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Green Dream Near Phoenix
by Cindy Korfhage
Our regular Out & About column is replaced this issue by guest author Cindy Korfhage, whose home will be on the Medford region's Green & Solar Home Tour on October 20. If you get out at all during the month of October, it should be to participate in one of the local Green Home tours.
It started with a bicycle ride on a damp November day. My husband Bob went out for a workout on hilly terrain and found a lot for sale: 3/4 acre out in the country, but with water and utilities already in place. A few months later, our house designer Bob Vos was standing on the lot listening to our descriptions of the views we wanted from each room of the house -- a structure that existed only in our imaginations.
Our previous home was energy efficient, but it didn't meet all our needs: the lot was too small for much of a garden, we could hear the constant noise of the freeway, and streetlights obscured the stars at night. Early on, when we started keeping our eyes open for a lot, we agreed when we built our new house, it needed to be something not commonly available on the market. It would use solar energy and conserve water, as well as be energy efficient.
We found the website for Energy Trust of Oregon (www.energytrust.org) and decided that our house would be built to Energy Star standards. Our contractor, Jason Vos Homes, was not Energy Star-rated, but Jason agreed to use our house to become certified. His standards for construction were already so high that it took only a little more effort to meet the requirements, and then having the work verified by certified Energy Star inspectors.
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The great benefit for us was that Energy Star had specifications for windows, insulation, the furnace, sealing heat ducts, and sheet rock, so we only had to make decisions about appliances, lighting, flooring, countertops, paint, and fixtures. Some of the decisions for our home include those for Energy Star certification, as well as some other choices that reflect our personal values for conserving natural resources and leaving a lighter footprint on the earth.
Site Selection & Orientation
Bruce Fiero of Willpower Electric evaluated our site and found it to be perfect for solar: no obstructions to incoming sunlight, either by topography or vegetation. He told us that the long dimension of the house should be positioned east-west on the lot to maximize the south-facing roof area for solar equipment (and to provide plenty of south-facing windows for passive solar heating). He recommended that the pitch of the roof should be 30° for optimum capture of solar energy by photovoltaic (solar-electric) panels.
Thermal Mass, Heating & Insulation
We worked with our designer to incorporate as many passive solar and ventilation features as possible. We found that some passive solar techniques simply weren't options for us. For example, we could not use a concrete slab for thermal mass because of the location of our septic system drain field. Instead, we built a massive brick surround for a small, energy-efficient woodstove with one of the lowest EPA emissions ratings of only 1.9 grams per hour.
Most of the windows are on the south side of the house, where a roof overhang allows direct sunlight in winter but not in summer. To minimize summer heat gains, only two windows are located on the west side: one protected by the patio roof and the other is a small window in a closet to provide ventilation.
The main heating system is a high-efficiency, forced-air natural gas furnace. Insulation keeps our house cool in the summer and warm in the winter with insulation values of R-38 in the ceiling, R-21 in the walls, and R-30 under the floors.
We have two water sources, domestic and irrigation (TID). Domestic water comes from a community water system with five wells. One of our goals was to rank among the lowest in consumption of water, but without feeling deprived. Decisions during the design stage and selection of appliances have made water conservation inside our home automatic and effortless.
We asked our contractor to design the plumbing so that the hot water circulates in insulated pipes with a small pump that is on a timer. At night and when we are away from home, the pump is shut off. During the day when we need hot water, it is immediately available at any tap in the house without running water down the drain while waiting for the hot water to arrive.
Big water-users in an average house are toilets, showers, washing machines and dishwashers. Our dual-flush Caroma toilets from Australia use 80% less water by offering the option of choosing either 0.8 or 1.6 gallons per flush. Unlike some low-volume toilets, their superior design has given us absolutely no problems with plugging.
In the 1980s, I tried using the water-saving shower heads distributed by utility companies, and I hated them. I found myself using more hot water because they put out a fine mist that felt colder. I took longer showers because it seemed to take forever to rinse shampoo out of my long curly hair. In our old house, one lever both turned the water on and adjusted the temperature, so the only option was full tilt.
Without putting too much thought into planning, our shower has a valve that allows independent adjustment of water volume and temperature, and an adjustable head for type of spray. We can enjoy showering without using a lot of water.
Our Asko dishwasher uses less than 5 gallons per load, and our Asko front-loading clothes washer uses only 5.7 gallons. They also use less detergent: only one small tablespoon per load of dishes or clothes. In addition, our laundry comes out much cleaner than when I used a top-loading machine.
Outside, our landscaping plans include ground cover of plants native to the site, such as Oregon white oak and bunchgrasses, which don't require summer irrigation. A garden in the back and grapevines in the front and on one side serve as firebreaks, in addition to providing food. Our plantings require less water than lawns because we have them on drip irrigation.
Solar Water Heating
We opted for a drainback solar water heating system, with an electric water heater as backup. Installed by Tim Dawson of Solar Collection of Talent, our system has a thermostat that sends water for heating up to the two flat-plate collectors on the roof only when temperatures are right. When it is too hot or too cold, the water drains back into the storage tank, which prevents the system from freezing in the winter or stagnating in the summer. The tanks in the garage are wrapped up like shiny mummies to meet Energy Star inspection standards.
Windows & Lighting
During the day, our lighting needs are met by natural light through Energy Star-rated windows, supplemented by three Solatubes. Solatubes are a brighter, more energy-efficient form of skylight. In the laundry room, which has no windows, a Solatube furnishes so much light during the day that it took me a couple of months to quit trying to turn it off at the light switch.
Except for a couple of lights that are turned on and off for very short periods, all of the bulbs in the house are fluorescent, either compact or tube. One of the surprises of this project was learning that fluorescent lighting no longer has the ugly flickering characteristic of yesteryear. We even have fluorescent can lights that work on a dimmer switch. They take a few minutes to warm up, but after that the light is great.
Ventilation & Air Quality
In the past we've both lived in houses without good air flow and asked our designer to position windows that open to provide good cross-ventilation. Topping it all off is a whole house fan that we can use for cooling when the outside temperature drops at night. It can lower the inside temperature throughout the entire house by five degrees or more in a matter of minutes. The blower test required by Energy Star showed that the house's building envelope was so tight that we needed to install an additional fan in the laundry room. When we do not have windows and doors open for fresh air, we set the fan to run on its timer.
Low Tech Stuff
In addition to using the latest technology, we also have adopted a few low-tech solutions from the past. We have an electric dryer, but I have yet to use it for more than fluffing a down vest without heat. So perhaps it wasn't a good investment. The two solar clothes dryers (outside clothes lines) plus a couple of drying racks inside serve all our needs for drying laundry, wet camping gear, ski clothes, etc. Plus, after spinning at 1,600 rpm, laundry comes out of the Asko washing machine almost dry!
I've longed for a cool storage place for canned fruits and produce from our garden. The space underneath the front of the house is perfect for a small room that serves as a root cellar/fruit room.
The crowning glory of the entire project is the solar-electric array on our roof. Although the 3-kilowatt photovoltaic system was the single most expensive "green option," it is also the most satisfying. And to put things in perspective, it cost less than the septic system. Connected to the utility grid, we share electricity when we have excess, but don't run out when our needs outrun the sun. Or, as our solar contractor put it, this is equipment that, by channeling through Pacific Power, converts photons into dollars in the bank. Perhaps that is why "The Question" is always posed: "How long does it take for the system to pay for itself?" This expectation seems unfair to me because no one ever asks whether a granite countertop or tropical hardwood flooring will pay for itself. It comes down to a personal choice that reveals one's priorities.
Green living doesn't need to be about suffering and living without amenities. With some planning, smart choices, and easy routines, it can be elegant and effortless. Some options are more expensive, but others cost no more, or even less. For example, a light-colored roof saves energy for cooling costs, and is the same price as a black roof.
And, there are so many options for flooring that it can make one's head spin. We chose Marmoleum for the bathrooms, laundry, and sewing rooms. Made entirely of natural, renewable products (linseed oil, rosin, wood and cork flour, limestone, jute, and natural pigments), Marmoleum doesn't outgas toxic fumes, and it is comfortable, quiet, and warm underfoot. The remainder of our floors are engineered laminates, which are made from wood scrap and by-products instead of solid wood. Their hard surfaces are more durable and resist scratching better than most wood surfaces. We find them cleaner than carpets and the sound deadening underlayment is quieter than most solid surface floors. The braided area rugs I've made from recycled wool clothing add warmth and color.
Personal Values Matter
The results for our Energy Star home have been phenomenal. We don't make a conscious daily effort to conserve water, yet our domestic consumption last quarter was the lowest in our neighborhood: 5,847 gallons, compared to a range of 7,560 to 68,630 gallons per household for the other properties.
An average Pacific Power residential customer in Medford uses 1,000 kilowatt-hours (kwh) of electricity a month. Since moving into our 2,080-square-foot house in March, our usage has averaged about 350 kwh per month, which was offset by generating an average 290 kwh. So our net use has ranged from 50 to 100 kwh per month. This level has been under normal living conditions, without sacrifice or suffering. When it was hot, we used our air conditioner. We've entertained house guests, baked bread, and run all the usual electrical appliances.
Although we like getting bills from Pacific Power for less than $10, it is more important for us that we can live in a house that reflects our values. Perhaps it will also influence others to consider what they can do. One special reward for us after completion of the house: Jason's wife Jennifer commented that the experience building our Energy Star home changed their approach to building, and their future houses will be "greener" and more energy-efficient than the ones they've built in the past.
A house can last for hundreds of years, so choices made today are going to affect the next century or more. Everyone can make a very big difference with the resources they use over a lifetime and their successors' lifetimes by knowing what the options are and then making better and informed choices.
You can tour this home and several others and talk with homeowners on the Phoenix-Talent area's Green and Solar Home Tour taking place on October 20. For more information about this and other Southern Oregon Green Home Tours, please see our Green Event Calendar and EcoNotes. -- LP
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