Mother Earth Living

Can This Home Be Greened? A House With a View

A mountain home gets energy efficient.
By Alex Wilson
September/October 2005
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When Robert and Angela Zakon, and their son, Nico, were house shopping, what best met their needs was a 5,000-SQUARE-FOOT CONVENTIONAL HOME. Now, they want to make it as green as possible.
Photos by Alex Wilson

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Robert and Angela Zakon’s beautiful home in Center Conway, New Hampshire, sits in the heart of the White Mountains. Built in 1989, it’s large (about 5,000 square feet, including the unfinished basement and garage), but when they bought it two years ago, they fell in love with its glorious location and committed to finding ways to make it more energy efficient and eco-friendly. So they contacted Natural Home & Garden. Both Robert and Angela work from their home in different businesses; this helps justify the house’s size and allows them to get by with just one car—which lightens their overall ecological footprint (and leaves the other two garage bays for yard and garden equipment). The Zakons have a young son, Nico, and are expecting another child.

Starting outside

Problem: Most of the Zakon’s 2.7 acres is lawn—requiring regular mowing and, if they want to keep it lush and green, periodic applications of fertilizer and perhaps other chemicals.

Solution: Natural landscaping is the way to go. Much of the lawn can be converted into naturalized woodlands by planting native trees and shrubs, mulching heavily with leaves and wood chips, and creating wildflower-lined paths. Robert might be able to save money by finding a nearby site that’s about to be developed and offering to salvage native plants.

Getting a handle on energy use

Problem: Because the Zakon’s house is big, their 195,000 BTU/hour boiler uses about 1,700 gallons of oil per year. Even though they keep the house relatively cool in winter months, their monthly electric bills average 700 kilowatt-hours.

Solution: Start off with a comprehensive energy audit. Obvious areas for improvement include weather stripping doors and insulating the basement walls. Blower-door testing and thermographic analysis would also be helpful. Plus, an energy auditor could provide specific recommendations for tightening up the home—or he or she may be able to do that actual work.

Some specific energy-saving tips

Problem: Energy consumption is clearly the biggest issue with this house, and reducing energy use is the best way to make it greener.

Solution: Here are a few recommendations:

• Install programmable thermostats. If the couple installs programmable thermostats throughout their home, they can set back the temperatures at night, provide different temperatures on weekends, and so forth.

• Install an indirect-storage water heater. The Zakons currently have a “tankless coil” water heater. Significant savings would be achieved by installing a separate insulated storage tank heated with a coil that operates as an additional zone off the boiler.

• Replace incandescent light bulbs with high-quality compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs).

• Replace the standard washing machine with a new, high-efficiency model. Front-loading machines use a lot less water, remove more moisture from clothes, and require less energy for drying than standard top-loading washers.

• Insulate the basement. The energy audit would provide specific recommendations for this, but insulation would likely involve building a two-by-four or two-by-six wall on the inside of the concrete wall and insulating it with fiberglass or cellulose.

Chill out

Problem: The large area of west-facing windows contributes to overheating during the summer and fall and also adds significantly to the air-conditioning load.

Solution: Plant tall annuals on the home’s west side to provide shade during the hottest months. Or, replace or modify the windows with high-performance, double- or triple-glazed, low-E windows with a Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) of less than 0.5. If Robert and Angela keep the existing windows, they may be able to add storm windows with low-E glazing or add a low-emissivity film to the prime windows.

The long wait for hot water

Problem: Robert and Angela have a long wait for hot water, especially in the bathrooms farthest from the water heater. This wastes water and energy.

Solution: On-demand hot-water circulation systems quickly bring hot water to the point of end-use while sending the cooled-off water that’s been sitting in the hot-water pipes back into the water heater. These systems use a small pump, which shuts off as soon as hot water reaches a temperature sensor in that distant bathroom or kitchen.

Fans should exhaust to the outside

Problem: Two noisy bathroom fans exhaust into the attic. A lot of homeowners think they have roof leaks, when in reality they have condensation occurring in their attics. Condensation can cause mold growth and rotting wood. All fans should vent to the outdoors.

Solution: Install ducting that extends to the outdoors, and limit the bends and elbows to as few as possible to not increase the resistance of the fan. Also, replace noisy bathroom fans with quieter ones rated at 1.5 sones or less.

Final thoughts

The changes I proposed to Robert won’t make his house a state-of-the-art “green home,” but they make sense and most can be implemented fairly easily. When we got together, Robert expressed interest in solar panels as a way to green their home. It’s a nice idea and makes a strong visual statement, but a solar retrofit is lower on my list of recommended improvements, especially given the limited short-term budget. I recommended sticking with energy improvements that are really cost-effective and also improve comfort.

RX at Your House: Bring the Wisdom Home

If you’ve got a house like Robert and Angela’s and don’t know what to do first, here’s a list of green recommendations from least expensive (or easiest) to most expensive (or more difficult):

• ENERGY: Replace standard light bulbs with CFLs, install programmable thermostats, and have an energy audit done.

• MOLD: To avoid condensation in your attic and a potential mold problem, reconfigure bathroom exhaust fans to vent to the outdoors.

• LANDSCAPING: Replace a portion of your lawn with native and drought-tolerant landscaping. It requires less water and you don’t have to mow it.

• APPLIANCES: Replace your top-loading washing machine with an energy- and water-efficient front-loading machine.

• WINDOWS: Modify or replace west-facing windows to reduce heat gain.

• HOT WATER: Take a look at your hot water heater and decide if you can save water and energy by installing a more efficient model or a tankless, on-demand water heating system. Or, better yet, consider a solar water-heating system.

• INSULATION: Check your home’s insulation and upgrade or install insulation where appropriate, especially in basements and attics.

Native Landscaping—You Can Do It!

If converting a lawn to native landscaping seems daunting, it needn’t. Start small—pick one area and convert that first. Begin by peeling up the sod so it doesn’t compete with native plants. Then, lay down a thick carpet of mulch and dig in native plants appropriate to the soil and light conditions (a local nursery should be able to offer suggestions). You may also be able to salvage native plants from nearby lots that are about to be developed. However, never dig up wildflowers except where they will be destroyed by clearing and, even then, only after obtaining the property owner’s permission.

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