29 August 2012

Phoenix (Thermostat) Rising, Part II: The Nest

My trip to Phoenix earlier this summer gave me the unexpected opportunity to test drive the Nest thermostat (the stylish little thermostat that saves energy by learning your habits and only turning on when necessary).

I was there to help a friend who is remodeling the 30-year-old home she recently purchased (with plans to green it up). The kitchen and all of the flooring had already been removed, so it was time to take down some walls.



But midway through all of that, the air conditioner stopped working. After checking the breaker, I began to suspect that the problem might have been the thermostat. (My suspicion was based in part on sheer optimism that it wasn't the AC unit itself, and in part on the fact that the thermostat was original to the house and stopped making the clicking sound it had, until then, made every time we changed the temperature.) Although the whole air conditioning system was going to be replaced at the tail end of the remodel, I suggested that we buy a new thermostat to test my theory, but a Nest was already on hand for the HVAC upgrade, so we went with that. And since I'm the handy one of the two of us, it was all on me to make it work.

Replacing a thermostat was trickier than I expected. There were several different wires, and although they were color-coded, the colors on the old thermostat didn't necessarily correspond with colors on the Nest. Oh, and when I took the old thermostat down, it exploded into about ten different pieces, so there was no turning back.

I followed the Nest instructions to the letter (both in the manual and on the website), attached the face, and...nothing. No numbers, no lights, nothing. Could I have connected the wires wrong? Or could the original problem have been between the air conditioner and the Nest? We needed to figure it out, because if the problem wasn't the original thermostat, we were going to need a usable thermostat before calling an HVAC repair person.

So I held my breath and dialed the customer support number. I cannot say enough good things about Nest customer support. First they talked me through my installation to confirm that I had done everything correctly. (I had.) Then they walked me through the Nest's on-board diagnostics to get to the bottom of the issue. I don't totally understand it, but they determined that, paradoxically, disconnecting one of the wires would get it to work. And it did!

(The blue light at the top of the Nest is one of the motion sensors that help it to learn occupancy habits. The lights are invisible to the naked eye but somehow came through in pictures.)

Although the Nest is still being used with the old air conditioning system, it is already reducing the house's energy use. (Online access to turn it on or off helps with that.) And when the new HVAC system, foam insulation, and upgraded windows are in, things will be very efficient indeed.

27 August 2012

Phoenix (Thermostat) Rising

I spent a few days in Phoenix earlier this summer, and although it wasn't my first time to visit, I was amazed by all of the amazing (and drought-tolerant!) landscaping to be found. I'm no fan of 100-degree-plus weather, but I dare say the beauty made up for the heat. In addition to the cacti and agaves, the town was all abloom with oleander, Pride of Barbados, and even bougainvillea.

These pictures were all taken in the neighborhood where I stayed, which I recognize may not be 100% characteristic of Phoenix, but landscaping like this was all around town. And it was mostly all sun, all the time, but when the clouds rolled in, everything took on an ominous glow.

The oleanders especially surprised me, not only because I didn't expect to see them in Phoenix, but also because they're used as hedges everywhere, in a way you just don't see in Austin. Sometimes that works out pretty well...

...but in other places, they end up in spaces that are too narrow to accommodate them, and they get cut so far back that they're not much to look at...

...but in most places I saw, they looked like normal hedges (but lacked the characteristic oleander blooms):

I was also surprised by all the bunnies -- of both the fauna and flora varieties. First, the one with the white tail (one of several I saw), right in the center of this picture, facing away from the camera:

Then there was this cinnamon bunny ears cactus:

The Green House already has a regular bunny ears cactus (as mentioned here), but the cinnamon variety (named for the reddish-brown shade of the spine clusters) is less common and really special. Because cacti can sprout from a single fallen paddle, and some fallen paddles may have made it into my carry-on, cinnamon bunny ears may be making an appearance in my garden, too.

I had no idea that Phoenix would be such a showcase of drought-tolerant landscaping, but I took comfort in knowing that, even if our drought continues and Austin's trend toward desert-inspired yards continues, we won't have to totally forgo color.

By the way, Phoenix in the summer isn't ideal for a run -- I didn't even bring my shoes -- but I did manage to get a swim in, in one of the most amazing settings I've ever seen:

I still haven't mentioned why I was in Phoenix. That's coming.

23 August 2012

And So It Begins...

I've previously mentioned all of the construction going on in the neighborhood, but no project has been as exciting to me since our own as one that's just getting underway.

Right around the corner from the Green House is a lot that's been on the verge of groundbreaking for a while. I've been following its progress for about the last year, since I discovered the owner's blog, austin cubed, which is as fun to read as it is informative. After a couple of false starts on the design front, the plans are finally final, permits have been secured, and the builder has this fine, architecturally precise model to refer to should any questions arise:

(Picture shamelessly snagged, with permission
after the fact, from austin cubed.)

A modern, angular stucco-clad two-story with a flat roof and detached garage. Although, aesthetically, it couldn't be any more different from the Green House, it has two things in common with our house: (1) nearly identical square footage and (2) similar degrees of green-ness (it is expected to receive a five-star rating from Austin Energy Green Building).

Nothing too exciting is going on yet, but I was delighted to drive by this week and see the first signs of impending construction:

(Part of a fence, a sidewalk, and some trees are being removed before work starts on the foundation.)

It's been more than two years since I've written at length about our own construction process, and I look forward to this opportunity to do it again, blissfully unburdened by the stress of direct personal involvement. It's going to be an exciting 8-10 months!

13 August 2012

Information is Truly Power Under Austin's Energy Audit Ordinance

Recently I had the opportunity to write an article for Sierra Club Green Home regarding Austin's new-ish ordinance requiring energy audits before home sales (among other requirements for commercial and multi-family properties) in order to encourage owners to make energy-efficiency improvements. Excerpts from the article? Don't mind if I do:

Austin, the fourth largest city in Texas, has established a goal of offsetting 800 megawatts of peak energy demand by 2020. The city’s Energy Conservation Audit and Disclosure (ECAD) ordinance has begun to bear fruit by inserting energy-efficiency into the dialogue between buyers and sellers and between landlords and tenants.

The ordinance, adopted in 2008, requires sellers of homes over ten years old to have an energy audit performed and then provide the report to the buyer prior to sale. This enables the buyer to either request energy-efficiency upgrades as part of the transaction or to undertake them after closing. The ECAD audit addresses aspects of the property such as the condition and estimated R-value of the attic insulation, the percentage of air leakage through the duct system, and the energy-efficiency rating of the air-conditioning equipment.

Read the full article, and see more pictures (some of which you might recognize) here.

09 August 2012

Resolution Farm

After visiting two other urban(ish) farms recently (Green Gate and Boggy Creek), I was reacquainted with a tiny, extremely local urban farm: Resolution Farm.

I say "reacquainted" because we actually spent a day there early last year, when it was just a double lot with a bungalow on one side.  This Google Map image shows what it looked like then (the picture above was taken from roughly the spot where the dark car is sitting on the vacant lot in the picture below):

There was an organized work day for volunteers to help till, weed, and otherwise turn the vacant half of the property into a farm, and Steve and I decided to spend the day helping out and learning some farm skills. (Indeed, it was that experience that gave us the confidence to invest in a tiller to get our own lot ready to landscape, saving us the $35/hour -- plus tiller rental -- that our landscape designer would have charged for her crew to do the work.)

Resolution Farm is a different kind of farm from Green Gate and Boggy Creek -- urban in the truest sense of the word, located right in the middle of town (just about a mile south of the Green House).  It's on a half-acre piece of land, which also includes the owner's house:

Every square foot of the farm is put to use, from the rows and rows of vegetables that were going strong when I was there...


...to the herb spiral made of salvaged bricks and stone...

...to the henhouse....

...and its egg boxes...

The day I visited the farm, the owner, Randy Jewart, was giving a presentation through the Austin Energy Green Building program. Randy is deeply committed to urban farming and expressed concern that the local food movement is becoming a "gated community" due to the cost of locally grown food versus grocery store goods.

Resolution Farm has a CSA ("community-supported agriculture," memberships to receive a share of the harvest on a weekly basis), but even using volunteer labor whenever possible and charging farmers' market prices, the farm isn't financially self-sustaining. Randy has had to get creative to keep the farm afloat. One of his initiatives is Resolution Gardens, which designs and installs raised bed systems for folks wanting to grow vegetables at home. The name "5 Mile Farm" refers to the notion of establishing enough vegetable garden capacity around town (in individual yards, etc.) to roughly equal a whole farm within a five-mile radius.

Resolution Farm is fairly unique in allowing CSA members to assemble their own shares instead of giving everyone the same random assortment of whatever was just harvested. (For the $20 weekly fee, you get to choose $20 of veggies.) Still, I'm apprehensive about having to use a whole share each week, so I haven't joined the CSA. But Resolution Farm has become my go-to spot for quality in-season veggies. Their tiny multicolored beets this spring were the best I've ever tasted. (Can't beat their beets, you might say.)

I am -- and north central Austin is -- so, so lucky to have Randy and Resolution Farm in our neighborhood. Although the challenges are great, seeing what he and his team have built in the last two years gives me faith that the farm will thrive and, with it, Austin's local food community.

08 August 2012

Green News: Financing Energy-Efficiency

I've tried to avoid the subject of whether green construction increases a home's value (because I don't think the dollars tell the whole story of whether green upgrades are worth the cost). Lately, though, it's become increasingly obvious that dollar value is important because that is, of course, what financing decisions hinge on, and green homes and technology can't become mainstream until lenders (and government insurers, etc.) are comfortable investing in them. So today's green news is focused on value and financing issues -- with an inadvertent emphasis on solar because, I suppose, that's the easiest component to disaggregate.

First, hurdles to green improvements. This article from the Environmental Defense Fund explains some of the factors that go into the decision-making process regarding energy-efficiency improvement, including reasons upgrades often aren't made even when the payback seems clear. Lack of financing is one, but not the only one.

Green homes are worth more. A California study has found that homes with green designations (LEED, etc.) sell for, on average, 9% more than comparable homes without such designations. Similarly, studies in Oregon and Washington concluded that building green increases homes' value by 8-12%.

Solar payback. We tend to think about the payback period of solar panels in terms of how long it takes to save enough on utility bills to pay for the system, but there's another way to recover the cost: sell the house. This April 2011 article says that owners of homes with solar panels can expect to recoup pretty much every dollar at resale.

Emerging financial models for solar systems. Neat article explaining financing options for solar today (both residential and commercial) as well as some other models that are emerging (leased rooftop, etc.).

Vermont's colleges and universities are green. This tiny state has big ideas for financing energy-efficiency in higher education.

Group net metering. Net metering is the concept of charging utility customers with solar panels (or wind turbines) only for the power they used in excess of what they generated. It's a pretty good system, but group net metering takes the concept a step (or two) further by allowing multiple utility accounts to benefit from net metering, allowing (even encouraging) customers to work together to find the optimum location for their little power plant. This article makes the case that group net metering, which is currently allowed in just a few states, should be expanded throughout the country.