The Greening of Your Home
A top-to-bottom look at transforming your home into an eco-friendly house.
Greening The American Dream
Going green has gone mainstream. One homeowner uses her brick-and-shingle Pelham home as a green guinea pig as she renovates from roof to cellar in an eco-friendly way.
by carol hall
illustration by ritzko uchida
We also take canvas bags to the grocery so we don’t have to use, then discard, plastic ones. My husband rides his bike to the Metro-North station every day. We try to take the environment into consideration whenever we can, but we still drive a car. We still have a house full of appliances, and we still use oil to heat our house in the winter.
We have lived in our “typical” Westchester home (about 3,500 square feet, built in 1926) for 10 years now. There are fixes all over the house we need to make. Wouldn’t it be great if we could fix up our house with “green” materials that would have less of an environmental impact—products that don’t harm the environment when they are produced, used, or disposed of; products that will drastically cut our energy consumption; products that are not unhealthy to handle or to live with?
Whoa—this isn’t California. Is it possible to do a green renovation in… Westchester?
It most certainly is. It takes a little extra effort and costs a little more, but the green-building revolution that is well under way on the West Coast is building momentum here in the East. “It’s pretty clear at this point that green building is becoming mainstream,” says Jolanda Jensen, an engineer at Spectra Engineering, Architecture, and Surveying in Poughkeepsie. “What used to be done only on a commercial scale, you see applied to residential use more and more.”
The range of environmentally friendly products and solutions available to the average homeowner is rapidly expanding, and do not involve moving into a yurt. From alternatives to oil and gas heat, to insulation, cabinetry, floor coverings, house paint, even grout—green technologies and products are more obtainable and affordable for Westchester homeowners than ever. And desirable. According to Paul Novack, of Brooklyn-based Green Depot, “The growth in this has steadily increased over the last three years. We’re getting more builders who come, saying their clients want them to use green materials and they have no clue. I say, ‘Give me your list.’ I can find a substitute for everything on there that is healthy and green.” Green Depot is owned by building-supply giant Marjam, which plans to take it national.
Westchester Magazine asked me to use our brick-and-shingle home in Pelham as a green guinea pig. From roof to cellar, green contractors and consultants have gone into every nook and cranny, making suggestions for turning this old house into a much more eco-friendly home. I will tell you right now that we are not getting a sod roof or putting in newly popular dirt floors; I have enough dirt in my house. We will not be putting up a residential wind turbine to generate our own electricity, due to zoning and bird issues. And we will not retrofit composting toilets into the house (big “no” from family and neighbors).
Some of the suggestions were pleasant surprises: if something is working efficiently, don’t replace it; you’ll only be adding to the landfill. (According to the Environmental Protection Agency, construction and demolition refuse now account for 25 percent of all landfill waste). You probably can’t change everything in an older home, but incremental changes are nothing to be ashamed of. Even small changes, like putting your lights on timers or motion sensors, make a difference to energy consumption and to your monthly bills.
To get in the right frame of mind, we replaced most of the 68 incandescent bulbs in our house with compact-fluorescent ones. Yes, they are more expensive, but use two-thirds less energy and last 10 times longer. But these are not your father’s fluorescent lights.
They now come in a variety of sizes, wattages, and warm-to-cool light tones. We also stopped the “phantom load” of electricity that some of our appliances consume when they are supposedly turned off (e.g., that little light that always stays on so that you can remote-control the TV; the digital clock on your oven, your DVD/VCR, etc.). According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a whopping 75 percent of the electricity used to power our home electronics is drawn while the gadgets are “off.” This is much more significant than you may think at first; some experts say the energy consumed by America’s phantom load is enough to power Greece, Peru, and Vietnam…combined. Wherever possible, we now have our gadgets plugged into power strips or plugs, which can really be turned off.
To live in the most “sustainable” home possible, your best bet is to build a green home. The job will cost about 3 to 5 percent more, experts say, but will unquestionably start paying for itself immediately in much lower energy consumption and a much healthier indoor environment. Remodeling a house is costlier. Doing the job green will add anywhere from 5 to 15 percent to the price but, again, you stand to cut energy costs and boost your property value.
For the time being, doing a green renovation takes some research and forethought on the part of the homeowner. There are a growing number of green architects and consultants available to Westchester residents, but actual green contractors are still few and far between. With a little research, you can tell your regular contractor what to buy and where to buy it. Suppliers of environmentally sustainable building products are multiplying fast. In addition to Green Depot, you need to know about Bettencourt Green Building Supplies, also in Brooklyn. Even Home Depot is starting to carry a few green product lines.
What else can you do? Read on.
waste less—and spend less—on energy
It is easy to be confused by all the new green building products on
the market. Tom McCracken, a green contractor based in Manhattan, has a piece of advice for green renovators: “To avoid being overwhelmed, prioritize your needs,” he says. “A good thermal envelope is almost always your first priority. Often times ‘green’ just means what’s most energy efficient.” Every green expert I spoke to talked about the “thermal envelope” of our house. It refers to how well insulated a home is, and has a direct bearing on how much energy it takes to heat and cool your house. Like many older homes, ours loses frightful amounts of heat in the winter.
Jim Gross (above)
One of the greenest things you can do to your older home is to improve its insulation—you will consume significantly less energy and save cash. A poorly insulated house can lose half of the heat its furnace creates through walls and leaky windows. Experts say a well weatherized home can cut its energy use by 35 percent. Because most people don’t realize how much heat they are losing, you might want to start with an “energy audit.”
This involves someone checking your house for energy leaks, making suggestions about how you can use less, and how you can tighten up. (You’d be surprised at how much heat is lost around your dryer vent, for instance.) An energy audit can be had free of charge from the local power company, or through private auditors who will give you a super-thorough report for a fee. You might also treat yourself to a “thermal gun,” a point-and-shoot gizmo that will take a temperature reading of any surface in your house; they cost about $30—and they’re fun!
If you want to stop heat loss, start with your windows. In every one of our drafty rooms, we can replace the 30-year-old windows with much more efficient double- or triple-pane ones. (We recently did this in two chilly rooms of our house at a cost of about $2,500 a room; the temperature change is remarkable.) And here’s a tip: lock your windows during the cold months. Most windows are spring-loaded. Even when the window is closed, it is open a quarter-inch, letting cold air in and heat out.
Insulation has been a focus of the green-building movement because of its impact on energy consumption, as well as on the environment. Our house is a good case-in-point.
Our large attic is freezing cold in the winter, and heats up to over 100 degrees in the summer. It has matted old fiberglass insulation covering the attic floor, but nothing insulating the ceiling (you can see the nails holding on our roof shingles). We are losing gobs of heat up the attic stairs, but I do not want to further insulate with products that involve fiberglass (thought to be dangerous, though perhaps not as dangerous as asbestos). Foam-on insulations are fine, but many of them use petrochemicals in their mix and ozone-depleting chlorofluourocarbons (CFCs) in their application process. A growing range of environmentally acceptable, fire-retardant options have come onto the market. Air-Krete, for instance, is a foam-on insulator made from cement and magnesium oxide extracted from sea water. Biobase 501 is a soy-based foam. And for insulation that comes in rolls, UltraTouch is made from recycled cotton, primarily denim. It may sound hippy-dippy but it works well and is especially good for people with allergies.
Before we leave the attic, we’ll replace our old whole-house fan with a newer model that can be set to a timer. Our big fan came with the house and, though it seems old-fashioned, it works extremely well to keep our house cool on all but the hottest days in summer. It also consumes a fraction of the energy air conditioning does. We are also considering another old-fashioned but effective, attractive way to cool our house—putting canvas awnings over our south-facing windows.
Up on the roof, when the time comes to replace our black asphalt-shingle roof, we will put on a light-colored shingle instead; it will attract less heat and keep the house much cooler in the summer. (Studies show light shingles can cut AC use by up to 40 percent!)
And we will also use something other than new asphalt shingles, a petroleum product. A number of green shingle options are on the market, most made with recycled products. RoofRoc, for instance, is recycled plastic and limestone (and it looks like slate).
I’m not here to scold…but America’s electrical energy consumption is mind-boggling. Increasingly, local power companies are not able to keep up with the demand and are putting massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the air in the attempt. The electricity used to power a household of two in this country produces an average of 16,290 pounds (or 7.4 metric tons) of carbon dioxide a year.
Cutting your use of the juice is key: shop carefully for appliances, like Energy Star-rated ones, and screw in those compact fluorescent bulbs. But think big and consider installing roof-mounted photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, which can have your house producing most of its own clean electricity.
look to the sun
Westchester is surprisingly well situated for solar power, producing about 90 percent of the electricity that solar panels in California do. In New York State, recently instituted rebates and tax credits make clean, renewable solar power much more affordable, covering roughly two-thirds of the cost. Your electric bill will shrivel and your system will eventually pay for itself. Most solar-powered homes are still “on the grid,” hooked up to the local electrical company. This means that they generate their own power during the day but, when the sun goes down, draw electricity from the local power company. You may wind up producing more power than you use, especially if you are out a lot during the day. In that case, the electric company—for us, that’s Consolidated Edison—buys back the excess wattage at the retail price. Produce enough excess electricity and you will achieve “net zero” and cancel out your monthly bill.
Ann Gaillard, a neighbor in Pelham, has had her solar roof panels in place for the last two years. She aims to be more energy independent. She says her electric bills used to be more than $300 a month; now they come in at about $50. “I love it!” enthuses Gaillard, a landscaper who focuses on a more chemical-free approach to lawn care. “Absolutely, no question I would do this again.” Her roof-mounted bank of PV panels are so unobtrusive that I drove by them for months without noticing them. A cable snakes down from the roof and connects them to a power box that hangs on a wall in her basement, next to her meter.
There are a surprising number of solar installers already advertising in the Yellow Pages. Two other places to start looking for a solar company are the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority website (www.NYSERDA.org) and the Solar Electric Power Association (www.solar electricpower.org). Both list recommended contractors. I phoned National Photovoltaic Construction Partnership, with an office in Scarsdale, for an estimate. “People will think nothing of putting in a fifteen thousand-dollar home theater,” says Lee Smith of NPCP, “but when you talk about solar, people say, ‘Whoa, it takes ten years to pay for itself!’” They tend to forget, he says, that this is a home improvement that actually reimburses you.
Samara Levine, an NPCP project manager, took me through the options for our house. I faxed her a pile of our electric bills, for a history of our usage. A south-facing roof surface is the most productive for solar technology. Unfortunately, that portion of our roof is broken by a dormer window in the middle. Still, there’s hope: While the average Westchester home would need a 5 kilowatt system to meet its needs, we don’t have central air-conditioning. (“You could easily double your energy usage if you are an aggressive air-conditioner,” Levine explains.) She figures we could get by on a 3.4 kilowatt system. That would be 18 roof-panels generating 86 percent of our power. It would take a 4 kw system for us to achieve “net zero,” where we would sell back enough wattage to bring our electric bills down to zero. NPCP puts the cost of our solar system at about $27,000, but with current federal and state tax credits and rebates, our cost would shrink to just over $8,000. Our annual electricity savings would total $756, meaning our system would pay for itself in eight or nine years, and should last 25 to 30 years.
You can get a rough idea of how much a system might cost you on the Internet. A number of websites exist to help you figure out how much a solar system might cost, including one run by NPCP. They will ask you for things like your average electric bills and your zip code, and will tell you what size system your home would need. Some companies will also call up a satellite photo of your roof-top, to see if your house is well-situated for solar.
Solar technology is developing very rapidly. The materials are getting cheaper, lighter, and better engineered to deal with things like cloudy days. There is healthy competition within the industry to produce the most desirable product. Solar tiles are another good option. They function like roof shingles and are best installed when building a house or replacing a roof. But they are less powerful than the panels, so you need more of them. Solar film will likely be coming in the not-too-distant future. It is ultra-lightweight and can be applied to an existing roof like a sheet of foil.
“Solar thermal” technology is something else to look into. This uses the sun to heat water, which can be used to heat your entire house, meet your hot water needs and even heat your swimming pool (the White House heats the presidential pool this way). While we don’t have a pool, and it would be too costly to put in the piping required for space heating, a solar hot-water system would work well for us. It involves at most four solar roof panels, with lines that run to a storage tank near our existing water tank in the basement. The average family’s hot water bill is 14 percent to 20 percent of its total energy expenditure. EarthKind Energy, based in Rhinebeck, estimates a family of four, with heavy usage, would need a $7,500 system. With state and federal tax credits, the cost would shrink to $3,625. Solar thermal is on my birthday list.
Our huge oil-burning furnace is an antique. At 50-plus years old, it is still working but is inefficient and needs replacing. I’m excited: this is a big chance to cut back on our oil consumption. We don’t want to switch to natural gas, as production of it has serious environmental drawbacks. And while there are some very efficient single-room heating options on the market, like pellet stoves, we need a system capable of heating our whole house.
One approach a lot of people are looking at is geothermal energy. This system takes heat out of the earth (which stores it at a constant temperature of about 55 degrees) and sends it into your home.
Briefly, here’s how it works. Liquid- filled hoses are run down deep holes drilled into your yard; they conduct the heat back into your house, via a single tube. The heat meets a unit in the basement that compresses it and delivers it into the house through your duct system, or as radiant heat. To provide air conditioning in the summer, the system works in reverse, by drawing heat out of your house. You would still need electricity in your home to power all the things you use it for now, including your geo-thermal system.
I asked Rob Feuer of Smart Energy Inc., a New Rochelle-based company that installs geothermal systems, to look over our house and give me an estimate. I was kind of worried about what this would do to our yard, and he admitted that, with all the digging, it would temporarily be trashed. But what we would end up with is a system that would endlessly provide all of our heat, air conditioning, and hot water. “This is the hybrid for your home,” Feuer says. That’s a very appealing idea, despite my concerns about the eventual disposal of the liquid refrigerant in the tubes. (He says the industry is working on that.)
Our house has no interior duct work, as our oil-powered heat is delivered through radiators, so we would need major duct-work to put in a geo-thermal system. Feuer estimates the total cost for us would be between $64,000 and $72,000. We could recoup our investment in under 10 years, however, especially if oil and gas prices keep spiking. But Feuer admits geothermal is not really practical for us. We don’t air-condition in the summer and our total annual energy bill is a little over $5,000. It makes more sense for someone with an annual bill of around $10,000.
So what was our shocking surprise decision? On the advice of our green consultants, we will replace our ancient furnace with the most energy-efficient oil-burning furnace on the market. Here’s why. Our pipes and radiators are in place, and radiators distribute heat very efficiently. Our oil storage tank, luckily, is in our basement and not in the ground; it is in great shape, not leaking. Disposing of it would create needless, toxic refuse. We will still use it, but cut our oil consumption by insulating the heck out of our house. I would much rather heat our home with solar power, but retro-fitting this house to accommodate it isn’t practical.
Jolanda Jensen of Spectra tries to comfort me: “In our climate, it’s hard to find anything that will totally replace your furnace, but you can cut down on your use of it.”
Geothermal may not be the
answer for us, but it was for Jim Gross and his family. A year-and-a-half ago, the Grosses decided to renovate their Scarsdale home and put on a 1,200-foot addition. They had existing heat and AC ducts but needed a new furnace and duct work. (They used natural gas.) That was when Gross started to do “a ton of research” on geothermal. “I didn’t like paying Con Ed every time they decided to raise prices,” he explains. To look at his backyard today, you would never know it is hiding an extensive network of holes, tunnels, and liquid-filled tubes bringing energy into his house.
He figures his system cost $30,000 more than a new furnace and extended duct work would have run. Five years ago it would have taken him 15 years to recoup his investment. Now, with energy prices so much higher, Gross is looking to make his money back in five years. He also took the opportunity to break his house into three temperature zones, (same as he could have with standard heating/AC), so that only the rooms being used are heated or cooled. Gross, a teacher at Horace Mann School, says his energy bills have dropped by more than 50 percent every month. “When I looked at it, I wondered, ‘Why isn’t everybody doing this?’” he says. (Westchester Country Club in Rye did. In 2002, it installed a massive geothermal system to heat and cool the club’s 80-year-old hotel to save on energy costs.)
make your home
Environmental Protection Agency studies show that the air inside our homes is typically two to five times more polluted than the air outside. Our homes are now full of chemically-treated products that expose us to the “off gassing” of volatile organic chemicals like formaldehyde, benzene, and arsenic. The evaporation of VOCs can go on for years, and traces of these chemicals stay in our body fat. They can cause eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation, can damage your liver and central nervous system, and have been linked to asthma. VOCs are in things you don’t give a second thought to: household cleaning solutions, wall paint, wood stains and varnishes, insulation, grout, adhesives and glues all contain chemicals that help them dry quickly, but off-gas into our homes for years. Carpeting, cabinetry, furniture, upholstery, and draperies are often treated with formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, that dissipates for up to five years. And outside of our homes, the production of most of these products involve highly toxic processes that have a negative impact on the environment.
Maggie Wood says the “green lifestyle” end of her consulting business has been taking off, as people increasingly want information on safe household products and building materials. “Many of my clients are young people with children,” she says. “Usually one thing sparks their interest, and then it snowballs.”
Of course, the use of wood is a major part of any construction project, inside and out. In an effort to make wood products pest resistant and longer-lasting, tons and tons of lumber are treated with toxic substances including arsenic, formaldehyde, and creosote. Formaldehyde is widely used as a binder in particle board, plywood, and fiberboard. Lines of “formaldehyde-free” wood products, including cabinetry, are coming onto the market. There are also plywood substitutes available—bound together with non-toxic glues—that are made with bamboo, coconut palms or sorghum stalks instead of traditional wood. We are now checking to make sure that all the wood we use, from support-beams to cabinetry, is untreated.
It is equally important to buy wood that comes fro