Zillow Has Published a Primer on Home Solar — Here Are My Reflections on It  

On April 27, Zillow published an article, “6 Questions to Ask as You Consider Home Solar.” I thought it was pretty comprehensive, but it was written for a national audience, and some of the questions are readily answered for us here in Colorado.

The article begins by asserting that, according to Zillow’s research, homes which highlight eco-friendly features like solar sell up to 10 days quicker and for 1.4% more than homes that don’t. That statistic, however, fails to distinguish between homes which have fully-owned solar installations, and homes that have leased systems or “power purchase agreements.” Those alternative arrangements basically create a situation in which the homeowner purchases electricity from two companies instead of one — still a good deal, since the solar power typically costs less than the power purchased from the utility.

Zillow’s question #1 is whether your home is suitable for solar. We all know, of course, that a south-facing roof without shading is best, but there are other considerations, such as the condition of your roof. If your roof needs replacing before you put solar panels on it, you may want to include Roper Roofing & Solar in Golden among the solar companies you interview. It’s the only solar company I know which is also a roofing company.

One question posed by Zillow is whether your HOA (if you have one) will allow solar. Fortunately, Colorado passed a law over a decade ago (C.R.S. 38-30-168) which requires HOAs to allow solar and other sustainable improvements. HOAs can regulate appearance but not prohibit solar. For example, it could require that solar panels be flush with your roof rather than angled out from it.

The article points out that if your home is not suitable for solar, you should look into community solar, for which it provides a link. Community solar is also a good alternative for renters and condo owners.

The second question is how to find a reputable installer. Personally, I prefer to hire a small (and local) family-owned company over a national business with a local sales team. I recommend Golden Solar, which has installed five systems for me over the past two decades, and Buglet Solar Electric. The owners of those two companies, Don Parker and Whitney Painter, can answer question #3, which is what incentives and rebates are available on the federal, state, local and utility level. The current federal incentive is a 26% tax credit, which drops to 22% next year and expires the following year unless Congress extends it.

Question #4 is whether there’s net metering, which allows you to “bank” your daytime production for nighttime use and carry forward your surplus solar production to future months and years. In Colorado, the answer is a resounding yes.

Question #5 is about battery storage. Net metering, in my opinion, makes home battery backup/storage unnecessary unless you are worried about power outages. (If you have life-sustaining equipment that requires uninterrupted electricity, battery storage might be appropriate.)

Where battery storage is essential, of course, is in off-grid applications, such as in a mountain cabin without accessible electricity from a utility.  I have listed such homes with impressive battery systems.

The last question which Zillow poses is whether a solar installation is worth it, admitting that this is a very personal decision.

A solar installation nowadays costs between $10,000 and $20,000 for the typical home, and you can ask the companies you interview what the return on investment will be. I have never worried about ROI, because installing solar, to me, is simply the right thing to do, satisfied as I am that it does pay for itself, whether in five years or ten.

One piece of advice not in the Zillow article is to factor in the increased electricity you will need when you buy an electric vehicle — which you will at some point, since most manufacturers plan to phase out gas-powered vehicles. Xcel Energy lets you to carry forward surplus generation from year to year, and allows you to install solar panels equivalent to double your last 12 months’ usage. (Do NOT elect to receive a yearly check from Xcel Energy for your excess solar production, because they pay you a small fraction of that electricity’s retail value — carry it forward for future use at its full retail value.)

Home Builders Are Not ‘Getting It’ When It Comes to Building Sustainable Homes  

Last week I worked with a buyer looking at new homes. One community we visited was in central Arvada; the other was just north of Golden at the corner of Hwy. 93 and 58th Ave.

Neither builder was even offering upgrades such as solar panels, heat pump HVAC systems, or induction cooktops.

Yes, they were enhancing the insulation of their homes, but little else.

And, speaking of solar panels, neither builder was building into the design of their homes an orientation that would favor solar panels on the roof. One had unnecessary peaks or dormers on their roofs that would seriously inhibit the usefulness of the roof for installing a solar photovoltaic system.

The heating systems in both communities were gas forced air furnaces, which I consider obsolete. Such furnaces require the separate installation of an A/C compressor to provide cooling. I asked if an upgrade to a heat pump system was available, and it wasn’t.

These are silly and unnecessary design flaws in any new construction. A heat pump HVAC system provides both heating and cooling within one unit. It is the preferred choice in Europe and Asia, but our builders seem to know only gas forced air furnaces with a conventional A/C add-on.

New-build homes are typically equipped with conventional gas water heaters, while it would be just as easy and cost little more to install a highly efficient heat pump water heater, as I have done.

Geothermal heat pump systems are the “gold standard” when it comes to energy efficiency and sustainability in new home construction. Retrofitting an existing home with geothermal can be prohibitively expensive, but on a dirt-start build, it would be easy to drill geothermal wells in the middle of the basement or crawl space before installing the foundation and building the house. There’s even more efficiency in a dirt-start subdivision, because the drilling rig could go from one unit to the next, drilling 10, 20 or 100 geothermal wells in one area.

I have written in the past about the Geos Community west of Indiana Street and 68th Avenue in Arvada, where all the detached single-family homes have geothermal heat pump systems, and all the townhomes have air source heat pump systems. They also have heat pump water heaters and induction electric ranges, and all have south-facing roofs with solar panels providing all the electricity to run each of those systems. There is no need for natural gas service to the homes.

Geos was intended to showcase the cost effectiveness of all-electric homes using geothermal and air source heat pump systems and orienting the homes for maximum passive solar as well as active solar efficiency. But it seems that builders are slow learners. The developer who purchased the lots next to the previously built Geos Community felt it necessary to install natural gas service to all its new homes currently under construction “because buyers want gas,” much to the understandable dismay and anger of the Geos Community residents.

There is similar inertia in the HVAC industry itself. It’s hard to find an HVAC company that even understands the advantages of heat pumps for heating and cooling homes. It is so much easier for them to do what they have learned to do, even though it represents an obsolete technology. I have heard countless stories of homeowners whose forced air furnace needed replacing and who were unable to get their HVAC vendor to sell them a heat pump system. Most HVAC vendors just want to keep doing what they already know how to do.

(I can recommend a couple vendors who specialize in heat pump systems and even geothermal drilling. Ask me.)

This is not unlike the problem with car dealerships and electric vehicles. If you go to a Chevy dealer and ask about the Chevy Bolt EV, the salesman will often bad-mouth the Bolt and try to sell you a non-electric model that he loves to sell and requires no learning on his part of new technology.

This guest speaker at the April meeting of the Denver Electric Vehicle Council was a man who, having bought a Chevy Volt in 2012, convinced a Texas Chevy dealership to let him be a salesman of EVs exclusively. Other salesmen started sending him buyers who expressed an interest in EVs, and he quickly became the number one seller of EVs in the state of Texas. It helped that hardly any other Texas car dealership had a salesman who was comfortable selling EVs. Their loss.

Getting back to home construction, we need and the planet needs home builders to be more educated about the wisdom and relative ease of building energy efficient, solar-powered, all-electric homes with a passive solar orientation and design. It’s not that hard to learn, but we need to overcome the inertia built into that industry just as with the automotive and other industries.

Just Listed: Golden Ranch-Style Home Backing to Lookout Mountain  

This ranch-style, 4,920-sq.-ft. home (including the unfinished basement) at 19067 Eagle Ridge Drive backs cleanly to Lookout Mountain and sides to a wide greenbelt. It was just listed by Broker/Owner Jim Smith for $1,300,000. It is solar powered, super insulated, with heat pump hot water and space heating and has been featured twice on the Metro Denver Green Homes Tour. It also comes with a 240V EV charging outlet in its 3-car garage. Other inclusions of note are a covered patio swing, a two-person sauna, a ping pong table, a plumbed Weber gas grill, and two wall-mounted TVs, one of them a curved 4K TV with surround sound. Other features include a smooth driveway entrance (no mountable curb), newer paint inside and out, proximity to hiking trails and open space as well as to downtown Golden, beautiful acacia hardwood flooring, two master suites, updated kitchen and master bathroom, and vaulted ceilings throughout. Kitchen appliances are stainless steel, including a smart Samsung French-door refrigerator with water and ice through the door. Open Saturday, March 12th, 1-3 pm.  Look for more photos and a narrated video tour at www.StonebridgeHome.net.

https://youtu.be/QchNtM1uB7A

Realtor Magazine Features All-Electric Home Trend  

This week’s email from Realtor Magazine featured “13 Home Trends Stealing the Spotlight in 2022,” and I was pleased to see that trend number twelve was “All-Electric Homes.”

I could have written it myself! I can’t improve upon the wording, so here it is, verbatim:

     More homeowners understand the importance of “decarbonizing” everything from products to transportation, and especially their homes, says Chicago- and Boulder, Colo.-based architect Nate Kipnis of Kipnis Architecture + Planning. “The way we can best do this is by eliminating all fossil fuels use from houses and including induction cooktops rather than gas for cooking, which offers safer, faster, and more even cooking,” he says. Kipnis recommends using either an air-source heat pump (mini-split) for the HVAC system or a ground source system (geotherm-al). The big payoff, he says, is that renewable energy has become the cheapest form of electricity generation.

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

This column is adapted from my July 18, 2019, column on this topic.

Energy efficiency is very important to Rita and me, so the first thing we did when we purchased our current home was to pay for an energy audit to identify opportunities for making the home more air-tight. One result of that test was to blow additional cellulose insulation into walls and ceilings and to caulk around windows. We considered installing an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) to bring fresh air into the home using a heat exchanger that warms outside air in the winter and cools outside air in the summer. Instead we installed a fan in our powder room that runs 24/7 at a very low volume, but higher when occupied.

I love bringing sunlight into a home, with sun tunnels. Rita and I had Mark Lundquist of Design Skylights install a Velux sun tunnel in our garage and another one in our laundry room. (He installed four more at Golden Real Estate.)

Speaking of sunlight, we replaced every light bulb in our home with LEDs which are “daylight” color.

Installing solar photovoltaic panels is a no-brainer now that the cost has dropped so much. Your roof doesn’t have to face due south. Southeast and southwest are good enough. Since everyone will be driving an electric car eventually, install as much solar PV as Xcel Energy allows to cover that future load.

Don’t you hate climbing a curb to enter your driveway? Developers install mountable curbs the entire length of residential streets, because they can’t know where each driveway will be. One of the first things we did at our home was to remove the mountable curb in front of our driveway.  It cost about $2,000 for our 3-car-wide driveway, but we love it every time we enter from the street!

When your gas forced air furnace needs replacing, consider replacing it with a heat-pump or hybrid furnace. And when your gas water heater needs replacing, I recommend buying a heat-pump water heater. We bought a 50-gallon Rheem unit for $1,200, but it came with a $400 rebate. Once you’ve replaced both, you will have eliminated the most common sources of carbon monoxide poisoning in your home. 

Other improvements I’d recommend: Replacing any bathroom carpeting with ceramic or porcelain tile; replacing regular double-pane windows with Low-E windows on south-facing windows; replacing fluorescent fixtures (as we did in our garage) with flush-mount LED panels sold at Lowes for about $100.  Love ’em!

What Are the Steps You Can Take Toward Making Your Home Net Zero Energy?  

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the idea of saving money, which will happen when you convert your home to “net zero energy.” So, what are the steps you can take to get there?

Net zero energy” means that your home generates more energy than it consumes. With “net metering,” your electric meter runs backwards when your solar panels generate more electricity than you’re using (on a sunny day), then runs forward at night, resulting in zero (or less) net consumption of electric power.

Solar power gets more affordable every year. When I purchased my first 10-kW solar photovoltaic system 15 years ago, the cost was over $60,000, but Xcel Energy gave a rebate of $4.50 per watt, so I got a check for $45,000 from the utility, reducing my net cost to $15,000. Nowadays that same system would cost as little as $15,000 with no Xcel rebate but a 26% federal tax credit.

While you can generate your own electricity, you cannot generate your own natural gas, so terminating natural gas service is key to achieving net zero energy. This involves some major system changes if you are currently heating your home and your water using natural gas, cooking with gas (including with a gas grill) and have a gas fireplace.

There are electric alternatives to all of these uses of natural gas, and you’ll appreciate that eliminating natural gas also eliminates the possibility of a gas explosion and of carbon monoxide poisoning (unless you have a gas powered car).

Heating your home with electricity used to mean installing baseboard resistance heating units in each room, but that is so 20th century. Nowadays electric space heating is done far more efficiently (and evenly) using heat pumps.

Gas forced air furnaces and water heaters are considered to have a 15-year life expectancy, so when yours fail, think of that as an opportunity to adopt heat pump technology for both functions. And a heat pump eliminates the need for a separate A/C unit, since it heats and cools.

Gas furnaces and water heaters generate heat by burning gas. A heat pump moves heat, similar to what A/C does. (How heat pumps work) It cools your home by moving the heat out of your house. If you put your hand over the external compressor unit while it’s cooling your home, you will feel the heat that was moved from inside your home. In heating mode, the process is reversed, and the heat pump moves heat from outdoors into your house. It may surprise you to know that when it’s freezing outside there is actually heat that can be moved from outside to the interior of your house, but it’s true. (Heat pumps work in extremely cold climates) Our office has been heated solely by heat pump since November 2017, and ever since there has never been a day when the system failed to keep our office at 70°F or warmer.

A simple one-unit 12,000-BTU, 29.3-SEER ductless mini-split system from Fujitsu can be found online for $1,961. That’s a small unit, suitable for one room or a garage (a great application!). For our office, we bought a Mitsubishi system in which a single compressor drives three separate wall units, each with its own thermostat.

A heat pump water heater (which I installed at our home) has the compressor built into the unit, above the tank. You can feel cool air emitting from it when it is heating water. I suggest putting it in a wine cellar where it’ll keep the room cool without buying a separate A/C unit.

For cooking, you’ll be amazed and delighted by the induction cooktops that are now widely available. I saw them used on a cruise ship for both cooking and warming surfaces, and the chefs loved them. (Modern cruise ships have eliminated natural gas because of the fire hazard.)

An all-electric home will, of course, demand more electricity, but Xcel Energy now allows you to install enough solar panels to generate double your electrical usage over the prior 12 months. That is more than enough to cover your new electric space heating, water heating and cooking needs, with capacity left over to charge an EV, too.

An important first step in pursuing net zero energy for your home is to reduce your need for energy, and the easiest and cheapest way to do that is to improve your home’s insulation. I had Dennis Brachfield of About Saving Heat blow cellulose insulation into the exterior walls (not just the attic) of a 1940s bungalow I owned, and I was astonished at how much more comfortable the house became. Even if your exterior walls have batt insulation in them, there is still space in the walls to blow in cellulose. (How to insulate an old house)

I learned something interesting from that experience. We all know that walls can radiate heat, such as a brick wall in bright sunlight. Well, walls can also radiate coldness, or suck heat. The air temperature in my bungalow before and after blowing in insulation was the same, but I felt warmer and burned less gas.

You can go beyond improving the insulation of your exterior walls and attic. There are numerous places that allow cold into your home, especially around your windows. Whether or not you install triple-pane Alpen windows, as we did at our office, caulking around the window frames and elsewhere can reduce the energy needed to heat your home.

A blower door test done by a contractor will identify the air leaks in your home. Insulating your attic with blown-in cellulose and your crawlspace with plastic sheeting will also reduce your home’s energy needs whether from gas heating or your new heat pump. (Insulating crawl spaces)

Of course, many homes, especially in older neighborhoods, can’t benefit from solar power because of shading from trees or insufficient south-facing roof area, but you can purchase community solar. (This is also a good solution for condos which have no roof at all.)

The way community solar works is that you invest in solar panels that are part of a solar farm in some distant pasture. The electricity generated by your panels in that remote location is credited to the electric meter for your home or condo. One advantage of community solar is that when you move, you only need to change which meter gets credited with your solar production.

Other ways of reducing energy use include replacing CFL or incandescent light bulbs with affordable LED bulbs and “daylighting” your home or office. (Batteries + Bulbs sell 8-packs of 60W LED replacement bulbs for $6.49, tax included, after $15 instant rebate.) We have “sun tunnels” in our home and office to bring daylight into interior spaces. In fact, on a sunny day we don’t need to turn on any lights in our office. It’s great— and saves energy. We had Design Skylights of Evergreen install Velux sun tunnels at both home and office.

Would you like one of us to visit your home for a private consultation about the sustainability possibilities in your home? Email me at Jim@GoldenRealEstate.com.

Arvada City Council Buys Into a Developer’s False Narrative That New Homes Must Have Natural Gas  

It’s sad to see elected officials not taking the time to learn about new technology, especially technology that contributes to abating the effects of climate change.

Such is the story unfolding in the city of Arvada, where the city council — historically super friendly to developers — has bought into a false narrative by a developer/builder team that all-electric homes are not affordable or desired by today’s home buyers.

This is happening despite the fact that Arvada is itself home to a well known model of affordable all-electric homes in the Geos Community located west of Indiana Street and south of 72nd Avenue.

Geos Neighborhood

The Geos Community was partially built out several years ago without any natural gas lines. Home heating is by geothermal and air source heat pumps. Cooking is on induction cooktops. Heat pump water heaters provide the domestic hot water. Solar panels on each home provide all the electricity needed for these and other needs, making all 26 current homes “net zero energy.”

Before the Geos Community could be fully built out, its original developer was forced into selling due to a divorce settlement. Otherwise the remaining 250 homes — a mix of townhomes and single family homes — would have been built to the same net zero standard.  The new developer had promised to do so, as described in a Nov. 17, 2020, post on MileHighCRE.com, but it reneged on that promise and is in the process of installing natural gas lines to the new homes, greatly annoying and angering the owners of the original 26 homes.

The fossil fuel industry duped all of us by promoting methane as a “natural and safe” gas for use in homes. This gas is highly heat-trapping (80-100 times more so than carbon dioxide), prone to explosion and causes many health issues (see Electric4Health.org). During the last decade Colorado added an average of 20,500 residential  gas customers each year. BigPivots.com reports that our state now has 1.8 million residential gas customers. That trend needs to be reversed. There’s no need to keep building home reliant on natural gas.

Geos homeowners appealed to Arvada’s city council to deny the developer a permit for the gas lines, but the city declined to do so. The neighbors, however, are not giving up and have 267 signatures (including my own) on a petition to reverse that decision. The City of Arvada has advised the current Geos residents that this issue is closed.

Arvada should be proud that it is the home of the country’s first “geosolar” community which has, among other honors, been featured several times in the Metro Denver Green Homes Tour. I myself have produced narrated video tours of three Geos homes for that tour, which you can view here, here, and here.

As part of its COP 26 coverage this week in Glasgow, CNN will air a segment on Geos as a home building model to be emulated, essential for addressing climate change.

Metro Denver Green Homes Tour Is This Saturday, Oct. 2nd

It is my honor to be part of the team which creates a new tour of solar and sustainable homes on the first Saturday of October year after year. This is our 26th year!

Last year, the tour was entirely on video, featuring the “Best of the Past 25 Years.”  You can still view last year’s videos at the URL http://www.2020GreenHomesTour.info. Register for this year’s tour, which is both virtual and in-person, at http://www.NewEnergyColorado.com.

Regular readers of this column are probably aware of Golden Real Estate’s commitment to sustainability. Our Net Zero Energy office, in fact, was one of the “homes” on last year’s virtual tour, as was my personal home.

Originally called the Golden Solar Tour, we decided several years ago that being solar wasn’t enough. To be included in the tour, homes had to be “green” in many other ways, and the technology we have put on display in recent years has been impressive. I myself learn something new every year, and creating the video tour of each home on the tour has been a great privilege and learning experience!

One of the homes this year is a 1979 two-story home owned by Martin & Bettina Voelker. This year they got rid of their gas forced air furnace and installed a geothermal system to heat and cool their home. This involved drilling three 300-foot deep wells in their backyard to take advantage of the constant 55-degree earth temperature. A heat pump raises the fluid circulated through those deep pipes to heat the home in the winter. This is more efficient than raising sub-zero outdoor temperatures with the more common  air-source heat pumps like we have at Golden Real Estate’s office. In the summer, it cools the 55-degree fluid further to cool the home.

Ron Suliteanu’s home in Golden Gate Canyon also has a ground-source heat pump which provides heat through both a radiant floor system and three wall-mounted units which resemble mini-splits but which provide their heat through fluid heated by the ground-source heat pump, something I didn’t know existed.

Passive solar design is also growing in popularity, and several homes on this year’s tour incorporate passive solar design in their sustainability mix. The tour includes 4 new construction homes, two of which are Passive House certified (top-of-the-line building code) and two of which are near Passive House standards.

Laurent Meillon’s home in Lakewood taught me a lot about solar thermal systems, which Laurent sells and installs. If you’re not familiar with solar thermal, it involves circulating water (or glycol) through black panels which are roughly the same size as solar photovoltaic panels. The sun heats the liquid in the panels which is circulated through a 1,000-gallon tank inside the house. That fluid gets as hot as 150 degrees. Coils within that tank circulate water for domestic hot water use (showering and cooking, etc.) and for circulation during colder months through the baseboard hot water heating system. Solar thermal panels were popularized during the Carter administration, well before solar photovoltaic systems became popular for generating electricity. Many homes still have those Carter-era solar thermal systems, but many of them are out of service for one reason or another. Laurent’s company can inspect the solar thermal systems in those houses and get them working again — and explain them to the home owners, who may have inherited the system from a previous home owner but have no idea how they work.

One home on the tour was chosen for its urban farming aspects, including composting, a greenhouse and a chicken coop.  The owner thanked me with a dozen eggs, which were delicious!

From 3 to 5 pm (same as for our EV Roundup below), you can visit a nearby “growing dome” at 509 9th Street, a short walk from the American Mountaineering Center at 710 10th Street, where you sign in for the in-person tour and return at 5-7 p.m. for a green expo and reception.

Green Home of the Month Is on Lookout Mountain

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

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

Green Home of the Month

Jen Grauer in her kitchen

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