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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.
The sponsors of the annual Metro Denver Green Homes Tour, held on the first Saturday each October, are preparing to “go virtual” in case an in-person tour is not allowed.
That will be accomplished by creating online video tours of the most notable “green” homes featured over the past 20 years. Since I’m on the steering committee for the tour and have the equipment and experience from creating video tours of homes for sale, I volunteered to create those video tours, starting with John Avenson’s home at 9988 Hoyt Place in Westminster.
By clicking here, you can view the 41-minute video tour, led by John, which I created last Friday. It is highly educational.
Many people, myself included, have created homes which can be considered a “model” of sustainability, solar power, and energy efficiency, but John is surely the only homeowner who has turned his home into a classroom for teaching it. He even posted pictures and diagrams throughout the house with instructional content about this or that feature, as you will see on that video.
He also hosts monthly Passive House meetings in his home theater which are also streamed online. They can be found at www.meetup.com/Passive-House-Meetup-S-W-Region/
John’s house was originally built by the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI, now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory or NREL) in 1981 using then-state of the art technology, but John has diligently, and at great personal expense, kept retrofitting his home with newer technology, which he is happy to explain to visitors and which he explains on the 41-minute video.
For example, because of increased insulation and Alpen quadruple-paned windows, he was able to get rid of SERI’s supplemental natural gas furnace, installing a conditioning energy recovery ventilator (CERV) which is powered electrically. His grid-tied solar PV system provides all his home’s energy needs and has reduced his Xcel Energy bill to under $10 per month — the cost of being connected to the electrical grid.
Some of the technological innovations featured in my video with John were new to me. For example, the Alpen windows across from his kitchen have horizontal micro-etching which redirects the sun’s rays 90° upward to his ceiling instead of straight through the glass, reducing the need for lighting.
John provided his email address in the video, saying that his “learning center” is open 24/7 and that he welcomes all inquiries and visitors.
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.
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….
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Golden Real Estate’s monthly Sustainability Series continues next Thursday, April 18th, at 5 p.m. with Session #4 about electric vehicles.
Eleven people have already signed up for this session, but we have room for twice that number, so sign up if you’ve been wanting to understand the technology, economics and practicality of owning and driving electric cars.
Did you know that electric cars outsold gas powered cars until about 1915? Drivers (especially women) preferred them until, ironically, the electric starter made gasoline-powered cars easier and safer to start.
So, electric cars are not new. What’s new is the battery technology which now allows EVs to carry enough stored electricity on board to provide a range approaching that of a tank of gasoline — as high as 300+ miles.
Lead acid batteries were the only kind that the original electric cars could utilize. Today’s batteries are lithium-ion, but within a few years there will be solid state batteries.
This is just some of what you’ll learn at next Thursday’s session. To reserve your seat, email me at Jim@GoldenRealEstate.com. The session will be at our office, 17695 S. Golden Road, in Golden.
If you can’t attend, you might enjoy a 35-minute YouTube video of my presentation, “Gas Cars Are Obsolete — and Here’s Why.” It’s online at www.GasCarsAreObsolete.info.
The session is followed on Saturday, April 20th, with a “Drive Electric Earth Day” event in our South Golden Road parking lot, where you’ll be able to interview the owners of many different models of EVs about their cars and why they love them. An electric bicycle dealer is also bringing bikes to test ride! Register as either spectator of EV owner at www.DriveElectricWeek.info.
The second session of Golden Real Estate’s sustainability series is next Thursday, Feb. 21st, 5-6 pm, in our South Golden Road office. Some seats are still available. Reserve yours by emailing Jim@GoldenRealEstate.com.
At this session you’ll learn about the alternative energy-saving systems for heating and cooling homes and offices including our favorite method, heat pump mini-splits.
Our lead presenter will be Bill Lucas-Brown of GB3 Energy, who installed our mini-split system.
You can view view 45-minute video at https://youtu.be/koJwQuBD0-k
This Thursday, January 17th, is the first of Golden Real Estate’s 6-part Sustainability Series. The topic this week is home insulation. Allow me to introduce the presenters and to share some of what I myself have learned from insulating my own homes and office, and from 17 years of selling homes and being active in the sustainability arena.
We have two great presenters at this month’s session. One is Steve Stevens, whose passion since retiring from Bell Labs has been the conversion of an energy-wasting 1970s brick ranch into a showpiece of sustainability through solar power, energy efficiency and super insulation. In addition to having insulation blown into his attic and walls, he had layers of poly-iso and structural insulated panels added to his exterior walls. Then he went so far as to dig out and expose his home’s foundation walls so poly-iso insulation could be applied to them. He also constructed “air locks” on all entrances, and built a greenhouse on his south-facing exposure — both extremely effective insulating techniques.
Several years ago when Steve’s home was on the Golden Solar Tour, I shot a 40-minute video in which Steve described his home’s sustainability features — by far the longest of all the videos I have ever created for homes on that annual tour. A link to the video is at JimSmithColumns.com.
The other presenter is Dennis Brachfield of About Saving Heat. I’ve known Dennis for over 25 years. His company insulated an office building I owned in Denver as well as a couple homes I have owned. Dennis is bringing a blower door to this evening’s session in order to demonstrate its function. Using a fan to depressurize a home, a blower door helps to identify the location and extent of air leaks in a building. Another tool Dennis will illustrate is an infrared camera. By pointing it toward ceilings and exterior walls, the camera shows the difference in surface temperatures, indicating areas that could benefit from air sealing and/or additional insulation.
I’ll never forget the time 15 years ago when Dennis blew insulation into the exterior walls of a 1945 wood-frame bungalow I had purchased. The home’s gas forced-air furnace kept the ambient temperature at 70 degrees easily enough, but occupants still felt cold. Dennis pointed out that even if there was insulation in the walls, voids surely existed, due to a combination of sub-par installation and years of settling. I was amazed at how much more comfortable the house was after having insulation blown in to fill all those voids. What I learned from that experience was that cold walls radiate coldness just as effectively as warm walls radiate warmth. Thus, a room with 70-degree air but cold walls feels cold in comparison to a room with the same air temperature but with walls that aren’t cold.
My current home was super-insulated by Bill Lucas-Brown of GB3 Energy. I invited Bill to join us tonight, but he had a previous commitment. On www.GB3Energy.com, you can watch a Golden Solar Tour video I shot in which Bill describes his weatherization work, which included insulating the crawl space and the rim joist area. It’s very informative.
Here’s a simple way to determine how well insulated your home is. When you go to bed on a cold winter night and turn your thermostat down — let’s say from 71 to 67 — look to see how quickly the home cools to that lower setting, triggering the furnace. If it’s less than a couple of hours, you could probably benefit from improved insulation of your home. I’ve started turning our thermostat down an hour or more before bedtime and I’ve found that the temperature doesn’t drop enough to trigger the furnace until 3 a.m. or later.
When your home is that “tight” it’s important to ensure the introduction of enough fresh air to maintain good indoor air quality. For that, consider installing an “energy recovery ventilator,” or ERV. This device replaces a standard vent fan with a heat exchanger that warms incoming fresh air by extracting heat from the interior air that is being exhausted.
The ERV’s function will be explained in our session — or you can Google “energy recovery ventilation.”