Intrigued by Geothermal?

February 13, 2012

In my experience, geothermal systems are generally desired but widely misunderstood. Many of us understand that geothermal systems take advantage of the earth’s temperature to heat and cool buildings, that they involve deep drilling and that they are expensive to install, but cheaper to run that conventional heating and cooling equipment. Beyond that, general knowledge gets dicey.

This blog will give you an overview of geothermal systems, especially as they relate to residential applications. My description of geothermal systems is pulled from April’s Architect Magazine with additional input from Melanie Head at EnergySmart Alternatives. If after reading this, you are interested in geothermal for your own home, I would strongly suggest that you consult with a trained and experienced expert to find out more. My go-to local geothermal expert is EnergySmart Alternatives out of Wakefield, MA. Not only are they experienced installers and contractors, they have a team of engineers who make sure that every installation is done right.

Geothermal Systems – What Are They?

Geothermal systems for buildings, also known as geothermal heat pumps or ground-source heat pumps (GHPs), use the thermal energy stored in the upper portion of the Earth’s crust to heat or cool a building, replacing conventional heating and air-conditioning systems. “The temperature of the Earth down 20 or 30 feet is a relatively constant number year-round, somewhere between 50 and 60 degrees , says John Kelly, the COO of the Geothermal Exchange Organization, a nonprofit trade organization in Washington, D.C. “A geothermal heat pump moves heat to and from the Earth by circulating water through a well.”

In other words, in winter, a GHP moves the thermal energy from the earth into a building, and in summer it reverses that process, transferring heat from a building into the earth. These systems incorporate a piping loop buried in the ground through which anti-freeze is circulated, and the heat pump extracts the temperature from the anti-freeze and distributes it through the building, much in the same way that central air conditioning works. Alternatively, groundwater is directly circulated through a series of wells.

Either way, GHPs are significantly cheaper to operate than conventional heating and cooling systems. “The cost savings occur because the ground offers starting temperatures closer to what is desired for heating and cooling than the seasonal temperature extremes upon which many conventional air-source HVAC systems rely,” says John Rhyner, a senior project manager at P.W. Grosser Consulting in Bohemia, N.Y., a civil engineering firm that specializes in geothermal. “It takes less energy to make up that smaller difference in temperature,” Rhyner says.

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diagram showing heat transfer to and from the Earth in Cooling and Heating Seasons

The three most common types of GHP systems are closed-loop, open-loop, and standing column well.

Open loop systems circulate anti-freeze through a sealed network of pipes buried underground. The anti-freeze within the pipes transfers heat from the earth to the building during the winter, and vice versa during the summer, by way of a heat exchanger. Since the anti-freeze flows in a closed loop, it does not exchange all of its temperature; it can get as warm as 80 to 90 degrees F in summer and as cold as 40 to 30 degrees F in winter. For this reason, the anti-freeze is usually a food-grade antifreeze with freeze protection between 15F to 20F (for example, ethanol) to keep the fluid from gelling during the winter months.

Closed-loop systems can be laid out either horizontally in fields, buried just beneath the frost line, or vertically in wells, bored typically 200 to 500 feet deep. Horizontal systems are generally used for smaller or residential projects with plenty of space. In geographic locations where there are few rocks and bedrock is not present close to the surface, horizontal loops are cheaper to install. However, horizontal loops are affected by outdoor air temperatures, meaning that they can become less efficient as a season progresses as the soil takes on the characteristics of the air temperature.Horizontal loop systems typically require large amounts of land. “For a closed-loop system, it’s all a function of how much pipe you can get in the ground with the open land area you have available to work with,” Rhyner says.

Vertically drilled closed-loop systems are more efficient than horizontal systems, as more of the pipe is in contact with a more constant earth temperature. They are most efficient if they can be drilled into groundwater rather than dry ground, since water is a good conductor of heat. “You get a certain number of tons per linear footage [a ton of heat is 12,000 British thermal units per hour], and can get more pipe in the ground going vertically than horizontally,” says Rhyner.

Standing column wells are another type of open-loop system that is well suited where bedrock is close to the ground surface. Standing column wells are typically less deep than vertical closed-loop systems with similar heat output capacity. Whereas vertical closed-loop borings are typically 250 to 400 feet deep, standing column wells can be anywhere from several hundred feet to over 2,000 feet deep. Steel casing is installed to hold the borehole open up to the depth of bedrock. The remaining depth is drilled through bedrock and is left as an open rock borehole. In these systems, the groundwater is pumped up from the bottom of the well, passed through the GHP, and then returned to the top of the well, where it filters slowly downward, exchanging heat with the surrounding bedrock.

Choosing which of these systems is right for a specific project requires calculating a building’s heating and cooling demand and conducting a subsurface analysis to determine the thermal capacity of the site, and how many wells or how large of a loop field will be needed. If the calculations are done correctly and the system is properly designed, GHPs can handle all of a building’s heating and cooling loads, no matter what climatic conditions prevail.

High Upfront cost versus Return on Investment

When designed and installed correctly, GHPs drastically reduce the amount of energy needed to heat and cool a building. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, GHPs are 48 percent more efficient than the best gas furnace and 75 percent more efficient than the best oil furnace. They require 25 to 50 percent less energy than other HVAC systems and bring down operation and maintenance costs by as much as 40 percent.

The main inhibitor to the wide-scale adoption of GHPs today is the relatively high up-front cost of installation. The main difference in cost between GHPs and conventional systems is the drilling cost. The mechanical equipment itself—the heat pumps and heat exchangers—is no more expensive than high-efficiency conventional heating and cooling systems. Annual savings on energy bills, however, offset the up-front cost. When taking advantage of the available incentives, payback periods for commercial GHP systems can be as little as 5 to 7 years when replacing an aging, inefficient HVAC system. GHP systems are especially cost-competitive against many conventional systems in new construction. In the past, GHPs were primarily popular with municipal and institutional clients, building owners who planned to inhabit and operate their facilities over the long term, and those who were simply more interested in environmental stewardship than the bottom line. With the currently available incentives and the high price of fossil fuels, payback periods have been significantly reduced making GHPs an attainable investment for more building owners.

The cost of installing a geothermal system can vary depending on site specifics. In existing buildings, challenges like duct routing, construction type, and space restrictions can affect the cost significantly. Such challenges are more easily overcome in new construction where these issues can be discussed with the architect or builder early in the design process. Your chosen geothermal company will be able to assist you with a cost analysis for the system that is best suited for your home. Their analysis will factor in the cost of installing a traditional heating and cooling system, the cost of fossil fuel and the available local and federal incentives. The following links have information on these incentives from both federal and local programs.

Federal Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit  (30% of the price of the system)

Massachusetts Incentives/Policies for Renewables & Efficiency

Local energy company incentives may also be available.

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a geothermal drilling rig

Common Myths About Geothermal

It’s surprising how often the same questions and comments arise regarding geothermal systems. The following, part of Energy Smart Alternatives’ ‘Geothermal Demystified’ series, sheds some light on some of these common misunderstandings regarding geothermal installations.

Myth #1: Backup Heating

There is a common misconception that GHPs are not able to provide 100 percent of heating requirements. This simply isn’t true. A properly designed GHP system will provide all of the heating and cooling requirements of the building. There is no need whatsoever to install a gas or oil boiler to provide a backup heat source.

 

Myth #2: Winter Installation

Transitioning from a fossil fuel heating system to a GHP in the winter can be a challenge. In most cases, the home will be without heat for one or two days while the new geothermal system is being installed. Although a temporary heat source can be used while the transition is being made, some homeowners choose to just add a few layers of clothing.

The drill rig used for vertical installations can drill through bedrock and certainly has the capacity to drill through frozen soil and ice. Trenching in winter can be difficult, though; the degree of difficulty depends on your geographic location and ground cover conditions.  When trenching in a small area, a few straw bails can keep the ground from freezing long enough to complete the installation. In some cases, excavators may not be willing to dig in the winter because of wear-and-tear on equipment.

Myth #3 Concerns about bedrock or ledge

Installing a vertical geothermal boring through bedrock is not a problem. Geothermal boreholes are created by cutting and grinding a 6-inch core through bedrock; there is no blasting, hammering, or pile driving. An experienced driller can drill between 200 and 300 feet through solid bedrock in one day. In New England, bedrock will usually be encountered within 50 feet of the ground surface and is encountered on almost every single geothermal installation.

Some homeowners have expressed concerns about drilling through bedrock in close proximity to their own, or their neighbors’, basement foundation wall. To my knowledge, no foundation damage has ever occurred – even when the borings were advanced within 10 to 15 feet of a foundation wall. The drilling will not cause an earthquake. It will not rattle the entire neighborhood.

Shallow bedrock can be an obstacle to horizontal closed-loop installations where hundreds of linear feet of trench are required. It can also be a problem when trenching between the location of vertical borings and the basement foundation wall. A careful evaluation of the site prior to digging will dictate the location of drilling or excavation so as to minimize encounters with ledge during excavation activities.

 

Myth #4 Concerns about wasting money on drilling.

EnergySmart’s team has installed over 200 tons of geothermal heating systems throughout New England and there has never been a situation where drilling has occurred and the installation has not been completed. First, it starts with an understanding of how the underground components of a geothermal systems actually work.

For both horizontal and vertical closed-loop systems, the heat transfer occurs between the soil or bedrock and the geothermal piping to the antifreeze circulating through the pipe. While groundwater improves the heat transfer properties of the underground portions of a closed-loop system, the presence of copious amounts of groundwater is not absolutely critical to the operation of the system. The presence or absence of groundwater should be accounted for in the design process but does not preclude the installation and effective operation of a GHP system.

Open-loop systems circulate groundwater through the GHP system.  It is imperative that the well has enough capacity to support the geothermal system.  Low well capacity can be overcome by fracking the well or deepening the well to increase its capacity and yield (this is a chemical-free fracking technique that is completely different from that used by the natural gas industry).  In extreme cases, systems that were originally intended to be open-loop can be converted to closed-loop when the well doesn’t produce sufficient good quality water. Similarly, if salt water or hard water is encountered, systems originally intended to be open-loop can be converted to closed-loop where water quality will have no impact.

Thank you to Melanie Head at EnergySmart Alternatives for her valuable information. Feel free to contact EnergySmart Alternatives for more information.

Juli MacDonald, GreenBridge Architects

Best of 2011

December 15, 2011

This year, through our partnership with The Riverview Company, we’ve had some fantastic opportunities to see our design work constructed in Wellesley, Stoneham, Newburyport, Amesbury, Sudbury and Copake, New York. Our project in Copake was by far the most challenging, exciting, and interesting. We thought a recap of the project might be of interest to you and hope you’ll agree.

Copake is about 3 hours away from us, around 2 hours away from most of our subcontractors – a logistical challenge. The clients are an amazing couple we’ve done several projects for at their Wellesley home.  This is their vacation home, so  they couldn’t be there to see day-to-day progress.  In order to take on the project,  they wanted the extra assurance gained from our relationship with them. There was never a question in Steven’s (my husband and co-owner of The Riverview Company) or my mind that we’d take this project on; we’d do anything for them.

Program and setting

The multi-acre property is on the outskirts of Copake, a town in the upstate New York Berkshires, on an expansive lake. Ed, the husband, fully aware of its problems, loves this getaway and its quiet and rural character. His wife Mary is of a more urban taste, but cares about the home because he does.

They knew that they wanted to make it look better!  Besides that, they also needed a new main entry and a screened porch with a fireplace and grill. New cabinetry and millwork would improve the interior, but they didn’t want to make major changes to wall locations. Other aspects of the project’s requirements included major upgrades to the insulation and mechanicals.

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Approach to house, view from street: the awkward entry door opens onto an undefined bedroom or den. It was unclear where to enter the house; the preferred entry was on the garage side. The windows have no trim and the exposed foundation is unattractive.

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View toward lake: lots of glass doors in the Living/Ding Room face the view, but the doors were failing. Other than those, one small window from the Kitchen and one from an upstairs bedroom faced the view.

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View from the Living Room to the Kitchen: the cathedral ceiling created some sharp, uncomfortable shapes.

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View toward the Stair: the large opening was unorganized and plain. The stair (behind the wall with the 3 frames) was narrow and closed.

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Kitchen: the owners wanted to keep the same layout, but upgrade appliances, finishes and add color.

The project

Working closely with the owners over the course of several months our plans took shape….

Copake plan

First floor plan: the dark lines show new construction and the tightly dashed lines indicate construction we removed.

The major plan changes were on the left side facing the garage and the rear, or water-side (top of page). The new Screened Porch makes the most of the expansive view and is designed to be a multi-use, multi-season room. In addition to the new Screened Porch, we added French doors from the Kitchen and a large bluestone patio accessible from the Living/Dining Room, the Kitchen and the new Screened Porch. On the garage side of the house, we added an inviting entry porch, with wide stairs accessing the front and rear yards and leading to an enlarged mudroom.

Riverview’s team of carpenters and subcontractors stayed at the house for many overnights during the work. Their continual positive attitudes and talents are what made the project a huge success.

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On the interior, we rebuilt the stair and added an open rail to the stair and the balconies. In the large Living/Dining Room, we defined the spaces and ‘dressed them up’ by adding cabinetry and trim. The Dining Area cabinet is built for use as a buffet table and to store the owner’s plate collection.

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The Screened Porch floor is bluestone and the fireplace wall is made with American Granite. In cooler months, a radiant floor and storm panels make this a 3-4 season room. This quickly became everyone’s favorite space.

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We gave the Kitchen a facelift with a new countertop, appliances and window, and we painted the cabinets and walls. The new French doors open up the room to the lake view.

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From the drive, the landscaping and new walk lead to an inviting covered entry porch. We added a stone veneer to the exposed foundation, replaced the siding and added trims.

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The lakeside of the home and its outdoor spaces are open to the lake and the view.

Gratitude

For this project, we were fortunate to have incredibly committed and thoughtful clients and dedicated subcontractors. We want to thank The Riverview Company’s stellar carpenters, Stephen Tucker and Brett Belisle and their wives, the subcontractors: Kevin Thibodeau “The Plumber”, Pacewicz Electrical and Nelson Landscaping (stonework) and of course our fabulous clients, Ed and Mary.

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Ed and Mary

Happy holidays and best wishes for a joyous new year!  Juli and Steven MacDonald

www.greenbridgearchitects.com

www.riverviewcompany.com

The truck idling while the hose is stuck into the side of our house, the oil-smeared shocking bill shoved in our mailbox. We could not live through another year of oil delivery. My husband and I have been pining for a conversion for years, but have put it off because of the costs. We finally bit the bullet and did it – the new gas boiler and indirect water-heater were installed at the end of last week. We have helped our clients with their own oil-to-gas conversions and now have been through the process ourselves. If you are considering such an upgrade or upgrades in your windows or insulation, there are significant financial incentives that can help defray costs – rebates and no-interest heat loans. I hope that reading about our experience will help you in making your home more efficient and comfortable.

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our new thermostat, directing the boiler to slow down for the day

PURCHASE OF UNIT:

We bought our new boiler through National Grid. We purchased a Burnham Alpine 96% efficiency forced hot water unit. We initially were looking at other manufacturers, but buying through National Grid, where the reduced-cost options are limited to American Standard and Burnham, was the best solution for us. The cost of the unit was about $1000 less than retail, which made them far less expensive than the units we looking at, for the same efficiency.

For Massachusetts and New Hampshire, go to www.powerofaction.com and click on “Covert to Natural Gas” to find purchase options and conversion assistance if you need contractor referrals. The site also has a link to tax credit information – these have been greatly reduced for 2011 and presumably for 2012.

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our new boiler and water heater – taking the place of the oil tank

ZERO INTEREST LOAN:

The zero-interest HEAT Loan for insulation and mechanical upgrades in the home, currently offered by many regional and local lenders, is a great way to defray the costs of the upgrades while saving with reduced energy use. MassSave coordinates the process, and although the their employees are helpful with questions, there is quite a bit of homeowner coordination required for the loan process.

The call and the energy assessment report

The process starts with the homeowner making the call to National Grid/MassSave (1-800-696-8077). MassSave then sends a home auditor to perform a free Home Energy Assessment Report for the home. For us, they scheduled an auditor right away – one of us needed to be home while the auditor visited. He took about 3 hours, and had the report for us at the end of his visit. The report is an assessment of the home which includes windows, doors, insulation, air leakage, and mechanical systems. The report includes recommendations for energy-savings and contractors to complete the efficiency upgrades, although the loan process does not require that you use those companies. In addition, insulation and sealant work is offered through National Grid, so for our house, the report also included a proposal for insulation. National Grid subcontracts directly to various companies and the price to the consumer is dramatically reduced with an instant rebate. Our house needs wall insulation – the proposal was for about $4000 with an instant rebate of $2000. Two important notes are that National Grid will inspect the insulation work as part of the assessment program, and for our house, the insulation work will cause some damage to our siding that we’ll be responsible for repairing.

Getting proposals

Once we determined what energy-saving projects we wanted to take on, we needed to get proposals from subcontractors to do the work. In our case, we already had the insulation proposal from the auditor, so we needed to get window supply and installation prices, and the mechanical installation prices. The mechanical subcontractor’s proposal needed to include a heat-loss calculation and the cost of the new equipment (minus the rebate) even though the boiler was being purchase by us. All proposals, the auditor’s report and the loan application form are submitted to MassSave. They process the paperwork, and if all is acceptable, send an Intake Form to the homeowner. The homeowner brings the Intake Form to their chosen bank to use for the Heat Loan.

The Loan

Our understanding is that the loan is a zero-interest seven year loan.  If approved, the bank issues 2-party checks for each portion of the work, made out to the contractor and the homeowner. (This assures that the homeowner isn’t using the money to go to Foxwoods.) We are still mid-process for the loan – we’ve submitted our paperwork to MassSave and are waiting for the Intake Form. Ideally, we would’ve started the process in July, secured the loan in August and completed the conversion before heating season. Since we started in October, we needed to buy the boiler and hire the plumbing contractor to install it without the loan. The loan can still cover the work if it has been completed, although obviously the risk with this approach is if we don’t get the loan, we still have to pay the plumber! If we get the loan, we’ll need to cash the checks with our plumber, who will then reimburse us the amount already paid. We know our plumber well – if we didn’t, it would be important to cover these financial maneuvers contractually.

REBATES:

Available through National Grid., the 2011 Residential Efficiency Rebates are for programmable thermostats, high-efficiency heating equipment and water heaters, and combined high-efficiency boiler and water heating units. For our boiler, which is 96% efficient, we’ll get a $1500 rebate and $25 each for the new programmable thermostats (I LOVE THESE). Our indirect water heater will gain us an additional $400. We’ll need a receipt or invoice showing the installation was done by a licensed contractor and the manufacturers name and model number of the units. See www.gasnetworks.com for rebate information and forms.

Our house was built in the 1790s. Every installed technology is a marvel and a beautiful contrast to the hand-sawn timbers and rubble foundation walls. Because we have heating zones in the house now, we are able to go up the stairs without a 20 degree change in temperature. We are thrilled to find that every room is comfortable!!!

Converting to gas does give us some pause, how much better is gas than oil? Dramatically increased efficiency of the heating system helps – and we also plan to install a pellet stove on the first floor to further offset our use of gas. After last month’s power outages, a lot of us are looking to wood and pellet stoves and generators so we can be independent of the grid if needed. When we think about our home’s history, a move toward ‘off-the-grid’ would bring it back to its beginnings, although in a more technologically advanced way.

Feel free to contact me with any questions or if you want to share your own experience through the quagmire of energy incentives. I can be reached at juli@greenbridgearchitects.com or 978.518.2811. Happy heating season!

A Fable of Light

April 10, 2011

goldilocks Once upon a time there was a precocious little girl called Goldilocks who ventured into an inviting cabin nestled in the woods. She was so tired from her journey, she decided to have a rest. She wandered into the sunlit living room (too bright) and pulled across the curtains. Too dark! She pulled down the light-filtering shades. Ahhhh just right; she had a lovely rest.

When it was near evening, she woke and found that she was famished. So the bold but independent girl made her way to the kitchen to whip us something delightful for herself. She was cutting up some apples in the corner and needed more light, so she flipped the switch for the overhead fluorescent, happy in an ‘I’m green’ sort of way to see the familiar swirly bulb. PING! Out it blew, too dark again. Another switch brightened the countertops with beautiful LED under-cabinet lights. Oooooo, just right, perfect for preparing a steaming bowl of porridge topped by her chopped apples.

Then with her feast to the dining room, where the motion sensor spotted her and flipped on to a preset dimmed setting, leaving her surprisingly and for the first time, calmly satisfied with what she had…until in her silence she heard a growling sound in the distance just as the motion sensor lost her and the lights went out.

The moral of Goldilocks’ story is that lighting design is more than lumens and watts…it should also take into account our personalities and how we live in our spaces. High-quality and efficient lighting design includes a mixture of lighting choices and the use of controlled natural sunlight to the greatest extent possible. In recent months we’ve been researching lighting efficiency and current technologies for a kitchen renovation project. We can’t help but be influenced by our own prejudices, such as our big disappointment with the compact fluorescents we’ve installed in our own home’s light fixtures. We guiltily feel nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ when we didn’t think about our energy use every time we flipped a switch, and when our faces were always soft-lit by the old-standard incandescent.

We are also looking to January 2012, when the federal energy standard phasing out the incandescent will go into effect….one of our friends is hoarding them in anticipation of the phase-out. We are excited about the new technologies, especially by the great strides made in LED lighting and systems controls (dimmers, motion-sensors) over the past years.

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We found some robust websites with loads of information about design strategies for efficiency, comparison of different light types (incandescent, fluorescent, LED, Halogen), and the new federal standards. California adopted the federal standard for efficiency in January of this year, and the State’s web site has some of the best information and links we came across. Energy Star is an especially useful resource since the standards are a reliable measure of a product’s effectiveness in a quickly changing and competitive market. All Energy Star fixtures are required to use at least 75% less energy than incandescents, and both CFLs (10x) and LEDs have far greater longevity (20x) than incandescents.

From our reliable standby The Green Building Advisor comes the practical advice, “The right combination of task and ambient lighting can save energy. A mix of lighting sources allows you to use the type of light you need: task lighting for reading, food preparation and other activities — where strong, concentrated light is helpful — or ambient lighting where more general illumination is better. Not all lights have to be on all the time, and natural light can be a significant contributor when floor plans are designed accordingly.”

Even with all the benefits of web research, we rely on our local experts. So we asked Lucy Dearborn at Lucia Lighting, what she recommends for efficiency and quality of light. She says one of her favorite combinations for ‘being green’ is to combine Eco-Friendly Halogen Lamps with the Lutron Eco-Minder dimmer. “You get fabulous bright white light when you need it and can dim down t a softer, warmer tone when you don’t need task lighting. The Eco Friendly light bulbs work with a regular dimmer, but we recommend an Eco-Dim Diva (perfect for The Divine Miss Goldilocks!). The Diva dimmer only allows light bulbs to go to 85% of their full capacity, so you can more than double lamp life and save energy at the same time! This solution is a great alternative to compact fluorescent light bulbs that sometimes don’t have a warm enough color & do not dim.”

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The Eco Dim Diva (Lutron)         Color Kinetics LED under-cabinet light

For our kitchen project, we’re planning on a combination of Color Kinetics LED under-cabinet lights (as recommended by Lucia), some track and general lighting using dimmable Eco-Friendly Halogens, and big south-facing windows!

What are your lighting preferences and what are your plans for 2012’s changes? As always, feel free to contact us to find out more about what options may work best for your home. Best wishes for Spring and long days filled with daylight!

Juli

juli@greenbridgearchitects.com

Some links to find out more:

Lucia Lighting

Bulbrite Eco-Friendly Halogen Lamps

The California Energy Commission: Frequently Asked Questions – New Light Bulb Standards

U.S. Department of Energy’s description of the national regulations: Lighting Choices to Save You Money

Energy Star Products, describes the Energy Star requirements for all products offered

Whole Building Design Guide – Energy Efficient Lighting

Lighting Options for Your Home (National Electric Manufacturer’s Association)

Heating Season Begins…

October 11, 2010

As we slide into the heating season again, it’s a great time to look at the energy usage in your home. Will it be the same as last year or are you looking to make some changes to add efficiency and reduce costs? As part of our GreenBridge/Riverview Builders design and construction services, we want to offer our clients alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal) analysis and options as part of their building projects.

We looked to Adros Energy to be our collaborator for those clients interested in pursuing alternative energy options for their properties. Adros Energy is a company that offers engineered analysis of different alternative energy systems and weatherization for a given property. They work hard to keep up to date on current products and technologies, including geothermal, water, solar and wind. I’ve known Oliver Sheridan, their local regional representative, for years and was excited to hear about his joining Adros. To see how the collaboration might work, I decided to ask Oliver to visit, using me and my house as a model client and project. As a follow up, I hoped that my sharing my experience might give insight to the process and open up options for others for their own homes.

Our House

DSC01820 Winter 2009

We live in a house built in 1796 – it has a granite rubble foundation with the original structure and no wall insulation. We have a 10 year old oil-burning boiler and are hoping to install a high-efficiency gas unit this season. Our hot water is currently heated with gas.

To get the greatest benefit from any alternative energy system, weatherization, or ‘buttoning up’ of the house should be taken care of first. We’ve made some progress in that regard; Two years ago, we used the Green Cocoon to install soy-based insulation in the roof framing and at the connection of the 1st floor framing and the outside wall (the band joist). These are high-payback locations and in our house, were also the most accessible. Our heating and cooling have been reduced by about a third. We still have weatherization ‘issues’, but also want to take advantage of tax and rebate incentives while they are still available.

The Assessment

Because we have already had an audit done and have a good understanding of our weatherization needs, Oliver limited his review to alternative energy options. We were primarily interested in solar hot water heat and although pricey, we also wanted to learn about the opportunities for a photovoltaic (PV) system for the future.

Oliver came with the solar orientation of the house in hand, so he knew that we have a pretty good roof for solar. It’s a hip roof, with one of the long sides facing predominantly south. Oliver usually takes enough measurements to be able to estimate the space available and to roughly design a system, but I had drawings and measurements he could use.

He came last week, on what was (I think) our last hot muggy day of the year. I gave him a tour of the house ending in the basement, which was stuffy and muggy as usual. He noticed our dehumidifier and suggested that we consider an Air to Air Heat Pump instead of a solar hot water system for our water-heating needs. A less expensive system up-front, it pulls the heat from the air around it and uses it to pre-heat water before it goes to the water heater. Extracting heat from our basement is an advantage since it provides free air conditioning and dehumidification–because it cools air as it is circulated through the heat pump. For us, Oliver suggested it as a more affordable solution that would help us with our humid basement.

Alternative Energy Options and Proposals

Oliver followed up with proposals and analyses for a 2.3 kW photovoltaic system on the roof, an air to air heat pump water heater, made by Geyser, and a solar hot water heater option.

Photovoltaic system

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Schematic layout of a PVC system for our home

The photovoltaic array proposed by Oliver and Adros would generate 2,500 kwh annually.

Besides saving us money on our electrical bill, the proposed system would also enable us to earn money by selling solar renewable energy credits (SREC’s) from the kWh’s the system produces. In MA it is predicted that we could get anywhere from .20 to .40 cents per kWh. Using the lower end of that range, .20 cents per kwh, our system would earn an additional $500 annually. This SREC program is in place until the year 2025.

The Adros proposal includes installation with all necessary components and labor for a completely operational system including all electrical work needed and manage the connection to the grid.

Costs and Incentives:

PV array components, installation and wiring      $13,400

Total Financial Incentives*                                          -($6,320)

Cost after Financial Incentives                              $7,080

*  Financial Incentive Summary: Federal Income Tax Credit (30% PV) of $4,020 + MA CEC Rebate $1.00/watt $2,300 =Total Financial Incentives of $6,320)

Using Oliver’s estimates for savings and the SREC’s, based on current energy prices, we’d save $925 annually. The system would be paid for in approximately 7 years.

Air to Air Heat Pump Water Heater option:

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The Geyser system illustrated

This price is for parts and labor for a turnkey installation of a fully operational unit.

Costs and Incentives:

Geyser Heat Pump, supplied and installed                   $2,900

30% Federal income tax credit                                       –($870)

Total after incentives                                                   $2,030

Annually, Adros projects a savings of $147 annually from the current gas-fired hot water heater cost, and $200 for the cost of the electrical dehumidifier, for a total savings of $347 annually. The system would be paid for in around 6 years.

Solar hot water heater option:

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solar collectors on a roof

The pricing includes a complete system with all necessary equipment including solar collectors, roof mounting system, collector connections pipes, pump station, system controller and storage tank, all installation labor, plumbing work and electrician work. The system uses flat plate solar collectors with an 80 gallon storage tank (sized for 2-4 people).

Costs and Incentives:

System Costs                                                                          $11,200

Total incentives  **                                                                -($4,110)

Total after incentives                                                     $7,090

** Financial Incentive Summary: Federal Income Tax Rebate of $3,360 + Federal Solar Hot Water Tax Credit $750 = Total Financial Incentives of $4,110

Adros projects a savings of approximately $240 annually (at current fuel prices), so system would be paid for after 29 years!

Our plans:

Each year, we hope to increase the efficiencies of our home and its use of renewable resources to meet our energy needs. Based on these proposals and projections by Adros, we are most excited about the heat pump. We also really want to make the move on the PV system, and can’t wait to see solar panels on this 1796 roof, but will need to assess our home improvement budget for this year.

For more information on alternative energy options, feel free to contact me or Oliver at Adros Energy. ollie.sheridan@adrosenergy.com. You can also see the Adros website for more information. www.adrosenergy.com

Happy heating season!

Juli  juli@greenbridgearchitects.com

This week, we were approached by a local builder who would like to build an Energy Star home. The bulk of our work is additions and renovations, and although we bring much of the same principles to our projects, we needed to look at the program (Massachusetts New Homes with ENERGY STAR) again to see what are the benefits and costs of getting the certification. New Homes with Energy Star is a straight-forward program built on common-sense good building practices. Basically, you can’t go wrong with the program – besides available incentives there is quick payback with dramatically lower energy costs and increased property value. The following is basic information on the Energy Star for Homes program from information found at the energy star website www.energystarhomes.com :

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brown

Program Overview

The Massachusetts New Homes with ENERGY STAR program is a new construction program based on an energy efficiency standard developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). ENERGY STAR qualified homes are at least 15 percent more energy efficient than homes built to the 2006 International Residential Code (IRC), and include additional energy-savings features that typically make them 20–30% more efficient than homes built to local residential construction codes. The EPA’s initiative is supported in Massachusetts by a consortium of utility companies and energy efficiency service providers who collaborate to promote the benefits of energy-efficient, high performance homes. ENERGY STAR qualified homes are five-star rated and nationally recognized for greater value, lower operating costs, increased durability, comfort, and safety. Homebuilders are eligible for various benefits for building ENERGY STAR qualified new homes and homebuyers are demanding homes built to these specifications.

Features

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Save significantly on home heating, cooling, lighting, and appliance costs with an ENERGY STAR home.

A high quality ENERGY STAR home combines the best of traditional craftsmanship with the latest advancements in building science and technology for a home that’s more durable, efficient and economical to maintain. ENERGY STAR homes help eliminate builder callbacks for problems which are common in code-built homes, such as interior moisture damage and roof ice dams.

Many homes built today lack certain basic energy performance features — features that can save the homeowner thousands of dollars in energy costs. When properly incorporated into design and construction, energy-efficient detailing can significantly increase the comfort and quality of a home.

Some of the performance features that distinguish an ENERGY STAR home from an average quality home are:

Enhanced Insulation
Insulation is measured in R-Value: the higher the R-Value, the greater the insulating effect. Higher insulation levels in walls, floors, and attics result in better energy performance and improved homeowner comfort. The insulation value of windows and doors is also an important determinant of comfort.

Air Sealing
Simply caulking, foaming, and gasketing the holes and gaps in the heated building envelope can reduce annual heat loss and utility bills by over 15%.

Ventilation
All ENERGY STAR homes come equipped with mechanical ventilation, which ensures a continuous supply of fresh air to the home.

High-Efficiency Appliances
ENERGY STAR homes typically have high-efficiency household appliances, lighting, and heating and cooling systems, which use less energy to perform the same job.

With an ENERGY STAR qualified home, you get more home for less money. That’s because ENERGY STAR homes use proven technologies and advanced building practices to make sure your new home performs as well as possible. Each ENERGY STAR qualified home is inspected and “performance tested” to help ensure better energy performance, greater comfort, and a healthier living environment.

replacement windows

ENERGY STAR Homes Benefits

Homes built in the 21st century are judged by how well they “perform” for their owners. The top two performance indicators are comfort and lower costs. A truly comfortable home is warm in the winter, cool in the summer, free from stuffiness and drafts, and quiet. At the same time, a home must be economical. ENERGY STAR qualified homes cost less to heat and cool than conventional new homes built nationwide. That means big savings every month, every year, you own the home.

ENERGY STAR Homes offer a variety of benefits to help you build a more comfortable, affordable home that is better for the environment. Discover what makes an ENERGY STAR home so much better!

  • Comfort and Health
  • Environmental
  • Financial
  • Performance Tested
  • Smarter Investment

A few questions from the ‘frequently asked’ page that we often hear:

How much does it cost to build to ENERGY STAR Homes standards?

Typically, the upgrades needed to meet ENERGY STAR Homes standards are in the range of 1% to 3% more than code levels. Of course, if your builder is already building at a level higher than code, the cost is even less. Unlike a hot tub, marble countertops or hardwood floors, the ENERGY STAR Homes energy upgrades begin paying for themselves from the moment you move in. How? Let’s say all of the upgrades total $1,500. This amount added to your mortgage, assuming a 30-year fixed rate of 7 1/4%, will cost $10 more per month in your mortgage payment. These upgrades, in turn, could easily result in a reduction of $360 or more in your annual heating/cooling costs. At a savings of over $30 per month, this gives you a positive cash flow for the life of your home. An ENERGY STAR home is a home that pays you back, while helping to protect the environment.

It all seems a bit complicated. What help can I expect throughout this process?

When building an ENERGY STAR home in Massachusetts, a consultant from ICF International will be your resource to help make the right energy decisions and to guide you and your builder through the process of building a high performance home. For all of your energy related questions, ICF will work hard to find the right, cost-effective answers.

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For more ‘frequently asked questions’ and plentiful information on the program, visit the Energy Star for Homes website at www.energystarhomes.com.

We are excited about our upcoming project, and see our involvement and the New Homes with Energy Star program as a means to help the builder create a better product, that will perform better throughout its years of use.

As always, we’d love to talk to you about this post topic and how it can help you in your upcoming project.  With best wishes for a wonderful summer,

Juli MacDonald, GreenBridge Architects  978.518.2811

When I first started working as an architectural intern in Rockford, Illinois, Larry, the curmudgeonly head draftsman loved teasing me about my main job of drawing toilet rooms. He didn’t let me say ‘bathroom’, insisting that I say ‘toilet’. He was right – we were working on commercial toilet rooms and nobody was taking baths there…well, it’s been a lot of years, and now I’ve got a lot to say about toilets – Do you want your toilet in a separate room? Do you like an elongated bowl for comfort? What do you think of the water-saving dual-flush models? Do you have young sons? Discussing the toilet still isn’t my favorite part of the bath design process, but it’s important, because habits and details make all the difference in a successful bathroom. In the last greenbridge blog, we wrote about kitchen design and renovation. This month the focus is on bathrooms.

Guide-to-modern-bathrooms

The Bathroom. What does yours mean to you? Often the first room you enter after waking, it can set the tone for the day. For many, their master bath is a calming, restorative place to get away, an oasis. A powder room can be a showplace for guests. The hall bath can be a flurry of kid activity, requiring organization and compartmentalization. For some of us, our bath is a frustration. Common problems are outdated or failing fixtures, inadequate lighting, old finishes that are difficult to keep clean, and poor layout and storage.

Although it is usually one of the smallest rooms in the home, the renovation of a bathroom can be surprisingly complex and costly. A bathroom renovation usually requires the several skilled trades during construction – carpenter, electrician, plumber and heating contractor. Some bath renovations will also include custom cabinetry and special tile or stone installations. To keep costs in line, we offer rough design and cost estimates prior to undertaking full design work on a bathroom. The earliest phase in the design process is the best time to scale back if budget requires. Why spend time effort and money on a design that will not be feasible for you and your family?

In order to create a cost estimate and design, we ask a lot of our clients early in the project. As we discussed in other blog posts, while we are measuring and drawing the existing conditions, we assign our clients the task of thinking about their personal goals for the rooms that are included in the project. We then meet with them to review their goals for the space. What follows is a summary of the items covered for a bathroom renovation:

Getting Started

Start tagging those favorite online bathroom images! Pull out all those clipping or copies of bathrooms you’ve been enjoying in the magazines and newspapers. (We have great magazines and books to lend if you haven’t been doing this yet.) Make a quick note on each describing what you like about that bathroom. (example – ‘great colors’ or ‘beautiful tub’ ) These notes are invaluable for the designer who will pull these items together for you.

Before our initial design meeting, we’ll ask that you give some thoughts to the items below – again, you don’t need to have an answer of even a strong feeling about each item, but if you do, we want to be sure we’re including those items that are important to you.

kohler-yin-yang-wading-pool-lavatory

The ‘Yin-Yang Wading Pool’ sink by Kohler

ErinAdams_Mosaic_InterlockingCircles

Erin Adams mosaic tile by Ann Sacks

General Feeling

What words describe your dream bathroom? Soothing, tranquil, cool, cozy, a retreat, huge, modern, old-fashioned?

Layout

· How does your bath work for you now? If it doesn’t work so well for you, what have you thought about as a solution? Is there an opportunity to enlarge the room into part of an adjacent space?

· Are there any items in the existing bathroom that can be reused such as cabinetry, lighting or plumbing? For the items not being reused, we donate or recycle the items when possible.

· Do you have good natural light and ventilation in the room? Is there an opportunity to add more if necessary?

Fixtures and controls

· List the plumbing items: sink, toilet, tub and/or shower. Do you prefer separate sinks? Choose the basic style, for instance, pedestal sink or vanity, a freestanding tub or one that is mounted in a tub deck.

· Think about the shape and finish of the controls.

· Use low-flow faucets and low-flow or dual-flush toilets

· Consider a tankless hot water heater.

Floors and Walls

· What floor and wall materials will give you the look and feel you’re after? Can these materials be used to create patterns, and do you want to use them that way?

· Have you considered an in-floor heating system?

· Use low VOC paint and wood finishes.

· Consider eco-friendly finishes – wood flooring, recycled content ceramic tile, stone tile, or exposed concrete. Natural linoleum is made from natural materials can be finished in a range of colors, and can be installed without the use of adhesives.

Storage

· Will you have a vanity, and if so, what will be stored there?

· What other storage or display needs do you have in the room?

· What styles and finishes of cabinetry do you prefer?

· Make sure that cabinetry built with plywood (which often contains an urea formaldehyde glue which can cause a range of health issues) is properly sealed before entering your home. Better yet, use solid wood cabinetry and solid surface countertops to avoid the use of plywood.

Lighting Fixtures

· You’ll need lighting at the mirror(s) and some general light from overhead fixtures.

· Do you read or shave in the shower?

· While you are considering light, think about dimming and control options.

· Use halogen and LED lighting for light quality and energy efficiency.

Window treatments

Consider privacy needs, style, color and pattern (and contact lmk interiors ltd!)

Accessories

Mirrors, towel bars, tissue holders, soap dishes, and robe hooks are useful items with decorative importance. Think about size, style, finish, practicality and ease of cleaning.

Air Quality

· Install an exhaust fan that properly vents to the exterior.

· Plants improve the air quality and are an attractive balance to the otherwise hard surfaces in the room.

bathroom-green

Greening the Process

The early planning stage is the best time to consider opportunities to ‘green it up’, or to make selections or decisions that will improve the environmental impact and energy and water use for the space. In addition to some of the considerations noted above, the following are sustainable practices and detailing we include as standard in our renovation projects:

· A well-designed and ‘timeless’ space won’t need to be renovated again, saving energy and resources for the future.

· A bathroom renovation usually involves demolition of the wall surfaces – this is a great opportunity to not only improve the wall, ceiling and floor insulation, but to also better insulate all plumbing and heating pipes ductwork.

· Sealing leaks in doors, windows, plumbing, ducting, and electrical wire, and penetrations through exterior walls, floors, ceilings and soffits over cabinets will save additional energy.

A bathroom renovation involves a lot of planning and decision-making. At GreenBridge Architects and Riverview Builders, we work with you to ensure that the process is a smooth one and that it is ultimately rewarding for you and your family.

Please feel free to contact me to discuss your upcoming project, or to chat about what your bathroom means to you, I’ll even talk about your toilet!  Next month’s blog will take on the home offices.

juli@greenbridgearchitects.com  978.518.2811

Last week I journeyed north to visit Seacoast Energy Alternatives in Dover, NH.  SEA is a retail store that offers information and products geared to conserve energy, save money and improve environmental impact.

SEA is part of USA Solar Store, a cooperative group of independently owned and operated retail stores that started in Vermont and is quickly expanding across the country.  As Pamela Bingham, one of the co-owners described, being part of the cooperative gives them the benefits of:

  • the group’s extensive product research and testing
  • specialized expertise of other members
  • the ability to offer reduced prices for their products

SEA has a wonderful range of products including appliances, composters, plumbing fixtures, lamps and photovoltaic systems.  Of all their products, Pamela and her co-owner Jack Bingham love to talk about their solar water heating systems.  As described by Dave Bonta in New Green Home Solutions, “Solar hot water systems are dependable, reasonably priced, and attractive.  Clean trouble-free solar domestic hot water will let you shrink your energy consumption and give you freedom from fossil fuel-based heating sources.”  

pamela and marathon

How does it work?  A solar water heating system consists of solar collectors (roof or ground-mounted), pumps to circulate the hot water, a storage tank and a back-up heating system.  Solar water heaters need super-insulated storage tanks, so it is usually best to replace an existing water heater.  The Marathon, on display at SEA and pictured above, is super-insulated and is guaranteed for life.

At SEA, you can see the two basic styles of solar hot water collectors that make sense for our climate, flat plate and evacuated tube solar collectors.  Their costs are similar, and the styles vary some in their use and applications.

flat panel

The new Velux flat plate collector modelled to be compatible with their skylight products, and beyond, installed vertically, a flat panel collector.

evac tubes

 An evacuated tube collector – also check out the composting toilet at left!

For any solar water heating option, proper sizing and installation are critical for maximum performance.  A solar water heating system requires good southern exposure.  If you don’t have that, you might want to consider another energy-saving option, a tankless water heater.

What are the costs and expected payback?  Did you know that the average household spends 30% of their heating dollar on making hot water?  The average system offered at SEA (for a family of 2-3), included the insulated water tank, costs approximately $10,000 and is guarantted for 5-10 years, but expected to perform for 20+ .  With available federal tax credits (30% until 2016), the cost is reduced to $7,000.  The solar water heating system should heat nearly all your domestic water supply in the summer and 40%-50% in the winter.  Most households currently heating their water with oil will see a complete payback of the initial cost within 5 to 6 years.  A typical solar hot water system will last much longer (40+ years) than a conventional hot water heater (10-12 years).

If you are interested in knowing more, check out www.seasolarstore.com or visit – Jack and Pamela enjoy giving tours of thier shop and products. 

Additionally, Jack will be joining us for the August meeting of the Seacost Green Building Group to discuss solar water heating systems.  We’ll be meeting on Tuesday August 11th, from 7-9PM upstairs at the Grog in Newburyport.  All are welcome! 

Feel free to contact me to talk about these and other great product options for your home or business or the Seacoast Green Building Group.

juli@greenbridgearchitects.com

Do green upgrades translate to increased home value?  The answer is sometimes.  It seems so obvious that improvements to your home that will increase energy efficiency (lower operating costs) or that use more healthful products (non-VOC, non-formaldehyde) would translate to a higher property value.  From the perspectives of the traditional lender, appraisor and realtor, this isn’t the case.

I first became aware of this while chatting with a real estate appraiser friend of mine.  I asked her how much value is placed on a home labeled as “Energy Star”.  Energy Star for Homes, one of a growing number of building certification programs, sets readily achievable benchmarks for sustainability.  This is primarily based on insulation and mechanical systems efficiency.  The program has become a solid baseline for quality construction and one that clearly benefits homeowners in terms of comfort and cost.  My appraiser friend had never heard of Energy Star for Homes.

Since that conversation with my friend, I’ve learned that there are appraisers who are knowledgeable in green construction and use this knowledge in their appraisals.  Scott Hardin, of The Appraisal Guy based in Redding, Mass, is well-versed in construction technology and is considered a ‘green’ appraiser.  In some states, there is a certification for green appraisers – Scott is hoping to be the first in New England.

On the lending side, there are lenders who offer ‘green loans’ for a certified new home or for energy upgrades to an existing home.  The value of these loans is based on not only the increased anticipated value of the home, but also the borrower’s ability to pay more for the loan due to their lower utility costs.  Makes sense!  These forward-thinking lending options require that assessors are aware of added value in these ‘green’ improvements.  For information on these loans, Jeff Cole at www.myenergyloan.com is a great resoures.  Wells Fargo and other lenders are also creating green loan programs.

Similar smart moves are happening on the realty side.  Savvy and conscious realtors are learning about green construction and its value in the tight market.  Paulette Zuena at Remax in Andover, Mass. (www.YourPaulette.com) has become a great community resource on green building.  Another realtor, Boston Green Realty (www.bostongreenrealty.com) located in Boston and Haverhill, specializes in green listings and in outlining their benefits to potential buyers.  In addition, Boston Green Realty will work with buyers or sellers to add planned energy improvements into the purchase price of the home, and with the lenders to verify the added value of those improvements.

It’s exciting to see that financing and real estate are catching up with the value of green construction, making it more feasible to improve our homes one house, or one loan, at a time.

For more information on making green improvements to your home or in planning a new green project, contact Juli at GreenBridge Architects.

Insulate!!!

October 14, 2008

Dreading this year’s oil bills, my husband and I took the plunge and did what I’m always suggesting to my clients – we had insulation installed in our attic and parts of our basement.  We have a 1796 house that leaks ‘like a sieve’ and decided to take a stab at improving it.  The roof is the most important place to start as most heat-loss and gain happens there.

Our attic…..before.  Nothing in the rafter spaces and old batt insulation and loose cellulose at the attic floor.  We wanted to use soy-based insulation, which provides a great ‘R value’, has the ability to move into the many gaps in our old house, and is primarily made with renewable materials, see www.biobased.net to learn more.

We talked to our friends at The Green Cocoon, and they estimate that with this additional insulation, the investment should pay for itself in just two years.

Jim Materkowski from the GreenCocoon installed soy spray foam insulation – he was at the house for about a day.  The foam sprays on like shaving cream, expands and hardens.

The ‘finished’ product!  The attic is too low to ever use as a finished space, so we asked that Jim give us the thickest installation possible.  If we were going to add drywall to the rafters, he’d have to cut back the insulation for a smooth finish.  Contact www.thegreencocoon.com for more information.

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