Sustainable Surroundings

Read the full article from Atlanta Home Improvement here (PDF).

Incorporate green products and design into your home

By Kathy Kidwell

As the green movement continues to permeate the lives of Atlantans day in and day out, we become more and more conscious of how our environment affects not only the Earth, but also our own quality of life. Is your home providing a healthy, sustainable surrounding? How can you improve the condition of your home in a way that will, in turn, improve your living situation? Here, Atlanta experts offer their ideas and advice for greening your home, as well as a few projects to illustrate the amazing ways eco consciousness has upgraded area residences.

HOT AND COLD
When asked how to make an existing home more environmentally friendly, one of the first areas Atlanta experts address is heating and cooling efficiency.

The first step
Before you purchase a new, high-efficiency furnace or air-conditioning unit, Carl Seville, president of Seville Consulting, recommends first inspecting, testing and repairing your duct system. “Many duct systems can have 50-percent or more leakage,” he says. “When you install high-efficiency equipment without fixing these leaks, you still have an inefficient system.”

New system design
When installing a new HVAC system, “Never guess or use rules of thumb for system sizing,” Seville says. “Have your HVAC contractor or an outside consultant perform a Manual J calculation to determine the right system size based on the conditions in the house. Make sure never to put in a larger AC system than you need. When you do, it does not dehumidify effectively, causing you to lower the temperature more to get the humidity level low enough to be comfortable.”

Seville also recommends installing separate return ducts in each major room. “Central returns can push hot and cold air where you don’t want it, making rooms less comfortable and causing the system to work harder,” he says.
Bernie Smith, president of MasterWorks Atlanta, recommends zoning your HVAC system. “This is a great way to control the temperature in different areas of your home, by having multiple thermostats for the same system,” he explains. “It also leaves a much smaller footprint on the environment because you have only one unit versus multiple units that would use much more of the Earth’s resources.”

System selection
There are several options for high-efficiency furnaces and air-conditioning units on the market today, which means you can choose the option that best fits your situation. Smith recommends looking at the furnace’s annual fuel-utilization efficiency (AFUE) rating. The AFUE number represents how efficiently a furnace converts fuel to energy. The higher the AFUE percentage, the more efficient the furnace is. The U.S. has established a minimum AFUE rating of 78 percent. Smith recommends seeking a 92-percent AFUE-rated furnace. “This unit does not cost more but will perform better over the long haul,” he says.

On the topic of ratings, Smith also recommends upgrading your air-conditioning unit to a seasonal energy-efficiency ratio (SEER) rating of at least 16. “The higher the number, the more efficient the unit is,” he says, adding, “You can go as high as 23, but the cost of going higher does not give you a return on your investment. If you go for 14.5-17 SEER, you will be able to get your investment back.”

Geothermal systems are a rising star in the HVAC world today. Kenny Libby, co-founder of GeoThermal Energy Solutions, says, “Current federal and state tax incentives are making geothermal solutions more affordable than ever before. Georgia residents can save up to 40 percent on the installed cost of new geothermal systems.” How, you ask? See the Capitalize on Geothermal sidebar on page 30.

In the heat-pump category, geothermal systems prove to be better than air-source systems. “The EPA has found that geothermal systems can reduce energy use by 40 percent when compared to air-source heat pumps,” Libby says. He adds that while geothermal systems require an upfront cost of approximately $4,600 more than a conventional HVAC system, the lowered utility costs can easily add up to $35,000 over the 20 years following installation. “That’s a lot of ‘bang for your buck,’” he says.

Holding it in
Once you figure out an efficient method of heating and cooling your home, the next step is to ensure the heated and cooled air is kept inside. “Air seal and insulate the house as completely as possible,” Seville says. Libby agrees, recommending spray-foam insulation as his product of choice. “It is sprayed in the attic, between the rafters, sealing any cracks and keeping radiant heat from entering,” Libby explains. “In most attics, existing ductwork is sitting in 130- degree heat during the summer, which means you lose a lot of AC efficiency. With spray-foam insulation, homeowners can drastically reduce the radiant heat, making air conditioning much more efficient.”

Smith also recommends spray-foam insulation, specifically referring to Icynene. “ICYNENE LD-R-50 is a green-approved product by the National Association of Home Builders’ (NAHB) Research Center and can earn up to 53 potential points toward national green-building certification,” he says.

H2O heating
Ranking in the top three largest consumers of energy in a household, water heating is a major area of improvement when greening homes. “Here in Georgia, solar water-heating systems (also known as solar thermal) can reduce annual energy usage by as much as 80 percent,” says Dan Russell, president of The Sunshine Boys. “And Georgia offers a 35-percent tax credit, up to $2,500, for the installation of this technology, while the federal government offers a 30-percent tax credit with no cap.

“In addition,” Russell continues, “many of the utility companies, like Jackson EMC, offer rebates to homeowners if they install [solar water-heating] systems. With all these incentives, the additional cost to go solar versus conventional water heating can be as little as $1,400. From the savings realized in their utility bills, some customers are recouping this cost within 4-8 years.”

However, Russell warns that not all solar water-heating systems are the same. He says to look for OG-300 certification by the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC), and to look at the reliability and life span of the product. Russell’s company works with VELUX products, which he highly recommends. “Their solar collectors fl ash into the roof just like their skylights—this has a much better aesthetic appeal than those mounted on racks, and it eliminates the need to decommission the system and remove the collectors when it is time to re-roof the home,” he says.

Decorative devices
Products that offer style and function are often sought after when redecorating—this should be a target when greening your home, as well. Rebecca Ewing with Rebecca Ewing Color & Design points to three areas of decor that can help heat or cool you when in your home. The first is seasonal bedding. In the winter, Ewing recommends utilizing flannel or 1,000-thread-count sheets with a down comforter. “1,000 thread count, while fine, is two 500 counts woven together, thus a heavier sheet,” she says. In the summertime, Ewing recommends jersey or 300- to -500-thread-count sheets with a blanket cover or light coverlet.

Window treatments are also effective in keeping heat inside and cold outside during the winter, as well as cool air in and heat out in the summer. Ewing adds that window coverings can also:

  • Reduce glare
  • Filter sunlight
  • Block or absorb UV rays to lessen furniture and fabric fading
  • Reflect lamp light back into the room at night, reducing the need for excess lighting
  • Block window drafts
  • Buffer sound

The third decoration that can affect how hot or cold you are inside your home is your wall color. “Color affects our perception of temperature and the feel of a room,” Ewing says. “Icy blue will feel colder in a north-facing room, yet will just feel cool in a south-facing room. Red may feel warm in a north-facing room, and hot when facing south.” Because of this, Ewing recommends using cool and/or light colors in rooms that face the south and west, and warm and/or dark colors in rooms that face the north or east.

Dig The Decor
The biggest trend Atlanta experts point to with green interior design today is reusing and repurposing items. “Repurposing is an ideal strategy for young folks in their fi rst house,” Ewing says, explaining that, if young homeowners are educated in their first home purchases, those products can last a lifetime. To educate homeowners on such purchases, she recommends a 2-to-3-hour consult with a designer. “This can be a terrific housewarming gift—help them develop a 5-to-10-year decorating plan,” she says.
On the topic of reuse, Goldstein says, “Some eco-friendly building practices are really nothing more than just good old-fashioned building practices that have been lost. We just need to go back to when we never threw away an old door or window, but salvaged those items.”

Wood wisdom
One of the hottest trends in reused/repurposed interior-design material is wood. “Reclaimed wood is becoming more and more popular as a material option,” says Jan M. Walters with Insidesign. “Wood from older buildings and salvage is being used to create unique cabinets, fl ooring and beams. It’s green, but it also adds character and warmth to the home.”

“This also leads to wood being the material of choice for flooring versus carpet,” Smith points out. “Some folks with asthma have found that not having carpet is much healthier for their environment.”

Common-sense commodities
Reusing items in your home may be easier than you think. “A removable (and washable) duvet makes that down or down-alternative comforter last longer, and is more flexible and green than a decorative comforter that you toss when you’re tired of it or it gets stained,” Ewing notes. “Same for decorative pillows. If they have a zipper closure, the cover can be replaced when it gets soiled instead of the
pillow being tossed.”

Ewing also recommends using slipcovers over couches in the summer. “More skin is exposed in the summer, making upholstery more vulnerable to oils, etc. A lightweight and light-colored washable slipcover not only feels cooler, but it also protects upholstered goods,” she adds.

Clever Curb Appeal
Creating a solid energy- and water-smart home exterior will not only green your home, it will boost your curb appeal. Here are a few ways Atlanta experts recommend upgrading your home’s exterior and landscape.

Do wonders with windows
The quality and placement of your home’s windows is a major consideration when evaluating how green your home is. Rick Goldstein, co-owner of MOSAIC Group, recommends implementing daylighting or passive-solar techniques into your home, which will take advantage of natural light, thus reducing the need to turn on electric lights. He says the techniques “are a very efficient way to save on your electric bill and, when planned into the remodel, add very little to the overall expense.”

Russell agrees and recommends the use of skylights. “Daylight can transform a room,” he says, adding that a popular product nowadays is sun tunnels, a type of skylight that uses reflective piping and can carry daylight as far as 20 feet from our roof to the center of your home. “We find ourselves installing these in virtually any room application—hallways, bathrooms, master closets and kitchens are the most
desired locations,” he adds.

When it comes to window materials, the experts at Window World recommend vinyl. “Vinyl is actually a 100-percent recyclable material,” they say, adding that vinyl products are durable and require minimal maintenance, thus reducing the need for replacement or maintenance materials—no painting, staining or stripping.

Man-made shade can also be utilized to reduce the heat and glare of direct sunlight, therefore increasing your home’s efficiency. “Any windows on the west and east sides of the house should be shaded with awnings, exterior shades or shutters, or deep porches,” Seville says. “South-facing windows can usually be shaded with about a 3-foot overhang at the top of the windows. North-facing windows do not need to be shaded in our climate.”

Landscape lessons
Landscaping can green your home—literally and figuratively. Deciduous trees can block the sun’s heat in the summer and let the heat in during the winter, Goldstein says. He also recommends using plants to create wind screens. “Wind is what sucks out most heat and air,” he says.

According to George Allin of Allin Landscaping, the top three factors to consider with regards to water conservation in the landscape are: “Plant selection, plant selection and plant selection. Every other factor pales in comparison to this most crucial demand for water conservation when it comes to planting. For example, many non-irrigated Knock Out Roses thrived provided prolific blooms, during the extreme hot, dry conditions of the area’s historic drought during the summer of 2008. There is a broad palette of plant possibilities that can be selected to perform well while at the same time conserve the precious resource of water,” he says.

To further increase water conservation in your landscape, Allin recommends utilizing stone in a variety of creative applications, which can not only conserve water, but also introduce added drama to the landscape. “Large, sweeping, artistically sculpted seas of pea gravel, river slicks or other stones with dramatic outcroppings of multi-sized and varied-textured borders mixed with colorful urns and tough plants, such as variegated yucca or ornamental grasses, can replace thirsty turn and other plantings, as well as provide a striking and unique landscape,” he adds.

With hardscapes, “Be wary of placing hard surfaces/masonry on the southwest side of the house,” Goldstein says. “It will retain heat and make your home hotter in the summer.” And choose porous paving products, Seville says, to reduce runoff during rain, reduce erosion and cut down on the amount of chemicals and silt that goes into waterways.

Another eco-friendly method used with landscaping may be common knowledge to many homeowners, but is still strongly recommended by Atlanta experts: incorporate rain harvesting systems. Whether it be as small as a rain barrel or as large as an underground pillow or cistern, every little bit helps. “We use too much potable water for landscaping,” Seville says. “Rainwater is free and works fine for landscape irrigation.”

Become Certifiable—In A Good Way
In recent years, certifying homes as green has become a trend in itself, as it proves to the homeowner how sustainable and healthy the home is. “Getting a project tested and certified is the best assurance that your house will perform as well as you expect,” Seville says. Smith agrees, noting that the certification is “great for resale value, as well.” Seville and Smith’s recommended certification programs include EarthCraft House (www.earthcrafthouse.com), Home Performance with Energy Star (www.energystar.gov), LEED for Homes (www.usgbc.org/leed/homes) and the NAHB Green Building Program (www.nahbgreen.org).