Letters: November/December 2007

November/December 2007
A version of this article appears in the November/December 2007 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more letters.

When Zero Really Isn’t

I’ve just read the letter to the editor from Larry Spielvogel and Mike Lubliner’s response (“Approaching Zero Energy,” Sept/Oct ’07, p.3). The “Zero Energy” name really doesn’t work well.  It communicates a false sense of clarity about a concept that’s very hard to pin down.  So here’s a suggestion. How about comparing homes using Btu/ft2/year?  And how about calling those Btu “imported energy” or “fossil energy”?  This is not just heating and cooling energy we’re talking about, but total energy use, so building energy needs along with residents’ energy needs get counted. This approach avoids us trying to measure solar input, which seems to involve guesswork that using utility bills avoids.

Solar energy doesn’t come with the environmental costs that fossil energy comes with. If one wants to cover his or her roof with photovoltaics to lower the Btu/ft2/year number, fine. It just raises the dollars per square foot number to build the home.  There are other things to discuss, but you probably don’t want this Home Energy to be 1,000 pages!
I’ve read that the average new house in the United States uses 100,000–130,000 Btu/ft2/year and that the ultra-low energy use Passive homes use up to 38,000 Btu.  Just to throw down the gauntlet, my house uses 12,000 Btu (and is powered with 630 watts of PV).  The advantage of this metric is it’s easy to come up with and seems reliable.  Green washing, or the appearance of it, is something this industry needs to prevent!
Larry Weingarten
Elemental Enterprises
Monterey, California

Special Request

I am an individual at the Monroe Correctional Complex. I’ve completed over 80 college credits with an emphasis in solid-state electronics and am currently enrolled at Edmunds Community College. I also focus my studies on renewable energy.

Presently I am developing a proposal for the Department of Corrections to train incarcerated individuals in the manufacture, installation, and maintenance of solar water-heating systems. Individuals would receive training in renewable energy technology, manufacture solar hot water panels, and combine them with off-the-shelf hardware to form complete systems. These systems would then be installed in the various institutional buildings throughout the state.
Commercial firms, educational partners, communities, the environment, private citizens, and incarcerated individuals would all benefit. Individuals would reenter society with real work skills, state energy costs would be reduced, and the benefits would trickle down for the greater good of all. I see commercial and educational partnerships as invaluable in this type of venture.

To this end I’d appreciate any assistance or referral to resources that you may be able to offer. Currently my only technical reference is Solar Technology for Buildings, by Ursula Eicker, which is available for a few weeks at a time through interlibrary loan.

Kim deDonado
Monroe, Washington

Readers, please contact Kim with any assistance you can provide at

Monroe Correctional Complex
B-418-L, #747419
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Home Performance Pricing Guide

What is the best pricing guide to use for estimating home performance upgrades? I have a 2004 version of the Means Repair & Remodeling Guide, but it’s not close to what I think I need. Is there an existing database or do I have to modify an existing database or do I have to make up my own database? The reason I’m asking is that, although I’d rather just do audits, I have to act as an auditor/general contractor in the St. Louis, Missouri, Home Performance with Energy Star program and am wrestling with specifications and bidding.

My clients have a trust in me because of the Home Performance with Energy Star program, but when I try to spell out what I want to the subs, their eyes glaze over and they mutter strange words, and this trust begins to erode. In order to maintain some objectivity, the model I am developing is that of being an auditor who has a list of qualified subcontractors. I contract with a client for an audit. After the audit there is another contract with the client to get bids.

Then I set the specifications and submit them out for bidding. Then I contract with the client and the winning subcontractor. In order to be fair to the subcontractors I should set out a good basis of specifications and be with them when they view the project. Is anyone doing home performance using a model like mine?

Ray Chapala
Chapala Consulting, Incorporated
Edwardsville, Illinois

Greg Thomas, president of Performance Systems Contracting, in Ithaca, New York, replies:
This is one reason why there are not as many people doing home performance as there are consultants. If consultants do home performance, they usually have a strong working arrangement with one or two contractors, who already know the specs and can deliver the expected installation without the consultant having to pull out too much hair. This, of course, makes the consultant less of a true third party, but there is still enough separation that the consultant model can appeal to customers.

Develop a spreadsheet with pricing and run it by the contractors to make sure it is reasonable. We developed our own database that has materials pricing, labor estimates, and labor rates. The database also produces the proposal for the customer. As a consultant you don’t need the pricing accuracy that a contractor needs, but commercially available databases will still not have enough home performance-related remodeling improvements to be useful.

One other recommendation: Have the contractors you work with use a specific crew on your jobs. You will really cut the amount of time you have to spend educating and reeducating the contractors’ crews.

Thanks, Greg, for your helpful comments.
In regard to your point about a consultant being part of the project, I’ve found that it is necessary, and the problem is to find the proper level of involvement. I’ve wrestled with this part. A few years ago I did a few projects myself (roofs, ductwork, crawlspaces, air sealing) and also did projects as general contractor; great experience, but I stopped because it took too much time away from researching building science (learning my craft) and doing audits. Now my level of involvement in a project is to, first, work as the auditor to identify problems that are economical to fix. Second, with client permission, perform liaison work in lining up contractors, specifying the work, and doing the quality control. To keep it simple and to reduce bias, I charge by the hour, no matter what size job. What makes it good is that I’ve found a remodeling contractor (National Association of the Remodeling Industry-certified) that does very good work. What makes it better is that he is willing to work with the client and me doing (and learning about) energy upgrades. This arrangement keeps me as an unbiased auditor/consultant. The final result is that the client gets an energy upgrade that does not get out of hand and is within budget with both a comfort and a financial payback.

Ray Chapala


To give credit where credit is due, the research and writing for the article “How to Get Furnace Sizing Right,” (Sept/Oct ‘07, p. 20) was done with help from staff at the Saskatchewan Research Council, including Rob Dumont, Tom MacDermott, and Kelly Winder.

Fair Thee Well Robert Maxwell

From Anna Hilbruner, project coordinator for the Alaska Building Science Network:

“We recently lost a pioneer in the energy conservation field. Robert Maxwell of Fairbanks, Alaska passed away on Saturday, September 22nd. His contributions and accomplishments are many. He was involved in all aspects of low-income weatherization from 1979 through 1997 and he was a consultant in energy efficiency, building science, and program evaluations from 1997 up to the present. Robert was the principal of Alaska Energy Associates, and served on countless local and national nonprofit boards.  He was formerly the President of Alaska Building Science Network and a charter member for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center. In earlier days it was not easy to promote adoption of sustainable building practices, but Robert never abandoned his quest to learn and share his knowledge. Robert was also well-known and much loved for his lifelong dedication to serve the poor, especially those most needy in rural Alaska and a Scotty dog or two. He leaves behind his 9-year-old daughter Ruby, to whom he was dearly devoted. So long Captain Bob, you will be missed by all who were lucky enough to know you.”

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