Increasing efficiency with solar water heating

You probably know by now that photo voltaic solar panels have been part of my master plan for this home since day one. Utilities are expensive, especially electricity. My wife and I are usually pretty good about turning the lights off when we leave a room, but the bills can still add up.

My goal in doing this project is to keep energy costs down and minimize my carbon footprint while maximizing indoor comfort. There’s a complimentary technology available that I’ve been considering installing on the roof adjacent to the one where our 42 PV panels will be installed.

Solar thermal panels are a bit more expensive than PV panels, and there are a few differences. PV panels use the sun’s energy to generate electricity, while solar thermal panels use solar energy to generate heat. The heat generated by a solar thermal panel can be used to heat water or other fluids and can power solar cooling systems. That means, when I turn on my hot water, the system would be pre-fed with solar-heated water. This type of system would reduce the amount of electricity needed to heat hot water, which would further drive down my utility bill and carbon footprint.

Solar thermal systems are great because they don’t require any fuel and they’re predictable. Under optimal conditions, solar thermal panels can generate power 24 hours a day - you can probably see why I am excited at the thought of installing such a system onto the roof of my new home.



As with all systems though, there’s more than one type of solar thermal panel and some intricacies that I have to get through before I make a final decision. For this two-part episode, we will be joined by Rod Hyatt of HTP Comfort Solutions - he’s been working in the field for many years and should be able to give me some insights into what type of system to install and what the material requirements will be.

In part two, I’ll make my final decision about whether or not to include this system. Stay tuned!

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Heating season begins

October is definitely here. Somebody once told me that you can always tell when it's October at Home Depot if the front of the store is filled with Christmas trees and holiday decorations. Actually, nobody told me that but I witnessed it the other day when I stopped off to pick up some lumber. The Halloween decorations were already on clearance racks.

Needless to say, I'm thinking more about what I need to do at the job site to prep for winter and meet a few key deadlines before the cold sets in. Luckily, I took full advantage of the fair weather this summer to get most of my exterior construction done, and I've been sealing up the last few areas in the envelope since George Keithan paid us a visit to do a blower door test. I know that my heating system won't be ready in time for the cold, but I certainly won't be freezing.

I've timed my construction processes out so that as those temperatures start to dip down I'll be occupying myself with mostly indoor projects. Over these past few weeks, I've mostly been working on sealing up the envelope using the results of my blower door test to lead the way. After that, I'll be finalizing up a few things with the electrical systems.

Before I really hunker down indoors though, I'm going to attend to another potentially significant exterior detail. I've been exploring the idea of installing Solar thermal panels on the roof over my garage. That roof isn't presently being utilized, and I think that having a couple of Solar thermal panels could lower my carbon footprint even more and bring in the savings.

Exploring the solar thermal option should be interesting. If I can install a solar thermal system and have it work in conjunction with my PV and building envelope, it would practically eliminate the need for electricity from the grid.

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Radiant Extravaganza

There's an old HVAC saying that the perfect comfort scenario inside a home is warm feet, cool head. To me, there's no better feeling than relaxing in the family room and not having to get up every half-hour to fiddle with the thermostat or put on an extra layer of clothing. That's why I decided early on in my project to put in a radiant system throughout the basement, garage and first floor of my home.

I have a lot of friends who are in the HVAC and construction industries, and I can tell you that underfloor heating is a popular option. My friend and colleague Joe Mattiello is installing a world-class underfloor heating system throughout his home, and after he heard that I was doing the same thing in my new home he invited me up to take a look at his new system.

 

As with all engineered systems, there's more than one way to design an underfloor heating system - system design choices largely depend on a number of factors including square footage of the building, climate and weather conditions, and availability of building materials. Up here in the Connecticut tri-state area, the climate is perfect for underfloor heating. With four seasons and cold winters, we are perfectly positioned to reap the maximum benefits from such a system.

When you watch the episode, one of the first things you'll notice is that the construction techniques that Joe is using are a bit different than mine. He's using more conventional construction techniques, but also poured lightweight concrete underfloors on the first and second floor. He's also using a different method to install underfloor heating than I am, by installing it underneath the floor with joist tracks. One big advantage of installing underfloor heating this way is that in the end, the water temperature throughout the system will be consistent.

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Dave's Tips - Managing your time

There's no doubt in my mind that the pace of life seems to have sped up. In the age of the mobile device, we are gradually becoming accustomed to doing things in seconds that used to take minutes or hours, or even days. I've found that as time has gone on and technology has developed, I've simultaneously developed an appreciation for managing my time effectively.

To me, effective time management encompasses a number of different principles - obviously, setting aside enough time each day to accomplish all of the tasks that I need is a start. In order to do that, however, I need to decide which tasks are important to me, and how many of them per day I want to do. In short, the style in which I manage my time boils down to making choices about how I want to live.

One choice that I made early on in my life was not to be passive about this, because as time has gone on I've seen many friends get swept up in a faster pace of life. In between performing tasks and working, I like to take breaks. I'm also into cycling and being outdoors. Both of these things deliver value to the time I spend working and managing projects in the form of mental health benefits.

As you read this you might be thinking, "Dave, why are you writing about all of this?" The reason I think managing time effectively every day is important is because the days add up and turn into months, which in turn add up into years. As far as my eco-friendly home goes, the project is a long-term exercise in time management. In my busy life, I have to manage a full-time job, manage a detailed home construction project, and make sure to take enough time to spend with my wife, children and friends and on top of that, make sure that the time I spend with my family and friends is quality time.

I think that managing your time effectively can lead to better outcomes personally and professionally, and is critical to building a good home. I encourage all of you to take a few minutes and think about whether or not you are managing your time effectively and think about how the answer to that question affects the value you deliver to yourself.

 

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Time for the first blower door test!

I can’t believe that it’s already time for our first blower door test. It feels like yesterday that I was walking around on a piece of raw land and problem-solving with my wife over what we wanted our new home to look like. Now here we are - the lion’s share of construction has been completed and I’ve shifted my focus to the interior.

Before we get into things like solar thermal, trim and drywall and paint, I have to take one last big step when it comes to the building envelope - a blower door test.



A blower door test is part of the home energy evaluation that will make sure the building envelope and other systems will truly do their job once my new home is complete. Basically, we’ll seal off all of the doors and windows of my home and put a specially-designed variable speed fan in one of the doors.

The variable speed fan will be hooked up to a pressure gauge to measure the pressure differential between the interior and exterior of the house, and an airflow manometer for measuring airflow.

For these steps, I’ve invited George Keithan and Paul Sekas of Consulting Engineering Services back to the job site to run the test. They’ll be able to take the data that we gather and give me some conclusions about the overall energy efficiency of my building envelope. Paul is also going to go around with an infrared gun and hunt for areas of the envelope that might need to be tightened up.



Once this blower door test is complete and I have the results in my hand, I’ll be able to make whatever necessary adjustments to the building envelope that need to be made. From there, it’s on to interior details - we’ll have one more blower door test before the project wraps up. Stay tuned!

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Q&A - Sources of inspiration

In between my projects, you might find me at a coffee shop somewhere, sipping some decaffeinated tea and reading up on the latest styles and trends for homes and the people who build them. If you love home building like I do, then I'm sure you've got some favorite magazines and websites that you like to visit to see what's hot.

One of my favorite places to go is TecHome Builder. This comprehensive website has everything from daily news, videos and galleries to information about new products and upcoming events. I'm sure many of you are familiar with it, but if you aren't I definitely suggest you check it out.

As a veteran eco-friendly homebuilder, I'm always on the hunt for the strange and unusual when it comes to online resources and physical magazines. If there's a special place you go to learn about the latest, I'd love to hear about it. Join the conversation and let us know!

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Three things to remember about home automation


One thing that sticks out to me about building an eco-friendly home in 2017 is that from a technology standpoint, there’s never been a better time to build one. The opportunities to free up your time from mundane daily activities are virtually limitless. From appliances to lights to indoor comfort, nearly every facet of a home can be managed through a centralized control system connected to the internet.



For my home, I don’t plan on automating every single thing, but there are some important facets of my living space that I plan on automating or connecting to the internet - namely, our thermostats, lights, and window shades. The thermostats were definitely on my list from the beginning, because climate control is an area that I can save some money in over the long term. By utilizing a smart system, I can control the temperature more precisely and in turn control the systems that provide indoor comfort so that no amount of energy is wasted.

You might remember my previous conversation with Gerry Lynch of System 7. He’s been at the forefront of the home automation market since the early 2000s, when it was just becoming economical to automate systems on the scale that we see today. Gerry got in at the ground floor, before the iPhone was released - the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has been a game changer for the home automation market.

Gerry has been instrumental in helping me determine what my exact home automation needs are, and in helping me develop and implement a plan to install these systems in my new home during the interior construction phase. Luckily, the talented people at System 7 have made this easy for me, and I’ve learned quite a bit from Gerry during our meetings together. That reminds me, I wanted to share with you these three important takeaways that I think will make a difference for anyone thinking about engaging the IoT in their project...

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Dave's Tips - Maximizing your takeaways

I think one of the things that has strengthened and maintained my interest in building homes over the years is the way I tend to look at my projects. I usually do my best to be holistic in my approach to completing the work, and I look at each conversation I have with other professionals as a learning experience and an opportunity for a win-win. I think one of the things I've enjoyed the most about building my own homes is the opportunity to work with other people and learn from their perspective.

Good communication skills and an ability to work well with others are vital traits essential to any successful home builder, but so are the traits of patience and being able to learn from mistakes. If something doesn't go as planned on a project, I don't get discouraged - I try to maximize my time in finding a solution.

I'm excited to be building this super insulated, eco-friendly home because I've gotten to try a few techniques that I've never tried before, like the particular way I designed and built the envelope, and I get to refine some of my existing knowledge, like which professionals I need to work with and in what order. Building this home and every step in between has been a very involved, enriching process so far.

What was one of your biggest takeaways from a project? Join the conversation and let us know!

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Rays of Energy Efficiency

If you were to look at the back of my new home, you'd see a bunch of protrusions sticking out from the shingles. Those protrusions are actually mounting brackets for the photovoltaic solar panels that I've been planning to install on my roof since the beginning of the project. Now that the roofing system is basically done, it's time for me to begin preparing to install the solar panels up on to the roof.

It's easy to think that installing solar panels is simply a matter of purchasing the panels, installing the mounting brackets and then mounting the panels on a part of the roof. But actually, there's a lot that goes into these installations that people may not think about. Understanding fully how a solar panel system works can seem like a daunting task to some, and that's why many people I know hire professionals to do most of the work. But, I think anyone who gets a solar panel system installed onto their home should have a rudimentary understanding on how it works.

While I was doing my research, I found a great resource that explains and defines some of the basic terminology for solar panel systems. HeatSpring Magazine has a great article that gives a breakdown of the basics - from vocabulary terms to understanding how AC and DC currents work with systems to magnetic declination, I'd say this article and ones like it are a must read for anyone who plans to install a solar panel system on their roof.

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Q&A - Knowledge you didn't expect

In my years of building and renovating homes, I've always learned something by the end of each project. Whether it's sharpening my time management skills, honing my logistics skills for ordering materials, or who to call for a certain portion of my project, the benefits of gaining experience have been cumulative.

Anyone who has built their own home knows that there are always unforeseen items that crop up during the whole process. For example, I selected a particular brand and color of shingles that I wanted to use on my new home. I placed my order several months ago, but I learned only after placing the order that the shingles I want are on back order. Another unforeseen circumstance with my project was when the need came up to change the placement of mechanical systems in my basement - if I had waited to address this, it could have run into some serious money. It's always better to address potential issues quickly to avoid having a project spiral out of control.

One of the biggest things I've learned from building homes is that it's important to take care of the small things - if I ignore a small detail that needs to be addressed at a certain stage of construction, it can come back to haunt me later. If you can't take care of the small things in a project, it's harder to take care of the big things.

What's the biggest unexpected takeaway you've experienced in a project? Join the conversation and let us know!

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