Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Zero Carbon House

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It is an ordinary timber frame house. It is located on the most northerly inhabited island in Britain. It is powered by wind and sun. It also has its own webpage. But I came across it this morning in the Guardian.

I have long had a fantasy that I could somehow live “off grid” but for the time being at least financial constraints prevent that. This house cost $420,000 to build – and that does not include land costs. And its owners had to work hard to get sponsors.

At the end of this month I am going to take over a 35 year old townhouse. I have seen a lot of houses I liked, and a few I could afford. None fit both categories. The house I bought was in the “cheap” category (a relative term of course) and needs upgrading, so I am going to tackle the energy issues first. I do not pretend to be a pioneer like the couple on Unst, and given that it is a condo townhouse, there are some limitations on what I can do. Since I am the new occupant there will not be much in the way of baseline data, unless I can persuade the former owner to leave behind copies of his utility bills.

It is my intention to replace the gas furnace with a more efficient unit, as the main source of heat. At the same time insulation in the loft will also be increased. The current windows are in reasonable condition, but the strata council is steadily replacing windows in a way that the visual coherence of the whole scheme is kept intact. Putting more pink stuff in the loft is cheap and easy: getting the windows done may save more joules (or however this measured) but the payback is longer, so window replacement is not a high priority for me. There is also one of those open gas fires which simply shovel heat up the chimney. The easiest thing to do is simply close the chimney off and take out the fire. However, I will be discussing with the contractor the virtues of a modern closed gas fire, to provide comfort to the downstairs rooms when occupied, and reduce the need for the furnace. I am not sure how the sums work, but a smaller furnace in a better insulated house would be my preferred solution since I expect that natural gas is not going to get any cheaper.

There is currently an old hot water tank – and those things fail after a quite short life. I will replace that with a tankless hot water system, not a new hot tank that will not last long and is inherently inefficient as it stores a lot of warm water that someone who lives alone does not need. New washer and dryer in due course – and (if the rules permit) a line in the backyard for drying on nice days. The laundry appliances will be relocated to the upper floor. My realtor came up with this idea, saying that she never took her clothes off in the kitchen. (“You’re no fun!”)

Simple aesthetics dictate some work in both the bathroom and the kitchen. I think the toilet upstairs either leaks or has been leaking, since the building inspector found some evidence of damage to the kitchen ceiling. I won’t know how much has to be done until I rip the kitchen ceiling down and take a closer look. I never use a tub. I want a walk in shower, so while we are doing that a new bathroom floor, sink and toilet can be done as well. The kitchen is currently lit by an array of fluorescent tubes in a large low hanging box. I think we can improve both the aesthetics and energy use by using small concealed downlighters in a new floating ceiling. That also makes future maintenance a lot easier and gives a much better light on the work surfaces, which can be doubled when the laundry appliances are relocated. I suspect that the existing laundry equipment may also be replaced, but in the meantime just washing clothes in cold water and air drying will reduce the heat bills significantly.

If there is interest I will document here, but none of this is groundbreaking research. I will not be putting solar panels on the roof, a heat pump in the back yard or a windmill on the chimney stack. I will be putting in new timer thermostats, but given my rather variable schedule, I think a lot of the time I will be fiddling with the settings myself. And I will of course keep a close eye on the bills, to keep my running costs as low as I can.

It is a bit like my choice of a car. I could not justify a hybrid, but the low fuel consumption of the Yaris has certainly reduced my travel costs. (The new place will also have a bike shed in the back yard, with direct access to the street. Fewer motorised trips will also help both my pocket and my waistline. Possibly also my blood sugar readings.) Most people have capital constraints, and many energy saving wheezes are quite pricey. It is a curious fact that the richest people tend to buy the most fuel efficient homes – but of course they are so huge and so remotely located that their energy bills are way beyond what an ordinary mortal would regard as reasonable. Quite a bit of attention is paid to expected pay back periods, but less to the enhancement of the desirability of the home. From what I have seen, people seem to be very willing to part with large sums for homes with features like stainless steel appliances and granite counter tops. It is unusual for the realtor’s blurb to even mention energy costs, except where “walk to …” items are noticed. Though even though the schools are nearly always close to homes, the traffic jams at every one at 8am and 3pm show that relatively few kids do walk to school every day.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 19, 2008 at 9:35 am

5 Responses

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  1. Wow, that’s quite the undertaking. Good luck! I hope you’ll post pictures!

    I talked to a couple Adera reps — they build “green homes” and other projects — and they basically echoed my sense that people WANT stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. Can I sell the stainless steel appliances in place of the average, non-stainless steel ones? I never grew up with either fancy features, just top-end appliances installed in the 80s or 90s that still work. It’s frustrating that even with home prices so high, everything’s all about luxury, luxury, luxury… and no, no one mentions energy efficiency. They ought to when people in the ‘burbs have to drive everywhere.

    I used to scowl secretly at this girl who got a ride to (high) school most days instead of walking for 5 minutes. Was she scared of the big hill, or did she just want to wear heels to school?

    Erika Rathje

    May 19, 2008 at 7:37 pm

  2. I have been asking quietly this question for years: Can’t we market a wind turbine/solar panel power pack that could included with new house construction. The aim of the device would be to produce power for a few outlets in the home. The purpose would be to have home produced electrical power for a small fridge TV, stereo or lights that could be left on.

    I believe mass production of the device would reduce costs to a very affordable cost, $500 to $600, which would recoup it costs in maybe 4 to 5 years. Certainly during a power disruption, it would prove its worth.

    A friend of mine has purchased several solar power panels at Canada Tire and contrived a battery affair (power storage) and seems to be able to operate several electric appliances at once, for a cost of about $400. He goes out often and is able to leave lights and a radio on during the day and into the night. It all sort of ‘Heath Robinson’, but I’m sure such a device would prove its worth.

    Or am I reading too much vintage ‘Popular Science magazines?

    Malcolm J.

    May 20, 2008 at 9:50 am

  3. Hi Malcom,

    The quick answer to your questions is “no.”

    Yes, you could purchase solar panels and a battery pack to power electrical appliances separate from from your household circuits as your friend has done. I have three of these on my porch right now. But for $400 they are not going to able to power much. And BTW, Canadian Tire does not have the best prices on solar panels.

    It gets more expensive to connect the solar panels to your household circuits. In this case they have to produce AC current that is synchronized with BC Hydro’s grid. The inverter alone to do that will cost at least $2,000. And most of these inverters are designed to work with higher voltages so you would need a minimum number of larger panels for the system to work.

    In most Metro Vancouver areas the small, low height wind turbines would actually cost more per kWh generated than solar photovoltaics.

    The main problem is that we have some of the cheapest electricity in the world. The payback for any solar system is going to be a long time. Even for the $400 Canadian Tire system. For that system you are probably saving $1.07 per year in electricity.

    It does make sense to make solar hot water systems available or even mandatory for new home construction. They have a much faster pay back and greater ghg emission reductions.


    May 20, 2008 at 10:29 am

  4. Erika – or were her parents paranoid about “stranger danger”? This is still known as the Michael Dunahee effect. Parents think their child is in danger from an abductor (which is statistically a tiny threat) but ignore the Moms in their SUVs trying to drop off and pick up in view of the school front door who are far more dangerous.

    Stephen Rees

    May 20, 2008 at 10:45 am

  5. Solar panels for domestic hot water are definitely feasible here and would satisfy 100% of an average family’s demand in summer and the two shoulder seasons (about 7 months), and 50% even in our dark, wet winters (about 5 months). Coupled with the on-demand HW heater, the savings will be very noticeable. If one is looking at a national GHG reduction strategy, then I’d say solar HW should be compulsory in every home at the least.

    I’ve often wondered if solar HW could be connected somehow to a heat pump to supplement space heating in winter. Those sunny clear days in January often result from winter high pressure cells with their associated frigid arctic outflow winds. Perfect conditions for a bit of a solar supplement.

    There have been some breakthroughs in solar photovoltaics as well with an emphasis on rolls of film rather than panels where the PV units are “printed”, much like a printing press. This is expected to bring PV down in price once commercialized. I don’t have the information or links at hand.

    We’ve been renovating a old 1910 house for 9 1/2 years now, and the end is finally in sight. It happens to be about quadruple the amount of time we originally estimated, but that’s mainly because we’re using a one-man contractor …. me. Saved a lot of money on labour, though, and I’ve got the scars to prove it.


    May 20, 2008 at 11:51 am

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