|Demand Drives Home Green Technology |
By Alex Veiga
November 22, 2008
Robert Mechielsen's designs for environmentally friendly homes
often include cutting-edge features such as high-efficiency heating and cooling
systems and solar panels to convert sunshine into electricity.
But he's only half joking when he says many of the best green home solutions
available hail from the 18th century, such as installing awnings to keep a home cooler.
"There's also a very advanced way of using wind technology -- it's drying your
clothes outside," said Mechielsen, founder of Studio RMA in Los Angeles.
With environmental consciousness at an all-time high, home owners searching for
Earth-friendly ideas don't have to settle for such rustic measures.
Manufacturers and retailers looking to cash in on the green movement are rolling
out green building and remodeling products and demand is helping to drive down
costs, experts say.
Market research by McGraw-Hill Construction projects the residential green
building market will have annual sales of $12 billion to $20 billion this year.
That would represent between 6 percent and 10 percent, respectively, of the
overall home building market.
The firm has said it expected that the green building market would double by 2012.
Some of the products are based on new technology, but many are based on
concepts, such as solar water heaters, that have been kicking around for decades
with relatively few takers.
That's changing, in part because of soaring energy costs.
Home owners have more options than ever. "It's a very dynamic time. In 10 years,
there's not going to be such a thing as green building, just building," said
Sarah Beatty, founder of Green Depot, a chain of stores in the Northeast that
sells green building products.
At the top of Mechielsen's list is installing a souped-up version of an attic
ventilator, such as the NightBreeze by David Energy Group, which electronically
manages how evening air circulates into the home, lowering cooling costs.
"It works on a computer, so people don't have to open or close their windows,
which is so 18th century," said Mechielsen, who counts commercial and
residential projects, such as the Eco House in Pasadena, Calif., among his green
efforts. "It's really a big cost-saver."
Mechielsen also raves about a relatively new generation of solar panel
technology known as thin-film solar. Instead of being made of costly silicon,
thin-film solar cells are made of copper, indium, gallium and selenide. The
cells are thinner and more flexible than existing photovoltaic technology.
"It doesn't look as clunky," Mechielsen said. \
Applications for residential use are expected to become available as early as
next year, experts say.
Sometimes the most efficient energy reductions don't come through technological
wizardry. As much as 25 percent of heating and cooling costs are the result of
heat loss, as air moves in and out of a house through holes, improperly sealed
windows and insufficient insulation.
"If you're looking at a home as a system you can start to address low-hanging
fruit that aren't the sexy solar panels on the roof, but are things like
tightening up the house," said David Johnston, co-author of "Green From The
One product increasingly used in residential building and renovation projects is
closed cell polyurethane foam insulation, which is sprayed between walls or in
the attic and expands to cover small cracks and other openings through which
heat can escape.
Traditional insulation products can be inefficient or harmful to the
environment. Other green options include insulation sprays made of denim or
Cel-Pak, which is made of recycled newspapers.
"It's the first and most cost-effective thing (homeowners) can do," Johnston
said. "Most people don't even know they can do that, they just want to put more
pink stuff in the attic."
Another no-brainer is replacing incandescent light bulbs with more efficient
options. LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, remain the latest in efficient lighting
technology, but many experts continue to favor compact-fluorescent lights as a
better alternative, saying the LEDs remain too expensive by comparison.
Another criticism is there aren't many options in terms of light fixtures that
work with LEDs. Johnston said that's beginning to change and he expects prices
on LEDs to fall dramatically as a result.
Another option for lighting is designed to bring in more natural light without
having to go through the expense of building a full skylight.
Solatube International of Vista, Calif., offers a dome-shaped product that
installs on the roof and uses reflectors to bend light up to 90 degrees into the house.
"It literally pushes light into an interior space," Beatty said. "It looks like
you're looking outside at the sky."
Shaun Parvez badly wanted to include a solar energy-powered system or a wind
power generator as part of the extensive expansion and remodel of his home in
Washington Township, N.J., about 15 miles outside New York City.
But the structure, which is going from a one-story, 2,800 square-foot ranch
house into a 2 1/2 -story, 10,000 square-foot home, is blanketed with shade from
100-year-old oak trees.
One of the many green-friendly options he chose to is a smart sprinkler system
to help conserve water use. Such systems were traditionally used to manage water
use in commercial properties, such as golf courses and nurseries. Now,
manufacturers have been tailoring them for conscious home owners.
"It constantly measures rainfall to see if it had rained throughout the night .
. . if it rained, there's no reason to run the sprinklers, Parvez said.
Jay Hall, a technical consultant for the U.S. Green Building Council, said
homeowners looking to amp up their green credentials should be wary of spending
thousands of dollars on high-end products before they consider cheaper upgrades,
beginning with buying Energy Star-rated appliances, which can save as much as 30
percent off electricity costs.
Still, some products, including solar water heaters, are a great option, Hall said.
Solar water heaters were first invented in the 1970s and 1980s but are now
becoming more widely available and more efficient.
One type, an evacuated tube solar water heater, uses glass cylinders to collect
solar energy and heat a small copper pipe inside, which transfers heat to a
manifold filled with water. It helps offset the use of a standard water heater.
Hoping it will help lower his electric bill, The Rev. Gordon Polenz acquired one
for his home in Sidney, a small town about 95 miles south of Syracuse, N.Y.
"Up to now, if you're just going to talk financially, it wasn't worth it,"
Polenz said, noting that seeing the cost of home heating oil jump $1 a gallon
helped change his mind.
The 40-gallon unit by Silicon Solar cost Polenz $1,000, plus another $2,000 to
install because he opted to have a concrete slab poured to secure the unit.
Polenz hopes to make his money back within four years. If gas prices continue to
go up, the payback could be a lot sooner.