Friday, February 25, 2011

Hot Water Fast

For comfort, for saving water, and for saving energy, the best possible solution is to minimize the amount of water between your fixtures and water heater.  Simple as that. The lower the volume of water between the heater and fixture, the sooner you get hot water when you turn on the tap (comfort), the less water that flows down the drain while waiting (saving water), and the less water that sits and cools in the line after you turn off the tap (saving energy). To this end, locating the water heater centrally in the house and as close as possible to the fixtures is critical. Parallel piping manifold systems reduce the water volume as well. Parallel piping systems have home run lines from a manifold to each fixture and use much smaller lines (for sinks, 3/8" lines for sinks instead of a combination of 3/4" and 1/2" lines). There are 11.00 cups of water per 30' of 3/4" ID line, 4.89 cups per 30' of 1/2" ID line, and 2.75 cups per 30' of 3/8" ID line, a significant difference. In other words, you can see hot water 2 to 4 times as fast with a parallel piping system versus a conventional branch system.

There are a few other benefits as well. One, no pressure balance issues.  You can flush the toilet while the love of your life is in the shower and they will not see the slightest temperature dip or spike.  Two, there are few if any fittings on the home runs so the system is more durable and the flow is smoother and faster (less turbulence) in the pipes. Lastly, you can turn off any line at the manifold so maintenance and repair just got easier.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Old Houses and Five Sided Boxes

In the winter, air comes in through the bottom of your house and exits through the top. If you put a top hat on the house, that effectively stops most of the air flow without capping the bottom.  If you just cap the bottom, that also effectively stops the air flow. This is the five sided box idea. Five sided boxes (one side left unsealed) work nearly as well as six sided boxes (all sides sealed). What this means for your home, in practice, is that closing and insulating your crawl space has significant impact even if you have a very leaky attic.  Conversely, if you air seal and insulate your attic but you have a very leaky crawl space or basement, you will still see significant energy efficiency and comfort benefits.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Boys and Their Toys...

Since I bought my first truck when I was 15 years old, I’ve been fascinated by anything with wheels. I sat down and made a silly list this morning – all the cars and trucks and trailers and tractors and motorcycles that I’ve had in my 45 years and the total is well over 60. Yes, 60. As you might imagine, there are a number of favorites. Ford pick-ups, Volkswagen diesels, BMW motorcycles, and Airstream trailers top the repeat offender list. T
here are also some strange notables, including a Subaru Van with a 360CC 2 cylinder engine, a beautifully restored 1953 Willy’s pickup, an un-restored vintage Studebaker Lark VI Wagon (never got as far as installing new windows in this car so we had to drive it with goggles), and my beloved but cranky and ancient Farmall tractors, as well as our current biodiesel-powered Sprinter vans and Volkswagens.

Many of these vehicles were (unfortunately) used well past their expected life. Years ago, my grandfather gave us a canary yellow Datsun pickup that underwent his special form of renovation. He did not want to be seen in a foreign made vehicle so he applied Bondo, like frosting a cake, over the “Datsun” insignias and then spray painted the frosted areas with a sort-of corresponding shade of yellow spray paint. The passenger door latch failed and we used a rope between the door pulls to keep it closed. The issues with this set-up are myriad and serious, possibly none as much so as driving this truck on a first date. You figure how well that went.

My interest in things that roll has morphed from just having a cool ride when I was in high school to fuel economy, limited emissions, and alternative fuels in the last decade. We’ve been using a biodiesel blend for many years to power our diesel vehicles for reduced emissions, because it is renewable, for better lubricity, and because it is harvested in America. Biodiesel stations are becoming more plentiful, Piedmont Biofuels just set up a station in Saxapahaw for example, but years ago when we started to use biodiesel we had to install our own tank to supply our vehicles. Our latest fleet fueling interest and option is compressed natural gas (CNG). Like biodiesel, CNG is a classic cart before the horse story. For example, the Honda Civic NGV (natural gas vehicle) is nearly zero emissions, arguably the greenest car in America, made in America, and powered by inexpensive and plentiful fuel harvested in America. But the fueling stations are not widespread enough to be comfortable driving one. In fact, no public station exists in Durham, our home base. So, to make a CNG fleet a possibility, we have to build a fueling station to supply our small fleet. While not insurmountable, this is a significant barrier. We intend to figure this out for a cleaner fleet that aligns our operations with our products. We’ll keep you posted.

Sustainability Is Not a New Idea

My grandfather would pick up a bent nail, walk it over to his dusty and scarred workbench in the farm garage, and, using a ball peen hammer and his ancient anvil, he would straighten the nail for re-use in the next project. Nothing on the Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania farm was wasted. Table and cooking scraps were fed to the hogs, as were loose shell eggs and dead chickens. Wood scraps from building projects were used for heating fuel. Animal waste was used as fertilizer. I was the low man on the totem pole, so I had the questionable privilege of pulling the chicken manure spreader, a horrendous machine that flung the manure on to the fields with rotating chains that dip and throw, dip and throw. I still use tractors today just like the Farmall that pulled that spreader, more than 50 years old and still going strong. These machines are solid, durable and sustainable well beyond the typical meaning of these words.

Sustainability is not a new idea. In fact, it is a very old idea rooted in frugality, necessity, and utility. Diligently selecting quality durable goods, carefully maintaining those products or materials, and reaping a long return from those choices is original sustainability. Directly recycling or re-using waste or materials is original sustainability. Turning down the winter thermostat and wearing a sweater is original sustainability. Doing without what you do not need is original sustainability. Conservation is original sustainability.

A long-term affordable and sustainable house fits comfortably with the original idea of sustainability. Choose a smaller house that uses fewer materials. Require a strong and durable house. Select a better house now and reap the benefits over time. Ask for a home that uses half the energy of a typical house. Choose a healthy and comfortable house. Learn how to operate and maintain your home for optimal performance. Know the things that you can do right now like changing furnace filters regularly for positive impact on your health and wallet. Select a climate appropriate house. Ask for a home oriented and designed for passive heating and passive cooling. Use daylight instead of artificial light. Choose a house where the interior is connected to the exterior. Select substance in lieu of false decoration, better insulation instead of plastic shutters or fake gables.

Every sustainable choice has its pros and cons. My incredibly durable Farmall tractors have terrible fuel economy. Bamboo is a rapidly renewable material but it typically ships from Asia. Foam insulation helps create a very energy efficient house but is difficult to deconstruct, separate, and recycle at the end of its useful life. Each decision must be made in the context of the total green building system and based on your parameters and current building science information.

An affordable and sustainable house is a house that would make sense to my Grandfather. A home where he would nod and notice that it is a substantive home, well-built, and solid. A home without a lot of flash or glitter but that is warm, conservation-minded, and comfortable. A house that really is the American dream.

Granite Scraps

In a cobbler’s shoes story, my wife Lori and I are finally getting serious about building our own small and highly sustainable house and moving out of our old home. To that end and among other planning activities, we have been looking at cabinets, counters, and finishes. We just visited Common Ground yesterday and Paul Toma showed us Earth Stone Products. These folks developed a machine that punches out specific tile and paver shapes from the sink cut-outs and scraps generated by custom stone countertop makers. My first thought was: is there enough scrap to be able to deliver this recycled product? Apparently, the answer is yes, we make lots of stone counters in America and that generates an astonishing amount of stone “waste.” The results are genuine (smooth or rough) stone pavers and tile with depth and character that are a clever product of our waste stream. What an idea.