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Your Natural Home

Creating a cozy hearth for the family

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2/2/2015

Just over a year ago, my family moved to a high-performance house in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine. It has triple-pane windows and door, lots of insulation, large south-facing windows and a metal roof. It’s heated largely by appliances and occupants, but has a heating system when needed. Our heating bills are 90 percent lower than a code-built home in the same climate.

It’s rare to have a home that uses so many energy-efficient design elements under the same roof. Many of our friends and family members were curious about our home and bombarded us with questions. Here are some of the top questions we’ve received.

Super Energy Efficient Home 

Question 1: Since Maine has a cold climate, how long is your heating season?

When viewing our electric bills, I was struck by how low our energy usage was from April through October. Although we certainly experience below-freezing temperatures during April and October, our home was staying in the upper 60s and low 70s with no supplemental heat. Our heating season began in November and ended in March, trimming a good two months off.

Question 2: I’ve heard of mold and air-quality problems in high-performance homes. Has this been a problem?

I’ve heard some concerning stories about high-efficiency homes without ventilation systems and the mold and air quality issues that ensue. Thankfully, our home has a Zehnder heat recovery ventilation system, which constantly supplies fresh air while removing stale air from the kitchen and bathroom. By incorporating a heat recovery ventilator, intake air is first filtered, removing dust and pollen, then preheated with heat from the exhaust air before it leaves our home. Although we can boost the system with a switch in the bathroom or kitchen, the default mode is sufficient the vast majority of the time and we’ve had no mold issues in our bathroom.

Question 3: What is the lighting like in your home?

Because our south-facing living room windows are 5 feet in height, daylight streams into the home. Naturally, our north-facing bedrooms get less light. Even on cloudy days, we rarely turn on the lights during the day, especially in south-facing rooms. When the angle of the sun is lower during the winter months, sunlight fills the living room and helps keep away the winter doldrums. During the hot summer months, the angle of the sun is higher in the sky and less sunlight enters the home. The only downside to all this south-facing glazing is cleaning all the little fingerprints that appear from my two young children. We also put LED lightbulbs in most of our fixtures to reduce energy use.

Moonlight
Photos by Steve Chiasson

Question 4: If your home is designed to heat itself largely by the sun, doesn’t it overheat in the summer?

It would seem that a house that stays so warm in the winter would overheat in the summer, but this is not the case with our home. Last summer, our house was cooler than the outside temperature on hot days. For additional cooling, we opened our windows at night when the outside temperatures dipped. The heat recovery ventilation system helps maintain these cooler temperatures; when it’s warmer outside in the summer, the ventilation system pre-cools the intake air from the exhaust air.

Question 5: What are the utility bills in your new home?

Our home is all electric, so we don’t use any wood, propane or natural gas, and receive only one energy bill. Before we installed our solar system, our largest electric bill was $120 last January for almost 900 kWh of electricity. Our summer bills were around $50 for nearly 400 kWh because we don’t need air conditioning. Now that we have a solar system that generates all of our energy over the course of the year, we pay only a $9.75 delivery fee each month.


Sarah Lozanova is an environmental and health journalist with an MBA in sustainable management. She lives in a net-zero house in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.



1/26/2015

Solar energy technology is here to stay. As more and more people become concerned about the environment and the risks of global warming, they seek a solution that will help protect the earth while satisfying their energy needs at the same time. In fact, solar energy use continues to climb by about 20 percent every year as an increasing number of eco-conscious people decide to transition from fossil fuels to solar power. To understand a bit more about this endless source of clean energy, take a look at the following 10 fun facts about solar energy.

Fun Facts About Solar Energy 

1. It takes sunlight about eight minutes to reach the earth.

The sun is one million times larger than planet earth and must travel 93 million miles to reach the earth’s surface. Moving at the speed of light, sunlight takes just over eight minutes to travel this distance.

2. Solar energy is the future of alternative energy sources.

Solar energy is far better for the environment than traditional fossil fuels because it doesn’t release dangerous greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere or pollute the environment. Green energy produced by the sun is considered to be the future of alternative energy because it helps combat the greenhouse effect created by widespread use of fossil fuels.

3. Solar panels typically pay for themselves within five to 10 years.  

A residential solar installation is the only type of home improvement that pays for itself over time. Through tax incentives, subsidies and rebates, it usually takes anywhere from five to 10 years, depending on local factors, for solar panels to pay for themselves. In some states, full payback can happen much sooner than this average time frame.

4. The number of residential solar installations is expected to skyrocket.

The cost of solar energy panels has significantly decreased over the years and continues to do so. As the price of solar installations keeps going down, the number of users will continue to rise. Throughout the next decade, the number of residential solar installations in the U.S. is expected to rise by up to 40 percent.

5. The earth will never run out of solar energy.

The sun is a renewable source of energy because it will never become depleted as time passes. Fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and gas, are not considered to be renewable energy sources because there is a finite amount of them on earth. This means they may someday become scarce or run out.

Solar Panels
Photo by
Flickr/thetimchannel

6. Sunlight can be converted to energy through the use of PV cells.

Solar panels consist of a series of photovoltaic (PV) cells used together to convert sunlight into electricity at an atomic level. When sunlight reaches these solar panels, electrons are released so they may flow through the cells and generate an electric current.

7. The technology used to create solar energy is extremely versatile.

Solar energy technology is extremely versatile. Solar panels can be used to generate power for a broad range of devices, including calculators, buildings and even satellites in orbit.

8. Solar energy can be stored and used after dark.

Solar energy can only work at night if there is a storage device available, such as a battery, to collect and store the sun’s energy. On cloudy days, solar energy can be unreliable, so a battery backup that contains stored solar energy is often necessary.

9. Just one day of sunlight can satisfy the world’s energy needs for almost three decades.

The amount of energy consumed throughout the world over the course of 27 years equals only one full day’s worth of energy coming from the sun. This also means that the amount of solar energy that reaches the earth's surface in just 40 minutes is equal to the world's total yearly energy consumption.

10. The world's fossil fuel reserves are equal to three weeks’ worth of solar energy.

Twenty days’ worth of energy produced from the sun equals all the energy contained in the earth’s reserves of oil, coal and natural gas. However, less than one percent of that solar energy is actually used to produce power.

This list of 10 impressive facts about solar energy is just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the many benefits of going solar. To stay abreast of the improvements and advancements of solar technology, there is no shortage of resources to get more facts about solar energy. After all, solar energy is the future of this planet.


Miles YoungMiles Young is a freelance writer, designer and outdoorsman. He’s worked as a roof contractor and part-time engine mechanic. He spends his free time fishing and tinkering in his garage. You can follow him on Twitter @MrMilesYoung.

 



1/14/2015

When beginning to make your home a healthy, green oasis that rejuvenates and nourishes your mind, body and spirit, it’s important to begin by incorporating small attainable steps rather than trying to tackle too much. A major green living overhaul will potentially leave you feeling overwhelmed, but incremental advances will create lasting habits of change.

Here is a simple two-step solution to begin your journey of green living.

Green Living Ideas 

1. Read Labels and Completely Eliminate Fragrances

Fragrance inundates us everywhere we go; it’s in so many of the products that literally touch our lives. According to the National Academy of Sciences, 95 percent of the compounds used to make fragrances are synthetic materials derived from petroleum or petrochemicals in a laboratory. These chemicals are known to create disease in the body. The Institute of Medicine puts fragrances in the same category as secondhand smoke. Fragrance is used in products from personal hygiene items to toilet bowl cleaners. A deceptive marketing tactic is labeling household products “fragrance free.” Unfortunately, these products can still contain fragrance. The label just indicates that the products were created without a noticeable scent. In fact, neutralizing chemicals are used to mask scent—and manufacturers are not required to list chemicals used to conceal other fragrances. It’s important to know how to read labels so you can determine whether fragrances are lurking in the products in your home. It’s also important to start listening to your body. Your sense of smell, especially, can be like radar—instantly knowing whether your environment is truly healthful.

2. Turn to Baking Soda

Sometimes it’s easier to add new habits into your daily routine before you eliminate ones that have been in your life or home for a long time. Begin by including baking soda. Baking soda is one of those versatile products that can be used in so many different ways. In our home we always have baking soda on hand. We use it:

• To clean counters
• As an alternative to toothpaste when we are all out
• To unclog pesky drains in combination with vinegar
• In the bath to balance out the pH levels of the body
• In the washing machine to get rid of the poignant odor of athletic gear

Ensuring the air you breathe in your home is healthful will allow you to take a deep and restorative breath, which will benefit your mind, body and spirit.


Christa OLearyChrista O'Leary is the founder and CEO of Home in Harmony Lifestyle. She is an interior designer, marriage and family therapist, and green-living expert. Her book, Home in Harmony: Designing an Inspired Life (Hay House) is an international bestseller that helps readers have a peaceful and healthy home.



1/13/2015

Having pests removed is a costly affair, but the costs of not finding an infestation early can be much greater. Because pests tend to multiply very quickly if left to their own devices, the greater the size of the infestation, the more costs you will incur; both through removal of pests and property damage they cause in the meantime.

Pests nibble, scratch, break and contaminate almost everything they touch. The best way to minimize the effect they have is to stamp them out early, but this isn’t as easy as you might think. You may now be sitting in a house that is in the midst of a pest takeover and not even know it.

Pests are sly creatures that inhabit the darker, and previously uninhabited, areas of a house; only venturing out at night or when it is very quiet. As a result, you are not likely to notice them until it is too late, and the whole house has become part of their territory. However, there are small, less obvious signs, as opposed to a mouse scampering across your kitchen, which you can look out for. The key is to remain vigilant.

scavengers
Photo courtesy Flickr

Where to Look for Signs of Pests

Ideally, it is best to look all over the house on a regular basis to ensure that you don’t miss anything. Failing that, there are three high risk areas that we recommend are checked as often as possible.

1. The kitchen. A lot of pipes find their way up and out into the kitchen, which often provide pests with entry points. Given this is where the food is, and therefore their primary reason for being in the house, this is probably the most important place to keep watch.

2. Anywhere that you have appliances, links to the outside such as pipes or ground level windows, or isn’t inhabited by you very often. Basically we are talking about laundry rooms, utility rooms, basements or attics. These are warm, easy-to-access environments that pests like to settle in.

3. The garage. This is effectively ground-zero for pests. Easy to get into, this is where you are most likely to find evidence of an infestation. Unlike other areas, however, this is not a high risk area in terms of contamination and health risks. Finding pests in the garage is not cause for alarm just yet, rather a strong indicator that pests are around your house, allowing you to take preventive measures to ensure they don’t make it past said area. As for why pests like the garage so much, just like a home it is warm, sheltered and has plenty of things to nibble on; unlike a home however, it is easily accessible through the garage door, as there is often a gap between it and the floor large enough for many pests to slip through. If you are concerned about having pests in your garage, near where children might be getting things like bikes from, then seal that gap. It will make your problem a lot easier to deal with.

5 Warning Signs of an Impending Pest Infestation

1. Noise
While pests are quiet, they are by no means silent. Listening at night is the best way to hear them, as this is the time they are most active. Putting your ear against the walls of your home will allow you to hear any movement in the wall cavities—one place pests tend to hide out. It is also important to listen to the ceiling, especially if there is an attic, or any location that has a crawl space. A little pitter-patter sound is all you need to confirm that they are inside the house.

2. Smell
If you are in high risk areas for pests, such as the kitchen or basement, and catch a whiff of a musky odor, it is important that you investigate properly. The nasty smells pests leave behind are often described as being similar to a pet rabbit’s hutch if said hutch hasn’t been cleaned in a while, a musky odor with a distinct note of ammonia. Not a fragrance that is going to smell well. Tracking down the source of the smell will often lead you to the next items on our list, and concrete evidence of pest infiltration.

mouse nest
Photo courtesy Flickr

3. Nesting
Once a pest enters the home, it is probably going to want to stay there. If you think about it, the pest has just found a warm environment which is safe from predators and has plenty of access to food and water. This means that they’ll have just one more thing on their mind: reproduction. To make their tenancy long-term, pests like to make nests. They will do this in the darker, less-trafficked areas of your home, such as behind appliances, in wall cavities or within loft insulation. However, as mentioned above, smell is a strong indicator of a nest, so follow your nose!

damaged wire
Photo courtesy Flickr

4. Damaged Furniture and Wiring
Nothing says mice more than a gnawed chair leg. Rodents in particular will chew at anything, as it helps wear down their constantly growing teeth. This means nothing is safe: pipes, insulation, wood, plastics, wires, you name it, they’ll eat it. Check around the skirting boards, at the base of cupboards and other pieces of furniture, especially in high risk areas. If you spot a mysterious chunk taken out the side of your bread box, for example, it most likely wasn’t a hungry burglar.

5. Leavings
Something of a delicate matter, the finding of foreign animal droppings in or around your home should be met with extreme caution. Be it urine or fecal matter, the waste of a pest is not only a clear sign they are there, but also a vessel for dangerous pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses. Make sure any contaminated area is cleaned thoroughly after contact. The trick now, however, is identifying the pest by its leavings. Larger pests, such as mice, rats and raccoons all leave rather obvious droppings, but smaller animals, such as cockroaches, are a bit more subtle. As with the example of cockroaches, their droppings tend to look like coffee granules, so be weary of anything that looks like granules but is distinctly out of place.

Now What?

If you’ve looked over your home and spotted none of these signs then you should be okay, for now. Keep up a routine of checking for these simple signs and you’ll be sure to catch pests early. However, what if you come across evidence of pests, what do you do now? You can either do your own, DIY pest control through pesticides and poisons, but that's no guarantee that you’ll get them all. To make sure you are pest free, contact your local expert. Reputable pest professionals will often offer a free survey and estimate, so there’s no harm into giving them a call. But, for those of you without pests, check out our article on how to prevent pests from entering your home, and make sure your pest-free home stays that way.


EBS Pest ControlEBS Ltd are urban pest and bird control specialists who have been operating in London since 2003. The company was founded, and is run, by Jeff Nelson a pest control expert with over 20 years industry experience.



1/9/2015

Greater energy independence, freedom from fluctuating energy prices, and environmentally friendly living are alluring concepts that motivated my family to examine our housing and our lifestyle. We recently purchased a high-performance home and installed a solar system, making our home net-zero. We now produce as much power as we use over the course of a year.

Net Zero Living
Photo by Steve Chiasson

Realizing the Dream of a Net-Zero Home

To realize the dream of a net-zero home, we bought a superefficient home at Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage, a 36-unit multigenerational community in Midcoast Maine with triple-pane windows and doors, virtually airtight construction, a solar orientation and lots of insulation. The sun, appliances and occupants provide a majority of the heat needed to keep our home cozy.

On sunny winter days, our heaters remain off, as the sun gradually warms the house. Electric baseboard heaters kick on as needed, primarily at night or on cold, cloudy days. The home is all electric—with an electric range, hot water heaters and space heaters. Because we don’t use propane, natural gas or heating oil, a solar system can produce all the energy that our home consumes.

Our home has a Zehnder heat recovery ventilation system to ensure high indoor air quality and comfort. Because the home is airtight, mechanical ventilation is essential for fumes and moisture from showers and daily activities to exit the building. Just as important, an airtight home needs a ventilation strategy for the incoming air. By incorporating a heat recovery ventilator, the constant stream of fresh incoming air is filtered and then preheated—pulling the heat from the outgoing air.

Our home doesn’t have exhaust fans. While they effectively vent stale air out of a home, they’re not energy efficient because the heat is not recovered when the air exits the home. Our heat recovery ventilation system recovers most of the heat, keeping our energy use down. Zehnder systems are up to 95 percent efficient, allowing our home to achieve a level of energy efficiency and indoor air quality that wouldn't be possible otherwise.

Before installing a solar system, we examined how we could further reduce our energy use. We swapped out halogen and incandescent light bulbs for LED bulbs, installed a low-flow shower head to reduce our hot water use, and removed the screens from the south-facing windows throughout the winter for greater solar gain.

Last summer, we helped organize the largest community solar purchase in Maine for our neighborhood and we installed a solar system on our home. Because the homes are so efficient, a relatively modest solar system can generate all the needed power over the course of a year. Some of our neighbors with similar homes installed solar systems a year or more before us, which helped us size our system. The Grace/Mebee family realized their net-zero goal last year with a 4.5 kW solar system for a 1,500 square foot home and the McBride residence generated 95 percent of its power from a 2.6 kW solar system.

Our homes are connected to the power grid, eliminating the need for batteries. Our local power company has a net metering program, making the solar system more cost effective. On sunny days, our system feeds excess power to the grid, and the credits are banked in our account. When the sun isn’t shining, we pull power from the grid.

It’s gratifying to know that we are harvesting the clean solar energy that falls on our property, both passively with large south-facing windows and actively with a solar system. Even in a cold climate where most homes are heated for six or more months of the year, all our energy needs are met by a winning combination of an energy-efficient design and solar energy.


Sarah Lozanova is an environmental and health journalist with an MBA in sustainable management. She lives in a net-zero house in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.



12/12/2014

I'm a firm believer in a homemade meal being the healthiest choice for my family, but work and school often overtake all my cooking time. Instead of being tempted by takeout, I just rely on my Crock-Pot. With all-meat chili, beef stew and chicken soup as favorites around the house, I don't even need to be home to cook a fantastic meal. After adding all the ingredients and setting the pot to low in the morning, the entire family returns home to a perfect meal. Because our family wants to have a small carbon footprint to better the environment, it's been a goal to find out whether Crock-Pots are energy efficient.

Crock-Pot

In most low-power cooking situations, the Crock-Pot wins out on energy efficiency. Stove or oven cooking requires the heating of a large area by either gas or electricity. Slow cooking takes hours, so running a large appliance against the Crock-Pot is almost always a losing battle. My family also leaves home with the assurance that a small appliance is working instead of a major appliance that can malfunction disastrously.

Size Matters

I know my refrigerator is more energy-efficient when it's full, and the same concept applies to the Crock-Pot. The small space is completely full for most recipes, even pot roast. Food heats up faster and more evenly for an efficient cooking session. Ovens, in contrast, must heat up a huge area that's not even full of food. Energy efficiency is definitely on the Crock-Pot's side.

Short Cooking Bursts Vary

I have to admit that research reflects a showdown between Crock-Pots, stoves and ovens when it comes to short cooking times. Crock-Pots are designed to cook slowly with hours of operation necessary. Cooking a quick soup over gas or electric burners shows these fuel sources as more effective, according to a study done at Iḷisaġvik College that found 12,071 BTUs were used for a gas stove compared to 87,000 BTUs for a Crock-Pot. If I can't make it home to cook on the stove, however, it's still more convenient to use the Crock-Pot as food warms all day.

Gas or Electric, You Say?

Electricity is known for its expensive cost when compared to gas. If you take the Crock-Pot out of the equation, a gas stove wins out over electricity. Although Crock-Pots are electrically driven, they don't require as much wattage as a major appliance. When a Crock-Pot isn't available, at least gas is a green alternative for your home cooking.

The Heat Factor

Energy efficiency is also about reduced waste. I want my appliance to use all the energy it draws from the fuel to cook my food. Running a stove or oven, however, is a costly decision because of all the heat loss. I may warm the house on cold days with the oven on, but the Crock-Pot would be a better energy conservation choice to reduce waste and still have a great dinner.

While every fuel source varies in cost depending on the region, it's safe to say Crock-Pots have a leg up on traditional cooking choices. For my busy lifestyle, slow-cookers allow the whole family to enjoy a meal without having to babysit a pot for hours on end. The modern family benefits greatly with these small appliance wonders.


Jane Blanchard writes for Modernize, a website offering home ideas and inspiration.



12/9/2014

Nice & Neat

Try these suggestions for a lighter living room and a clutter-free kitchen.

Cubby Coffee Table 

Storage Cubed
Made from sugarcane fiber, bamboo and recycled plastic, this modern coffee table is lightweight and customizable to fit your space perfectly.
To Buy: $230, Yube Cube

Basket Storage

A Clean Sweep
These broom-inspired baskets are made from natural straw fibers, and are lightweight and easy to store or stack away.
To Buy: $70 for two, Uncommon Goods

Horizontal Storage Cubby

Cool Cubby
This 2-1⁄2-foot-long mounting shelf with two storage cubbies is made from nontoxic materials, so you can feel even better getting things off the ground.
To Buy: $220, Kalon Studios

Organize Pots and Pans

Rack ‘Em Up
It’s a shelf, it’s a pot rack—it’s two in one! Maximize kitchen space by hanging pots and stacking necessities on this sturdy, hammered-steel wire rack.
To Buy: $210, Hay Needle

Stand Alone Pantry

Perfect Pantry
This no-frills shelf is all you need it to be, and is made from untreated wood sourced from well-managed pine and spruce forests and recycled materials.
To Buy: $30, Ikea

Easy & Organized

These solutions make bedroom and bathroom storage a breeze.

Stacking Wicker Baskets 

Get a Handle
These handcrafted wicker baskets are woven from high-quality natural rattan and perfectly sized for under-bed storage.
To Buy: $28 to $42, The Basket Lady

Cedar Chest

Cedar Storage
Stackable shelves create a custom storage solution. North American red cedar protects clothes against moths, mildew and mustiness.
To Buy: $60 to $200, Improvements

Under the cabinet, pull out organizer

Easy Organizer
Live simply with decluttered cabinets. This minimalist Simplehuman pull-out organizer does what you need, without being overly complex.
To Buy: $50, The Container Store

Kitchen Drying Rack

Hang Out
Constructed of sturdy white pine and birch sourced from the U.S., this 22-inch expanding drying rack is ideal for drying clothing. Four pegs provide additional hanging space.
To Buy: $72, Gaiam

Organize Vertically

Tower Power
Handcrafted from naturally harvested Abaca fiber using a traditional Philippine technique, this basket tower is as practical as it is appealing.
To Buy: $100, World Market

Find more home organization tips in 31 Home Storage Solutions.





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