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Practical Sustainability: Wash in Cold Water!

Sunset Green Home's water-efficient ENERGY STAR Samsung laundry machines have just been delivered...and that has me thinking about sustainable laundry practices.  Even if you're not planning to replace your laundry machines, you can still adopt greener laundry habits to save energy and water.

Sunset Green Home's Samsung Laundry Machines

Sunset Green Home's Samsung Laundry Machines

In a Practical Sustainability column last summer, I advocated for saving energy by hanging your laundry to dry.  This month's Practical Sustainability column tackles the washing side of your laundry equation.  To save energy and water, consider three small changes to how you do laundry.

1. Use the cold water cycle

In 2014, Good Housekeeping and Consumer Reports both conducted tests on detergents promising good results for cold water washing, and found that they live up to their claims.  Lowering the temperature of your wash load saves on energy required for water heating (90% of laundry energy use comes from heating the water).  Consumer reports estimates that an average family can save $60 annually by reducing the wash temperature.  Cold water washing puts money in your pocket and benefits the environment at the same time.

2. Wait until you have a full load before you run the machine

A load of laundry uses energy and water regardless of how many articles of clothing you're washing.  Consider waiting until you have a full load before you run your machine.  The US Department of Energy estimates that you can save 3,400 gallons of water annually by running only full loads.

3. Use a high spin cycle when possible

If you must put your clothes into the dryer, use a high spin cycle in your washer to extract as much water as possible before transferring the load to your dryer. 

Adopt these three practices and you'll reduce your laundry's energy and water use without investing in new appliances.  Now that's what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Get to Know LEED: Water Efficiency and Sustainable Landscaping

In the next few weeks, you're going to see the Sunset Green Home's landscape take shape.  We have assembled an amazing team of experienced and knowledgeable professionals in the landscaping business, and have selected the highest performing products to make the landscape as sustainable as it is beautiful.

Image: Araiys Design

Image: Araiys Design

It's hard not to notice a beautifully done landscape.  But when we're admiring a well done landscape or garden, most of us don't think enough about whether it was crafted to support a healthy environment.  The LEED® for Homes green building program aims to change that by asking us to address the environmental impact of our landscaping choices.

A project can earn credit toward LEED certification by making irrigation and landscape design choices that support a sustainable site plan.  Here are the specifics:

  • Earn up to four points by installing a rainwater collection and storage system that holds the water from a one-inch rainfall on at least 50% of the roof
  • Earn up to four points by designing and installing a high-efficiency irrigation system and performing a third-party inspection to ensure it is working correctly
  • Earn up to seven points by including "landscape features to avoid invasive species and minimize demand for water and synthetic chemicals" (LEED for Homes Reference Guide)

Getting it right requires a good deal of coordination...which is why Sunset Green Home has assembled a team of irrigation and landscaping professionals with deep experience in the industry, and also in the local environment.

With over 20 years of experience in the region, Marcus Stinchi, of Marcus Stinchi Landscaping, is a true plant expert.  Marcus will incorporate native and adaptive plant material selected for its ability to do well in the variable conditions of the site, which is often windy and occasionally subject to salt-water flooding.  As we approach the plant installation date, Marcus has been working with his wholesale nurseries to identify healthy plant material that will support the landscape design.  "We do a lot of work on the ocean, and with environmentally sensitive seaside buffers.  I like to work with native plants, which are more beautiful than invasive species," Marcus explains.  

Tim Pogue, principal of Resort Lighting, a Hamptons-based irrigation and landscape lighting company, is a LEED Green Associate and is dedicated to supporting sustainable landscaping design with irrigation systems that meet WaterSense requirements and respond to the microclimates where they are installed.  Tim advises, “before designing and installing an irrigation system the local environment, soil, plant type and water source all need to be reviewed. LEED projects provide a gateway for success in water use, conservation and efficiency."

Even the best designers and installers need quality products and materials to make their work a success.  That's why Sunset Green Home reached out to a handful of important suppliers.  

Rhizomatous Tall Fescue is engineered to provide a deep, strong rooting system that quickly becomes established. This deep rooting means less watering is required as the grass plants derive their moisture from lower in the rootzone. As temperatures climb into the summer season, the sod will stay green and lush with less water. It also exhibits a self-repairing capability because of the rhizome it creates, where new shoots are formed underground and then develop into new grass plants. There is technology in turf, and RTF sod is on the forefront.
— Scott Geiser, DeLea Sod Farms
Rhizomatous Tall Fescue

Rhizomatous Tall Fescue

LEED rewards projects that limit the use of conventional turf (i.e., lawn), and Sunset Green Home has designed a lawn comprising less than 60% of the home’s designed landscape – which enables the project to earn one point toward LEED certification.  For several reasons, our team made the choice to install sod rather than seed the lawn:

  • Grass seed is best planted in the fall.  However, autumn is also hurricane season, and Sunset Green Home is particularly sensitive to the adverse effects of strong storms.  We believe installing sod in the spring and giving it time to take root before storm season will be the best way to protect the site against storm erosion.
  • But we couldn't have made the decision to install sod had DeLea Sod Farms, one of the Hamptons' premier sod farms, not recommended its Rhizomatous Tall Fescue (RTF) sod, a LEED compliant drought tolerant variety whose root system grows deeper than that of conventional turf varieties.  DeLea Sod's Scott Geiser comments, "Rhizomatous Tall Fescue is engineered to provide a deep, strong rooting system that quickly becomes established. This deep rooting means less watering is required as the grass plants derive their moisture from lower in the rootzone.  As temperatures climb into the summer season, the sod will stay green and lush with less water. It also exhibits a self-repairing capability because of the rhizome it creates, where new shoots are formed underground and then develop into new grass plants. There is technology in turf, and RTF sod is on the forefront."
  • Finally, it has been nearly three years since Hurricane Sandy set off the events that brought about the Sunset Green Home project.  Frankly, we're eager to see the site finished.  Installing sod gets us that much closer to the finish line!
Poly-Mart's 1,000 gallon Rainwater Harvesting Tank

Poly-Mart's 1,000 gallon Rainwater Harvesting Tank

Creating the Sunset Green Home landscape will require the installation of hundreds of individual plants.  And, even though we have selected the majority of those plants for their drought tolerance, we're still going to need supplemental water to keep them healthy.  It doesn't make sense to irrigate a landscape with municipal water that has gone through resource-intensive purification.  According to Sean Bravo of Poly-Mart, this is particularly true in a region that receives abundant rainfall and where a rainwater harvesting system becomes cost effective.  So, we are installing a rainwater harvesting system that features Poly-Mart's 1,000 gallon rainwater cistern as the centerpiece. 

ATAS Aluminum Roof on Sunset Green Home

ATAS Aluminum Roof on Sunset Green Home

Sunset Green Home will capture rainwater from the standing seam ATAS aluminum roof of the pool house, an ideal surface for rainwater capture according to several recent studies.  A 2011 study published in the journal “Water Research” concluded that water captured from metal roofs has lower levels of dissolved carbon and carries less bacteria (e.g., coliform) than water collected from other roofing surfaces.  But that's not the only advantage of an aluminum roof.  Chris Kroeter is a LEED Green Associate and Product Representative for ATAS International, Inc.  As Chris explains, “In addition to its rainwater harvesting properties, metal roofing contributes to a sustainable building with its durability, longevity and recycled content.  The ‘cool roof’ pigments that are used in the paint finish of metal roofing offer higher solar reflectance values, which results in a building’s increased energy efficiency.”

Hunter Irrigation Controller

Hunter Irrigation Controller

To deliver water to the plants, we will be using Hunter Industries’ WaterSense labeled irrigation system.  Featuring the Solar Sync ET and Rain-Clik components that read actual rainfall, temperature and other site conditions, the system will adjust itself to the specific microclimate of the Sunset Green Home site.

The final element of Sunset Green Home's irrigation system is the EZ-FLO automatic fertilizing system, which will allow us to use micro-dosing of organic fertilizers and compost teas.  The benefits of "fertigation" include:

  • Enhanced control over nutrient application
  • Nutrient application timed to coincide with ideal plant growth stage
  • Lower risk of environmental damage from leaching and runoff
EZ-FLO Injection Tank

EZ-FLO Injection Tank

In fact, we will use two EZ-FLO systems - one for the vegetable garden and one for the lawn and ornamental plantings.  EZ-FLO's National Sales Manager, Darin Brasch, explains his company's involvement in the Sunset Green Home project: "Environmental stewardship is paramount for the continued growth and success of the irrigation and green industry. EZ-FLO is proud to be a selected partner for the Sunset Green Home project. Projects such as this will only further the industry’s and public’s awareness of sustainable landscaping practices."  Click here for more information about Fertigation.

Check back with us over the comings weeks as our landscape solution is installed.  We can't wait to see the beauty that a sustainable landscape contributes to Sunset Green Home.

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Practical Sustainability: Stop Using Plastic Bags for Pet Waste!

My kids roll their eyes when, in conversation, I ask someone if he or she has read Alan Weisman’s book “The World Without Us.” It’s a fascinating and well-researched book whose chapters each tackle – from a different angle – the question of what would happen to the earth if humankind disappeared tomorrow.  And, I suppose, my enthusiasm for the book has at times led me to speak about it frequently enough to elicit the eye-roll from my offspring!

In “Chapter 9: Polymers Are Forever,” Weisman describes the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a 20 million square kilometer area that is home to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a swirling mass of floating refuse mainly comprising plastics.  Where does all this plastic come from?  Weisman writes, “80 percent of mid-ocean flotsam had originally been discarded on land. It had blown off garbage trucks or out of landfills, spilled from railroad shipping containers and washed down storm drains, sailed down rivers or wafted on the wind, and found its way to this widening gyre.”

Plastic does not biodegrade.  National Geographic discusses the dangers to marine life of high concentrations of plastic in the gyre:

“Marine debris can be very harmful to marine life in the gyre. For instance, loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellies, their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs… Marine debris can also disturb marine food webs in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. As microplastics and other trash collect on or near the surface of the ocean, they block sunlight from reaching plankton and algae below. Algae and plankton are the most common autotrophs, or producers, in the marine food web. Autotrophs are organisms that can produce their own nutrients from oxygen, carbon, and sunlight.”

So what does all this have to do with this month’s Practical Sustainability column?  If you’re been following our monthly column, we try to make simple low-cost recommendations for how you can reduce your environmental impact.   It’s springtime, and I’ve seen lots of people walking their dogs in the lovely weather.  Our Practical Sustainability recommendation this month is that you consider replacing your plastic pet waste bag with a biodegradable bag that will have a reduced impact on the environment. 

Instead of purchasing plastic waste bags or reusing grocery store bags as poop bags, consider taking your grocery store bags to a recycling drop off point (as of March 1, 2015 stores over 10,000 square feet in New York State must accept plastic bags for recycling) and then purchase biodegradable pet waste bags to take with you when you walk your dog.  Aquatic animals in the Pacific will thank you!

Now that's what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Progress Update: Insulation, Gypsum Walls and Tile Floors

It's Memorial Day weekend, and things have slowed down at the project site so that the construction crew can enjoy the holiday weekend.  But the last couple of weeks have been busy ones at Sunset Green Home.

Finishing the Insulation

Sunset Green Home's insulation has been completely installed.  And we "celebrated" by performing a preliminary blower door test to make sure everything was tightly sealed (look for an upcoming post on the topic of insulation and the important role it plays in Sunset Green Home's LEED certification).

 We are using a number of sustainable insulation products from CertainTeed, many of which can be seen in the photo below:

Insulation at Sunset Green Home
  • We started by spraying FortiCel mold prevention surface treatment on all of the exterior framing of the home (seen as a blue color on the wood framing above). 
  • CertaSpray™ Closed Cell Foam (not shown above) insulation was applied underneath the house and forms a tight air barrier that also prevents moisture from entering the home
  • In the roof rafters (shown above in the attic and in the cathedral ceiling of one of the upstairs bedrooms), CertaSpray™ Open Cell Foam provides an R-38 insulation value for the roof 
  • The blue SMARTBATT shown above and installed on Sunset Green Home's exterior walls provides R-21 insulation value and "features an integrated smart vapor retarder that blocks indoor moisture from entering when humidity in the wall cavity is low and breathes when it senses high humidity that needs to be released, reducing the potential for mold and mildew growth" (courtesy of CertainTeed)
  • Interior walls were insulated with unfaced fiberglass insulation (seen above) to reduce sound transmission between rooms.

With insulation complete and small air leaks identified and sealed, it was time to close the walls!

Installing Gypsum Wallboard

If you follow us on Twitter, you may have seen the photos I tweeted last week of the many varieties of CertainTeed gypsum wallboard products on site and ready to be applied to the walls of the home.  CertainTeed gypsum may contribute to the credits Sunset Green Home will earn in the Materials & Resources credit category, since the company manufactures its products within 500 miles of the project site.

The installation had just begun at my last site visit.  When I arrived this past Friday, I was happy to see that our subcontractor Ken Silver and his team had completed nearly all of the walls. 

The following are some of the types of gypsum wallboard that we're using in the project:

  • With its patent pending formaldehyde-scavenging technology, CertainTeed's AirRenew® Gypsum actively cleans the air in the home, capturing formaldehyde from the air and rendering it inert.
  • SilentFX® gypsum contains a layer of sound dampening Green Glue sandwiched between layers of M2Tech mold and moisture resistant gypsum.  Sunset Green Home is using SilentFX in areas where traditional sound-dampening insulation has been omitted, such as walls with pocket doors and ceilings with large numbers of recessed light fixtures, and in areas where extra noise reduction is desired (e.g., the walls of the laundry room).
  • Sunset Green Home is using Diamondback® GlasRoc® Tile Backer in the bathrooms where tile will be installed.  Diamondback contains embedded glass mats for moisture resistance and a polymer surface that resists tile slippage during installation.
  • Sunset Green Home has installed CertainTeed's moisture and mildew resistant M2Tech® gypsum in the basement, laundry and other areas that are vulnerable to the effects of excess moisture.

Check out the slide show below to see the different types of wallboard installed in the home.

Tile Floor Installation

While there wasn't a lot of activity over the weekend, our tile subcontractor, Frank Caputo, decided to work on Saturday and Sunday so he could have the house to himself with no dust being produced by any of the other trades.  And he made great progress on Sunset Green Home's bathroom tiling

On Saturday, Frank and his team "mudded" the floors.  That is, they installed a carefully leveled layer of mortar with metal mesh embedded into it for stability.  Considered the best underlayment for tile floors, this technique ensures that the floor tile will be completely flat and well supported - which will reduce the likelihood that uneven pressure will cause the floor tiles to break.  Having a well-installed underlayment is particularly important in projects like Sunset Green Home that use large format floor tiles.

We are installing Daltile's Veranda Solids™ Colorbody porcelain tile in "Fog" color in all of the bathrooms except for the master.  While the format will change (linear tile in the guest bath and large format rectangular tile in the upstairs bathrooms), the material selection is consistent throughout the home.

By Sunday morning, the "mud" floors had finished curing and Frank began to lay out the tile for one of the upstairs showers.  It looked like a completed floor.  But then he started to pull the tiles out of the shower.  I asked why - and his response was that he always does a "dry fit."  He lays the tile out completely to make sure everything fits perfectly before putting down any mortar.  That way, if there's a problem, he's not pulling out mortar along with the tile.

"Mud" shower floor with tile installation about to be started

"Mud" shower floor with tile installation about to be started

I watched while he installed the first few sheets of 3" x 3" tile (our choice for its non-slip properties).  He applied a layer of thinset mortar and then carefully replaced the sheets that he had removed a few minutes earlier.  Then he moved onto the next set of tiles in the shower.  By the end of the day, Frank had completed all of the upstairs bathroom floors.

Daltile's Veranda Fog porcelain tile in one of Sunset Green Home's bathrooms

Daltile's Veranda Fog porcelain tile in one of Sunset Green Home's bathrooms

Before I arrived on site, Frank had installed all of the master bathroom floor tile as well.  We selected Daltile's 24" x 24" honed Calacatta Gold marble for the floor of the bathroom.  Frank had to cut the 3" x 3" smaller tiles for the shower by hand and manually sand the edges of each tile to make sure they were smooth and uniform.  It's this extra attention to detail that makes our builder, Chris Mensch of Coastal Management, so happy with Frank's work.  Later this week, Frank will cut the tiles into 12" x 24" pieces to be run up the shower and vanity area walls.

Daltile's Calacatta Gold honed marble tile in Sunset Green Home's master bathroom

Daltile's Calacatta Gold honed marble tile in Sunset Green Home's master bathroom

Not only are the tile floors beautiful and expertly installed, but they will also contribute to Sunset Green Home earning credit toward the project's LEED certification.  The LEED for Homes green building program rewards projects that install over 90% hard flooring, which is considered an Environmentally Preferable Product.  100% of Sunset Green Home's floors will be hard flooring (either tile or wood).

When Frank finishes with the upstairs tile work, he will move downstairs to the guest bathroom and mud room hallway.  We can't wait to see the progress when we come back next week!

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Get to Know LEED®: Water Heating

According to the LEED for Homes Reference Guide, “as much as one-third of a home’s total energy bill is spent on heating water.”  That's why the LEED for Homes green building program rewards projects that incorporate strategies for reducing the energy use associated with heating water. 

Energy associated with water heating may go to waste in several places between the source of heat and the tap:

  • Inefficient plumbing design, which increases the distance that hot water needs to travel to get to the tap
  • Heat loss from uninsulated pipes
  • Inefficiency of the hot water heating equipment

The LEED for Homes program addresses each of these potential energy efficiency losses:

  • Distribution System Design. Projects that include an energy efficient hot water distribution system design may earn up to two points toward certification.  Such designs include structured plumbing systems with demand controlled circulation loops; central manifold systems that minimize the length of hot water branches from a central trunk; and compact design of conventional systems, which meet criteria limiting the length of plumbing branches and the diameter of plumbing pipes.  
  • Pipe Insulation. Projects may earn one point toward certification by installing R-4 insulation on all hot water piping.  Pipes must be completely insulated – even where they pass through the home’s framing.  Sunset Green Home will earn this point.
  • Efficient Domestic Hot Water Equipment.  The greatest point-earning potential comes from specifying efficient hot water hearing equipment.  Sunset Green Home will earn two of three possible points by using Rinnai’s tankless hot water heaters (a project can only earn the full three points by installing solar or heat pump hot water heaters – which were not practical or cost-effective for Sunset Green Home).  Sunset Green Home’s Rinnai hot water heaters far exceed the 0.8 Energy Factor required to earn the points.  With an Energy Factor of 0.95, the ENERGY STAR qualified RUC98i models installed in Sunset Green Home lead the industry in terms of efficiency.
Rinnai's RUC98i tankless hot water heaters on the left and an insulated hot water pipe in the wall on the right.

Rinnai's RUC98i tankless hot water heaters on the left and an insulated hot water pipe in the wall on the right.

We selected Rinnai for its industry leadership in tankless hot water heating technology.  Federal efficiency requirements were enacted in 2010 with an adoption date of April 2015, just one month ago.  But Rinnai’s tankless hot water heaters already met the standard.  And Rinnai’s Ultra Series tankless hot water heaters that will be used at Sunset Green Home also meet the more stringent requirements of 2015 updates to the ENERGY STAR program.

Sunset Green Home’s builder consulted with Rinnai to design a system with two hot water heaters connected together to serve the home’s hot water needs.  The second heater will only fire if the first one is unable to meet hot water demand. 

Sunset Green Home’s hot water heaters were installed last week.  We can’t wait to take them for a test drive!

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Progress Update: Garage Doors and Resiliency

Today was an exciting day at Sunset Green Home.  A Better Door, Sunset Green Home’s garage door contractor, arrived on site and installed Sunset Green Home’s Clopay Canyon Ridge garage doors and LiftMaster’s Model 8550 Elite Series garage door openers.  This slide show has the installation highlights:

You may be wondering what either of these products has to do with Sunset Green Home’s resiliency.  The answer is “a lot” as it turns out.  Here’s why…

If you've been following the Sunset Green Home project, you know that the house replaces a home that was made uninhabitable by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.  And you may also recall that Sunset Green Home has been built atop more than 100 pilings that elevate the home two feet above the code-compliant base flood elevation.  So what do we do with all of that space under the house – which may flood in another bad storm?  That’s where we've put the home’s garage. 

We consulted with the technical product team at Clopay, and they recommended two garage door styles that would work well in a coastal environment subject to periodic flooding – the Canyon Ridge insulated steel door with composite cladding and the Avante aluminum and glass door.  Both feature corrosion resistant materials.  We used Clopay’s Door Imagination System to overlay the doors onto Sunset Green Home’s façade and asked our followers to weigh in with their preferences.  Over 700 people took a look…and the winner was Canyon Ridge!

Canyon Ridge includes other features that make it a resilient door for a coastal application, and a good choice for Sunset Green Home:

  • Clopay’s Intellicore insulation contributes to the door’s rigidity and strength.  During Hurricane Sandy, large pieces of debris were pushed by the storm surge into the foundation and siding of the old home.  An uninsulated door does not have the same ability to withstand denting as an insulated door
  • While the Canyon Ridge door’s wood-grain composite cladding looks like real wood (Sunset Green Home’s doors came pre-primed and will be painted), its assembly (composite cladding over steel) resists warping – which may become important during a flood

The LiftMaster 8550 Elite Series opener is an equally smart choice from the perspective of resiliency and durability.  Each of Sunset Green Home’s garage doors is nine feet wide, which makes them very heavy.  Sunset Green Home’s neighborhood lost power for a week following Hurricane Sandy.  The 8550 Elite Series garage door opener features a battery backup system that will enable us to open the doors automatically in the case of a power outage.  The opener uses belt drive technology, which has the quietest operation (in comparison to chain drive openers) and requires less maintenance (no need to lubricate a belt drive).  In fact, LiftMaster offers a lifetime warranty on the opener’s motor and belt.

Sustainability encompasses many qualities, like energy- and water-efficiency.  But it also includes durability and resiliency – qualities that are very relevant to Sunset Green Home’s garage doors and openers, which are below the home’s base flood elevation and must be able to withstand the forces of nature that we've already seen on the site.  We’re confident that we've made good choices, and plan to report back once we've had a chance to take them for a test drive!  For now, we’re happy that they’re installed and ready for action!

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Progress Update: A Beautiful, Sustainable Wall Takes Shape

If you've been following our progress, you know that Sunset Green Home was required to elevate the project's sanitary system to where its base would be three feet above groundwater.  Because of the property's high water table, doing so required creating an elevated septic field bounded by a sizable retaining wall

Sunset Green Home's retaining wall and footings during construction.

Sunset Green Home's retaining wall and footings during construction.

The wall runs the length of the driveway and along the street.  We'll be installing native plantings at the base of the wall, and Sunset Green Home's lawn at the top.

We had many choices for finishing the wall - stucco, natural stone, and architectural manufactured stone - to name a few.  We selected Eldorado Stone's manufactured lightweight concrete Nantucket Stacked Stone for its sustainable properties, natural stone look and ease of installation. 

Because Sunset Green Home is seeking LEED Platinum certification at completion, our team is very concerned about the sustainable characteristics of the materials that are used in the project.  The Nantucket Stacked Stone panels we used were manufactured in Pennsylvania - well within the 500 mile radius that the LEED green building program targets for "regional" materials.  Eldorado Stone weighs roughly half the weight of natural stone, which means fewer resources were expended in transporting it to the site.  The lighter weight also translates to faster, more cost-effective installation.  Made of concrete, Eldorado Stone is completely recyclable at the end of its life (but with a 50-year warranty, we're not expecting to retire the stone wall anytime soon).  

Installation of the wall began on a rainy day, so the team used tarps to keep the work moving along!  Photo courtesy of Chris Mensch, Coastal Management.

Installation of the wall began on a rainy day, so the team used tarps to keep the work moving along!  Photo courtesy of Chris Mensch, Coastal Management.

In fact, the Nantucket Stacked Stone was so quick to install, Sunset Green Home's concrete retaining wall went from bare to finished in two short weeks!  Now that the wall is complete, let the planting begin!

Two weeks later, the wall is finished and capped, and the area around it is ready for planting!  Photo courtesy of Chris Mensch, Coastal Management.

Two weeks later, the wall is finished and capped, and the area around it is ready for planting! Photo courtesy of Chris Mensch, Coastal Management.

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Practical Sustainability: Green Landscaping Ideas That Won't Break the Bank

Daffodils in Bloom

Spring has (finally!) sprung...

After the long, cold winter of 2015, it's nice to see the crocuses and daffofils pushing their way out of the ground and the trees budding into leaf.  In honor of spring's arrival, this month's Practical Sustainability column focuses on sustainable landscaping ideas that won't break the bank.

  1. Compost!  When you do your spring cleanup, consider adding the leaves you rake up to a compost pile or compost bin.  Save money by making your own compost, and then use it to feed and mulch your plantings.  Click here for compost solutions you can build yourself.
  2. Fertigate!  If you have an automated irrigation system, consider adding a "fertigation" solution - like EZ-FLO -  to your system.  Plants absorb nutrients better when fertilizer is "watered in."  For a few hundred dollars, your irrigation system can deliver low doses of fertilizer to your landscape with greater efficiency and less risk of runoff than if you use topical fertilizers.  
  3. Set Timers!  When you start your irrigation system back up this spring, consider setting automatic timers to water early in the morning when evaporative losses will be lowest, and adjust sprinkler heads to make sure that you aren't sending water onto the sidewalk or into the street in front of your home.
  4. Use Drought Tolerant Grass!  While overseeding (the practice of adding new grass seed to an existing lawn) is best undertaken in the fall months, some people practice overseeding in the spring.  If you can't overseed in the fall and choose to do so now, consider a drought-tolerant grass variety that, once established, will be less thirsty than a typical lawn.
  5. Capture Rainwater!  If it's legal in your region, consider capturing rainwater from the April showers to water your May flowers.  Adding a rainwater catchment system is as easy as installing a rain barrel at your gutter downspout, and then installing a filter and pump so you can use the water in your planting beds or lawn.  By capturing rain water, you're also protecting the environment against the negative effects of storm water runoff.  Click here for simple DIY rain barrel instructions. 
  6. Plant Drought Tolerant Ornamentals! Pick your ornamental plants carefully.  Consult your local Extension service for a list of drought tolerant and native/adaptive plant varieties that will thrive in your region with lower water use.  Cornell's extension division publishes plants lists for many regions, including Long Island where Sunset Green home is located.
  7. Choose Perennials!  Substitute perennials into beds where you typically plant annuals.  Perennials live longer and establish deeper roots. You'll spend less on your plants, and will save water throughout the season.

Planting season is here.  Use sustainable practices to minimize water use and reduce your impact on the environment!

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Progress Update: Finishing the Pool House

This is what the Sunset Green Home pool house looked like two weeks ago today...

And here it is this sunny morning...

So how did we get from there to here in two short weeks?  

With a lot of hard work by a well-coordinated group of different trades.  Here's a summary of our progress over two weeks:

It started with our plumbing and electrical inspections, which had to be completed before the walls could be closed.  Note that the plumbing inspection went off without a corrections required, thanks to the good work of John M Kubisa Plumbing & Heating.

As soon as the inspections were done, Cary Insulation arrived on site to install CertainTeed's SMARTBATT insulation in the walls and ceilings.  If you've been following our blog, you know we've written a lot about indoor air quality.  In an earlier post, we highlighted Sunset Green Home's application of CertainTeed's FortiCela mold inhibitor that is sprayed onto the interior wall cavity after framing and sheathing is complete and before insulation is installed, to prevent mold growth on structural framing surfaces.  SMARTBATT is another product Sunset Green Home is using to minimize the potential for mold-producing moisture-related problems within the pool house walls.  With an integrated smart vapor retarder, SMARTBATT blocks moisture from entering a wall cavity when humidity is low inside the walls, and allows the wall to "breathe" when it senses humidity within the cavity. 

After the walls were insulated, Chris Mensch's crew from Coastal Management started installing M2Tech moisture and mold resistant drywall, and Type X fire-resistant drywall, also manufactured by CertainTeed. They spackled and taped all of the seams.

And that gets us to where we are today...with the tile subcontractor installing a "mud" bed (mortar) and wire mesh - the ideal underlayment for tile because of its stability and support characteristics - which we'll need this week when we start to install a large format 24" square City View porcelain tile on the pool house floors.  

Check back with us for updated photos when the floor is installed next week!

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Get to Know LEED®: Central Vacuum for Contaminant Control

Sunset Green Home is about to close up its walls.  Electrical and plumbing inspections have been completed. And installation of insulation is underway.  We're only a few days away from beginning to install the home's drywall.

On a recent visit, I snapped a few photos of an important system that is installed inside the home's walls: our BEAM Alliance central vacuum system.  Most households own a vacuum cleaner, but did you know that the LEED for Homes green building program awards a point toward LEED certification to projects that install a central vacuum system with exhaust to the outdoors? 

Here's why...

According to the LEED for Homes Reference Guide, "a majority of the dirt and dust in homes is tracked in by occupants.  Debris carried into the house from shoes often contains lead, asbestos, pesticides, and other hazardous materials...Central vacuums exhaust collected dust and particulates to the outdoors."

In last month's Practical Sustainability column, I advocated taking one's shoes off inside the house.  We do it at home, and find that our home stays cleaner and requires less maintenance.  But even when we remove our shoes, we still find that our floor needs to be vacuumed.  Conventional vacuums recirculate the air they use to draw dirt inside.  Even the best filters still exhaust the smallest particulates back into the room.  By contrast, since LEED compliant central vacuums exhaust the air outdoors, any particulates that are picked up by the vacuum will either be trapped by the system or exhausted to the home's exterior.

Central vacuum systems are easy to install in new construction (and can also be retrofitted into existing homes).  Inlet valves are installed in the walls or baseboards as in the photo below:

The wall inlet valves are connected to vacuum piping, which runs to the power unit (located in the home's mechanical room, in the case of Sunset Green Home.  Note, in the photo below, the low voltage wire that runs along the piping, enabling the vacuum handle to communicate with the power unit in a BEAM Alliance system.

Sunset Green Home will earn one point toward certification by installing a central vacuum system.  We're using the BEAM Alliance - 650SB model, which features a hose handle that communicates with the power unit located in Sunset Green Home's mechanical room.  The bells and whistles are nice to have, but what makes us really happy is the knowledge that we're installing a system designed to improve Sunset Green Home's indoor air quality.

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Progress Update: AquaSAFE Fire Sprinkler System Installation

When Hurricane Sandy left the previous home on the site of Sunset Green Home "substantially damaged" we knew we would be required to rebuild in compliance with current building codes.  The old house stood at five feet above sea level.  Current code would elevate the new home to 12 feet above sea level.  But, having seen the destructive nature of the Hurricane Sandy storm surge, the Sunset Green Home team opted to go even further and to build the house at 14 feet above sea level.

So what does that have to do with fire sprinklers?

First, a bit of background...The International Residential Code (IRC) is a comprehensive building code that governs one- and two-family dwellings.  The version of the IRC that was adopted in 2009 calls for homes to include fire sprinkler systems.  While the IRC provides building code guidelines, states and local municipalities have the option of adopting the code in whole or in part. 

New York State adopted the fire sprinkler recommendations for homes with three stories.  Homes with two floors of living space may be characterized as three-story homes - requiring compliance with the IRC fire sprinkler requirements - if the first floor of livable space is high enough above grade that the basement area is considered a "story" itself (there are three "tests" - which you can read about here).

Sunset Green Home's elevation came within inches of the three-story home characterization, despite the home only having two floors of living space.  While fire sprinklers were ultimately deemed unnecessary, our research led the team to go beyond the requirement and include a fire suppression system nonetheless.  Building codes are changing, and we believe that eventually all new construction will include fire sprinklers.  We would like the home to remain compliant even when the building code is changed. 

More importantly, however, our reasons for electing to include the system include the desire to

  • Provide extra time for occupants to exit the building in the event of a house fire and protect first responders who may have to enter a burning building.  Because fire sprinklers activate immediately upon detection of a fire, they may contain a fire long enough for occupants to exit the building.  Similarly, sprinklers may also reduce the intensity of a fire during the crucial period between a fire's outbreak and the arrival of fire fighters and other first responders.
  • Reduce the amount of damage to the home should it experience a house fire.  Fire sprinklers only activate in the vicinity of a fire (each head is individually activated by the heat of the fire), enabling fire suppression with minimal water damage.
  • Protect the environment.  A 2010 study by property insurer FM Global found that the volume of wastewater generated fighting a sprinklered fire may be 50% - 91% less than the amount generated in a non-sprinklered fire.  The study also observed that "fewer persistent pollutants, such as heavy metals, and fewer solids were detected in the wastewater sample from the sprinklered test compared to that of the non-sprinklered test."
  • Reduce the home's operating cost by earning insurance premium credits, which may be as high as 13% for sprinklered homes.

Having decided to include a fire sprinkler system, Sunset Green Home reached out to Uponor about its AquaSAFE system, which integrates into the cold water plumbing loop.  Uponor's in-house Design Services group designed the system based on Sunset Green Home's architectural plans and water pressure data.  Uponor offers this sprinkler system design as a value-added service to AquaSAFE clients.  The company provides a 25 year warranty on the pipes and fittings. In addition, through its manufacturer's representative, Wales-Darby, Uponor provided its AquaSAFE Levels I and II classes with classroom and on-the-jobsite training to John M. Kubisa Plumbing & Heating, Sunset Green Home's licensed plumbing subcontractor.

As of this Progress Update, all of Sunset Green Home's sprinkler heads have been installed, and the plumbing loops have been completed.  The local building inspector will conduct a pressure test before the ceilings are enclosed with fire-rated gypsum board by CertainTeed.

Stay tuned for additional updates as the installation and testing of Sunset Green Home's fire sprinkler system is completed.

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Progress Update: Let There Be Lights!

Sunset Green Home's ceilings are complicated.  They're packed with:

  • 3" ducts connecting to the home's ComfoAir mechanical ventilation system by Zehnder, which supplies fresh air to the bedrooms and living areas while removing stale air from the bathrooms and kitchen
  • Short duct runs that connect to the five air handlers that comprise the home's Mitsubishi Hyper Heating INVERTER multi-zone heating and cooling system
  • Circulation loops and sprinkler heads for Sunset Green Home's AquaSAFE fire sprinkler system by Uponor.  

And, as of this week, the ceilings now include Sunset Green Home's ELEMENT LED down lights by Tech Lighting. 

If you have ever shopped for recessed light fixtures, your know that your options are extensive.  There are fixtures for new construction and remodeling; housings for insulated ceilings and non-insulated ceilings; trim options in multiple sizes and shapes; wet-rated fixtures and those intended for dry locations; down lights and wall washers; a wide range of apertures; and numerous lamping options, including LED, incandescent, fluorescent and halogen.  

So what are we using in Sunset Green Home, and how did we choose?

With Sunset Green Home's aggressive energy efficiency goals, our top priority was to select LED fixtures for all of the home's lighting.  While we could have used LED bulbs in non-LED fixtures, we wanted fixtures that had been designed with native LED technology.  Each of Sunset Green Home's ELEMENT LED downlights uses approximately one-fifth the energy of an incandescent bulb with comparable light output.

Four ELEMENT LED adjustable recessed down lights in with square trim in the TV room

Four ELEMENT LED adjustable recessed down lights in with square trim in the TV room

We specified 4" aperture fixtures throughout the project for design consistency.  The bathrooms will feature round trim, as there will be round sprinkler heads and round exhaust ducts for the Zehnder ComfoAir ERV system also in the bathroom ceilings.  Elsewhere, we specified square trim for a more contemporary aesthetic.  

Two round wet-rated recessed fixtures for the guest room shower

Two round wet-rated recessed fixtures for the guest room shower

Our lighting design includes multiple layers of light, which come from recessed down lights and wall washers, surface mounted lights, sconces and lamps.  The ELEMENT LED downlights provide general lighting, while wall washer styles illuminate larger walls and direct light out toward the perimeter of the rooms.

Wall washers in the guest bedroom

Wall washers in the guest bedroom

Recessed fixture housings for insulated ceilings (IC housings) are generally more expensive than non-IC housings, but must be specified where fixtures will come into contact with insulation.  Sunset Green Home's second floor ceilings are not insulated (insulation in Sunset Green Home's building envelope is at the roof rafters instead of in the attic floor).  To control cost, we chose non-IC housings for the first floor as well, electing to restrict the use of sound-dampening insulation to the ceiling bays that do not contain recessed fixtures, and substituting SilentFX drywall by CertainTeed in those ceilings where we need additional noise attenuation.

Wall washers in second floor uninsulated ceiling

Wall washers in second floor uninsulated ceiling

The award-winning ELEMENT LED downlights by Tech Lighting have all of the characteristics that Sunset Green Home's team sought for the project's recessed fixtures.  ELEMENT has been designed for maximum flexibility:

  • Adjustable lamp positioning to manage the tradeoff between maximizing light output vs. minimizing glare
  • Flexibility to swap out light engines from below the ceiling as the technology evolves or if changes are ever required
  • Multiple trim options (Sunset Green Home is using ELEMENT's die-cast seamless aluminum Flanged Bevel trim)
  • Compatibility with several models of Lutron dimmers; Sunset Green Home will use Lutron's dimmers and switches throughout the project

Now that the light fixtures are in, we'll be finishing the fire sprinkler system, installing insulation where appropriate and getting ready to close up the ceilings. Stay tuned for more progress updates over the coming weeks!  


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Practical Sustainability: Take Off Your Shoes!

Image courtesy of PANPOTE at

Image courtesy of PANPOTE at

This month’s Practical Sustainability column describes how you can save money and improve the healthiness of your home – with zero investment.  All it takes is a willingness to take off your shoes when you come in from outside.

While we occasionally relax our “no shoes inside” habit when we host a dinner party, for our family taking our shoes off before we come inside is the norm.  But what does this have to do with sustainability, you might wonder?  The answer is a whole lot! 

Removing your shoes at the door extends the life of your carpets and floors.  Tiny pebbles between the treads of our sneakers can scratch our wood floors.  And dirt on the bottoms of our loafers will rub off onto our rugs and floors.  By reducing the wear and tear on our floors and carpets, we’re extending their life span – and delaying the time until they need to be recycled or sent to a landfill.

Because our rugs and floors generally stay cleaner if we remove our shoes before entering, we’re spending less time vacuuming and mopping.  We’re using less electricity to run the vacuum, and purchasing fewer cleaning supplies for mopping and stain removal.  While the financial benefits of reduced maintenance might be hard to quantify, we know intuitively that we’re keeping a few dollars in our pockets by having cleaner floors.

Most importantly, by keeping our “outside shoes” beyond the threshold of our home, we are contributing to a healthy indoor environment.  Nine years ago, our dog Ginger came into our lives.  And that was a real eye opener!  I am more aware now of what has been deposited on the city sidewalks just outside our home.  All you need is to experience one case of canine giardia and that’ll have you wiping your dog’s feet every time she comes in from a walk!

If you live in the suburbs, what you track inside on the bottoms of your shoes may be different from the toxins that lurk on city sidewalks, but they’re still potentially harmful.  Pesticides and weed killers can remain on your lawn for up to a week after they are applied.  As you walk across the lawn, your shoes are picking up those toxins.  You may also track pollen and other allergens inside after a walk in the neighborhood.  When you pass through your garage to get into the house, you may pick up oil and other contaminants form the garage floor.

The LEED for Homes green building program awards a point toward certification to projects that “design a shoe removal and storage space near the primary entryway, separated from living areas.”  The area must include seating and storage space for two pairs of shoes for each bedroom in the home.  According to the LEED® for Homes Reference Guide, “debris carried into the house from shoes often contains lead, asbestos, pesticides, and other hazardous materials…One of the most effective approaches to reducing indoor contaminants is removing shoes upon entry.”  Good Morning America found that shoe soles were “dirtier than a toilet seat” in a 2008 study conducted by the ABC News production.

Taking off your shoes at the door is common sense and costs you nothing.  But it could save you time and money on home maintenance, and can lead to a healthier indoor environment.  So what are you waiting for?  Take off your shoes at the door when you get home from work today. 

Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Get to Know LEED®: Efficient Heating and Air Conditioning Equipment is not Enough! Get the Ducts Done Right.

If you’re considering new heating or air conditioning equipment to improve your home’s
energy efficiency and thermal comfort, you’re taking a step in the right direction. But
unless you get the heating and cooling distribution - meaning the ducts through
which your cool and/or warm air travels - done right, you’re leaving money on the table,
so to speak.

The LEED® for Homes green building program awards a project up to three points for
measures aimed at optimizing the distribution of heating and cooling. And there’s a good
reason to do so. According to the LEED for Homes Reference Guide,

“In typical new homes, duct leakage may account for 15% to 25% of total
heating and cooling energy use. Leaky supply ducts running through
unconditioned spaces may dump conditioned air outside or draw
unconditioned outside air into the home…Reducing the duct leakage rate
saves energy, but more importantly, properly designed and sealed duct
systems deliver air more effectively within the home. Unevenly hot or
cold rooms are often caused by leaky ducts.”

So what is Sunset Green Home doing to ensure occupant comfort and earn points toward
LEED certification? We’re following the LEED for Homes green building program’s
guidelines for duct design and installation.

First, Sunset Green Home is minimizing the number and size of duct runs by installing
Mitsubishi Electric’s Multi-Zone Hyper Heat mini split system for heating and cooling. The
system has a single outside air source heat pump (compressor) connected to five air
handlers, each of which is attached to short duct runs that serve the rooms in the
house. By contrast, duct work for a conventional forced air system might have large
ducts running throughout the home from a single heat or cool air source – making
efficiency losses from the duct work more likely.

Air handler in the background with short duct runs to serve the bedrooms below.

Air handler in the background with short duct runs to serve the bedrooms below.

Second, Sunset Green Home has used industry-approved software to calculate the amount
of air required for each room based on such factors as the size of the room, the number
and size of its windows, and which direction it faces. The ducts have been designed
(sized) to deliver exactly what each room needs based on its unique conditions.

Short duct run sized for required air flow.

Short duct run sized for required air flow.

Third, Flanders Heating & Air Conditioning, Sunset Green Home’s HVAC contractor, has
followed the LEED for Homes program’s guidelines for locating the air handlers and
short ducts runs that will serve each room. Air handlers have been placed inside the
conditioned envelope of the house. Three air handlers are in the attic of the house (which
is insulated at the rafters, and therefore part of the home’s conditioned envelope) and two
are located in closets on the first floor of the home.

Air handler and ducts located in the conditioned attic space.

Air handler and ducts located in the conditioned attic space.

Lastly, Flanders has followed the LEED for Home’s guidelines for duct sealing and

  • Sheet metal ducts will have their joints and seams sealed
  • Insulation seams will be sealed with foil tape or duct butter
  • Sheet metal supply ducts will be wrapped with R-6 foil faced fiberglass insulation
  • When installation is complete, all ducts will be sealed to prevent construction dust and debris from entering
Air handler with insulated ducts.

Air handler with insulated ducts.

Flanders is also installing acoustical lining in all sheet metal return ducts. While not
critical to the system's energy efficiency, acoustical lining contributes to occupant
comfort by ensuring that the system operates quietly.

Getting the ductwork right can contribute to a high performing heating and cooling
system. If you're considering installing a new system or upgrading your existing HVAC
system, be sure to discuss the distribution system with your contractor. Limit air leakage
to outside of the conditioned envelope of your home by optimally sealing, insulating and
locating your ductwork.

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Practical Sustainability: Swap Out Your Old Inefficient Bathroom Fans

If your home is like mine, it has old bathroom fans that make a terrible racket when turned on.  They may or may not clear the humid air from the room when you shower.  And, in all likelihood, if they’re more than a couple of years old, they use a lot of energy when you run them.

For this month’s Practical Sustainability column, we swapped out all of the bathroom fans in our home – and challenge you to do the same. 

Why do Bathroom Fans Matter Anyway?

Bathroom fans are important for maintaining healthy indoor air quality.  Moisture is a home’s enemy.  Particularly in a bathroom, where the humidity level rises significantly when a shower is in use, excessive moisture can lead to cracking paint, damaged wall board, warped cabinet doors and deterioration of structural framing.  Unchecked humidity provides conditions under which mold, mildew and other bacteria can grow and cause occupant health problems. 

When we think about proper bathroom ventilation, we need to consider how a fan:

  • Protects the structural integrity of a home
  • Promotes healthy indoor air quality
  • Contributes to occupant comfort, and
  • Delivers energy efficiency

Bathroom fans are specified using several performance measures:

  • Amount of air they move in cubic feet per minute (cfm)
  • Noise level, expressed in sones (a measure of how loud a sound is perceived to be).  The sone scale is linear: four sones is perceived as twice as loud as two sones
  • Energy use (generally expressed in watts, or watts/cfm when comparing models with different fan speeds)

Our Challenge

We live in a 100-year-old apartment building where our only access to the bathroom fans is from below the existing ceiling.  When we purchased the apartment 13 years ago, we installed ducts to the outside and added fans to each bathroom.  But the fans were extremely noisy and were energy hogs.  While the fans did a good job of clearing the air during our showers, we had one bathroom in which we experienced some mildew growth on the ceiling.  Our challenge was to replace all of the bathroom fans with quieter models that use less energy.  And, most importantly, we had to complete the retrofit without undertaking a major renovation.  After all, this is Practical Sustainability, and – if you have been following this series – we try to provide practical ideas that don’t require major investment.

I contacted Broan, Delta and Panasonic, three top manufacturers of bathroom ventilation, and asked each company how we might address our needs.  Each company sent several bathroom fans for me to try out – ranging from their top-of-the-line models to their entry-level models.  Although they make fans of many sizes, each company also sent fans that could use practically the same “footprint” as the fans that we were replacing, just in case we encountered problems in our ceilings that would make it difficult to modify them for a larger fan.

John Hite, the owner of New Jersey based Hite Construction, has been a friend for over 20 years and, when I told him what I planned to do, he offered to send his crew to my apartment to oversee the work.  John does the vast majority of his work in New York City, where there are no quirky conditions he hasn’t yet encountered.  While adding bathroom fans to existing apartments isn’t always possible (some buildings, and occasionally the NYC Landmarks Commission, prohibit making penetrations through building facades), John says that most renovations will include bathroom fans where possible.  The greatest concern he hears from homeowners and design professionals is noise minimization.

Our Results

I was very happy to have Isai and Mike from Hite Construction along to help me with the retrofit.  We tried a fan from each of the three manufacturers in each of three bathrooms. Here are the results:

Bathroom #1: Broan Model 690 Bath Fan Upgrade Kit

In a 100-year-old building, where you’re accessing everything from below the ceiling, you can’t always choose an ideal placement during construction.  For some reason, our bathroom fan had been installed up against a corner of a niche in the shower.  And the fan was installed before the walls and ceiling were tiled with 12” x 12” marble.  When we investigated replacing the bathroom fan, we discovered that we could not remove the old housing without removing the wall and ceiling tiles from around it – and that was a can of worms we were not willing to open up.

Thankfully, Broan NuTone had included the Model 690 Bath Fan Upgrade Kit with the fans they had sent us.  The 13-year-old fans we were replacing were Broan model 688 fans, which are still manufactured today and are typically used by contractors for their low cost and ease of installation.  But the fans are noisy at 4 sones, and only draw 50cfm.

The upgrade only took five minutes to complete and the result for us was improved performance at 60cfm with a noise level of 3 sones.  In truth, had we not had to keep the old fan housing, we would have used one of the much quieter and more energy efficient fans that Broan offers.  But, we were fortunate that Broan makes an upgrade kit for our old fans, and we are much happier with the reduced noise level and increased air flow inside the shower. 

Bathroom #2: Delta Breez Model SLM50

We removed the grille from the old fan in our sons’ bathroom and discovered that the housing had been plastered into place.  In addition, there were gaps around the fan that meant the fan was drawing not only the air from the bathroom, but also some air from within the ceiling plenum (the space between the structural ceiling and the dropped ceiling of the bathroom). Our hypothesis was that this bathroom had mildew on the ceiling because the fan wasn’t solely removing air from the room itself. 

We had just painted the ceiling in this bathroom and were trying to replace the fan without damaging the ceiling in any way.  Isai carefully chipped away the plaster and then used sheet metal scissors to cut away the old housing, which had been installed between two metal studs in the ceiling and attached with screws that we couldn’t access from below the ceiling (the old fan had been installed before the gypsum ceiling had been put in place). 

With metal studs less than 8 inches apart on two sides of the ceiling, we determined that we would have to use a fan whose housing had the same footprint as the old fan we had just removed.  Delta had sent its BreezSlim Model SLM50, an ENERGY STAR qualified fan with quiet operation at 1.0 sone, and an identical housing size to the one we had just removed. 

As per the instructions for a retrofit installation, we attached the housing itself to the metal studs up inside the ceiling (we used sheet metal screws).  The rest of the installation was easy.  Once the fan’s blower was in place, we used duct tape to seal the edges around the housing so that the fan would only draw air from within the bathroom (as opposed to pulling air from the plenum space as the old fan had been doing). 

The result: a quiet, energy efficient bath fan (rated at 8 watts) drawing air only from inside the bathroom.

Bathroom #3: Panasonic EcoVent Model FV-07VBA1

After having watched Isai and Mike swap out the fan in my sons’ bath, it was time for me to try a retrofit on my own.  I removed the fan from my daughter’s bathroom and found the same metal stud setup that was in place in my sons’ bathroom.  Once again, I’d have to use a fan whose housing would fit between the two metal studs. 

Panasonic had sent its EcoVent fan, whose housing has been designed to make retrofitting from below the ceiling extremely easy.  Moreover, the housing has an innovative flange around its perimeter that creates an air barrier and ensures that air is only drawn from within the bathroom and not from up in the ceiling plenum (we would not need to add duct tape to seal around the edges). 

I had to use a drywall saw to enlarge the opening slightly (the EcoVent is approximately half an inch larger than the old fans I had removed), after which the housing slipped easily into place.  Attaching the vent and junction box was straightforward (it is very important that you turn the electricity off at the circuit breaker before attempting an installation of a bathroom fan or any electrical appliance or equipment!).  In less than an hour, I had installed the bathroom fan, without causing any damage to the ceiling (again, I was hoping not to have to repaint after completing the retrofit).

Because of the size of my daughter’s bathroom, I set the fan at its standard 70cfm speed, but it comes with a booster switch that enables it to operate at 90cfm if needed.  This is particularly useful for homes that must meet stringent ventilation standards required by ENERGY STAR, LEED and other green building programs.

I had used a watt meter to check the electric consumption of the old fan in my daughter’s bathroom and learned that it drew a whopping 144 watts of electricity.  The new Panasonic fan is rated at 20 watts, and has quiet operation of 1.0 sone. 

Lessons Learned

If I can do it, so can you!  Our ceilings were problematic, but we replaced all of the fans without damaging the ceilings in any way.  Each of the three manufacturers had a product that addressed our bathrooms’ unique challenges.  The price tags on the models we used were well below $100 per unit.  And given our usage patterns, with the energy savings of the two ENERGY STAR models that we installed, we predict that the fans would pay for themselves in a short two to three years.  We can’t emphasize enough the intangible benefit of having quiet fans; while we can’t assign economic value to it, occupant comfort is still an important consideration.  We’re confident that the quality of the fans coupled with our airtight installation will result in improved indoor air quality as well.

But That’s a Challenging Retrofit…What Would We Have Done If We Were Unconstrained?

As I mentioned, each of the manufacturers sent a retrofit solution that they felt we could use if we encountered problems in our ceilings (which we did!).  But they also sent multiple models that could be used for new construction or for less constrained retrofits (for example, in a home where the bath fan housings could be accessed from the attic).

So what is the state-of-the-art in bathroom ventilation?  Today’s best bathroom fans are very quiet (<0.3 sones), are extremely energy efficient, and include advanced technologies for sensing humidity or occupancy.  Here are some of the models that we might have used if conditions permitted (in alphabetical order by manufacturer):

  • Broan Ultra Green multi-speed fans.  With virtually silent operation (<0.3 sones), Broan’s Ultra series fans come packed with features.  Users can choose from amongst several fan speeds that can be adjusted according to room size and humidity conditions.  With optional occupancy and humidity sensors, the fans may be set to operate continuously at low levels and then automatically adjust their speed when conditions call for more power.  The fans come with a mounting frame that can be used for retrofit installation in 2x8 framed ceilings. And best of all, these feature-packed fans deliver using <8 watts of electricity.
  • Delta BreezSignature series.  Delta BreezSignature fans also deliver practically silent (<0.3 sones) operation, variable speed controls and optional humidity or motion sensors – all at a very low energy consumption that tops out around 8-10 watts.  Because they’re so quiet, the fans include LED lights to let users know that the fans are operating. 
  • Panasonic WhisperGreen Select fansPanasonic has designed its WhisperGreen Select series with “Plug ‘N Play” modules that allow a single fan to be customized in up to three ways – with a night light, a multi-speed sensor that allows for continuous operation at a lower speed with boosted speed when needed, and either a humidity or a motion sensor.  At 110cfm, the fans use less than 10 watts of electricity.

It's probably worth noting that bathroom fans now come with "bells and whistles" that don't impact air quality or energy efficiency - but that some users may want to consider nonetheless.  Most of the fans that I mentioned can be purchased with LED lighting modules for bathrooms where the fan needs to double as the room's light source.  And for music fans, Broan now offers its Sensonic fan, complete with high-fidelity speakers that can pair with most Bluetooth enabled devices.  

So consider swapping out your old, noisy, inefficient bathroom fans.  With great fans like these on the market, you can’t go wrong selecting from any of the three major brands!

Now that's what I call Practical Sustainability!


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Preserving the Manufacturer's Warranty: Lessons from Sunset Green Home's Chimney System

Building a new home is a complicated process that requires the coordination of myriad trades, products and technologies. Any single building system may incorporate products from multiple manufacturers, which have to work together for optimal performance. Add to the mix an installer who may not have been the specifier of a component, and you introduce potential for inadvertently voiding a manufacturer's warranty - despite all of your good intentions. But, if you know the right questions to ask, you can set your project up for trouble-free implementation.

DuraTech chimney components by DuraVent

DuraTech chimney components by DuraVent

Thankfully, with the case of Sunset Green Home's fireplace, we had the professionals from DuraVent, the manufacturers of DuraTech chimney pipe, helping us understand what questions to ask.

It all started with our choice of fireplace. For the fireplace itself, we knew which questions to ask, as we were being guided by the LEED® for Homes green building program. In several of our past articles, we've written about the strategies that Sunset Green Home is undertaking to ensure healthy indoor air quality. According to the LEED for Homes Reference Guide, "the leakage of toxic combustion exhaust gases into the home can cause poor indoor air quality and human health impacts, particularly in homes that are well constructed and well sealed." LEED for Homes defines selecting an EPA qualified fireplace or one that is listed by an approved testing facility such as Underwriters Laboratory as a "better practice" for which a project may earn one point toward certification. With this in mind, Sunset Green Home's project team researched EPA qualified fireplaces and selected an Italian manufactured wood burning fireplace - the Light06 by Caminetti Montegrappa - that is the highest rated EPA qualified fireplace, with low particle emissions of 0.59g/kg.

Chris Mensch of Coastal Management, Sunset Green Home's builder, solicited installation bids from his preferred subcontractors. As the team reviewed the proposals, we reached out to DuraVent, the manufacturer of the DuraTech chimney pipe that one installer specified in his proposal. And that's when we received an education about how the various fireplace and chimney components interact, the nature of product warranties, and that it's important to know which questions to ask.

DuraVent's chimney system including DuraTech chimney pipe, flashing, storm collar and chimney cap

DuraVent's chimney system including DuraTech chimney pipe, flashing, storm collar and chimney cap

Howard Berman, DuraTech's Mid-Atlantic Regional Sales Manager, asked me to send him the parts list for the chimney.  After reviewing the list, he remarked that the subcontractor had not specified a chimney cap. In fact, the subcontractor had planned to build a custom chimney cap for the project. Howard noted that, without a DuraVent chimney cap, the warranty for the entire chimney assembly would be invalidated. Underwriters Laboratory (UL) had tested and certified DuraVent's DuraTech double wall chimney system in its entirety; by picking and choosing from amongst the available components, we would no longer have the full "system" and would therefore have inadvertently voided the warranty.

The second question Howard asked me pertained to the fireplace with which the chimney would be integrated. Howard asked if the fireplace was UL listed and, if so, to which UL standard the fireplace was tested, remarking that the 10" galvanized chimney pipe system that we were specifying was tested and warrantied according to the UL103 standard. Howard asked us to make sure that the fireplace itself would be compatible with DuraVent's DuraTech Class A chimney pipe. An inquiry with the manufacturer's representative for the fireplace confirmed that the fireplace is UL listed and that the DuraTech UL103 compliant chimney pipe system was appropriate.

So what would have happened without the expertise of Howard Berman and his colleagues from DuraVent? We would have had a chimney system without a warranty. And, by using a custom-fabricated chimney cap, we might have been at greater risk for a malfunction of the system itself.

What are the lessons learned from this experience?

  • When purchasing any product or system, ask for details about the warranty, including the conditions under which a warranty would be invalidated
  • When two or more products are connected to create an assembly (such as a fireplace and a chimney system), ask each manufacturer if the other's product is compatible with the manufacturer's warranty and safety requirements
  • Ask the installer to confirm that the installation method meets the requirements of the manufacturers' warranties

By asking the right questions, you have a much greater chance of purchasing a high-performing system backed by a valid set of manufacturers' warranties. That's the lesson we learned from the professionals at DuraVent.

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Dispatch from Design and Construction Week, Las Vegas

The second annual Las Vegas Design and Construction Week took place in mid-January, with thousands of exhibitors and tens of thousands of participants flocking to Sin City for five interrelated trade shows: the 2015 NAHB International Builders' Show (IBS), the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show (KBIS), Las Vegas Market, The International Surfaces Event (TISE), and the International Window Coverings Expo. 

Exhibitors from all corners of the design and construction industries showed off their new product releases.  Home automation products that can be monitored or controlled by smart phone featured prominently, as did retrofit products that enable consumers to capture energy, water and other resource savings without undertaking a complete home remodel.  We also saw innovative new products that promise to reduce construction time and cost, and deliver a tighter, more energy efficient building envelope.

Here's a sampling of what was new and exciting at IBS and KBIS last month:

Broan debuted its new Sensonic bathroom fan at IBS, which delivers high quality audio inside a quiet ENERGY STAR bathroom fan, wirelessly controlled through a Bluetooth-enabled device.  A retrofit kit is available for music fans who already own a Broan QT Series fan.

Broan's Sensonic bathroom fan plays audio from any connected Bluetooth device.

Broan's Sensonic bathroom fan plays audio from any connected Bluetooth device.

The "connected home" was a prominent theme at KBIS as well.  Dacor showed its new Discovery IQ range and ovens, which consumers can control using a smart phone or wireless device.  Imagine preheating the oven on your commute home from work, or setting the appliance to send an alert to your smart phone when its integrated meat thermometer determines that dinner is ready! 

Dacor's Discovery IQ range can be accessed remotely and includes the convenience of pre-programmed recipes.&nbsp;

Dacor's Discovery IQ range can be accessed remotely and includes the convenience of pre-programmed recipes. 

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Dacor launched an additional innovative upgrade to its appliance lineup.  Using its new DacorMatch system, the company will create custom colored appliances from a paint chip, fabric swatch or Pantone color code.

The DacorMatch system creates custom-colored appliances from pantone colors or paint swatches.

The DacorMatch system creates custom-colored appliances from pantone colors or paint swatches.

The show had no shortage of products for retrofit applications, many of which can be installed by experienced do-it-yourselfers.  Taco, a leading manufacturer of hot water plumbing products, launched its Hot-Link System at IBS.  With a simple valve installed underneath a sink and the Hot-Link circulator pump installed at the hot water tank, retrofitters can have instant hot water and capture the water-saving advantages of a structured plumbing system without undertaking a major renovation.

Taco's Hot-Link System gives homeowners the benefits of a structured plumbing system without the need for a major renovation.

Taco's Hot-Link System gives homeowners the benefits of a structured plumbing system without the need for a major renovation.

Reengineered to comply with ENERGY STAR's upcoming greater energy efficiency requirement, Panasonic revamped its WhisperFit remodeler bathroom fan with several additional features that will make it more flexible (e.g., variable fan speed controls) and easier for a do-it-yourselfer to install when it becomes available this year (including a simplified three-step process using its Flex-Z Fast bracket, which makes it easy to install the fan from below an existing ceiling). 

Panasonic's redesigned WhisperFit fan uses a simple three-step process to replace a bathroom fan from below the ceiling.

Panasonic's redesigned WhisperFit fan uses a simple three-step process to replace a bathroom fan from below the ceiling.

CertainTeed Insulation has a new open cell spray foam insulation, CertaSpray X, with an integrated ignition barrier.  Applied in a single step process, CertaSpray facilitates an airtight building envelope in less time and at a lower cost.

CertaSpray X spray foam insulation with integrated ignition barrier uses a single step application process to&nbsp;save&nbsp;time and cost.

CertaSpray X spray foam insulation with integrated ignition barrier uses a single step application process to save time and cost.

Huber Engineered Woods has its own new product launch intended to create an air tight and water tight building envelope.  Unveiled at IBS, flexible ZIP System Stretch Tape makes it easy to air seal around curves and other tight spots where flashing is required.

ZIP System Stretch Tape creates an airtight and water tight seal around curves and other hard-to-reach areas.

ZIP System Stretch Tape creates an airtight and water tight seal around curves and other hard-to-reach areas.

We saw many other interesting products make their debut at IBS/KBIS.  There's seems to be no shortage of innovation in the design and building industry!

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Practical Sustainability: Check Your Tire Pressure – Save the Planet and Keep Yourself Safer on Snowy Roads

Image courtesy of dan at

Image courtesy of dan at

A blizzard of historic proportions is expected to hit the northeast this week.  If you’re filling your gas tank in preparation for the storm, consider checking your tire pressure while you’re at the gas station.  Most of us know that a car whose tires are properly inflated will handle better under less-than-ideal road conditions.  But did you know that underinflated tires also represent a significant environmental problem?

According to the US Department of Energy, “you can improve your gas mileage by up to 3.3% by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure. Under-inflated tires can lower gas mileage by 0.3% for every 1 psi drop in pressure of all four tires. Properly inflated tires are safer and last longer.”  Gas prices may be low this winter, but who wouldn’t want to save up to 6 cents per gallon just by keeping their tires properly inflated?

A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that more than 25% of cars and a third of light trucks in the US suffer from underinflated tires of 8psi or more below the manufacturer’s recommended level.  According to Experian Automotive, there were just under 250 million cars and light trucks on the road in 2013.  So we’re talking about tens of millions of cars whose tires are underinflated.

Doing a little “back of the envelope” math, suppose 10 million vehicle owners (representing about 15% of the cars whose tires are underinflated) bring their tire pressure up to recommended levels.  If those owners drive an average of 15,000 miles per year and get 20 mpg, they could save a whopping 250 million gallons of gas annually.  Stated differently (and using my favorite EPA equivalency calculator), that’s akin to eliminating 2.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide or the amount of CO2 emissions by the electricity use of over 300,000 homes. 

So, when you head to the pump to fill up your gas tank, consider filling up your tires as well.  Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Progress Update: Still Working Outdoors Even in a Deep Freeze

Chris Mensch’s crew from Coastal Management deserved a medal last week!  Despite the deep freeze that is blanketing the northeast, Chris’ team made tremendous progress on Sunset Green Home’s FSC-certified cumaru decking installation.

In planning Sunset Green Home's porches and decks, we wanted to use natural wood decking for its aesthetic appeal and comfort underfoot.  And we were equally concerned about the deck's ability to stand up to the harsh coastal environment where Sunset Green Home is located.  We chose tropical cumaru for its hardness, insect and rot resistance, and natural beauty.  But installing cumaru in a LEED® project would require us to meet a stringent prerequisite in the LEED for Homes Materials & Resources category.  

According to the LEED for Homes reference guide, "if tropical wood is intentionally used (i.e., specified in purchasing documents), use only FSC-certified tropical wood products."  The LEED for Homes green building program includes this requirement in order to ensure that tropical wood products used in LEED projects are grown and harvested using sustainable practices.  After all, according to the Forest Stewardship Council, "deforestation and forest destruction is the second leading cause of carbon pollution, causing 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions."  The Forest Stewardship Council's mission is "to promote environmentally sound, socially beneficial and economically prosperous management of the world's forests." 

Sterritt Lumber sourced Sunset Green Home's beautiful Bolivian cumaru from WalkGreen™.  The proof of the decking material's FSC certification is a "Chain of Custody" document that will be reviewed by Sunset Green Home's verification team prior to the project's LEED certification.

Durability was also a factor in Sunset Green Home's choice of installation method and materials.  The decking, which runs parallel to the long side of the swimming pool, has been top-nailed with ring shank decking nails from Simpson Strong-Tie in 316 grade stainless steel, which is more resistant to corrosion than 304 grade stainless steel.  Choosing the right nails was critical for Sunset Green Home, as the project has been designed for resiliency in a coastal environment.

FSC certified cumaru decking alongside Sunset Green Home's pool

FSC certified cumaru decking alongside Sunset Green Home's pool

For a long time we were practicing our "balance beam" skills and walking along the top of the deck framing members to get from the main house to the pool house.  It's great that we can now walk easily between the two structures.

Decking extends from the main house to the pool house.

Decking extends from the main house to the pool house.

The decking now extends into the area that will be Sunset Green Home's screened porch, and continues along the water-facing side of the house.  There's only a small section of deck remaining to be installed...just in time for the upcoming delivery of our posts and stainless steel railing assembly.

Screened porch decking installation

Screened porch decking installation

Sunset Green Home's exterior work is coming to a close, at the same time that interior work is ramping up.  Stay tuned for upcoming posts about our HVAC, plumbing and electrical installations.  

The team from Flanders Heating & Air Conditioning is already very busy indoors.  They've completed the installation of Sunset Green Home's ComfoAir 550 ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) by Zehnder America, have hung the air handlers for the home's Mitsubishi Electric Cooling & Heating multi-zone Hyper Heating INVERTER H2i MXZ system, and have started installing the short duct runs that will connect the air handlers to the rooms they will serve.  We'll post photos of these installations shortly.

Sunset Green Home
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Taking Stock: How a Year of Sustainable Changes Improved Our Bottom Line

In 2014, I set out to make some changes that would reduce our family’s impact on the environment and – hopefully – result in some financial benefits as well.  During the year, we took the following actions:

  • Replaced about 60% of the light bulbs in our home with LED bulbs
  • Swapped out our 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) shower heads for 20% more efficient WaterSense fixtures (with a flow rate of 2.0 gpm)
  • Drastically reduced our use of the clothes dryer (which we now use only for towels and post-vacation laundry pileups)
  • Cleaned all of the filters and coils in our air conditioning and refrigeration equipment
  • Changed to green cleaning products that received an “A” rating from the Environmental Working Group (replacing several products that received a grade of “F”)
  • Took steps to reduce the number of catalogs and direct mail solicitations received by our household
  • Recycled our electronic waste (which included about 20 old cell phones that had been accumulating in random drawers throughout our home)

I can’t quantify all of the financial benefits of having made these changes.  We live in an apartment building and don’t have separate metering for water use.  And the economic benefit of eliminating catalogs doesn’t accrue to us.  Still, I’ve been curious about how some of these changes have affected our utility bill.  So I pulled out three years of gas and electric bills to see if there have been any measurable changes. 

To establish a baseline and to identify any “outliers,” I reviewed our utility bills over a two year period prior to having started my “Practical Sustainability” campaign.  The chart below shows our household’s monthly electric use in kilowatt hours (kWh) over the three year period from 2012 – 2014. 

We expected to see some decrease in usage as one of our children moved away to start college in September 2012, and an increase when another one of our children graduated college and moved back home this summer.  We also identified a significant efficiency loss (i.e., a spike in usage) in the summer of 2013.  Our central air conditioning failed because the exterior air intake had become clogged with dryer lint – which forced the A/C unit to work harder to try to draw air inside. Note: do not locate dryer vents near A/C intakes (we had no choice, as we live in a 100+ year old apartment building)! 

What is important to note is the steady improvement in our electric usage following each of the “Practical Sustainability” actions we implemented in 2014.  The chart below shows the same data in another format, which allows for a year-over-year comparison of monthly electrical usage.  For every month, our 2014 usage is below – and in some cases significantly below – the same month’s usage in 2012 and 2013, despite the fact that we have more people living at home in 2014 than we did in 2012. For example, in late February 2014 and through March, we changed our light bulbs from incandescent and halogen to LED.  Our electric use following those actions declined significantly.  Despite the increase in our household’s size in late summer 2014, we have kept our electric usage lower than the prior years' baselines.

I also evaluated the per kilowatt cost of electricity.  We live in New York, where the 2013 cost per kilowatt-hour of residential electricity was second only to Hawaii.  The chart below shows a steady increase in our unit cost of electricity (I included all taxes and access fees from my electric bill).  If we hadn’t made any changes in usage, we would have seen our electric bill increase by 10% simply as a result of climbing utility rates. 

But the chart below summarizes the value of the changes we made this year.  By decreasing our electricity usage, we lowered our electric bill by over $1,100 in 2014 despite the 10% rate increase.  How did we do it?  By decreasing our usage by 34% from 2013 to 2014. 

We’re happy to have kept $1,100 in our pockets this year.  But we don’t want to lose sight of the environmental impact of our actions.  By reducing our electricity consumption by over 5,100 kWh, we kept nearly 4 tons of carbon dioxide out of the environment, according to the US EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.  And that’s equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 8,375 miles driven by an average passenger vehicle or 1.3 tons of waste sent to the landfill.   

Keep an eye out for more Practical Sustainability columns on this year.  For this month’s column, we’re getting ready to replace several 13-year-old bath fans.  Bath ventilation technology has come a long way in the past decade, and I am certain we’ll see another drop in our electric bill…

Now that’s Practical Sustainability! 

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