About once each month I write a short article for my Kirt's Cogitations
series. Here is the latest. Your comments are encouraged.
There are way too many
images that go with this article to include here, so please consider reading RF Cafe's
Greener Man-Cave on its dedicated page, and then return to comment.
"It's Not Easy Being Green." That is the title
of a song sung by Kermit the Frog of Muppets fame. The word "green" has been hijacked
by environmentalists to be applied to every process that relates to their idea of a
perfect world where mankind has an utterly benign presence. Unfortunately, as with many
good causes, extremists taint the process to the extent that many people who would otherwise
get onboard are repulsed to where they do not even want to be associated with the concept.
Anyone who has been around RF Cafe for a while or otherwise knows me is aware that I
have long been an advocate of responsible Earth resource management without requiring
that insufferable actions be taken to coerce compliance with radicals' demands. In an
ideal world, everyone would exercise a reasonable level of personal responsibility by
not wantonly wasting or exploiting natural resources, especially to the extent that
their actions demonstrably cause harm to others. Contrary to Kermit's claim, however,
it really is not so hard to be at least some shade of green.
From a purely technical
perspective, you would expect anyone who is not a Flat Earth Society member would eagerly
adopt methods and technologies that are less wasteful of natural resources and respectful
of the physical appearance of the world around him†. Given the choice between a more
polluting option and a less polluting option for, say, interior wall paint, why would
you choose the former over the latter? Many times the more environmentally preferable
option is much more expensive. If that is the case and you simply cannot afford the
price difference, then I do not hold the decision to use the more polluting option against
anyone. Some people do mind. Those are the ones I have a problem abiding because those
same unforgiving people are usually hypocrites themselves. You know the kind.
Along with reading many engineering and science magazines, I also peruse the home
improvement magazines like Workbench. They are filled each month with product reviews
of some très cool new building materials, tools, machines, production processes, and
other worthwhile items that push the environmental responsibility frontier a little
farther forward. For instance, a couple months ago, there was an article that did a
great job of explaining the difference between high and low VOC (volatile organic compounds)
paints. Henceforth, I will seek out low VOC finishes for my projects. Abandoning the
older heavy metals battery chemistries (NiMH, NiCad) in favor of the more eco-friendly
Lithium models is an area where the benefits of newer technology (Li-Ion and Li-Polymer)
outperforms the old, with only a modest increase in cost. I have learned a lot
of similarly easy to adopt and effective behaviors.
Still, as mentioned, not
everybody can afford to own the highest efficiency equipment and practice a totally
environmently optimal lifestyle. That is a key contention point in contemporary arguments
over whether coercive mandates by all-powerful government bodies are fair. Extremists
exist on both sides of the arguement. Some say we should all ride bicycles, eat plant
roots, and wear human-powered-loom-woven wool clothes, while their antipodes assert
that if you can afford to pay for something, you are entitled to as much of it as you
want, and can do with it whatever you please. The former are often hypocrites; the later,
while maybe contemptible, are at least honest.
My personal motivation for conservation
is two-fold. First, there is an innate feeling of wrongdoing and remorse when I do something
that is knowingly wasteful, like running a lawnmower engine that is spewing blue smoke
into the air, emptying a can of old paint back in the woods where nobody will see it,
or throwing a soda can into the garbage when I have a recycle bin for it. Therefore,
I try not to do such things. The second motivation is financial. With exceptions, well-functioning
machines and systems run at higher efficiencies, and are therefore cheaper to operate.
A personal cost-benefit tradeoff calculation is needed when deciding on the acquisition
of a higher efficiency system.
All this leads into my real topic - the whole-house
rehabilitation Melanie and I recently completed (well, almost completed) on our home
in Erie, Pennsylvania. Both of our children, Philip and Sally, graduated from college
and moved out on their own a couple years ago, so we have the proverbial "empty nest"
situation now. We decided that we would buy a small house and make it as efficient as
possible using reasonable measures.
In May of last year (2008), we purchased
a 1950s era, single-story, 940 ft2 (87 m2) house a mile from Lake Erie. It has three
smallish bedrooms, one bathroom, a single car garage, an unfinished basement, and sits
on about 0.7 acres in a working class neighborhood. No major upgrades had been done
to it - original windows, doors and siding, original cabinets and flooring, original
electrical fixtures and plumbing. There was no insulation in the walls, and flattened
2" thick fiberglass insulation in the attic. Oh, the roof had recently been replaced
by the previous owner because a tree fell on it a year ago, and the overhead garage
door was new. The place was in solid fundamental shape, but just old.
+ Hot Water Heater
New Furnace + HWH Insulation Blanket
Pane, Wood Frame Windows
Styrofoam House Wrap Under
Completed Siding and Replacement Windows
1-¼" holes for injecting
the Air Krete
(walls are hollow)
Click to Watch Videos
Empty Test Wall Section
Filled Test Wall Section
Test Wall Section - note shrinkageInsulation: R-19 Under R-30, w/Gable End FanAlmost
no part of the house has gone unimproved.
Four major energy-saving changes were
implemented. First, the 60-year-old gas furnace was replaced with a top-of-the-line,
93% efficiency Trane gas model. Second, all of the original single-pane, wood framed
windows were replaced with low-emissivity (low-e) thermopane double hung windows. Third,
the empty wall cavities were filled with an injected, high-tech material called Air
Krete (~R-14 in a 2x4 stud wall). Fourth, fiberglass insulation totaling R-49 was installed
in the attic.
Because both gas and electricity prices have risen since last year,
a 1:1 comparison is difficult. The utilities will not provide detailed information,
but we were able to get actual CCF (hundreds of cubic feet) for a couple months in early
2008. Thus far, usage has been around half of last year's values. We replaced the old
electric oven/stove top with a gas model, which means our gas usage is even lower comparatively.
The programmable thermostat is set for 69°F during the day, and 62°F at night for heating,
and at 74°F for air conditioning.
New values versus old values of kWh consumption
are less mainly because of the absence of the electric oven. However, there is a dehumidifier
in the basement now which is set for 70% RH; it does not run at all during the heating
season. The exhaust motor for the radon evacuation system is now on a timer where it
runs at intervals for about 60% of the day (I conducted two radon tests to verify sufficiency).
All of the light fixtures have been replaced and the bulbs are all the CFL type (compact
fluorescent light). I used to be bothered by CFL light quality, but even in the last
year they have gotten noticeably better. After being on for about 5 minutes, the light
is very acceptable. Still, having to have the HazMat suit in the closet in case one
ever breaks is a bit troubling.
BTW, as I write this, there is a foot of snow
on the ground (and on the roof for that matter). Erie is on track for its snowiest winter
on record, with 131.8 inches thus far.
We moved into the house on May 28, 2008,
and the next week Erie had one of its hottest weeks in history (the entire rest of the
summer was very nice). The house had no air conditioning, so it was not a hard decision
to include an AC compressor along with the new gas-fired furnace. A top-of-the-line
HVAC system was installed that has a rated efficiency of 93%. The old system might have
topped out at 30-40% according to the technicians that installed the new one. A very
visible indication of the difference is the exhaust pipes. The old system used a metal
flue whereas the new system's exhaust temperature is so low that a PVC pipe is sufficient.
That is pretty amazing. This is the system I recently wrote about that caused severe
EMI on the AM radio. Also, a whole-house humidifier was installed, which not only allows
a lower temperature to feel warmer, but not once this winter have I gotten a shock when
touching a doorknob (triboelectric charging). Installed price: $5,700.
water heater is of 2004 vintage. Newer models are not a whole lot more efficient, so
we elected to keep the existing model and wrap it in an insulating blanket, and install
pipe insulation on the 20 feet of hot and cold water supply nearest the unit. Price:
Next came window and siding replacement. The original windows were single
pane models with leaky wooden frames. Triple track aluminum storm windows had been installed,
but they were ill-fitting and just plain ugly. The new windows are about as efficient
as can be found, and incorporate the low-e glass with argon gas between the panes. Even
in high winds, there is absolutely no air infiltration around the perimeters. Weather
stripping on these windows is very high quality. As a side note, the windows in the
newly built house we owned in north Carolina were crapola by comparison. Installed price:
Siding was the original aluminum (aluminium for those of you across the
pond), as was the soffit material. House wrapping cloth had not been invented when this
place was built in the late 1950s, and there was no Styrofoam sheeting behind the siding.
When combined with no insulation in the walls, the overall inside-to-outside R-value
might have been a whopping 2 or 3 in good spots. As part of the new vinyl siding installation,
large panels of Styrofoam were applied under the siding so that they provided not just
a couples Rs of insulation benefit, but also created an air infiltration barrier. From
a recycling perspective, the only scrap was the aluminum, which the installers graciously
offered to cart off for me (they probably made a couple hundred dollars from selling
it to a reclamation center). If I had not traded in my SUV for a fuel-efficient Chevy
Cobalt, I could have carted it away myself and saved some money. Installed price: $6,000
(siding, soffit, & wrapping)
I replaced both outside doors myself. Originals
were hollow panel wood with no insulation inside. Of course they were leaky. The new
doors are insulated metal construction with thermopane glass, and good seals. The old
aluminum storm doors, like the storm windows, were leaky and all the rubber seals had
disintegrated. All three storm doors, which includes those on the garage, are high quality
with excellent seals all around the perimeter. Price: $800.
One of the coolest
aspects of the renovation was having a high-tech blown-in foam insulation installed
in the walls. Tearing off the inside of outside walls to insert fiberglass mat insulation
was never even an option as far as I was concerned. I briefly considered a do-it-yourself
injectable foam system that is applied from the inside by drilling 1/2" holes between
the wall studs and squirting it in through a nozzle that mixes the 2-part chemical cocktail
as it injects. The new foam formulations do not have the killer urea formaldehyde like
the nefarious stuff used back in the 1970s, but the cost would have been around $4,500
to completely fill all the outside walls. Besides, the expansion properties presented
problems with bulging and cracking walls. I also did not fancy the thought of having
to patch a hundred holes in the wall. The advertised R-value for that stuff for a 3.5"
wall is about R-20, which is extremely good when considering that standard fiberglass
is only R-13.
After a little more research on the Internet, I hit upon a relatively
new material called Air Krete. Unlike the other compounds, Air Krete does not
expand while curing and it emits no volatile gases. Its R-value is not quite as good
as the polyurethane type insulation, but it beats R-0. Here are the specifications for
• Density: 2.07 lbs/cu ft +/- 6%
• R-value: 3.9 per inch of thickness
by ASTM C518-76 @ 75F
• Environmentally safe and non-toxic insulation
• High thermal
efficiency over time
• Fire-proof and sound-absorbing
• Cementitious foam insulation
• 100% Fireproof
• 100% Mold Proof
• 100% Non-Toxic, Free of CFC's & Formaldehyde
• No loss of R-value over time
• Excellent Soundproofing
• Non-Shrink†, Non-Settling
• Non-Hazardous as waste
• Bug and Rodent Proof
An advantage that all of the
cavity filling, injectable systems is that they create a solid volume which does not
support convection currents. Convection in the wall is responsible for the majority
of heat loss since, in the same manner that blowing air over a hot surface cools it
more effectively. Air convection still occurs with fiberglass batting both because it
is not close-celled, and because sloppy installation usually means coverage is not complete.
Fortunately, there is a contractor that handles the Air Krete material right here
in Erie (Bauer Specialty), so I gave them a call. About three weeks later the crew showed
up to get the job done. With our house being so small, the entire process took only
about 6 hours. I built a test wall cavity with an electrical box in it to examine how
well the system worked. The guy operating the injection nozzle filled it for me, and
also did not mind that I made a short video of the filling process in the house wall
(see photos and videos, above).
† There is obvious evidence of shrinkage (~4%)
where the Air Krete has pulled away from all four sides, even though the specifications
claim otherwise. Cavity fill overall looks good, and appears to completely encapsulate
the electrical box; which eliminates the need for installing those thin foam gaskest
under wall plates.. I will be contacting the Air Krete company about shrinkage. Installed
price: $2,200 (all four outside walls).
The fourth main energy saving improvement
was adding fiberglass insulation in the attic. We laid R-19 paper-faced insulation in-between
the 2x6 ceiling joists (front to back of house), and then laid un-faced R-30 insulation
perpendicular over the R-19. Care was taken to allow "breathing" space at the soffit
overhangs. Additionally, sections of R-19 insulation was installed in the basement against
the outside walls in-between the floor joists. A thermostatically controlled vent fan
was installed in the gable end of the house, and in the garage gable end. I think they
are set to turn somewhere around 110°F. Price: $650.
All of the replacement appliances
are Energy Star rated (refrigerator, dish washer, range). As usual, we seem to always
miss the tax rebates. All of those energy efficiency improvement programs had ended
by 2008. However, if I sell the house and make a profit, the reprobates in Government
will see to it that they benefit from my labor by charging me capital gains tax. Total
for improvements related to energy efficiency increases: ~$15k.
necessarily concerning to improvements in energy efficiency, you might be interested
in seeing some photos of other aspects of the renovation. Many of you have suffered
through similar projects. We figure the total investment in the renovation is about
$28-30k, so our house has cost - not including a lot of sweat equity - about $135k.
That is pretty good for a home which is pretty close to being as efficient as it can
reasonably be. The cost of living in this house is now very low compared to just about
anything else in Erie - even newly built homes in planned developments.
single wall, ceiling, or piece of trim molding has escaped repair and painting.
The only wallpaper used was for the top half of the kitchen. Every light fixture, wall
switch, and receptacle (along with their cover plates) has been replaced, both inside
and outside. Several new overhead light fixtures were installed where none existed,
including new switches. A few receptacles were added as well. The garage and basement
originally had only one receptacle each, and sported simple porcelain light fixtures
pull chain switches. That has been rectified. Drywall was hung on the garage walls to
give it that new house look. Closet doors were replaced with paneled bifold doors that
do not take up as much room when fully opened. Every hinge and doorknob was replaced.
The warped solid pine closet shelves were replaced with the plastic-coated open wire
type. Melanie and I did all that work ourselves.
Outside, we removed a very large,
overgrown hedge row of yews that lined the front of the property. We thinned out and
manicured a patch of trees to the north and another one in the back yard. An old well
casing got covered over, and about a hundred wheelbarrows full of dirt was relocated
to fix an area of ground that drained toward the house. Once the snow melts and the
ground thaws in a couple months, we will tackle the flower beds and put in a front pathway
from the driveway to the front door. That will be nothing compared to all the other
work that has been done.
There is a lot more to the story. If you are ever in
Erie and want to stop by to say hello, let me know and I will be glad to give you a
guided tour. I promise not to show home movies.
See all the photos here... url=http://www.rfcafe.com/miscellany/factoids/kirts-cogitations-249.htm
- Kirt Blattenberger
RF Cafe Progenitor & Webmaster