Tag Archives: energy saving

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solar panels

Solar Panels Made Simple

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Written by Joyanna Laughlin for Time to Build a Houseplans Blog

Properly oriented solar panels can make a house or cabin energy-independent.

Are you thinking about installing solar panels as part of living a greener lifestyle? Here’s what you need to know from homeowners and experts who have done the homework for you.

Solar panels or photovoltaic? It’s the same thing. What most people call solar panels are the modular, silicon-based, flat-plate photovoltaic (PV) panels that turn sunlight into electricity, says Ben Uyeda, designer, co-founder of ZeroEnergy Design and FreeGreen.com, and director of HomeMade Modern. A solar electric (a.k.a. photovoltaic) system includes a group of PV panels, inverters [pieces of equipment that convert direct-current (DC) electricity generated by a group of PV panels into alternating-current (AC) electricity that can run your appliances], a mounting system and other equipment.

Additional types of solar energy systems include flexible solar photovoltaic films (used on metal roofing systems, boats, recreational vehicles, etc.) and solar thermal systems, which produce hot water to supplement your home’s water heating system, says Alan Spector, architect and owner of Lafayette, New Jersey-based Spector Associates Architects.

Understand your energy usage
In order to figure out how much energy you need to power your home using the sun, you need to know how much energy you use. This means understanding how much energy it takes to do things like heating your home or making a cup of coffee. According to Estimating Home Appliance and Energy Use on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy.Gov website, it takes between 1,800 and 5,000 watts to dry a load of clothes, between 1,200 and 1,875 watts to dry your hair, and 900 to 1,200 watts to brew a pot of coffee. Energy consumption has to do with personal habits, says Kirpal Johnson, an energy consultant for San Mateo, California-based solar installation company SolarCity. Leaving doors open and lights on or running the furnace or air conditioning a lot increases energy consumption. Performing a home energy audit can help you to find out what your actual numbers are. There are tools online to help you do it yourself, and there are also private companies, as well as some public utilities, that will do it for you.

Shop around
Once you’ve decided to include a PV system in the design of your new home, Uyeda recommends having your general contractor get bids from subcontractors, and Spector adds that it’s a good idea to compare three bids from qualified installers. Research the installers to make sure that they are legitimate companies, and to understand the contract you are signing. “Educate yourself on the company, and inform yourself about the contract,” advises SolarCity’s Johnson. “Homeowners need to be involved at an active level and engaged with the process and the numbers,” Johnson says.

Check the numbers
The installer you select to design your PV system should provide you with an exact calculation of the amount of energy your system will produce, Spector says. You can verify the numbers the installer gives you by using websites such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s PV Watts Calculator.

Buy brand name equipment
Most PV panels have similar conversion efficiencies (the rate at which the panels convert sunlight into electricity). Make sure that your PV panels and inverters are established brand products with good warranties, says Spector. Uyeda recommends telling your general contractor and installer what you are looking for (including good warranties on the equipment) and letting your general contractor and installer pick the brand. Some major solar panel brands include SunPower, Kyocera, Sharp, Yingli, LG and Canadian Solar. And SolarCity recently purchased Silevo, a manufacturer of high-efficiency solar modules, which means they are getting into manufacturing solar panels, a business that is currently dominated by Chinese companies. And SMA, Outback and Fronius are established brands of inverters.

Solar works in cold climates
Solar systems are not just for people in very sunny places. Solar also makes sense in cooler, northern climates. “The important thing is proper orientation to the sun and the amount of sunlight the location receives,” Spector says. “Germany is the world leader in solar, PV and it has only moderate sunlight.” Spector owns a 3,163-sq.-ft., home in New Jersey with a 5-kw PV system that provides 65 percent of the home’s electricity needs and powers Spector’s electric car, a Nissan Leaf.Uyeda designed his own 1,200 sq.-ft energy-efficient home, which is currently under construction in Boston, and he is having a 4-KW PV grid-tied system installed to provide a portion of the home’s electricity needs and to power his Nissan Leaf — the exact amount depends on how much he drives the car. “If you are building a new home in a cold climate,” he says, “solar shouldn’t be the first thing you think about. Consider the building envelope first (orientation, insulation, and energy efficiency). Don’t spend a lot of money on solar to heat an inefficient home.”

Financing options
There are several options, including buying your PV system up front (which might cost $20,000 or $30,000, says Johnson), rolling the cost of the system into your mortgage like Uyeda is doing with his home, or leasing your system from a large installer like SolarCity. Uyeda prefers packaging the cost of his PV system into his mortgage because the money he would have spent on gas is now going to increase the value of his home, which is a tangible asset. The main benefit of leasing is that you can get a PV system on your home without paying any money up front, Johnson says. Solar City installs the system, insures it, monitors its performance, and handles repairs and maintenance. You sign a 20-year contract with SolarCity, and they take a percentage of your energy savings over the life of your contract. Whichever financing option you choose, going solar can be a simple process and you can soon be on your way to lower energy bills and contributing toward a cleaner environment.

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Common Sense Energy Efficiency

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Article written by Joyanna Laughlin for Time to Build Blog

Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff by Joyanna Laughlin

From air sealing to solar panels, green building experts David Johnston and Marc Richmond offer tips on saving time, energy and money when building your energy-efficient home.

Seal It Up Right

Air sealing is as important to your home’s energy efficiency as selecting the right R-value insulation, says David Johnston, president of the Boulder, Colorado-based green building firm What’s Working. “Air seal everywhere that building components come together and/or where something penetrates the walls, such as doors, windows and hose bibs,” Johnston says.

Right-Size Your HVAC
Most heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are not professionally designed or engineered specifically for your home, according to Marc Richmond, manager of the Austin, Texas-based green building firm Practica Consulting. HVAC systems tend to be oversized by 50 to 70 percent, and the forced air ducts tend to leak at a rate of between 20 and 30 percent. To avoid this, ask your HVAC contractor to use Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Manuals J, D, S and T to size and install the system. In addition, make sure that your contractor tests the ductwork and ensures that its leak rate is less than six percent.

Use Water Sense
“Water shortages are going to be a much bigger problem for many areas in the United States than climate change,” Johnston says. “At any given time, one third of the country is suffering drought.” Richmond recommends: Purchasing only WaterSense-certified showerheads, faucets, toilets, washing machines, dishwashers, and irrigation controllers. (WaterSense is a partnership program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.) Buying toilets that score higher than 500 on the MaP (maximum performance) scale. (MaP is a voluntary North American testing program that rates toilet efficiency and flush performance).
Installing a drip irrigation system that includes a smart controller (featuring a rain or soil moisture sensor to stop irrigation when the soil is wet), and using micro-spray heads for landscape beds and multi-stream rotors for turf areas. Planting low-water-use plants and turf, reducing turf areas, and hydrozoning landscaping (saving water by grouping plants together that have similar water requirements). Installing a rainwater collection system.

Get Certified
When shopping for energy- and water-saving products, don’t assume that all product claims are true or that product savings are additive, Richmond says. Do your own independent research, talk to experts, and buy Energy Star- and WaterSense-certified products. These certifications don’t add to the products’ cost, and they save energy, water and money immediately.

Going Solar?
“Do everything you can to save energy in the home itself before you purchase expensive solar panels to create new electricity,” Richmond says. Johnston agrees. “Solar is sexy and insulation is invisible,” he says. “Typically you get a better return on investment on the invisible items.” And if you do decide to put solar panels on your roof, the size (and cost) of the system is determined by your home’s energy use. Reducing your energy use at home first means that you can purchase a smaller solar system, and that saves you money.

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Energy Efficient House

Building an Energy-Efficient Home

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Article written for Time to Build Blog
By Joyanna Laughlin
Energy Efficient House
Tips for Building an Energy-Efficient Home. Don’t wait until you’re shopping for appliances to think about energy efficiency—make it a priority from the start.To build your energy-efficient, dream green home, you need to know where to begin.Orientation
David Johnston, president of the Boulder, Colorado-based green building/sustainable development consulting firm What’s Working, recommends beginning with the orientation of your home on the land. “Orientation and south facing windows can determine as much as half the cost of heating a home,” Johnston says. “Once the house is sited, framed and insulated, it is hard—or expensive—to go back.” Orientation (an aspect of passive solar design) is determined by sun angles and includes sizing south facing windows in accordance with the size of the home. Optimal sun angles are southeast on winter mornings and southwest on winter afternoons. “Breakfast nooks and kitchens are best facing the warm southeast summer sun,” Johnston says. Living areas on the south side are cheerful in the daytime, and bedrooms on the north side can buffer the house from winter cold.

Take Advantage of Thermal Mass

Another principle of passive solar design that makes houses more energy efficient is thermal mass storage in which masonry walls and thick tile or cement floors illuminated by sunlight during the day store that heat and release it into the house at night. Tucson, Arizona-based green builder and solar pioneer John Wesley Miller employs this concept to build highly energy-efficient solar homes in the Armory Park del Sol community of southeast Tucson, which includes one of the first zero-energy homes in the country.While Miller’s territorial, Mission Revival, and bungalow-style homes blend into this turn-of-the century, revitalized inner-city neighborhood, the houses also feature state-of-the-art solar systems and 8-inch-thick, concrete-filled exterior block walls wrapped in rigid foil-facedpolyisocyanurate (a thermoset plastic) board covered with stucco. “What makes solar work better is minimizing your need for it in the first place,” Miller says. The more energy efficient your house is (by utilizing principles like thermal mass storage), the less energy you have to use (from PV or the grid) to heat and cool it.

Insulate, Insulate, Insulate
According to Johnston, insulation is the second most important decision you have to make. It determines the type of framing used, the wall thickness, and many of the trim options around your windows and doors. He suggests including 50 percent more insulation than local code requires. “Builders will try to talk you out of going above code,” he says. “Don’t listen to them. Insulation is the best investment you can make, and it will yield a higher return every year you live in your home than most other investments.”


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Energy Saving Tips

Energy-Saving tips on Light Bulbs by Joyanna Laughlin

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Written for Gaiam Life:

Burning questions about switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) or other energy-efficient light bulbs? Allow us to shed some light.

Q. How can a little light bulb make a difference?

A. “CFLs prevent the emission of substantial quantities of greenhouse gases and other pollutants,” says Vicki Fulbright-Calwell, lighting and mercury consultant at Ecos Consulting in Durango, Colo., and a prominent expert on the subject of CFLs. “They reduce consumer energy bills and last far longer than incandescent bulbs.”

If you replace the five standard light bulbs you use the most with CFLs, you can save roughly $60 a year on electricity.

If every American home replaced just one incandescent light bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb, we would eliminate 1 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s one bulb. Most homes have 15-30 bulbs.

How many CFLs does it take to make a dent in my energy usage?

Begin by changing the bulbs that burn for more than an hour a day. Kitchens and dining rooms, family and living rooms, bedrooms, hallways, and outdoor lights — such as the porch light — are good places to use CFLs.

Another tip — it’s okay to keep those cheap incandescents around, too, if they’re in fixtures that don’t get used a lot. No need to ever change that closet light or hall light that is only on for a few minutes a week.

CFLs have strange wattage ratings. How do I know which one to buy?

You’ll need to know the wattage of the bulb you’re replacing and its equivalent in a CFL.


Use this CFL bulb: To replace this incandescent bulb:
9 to 12 watts 40 watts
13 to 18 watts 60 watts
19 to 24 watts 75 watts
25 to 30 watts 100 watts


Are some CFLs more efficient or longer lasting than others?

There’s not much difference in efficiency between brands of CFLs, says Bill Giebler, who’s sized up a whole lot of CFLs in his 10 years heading up green product sourcing at Gaiam Real Goods. But there can be a big difference in how long a CFL will last, regardless of who makes it. Some CFLs have a 10,000 hour life while others are rated at only 6,000 hours.

What about that anemic blue light CFLs give off?

“When it comes to light quality, look at the Kelvin ‘temperature,’ which is a color rating,” says Giebler. If you find the light disconcerting, you’re likely the proud owner of a ‘natural spectrum’ lamp with a Kelvin rating of 5000+ that produces a white-toward-blue light, Giebler adds.

Technically speaking, natural spectrum light is better light: It mimics light at noon on a cloudy day, reduces glare and renders better color. These are the best bulbs for reading lamps, desk lamps, and work and art stations. But they’re blue and cold and have the tendency to dig up flashbacks of your worst elementary school memories.

If you experience these symptoms, immediately find yourself a 2700K CFL bulb (often sold as “soft white” or “warm glow”) that gives off a yellow light similar to incandescent light. Screw in your kinder, gentler new bulb and breathe deeply.

Can I use a CFL with a dimmer switch or 3-way switch?

Yes. CFLs made specifically for dimmer and 3-way switches are readily available now; look for them alongside regular CFLs.

Note that it’s a fire hazard to use a standard CFL in a dimming circuit. (Who knew?) If a CFL is not clearly marked for dimming, do NOT use it in a dimming circuit, even at full brightness. The same applies for a 3-way bulb — if it doesn’t say it’s for 3-way, don’t use it in a 3-way fixture.

Don’t CFLs contain mercury?

While CFLs do contain minuscule amounts of mercury, they are an environmentally friendlier choice right now despite their mercury content, because of the energy savings and reduction in coal-fired power plant emissions that result from using them. .

Can I get a break on my power bill for using CFLs?

There are a number of utilities that offer rebates, says Calwell. She adds that since utilities will not be promoting CFLs forever, don’t count on rebates as your reason to switch. For the latest information, check with your local utility.

Are LEDs better than CFLs?

LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, use a third of the wattage of even the smallest CFL. LEDs also last even longer than CFLs (up to 10 times longer) and contain no mercury. Like CFLs, they also run much cooler than incandescents. LEDs are common in electronics and in gadgets such as headlamps made for camping.

But there’s a reason CFLs are now ubiquitous while LEDs for lighting your home remain a lesser-known option: “Nothing beats a CFL for lumens per watt,” says Giebler. “It’s the best for getting energy efficiency while also fully lighting a space.”

Using LEDs in household lighting fixtures is still a novel concept — but Giebler says LEDs are the best type of bulb out there for reading lamps, task lighting and small areas. He says a 3-watt LED makes a perfect porch light. The light is bright enough to mark your house, yet the low output reduces light pollution. And LEDs run fine in very cold temperatures, unlike CFLs.

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