Passive Protection

Here are a few snaps of the small house we stayed in on our recent Florida trip to Amelia Island.

You can see these are very efficient, small houses with very large ventilation chimneys at the tops of their roofs.

These houses sported many very large glass windows and doors that looked out onto the sunny, lush golf course. Their interior plans were logical and spacious. Total interior space was around 1,100 square feet with a 2-bed, 2-bath layout. The small, enclosed patio had a small shed perfect for storing garbage and recycling, yard tools or bicycles.

While this small house had been maintained over the years, it was ready for a modern makeover. Both bathrooms and the kitchen were old and builder grade. A more efficient HVAC system, modern double-paned insulated windows and doors were needed to make the house more energy efficient. Solar panels running electric heat to the tile floors would be a great item to add, as well. Insulation was nowhere in the attic and would be an easy big-bang-for-the-buck improvement.

We were told that the temps in this area of Florida were typically in the 90s from May to November. So you can appreciate how a large, vented roof area would help to cool this house. The live oak canopy would also help keep the house shaded in summer.

This development had nice, preserved natural marsh areas, woodlands, golf courses, tennis and pool areas and a club house for members. There were also miles of paved and unpaved pathways for bicycles and walkers. It occurred to me that a planned gated community like this one has great opportunities for developing sustainable energy systems to serve itself. Geo thermal, solar and wind power are all great options for this community to consider investing in as a group on their own property.

I thought these houses were nice examples of well built, well designed efficient living. We enjoyed staying in our house very much.

Significant Home Ruined by Poor Window Choice?

A couple of years ago, I toured a home that was for sale and built by esteemed architect Louis Kahn. It was a lovely 3-bedroom, 2-bath, very modest-sized gem of a house in Elkins Park, a suburb just outside the city limits of Philadelphia. At that time, I was looking to move, and I found this house very charming and beautiful. Everything about this house “fit” within it. The yard was well tended with mature plantings and a small stream. The price was not out of reach. But, in the end, it was just too small for our family. But I’m so glad I took the opportunity to go see it because it reminded me about an important lesson: windows can make or break a house, even an architecturally significant one.

If you visit the Louis Kahn Wikipedia page, you can see the house I am talking about on the right-hand side, and I’ve included an image in this post.

When I saw this house, it was almost completely original and “un-remuddled.”

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We Toured Post Greens’ Skinny House Project

Last Friday, Tamara and I were invited out by Chuck Weiss, project manager for Post Green, to check out their Skinny House Project. You can learn more about that project here: Skinny House

We are really excited by Post Green’s innovative build process and we look forward to learning more from them. Their main approach to their home efficiency ratings (which are very high!) is a focus on air sealing.

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Energy Rate Caps Expiring: How Prepared Are You?

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to electricity consumption in Pennsylvania. The good news is the rates that electricity suppliers could charge you have been capped since 1996 as part of Pennsylvania’s “Electricity Generation Customer Choice and Competition Act.”

The bad news is those caps have already expired – or will do so by year’s end – across the state. Those markets that have already become “uncapped” include those served by UGI Utilities Inc., Pike County Light & Power Company, Citizens Electric of Lewisburg, Wellsboro Electric Company, Duquesne Light Company, Pennsylvania Power Company and PPL Electric Utilities Inc. The remainder – areas served by West Penn Power Company, Pennsylvania Electric Company, Metropolitan Edison Company and PECO – will expire on 12/31/10.

In some cases, consumers have found that their rates have gone down after the caps came off, but in the majority of cases, the costs have skyrocketed – in fact, some rates are predicted to rise by as much as 70%!

So what’s an energy consumer to do? As a result of loosened restrictions, there are many companies that will now be able to supply your electricity through the infrastructure supplied by your current utility company. Start shopping now for a competitive electricity supplier to try to minimize the hit you’ll take. To find a list of suppliers in your area, visit The Public Utility Commission’s website You can also take steps to minimize your electricity usage – including installing proper insulation and energy-efficient windows, doors, appliances and lightbulbs, keeping your thermostat at a moderate setting, and unplugging small appliances and turning off lights when not in use.

Investing in Energy Upgrades? Spend Your $$ Wisely

We recently caught up with one of our HVAC pros. He’s a very nice and knowledgeable guy who works for a large HVAC company, whose name I won’t mention here. He let us know they have been installing a lot of geothermal HVAC systems and had just completed one for a house in Mt. Airy, a town on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Let me provide a little backstory on this. Typically, geothermal is done for houses with yards since the geothermal heat/cool collectors are placed in drilled holes in the ground, or under a lot of soil, or in ponds. In other words, you need access to soil or groundwater to make use of the system. That’s because these systems use the constant heat/cold differential of the earth, or a pool of water, to condition the air in your home.

This particular home is about 1,500 sf — not a big house, by any means — located in an area that typically offers minimal yard space. In the case of this project, we were told they drilled three 250-foot-deep holes for the system installation, and the project cost $30,000. We didn’t get the background on the house or why the homeowners wanted to replace their existing system. It could be they had an original hot-water heat system and no A/C at all. We see that a lot in Philly. Because these old heaters had few moving parts, they can still be in use after 60 to 80 years. Typically, these old heaters are very inefficient, and the houses are uninsulated with old wooden windows.

Make no mistake: we think geothermal is a great system to use, and we consider this option for some of the homes that we work on. But $30,000 is a lot of money, even with the 30 percent tax break currently offered by the government. Did this homeowner make the best decision when it came to spending his renovation dollars? Sounds like he was happy enough.

But maybe a general contractor who looked at the whole-house system with the homeowner might have suggested conducting an efficiency audit for $500, followed by super-insulating the house for $2,000 to $3,000, and then installing a simple gas-fired hot water heat and domestic hot-water system. For this size house, that HVAC system would run about $10,000 – $13,000 installed, A/C included. In this scenario, the homeowner would have paid about half the price of the geothermal system and would still be eligible for tax breaks for all of these efficiency measures.

Keep in mind that energy efficiency means using less energy, and the most expensive solution is not always the most appropriate one. Typically, installing proper insulation after an efficiency audit will yield impressive results. Once that is done, heating and cooling appliances can be chosen to suit the homeowner’s needs and complete the efficiency upgrade.

Its heater season!

Lucy suggests you check your home’s weather tightness.

The dogs at our office enjoy their seat next to our office electric heater. IMG_2502

We can help you be more comfortable and spend less money on heat and air conditioning at the same time. Call us to schedule an energy audit. Once we know what’s happing in your home we can put together your energy efficiency plan.