a Case Study on How to Achieve Net Zero Energy at Home

6187 Terry Way in Arvada’s Sunrise Ridge Subdivision – Just listed at $450,000

By JIM SMITH, Realtor

Regular readers of this column know my commitment to sustainability. Our office is Net Zero Energy, with our 20-kilowatt solar PV system providing all the energy to heat, cool and power our office plus charge our four electric cars, while also providing free charging to the public. My home is also solar powered, satisfying all our electrical needs, although we still have natural gas service.

Readers may also recall me saying that the most affordable way to invest in sustainable features is to buy a home which already has them, since the investment in sustainability pays for itself over time but rarely returns what you paid for it in the resale value of your home.

The home I just listed at 6187 Terry Way in Arvada’s Sunrise Ridge subdivision is a good example of that. The seller, like me, is fanatical about sustainability and has invested over $80,000 in solar power, insulation, daylighting, and other improvements, but the listing price of $450,000, while higher than for a comparable home with a higher monthly energy bill, recovers for the seller only a fraction of her investment.

Meanwhile, whether or not you are interested in purchasing a terrific 2-bed-room patio home, let me use it as an example of the ways you can invest in sustainable features for your own home.

I’ve written in the past about Steve Steven’s 1970s brick ranch which he took beyond Net Zero. I did a narrated video tour of it when it was on the annual tour of solar homes, and it took over 40 minutes to describe all its sustainable features!

This home, however, is a 2002 frame-built tract home that was constructed with above-average but below-optimum energy and insulation features, leaving plenty of room for improvement.  And improve it the seller did!  (You’ll understand why, knowing that she is Steve Stevens’ significant other!)

What follows is a run-down of the improvements which brought this home’s electrical bill down to the cost of its connection to Xcel Energy’s grid. In fact, the home is beyond Net Zero Energy to Net Carbon Positive, meaning that its excess electrical generation more than compensates for the natural gas being used for cooking and heating. On top of that, the seller charges her electric car in the home’s 2-car garage.

Here are the sustainability highlights:

First, of course, a 4.4-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system was installed on the roof. Having done that, the next tasks involved reducing electrical demand so that 4.4kW of solar PV would be sufficient.

Of course, all incandescent, fluorescent and CFL light bulbs were replaced with LED bulbs and fixtures. That alone reduced the electrical load substantially.

Next, five 14- and 22-inch diameter Velux sun tunnels were installed, bringing natural light into all the rooms, nearly eliminating the need for artificial lighting except at night.

Next, all the appliances, including the central A/C unit, were replaced with high efficiency Energy Star-rated models. In the case of the kitchen appliances, they are all stainless steel.

At this point, the electrical efficiency was pretty much maxed out, so attention was given to reducing the natural gas load for heating the home.

Additional cellulose insulation was blown into the attic, bringing it up to an R-100 rating — more than twice what you’ll find in the typical production home. We have a picture of this home after a snow storm, showing the snow melted off the roofs of neighboring homes but not off this home’s roof — clear evidence of good attic insulation.

The rim joist (accessible because the basement is unfinished) was insulated to R-50. This area of the house, I’ve found, is the most neglected area of any house when it comes to insulation. It’s where the joists for the main floor sit on the home’s foundation. Most home builders stuff some fiberglass insulation between the joists, but they don’t enclose that fiberglass in plastic. Cold winter air easily infiltrates through loose fiberglass insulation. It’s the plastic sheeting which stops that air.  And closed-cell foam sprayed between the joists further inhibits air infiltration.

Next, the windows and patio door were replaced with Energy Star-rated Champion products. Improving the windows further was the installation of insulating Hunter Douglas blinds.

Those are the improvements which made the home more energy efficient, bringing it past New Zero Energy. Other improvements worth noting which add value to this home are the large deck with seating on the sunny south side of the house, the beautiful oak Murphy bed with wall storage in the guest bedroom which allows the bedroom to be used as an office, and the 240-Volt wiring in the garage to provide EV charging.

Since this is a “paired home,” the  party wall already had double-wall construction with insulation which reduced the transmission of noise between the units, but my seller added a third wall which consumed 5 inches on the her side of the party wall, into which cellulose insulation was blown, creating an even better sound barrier.

I hope this article has inspired you to improve the energy efficiency of your own home, even if it hasn’t inspired you to call your agent or me at 303-525-1851 to arrange a private showing!

You can view a video tour of this  listing at http://www.ArvadaPatioHome.info narrated by me. It’s just like an actual showing!

NOTE: Showings begin on Monday, March 23rd.