Happy 2015

Happy 2015Happy 2015!

How’s it feeling now that you’ve had a week to break it in?

Let’s start this year off with a bang: We bought a house!  Due to job related circumstances we will only be living in the house part time between now and June, and we will spend the rest of our time in our current apartment. This will provide us with plenty of time to get some updates and projects done before we move in for good this summer.

Now you might be wondering, what does this house have to do with this little blog? Well, it means that as we do house renovation projects, I’ll have plenty of opportunity to share with you all of those green building home renovation projects, like:

  • What are the most earth friendly paints, stains, and adhesives to use?
  • Which are the most sustainable flooring materials?
  • How do you go from lawn to organic garden (hopefully without your neighbors giving you the side-eye)?

Another blog series that I have in the works is on making a house more energy efficient. I’ll take a look at the energy usage of this house, and similar sized houses in the neighborhood, and do monthly updates on what we have done to bring that energy use down.

Aside from the house, in 2015 I’ll be continuing the series on “green” certifications in the construction and home furnishing areas. I’ll also continue to explore passive house design, integrative design, green living habits, and compost.

If there is anything you’d like to see in the upcoming year, be sure to leave a comment or drop me email.

I know I’m excited for everything that 2015 has to bring! I hope your new year is starting out shiny and bright and not too cold!

5 Tips to have a Greener Holiday Season

greener holiday seasonDuring a season dedicated to gatherings, gifts, and baked goods, I’d like to offer some simple ways you can reduce your footprint and have a greener holiday season.

Decorations

  • Upgrade to LED holiday light strings. They may cost a bit more up front, but they’ll save you plenty in electricity use, and will last forever. As LED technology grows, you can now find strings that have that desirable yellow-white light rather than just the blueish white that you may associate with LED holiday lights. (Although I happen to think that the blueish white strings are spectacular for outdoor decorating.) Plus, no more half burnt out strings of lights.

Presents

  • Wrap your presents in recycled paper – either from the store, or make your own using grocery bags or cloth. Or reuse gift bags that you’ve received in years past. Keep in mind that tissue paper is not recycleable, so if you receive a gift wrapped with tissue paper, try to resuse it in your own wrapping in the future.
  • Giving American made gifts not only supports our economy, but it also reduces that energy required to transport products from factory to store. Better yet, look for gifts that are made within your own community, or give experiences like dinners out, theater or sporting event tickets, or museum and zoo memberships.

Cooking and Baking

  • If you’re going to be spending all day in the kitchen doing a marathon baking session, turn the thermostat down a few degrees – the kitchen will still be toasty warm from the heat of the oven!
  • Americans throw out huge amounts of food waste every day. You can help reduce that by thinking through your holiday menu plan and carefully considering how much food to make. Try not to make more than will get eaten during the meal or as left overs. And remember that you can keep adding to your compost pile all winter long rather than throwing out your kitchen scraps.

And with that, have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza, and Happy New Year. I’ll be back with more posts after the New Year.

Adding Insulation for Energy Efficiency Part 1

adding insulation for energy efficiency
Untitled” by Jesus Rodriguez // CC BY

As we continue to explore the possibility of building a house that doesn’t require a heating and cooling system, the next step is to get to know the current standard for adding insulation for energy efficiency. This is a topic that involves a bit of math. In this post, I’ll walk you through the equations that are used to determine how much insulation to add. In the next post on insulation I’ll go through two simple examples of working out how much insulation to add.

Payback Period

The typical plan for adding insulation for energy efficiency is to add to the point where you are able to cover the costs of the added material with the money that you will be saving in heating and cooling costs. The time it takes to recoup the money for energy efficiency upgrades is called the payback period. For the insulation of a residential building the average payback period that most people are interested in waiting is between 4 and 5 years. So, in order to figure out the payback period we need to consider the R-value of the insulation, and the cost of heating and cooling the house per year.

Calculating the R-Value

As you may remember from my last post on insulation, the R-Value is a numerical value given to insulation that tells you how much the insulation is going to resist the flow of heat. Determining the R-Value of an insulation material depends on a number of different factors:

  • Initial indoor temperature (Ti)
  • Outdoor temperature (To)
  • time (t)
  • surface area of the building (A)
  • The heat loss indoors (dQ)

And the equation looks like this:

R = (Ti – To) * A *t / dQ

The good news about R-Value calculations is that you usually don’t have to do them. Since the measurements to complete the calculation are done in a lab setting in a controlled environment, the insulation manufacturer provides that information for you when you choose your material.

Calculating the Payback Period

In order to calculate the payback period of adding insulation, we need to take into account the insulation and the heat system.  The payback period depends on the following features:

  • R-value of the initial insulation (Ri)
  • R-value of the final insulation (Rf)
  • Cost of insulation (Ci)
  • Efficiency of the heat system (E)
  • Cost of energy (Ce)
  • Number of days that require heat per year (t)

And the equation looks like this:

P = (Ci * Ri * Rf * E) / (Ce * (R2 – R1) * t)

You can find more information on calculating the payback period of adding insulation here.

I know looking at all these equations can be intimidating if you are interested in figuring out how much insulation to add to your house to meet the 4 – 5 year payback period. But hopefully after I work through a couple examples in my next post on insulation, it will seem manageable. Maybe you’ll even be inspired to add insulation to your own house to make it more energy efficient.

Hang Drying Laundry in the Winter

Clothes dryers are an incredibly inefficient use of electricity. The typical dryer uses in the neighborhood of 5 kWhs of electricity, even energy efficient dryers use at best around 2 kWhs during their dry cycle. (To put that in some perspective, that’s the same amount of energy as a 100 watt incandescent bulb uses in 20 hours – or in the case of my 9 watt LED light bulbs, 220 hours!) In fact, running a clothes dryer uses more energy than any other appliance in a typical American household. That’s a lot of energy just to spin some hot air around.

These days, what with cloth diapering Cheeks McGee, I’m doing a load of laundry about every other day – 4 loads a week, we’ll say. And living in an apartment, we pay $1.50 for each cycle. Which means that if we were drying all of those loads, it would tack an additional $24 onto our expenses each month. That’s $312 a year.

So in the interest of saving energy and money, we hang dry our clothes. As I’ve written about before, in the summer heat and sun, our laundry is dry within a few hours. Now that the winter has firmly decided it’s here, we continue to hang dry our laundry, but now we hang it indoors. The shared basement laundry room in our apartment complex already had clothes lines, but in the past we’ve used a folding drying rack, the backs of chairs, the shower curtain rod, and basically anywhere else we could possibly hang a piece of clothing. It does take more than 3 hours for our laundry to be dry, but never longer than 24 hours. I bet aside from sweatshirts, most of it would be dry by morning if they hung over night. And running your clothing through the spin cycle can be really hard on it, so by hang drying we get more life out of our clothing as well.

Yes, we have to think ahead more than 2 hours if we want to wear something that is currently dirty. But right now, with the frequency we are doing laundry, that hasn’t been an issue. And in a clothing emergency, the dryer is still right there.

The Winter Compost Pile

winter compost pileMuch like it often happens in the fall, it seems like we went from comfortable-with-a-sweatshirt weather to need-all-the-layers weather overnight. And to top it all off, we have a layer of snow on the ground. Oh, November, you’re full of surprises.

With the change in weather, you might be thinking that it’s time to put the compost pile to rest. However, with a cold weather adjustment or two you can continue to build that pile all winter long. First, let’s look at what might be happening in that pile.

Small Winter Compost Piles (less than 1 cubic meter)

If you have just a small pile, the soil making microbes might take a break during the cold weather. But the cold weather will also freeze – or at least preserve – the pile and anything you add to it, helping to keep the pile from developing an odor. When the pile thaws out in the spring be sure to add a good amount of “brown” carbon-rich materials to prevent odors while the microbes move back in. Since you’ve been feeding the pile all winter, those soil friendly microbes and earthworms will quickly move back in to your pile since it will be providing a bountiful feast for the little guys.

Larger Winter Compost Piles (greater than 1 cubic meter)

One of the great things about larger compost piles is that they generate enough heat in the center of the pile to keep those microbes alive and working. This means that you can feed and even turn the pile throughout the winter, and come spring you will be a bit further ahead in having some finished compost to add to your garden beds.

Winterizing your compost pile

Since the winter tends to be a leaner season for all those backyard and neighborhood critters, they tend to be on the lookout for any easy sources of food. If you don’t want your backyard to become the compost pile buffet, you may have to get creative with locking up your pile. Our current pile is contained in a bin with a twist-locking lid. The bin has ventilation built in, but the locking lid keeps birds, squirrels, coons, and neighborhood cats out. If you have an pallet bin, you may want to make a screen lid for it that can either be locked down or weighted down. If you have a loose pile, consider covering the pile with a tarp for the winter – just give yourself a point of easy access before the snow comes down if you want to keep feeding the pile during the winter.

winterize your compost pile with a lid or cover


Interested in catching up on other compost topics? Check out these posts:
On Apartment Composting
Can I Compost That?

Happy Composting!

Tell me more about Forest Stewardship Council Certification

forest stewardship council certification

Lumber is a pretty integral ingredient to how we build and furnish our homes. And luckily, when properly managed and harvested it is a sustainable and renewable resource. It is also an excellent natural carbon sequestration method. And seeing as how we can’t quite seem to figure out how to do that with technology, it seems like we should probably take advantage of Mother Nature when she does it for us. But you see that bolded sentence up there about managing and harvesting properly? That’s the kicker. How do we ensure that the lumber we are building with is managed and harvested in a sustainable manner? Well, that’s where the Forest Stewardship Council comes in handy.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a international not-for-profit organization devoted to responsible management for the world’s forests. It does this primarily through standard setting, certification, and labeling of forest products. The FSC was established in 1953 as a response to concerns about deforestation. It certifies and labels forest products which are harvested in environmentally appropriate ways, are socially beneficial, and economically viable.

How does lumber become FSC labeled

There are two types of certifications that the FSC offers, Forest Management and Chain of Custody. Both certification require evaluation by an independent FSC accredited certifier that the forest of chain of custody meets the principles and criteria that the FSC has developed.

The FSC maintains 10 principles to determine if a Forest can be certified:

  1. Compliance with all applicable laws and treaties, and all FSC principles and criteria.
  2. Tenure and use rights and responsibilities.
  3. Recognition and respect of indigenous peoples rights.
  4. Operations must maintain or enhance the long-term social and economic well being of forest workers and surrounding communities.
  5. Efficient use of products to ensure economic viability, and social and environmental benefits.
  6. Maintain the ecological functions and and integrity of the forest.
  7. A long-term appropriate management plan must be written and followed.
  8. Monitoring and assessment
  9. Maintenance of High Conservation Value forests.
  10. Plantations which are in accordance with principles 1-9

In order for lumber to be labeled by the FSC it must come from a forest which is certified in Forest Management, and it must follow a supply chain which has been certified in Chain of Custody.

What sorts of products are FSC labeled

More than just lumber can be labeled by the FSC. The label can also be used by paper products, furniture, jewelry, and medicines that were made by products in certified forests.

Want to learn about other environmental, energy, and sustainability certifications? Check out these posts:
LEED certification
Energy Star certification
Green Guard certification

Insulation

couple weeks ago I posted an Autodesk Academy video of my hero, Amory B. Lovins talking about integrative design. In this video Amory talks about insulating a house to the point that a heating and cooling system are no longer needed. I’d like to dive deeper into this idea. To start, let’s talk about some of the basics of insulation.

"Insulation Roll" by Mark Evans // CC BY
Insulation Roll” by Mark Evans // CC BY

Why we insulate buildings

Here in the northern part of the country we typically think of insulation as necessary for keeping the heat in during the fall and winter (and sometimes spring) months. But the most basic purpose of insulation is to prevent the movement of heat. Both out of and into a structure. Insulation is also quite useful for keeping heat out of a building in the summer. So insulation can cut down on the need for both heating and cooling a building when more extreme temperatures hit. Having a well insulated home can reduce your energy use (and costs!) all year round.

R Values

Insulation materials are rated using an R Value. R value is a measure of resistance to heat flow, and is based on the temperature difference between indoors and outdoors, the area of the insulation, time, and heat loss. High R values provide better insulation than low R values. Now, walls and ceilings and floors are made up of multiple layers of different materials, and to find the total R value of the system, we add together the R value of each individual layer. Oak Ridge National Laboratory put together a recommended R value calculator based on zip code, heat source, and part of the building that is being insulated.

How buildings are typically insulated

If you rip open the drywall in one of your exterior walls chances are you will find fluffy, pink, fiberglass insulation. This is known as batting, or fiberglass batt insulation. Fiberglass batt has an R value of about 3 per inch of thickness.

Because heat rises, in colder climates it is important to have a well insulated roof or attic to keep that heat inside the building. Typically, houses have a blown insulation (loose insulation that is blown into a space to fill it), that can be 15 inches or more in thickness.

In warmer climates , where you want to keep the heat out of the house, sometimes the insulation batt has a shiny metallic side. This is put on the outer face of the wall to help reflect heat away from indoors.

Common Types of Insulation

There are many more types of insulation than the fiberglass batt or blown fiberglass.

Mineral Wool is a material that resembles matted wool, but is man made rather than sheep made. In batt form, its R value is equal to fiberglass batt, but as a blown insulation it has a larger insulation, making it slightly better for attic spaces.

Cellulose is a material made from plant fiber that can be used as a blown insulation. It also has a slightly higher R value than blown fiberglass. Cellulose can also be mixed with water, adhesive, and moisture retardant and used as a spray insulation, which has the advantage of being better able to get into nooks and crannies to seal up a space. Cellulose also has the benefit of being a vapor barrier, preventing the buildup of moisture, which can help prevent rot.

Foam board insulation can be made from polystyrene or polyurethane among other polys. The boards are made of dense foam that can be cut to fit into wall spaces, and provides a good amount of insulation for a small amount of thickness.

Foam spray insulation may be made from a variety of different man made materials such as polyurethane, and is sprayed into the walls and ceilings. Foam insulation is excellent at sealing up walls or ceilings that have small cracks and/or holes, however it is much more expensive than fiberglass insulation.

So, now we have a base understanding of insulation, next time we can talk about insulating for greater energy efficiency.


Want to read more about insulation? Here are some good sources:
Energy.gov articles on Insulation
Insulation R Value Chart

Midterm elections

Just putting out a little public service announcement that midterm elections are quickly approaching. Don’t forget to exercise your right to vote! Even though it’s not a presidential election year, doesn’t mean these races aren’t important to how policy will be shaped in the coming years.

If you’re interested, EcoWatch put together a list of the top 20 officeholders running for re-election based on their acceptance of “Dirty” money from big oil, big coal, etc. Make sure your candidate is supporting renewable energy – both in word and in action.

In December, the National Journal pointed out 8 key races to watch as well from an environmental standpoint.

**UPDATE**

Only One Climate allows you to search for the midterm election candidates in your specific district to find out their stance on climate change legislation.

Tell me more about Greenguard Certification

It seems these days that every packaged product has some symbol boasting its quality. But not every seal or certification is created or bestowed equally. The marks of a meaningful certification program are high standards, rigorous third party testing, and ongoing off-the-shelf evaluation. It also helps if the certifying body is not-for-profit.

Greenguard is a third party certification that is used for indoor air quality. It was started by the Greenguard Environmental Institute in 2001, and was acquired by UL Environment in 2011. The certification is for indoor use products that produce low emission amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

There are a couple different types of Greenguard certification that a product can receive. The Greenguard Certification is for indoor use products that meet strict chemical emissions limits and are suitable for use in a healthy indoor air quality environment. Greenguard Gold Certification is a stricter certification specifically for sensitive individuals such as children and seniors. The products that are certified as Greenguard Gold are appropriate for use in schools, childcare facilities and healthcare facilities.

How does a product become Greenguard certified

A product manufacturer applies for product certification. The product is evaluated and tested to make sure it meets the Greenguard standards for certification. The standards are set based on criteria set by key public health agencies. If a product is certified, it is then subject to annual testing for more than 10,000 different VOCs.

What sorts of products are Greenguard certified

Over 10,000 products from 350 different manufacturers currently carry the Greenguard seal. There is a wide variety of products that have received Greenguard certification, including paint, adhesives and sealants, building materials, furniture, electronics and textiles. If you are looking for specific products that have received Greenguard certification, you can look here.

Interested in learning about other environmental certifications? Check out these posts on LEED certification and Energy Star.

How to take a greener road trip

greener road trip
“rushing” by Robert S. Donovan // CCBY

 

My family and I just returned home from a week of vacation, during which we took a road trip from Madison to Detroit. Road tripping might not be the greenest way to spend our vacation, but often it’s the transportation method that makes the most sense for our family. So I wanted to offer some tips for how you can use less energy on your next road trip.

Prepare your car

Cars run more efficiently when they are properly maintained, so go in and get your oil changed before you head out on your road trip. You can get a high efficiency oil filter that will help you get the best gas mileage during your drive. While you’re at it make sure your tires still have good tread and are properly inflated. Proper tire pressure will not only give you better gas mileage, but are also safer to drive on.

Pack lightly

A heavy car is going to need more gas to get around, so if you can lighten up your luggage, you’ll help gain some of those MPGs. I’m learning that this can certainly be difficult with a child in the picture. Turns out we didn’t even use the stroller on this vacation, we got along just fine with just a baby wearing carrier. Next time, unless we have specific plans, we’ll leave the stroller at home.

Check your route

Going from Madison to Detroit  we need to pass through Chicago, which seems to always mean getting stuck in traffic for at least a little bit. But it turns out that the optimal speed for gas mileage is somewhere between 50 – 60 miles per hour. On our way home, we saved ourselves the possible stop and go of the city and took one of the by-pass highways. We may have put a few more miles on the car, but we were able to skip the idling in traffic.

Drive smart

Not only does getting better gas mileage save you money at the pump, it also means you are releasing fewer lbs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with each trip. Once you’re on the road you can help increase those MPGs by using the windows instead of the air conditioner when you’re on city streets, but switching to AC with the windows rolled up once you hit about 50 miles per hour. Keeping a safe space between you and the car ahead of you not only gives you time to react to traffic, but also means you won’t necessarily be making quick stops, which can also burn up fuel.

Pack your own snacks

Gas station and rest stop food tends to be over packaged among other things. Packing your own snacks helps prevent waste, and gives you more options for road friendly food than the typical rest stop. We like to also bring a water bottle or two – for long trips we refill them at the rest stop drinking fountain.

Hopefully this list gave you a new idea or two about how you can make your next road trip a little greener.