30 September 2012

Singing in the Rain

With the rainwater collection system's inlet piping complete, we've been waiting for a good rain to test it out.  That rain came this weekend.

I am happy to report that the cistern is now about three-fourths full.

And the piping seemed to work pretty much exactly as it was supposed to.  Rain flowed down from the roof, into the gutters to the downspouts, through the underground lines, back up the inlet piping, into/across the first flush device, and then into the tank.

(Yeah, we still have the old rainbarrel set up next to the new downspout.  It's nearly full and has been serving all of our watering and cleaning needs throughout this never-ending project.)

(And yeah, the yard is still a torn-up mess.) 

(And yeah, the gravel area is, too.) 

We did detect some leakage in the pipes, but it was all above-ground, and it's nothing that can't be fixed.  The nozzle on the first flush was too big, allowing a steady stream of water to escape instead of a gentle trickle.

The first flush kit came with several drippers in different sizes, so it was no big deal to swap it out for a smaller one.  The larger cap (just upstream of the black nozzle) also had a pretty serious leak, but a few inches of Teflon tape will take care of it.

The cleanouts that we put at the base of each downspout (plus two more underground) need some Teflon tape, too.  Cleanouts aren't usually under pressure, so they're not made to be totally watertight.

Although it would have been nice to fill the cistern in one rain event, I'm actually pretty glad it didn't fill completely.  The one part of the piping related to getting water in that isn't finished is the overflow drain.  Currently there's just a 90-degree turn coming out of the tank...and then nothing. 

An overflow situation this weekend would have made a big, muddy mess.  Now that we're six or seven feet closer to full, the overflow piping just made it to the top of the to-do list.

26 September 2012

Detached Garages Are Green

Construction on the new house around the corner is starting to pick up.  Some of this has been going on:

And then this:

The garage foundation was poured yesterday, with the remainder of the foundation scheduled for the end of the week.  Why was the garage poured separately from the rest of the house?  Because they're on opposite sides of the lot (that's the garage at the top left of the Lego lot).  

And that leads us to a green building principle that we weren't able to implement at the Green House: the detached garage.

Detached garages are green for multiple reasons.  First, we tend to store chemicals (paint thinner, fertilizer, gasoline in a gas-powered lawnmower, etc.) in the garage, so it's good to keep them far away from where we live.  And then there are the cars themselves.  A surprising number of carbon monoxide poisoning cases (including deaths) result from cars being left on in garages.  Even a car that is turned off continues to emit fumes until it cools down.  Similarly, a gas water heater in an attached garage can send toxins into the house if it's not properly vented or if it malfunctions.  And although the wall between a house and the garage should be treated like an exterior wall, it's often the leakiest wall in a house, so when you turn on the range vent or a bath fan, the negative pressure created by the outflow of air will likely lead to that chemical-laden garage air being sucked into the house.  (Although we don't keep much in the way of chemicals in the garage, I still detect a faint odor of exhaust every time I open the door from the house to the garage.)

And then there's the risk of fire.  In the last few years, I've heard about two random car fires at workplaces (presumably from wiring issues).  There was also a tragic car fire in Austin recently due to a manufacturer's recall that wasn't addressed -- the fire took place at night, spread to the house, and killed some of the home's occupants.

Have I convinced you that garages are bad news?  And yet we still opted for one.  There were two reasons for that.  First, when we found these plans online, we were instantly sold on the aesthetic (we ended up buying the CAD files and hiring a local designer to change pretty much everything behind the front facade).  And second, once we dug into our deed restrictions, we discovered that detached garages, like garage apartments and duplexes, are forbidden.  Weird, I know.

Austin Energy's green building program will award a point for various venting systems in a garage to deal with the fumes, two points for thermally separating and sealing the garage from the living space (we did this), and three points for a detached garage.  My buddy Bubba (owner of the Lego Palace) and his wife will count those three points among many, many others on their way to a five-star rating.

All this talk about detached garages reminds me of a conversation I had early in our own design process.  I had called a well-known green architect (prior to meeting the designer we ended up hiring) and made the mistake of asking if he would be willing to work with those plans I had found online.  He was very clear about his feelings on stock plans, first telling me that attached garages aren't green.  When I informed him that our deed restrictions don't allow for a detached garage, he said that a two-story house would be greener than one story.  When I told him we also had a deed restriction against two stories, he shifted gears and mocked the concept of a mudroom, saying that we no longer need a room to take off our overalls when we come in from the fields.  I told him that, as triathletes, we were actually really looking forward to a place to store gear, rinse wetsuits, and take off wet/sweaty/muddy clothes.  It was clear that this was not an architect-client love connection.  Ironically, though, our builder has built houses designed by this architect's firm and incorporated some of his (very good and very green) specifications and building practices into our home.  So we ended up with the benefit of that architect's experience and knowledge without actually working with him.  Win, win.

23 September 2012

Rainwater Harvesting Update #1635

The rainwater collection system hit a milestone this weekend.  All of the pipes connecting the gutters to the cistern are connected, so the next rain will (finally!) collect in the cistern.

I'm happy with how the downspouts turned out.  I had tried to use 3" pipe, transitioning to the 4" lines underground, but I couldn't find the right pieces in anything but the very heavy, unwieldy Schedule 40 (we're using the thinner, lighter SDR-35), so eventually I decided to go with 4" pipe.  Although the downspouts are more conspicuous than they would be in 3" pipe, I like them fine.  Plus we plan to train a climbing rose along the middle one of these three, so it will pretty much disappear as the rose grows up around it.

We're still a long way from finished, though.  Now that the system is set up to get water into the cistern, we are turning our attention to getting water back out of the cistern -- an equally complicated pipefitting process that I've been working on bit by bit along with the intake pipes.

I'd like to think we're 75% of the way finished.  But we're 100% finished working in the summer heat, so hopefully that last 25% will go a lot more quickly.

18 September 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Agave

It had to happen sometime.

My beloved agave desmettiana variegata, which I injured myself planting last year (but it was worth it because it's the focal point of the front yard), has started growing its bloom spike.

This is really exciting because bloom spikes always look awesome -- imagine this spike ten feet tall:

But it's also sad because it means the agave is going to die soon. After our long search last year for just the right agave, this is the one that's supposed to occupy that spot in our yard, and it will be hard to see it wither away after it finishes flowering.

Although I hear the bloom spike will be covered with baby agaves -- so if you're in Austin, let me know if you want one -- they won't be nearly big enough to visually anchor that side of the yard. I imagine they will be similar in size to the babies that are currently growing under it (which are about 2-4" tall):

Fortunately, we do have the larger baby that we harvested last fall.

It was just a few inches tall when I removed it (similar to the larger of the babies growing under the mama in the picture above), but now it's about a foot tall and two feet in diameter. (This picture made me think it needs more sun, so I just took it outside.) But I've been saving it to plant in the backyard after we finish the underground cistern lines, so it remains to be seen what will assume the prime spot in the front yard.

I hear the spike could grow as much as a foot a week, so for now, we're just going to sit back and enjoy the show.  And when the time comes, I hope the death will be outweighed by the rebirth that will accompany it.

12 September 2012

A Rainwater Riddle

Question: If 1,000 square feet of roof surface generates 623 gallons of rainwater from a 1" rain, how long does it take to fill up a 2,500-gallon cistern?

Answer: Five months and counting.

Yes, we're still working on the rainwater collection system. We've had some delays due to city requirements, hunting down parts, and the fact that there's only so long I can work outside each day during the summer in Texas.

Although we're still a long way from finished, I wanted to share some of the details of the downspouts that we built to replace the regular metal ones. In our case, since the cistern isn't right next to the house, water will have to travel down the downspouts, underground across the yard, and back up this pipe into the tank:

(More about that in this post on the "first flush" system.)

Here's a good diagram of this type of configuration (borrowed from here):

This is referred to as a "wet system" because the underground pipes, as well as the downspouts, will hold water between rains. This kind of system uses gravity to push the water up the pipe into the tank. (If you're thinking "that's not right! Gravity makes things go down, not up," imagine rain draining into a downspout and filling up the underground pipe, then rising up the downspout. Since water always wants to find the lowest point, the downspout won't stay full if there is an empty pipe on the other end; it will climb halfway up that pipe so that the surface level is equal in both vertical pipes. Eventually both pipes will be full, and as long as the inlet into the tank is lower than the top of the downspout, water will begin to flow into the tank.) Because the downspouts have to actually hold water, they need to be watertight -- hence the need to replace the original metal downspouts with sealed PVC pipes.

So here's one of the new PVC downspouts standing at the ready:

Looking closer, you will see that we added a cleanout at the base of the downspout, just above ground level:

The square cap on the left screws off of the silver T fitting to access the pipe. Each downspout has one of these as a precaution in case they clog (although the gutters will have covers, it was easier to install these up front than to have to deal with an unexpected clog later with no way to get into the pipe). This happens to be the lower side of the lot, so it's also likely that we'll use this cleanout to drain the pipes before a freeze, but that wouldn't do anything about the water below the cleanout (the water in the underground part of the pipe), so we also put a cleanout underground in this irrigation box:

Although we still won't be able to empty it out fully, the slope of the lot will allow most of the water to flow out if necessary (either before a freeze or to drain any debris that might slip through the gutter screens and collect at the bottom of the underground pipe).

Most irrigation boxes have green covers (to blend into grass and other landscaping), but we used a purple one to denote reclaimed water. Rainwater isn't technically "reclaimed" water, but this relates to a city requirement for rainwater harvesting that I'll explain in another post.

Although we put the new downspout on the same side of the corner to maintain the clearance on that side of the house (since every inch was critical when we rented the bobcat to do our landscaping), we repositioned the outlet from the gutter to the downspout for aesthetic reasons. We didn't realize it when we decided where to put the downspout during construction, but the old positioning gave us this view from our bathroom:

So while we were replacing the downspout anyway, we called our awesome gutter guy (Lionel at Central Texas Custom Gutters) to move the spout and patch the hole from the old one. (Last year he helped us fix some mistakes from the initial installation -- which was done by a different company -- and we've been really happy with his work.) Now when we look out the window, this is what we see:

With all of the trenches and pipe installation underway, the view from most of the windows is still in the "it has to get worse before it gets better" phase, but at least this little upgrade is complete. Which makes the bathroom just a little more pleasant:

But back to the pipes....

04 September 2012

Sustainable Indulgence in Phoenix

My recent trip to Phoenix wasn't all gawking at landscaping, tearing apart a condo, and installing a Nest thermostat. I also had a vacation-within-a-vacation when I spent the last night at the Biltmore Resort.

The Biltmore was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and/or one of his students (depending on what you read) and built in 1929, and although it's not what I expected of Frank Lloyd Wright, it was impressive. The resort's sprawling grounds contain several buildings and over 700 guest rooms, and all of the buildings share the same art deco-style textured block exteriors.

Even this slide structure at one of the resort's many pool areas tied into the theme:

Phoenix's characteristic oleanders softened the buildings' lines:

Inside the hotel, the vibe is more of a cross between arts and crafts/prairie and art deco. Here's Wright's, the restaurant where we ate during our stay:

And the more casual Frank and Albert's (Albert is one of the three brothers who built the hotel):

The resort's website boasts a lengthy list of sustainability initiatives/features, including reclaimed water for landscaping, key cards made from corn, and food scrap donation -- 800 pounds a week! -- to keep food out of landfills and avoid the resulting production of greenhouse gases.