Achieve energy efficiency with creativity and green materials.
Abe Louise Young loves her house in Austin’s East Side despite all its faults.
Photo By Marc Richmond
Although she loves her home and feels grateful for the abundance in her life, Abe wants to make some improvements. Creative materials and thrift are important to her, as well as a sense of calm and sacredness.
Ode to insulation
PROBLEM: Abe’s home is hot and humid in the summer. While her front rooms stay cool, her back rooms—made of wood studs—get hot through the walls and ceilings. The main culprit is radiant heat entering through the roof.
SOLUTION: Installing radiant reflective sheeting to the roof’s underside can block this and protect the air conditioning system and ductwork. Reinsulating the walls isn’t an option on Abe’s budget, but she can plant trees on the south side of her home to shade the walls, and she can augment the attic’s small, ineffective gable vents with a continuous ridge vent and clear air pathways for the existing soffit vents. I also suggested she make an insulated box out of foam board and reseal the weather stripping to reduce heat entering through the attic’s pull-down stairway. Fortunately, Abe can take advantage of Austin Energy’s low-income energy audit, weatherization, and rebate programs to pay for additional attic insulation, leaking duct repair, caulking and weather stripping, solar window screens, compact fluorescent bulbs, and carbon monoxide and smoke detectors.
Sonnet to stingers and squirrels
PROBLEM: A wasp nest near Abe’s back door threatens her as well as the neighborhood children.
SOLUTION: Rather than using chemicals to eradicate the insects, I suggested she knock down the nest and run inside. Although the wasps will hang around in frustration for a day or two, they’ll eventually build a new nest somewhere else—typically an area away from rain and sun such as under a roof overhang.
PROBLEM: A squirrel has set up housekeeping in Abe’s attic.
SOLUTION: I pointed out critter entry points in the roof and under the house that she can seal with caulk, foam, and steel wool—this will also help with energy efficiency. She should close the holes during the day when the squirrel is (hopefully) out of the house. If she locks him in, she may need to catch him in a live trap.
Less prosaic plantings
PROBLEM: Abe already has some trees north of her house and plans to add more on the south side for shade. However, she wants to plant more attractive species than the fast-growing, short-lived “trash” trees common in this area. She would also like to reduce her turf grass area and replace it with planting beds.
SOLUTION: I recommended Austin’s “Grow Green” program that provides rebates and lists of attractive native plants that can withstand the Texas heat and minimal rainfall. Abe’s already submitted an application and landscape plan to the city but has yet to prep the yard and soil or purchase plants. Because landscaping is a daunting task, I advised her to do the work in stages and enjoy each task successfully accomplished in the process.
Rain, rain go away
PROBLEM: Rainwater from Abe’s roof and her neighbor’s driveway pools in—and erodes—her side yard.
SOLUTION: Ask her neighbor if he’s willing to make a small curb on the edge of his driveway to keep the water on his property.
Dig a water-diverting swale or berm along the driveway line and plant ground cover or thirsty shrubs in—or on—it.
Install roof gutters that drain into fifty- to seventy-five-gallon rain barrels made from recycled plastic with a screen on top to keep out mosquitoes and animals. Barrels with a hose bib attachment for watering cost about $120; $45 with Austin’s rebate program.
Keep your cool
PROBLEM: Inefficient cooling costs Abe money.
SOLUTION: To keep your outdoor air conditioning compressor working efficiently, conduct annual maintenance by using a wire brush to clean off the debris on the metal fins surrounding the unit. Open the top and use a water hose to wash out debris that collects inside—and on—the fins. Plant shrubs to shade the unit but not block the needed airflow.
The metaphor of mold
PROBLEM: Mold growth and water recently appeared in the guest bedroom next to the shower wall, and the plumber’s recommended repair was to caulk the bathtub faucet flanges. Abe cleaned up the mold and tried to dry the carpet, but the problem was still evident.
SOLUTION: I recommended calling a better plumber, opening up the wall behind the fixture to check the real leak, fixing it, and creating a permanent access panel in case she needs to get back into the wall in the future.
PROBLEM: There is a strong mold smell in Abe’s new washer, located in an outdoor shed attached to the home.
SOLUTION: I suggested she leave the washer door open for a while after doing laundry to let the appliance dry out. She should also call the manufacturer to find out if the machine’s drain pan could be molding because Abe doesn’t use bleach or harsh detergents. She may need to open the access panel and clean the drain pan.
How to “un-stink” new carpet
PROBLEM: Three of Abe’s rooms have new carpet that still outgases after two years.
SOLUTION: Keep the carpet but shampoo and seal it with a series of AFM SafeChoice carpet-care products, including Shampoo, Seal (for carpet backing), and Lock-Out (seals carpet fibers to stop outgasing and to repel dirt). Cost: about $75.
MARC RICHMOND is vice president of What’s Working, a green building consulting firm in Boulder, Colorado; Berkeley, California; and Austin, Texas.
RX at your house
The key to mold control is moisture control. Clean up mold promptly and dry water-damaged areas and items within twenty-four to forty-eight hours to prevent mold growth. Epa.gov/iac/molds/moldguide.html
• New carpet
While the most active stage of outgasing from new carpet is from four weeks to three months, it can persist for up to three years after installation. Consider wool, hemp, or sisal rugs tacked down with carpet tacks instead of adhesives. HealthyHomeDesigns.com/articles/information4.php
Find helpful natural pest-fighting tips at Pesticide.org and Panna.org.
• Cooling systems
Studies show that with regular tune-ups, an air conditioning unit will maintain up to 95 percent of its original efficiency. Put it on your annual spring to-do list. Greenbuilder.com
• Bad drainage
Install roof gutters that drain into 50- to 75-gallon recycled plastic rain barrels, topped with a screen to keep out mosquitoes and animals. Make sure to clean those gutters regularly.
This may seem like a frivolous expenditure, but it can increase your property’s curb appeal, cleanse the air you breathe, and offer welcome shade, which can cut down on heating and cooling costs.
Properly insulating your home can help keep it cool in summer and warm in winter. Great choices include sealed fiberglass batts, mineral wool, cellulose, or cotton. Check out www.simplyinsulate.com, www.rsimag.com, and www.ornl.gov/sci/roofs+walls/insulation/ins_05.html for helpful tips.
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