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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What's in the attic?

Throughout my project so far, I’ve been fortunate to have a chance to work with many different experts and licensed professionals. From the architects to the foundation contractor, I’ve learned something from each person who has come to the job-site or whose office I’ve paid a visit to.

Besides being an eco-friendly home builder, I’m also a product manager at Taco Comfort Solutions. Taco is a premier manufacturer of residential and commercial water circulation systems, water heater accessories, and HVAC technology. I count myself lucky to work at a place where I’m surrounded by the best and brightest, people who I can count on for their expertise in and out of the office.

So far, most of the people I’ve consulted with about my project work in the residential realm. But since my project incorporates some elements of commercial system design, there is one person from Taco who I’ve been clamoring to show my project to. That person is Rich Medairos, a Senior Systems Engineer. In my opinion, he’s one of the most knowledgeable people in the industry when it comes to commercial system design. Rich also runs Taco’s commercial-side training programs and works with engineers all over the country to design commercial HVAC systems.

So all of that being said, you can probably tell why I’m excited to have him come out and look at my eco-friendly system design. I really want to get Rich’s opinion about my choice of mechanicals, where I decided to place them inside my home, and how the systems will work in tandem with other systems I’ve designed for my new home.

The project is moving right along - there’s no doubt that Rich’s feedback will be useful to me as I workout the final details of my HVAC system. What do you think of the overall design? Join the conversation and let us know!

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Q&A - The walls of comfort

Over the past few weeks, we've shifted the focus of our blog over to the interior portion of my home construction process. My framing team finished their work several months ago and most of what I've done with the exterior since then relates to making the building envelope super tight and making sure that the walls of my new home reflect the plans we put together at the beginning of the project.

Earlier in the project, I put together a diagram that explains how each layer in my wall system functions to create a super tight envelope. When the walls are finished, they'll reduce my energy costs and provide the caliber of indoor comfort that my wife and I are used to. I encourage everyone to take a look at it - as far as wall construction systems go, this is not something you see every as far as how the typical home is constructed.

You might have noticed from the past few episodes that the outside of my home is looking a bit more complete than it did just a few months ago. I'm excited to show you what the finished product will look like once I'm able to start shingling and working on the cosmetic details.

The fruit of my hard work feels like it's right around the corner, even though there's so much left to do. As far as keeping the interior nice and cool, I'm already beginning to experience the benefits of advanced wall construction - I've been able to keep the interior relatively cool while I work, with just a window-mount air conditioner for now because the super tight envelope prevents warm air from infiltrating the interior space.

Next week, you'll get to learn more about the mechanical systems that will make real indoor comfort possible. Taco Senior Systems Engineer Rich Medairos will be paying me a visit at the job site to learn about my commercial-grade sprinkler system, air-to-air exchanger, and the other goodies in my mechanical room. Stay tuned!

What do you think about the techniques we used to build the walls of my new home? Join the conversation and let us know!

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Putting the AC in HVAC

Building a new home in the middle of the summer can be a sweltering experience. There have been days recently where I’ve been installing insulation in hundred degree temperatures, but what keeps me going is the prospect of being finished sooner and getting to relax in sublime indoor comfort.

When it comes to air conditioning, the first thing that comes to mind for a lot of us are the window units that we grew up with. But, there have been a lot of developments in the world of air conditioning since I grew up. Believe it or not, low-cost air conditioners only became widely available about 70 years ago - that’s really one lifetime ago. The next time it gets hot enough to cook an egg on the sidewalk, think about how lucky we are to enjoy such a convenience!

The U.S. Department of Energy has a section on their website about the history of air conditioning. Whether you work in the HVAC industry or you are just interested in how things came to be, it’s definitely worth taking a look at.

Some of the more important breakthroughs in air conditioning technology include the advent of central AC systems — these are standard features in many of today’s new homes, including mine. Another important milestone for air conditioning is the industry’s achievements in making air conditioning more environmentally friendly - most air conditioning systems developed after 1990 do not use ozone eating CFCs and must adhere to minimum efficiency standards.

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Q&A - Building codes then and now

One of the lessons I've learned from over 30 years of building my own homes is that there is one constant in the world of home building. That constant is change, and it affects just about every facet of the process of building a home.

The change I am talking about specifically is the evolution of building codes. The town in which I am building my home has codes that provide standards for the structure, placement of features within the structure, how large the structure can be, and what it can be used for, among other things. Building codes can be useful for regulating parking, protecting structures from the danger of fire, and helping to determine who is qualified to do certain jobs.

Many of the items that are included in today's building codes were born out of a way of doing things that was passed down through the generations. It took a long time for building science to evolve, and people made many mistakes along the way.

There aren't very many downsides to building codes, but one of them is that building codes have the potential to detract from the aesthetic appeal of buildings, especially when people build to the minimum code requirements. Also, homes don't have the same look and feel that they used to - think of homes built in the late 19th century versus now. Many of the construction techniques and materials used are either no longer available, lost to time, or against the law.

I'd be interested to hear what your thoughts are - do you think the benefits of building codes outweigh the nostalgia of building projects past? Join the conversation and let us know!

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Building a balanced system

A balancing act

Sometimes, I liken being a home builder to being a chef. It’s not too much of a stretch if you can get past the part about delicious food and delve into the processes that bring success to both types of people - doing well at either of these high-intensity professions depends on one’s ability to manage a lot of details simultaneously and time everything perfectly. I build homes more for my own personal enjoyment, but I find that these principles still apply.

Right now, I have a lot of different parts of the project happening simultaneously. I’m at the rough-in stage for my electrical and plumbing systems. I’ve installed outlet boxes and rudimentary wiring, and for plumbing the PEX tubing and drains are in. I’m also working on installing the ventilation ductwork as well as a commercial-grade sprinkler system throughout the home. I’m hoping to wrap up all of these items around the same time.

Working on four or five different parts of a big project like this has its ups and downs. On one hand, it is definitely a balancing act. I can’t get too far into one portion of this stage of the project without working on other items at a similar pace - not doing so will ultimately slow down the entire project. On the flip side, if my materials for one part of this project are late I can simply migrate over to something else.

Ductwork system

I began installing the duct work for my home several weeks ago. at this point, the supply pipes are mainly in and I’ve moved on to working on the return ductwork.

I decided to place my ventilation system in the attic, for a couple of reasons. My living room has cathedral ceilings, so the air towards the top of the ceiling will get hot and stale unless it gets recirculated. I’ve also learned that placing vents in the floor can obstruct furniture placement and creates the potential for inconveniently dropping things into the vents. Again, it’s all about comfort.

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Dave's Quips - What's behind the drywall?

By now, I’ve written a few entries on this blog about wall construction and the methods I’m using to construct the building envelope. I can’t stress enough how important choosing a solid wall construction method is to the overall energy efficiency of your home. 

Say you move into a brand new house. It may look nice on the outside, with a fresh green lawn and ornate door fixtures that greet you each time you pull into the driveway. Open the front door, and the first thing you see is a stone tile floor illuminated by an ornate lighting fixture. Maybe you sunk some money into things like marble countertops in the bathroom, modern plumbing fixtures, a large kitchen island. Cosmetically, this hypothetical house looks fantastic.

But the real question is, does the hypothetical home of your dreams feel as nice as it looks? Do the marble countertops seem to make you shiver when you’re in the kitchen? Do you need to wear a sweater when you go upstairs? Is the basement a little bit too warm? You can engineer these problems away when building a new home.

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Q&A - Doing a solid for the Earth

One of my biggest goals with this project has been to reduce, whenever possible, my impact on the environment during all of the stages of my project. If you remember back to the very first episode, I walked through the woods on my property and made a promise to myself to keep sustainability in mind for the project.

I'd like to say that I've done a fairly good job at this so far. When I cleared a portion of my 2.2 acre parcel to begin building, I tried to minimize the need to remove trees and other vegetation from the property. When it came time to start building, I used a lot of recycled commercial grade insulation for the building envelope.

The real savings and benefits for planet Earth will come when the home is completed, and I can minimize my use of fossil fuel powered electricity by utilizing PV solar panels for a lot of our electricity. I may not be living "off the grid", but maybe "off the electrical grid" or a variation thereof would be a more appropriate term.

I'm still curious about using recycled materials for a project, though. I wonder how many other people do the same thing, and what kind of an impact it has on protecting our environment. A lot of my contractor friends prefer to buy new, but I know that there are a lot of materials out there that can be reused.

So, that's why I'd like to hear from you - when it comes to using recycled materials for a project, what are some best practices that have helped you? Join the conversation and let us know!

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Fire prevention - protecting your life and your investment

I have a friend who worked in the news media for a while, who covered all types of disasters, among other things. From floods to blizzards to tornadoes, this friend of mine told me about the times he witnessed the carnage that mother nature inflicted on building structures, and in turn on people’s lives.

The one type of disaster my news reporter friend covered the most, however, was fire. Apartment fires, house fires, and commercial structure fires. They happen every day, all the time for all kinds of different reasons. A faulty electrical system, improperly placed insulation, a child playing with matches. I could fill the entire page with a list of hypothetical scenarios.

The ever present danger of fire has me thinking about the best ways I can protect my investment - our eco-friendly home is in a precarious stage of construction in which the inner wooden skeleton of the structure is exposed and permanent fire prevention systems have not yet been installed. Fire prevention is something I take seriously - once my home is finished, you’ll see a menagerie of fire prevention features including a commercial grade sprinkler system, and an array of heat, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors as well as fire extinguishers.

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