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.

The Future of Heating is Heat Pumps, Not Gas Forced Air

Here in Colorado, as in much of the country, the typical home heating system is gas forced air. A gas flame heats up a plenum across which a fan blows air through ductwork into the various rooms of a house.  For cooling, the same ductwork and fan are used, but instead of the flame heating that plenum, the air passes over a set of coils beyond the plenum with super-chilled fluid created by an outdoor compressor.

Gas forced air, however, is relatively inefficient and is only common in the United States because of our exceptionally low cost of natural gas and other fossil fuels.

Elsewhere in the world, heating is done using heat pumps. What is a heat pump? Your central air unit is a heat pump, but it operates in only one direction—extracting heat from indoor air and dissipating it outdoors. A heat pump heating system simply reverses that process, creating heat by extracting heat from outdoor air and dissipating it in your home, either through your existing ductwork or through wall-mounted “mini-split” units. Unlike gas, a heat pump moves heat instead of creating it.

How a heat pump works to heat and cool a home using wall-mounted mini-split units heated and cooled by an exterior compressor.

Rita and I replaced our gas furnace in 2012 with a hybrid system by Carrier. It heats our home using the heat pump unless the outdoor temperature falls below freezing, at which point a gas burner kicks in. With our solar panels providing the electricity for the heat pump, our highest mid-winter Xcel bill is under $50. Meanwhile, at Golden Real Estate’s office, as described in my Jan. 4, 2018, newspaper column, we got rid of our furnace and ductwork and installed a ductless mini-split system (like in the above diagram), also powered by solar panels. As a result, our Xcel bill is under $11/month year-round.

My Advice on Buying Solar Panels and Electric Cars

By JIM SMITH

In the wake of last Saturday’s green homes tour and electric vehicle showcase, I’d like to share the advice I give to people who ask me about investing in solar power and buying an electric car.

As much as I wish it weren’t so, you will not recoup what you spend on solar panels, insulation and other green home improvements for your home when you sell it. As with any improvement, you will receive a percentage of what you spend, but it will not be anywhere near 100%. Only make those investments because you’ll enjoy the comfort and savings for at least a few years — and because it’s the right thing to do.

Regarding electric cars, I recommend buying a used EV. The used car industry has yet to properly value used EVs. Currently electric cars are devalued the same way gas cars are devalued, which doesn’t make sense. Consider a 4-year-old gas-powered car with 100,000 miles on it. You can probably get it for half its original price, because so many components, such as transmission, timing belt or fuel pump, are worn and might fail. But none of those components exist in EVs. There are under 50 moving parts in a Tesla. The same age EV is simply as good as new.

A used Tesla built before mid-2017 is an especially good deal, because lifetime free supercharging transfers to the buyer (unless purchased from Tesla). I’ve seen many Tesla Model S cars for sale online under $40,000, less than half their original price. Here’s one I found just now on autotrader.com….

Free eBook on Solar Power with ‘The Property Brothers’

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER is the name of the free eBook, which you can download below.

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But we can flip the script by taking bold action.

That’s why Climate Reality has teamed up with HGTV’s Property Brothers co-host and solar energy advocate Jonathan Scott for Knowledge is Power, a new e-book about the incredible benefits of solar energy and the deceptive tactics fossil fuel utilities are using to protect their bottom lines at the expense of every person on the planet.

The benefits of solar don’t end with lower power bills. Cutting carbon pollution? Check. Empowering communities? Check. Providing energy independence? Check. Creating good jobs? Check and check.

Learn more about this incredible resource – and how together we can take control of our energy future – by getting your free download of Knowledge is Power today

Some Favorite Home Improvements When Purchasing a New-to-Me Home

Who doesn’t want to make some improvements on a home they have just purchased?  Here are some of my personal favorites.

Energy efficiency is very important to Rita and me, so the first thing we do is pay for an energy audit by someone like Andrew Sams of Alpine Building Performance to identify opportunities for making the home more air-tight. This would likely include blowing more insulation into walls or ceilings and caulking around windows. It might also include installing an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) to bring fresh air into the home. This device warms cold outside air in the winter and cools hot outside air in the summer by means of a heat exchanger.

I love bringing sunlight into a home, not with traditional skylights but with sun tunnels. Most people are familiar with the Solatube brand, but I prefer the Velux brand. I had Mark Lundquist of Design Skylights install a 22-inch Velux sun tunnel in my windowless garage and a 14-inch sun tunnel in my windowless laundry room — and four large Velux sun tunnels in the Golden Real Estate office. Ah, sunlight!

Speaking of sunlight, we replaced every light bulb is our house with LEDs which are “daylight” color (like sunlight), not cool white or warm white. CFLs and incandescent bulbs are so 2010!

Installing solar photovoltaic panels is a no-brainer for us, especially now that the cost has dropped so much. Your roof doesn’t have to face due south. Southeast and southwest are good enough. (That’s our situation.) Since you might be driving an electric car someday, install as much PV as Xcel Energy allows to cover that future load.  If you have just purchased an EV, Xcel will allow you to install more panels based on anticipated future use.

Don’t you hate climbing a curb to enter your driveway? Developers install those mountable curbs the entire length of the streets in new subdivisions, not knowing exactly where each driveway will be. One of the first things I would do (and have done) is to hire a concrete company to replace the mountable curb with a smooth entrance. It cost over $2,000 for our 3-car-wide driveway, but I love it every time I enter from the street! Caution: the sidewalk will now be sloped slightly and pedestrians could more easily slip on ice, so be prepared to salt your sidewalk to eliminate icing!

When your gas forced air furnace needs replacing, consider replacing it with a heat-pump furnace or mini-splits. And when your gas water heater needs replacing, I suggest buying a heat-pump water heater. The cost is about the same, and, by converting to electricity for both, you will have eliminated the most common sources of carbon monoxide poisoning in your home.

Other improvements I’d consider include: Replacing carpeting with  tile in bathrooms; and replacing regular glass with Low-E glass on south-facing windows to reduce the harmful effects of sunlight on furniture, hardwood floors and artwork.

Renovate Your Home for Your Own Enjoyment, Not to Help It Sell Better

Sellers often ask whether they should renovate prior to putting their home on the market. The short answer is “no.”  Unless you’re fixing an eyesore, you will be wasting your money.

So, what’s an “eyesore”?  I use the term to define something that draws a buyer’s immediate attention in a negative way — a torn carpet, a damaged countertop, a broken window, a weathered and peeling front door, etc.

The closer an eyesore is to the home’s entrance, the more important it will be to fix. If the eyesore is in a far-flung bedroom or the basement, I’m less concerned, so long as the main part of the house is really attractive. By the time a buyer gets to that eyesore, they will either have fallen in love with the house or not. If they have fallen in love by then, the buyer’s response will be more forgiving — “Oh, that’s easy to fix.”

Eliminating eyesores is worth every penny. Other improvements, such as updating a bathroom or kitchen that’s not an eyesore, may return some or much of what you spend, but probably not all. On such improvements, consider the condition of the real estate market.  If there’s a shortage of homes like yours — say, a ranch-style home in a desirable neighborhood — then you could probably minimize even the eyesore fixes. If your home will have lots of competition, fixing those eyesores becomes far more important. This is a topic on which you benefit from speaking with a Realtor, given our ready access to such data. 

Committed as we at Golden Real Estate are to sustainability, I hate to say it, but installing solar panels produces about the lowest return on investment when it comes to selling your home. You should only invest in solar if you intend to stay in your home for at least five years. You will get your return on investment from the reduced energy bills, not in a higher sale price for your home. In our case, we installed 10 kilowatts of solar at our home, but that was seven years ago, and we don’t plan to sell anytime soon.  If you make the same decision, please buy solar instead of leasing. Selling a home with a leased solar system is not as attractive to buyers.

As stated in the headline, make improvements that you want to live with and enjoy, and make them nownot when you’re about to sell.  It matters little to Rita and me whether our wonderful new kitchen will return the $40,000 we spent on renovating it, since we will have enjoyed it ourselves for many years. And if you know you’re going to sell eventually, but not soon, spend the money now and enjoy the improvement!

Some of the other improvements Rita and I made soon after buying our home and continue to appreciate over 7 years later include installing Solatubes (to bring sunlight into our windowless garage and laundry room) and an energy audit followed by weatherization improvements. We had acacia hardwood flooring installed, and retrofitted the south-facing windows with Low-E glass. A hybrid gas furnace/heat pump system heats and cools our home.  We also installed a hot water recirculation line to provide instant hot water at all faucets.

Video Recording of Sustainability Series Session #3 About Solar Power Is Now Available to View

Recorded by Martin Voelker of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society on March 21st at the office of Golden Real Estate.

Golden Real Estate Launches Sustainability Series

As you may already know, Golden Real Estate is a leader in sustainability, as expressed in the value statement printed on all our yard signs: “Promoting and Modeling Environmental Responsibility.” And most of our agents, including myself, are Certified EcoBrokers, having taken extra training in all aspects of sustainability as it applies to real estate.

We’d like to share what we’ve learned with you, so we’re launching a Sustainability Series that will take place on the third Thursday of every month in our office.  We can accommodate 20 or more attendees in our office, but we will move it elsewhere if the demand exceeds our capacity, so please RSVP. You can do so now for all sessions.

Each meeting will focus on a single aspect of sustainability. Here’s the schedule for the first six meetings (subject to change):

Jan. 17th — Home Insulation — Walls, windows, foundations, crawl spaces, attics. (This is a bigger topic than you might think, but it’s also the cheapest and most effective path to reducing energy consumption.)

Feb. 21st — Home Heating Methods — Forced air, heat pumps, radiant floor, solar thermal, and other technologies.

Mar. 21st — Solar Power — Rooftop and ground-mounted photovoltaic, solar gardens, solar panels vs. solar roof tiles, and home battery storage/backup.

Apr. 18th — Electric Vehicles — What’s here now and what’s coming soon in cars, trucks, motorcycles and more.

May 16th — Sustainable Renovation — What are the more sustainable and popular materials and designs?

June 20th — Water Conservation — The latest concepts and products for conserving water use, both indoors and outdoors.

All sessions are 1 hour long and begin at 5 p.m. in our Golden office or nearby if a larger space is needed based on the number of reservations received. The sessions will be led by experts in the field, although you can count on me to add my own comments!

Go ahead and reserve your seat for any or all sustainability sessions now by sending an email to  Jim@GoldenRealEstate.com. We look forward to producing this informative series!

Golden Real Estate’s Sustainable Practices

1)   Our office produces more energy than it consumes. With our 20 kW of solar panels, we heat, cool and power our office and charge our six electric cars. We also provide free EV charging to the general public, yet our Xcel Energy bill is only $11.26/month.  At our request, Xcel removed our natural gas meter.

2)   We accept polystyrene from the public in our “Styrofoam Corral,” keeping over 200 cubic yards of the material out of the landfill every year.

3)   We use only LED light fixtures and have four “sun tunnels” (skylights) for naturally lighting our office.

Click here to read about our transition to “Net Zero” in our Jan. 4, 2018, column, “Promoting & Modeling Environmental Responsibility.”