Friday, April 25, 2008

The Building Envelope

Source: Creative Commons Image on Flickr by magnetha

One of the most important things that you can do in your home is to seal it tight and insulate it right. A properly weather sealed and insulated home will keep you more comfortable and cost much less to maintain. If you rely on fossil fuels to heat your home, or electricity to cool it, now is the time to get an energy audit with a building envelope specialist. If you're not sure how pressing this is, read this article in the New York Times.

In February I went to a workshop at Yestermorrow Design/Build School called Super-Insulation for Zero Net Energy Homes. I learned a lot during the course, but it can be distilled down to a couple of things. First: Any hole in your home will draw air through it. If there is a difference in pressure which can be heat or wind, air will travel through the hole faster. So the protection your walls offer is usually least effective when you want it the most. Second: Not all insulation is equal. The way that insulation gets tested is not realistic, and some insulations are much poorer performers when installed. The worst culprit is fiberglass batting. This is the insulation that almost every home has in its walls and ceiling. The only two types of insulation worth using are foam and cellulose. That doesn't mean that you have to tear out your old insulation, but it does mean that it is under-performing. If you have insulation in your attic floor, you can spray an additional foot or two of cellulose insulation and greatly decrease the amount of heat coming and going through your roof for a very reasonable price. If you have air leaks and drafts, you can often investigate them and seal them up on your own.

I once again have to recommend the book The Home Energy Diet to anyone who wants to do it yourself. It goes through some of the methods of finding those energy leaks, so you can fix them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Obama's New Logo

Barack Obama's website just added a new section. I just love the modification of the O flag logo. It's a rising sun on green fields. The lack of the aqua like reflection is also nice.

Happy Earth Day

Source: Nasa Visible Earth Images

I hope you do something good today. At least stop reading this blog and go outside.


Monday, April 21, 2008

In The Bathroom

Source: Creative Commons image on Flickr by betsyjean79

First things first: You need a bathroom fan. Moisture is the enemy of houses, and bathrooms produce a lot of it. While you are getting a bathroom fan, you should step up and buy a two speed one that can be used at low RPM full time and high RPM when you are showering. The need for the two speeds will become more important as you improve the rest of your house and it's good to get it out of the way now.

Bathrooms use a lot of water. If you were building new I would tell you to save some of that water by plumbing for gray water reuse from your shower and sink, but it can certainly be a difficult even for new construction just to make it legal, on old construction you also have to get under the floorboards and replace old pipes as well as installing new ones. This is not for the faint of heart.

But you can still reduce your total water use by installing recent low flow toilets and shower heads. Low flow toilets have improved a lot in the past fifteen years, and now they work just as good or better than the old water hog ones. I don't know about low flow shower heads. I don't get a chance to try many and you only really notice if it's low flow if you don't like it. I wish that there were somewhere You could test them all out, like the Home Depot. I would like to try some of these shower heads from Bricor out, when I move I think I will get one but I have no idea which one.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Quickie: Fireplaces and Stoves

Source: Creative Commons image on Flickr by Adam Melancon

Do you have a fireplace in your living room or study? Do you use it regularly for heating? If you replace it with a modern stove, you won't have to cut as much wood, but you'll still be warmer than before. But what if you want to heat more than just one room with a wood stove? Most people I know who use wood heat do have modern stoves, but their warmth is mainly provided by radiation.

First, a little science: There are three types of heat transfer. Conduction is where heat is transfered between two things that are touching. This is not something you want to do with a stove, it burns. Radiation is where energy travels in waves through space and hits an object. This is how you feel the heat of the fire, it is also blocked by any solid object. Convection is where heat travels through the air by an air current created by the different densities of hot and cold air. Convective currents can travel around corners.

If you want to heat more of your house with your wood stove, you need to get the convective currents moving. The best way to do this is with fans. Ceiling fans that reverse directions for summer and winter use are great for this, but another valuable and inexpensive product is a stovetop fan that is powered exclusively by the conductive heat of the stovetop. It's called the Ecofan. It comes in three models and starts around $100. It moves 100 cubic feet a minute (CFM) for the smaller model and 150 CFM for the larger model. It really does make the whole house more comfortable.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Green Renovation, Repair and Remodeling: 3 More "R's"

One thing that you can count on is change. What really defines modernity is that change is constant and unpredictable. Change drives the economy of all durable goods. If something works and is desirable forever then there won't be many of it that need to be made. In American homes, that is why we renovate, repair, and remodel. It is also why we build new homes when there are many old homes for sale, but green renovation, repair, and remodeling, are what it is of consequence to this blog about how you should spend your money, and they are what interest me.

during the next week or so, I will detail some of the ways that you can do the 3 more green "r's" throughout your home. Because Flip That House always focuses on how you should do redo the kitchen to improve the saleability of a home I will start there.

Source: Creative Commons Image on Flickr by betsyjean79

On TV they are always talking about updating cabinets, and often pulling out quality custom cabinetry and replacing it with particleboard or plywood trash. Seriously. All they are doing is bringing VOCs and solvents into the home where there were none before. If your kitchen cabinets are more than fifty years old, I recommend that you keep them. You can paint or replace the doors, and if they are really in bad shape you can replace them, but remember that you are decreasing indoor air quality if you buy cheap cabinets.

Granite countertops are all the rage right now. They're pretty, but you can also get countertops that look like stone and are made from recycled materials instead of open quarries. There are ones made from recycled glass like EnviroSlab and Trinity Glass and even paper from Squak Mountain Stone which I mentioned a few weeks ago.

One place that it almost always make sense to invest is in more efficient appliances. The Energy Star label is a good place to get started. It's a designation created by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy to show products that have met certain efficiency standards. keeps up-to-date lists of the appliances that have received the Energy Star rating, as well as their actual energy consumption. Some Energy Star labeled products are much more efficient than others, so it is a good idea to read the numbers on the models you are considering. If you want to know more about how more efficient appliances can save you money as well as helping the environment, I recommend the book The Home Energy Diet by Paul Scheckel.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Perfect Pollinators I: Bees

It's springtime in New York, and the trees are all blooming. The flowers are pretty of course, but they serve a much greater purpose. All the flowers are there so that those plants can reproduce. A plant can't create seeds, nuts, berries, fruits and eventually more plants without those flowers being pollinated. Some plants can be pollinated by the wind, but the vast majority of them are are dependent on flying animals to do the job for them. Those animals are bees, birds, bats, and some other insects.

You have probably heard of Colony Collapse Disorder, bee colonies are dying off at an alarming rate. They've found that what all the bees that succumb to this are stressed out, but there is no other universal connection. Native bees are also being rapidly replaced by Africanized honey bees in the warmer parts of the country. We need our pollinators, so in the case of bees we must look to the slow movement and start thinking about slow bees. Ross Conrad, a soapmaker and beekeeper in Middlebury Vermont, just published a book called Natural Beekeeping as a guide to this increasingly important field. In Vermont, beekeeping is a hobby and cottage industry for many people. You can often see signs in people's front yards advertising their fresh honey. But I haven't noticed it in the rest of the U.S. If you have a back yard and are at all interested in this, first watch this video, and then consider getting the book and starting your own colony.

There is a new blog about the local beekeeping community in The West River Valley of Vermont which is just getting itself together, but it turned me onto Ross Conrad and his book.

Update: Of course you might not want to keep bees. How can you get in on the natural beekeeping movement? Of course they sell honey. Look for more natural honey at your local farmer's market.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Biodiesel Ahoy!

Source: CC photo on Flickr by rrelam

There’s a new gas in town and it smells like French fries. Biodiesel is a great way to power a vehicle without having to use fossil fuels. As long as you don't use petroleum based fertilizers, the plants that grew the oil for the biodiesel absorbed the same carbon that the car releases into the atmosphere. And as long as you keep planting more crops that carbon is offset by the new crops. You can even use oil that has already been used for cooking. But how do you start using this wonder elixer? First you need a car that runs on diesel (you can also use biodiesel to run a generator) and then you might need do do a fairly easy conversion to winterize your car for biodiesel. Older cars need their rubber fuel lines replaced with synthetic ones. Finally you need to get or make your fuel.

Where do you find a car and the fuel? Well if you live in California, those tasks can be handled by a professional. Biobling is a company that will help connect you with a car just like will help connect you with a mate. Because a car is no good if you can’t drive it, Biobling also hooks you up with fuel.

But biodiesel is still very much a do-it-yourself craft for many people. Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren Vermont, actually offers a class on modifying your vehicle and two lucky registrants can have their car modified during the course. Everyone else will have to wait until they get home.

How do you get your biodiesel? Make Magazine had an article in it’s third issue about making a tiny batch of biodiesel which explains the basic ideas. There are several homebrew biodiesel websites which show how the community has developed systems for making medium sized batches, and you can even take classes to learn that too. But there are also a lot more gas stations that sell the stuff than you would imagine. Go to to find biodiesel near your home, or use the trip wizard to plan your route.

Homebrew and Enthusiast sites:
Collaborative Biodiesel Tutorial: Has plans and tutorials for many processing systems
It's Good For You Biodiesel FAQ: Answers all of your questions in a non-technical manner She offers courses on making your own biodiesel

Monday, April 7, 2008

Et tu, Brute?

Image from the Royal Shakespeare Company's Julius Caesar

Congestion Pricing has been smothered by the democrats of the State Assembly. They are scum. This proves that Democrats, are not progressive they are just cowardly republicans who lack the vision to actively commit evil. I am so pissed off right now.

The Democrats killed the bill in a closed session. If we were in a modern state, I would propose a recall.

From the New York Times article:
"It takes a special type of cowardice for elected officials to refuse to stand up and vote their conscience on an issue that has been debated, and amended significantly to resolve many outstanding issues, for more than a year," Mr. Bloomberg said. "Every New Yorker has a right to know if the person they send to Albany was for or against better transit and cleaner air."

I would like to call this short-sightedness on the part of the Assembly, but it's not. If they were just short-sighted they would have nothing to fear about resolving it in an open session. Protecting themselves from public opinion is a dirty, shameful act. Being publicly opposed to congestion pricing is a far more noble way of acting than this back-room farce.

Hopefully some other city can use the money that the DOT was going to give New York if the bill was passed. But I don't see who would use it better - 1/4 of US public transportation users are in the New York metropolitan area.

So What should you do?

Find your assembly members and lodge your complaint.
New York State Assembly

Send your support to Mayor Bloomberg.
Office of the Mayor

Support the organizations that backed Congestion Pricing.
Transportation Alternatives
Straphangers Campaign
Environmental Defence Fund