Monday, May 28, 2012

A Fine Line Between Clever and Stupid

Using secondhand windows in our renovation seemed like a clever idea at the time. They came with the property as part of a house full of rubbish and some building materials. In one sense, we saved about $4,000 and the embodied energy/carbon footprint of new ones by reusing them. In another sense, we are coming up with eco-thrifty alternatives to double-glazing as described in the previous two retrospective posts. But...

... in one case the hinges were stuffed and we did not know it until after the window was installed. The window above does not close fully, thus letting in cold air and sometimes rain blown from precisely the right (wrong) angle. And so it came time to say goodbye to cold and drafty...

... and hello to warm and toasty!

We splashed out for double-glazed and thermally broken because this is a northeastern window that gets the first morning sunlight in winter. Those first rays reach over our breakfast table,

over the coal range,

over Billy T. and the bath tub,

and onto the far wall 11 meters away! At 8 am while all of the other windows are curtained, the sunlight streaming through this window lights and heats our morning. This one strategically-placed high-performance window has made a big difference to the start of our day. It's worth having one $700 window to serve this special purpose while all the others were free.

Eco-thrfity renovation is not black and white. It is about picking and choosing when, where and how to spend money and carbon. This choice has made a big difference in our quality of life, and it even helps us save a little electricity by shutting off the kitchen lights as soon as the sun rises instead of waiting until it gets warm enough outside. And we made the swap just in time for winter!

Peace, Estwing

Friday, May 25, 2012

Retrospective #6: Window Battens

You will recall from last week that I am a big fan of Neil Diamond and of pelmets. Unfortunately, Neil canceled his Wellington show last year. L Also unfortunate is that installing pelmets is probably not an option for most renters. (More on that in a moment.) We made our pelmets by reusing old rusticated weatherboards that we removed while re-cladding the exterior. I ripped the re-used weatherboards to 150 mm wide and inverted them so the scallop faced downward. Installed against the drop ceiling in the lean-to section of our home (kitchen, dining and bathroom), the pelmets also serve as an attractive crown molding. Our thermal curtains are hung inside the pelmets – as you would. But because we have retained single glazing, we have added extra-layers of eco-thrifty window insulation in two ways. The first is a modified version of what are commonly called “window quilts” in North America.

Traditionally, a window quilt is an expensive, custom-made quilted cloth that rides up and down in a fitted track installed inside of the window frame. I have never seen one during my four years of living in New Zealand, but, then again, I never saw a pelmet in my 40 years of living in the States. As an international ambassador for all things energy-efficient, I am happy to introduce a special eco-thrifty version of the window quilt to Aotearoa. To avoid confusion, I call this version a “window batten.” A batten is a long, thin piece of wood, in this case about 25 mm by 25 mm. We just used whatever off-cuts we happened to have at hand.

The main idea behind a window batten is that it replaces a window quilt for a small fraction of the cost. For instance, a window batten made for about $5 can replace a window quilt that could cost upwards of $200. Multiply that by every window in your home and you get the picture. Additionally, window battens can be installed without making any holes (screws or nails) in the window frame. That is because a window batten is held up by friction. This is how to make one.

Cut a 25 mm x 25 mm batten 5 mm shorter than the inside width of your window frame. Cut a 25mm x 10 mm batten the same length. Select a wool blanket, duvet inner, or quilted mattress protector (mattress pad) that measures about the same size of the window, but slightly bigger. Next, you’ll need to “sandwich” one end of the blanket between the two battens. Make sure to leave some extra fabric hanging over both ends of the battens. (This will take up the 5 mm shortfall of the battens and wedge the entire unit inside of the window frame.) Pre-drill three to five evenly spaced holes through both battens (and the blanket between them), and then fix a screw in each hole. That is your window batten.

To install the window batten, fold the ends of the blanket over the ends of the paired battens and wedge the lot into the top of the window frame. If it is too loose, fold up a small piece of cardboard and wedge it in. If it is too tight, you may need to cut your battens shorter and try again. That’s one way we’ve insulated our windows against heat loss overnight. I’ll describe another way next week. 

Peace, Estwing

Monday, May 21, 2012

Practicing What We Preach is Win-Win-Win-Win

This is an article I just wrote for the newsletter of our local currency. 

There appears to be a general correlation between REBS subscribers and members of the Sustainable Whanganui Google Group. Now correlation does not mean causation, and I will not submit a chicken or egg theory on this. But what I will do is point out an excellent opportunity for every REBS and/or Sustainable Whanganui member to engage in a win-win-win-win trade. Here is how it works.

Go down to the River Traders Market and stop in at the REBS stall. Purchase your very own bottle of Eco laundry liquid in a refilled plastic bottle. That's it. How easy. This simple task allows us to practice what we preach, walk the talk, and any other appropriate saying I may have left out. 

First win = Reduce: By purchasing your Eco laundry liquid from REBS you are reducing the number of plastic bottles in the world. REBS buys the laundry liquid in bulk and fills the bottles for the market. And while you're at it…

Second win = Reuse: …bring that bottle back to REBS when you're through the laundry liquid and buy a full one. We'll take that one back and refill it again for the next person. 

Third win = Eco products are generally less polluting than standard products. For instance, the laundry liquid is likely to have less phosphates in it than standard laundry products, which can cause water pollution. 

Fourth win = Supporting a community initiative. REBS is run on a shoestring budget and subs do not come close to covering the costs of administration. Buying Eco laundry liquid, eggs, kumara and potatoes from the REBS stall helps us keep this important community project going. 

Thanks for your support, the REBS committee

Friday, May 18, 2012

Retrospective #5: Curtains and Pelmets

This is the 5th in a series recounting the theory and practice of eco-thrifty renovation running in our newspaper, The Wanganui Chronicle. 

I will admit that in the first four weeks of this column I did not offer very many examples of low-hanging fruit with short payback periods as implied in the first column. I will also admit that I love Neil Diamond and I love pelmets. While I spent the last three columns carefully explaining the components of passive solar design and how they work together, I am finally at a point this week where I can bring two of those components together in an eco-thrifty context and provide some examples of low-hanging fruit that promise short payback periods. Besides that last sentence being extraordinarily long, it implies that an eco-thrifty approach to renovation requires one to both take a big picture view and retain attention to details. I’ll use the example of thermal curtains, pelmets and window quilts to illustrate this point.

As previously described, north-facing windows (here in NZ) are net energy gainers in the winter. While double-glazing is probably best for all windows in a home (and if building new by all means they should be installed), they are expensive to have made to replace existing single-glazed ones. As an alternative to double-glazing we wanted to look at how the performance of single-glazed windows could be maximized with low investment of money and time. What we came up with is a low-budget combination of familiar Kiwi practices and potentially unfamiliar ones from North America. I’ll start with thermal curtains because they are probably the most familiar to everyone. There is not much to say except – wait for it – sometimes even the best thermal curtains won’t hold in very much heat if not installed properly. Let the physics lesson begin!

A free-hanging thermal curtain that does not touch the floor can be almost as useless at heat retention as no curtain at all. (I would repeat that, but I’m writing to a word limit.) Here is how it works: 1) indoor air between the curtain and window cools and sinks to the floor; 2) this creates negative pressure between the curtain and window that ‘vacuums’ warm air from the ceiling and places it against the cold glass; 3) this air cools and sinks drawing more warm air from the ceiling to replace it; 4) and the cycle repeats. What forms is akin to a convection current through the room powered by the cold outside air against the window. The good news is that the cycle can be interrupted in two ways. The bad news (for some) is that one involves a pelmet. Fashion aside, I love pelmets because they are so practical! (Form follows function.) A properly fitted pelmet breaks the convection current by blocking the flow of warm air down from the ceiling. Alternatively – or better yet, additionally – floor-length curtains achieve roughly the same by slowing the free flow of cooled air out across the floor. In other words, heads: you win! / tails: you win! Both: Double win! And for a fraction of the cost of replacing all the windows in your home.

But there is a catch. A human being is required to open and close the curtains according to the level of sunlight and the difference between indoor and outdoor temperatures. I highly recommend purchasing an indoor/outdoor thermometer to help with the energy management of your home. We got ours for $20 at local hardware store and I reckon it has paid itself back within the first year. Oops, out of words and never got to window quilts. Until next week.

Peace, Estwing

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Can Zuckerberg Do This?

I heard on NPR that the FB IPO might make it worth 100 B. OMG! 

Now, I will admit that I like FB for keeping in touch with old friends, sharing our projects and filling time when I am otherwise unengaged. But is this company really worth 100 billion dollars? Is Zuckerberg really that much of a genius? I can't begin to answer that question, but I wonder what else he can do. Can he plant a garden? Can he fix a bicycle? Can he knit a sweater? Are any of these questions worth asking about the 0.1%? Will walls of money always protect them from volatility in world food, energy and financial markets? Will the walls of gated communities always protect them from an increasingly rattled 99%? As population grows, soils erode and oceans acidify, will they ever face any sort of scarcity? I can't answer those questions either, but I do think that for most of the rest of us it is worth learning real skills that can be applied in real settings. While I have been growing organic vegetables for well over a decade now, I continue to learn all the time. Our current location on pure sand and within 200 meters of the Tasman Sea, has offered new opportunities to learn, fail and succeed.  Below are a few images of some of our learning and success this year. (We usually don't take pictures of our failures, but we do take careful notice of them. I have been meaning to write an entire post about failures. TBD)

The internet can teach you nearly anything! 

Scratch to patch in 5 months. 

Time for a bigger wheelbarrow. 

 That's all from the same broc.



Cannot beat home grown. 

My, what big hands you have! 

Rock on!

Peace, Estwing

Friday, May 11, 2012

Retrospective #4: Insulation

This is number four in a series of articles documenting the principles and practice of eco-thrifty renovation that I am writing for our paper, the Wanganui Chronicle. 

Last week I described how thermal mass could be used inside of a building envelope to slowly absorb heat energy from low-angle winter sunlight. The ‘invisible’ forms of thermal mass we added during our renovation included an extra layer of plasterboard on walls that receive direct winter sunlight, a cast iron bathtub in our sun-drenched bathroom, and the strategic placement of our re-used coal range to receive direct sunlight all day long through three different windows. Before I proceed to talk about our insulation choices, I should note that these ‘massive’ elements not only help keep our home warmer in winter but also cooler in summer. The summer sun is much higher in the sky and does not penetrate deep enough into our home to strike them directly like it does in winter. Just as thermal mass can buffer against cold in winter, it can buffer against heat in summer. 

While I’m at it, I should also note that insulation helps keep homes cool on hot, sunny days. For example, many homes in Arizona, USA are super-insulated to keep air conditioning costs lower. Closer to home, one of my neighbours out the back on Aotea Street, Castlecliff complained to me about how hot his house is in summer. I noted that he has a low-pitched roof and no ceiling insulation. Can you imagine how hot his attic crawlspace gets? Well, that heat simply radiates through his ceiling and into his living space. Insulation slows the passage of heat, and it works both ways. In other words, by insulating the ceiling he could both slow the transfer of heat downward into his home during the summer and slow the transfer of heat upward out of his home in winter.

If solar gain can be demonstrated by a car parked in the sun, and thermal mass by touching a warm stone after sunset, insulation can be experienced by putting on a jumper. That’s it. The human body is a heat generator and the jumper simply holds that heat close to the body. Where ‘massive’ things are those that sink in water, ‘insulative’ things float. Think polystyrene, pumice, fiberglass batts.

A complete passive solar design must include all three elements: solar gain, thermal mass and insulation. Lose any one and you have an incomplete design and an underperforming building. While I described how we increased solar gain two weeks ago and how we added thermal mass last week, I’ll complete the trilogy this week with a brief description of our approaches to insulation.

For various reasons, we opened up wall cavities during our renovation and dutifully filled each one with fiberglass insulation (inspected) before replacing linings (inspected) in accordance with the building code. We also insulated all ceilings by running the batts (higher R-value than required by code) perpendicular to the joists to prevent thermal bridging through the wood. (Google it.) Although we also bought 100 square metres of under floor insulation in October, 2010 (before the GST rise), we have not yet installed it because I want to treat for borer first, and, well, I just haven’t gotten around to that due to some favorable surfing conditions. And finally, we insulated all of the gaping holes in our well-insulated walls (aka windows) with thermal curtains and their trusty sidekick and unsung hero of New Zealand homes of a certain era, pelmets. While double-glazing is a form of insulation, we chose not to replace all of the windows in our home with new double-glazed ones because this is an eco-thrifty renovation and with Wanganui’s mild climate we felt that the payback on other energy investments would be much greater. As I will describe next week, I believe that the combination of thermal curtaining, pelmets and window quilts represents the type of low-investment / high performance system that suits the eco-thrifty approach to renovation.

Peace, Estwing

Monday, May 7, 2012

Man About Town

Perhaps the only thing harder than creating a sustainable life for oneself is promoting sustainability out in the community. I have been averaging 10 to 20 hours of volunteer work per week for the last couple of months. The work itself is not so hard, but maintaining motivation sometimes is. We hear advice from the likes of Nicole Foss, Richard Heinberg, J.H. Kunstler, Rob Hopkins, etc. about the importance of building community. They are dead right about that, but do not underestimate how much effort it takes. But sometimes the work can seem more like play. For instance...

With the wife away at a conference in Auckland for the weekend, I set out to multitask my way through a Saturday morning (after dropping her at the airport at 6:20 AM and then spending three hours on my thesis).

Thankfully, most of the multitasking took place at our Saturday market.

I was happy to see that the welcoming committee was there to greet me, my bicycle and trailer.

 First stop was at the stall of our local currency, the River Exchange and Barter System (REBS).

As the newsletter editor and newly appointed grants writer, I had two jobs to check in about with other committee members. The newsletter looked suitable for publication on Monday, but a grant application due in the post Tuesday needed heaps of official forms, seals and certificates I had no access to. (To be continued...)

After I did all I could at the REBS stall, I headed over to buy some native plants.

 And then it was over to the Greens' stall for fresh bread...

... and petition signing. My friend John said he has never had such success getting signatures as he has had with this issue of asset sales. (In other words, the selling of publicly owned state assets to private individuals and corporations. Think Greece). I salute Hone Harawira and the Mana Party for taking this issue to the streets and to the Capitol!

With my plants and bread, I loaded up my trailer and was nearly on the road when...

... Lola and Calexico (and thier feijoas) could not be resisted.

All in all it was a fun an productive morning, so much so that it called for an afternoon surf. All work and no play...

Peace, Estwing

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Retrospective #3: Thermal Mass

This is the third in an ongoing series documenting the principles and practice of eco-thrifty renovation for our community being published every Saturday in the Wanganui Chronicle. 

Last week I wrapped up my column with words of wisdom that did not quite make the list of trending terms on Twitter. For those of you who missed the re-Tweets, those words were, “A window is simply a hole in the side of your home with a piece of glass (two if you’re lucky) in it. Windows can gain heat energy or lose it. Because winter is the time of year that we’re mostly concerned about this, I’ll put it as straightforward as possible. In winter, northerly facing windows are net energy gainers and southerly facing windows are net energy losers. Summer is a different story, and there is such a thing as too much incoming solar heating even in winter, just ask the hippies from the 1970’s who had good intensions but incomplete design ideas.”

Did anyone ask an aging hippy? If so, they probably said those early passive solar structures were too damn hot on sunny winter days and that they had to open the windows to keep it comfortable. That’s because they probably had heaps of sun-facing glazing but not enough thermal mass. Thermal what? This is probably the least understood aspect of passive solar design, which it probably why it was overlooked by many early solar builders (who may or may not have also been under the influence of Jimi Hendrix.)

Just as solar gain is easy to understand by thinking about a car parked in the sun, thermal mass can be experienced by placing one’s hand (or bum) on a sun-baked stone or concrete stoop or curb 30 minutes after sundown. Massive things (ie, they contain lots of mass) gain heat slowly and lose it slowly. Wanganui owes its moderate climate in large part to the thermal mass of the Tasman Sea. Water and anything that sinks in water can be classified as ‘massive’ while anything that floats in water is more ‘insulative’. (Insulation will be discussed next week.) Just as the Tasman moderates Wanganui’s climate, certain massive elements inside of the building envelope can moderate a structure’s climate. In new dwellings this usually takes the form of an insulated concrete slab. But our 100 year-old villa is on piles. How did we add mass without buckling our aging rimu floor joists? (Truth be told, I did sister up some of the joists before we took the measures described below, but that was purely precautionary. I am VERY conservative.)

We added thermal mass in three ways, and did so only on the north side of our home and only in places where the low-angle sun strikes it directly during winter months. For the most part, our thermal mass is invisible. In other words, if you walked through our home it would not be immediately apparent. For example, on those walls that receive direct sunlight in winter we added an extra layer of plasterboard (aka Gib). The mass of plasterboard can be ascertained by selecting a sheet measuring 1.2 X 2.4 metres and lifting it over one’s head. Another ‘invisible’ way we added mass was to install an antique, cast iron, claw-foot bathtub in our sun-drenched bathroom. (Ascertain mass as described above.) 

And finally, we added mass inside of our building envelope by the careful locating of our code-approved antique Shacklock 501 coal range (300 kg), with brick surround (300 kg) and steel-reinforced, fully inspected concrete hearth (100 kg). This 700 kg behemoth receives direct sunlight in winter from three different windows at three different times of day. 

This heat energy is stored in the mass, which prevents our home from overheating, and then releases it slowly at night as our home cools (despite our best efforts to hold in the heat with insulation: the topic of next week’s column).

Peace, Estwing