Off-Grid Property Considerations

10 Dec

IMG_0644If you’re planning on living without access to public utilities or off-grid, you’ll want to know a lot more about the property you purchase than you might think. Costs for improvements, water and septic as well as local  building regulations can make your dream home cost prohibitive, if these costs are hidden at the time you purchase your property.

Septic: it’s unlikely that you will have access to a community sewage system so you’ll need to put in a septic system. To find out if a standard septic system will function normally, a soils engineer will need to be hired  to do what is called a “perk test”. Essentially, a big hole is dug,  water added, and the engineer times how long it is for the water to  drain.  Several issues can come up that would require a special (special is always more expensive) system that will need to be engineered  specifically for your location. For example, if the water takes too  long, if your ground water table is too high, or if there’s not enough  drain-able dirt down hill from your home, it’s going to cost you. If a  perk test hasn’t been done on your property, always purchase the  property contingent on a successful perk test.

The Well: How deep is the average well in your area, and what are the average well costs?

Access: Is there a road maintenance agreement with surrounding properties? Do the neighbors adhere to the agreement?

If there is no road or driveway to your building site, speak to an  excavator who does road work, in your area, to get cost estimates before making an offer on the property. Crossing drainage or small ravines can add tens of thousands of dollars to your building cost.

Sprinklers: Does the county building authority require sprinklers in homes without access to fire hydrants or in remote locations?

The answers to these property preparation questions, and other unknowns,  might require a such large enough chunk of your budget that you won’t  have enough left over to build your dream home.

Finding a qualified Design-Build Construction firm with a sustainable focus before securing your property can help ensure that you will be shopping for  property with a plan in mind. When you find your place to settle, it  will be as ideal as possible for your logistical needs as well as your  emotional needs.

Did I forget anything important that you have had experience with? Please add your comments or questions below. I look  forward to hearing from you!



Water Wise

3 Dec

water 1Why would I choose to be writing about water conservation at a time when large areas of Northern California are experiencing flooding? Our area narrowly dodged the bullet. If temperatures hadn’t dropped just in the nick of time, the Truckee River would have over flown it’s banks in many places this weekend. We’ve been experiencing a drought here in our area, as do many areas of the world. The rain would have been more welcome if it hadn’t come all at once!

So drought over, right?! We can all go back to letting our water run while we wash dishes and brush our teeth? No. The reason is that with the rise of the earth’s temperatures, we will be seeing more and more extreme weather conditions. For that reason, an integral part of a sustainable home must be water conservation.  We will certainly experience weather events that will cause flooding and massive snow fall, but we can also expect summers and winters as well to be dryer.

water 2With current local health department ordinances, it can sometimes be difficult to install grey water and rain water catchment systems if you live in a suburban setting. But there is still a lot you can do to live more sustainably and at the same time, be a good citizen of the planet.

The USGS estimates that the average American uses 80-100 gallons of water per day.  This is a conservative number. The 2006 United Nations Human Development Report put us at 152 gallons per day. That’s over twice the average annual per capita number for the rest of the world.

If you live in California, Nevada, or many other progressive states, you’ll have a toilet that uses 1.6 gallons of water for every flush. Unless you’re now in grade school, you’ll still remember being forced, or paid, to make the change from the old fashioned 4 gallon/ flush toilets. According to the American Water Works Association.

Here’s how it breaks down:water 3

Use Gallons   per Capita Percentage   of Total Daily Use
Showers 11.6 16.8%
Clothes   Washers 15.0 21.7%
Dishwashers 1.0 1.4%
Toilets 18.5 26.7%
Baths 1.2 1.7%
Leaks 9.5 13.7%
Faucets 10.9 15.7%
Other   Domestic Uses 1.6 2.2%

If we can all convert to those 1.6 gallon flushers and other standard water saving plumbing shower heads and faucets, the United States can cut that number down by a substantial 35%.

You might be interested to know that the green building industry is seeking to cut your water usage down even further. In the current issue of Eco Home,  you’ll find several articles about what our homes will look like in 2020. Mary Ann Dickinson and Carole Baker discuss a hyper-water-efficient home where a family of four will use about 2,500 gallons per month for inside and outside use! This isn’t some futuristic dream, this is a looming reality. Right now, manufacturers are developing toilets that will use only .5 gpf and it will be a 1.2 gallon that come from filtered “grey water”. That’s water that was used in your shower, washing machine, sink drains and dishwashers.  Companies are developing more water efficient products because they know that there is going to be a market for them in the future.

Other products on the horizon? There will soon be clothes washers that use 10 gallons per load and dishwashers that use 4 gallons per load. When homes are designed to be sustainable, these appliances as well, will use recycled grey water. Water use data will be available on your iPad along with energy use data.

What does this mean for those seeking to live sustainably, and especially self-sustainably? The costs for sustainable water practices are going to come down, while the choice of products is going to go up. If you choose to live with a water catchment system, it will be easier to do in dryer climates.

If you have any experience with water catchment or grey water systems, I would love for you to share your knowledge and expertise.

Sustainable Window Considerations

2 Dec

Sustainable and efficient living can be obtained from many different components of how you build and maintain your home. One of the single biggest bangs for your buck is in your window selection.  I have discussed some different options on great brands to go with in my previous blogs.  If you are still undecidied there are some things you should know when making your selection.  I want to discuss more product options available for your energy-efficient windows.  You’ll have the choice to decide which glazing and gas options and how many panes you need. These will contribute towards maximizing your home efficiency and performance goals.

dual_pane_windowsGlass Glazing and Insulating Options

Manufacturers can cover glass panes with a layer of metallic material to improve the energy efficiency of your windows.  Low-emissivity, or Low-E, coatings on the glass and crevices between panes can be used to block heat transfer through a window.  The following coatings are available, depending on window and door needs:

A single metallic coating blocks heat loss to the outside and reflects heat back inside a home.  This coating is typically used when a high SGHC is needed, such as in northern climates.

A double metallic coating on the inside glass surface reflects heat into a room and rejects the warmth in the summer.  This coating is better at reducing heat loss than the LoĒ-180 and may be suitable in all climates except the Southern zone of Energy Star.

A triple metallic coating of silver which provides a lower U-factor and lower SHGC than the other two coatings.  This option is recommended in areas with intense sun and high cooling costs.

3 windowsGases that Insulate Panes

I’d go with argon if you live in a moderate climate. All windows lose some amount of gas over time, but not all windows lose gas equally. It depends on the type of spacer the window has and what is used to seal it. If you get a good quality window with Super Spacer or TPS, the amount of gas loss is minimal.

Understand that Low E coatings and gasses perform 2 different functions. Both are important. Low E glass reflects direct infrared heat but some of the heat is absorbed into the glass and can transfer across the space between 2 panes of glass more readily without gasses. The gasses are much heavier than air and therefore provide insulation between the panes of glass. Argon and Krypton are also important in the winter because they slow the amount of heat transfer from inside your house to the outside much more effectively than air alone. Dual- or Triple-Pane Windows

Window products came be found with two or three panes of glass.  Triple-pane windows are usually thicker, heavier, and have a lower U-factor and are attractive for northern climates. Dual-pane windows are the most common and perform well. Your local dealer can help you select the right coatings for your climate; for example, some coatings are more ideal for the north while others for southern climate zones.

WINDOWSAdditional Window Options

Additional options include designs that prevent heat loss around the window perimeter. A removable exterior glass panel with glazing can be used to improve the performance of single-glazing wood windows.

What brands or types of windows have you heard about? Sustainable windows aren’t cheap, have you seen any savings in cost from replacements?

2012 Greenbuild Products Part 3

26 Nov

When you choose to make the commitment to live off the grid, you should incorporate everything that your budget will allow to be as efficient as possible. Sure you want to have a good home design the maximizes efficiency and reduces the overall size of the structure, but you should also be putting thought and research into the most sustainable products you can use to make your life convenient and eco-friendly while living with self-sufficiency. Eco Home Magazine outlined some of the best new products and this year’s Greenbuild Expo that showcases some of the most innovative new products on, or coming to the market. Here are 4 more that I thought were very unique:

Solatube Smart LED System

Solatube harvests daylight and coverts it to cost and energy-efficient LED lighting at night. Serving as an ideal security feature, the LED lighting prevents your home from going completely dark once the sun goes down and each LED bulb lasts an average of 20 years, the company says. An optional occupancy sensor activates the LED only when a low-light area is occupied.

Raven Industries VaporBlock G

Capable of withstanding temperatures between -70 F and 180 F This Product is the latest addition to Raven Industries Engineered Films Division’s series of high-performance vapor, gas, and moisture barriers. It is a three-layer underslab vapor barrier that comprises polyethylene resins on the outer layers and a core layer containing 10% post-consumer recycled polyethylene.

MP Global Products QuietWarmth

This electric radiant heat underlayment is great for use under new floating wood, laminate, and ceramic and porcelain tile flooring. Manufactured from a minimum 77% recycled textile fibers, it prevents drafts and hot and cold spots and is controlled by individual programmable room thermostats. The company says at 1/8″ thick, it does not raise the overall height of the floor beyond that of ordinary underlayment.

Gerflor Creation Collection

The Creation Collection Gerflor has introduced to the luxury vinyl tile market is offered in seven new styles inspired by urban landscapes, nature, and natural wood. They come in more than 85 designs and a multitude of sizes, the synthetic, antistatic, and resilient flooring has a 0.7mm PVC wear layer with a hygienic, low-maintenance polyurethane surface treatment. The formaldehyde-free tile contains 35% pre-consumer recycled content and is completely recyclable.

What is the most sustainable product you have in your house? Comment on this and all of my blogs!

2012 Greenbuild Products Part 2

25 Nov

Continuing on with my evaluation of some of the hottest new products on the market right now to increase the efficiency and sustainability in your home, I’d like to introduce to you five more products I find especially interesting. As mentioned in my previous blog post, there are a slew of new products out there today. One of the best places to find the newest and cutting edge products are at the Greenbuild Expo. Eco Magazine sifted and sorted through this years featured products and showcases them on their website. Next on the list:

Bradley Advocate AV-Series Lavatory System 

Combining an automatic soap dispenser, hands-free, low-flow faucet, and high-efficiency dryer into one unit prevents you from Trying to find soap and a paper towel to wash your hands in a commercial bathroom. The material they are made from is Terreon, an acrylic-modified polyester resin that is Greenguard-certified as a low-emitting material. This ADA-compliant system comes in a variety of single, two- and three-user models.

Fireclay Tile Runway Collection 

Fireclay teamed up with interior designer Kelly LaPlante to create a series of tiles inspired by fashion designs such as “the houndstooth pattern and corsets”. Fireclay Tile sources its materials from the San Francisco Bay Area. Four patterns are available in 224 all-natural ceramic glaze colors and on two clay body types. The Debris Series Recycled Tile contains more than 60% pre- and post-consumer recycled content; and the Vitrail Series Handmade Tile, a white, stoneware clay.

Dow Corning Vacuum Insulation Panels  

These thin-profile, high-performance panels provide an insulation value of up to R-39 per inch, which is five to 10 times higher than conventional insulation materials can provide, according to the manufacturer. Silver-colored panels come in thicknesses between 0.25″ and 1.5″ and as large as 2′ by 3′. Their cores are made from up to 95% pre-consumer recycled content.

CalStar Products Masonry Units

Because their proprietary manufacturing process does not incorporate kiln firing, CalStar’s masonry units consume 81% less energy than conventional clay bricks, which translates into an 84% reduction in carbon emissions. To reduce the weight and amount of material used in its bricks, now offers its modular, utility, and large-format facing with cores, which also eases handling. They are available in a variety of standard colors and sizes, and the bricks contain 37% recycled content.

Cooper Lighting Metalux ArcLine LED Series

These low-profile ceiling lights generate a natural, soft light. The dimmable luminaires use at least 40% less energy than a conventional three-lamp fluorescent troffers and are available in four sizes.

Which of these products do you feel will make the most positive impact on the environment and sustainable products industry?  Feel free to comment on this and every blog.

2012 Greenbuild Products

19 Nov

The 2012 Greenbuild Conference & Expo  just started this last week and as always it spurs a major question; how sustainable is your home? Unless it was built recently, probably not as sustainable as it could be. There have been a host of new products that have come on to the market in the few past years that will truly make a difference in how sustainable your home can be. Eco-Home Magazine just published their list of the 21 most interesting green building products at the expo and there are some great ones that I’d like to outline.

Viridian Reclaimed Wood

Their new line of engineered, reclaimed hardwood flooring, sourced wood from old shipping crates and pallets as well as gym bleachers to create four species categories: Jakarta market blend (tropical mix color shown), European beech, white oak, and CVG Douglas-fir gym bleacher. “The VOC-free flooring’s UV-prefinished option features a microbeveled edge, while the unfinished option has square edges.”

Sunoptics LightFlex

Acuity Brands has introduced, a tubular daylighting device for suspended ceiling applications to increase and prolong the amount of daylight that building interiors receive,. The system uses Sunoptics skylight and a patent-pending optic sphere inside the roof curb to capture and direct sunlight down the lightwell. To control the light output, LightFlex is integrated with Acuity’s LED luminaires and intelligent controlsLightFlex comes in a 21″ tubular shape as well as 2′-by-4′ and 4′-square configurations.

WhisperGreen LED ventilation Fan/Light

This Panasonic Energy Star-rated from, which will be launched at the 2013 International Builders’ Show in January, offers spot and/or whole house ventilation for cleaner indoor air quality, the company says. The LED light fixture provides added illumination with maximum energy-efficient light output, using about 75% less energy than a traditional incandescent bulb. The fan also includes a built-in motion sensor, variable speed controls, and a delay timer.

Zola European Windows

Zola has some of the most efficient windows and doors available in the U.S. and Canada. They offer a wide range of other high-performance products are available, including balcony doors, terrace doors, and tilt and lift-slide patio doors.

Bamboo Hardwoods

Bamboo Hardwoods has added seven decorative options to its Hybrid engineered flooring line that provides the beauty and durability of exotic woods with the sustainability of rapidly renewable bamboo, the company says. The long-lasting, formaldehyde-free floor can be glued down, nailed/stapled, or floated and comes with a 25-year finish warranty. For an in-depth view of bamboo flooring read my blog.

Andersen’s Architectural Collection Windows

One of my favorite companies that do a lot of R&D to implement sustainable techniques into their products, theseEnergy Star-rated A-Series windows are constructed with Fibrex composite, which combines the strength and stability of wood with the low maintenance of vinyl. The windows were designed in conjunction with leading architects to ensure design authenticity for any style of home, from Queen Anne to Modernist, the company says.

Keep an eye on my blog to see the next series of products that are changing the way we look at the breen building process. As always, feel free to join in on the conversation.


A Sustainable Home Model

18 Nov

If you have been keeping up with my blog you know I love promoting Sustainable homes and especially Envirohaven. I think the home design they offer, called the Haven will revolutionize what it means it build a sustainable home. The home embodies what it means to be sustainable by designing their home to be hyper efficient in three areas:

Materials and Labor: The Haven design is a unique, patent pending faceted structure that requires fewer building materials while providing maximum structural strength. The strength of our structure is inherent in the design of the frame, eliminating the need for sheer walls. In other words, an “unlimited” amount of windows and doors can be installed.  The Haven uses 30% less framing materials than conventional rectangular structures and more than 30% fewer man hours for factory assembly and site work. This substantial savings is passed on to our clients in every home we sell.

Additional material and labor savings are realized by using a central energy core linking all mechanical equipment to the plumbing and wiring with very short and efficient runs. Exterior walls and roof of the Haven are 7.5”thick providing a substantially above average R 50+ insulating value.

Usable Interior Space: Our patent pending design provides maximum floor plan flexibility while enclosing the greatest interior space and using a limited amount of exterior framing and finishing material. The prime interior space along the exterior walls can be used to provide maximum light and ventilation for the interior of the home in every floor plan we offer. Our energy core allows for direct access to mechanical equipment without sacrificing comfort. The height of the Haven creates an abundant opportunity for storage and closet areas in excess of the 1400sq. ft. living space.

Energy: The Haven and its LIFE SYSTEM share a symbiotic relationship; each having been designed for the other. The LIFE SYSTEM consists of four separate entities: the electrical system; solar thermal system; waste disposal system; and the domestic water system.

The electrical system is designed for Direct Current (DC), circumventing energy conversion and maximizing system efficiency. An Alternating Current (AC) inverter for higher load requirements can be designed as part of the system where required. Solar-thermal heated water will provide radiant space heating and domestic hot water. A wood, pellet or propane heat back-up option is available.

Go to their website  to see all of the options you have to build your sustainable home with them and let me know how the process goes.