Solar Homes of Evergreen Village

Evergreen solar housesI think we may have mentioned before that we live near a neighborhood of solar homes that was developed by the City of Bloomington Housing and Neighborhood Department (HAND).  It’s called Evergreen Village and it’s a cute little development of energy efficient homes planted with rain gardens and equipped with photovoltaic solar panels (which I believe were donated by Duke Energy).  We considered buying one when we were looking for a house but decided they were too expensive.  It’s a little odd; they’re designed to be affordable housing and yet they’re priced around $120,000-$150,000.  We’ve been wondering how that’s supposed to work.

Well, as I was walking the dog today (they have a nice walking trail) I saw a “for sale” sign and decided to call the realtor.  She was very nice and explained the whole program to me.  It’s actually pretty cool.  Fist of all, if you want to buy one of the houses, you have to meet their income guidelines, which means you can’t make more than a certain amount of money.  For a couple, your combined income can’t be more than $39,100 which means Will and I would definitely qualify.  You have to take a homebuyer class through the HAND department that basically talks about how mortgages work, expectations for upkeep of your house when you live in the city, and maybe some basic home maintenance stuff.  You also have to take a special class about how to care for your solar panels, how to maximize the energy efficiency of the homes, and how to care for your native landscaping rain garden.

Then you go to the lender of your choice and apply for a loan.  Here’s where it gets interesting.  Lets say the house you’re looking at is $130,000 but the bank says they will only lend you $100,000.  The city has a special loan/grant fund to help make up the difference so if you qualify (I’m not sure exactly what the guidelines are here), they will give you the extra $30,000 to buy the house.  If you keep the house for a certain amount of time, lets say ten years, the loan from the city is forgiven.  But if you sell it after a couple of years, you have to pay back the loan, I think with interest.

When we first started considering these houses, I thought it was a little surprising that all the appliances are electric (water heater, furnace, oven).  I’ve always heard terrible things about how inefficient electric furnaces and water heaters can be.  However, I’ve read a lot of studies about how people who want to switch to solar power end up dramatically increasing the efficiency of their homes before they put on any panels because once you start trying to figure out how to make it work with solar, you realize it’s all about insulation and passive solar heating.  So even though it’s unlikely that the homes can really heat themselves year-round using PV solar panels, I’m sure they’re way better than your average home, even if it uses a gas furnace.

The ultimate goal for Evergreen Village is to help low-income families invest in really cool efficient homes for the long term and I hope the program will be really successful.  It looks like only about half the houses are currently inhabited but they were constructing the last phase (about a third) all through 2008 so it sounds like the city is just getting started selling the latest group of houses.  It’s also a crappy time of year to move so we’re figuring maybe in the spring we’ll have some new neighbors.

In the meantime, we’ll keep admiring the solar panels as we walk by.

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Water heating is a tankless job

An outdoor showerMy abstract thinking about a tankless water heater became more concrete recently when we realized that our (25-year old) water heater was broken. Not just broken, in fact, it was actively spraying water all over the crawlspace. The bad news is that it took us several weeks to realize. The good news is that the crawlspace has excellent drainage, since the water didn’t seem to stay. According to the water company, we used 66,000 gallons of water (usually, we use 1-2 thousand), so we’re glad it didn’t back up! We’re also dreading our water bill.

In the meantime, we had a plumber come out and make a quick $100 fix to the leak. The water heater still didn’t work because of a broken temperature breaker, so Maggie short-circuited it. It works well enough now, we just have to keep the water heater off at the main breaker so that it doesn’t overheat. The part is relatively cheap and easy to replace, but since the current water heater is so old, we decided to see how much it would cost to have it replaced.

Two weeks of phone calls to the plumber later and we finally had an estimate. They said that it would cost $800 to replace the current one with a new electric tank and that there was no such thing as a whole-house electric tankless water heater. $800 seems like a lot and I was pretty sure I’d seen the apparently mythical electric tankless versions, so I did some digging.

It turns out that the natural gas tankless water heaters can give a much better flow rate than electric ones. I’ve seen natural gas tankless run up to 10 gallons per minute with a 55-degree temperature change. Electric ones seem to peak at around 4 gallons per minute.

Still, 4 gallons per minute seems reasonable to me, so I’m not sure why the plumber thought it was impossible. We only really use hot water for showers and doing dishes (and we rarely do those at the same time). A standard shower fixture uses 2.5 gpm and a sink uses about the same, so that would be pushing things somewhat. Of course, the result would just be slightly cooler water, which wouldn’t be terrible either.

And if we got a low-flow showerhead and a sink aerator, we could reduce that to 1.5 gpm and 0.5 gpm respectively. That’s only 2 gpm, which would only require a middle-of-the-road tankless water heater.

Even if we got a dishwasher, we’d only need 3 gpm to make sure it would get hot water. It doesn’t seem like it would be a big deal to avoid taking showers while washing dishes, especially since we only wash dishes once or twice a week.

Or maybe I’m deluding myself and it would it be unbearably annoying to start a shower and then have it get colder as Maggie starts up our (hypothetical) dishwasher. Guests might come over and be devastated that the water got colder when they took a shower at the same time (in different showers, for those of you with dirty minds).

Another possibility is that Maggie and I just don’t use as much hot water as a usual household, so an electric tankless would work perfectly for us. How much hot water do you all use at once? More than a shower and a faucet? I’d love to hear from you to see if our water usage is really that unusual.

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A ceiling fan saga

Armitage low-profile ceiling fanMaggie had her bridal shower this weekend, but I had some excitement myself. After two weeks of abortive starts and dangling wires, I finally managed to install a ceiling fan in my new home office. It’s a good candidate for a ceiling fan because it’s in a corner, which means there’s not much airflow. Unfortunately, the ceilings are relatively low (7.5 feet), which made it hard to find a short enough ceiling fan.

It seemed like every ceiling hugger fan had a huge light fixture and vice versa. But, after searching for several days, I found a fan with a total height of less than a foot. Even better, it was less than $20! All I had to do was take it back, remove the old light, and put the fan in.

Of course, that’s where the trouble started. Removing the old light was no problem, but it revealed a plastic fixture. Since the ceiling fan instructions said in big letters DO NOT INSTALL IN A PLASTIC FIXTURE, that was something of a problem. Even worse was that we couldn’t tell how the fixture was connected.

So we just left the wires dangling from the fixture while we figured out what to do. I moved a floor lamp into my office so that I could actually work and that’s where things stood for a week. Once we’d gotten some more important projects done, including using the old light to replace the hanging chandelier in the dining room (it was way too tall and included too many incandescent bulbs), we revisited the project by buying two of the three types of fan fixtures that Lowe’s had. The first just bolts directly to a joist. The other, more stable one, has extending arms that bolt to the two nearest joists. The one we didn’t get bolts underneath a joist, but our joists are right up against the ceiling, so we figured it couldn’t be that.

Armed with a new ladder (and a broom to measure distance), Maggie crawled into the attic and dug through the blown insulation for the top of the fixture. I stood below, ready to catch her and yelling up directions as I heard her moving around. She found and cleared it only to discover that it matched none of the three fixtures.

Instead, it wrapped up the sides of the joist and bolted into both sides. This left the fixture pretty shallow, but made it sturdy. And, of course, to install one of the metal fixtures, we’d have to cut a new hole.

Luckily, while checking the plastic fixture on Saturday, I scraped it clean enough that I could read the lettering which said that it was rated for ceiling fans! I immediately pulled the ceiling fan pieces out and started assembling only to be thwarted at the beginning by my lack of two washers.

Sunday, I grabbed my friend Ian and took off for the hardware store to return the metal fixtures and get my two washers. We returned triumphant and, two hours later, I had a ceiling fan in my office… just in time for the weather to cool down.

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A painted wallI’m sorry for all of the late and low-content posts, but the end is in sight! We plan to put up trim and paint over the next two days and move into the house this weekend. And not a moment too soon. We’re getting pretty tired of being stretched between two (or more, with house-sitting) places.

Right now, we’re focused on paint. We went to the local paint shop to meet with the designer on Monday and she was very helpful. I’ve been taking copious pictures, so we printed up copies of some good ones of the rooms we’re painting as well as our couches. The blue of the couches turned out to be a problem, since they’d combine with most strong colors to be overwhelming but white is just too boring for us.

We were a little worried that there’d be no low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints available in the colors we wanted, but Benjamin Moore’s Aura line is low-VOC and works with the lighter half of their color line. We’re not the only ones to run across it. Reading reviews leads me to believe that it’ll be a great paint. Not only is it more environmental than most paints (although not the most environmental), it should last 3-4 times as long as a cheap paint, the color is supposed to be amazingly vibrant, it’s self-priming, touches up well, and dries quickly.

The plan is to check out the different finishes and then order the paint at the Benajamin Moore event at the paint store tomorrow. Maggie will report back once we’ve actually used the stuff.

The drawbacks are that it’s expensive (although it doesn’t seem out of line compared to other premium paints) and that it’s only low-VOC rather than no-VOC, especially when pigment is added. We’re not the only ones wrestling with green remodeling. Tearing stuff out has been reasonable. We’re re-using most of the trim and we’re passing the old carpet along to a local woman who can use it for pond beds or mulching.

Painting, on the other hand, is pretty ridiculous. In addition to the paint itself, we had to get roller covers (plastic, basically), caulk (not the most environmental thing), insulation (pretty much the worst thing environmentally), plastic paint trays, and a big plastic drop cloth. We’ll be able to use most of it again, but it’s still disheartening to see how much waste this will produce.

To be honest, we probably could have gotten better stuff if we’d looked harder. The alternatives are so overwhelming, though, especially given our time constraints. If we had weeks to look, we’d probably get some samples of no-VOC paint and try them out to see how they work. Without that time, we’re just not willing to try a no-VOC paint and have it end up not working well for us.

Still, it’s easier than it would have been even 5 years ago and it seems to be getting better. And my next project (installing a ceiling fan) will be leisurely enough that it’ll green enough to make up a little bit of the difference.

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Geothermal rebates

The Indiana Office of Energy & Defence Development (the OED, not to be confused with the dictionary) just released their grant programs for fiscal 2008-2009. There’s some interesting stuff for small-scale demonstration projects and a variety of things for non-profit and commerical, but really only one program for residential, the aptly named Geothermal Residential Rebate program.

This program allows you to apply for $1500 toward installing a new geothermal heat pump or $1000 if you’re replacing an existing heat pump. A geothermal heat pump would still be several thousand dollars more than a traditional furnace, but it helps make it more attractive.

The OED also released a PDF of the results of last year’s program. It’s a very cool look at the economics of geothermal heat pumps in Indiana. The report gives the average cost (including installation) of each size of heat pump (from 2 to 6 tons) that got the rebate last year. Even better, it compares those costs with the cost of a different type of furnace over several years.

In the final analysis, they find that geothermal heat pumps have under a 6-year payback no matter what the alternative is. If you’re using heating oil, it could even pay for itself in under 2 years!

According to the report, the OED calculates that every dollar spent in rebates has saved consumers two to three dollars and stimulated spending within the state (since geothermal heat pumps are local business).

Maggie is making fun of me for thinking about this when we haven’t even painted the front rooms of the house yet. I figure that now is the time to start saving money so that we’ll be able to afford it when our current furnace fails. Until then, at least a natural gas furnace is the second-best option!

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Dog sitting and a house update

I’m dog sitting tonight and Maggie is out of town, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to write a proper post later.

On the house front,  we’ve talked to a plasterer and he thinks he can just scrape most of the glue off and then cover the rest with a thin layer to make it smooth.  He’s going to come in on Monday to do that and replace the mirror with drywall.  If Nathan and I can remove all of the paneling from the front bedroom by then, we’ll also see if we can get him to do that.

We thought about taking out the plaster entirely and re-insulating, but it seems like such a waste to get rid of so much plaster that’s still in pretty good shape.  It’s also been remarkably cool in the house despite the big windows and lack of A/C.  Of course, we also don’t have any people or appliances producing excess heat either, but hopefully it’s a good indication that the current amount of insulation is sufficient.

Apart from that and painting, we’re just about ready to move in.  The current plan is to make the big move next weekend, which will be neat.  If you have any green decorating tips, let us know.  We have a lot more room than in our current place, so we’ll have plenty of spacet experiment on.

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Hot and Lazy

We got a lot of work done on the house yesterday with my parents (thanks Mom and Dad!) so when today turned hot and sticky we both decided to spend the evening at home relaxing.  I’ll take my turn on the mower tomorrow, probably in the morning before it gets too hot.

We really can’t complain much since so far July has been unseasonably cool but it was quite pleasant.  I rather enjoy having unseasonably warm winters and cool summers but I do worry that it’s indicative of global warming and associated climate change.  On the other hand, it’s hard to tell what falls within the range of normal variation.  I’ve heard that the Indiana motto for weather is “Don’t like the weather?  Wait a few hours.”

Tomorrow a professional plasterer is supposed to come by the house and tell us what to do with our living room walls.  I hope he has some ideas about the mirror, although a friend suggested we glue glass tiles on it to make a mosaic, which could be really cool.  Ya know, if we actually did it.

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Mowing green(ish)

Will mowing with an electric mowerLest you think Maggie is doing all the work herself, let me tell you about our new lawn mower. Until yesterday, I hadn’t mown a lawn since sixth grade, when my family moved to a house without a lawn. At that point, I used an ancient reel mower along with a rusty manual edger.

Lawn mowers have come a long way since then. We were hoping that we could get away with a reel mower (one of the few occasions where the green option is the cheaper one!), but with a half acre lot, it just didn’t seem feasible. On the other hand, a riding mower seemed like overkill (although most of our neighbors seem to use them) and I’ve never liked gas mowers (which pollute as much in a hour as a car does over 350 miles). Fifteen years ago, that would have been it.

But now that we’re living in the future, electric mowers are an option! We’ve been looking at corded mowers for a week or two now and they seemed like a good option. They mow well and, although the cord would be unwieldy, they’re cheaper than battery-powered mowers and last longer (as long as you have handy outlets).

Saturday evening, we had to go to the mall, so I suggested we head through Sears and check out their mowers. Their online selection seemed slim, but I thought it might be useful to see them in person. They did have some nice reel mowers, and a million gas/rider mowers, but we didn’t see any electric ones at all. At least, not until we saw the clearance section off to the side. There, right in front, was a nice Craftsman battery-powered mower. It was still about 50% more expensive than a similar corded mower, but it was almost 50% off. We went home to think about it but, when I found a 10% off coupon for refurbished mowers that expired that evening, we decided it was the way to go.

Next door neighbor Nathan and I took the mower over the house on Sunday and plugged it in so that I’d be able to mow yesterday. I had a moment of fear when it conked out after just three passes, but it turned out that trying to cut grass that tall had flipped the circuit breaker. Once I reset that, and set the height to 6 (out of 6), I was able to cut the whole front and most of the side yard. The battery could have kept going, but I couldn’t. I’d been a bit worried that 40 minutes of mowing time, the amount I’d seen on the Internet, wouldn’t be enough. It seemed to run longer than that and certainly as long as I wanted to mow.

Unfortunately, the gras was so high that Maggie is going to take her turn mowing tomorrow, this time at a lower setting. She’ll start in the back, though, so that everything will be mowed at least once.

I won’t say that it was fun, but it was another adventure (rite of passage?) in home ownership!

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Excavating House Layers

Maggie and panelingAs Will said, we’re busy excavating the layers of wall material in our living room.  The top layer was ugly wallpaper, the next layer was wood paneling, and now we’re down to plaster.  (I actually don’t mind wood paneling since it covered the walls of my childhood bedroom but it’s not the most attractive thing in the world, especially when it has been coated in wallpaper paste and patched up randomly with non-matching pieces of wood.)

Alas, we have no experience with plaster and haven’t found any friends or family that do either.  There are holes in the plaster from where the paneling was nailed in and big globs of glue where the paneling was glued into place (you gotta make sure your walls don’t wander away) so *something* needs to be done.  We’re just not sure how big of a project it will be.

Oh, and there’s also the 5′ x 6′ giant mirror that appears to have been installed to replace what used to be an outside window.  We haven’t been brave enough to pry it off the wall but it looks like there’s no plaster underneath, so we’re not sure what to do next.

Any suggestions from the peanut gallery?

From an ecological standpoint, plaster doesn’t seem too terrible and it would make more sense to patch it than to cover it over with totally new material.  I got a book from the library about mixing natural plasters but I’m not sure if you they would stick to the old stuff.  I’m hoping to get a professional in to look at it and give us some advice.  My biggest concern is if we need to get the glue off before we put fresh plaster on.

On the plus side, we also pulled up the carpets in the front room and the hardwood floors underneath look BEAUTIFUL.  It was nice to reveal at least one treasure in our excavating work…

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Creating an electrical budget

Electricity meterI apologize for the lack of a post last night. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I was asleep. It’s been a crazy couple of days, with work stress, the sleeping schedule that won’t regulate, and–oh yeah–we got a house and are slowly tearing it down.

At least, that’s what it feels like. Maggie and I have spent several evenings over there working until it got dark (we have the electricity off). We’ve peeled off most of the wallpaper, some of the trim, and two sections of wood panelling. Underneath is plaster, so we’re going to have to figure out what you can do with that. Paint it? Wallpaper over it?

On Wednesday, we took a break from tearing things apart to do some electrical baselining (that’s a word, right?). I’ve complained before about how difficult it is to figure out where our electricity is going. Starting from scratch gives us a unique chance to do just that.

I think this is a great opportunity to make great strides with our electrical use. Several years back, when I first took control of my finances, my first move was to track exactly where my money was going. That information helped me decide where to focus my efforts for the biggest gains. In my case, I wasn’t able to do much about my rent, but I was able to cancel cable and cut my car insurance by two thirds without feeling like I was sacrificing much.

I’m hoping that creating a baseline for our electrical use will help out in much the same way. To get started, we went around the house and unplugged everything (including the refrigerator and built-in microwave). The meter was still turning, so we started flipping breakers off until we found what we’d missed in the first go-through (an exterior safety light and a sub-panel that goes to the electric water heater).

Now that we’re sure we have no shorts in the system, we can start plugging things back in and see what our base load is. Since most of our appliances are powered by natural gas, I expect it’ll be relatively low. Our biggest power draws will be the refrigerator (according to GE’s information on the model, it’ll use about 700 kWh a year) and the water heater (I have no idea yet).

From there, we can add stuff to the system and see how it affects power consumption. For example, we can turn on all the lights and see how much more electricity that uses than having no lights on. Or, we can run the microwave and see how much electricity it takes to make soup.

Once we’ve got a good month’s worth of data, we can figure out which changes will give us the most bang for the least work.

But first, we’ll have to finish redoing the front room so that we can actually move in!

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