Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Where Deconstruction Pays Off - Literally

First off, those of you following the blog probably noticed a drop off in the number of posts over the last 6 months.  This is a result of three months of time away from renovations where I had less to write about followed by three months of going hard on renovations where I had less time to write.  Trying to get back into the routine again and I have lots I can comment on, but going to start with a short and sweet post today.

As part of our project (and a LEED requirement) we are trying to ensure most of our construction and deconstruction waste is diverted from the landfill. To date we have managed to divert 91% (by weight) of our "waste".  Due largely to Montreal eco-centres, there has been no costs for us to properly dispose / recycle our material.  In fact, we have even made money in the process.

Last week I did my first scrap metal run: old bathtub, old furnace, recovered nails, drywall corners, ducting, old copper pipes, etc.  Took the material to Metaux Depot on the East side.  Easy and friendly and I managed to get $128 for my 560 lbs of scrap.

Full van on the way to scrap yard

That pail is full of old nails and screws from the deconstruction jobs.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Platinum Doors

  I have blogged before about whether or not a LEED reno is more expensive, and it is.  But there are returns as well: energy savings, reduced environmental impact, healthier home.etc.   For the most part when it came down to deciding when we were willing to invest more the decisions were pretty cut and dried.  At least until it came to interior doors.

As with most of the building materials. there is a half point award if you choose an "environmentally preferable product" for 80% of the application. So if 80% of our doors are "green" that half point is ours.   For the most part the doors we have are staying so they count towards it as they are now "reclaimed" (the greenest product is the one you don't buy).  With enlarging the main bathroom doors (up from 24") and finishing the basement, we fell short of the 80% unless the new doors qualified.

So the mission was now to find a door that qualified:
 - the wood needed to be recycled, reclaimed or FSC certified
 - no added urea-formaldehyde

I didn't have much luck finding a pair of matching reclaimed doors the right size and style so we started looking at new.  Masonite, distributed in Canada through Mouldings and Millwork, has exactly the product we were after: the Emerald series doors.  Doors with a recycled wheat straw core, FSC wood shell and no added UF.   Sounds perfect.

Each door comes with this tag.  I guess because there is no other way to tell that your door is "green"

In hindsight, I am not sure how I found that door.  Even going back now to the website, I struggled to find the reference.  The product isn't listed in the product catalogue and when I called the Quebec distribution centre the response was "Wow, I have never seen one of those doors yet."  Knowing these were rare and special order products did not instil a lot of confidence that I would be able to haggle on the price.

In the end, we special ordered them from Reno-Depot with a $50 mark-up over the non-emerald door (after a lot of convincing of the staff that such a product existed).  Was it worth it?  If it comes down to the half point that gets us certified: absolutely.  It also means that between the paint, mouldings, cabinets and doors we have kept VOCs to a minimum throughout our renovations and that is worth something to our health.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tankless vs. Tank: the water heater debate


Early on we realized that our home renovation would mean replacing our hot water heater.  Not only was it older and less efficient but it is a natural gas heater without closed combustion.  LEED requires that all combustion heaters have a sealed air supply and exhaust duct.  This is a safety / indoor air quality issue as open combustion appliances may result in combustion gases or exhaust entering our living space.

Knowing we had to replace it left us with the decision between a traditional water tank or a tankless water heater.  The difference?  A traditional water tank heats up water and stores it until you need it.  A tankless heats water as it passes through the heater.

There is a lot of debate about which is better and a lot of mixed reviews from tankless users. Looking through the complaints though I think a lot of the problems were false expectations about what a tankless can provide.

Tankless Advantages

Energy Savings
Realistically we probably only use hot water in the home a couple hours of the day for washing and showering. The rest of the time the tank is still expending energy to keep it hot for us.  Since tankless units aren't storing any hot water they have no standby losses which can typically account for a third of all energy loss.  Some studies have even shown over 50% energy savings by switching to a tankless unit from an older tank.

Again since you are not storing any hot water you don't need something that is 50 gallons in size. Tankless units mount on the wall and are only a couple feet square thereby freeing up potentially valuable floor space.

Endless Hot Water
No more running our of hot water in the shower. Since the tankless provides the hot water on demand it will never run out.  The tankless will however have a maximum capacity so make sure it is sized correctly.  If you get one designed to provide water to two showers don't be surprised when the water runs cooler when you have two showers and a washing macine and a dishwasher all going at the same time.

Cleaner Water
Anyone who has every drained an old hot water tank will tell you that the water in there is not pristine.  Over years there is a lot of rust and build-up down there. Not an issue with the tankless.

Longer Life
Most manufacturers list this as a benefit.  I am not sold on it but I suppose it could be true if you followed the US Department of Energy recommendation of replacing your water tank every 7-10 years.

Tankless Issues

Tankless units cost more because they are more complex requiring electronics not found in standard tanks. Some of these costs can be offset by government subsidies available most places.  In Quebec for example, there is a $450 rebate from Gaz Metro for switching to a tankless unit and the federal government's relaunched EcoEnergy program will kick in another $375.  This definitely brings the costs in line with traditional tanks.

In colder climates (like Canada) the incoming water temperature is low.  This means a higher temperature jump to heat the water up and virtually eliminates electric tankless units for whole home systems.  Natural gas units can provide much higher BTUs but will cost more to have installed.

It should be noted that the higher cost will be offset by the efficiency gains. Pay more up front but save on the gas bill.  There are endless discussion room threads however about whether you will ever make back your investment and a 2008 Consumer Reports article suggests you probably won't.

I suggest you take a look at the math for you and your situation taking into consideration any and all subsidies that may apply.

Time Delay
One of the biggest complaints about tankless units and what most sales people never prepare consumers for is the speed of delivery of hot water.  (it doesn't help either that tankless systems are often referred to as "instantaneous water heaters")

When you turn on your hot water tap, the water startes to move down the pipe and the tankless system detects the flow rate.  It then fires up the burners, heats up the heat exchangers and starts heating the water which still needs to flow through the pipe to your faucet.

That all takes time so it will take longer to get hot water to your faucet than with a tank.  Some people find this wait unacceptable.

To combat this some models have a small buffer tank built in, this allows for hot water to start flowing right away at minimal flow rates. So if wait time is important to you search out that option.

Water Sandwich
The buffer tank also resolves the other big issue with tankless heaters:  the Hot/Cold water sandwich.

Here is the scenario: get up in the morning and run some hot water in the sink.  Heater fires up. Water heats up. All is good.  Heater turns off.   You hop in the shower and there is still hot water in the pipes.  Meanwhile cold water flows through the tankless sytem while the minimum flow rate is detected and the system turns back on.  You end up with a short blast of cold water mid-shower.

Obviously, people whose system and habits makes this happen are not happy with their tankless systems.

As there is more complexity to the system there is more that can go wrong: circuit boards, flow detectors, control valves.

While you no longer need to drain and clean the tank you do need to clean the filters and possibly de-scale our unit every couples years

Our Decision
For a long time we were firmly on the fence about which way to go but it ended up being a relatively straight forward decision.  We have one luxury that we enjoy that doesn't quite mesh with a fully "green" lifestyle: a nice hot bath.  In remodeling our bathroom, we added a nice deep tub to soak in... an 80 gallon tub.  Running the first bath, the water went cold half way through.  We aren't about to install a giant water heater for a once a month luxury bath so we will be going tankless (and yes ours will have a mini-buffer tank).

Monday, May 30, 2011

Insulation: Are we saving money?

A huge part of our renovations is the upgrade to the insulation.  In every room we work on, we remove the existing drywall and insulation, and install new Roxul and rigid insulation.  We know it increases the insulation for the room but how much will it reduce our energy bills?

We have just completed our heat load calculations.  This is a pre-requisite for LEED homes: to know how much energy is being consumed in heating and cooling each room.  It is important information to know in order to properly size your furnace and ducts. The results?

Pre-renovation our home required 67,000 BTUs at peak demand.  Pretty typical for a bungalow our size in Montreal.  When we have completed the whole house: 36,000 BTUs.  That is with upgrading the insulation in the walls from R-8 to R-24 and in the ceiling from R-30 to R-50. So a reduction of 45%, but does it save money?

I estimate that the material costs per foot of wall is about $18.  This includes the Roxul, rigid insulation, drywall, vapour barrier and a couple dollars for screws, mud and paint.  To re-insulate the entire house it is then approximately $6390*.  Our heating bill should go from roughly $1500 a year to $825: a savings of $675 a year.

If we were to add that investment to our mortgage and then paid it off with the savings it would take approximately 13 years to pay back.  Not bad ... but it could be better.  If you were really looking for the best bang for your buck: forget the basement.

Because the basement is underground there is minimal air leakage and it is not subjected to the same temperature extremes: your basement floor is probably the same temperature year round.  On top of all that you already have 8" of concrete separating you from the outside world.  Not the best insulation but better than the 1/4" OSB sheathing on your main floor.  So financially, if your basement is already insulated, upgrading it doesn't produce as significant a savings.  Don't get me wrong it is worth doing (and essential if it is currently uninsulated) but not as critical as the upstairs and attic.

For our house 50% of the cost is in insulating the basement, but only 20% of the energy savings. So if we were doing only the upstairs the cost would be $3195 and a savings of $540 years.  That drops the payback period down to only 7 years.  That is a pretty good return on investment.

*one thing to keep in mind I am basing this all on material only as my labour is apparently free

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Half way there...

So with the addition of our new toilets, we estimate that we now have 23.5 points towards LEED status.  The base certification is 44 points so we have broken past the half way mark!  Unfortunately, I am not sure we have done half the workload though as 10 of those points came solely from our homes location.  Either way it is a nice milestone to pass.

For those interested in the gritty details, we have added a new page called "Our Points" that shows which points we have attained, which we are planning on getting and which ones we are steering clear of.

The two big blocks of points that are left are the landscaping and the indoor environment quality.  Indoor air we should start to see some points in the next couple weeks with our new bathroom fans.  The landscaping.... maybe 2012.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Proficiency: Canada's Most Efficient Flush Toilet?

It might make me a dork, but I am really excited about my new toilets.  We picked up two "Stealth" toilets from Niagara Conservation.  Actually here in Canada they are marketed as "Proficiency" from Water Matrix.  It is hard to find them though.  They are only currently carried in Ontario / Alberta / and Manitoba so I had to get mine from the Lowe's in Ottawa. 

In picking a toilet, there are two numbers you should pay attention to: Performance and Efficiency.

The Maximum Performance or MaP test measures how well toilets actually flush away waste.   The test results are in grams and represent how much latex encased miso paste the toilet can consistently flush down.

250 g -  Average male bowel movement
350 g - Minimum performance allowed
600 g - Average performance (on par with old-school non-efficient toilets)
1000g - Top end of measurement scale (if this doesn't work for you, you should probably see a doctor)

The stealth toilet is rated at 650 g and at least one independent test put it at 800g.

Water Efficiency
How many litres per flush (lpf) or Gallons per flush (gpf) does the toilet use?

13L  / 3.5 gpf - Typical pre-90s toilet
6L    / 1.6 gpf - Maximum North American flush volume since 1992 regulations
4.8L / 1.3 gpf - High Efficiency Toilet
4L    / 1    gpf - Pressure Assist Toilet or Liquid flush on dual flush toilets

Stealth toilet:  3L / 0.8 gpf!! 25% more efficient than pressure assist toilets and half the government standards.

How it pulls this off is pretty ingenious.  Traditional toilets just use the weight of water to flow through the bowl and push the waste out.  When low flow toilets became standard, some people were disappointed with the performance so manufacturers started to produce pressure assist toilets.  These toilets use pressurized air to force the water out of the tank and into the bowl at higher speeds.  This gives the toilets their distinctive whoosh noise and also gives a bigger push to the waste.

The Proficiency (or Stealth) toilet is a vacuum-assist toilet.  So rather than just push the waste it also pulls it.  When the water drains from the tank, the resulting vacuum is used to suck the water out of the bowl and down the drain. (They explain it much better and with pretty graphics on their website.)

So does it work? We now have both installed and our review is all positive.  It is so quiet and uses so little water that you actually don't expect it to work.  When it quickly clears the bowl, I find myself thinking "oh it got lucky that time".  But it gets lucky every time.

The Savings?  Changing our old 13L toilet to a 3L will reduce our water consumption by almost 78,000L a year.  That is enough water to fill up a very large backyard pool.  That would also save the average Canadian homeowner $70 a year.  Our water is un-metered (we don't pay based on usage) so we see none of that savings, but for a $200 toilet that would be a pretty good return on investment.

The toilet also got us 2 points towards LEED certification for meeting the Very High Efficiency Standard of <=4.1 Lpf and 350g MaP.

I have added a brief follow-up review after 18 months of use.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Framing with Reclaimed Lumber

The fact that we are trying to minimize our waste and re-use as much old material as possible has been mentioned a couple times in the blog.  Part of this was saving and re-using lumber.   As I have now been using some of our "saved" lumber, there are some tips I can share.

Half the battle is in the actual deconstruction or salvaging of the lumber.  When taking apart a wall, the main goals are to remove the nails and avoid damaging the wood.  Try to avoid knocking the studs out sideways or twisting them out.  While these are good demo techniques, they will wreck the stud ends.

The technique that I found worked well was to try to free up the top plate. Using the reciprocating saw, I would cut the nails between the top plate and the joists (carefully so as not to damage the joists). Do not cut between the stud and the top plate though, doing so makes it nearly impossible to remove the nails.

I could then tilt the wall in (you obviously need to free the ends as well) and knock the top plate up off the end of the studs.   Using a pry bar, I would then pull the studs up off the bottom plate.  As a result, the nails are being pulled out the same path they came in and not damaging the wood any further.  Use a pry bar or demo hammer (my single favourite tool) to pull any remaining nails out.

I do not bother removing staples, mainly due to the quantity in my lumber.  I would guess there is probably 100 staples per stud in some cases and I am not that patient. I just tear off any trapped paper / poly and hammer them all flush with the surface of the wood.

Warped Lumber - the other end is flat on the floor
Now that you have your lumber, evaluate it.  My first thought when I took the insulation out of the basement walls was that it must have been framed when people still drank on the job. Taking a look at some of the lumber after the fact, I am willing to cut them a little more slack. Some boards were badly warped and twisted.  My advice on using warped lumber in your new wall: DON'T.  If the board bulges out it will show after drywalling. Sideways warps make it harder to properly fit insulation.  Bottom line it will make become a pain.

I have found techniques for straightening boards which I will try this summer (they usually require a hot day). Otherwise the worst wood gets quarantined.   There are still some uses for some of it, bracing for example. They are often not warped for the entire length so they can be cut and used for shorter lengths.

Regardless of the quality of you demo work, you will want to trim the stud ends if you can.  Just to ensure a flat square board end and because the ends may be split or start to look like swiss cheese with all the nail holes.

Best case scenario, you are doing what I am and using studs from upstairs in the basement where the wall height is a couple inches lower.  If you are re-using in the same height wall one thing you can do is add a double top plate.  This would give you an inch and a half total to trim off the two ends.

Be very careful when cutting the wood, despite best efforts there may still be metal hiding in there.  I have had my mitre saw find broken nails, finishing nails and staples in wood I thought was clean.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Six cool things we are not doing

Happy Earth Day!  I figured today would be a good chance to share some amazing home features which won't be included in our project. While we are proud of the renovation that we are undertaking, project limitations (cost, time, the house) have taken some very cool eco house features out of our scope.  Here is the list of six of those cool things that I wish were included in our project, maybe they will inspire you:

Geothermal Energy
Geothermal (or Ground Source) heat pumps take advantage of the fact that after a certain depth the ground around our homes is a very consistent temperature.  It is deep enough that it is insulated from  the seasonal variations and ends up being a nice consistent  temperature.  So rather than go to the effort of creating heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, you just exchange heat with the soil.  Ends up being a very efficient way to heat and cool a home.

Why we aren't doing it:  Cost.  To retrofit an existing home is in the tens of thousands of dollars. Geothermal will reduce your heating costs and end up paying for itself but ironically those savings are greatly reduced if you have a "green" home.  The smaller and more energy efficient your home (i.e. the lower your heating bill) the longer it takes to save your money back.  While a geothermal heat pump is out, we are planning on including an air-to-air thermal pump in our renovation.

Induction Stove
I have been trying to find an excuse to buy an induction stove for years.  Traditional electric stoves heat a electric element which then heats the pot (or the glass cooktop and then the pot).  Induction heating uses electromagnetic induction to heat the pot directly.  The result is faster and more efficient heating.  It also means you have electric heating that is a responsive as gas and a stove top that isn't hot and can't be left on (it doesn't work unless there is a pot there).

Why we aren't doing it:   We have a good efficient stove that we can't justify replacing right now.  Induction appliances are also pretty pricey.

Rainwater Capture
We will be buying rain barrels this spring.  Collecting water in rain barrels for your garden and lawn have a host of benefits, but in the end it collects a very small fraction of the water.  As an example, 25mm of rainfall results in 3750 L of water coming off our roof ( for the imperial readers 1" = 1000 gallons).  Our rain barrels might collect 10% of that.

In the meantime the rest of the rain goes into the stormwater collection system, while at the same time we pump, filter, disinfect and fluoridate water from the river to our house and we just flush it down a toilet.  Seems inefficient.  Large scale rainwater capture or harvesting usually involves a large storage tank which provides water for the home and in some cases it can be completely self sustaining (i.e. no city water).  I have also seen set ups where it is just a rain barrel in the attic that feeds the bathroom toilets.

Why we aren't doing it:  The retrofit cost is high for a large scale unit and our home being a bungalow with a crazy roof line makes a small scale project awkward.

Greywater Recycling
Instead of collecting rainwater, why not collect and re-use your own waste water.  Now to clarify, grey water includes everything that goes down the drain except toilet water.

Like rainwater, you can go big or small.  Big projects include tanks and filtration systems but this could be as simple as the toilet/sink combo to the right. When you flush this Caroma designed toilet the tank refills via the above sink allowing you to wash your hands.  That waste water is then stored for the next flush.  I had seen a lot of these in the cramped bathrooms of Japan.  Not only are they efficient they are also very compact.

Why we aren't doing it:  Going big on this was too large a project and we couldn't figure out small projects that work for our home layout (and I already fell in love with a different toilet that I will blog about later.)

Green Wall
A very cool development in green building is the increase in green or living walls.  These are walls completely covered in vegetation that can be outside or inside your home.  The attached picture was borrowed from a Canadian company called Green over Grey.

The benefits of a green wall?  Aesthetics, built in air filtration, can control heat loss/gain, creates a relaxing natural environment.

Why we aren't doing it: Space.  This is a feature to really design a home or building around, trickier with a retrofit unless you have a space that would naturally work well.  Unfortunately we don't.

Green Roof
Similar to a green wall but obviously on top of your house.  Green roofs have the same benefits of green walls but can also be used for things such as roof top gardening.

Why we aren't doing it:  Pretty tricky to retrofit, especially on an sloped roof.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Prerequisite that Scares Me

In the LEED for Homes rating system there are 18 prerequisites;  results or processes that must be met to achieve any rating.  Most of these are results based: you can't have invasive plants in your garden (SS 2.1), you need to have an energy star bathroom fan (EQ 5.1), etc.  Even in the worst case scenario where you totally missed the pre-requisite you can correct it after the fact.  Don't have a low flow toilet (WE 3.1)? Easy enough to replace it.

However,  there are a handful that are procedural.  This includes "Sustainable Sites 1.1: Erosion Controls During Construction". It requires that a detailed erosion control strategy is put in place prior to disturbing any soil.

Most of us (living in North America anyways) have probably seen a new housing development going in. First step always seems to be to bulldoze everything living to the ground. Apart from the loss of vegetation this also means that all the plant life that was holding the soil in place is gone.  Rainfall can then wash away the topsoil (the rich organic layer that is best for plant growth).  This is bad for the local vegetation as the topsoil that took years if not decades to develop is lost leaving harsher conditions behind, But those tons of soil are going somewhere too;  probably into a local stream, pond or even the municipal storm water management system.  None of those places appreciate a huge sudden influx of dirt.

So LEED requires that all projects, Gut/Rehab or new development, have an erosion control strategy in place.  This means protecting the existing top soil, and controlling the runoff and water entry points. It is a logical and valid prerequisite.  What scares me is that there is no chance for a correction.  You build a beautiful net-zero house that qualifies for LEED platinum but you (or your landscape professional) forget to put up a silt fence ... no certification.

Up to now our erosion control strategy has consisted of "Retain all existing vegetation and all unpaved areas designated as non-disturbance zones."  That worked fine until I needed to put in a larger basement bedroom window.  The corresponding excavation (we had no existing window wells) disturbed the topsoil and the ridiculously rocky ground under it.  My new erosion control strategy is to tarp the heck out of everything:

- Topsoil: stockpiled and protected from disturbance (with two tarps)
- Clay and rocks: tarped
- Window well: sides tarped
- Waste concrete: tarped

So I may have gotten a little carried away, but my topsoil is protected and there is no water run-off carrying earth off my property.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reduce, Reuse, Freecycle

Throughout our kitchen deconstruction and renovation, we were pretty proud of ourselves for staying focused on ensuring that as much of the "waste" material as possible was diverted from the landfill.  In my original post on the deconstruction, we discussed a 97% diversion rate.  Unfortunately, that was based on the assumption that everything we wanted to divert we could.  In some cases this is easier said than done.

We had done our homework and had a sense of what could be diverted, but held on to it.   Our thinking being that it was better to achieve a critical mass for some of these products before we began diversion.  i.e. how  you dispose of 1 lb of drywall and 1 tonne will be different.  It was also to keep me from having to run to the scrap yard every week. So we sorted it and stored everything in the basement.  Now that we are adding a basement bathroom we kinda need that space so we began the process of clearing some of it out.  [Sidenote: I would strongly advise finding a better storage spot than the basement, having to carry 1150 lbs of drywall downstairs and then back up was stupid].


As much as possible we are re-using material.  This is the greenest and most economical way of working.  No new materials to produce or purchase helps the planet and the pocketbook.  We are re-using the lumber from the interior wall we removed upstairs to build interior walls in the basement (which works really well because the slightly lower ceiling height means you can cleanly trim damaged stud ends).

We are also re-using most of the old insulation that is coming out of the walls, just not in walls.  Newer Roxul insulation provides better insulation per inch than our current 30 year old insulation but the old stuff still has life.  So it is going into the attic where space is not a concern.  We figure by adding the  insulation to the  attic we can boost the already strong insulation there by 50 - 60%.

Some of the material, while still re-usable, no longer had a place in our house. So the challenge was getting it in the hands of people who could use it.


If the material was in good enough condition we sold it using the online classifieds service Kijiji.  Free listings and decent size audience meant we were able to sell the hood fan, kitchen cabinets, countertops and sink fairly quickly.  The hood fan went into a main kitchen, the cabinets/countertops were broken into two sets and went to different cabins.

For materials that didn't have a significant monetary value we used freecycle.  This is an online forum where you are able to give away used (or new) goods.  The whole idea is that what is garbage to you probably has value to someone else.  So they connect the two people together rather than see the material in the landfill.

Our dining room cabinets (they were not prefabricated cabinets so not in excellent condition when they came out) and our basement fluorescent lights both found homes thanks in part to Freecycle.

I will point out you can also list things on Kijiji for free as well but we like the spirit of Freecycle and haven't had a need to post elsewhere.


Material that can't be re-used needs to be recycled. For the metals this is fairly straight forward .. I hope.  Our old piping, wiring, nails and other scrap metal don't take up a lot of room so we are still stockpiling. But local scrap dealers are plentiful and we should be able to make some money disposing of this.

Montreal has 6 eco-centres through out the city.  These centres collect various "waste" with the goal of properly diverting or disposing of it.  To date it is where I disposed of:

Full Load for Eco-centre
- Wood waste: broken / damaged boards and odd trimmings
- Brick Mortar (from the fireplace fiasco)
- Old Dishwasher
- Wooden Pallets
- Drywall

For all the above, I am comfortable knowing this material will be recycled or disposed of in the greenest way possible... except the drywall.  The city of Montreal doesn't recycle drywall to my knowledge but I was reassured by the eco-centre hotline and the on-site attendant that it would be.  When the drywall was dumped into a bin with aggregates I had renewed concern.

Which is too bad because gypsum (the main component of drywall) has great after life uses:
- it is a natural fertilizer
- can be reused in new drywall

Luckily there is a gypsum recycler in Quebec:  Recycle Gypse.  The service costs money but gives you peace of mind that your waste is being properly disposed of and they come to your house to pick it up which means I will never again have to stuff 1000lbs of drywall in the back of the minivan.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Our Kitchen Before and After

Well it has taken almost 10 months since we first started working on the kitchen and there are still a few details left to clean up (window coverings, seat cushion, baseboards) but in our minds the kitchen in complete.

The "Green" features of our kitchen:

- No and low VOC paint
- Low VOC sealants
- Formaldehyde free cabinets made from FSC wood
- Zodiaq Recycled glass countertop
- Cork flooring
- R-24 Insulation and full air/vapour barrier
- Energy star appliances
- LED under-cabinet lights
- Recycled MDF, low VOC window trim
- Electronic charge station with dedicated switch
- 95% of demolition and construction waste diverted from the landfill

What is was:

Our new kitchen (although I am not too happy with the pictures. There always seemed to be too much contrast):

View from Family Room
View from Dining Room

Pantry Unit

Desk and Banquette

LED Lights in Action
Next up... the bathrooms.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

LED undercabinet lights

I had blogged previously about my preference for LED lights over CFLs.  Our house is finally starting to reflect that preference.

For our undercabinet lights we installed strip LEDs from LED Lights Canada.  We had looked originally for off the shelf options from the likes of Rona and Home Depot but weren't satisfied with the light output. LED Lights Canada has these ones custom made for them.  The result: 400 lumens per metre on 10 watts.
Custom cut LED strip for smallest cabinet

Installation was a breeze and the light quality and brightness is excellent.  We also had friends comment on how cool they run compared to their halogen lights.  You can run them all day and they will be only slightly warm to the touch so they don't heat up all your food being stored in the cabinet above.

Our only issue is that I had anticipated having off-the-shelf lights which would plug in.  So I wired one switch controlling three outlets. The strips we did buy have no built in driver.  LEDs use 12V power not 120V (which is why they work so well for battery powered flashlights).  So when hooking into your home power they need the power converted using a driver.  Replacement LED bulbs have that driver built in.  These didn't.  It is not a big deal, it just means that you need to buy a separate driver or in this case because of how I wired things up ... three drivers which pushed the price up.

I also need to give huge props to Harvey Hoffman (LED Lights Canada's owner/president) for the excellent customer service.  Sent him a long winded email and I got an immediate phone call with him walking me through the easiest and cheapest way to do my set up.  He custom cut all the strips to fit my cabinets and when I couldn't find the mounting clips with my order (I probably threw them out with the packaging) he mailed new ones the next day no questions asked.

Excellent product, excellent service, hopefully this Edmonton based company will do well.  I take the fact that they are sold out of the cabinet strips until next week's shipment as a positive sign of their success.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

New Zodiaq Counters

It has been a while since our temporary counters went up ... over 6 months.  Probably a little longer than normal but that does include our new baby renovation hiatus.

But a big part of the problem came from the fact that we knew what we wanted and we thought we knew where to get it.  Last year at the Montreal Home Show I saw a locally made recycled glass countertop.  It was beautiful and functional, 90% recycled content and locally sourced.  The company was Eco-Surface.  Their quote was good but their colour selection left a little to be desired.   The good news was they were expanding and in 100 days would be able to provide us a much better palette to pick from.

So we put up our temporary counters and waited.  Towards the 100 day mark we contacted them again to find their website directed us to: "Creations di Verre cite".  Alright, name change with expansion  ... no problem.   But there was a problem:  nobody would pick up the phone, or respond to an email, or website inquiries.   Heck their contact information on their website just provides their website address.

Chalked that up as a lost cause and headed back to square one.  Looking for alternatives there were several options although none of them local:

- EnviroGlas EnviroSLAB
- IceStone
Geos Sustainable Surfaces from Eos
- Zodiaq Terra Collection from Dupont

Out of these group, IceStone probably gets kudos for being the greenest of all the products.  100% recycled glass in concrete, No VOC, no resins, no petrochemicals.  The company is very forward thinking and the entire process has received Gold Cradle to Cradle certification.  That being said it is concrete and therefore susceptible to etching and staining.  Properly sealed and cared for this shouldn't be a problem but for us relying on "proper maintenance and care" is setting ourselves up.  While we didn't go with it in the kitchen, we are strongly looking at it for the bathrooms.

Geos, was recommended but we struggled with finding the right colour. They also were unable to confirm their recycled content.   For the countertop to qualify for LEED points it needs to be a minimum of 25% post-consumer recycled content (post-industrial counts at 50%).  Geos could not confirm or guarantee that.

EnviroGlas was a little too bold a palette for us (and there were no local distributors) so we went with Zodiaq.  Zodiaq countertops are a recycled glass and quartz blend embedded in a resin.  Very hard, very durable, low maintenance and we found the perfect colour.  Custom cut and installed by Comptoir St-Denis, we are very pleased with the result.

The one danger of using recycled glass in any countertop or product is colour control.  While it may seem easy to separate out the brown beer bottle from the green wine bottles and clear soda bottles,  all you need is one little chip of green glass to potentially ruin an all white counter.  Our colour "Coriander" contains clear and brown glass with the occasional fleck of green.  But if you really hunt you can find a couple other odd colours.  We have one speck in an obscure corner that is florescent orange. Luckily, I only spot it when I am cleaning down the counter... so not very often at all :)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Insulation: Manufacturer Follow-up

This is a follow-up to my post from January.  I would recommend reading that post first and if you really want to do your homework, read the article on GreenBuildingAdvisor.com as well.

Essentially, I grew concerned about the existence of HFC-134a in my foam insulation products.  As a result I switched my rigid insulation from Dow Styrofoam to Isolofoam's Isofoil although I will probably be trying out other rigid foam products as well. I have also stopped using Touch n' Foam's two part spray foam.

I won't lie, the Touch n' Foam product pissed me off.  I was surprised by the amount of HFC in it and the environmental impact it would have.  To the point that I wrote Rona / Reno-Depot and asked them why they carry it.  I felt their response skirted the question and also had the manufacturer deferring all responsibility for the product

"Good day Mr Lilley, Here is the response we received form the manufacturer. The propellants used in our cylinders were chosen by both the Canadian government and US government for this type of product. A different type of propellant was used in the past, but due to flammability, manufactures were forced to change. At this time, there are no alternatives due to regulations. If you should need further information don't hesitate to contact us again. Thank you for your support and have a nice day."

I am following up further with them to see if I can get an actual answer.

I also contacted Dow Chemicals. My only concern with dropping the Styrofoam was that the article I was basing the decision on said "I have to note here that I’m not 100% sure that XPS is made with HFC-134a; manufacturers are unwilling to divulge the exact blowing agents they use".  Wanting to make sure I wasn't stopping use of a product unjustly (and then blogging about it),  I went to the source.  I emailed Dow asking them about the charge and what they used as a blowing agent.  I will give them kudos for a providing a quick professional reply. They never did explicitly state their blowing agent but provided GWP numbers in line with HFC-134a.  Even if it isn't the exact agent the end result would be the same.  Here are their complete responses (from two different emails):

"I'm following up on your email and to conform that Dow Building Solutions (DBS) had successfully converted our North American manufacturing facility that manufactures STYROFOAM(tm) Extruded Polystyrene Insulation products, which includes Clademate, to its new zero ozone-depleting, no-VOC foaming agent technology. STYROFOAM Extruded polystyrene insulation is HCFC and CFC free.  

The proprietary formulation substitutes the hydrochloro-fluorocarbon (HCFC) 142b, an ozone-depleting compound that U.S. and Canadian regulations under the Montreal Protocol require to be phased out by January 1, 2010 in North America, with a non-ozone depleting compound. It enables Dow's North American customers to continue receiving STYROFOAM insulation with the same product performance and cost-leadership position, and reflects Dow's commitment, as part of its 2015 Sustainability Goals for Addressing Climate Change, to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissionsany further questions on this matter, do not hesitate to contact me at the phone number shown below my signature.  

Dow Building Solutions has completed a rigorous, external assessment of its building insulation products conducted by MBDC (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, LLC), a global sustainability consulting and product certification firm. STYROFOAM SIS Structural Insulated Sheathing, STYROFOAM Brand Extruded Polystyrene (XPS) Foam Insulation, THERMAX(tm) (ci) Exterior Insulation, STYROFOAM(tm) Brand Spray Polyurethane Foam (SPF) Insulation, and SAFETOUCH(tm) Fiberglass-Free Insulation have all achieved Cradle to Cradle(r) Certification , a process that assesses products for their ingredients' human health, environmental health and recyclability profiles. Dow products that have achieved Cradle to Cradle(r) Certification are eligible for points that contribute to various building certifications, such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED ) Rating Systems and National Association of Home Builders' (NAHB ) National Green Building Program. Certified products can be listed under the U.S. EPA Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Program, as well as several other environmentally conscious product purchasing programs."

"XPS has a ozone depletion number of 0 and a global warming potential of 1300, which reduced the GWP100 from previous while maintaining the insulation’s thermal and physical properties."

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Built to Last

I think most of us appreciate that disposable products are not usually the most environmentally friendly choice on the market.  Anytime we need to throw out a product to replace it in kind it generates waste and uses up resources to replace it.  The same is obviously true for homes.

If a newly constructed home is going to need to be replaced in 30 years or have major renovations done to it, the same principle applies.  New building materials being produced and the old material being torn out.

Recognizing this, one of the pre-requisites for a LEED home is a durability plan.  It is essentially required of the builder (or renovator) to assess risks to the long term health of the house:
- Exterior water infiltration
- Interior water leaks
- Condensation
- Pests / termites
- Natural Disasters

LEED provides a sample evaluation form with key things to look for as well as some mandatory features for minimizing water damage. Some are common sense things like not installing carpet in your bathroom others are less common like having a drain pan under any washing machine or water heater (not including those in the basement).

Being an existing home with 30 years under its belt makes this process a little less theoretical.  A detailed inspection of the home allowed us to assess where we had existing problems that needed to be corrected.

Our home fared well with the exception of some exterior water problems that we will need to fix:

- The ground around our home has a flat grade rather than providing a slope away from the house

- All our exterior window sills are brick.  All are starting to degrade  While brick looks pretty, it is porous and when installed in a location where water will collect on top it will start to break apart especially in freeze / thaw conditions where water runs into cracks and then freezes and expands.  We will need to replace all our sills with something more durable with a positive slope away from the window.

- The flashing on top of our brick wall slopes towards the house essentially dumping water down behind the bricks.... not good.  Needs to be repaired and the adjacent brick replaced.

- Finally some of our siding against our roof comes right down to the shingles.  This can allow water to be drawn up behind the siding due to the wicking action of water

Whether we were doing a LEED renovation or not these are issues that need to be addressed.  If they aren't fixed they will lead to larger more costly (financially and environmentally) corrections later. So it is probably a good exercise for every home owner.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Is a LEED renovation expensive?

About a week or so ago, I had a friend finally ask the question a lot of people have probably had in regards to this reno:  Is it expensive?  And is it worth it?

I gave him a vague nebulous answer which I doubt actually satisfied any of his curiosity.  I wasn't trying to be evasive, it is just a very hard question to answer. The reason being is that the costs come from a lot of different sources and some of the benefits are hard to quantify.

Comparing this renovation project to a traditional reno the bulk of the additional costs come from three areas:

Material Costs

LEED provides points for using environmentally friendly material.  Products either containing no VOCs, manufactured out of greener material or greener practices.  It is important to note that these are almost exclusively points and not pre-requsites.  Meaning you can choose these materials to earn points towards certification but you are not required to.

Efficiency Upgrades

A big part of LEED, is having an efficient home.  Better insulation, better dealing, better heating, etc.  Which obviously all costs money.  This category can provide 38 LEED points, almost enough for your certification.  It also has a minimum requirement, your home needs to have an ERS or Energuide rating of at least 76 (although that will probably go up in the next update of the rating system).  Efficiency upgrades though are the easiest to quantify financial benefits as they reduce heating / cooling costs.

Scope of Project

Realistically, this is where our costs are driven up the most.  LEED for homes was developed for new homes or Gut/Rehab renovations where the entire house is stripped down and re-built.  To try and do this work as a DIY home renovation project is a challenge.  Worked great in the kitchen because our plan there involved knocking out walls and removing all the counters and cabinets.  But we will have to go into the kids rooms and strip down the ceiling and exterior walls to re-insulate in there too. It has value in doing but honestly wouldn't happen if it wasn't for LEED.  Other examples:

- Fireplace upgrade
- Water heater upgrade
- Landscaping
- Garage ventilation
- Radon testing
- Deconstruction / Construction waste management

Some of those cost money, some cost time but they all increase the scope and ultimately the cost of the project.

I will save the other two of the above for future posts, but will dig in a little further in this one on material costs.

Do green materials cost more? Depends on the baseline.  If we look at the scale between the cheapest version available of a product and the most expensive, the green options usually fall squarely in the middle.   As examples my last three purchases were:

3" Window mouldings

Cheapest available:  $0.17 / foot, simple generic profile, mdf
Most expensive:  $4 / foot, solid pine
Green option purchased:  Spero eco-wise mouldings, recycled wood fibre, with no urea-formaldehyde $0.85/ foot

Benefits:  reduced environmental impact, improved air quality, healthier home

Kitchen Countertop

Cheapest available:  Ikea laminated particleboard countertop, $5 / sq ft
Most expensive: Granite countertop, $120 / sq foot  (although some stainless steel products can go up to $200 / sq foot)
Green option purchased:  Zodiaq recycled glass countertop, <$100 / sq ft

Benefits: reduced environmental impact, appearance, low maintenance


Only option at Rona:  FSC select lumber

This made it easier to comply with LEED criteria when the store I regularly shop at only had FSC (Sustainable managed forestry practices) 2 x 4s available

So will a green renovation be the cheapest renovation option available: no.  The most expensive: probably not.  I would say it falls in the mid-range to upper mid-range.  The return on investment:  good quality products with a high end appearance that make your home and the environment healthier.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Is my Insulation Destroying the Planet?

I will save you the suspense on this one; I am going with a pretty strong yes.

Earlier when insulating behind the fireplace we used Touch n' Foam spray foam.  At the time, the amount of waste bugged us but we were happy with the end product for the confined space we were working in.  When the green rater performed the inspection, he commented that it has a limited net environmental benefit because of the blowing agent used.

Fast forward a couple months and we are again presented with a space that is a good fit for spray foam. The joists in one section of our basement run parallel with the wall and directly in line with the inside edge. This creates a nice confined cavity that needs both vapour / moisture barrier and insulation.
I cannot see any practical way of getting in there to seal it off with caulk and a traditional vapour barrier.  Improperly or poorly sealed it will allow moisture and drafts to get trapped in this pocket and come up through the living room floor. So I grab some more foam.

I already have a love/hate relationship with the foam and its throw away canisters.  This is compounded by trimming away excess material that is going straight to the dump and the whole time this notion that the gas in the product is environmentally harmful is festering in the back of my mind as well.  So I dig a little deeper into the accusation.

Pulling up the MSDS sheet, I find the blowing agent in question is a product called HFC-134a.  The blowing agent is the compressed gas in the canisters that pushes the product out when I pull the trigger.  It is also what gets trapped in the microscopic bubbles of the product and helps it insulate.

Pulling up its wikepedia page, I learn that it is relatively non-toxic and is the greener alternative to R-12, its ozone-destroying predecessor.  All sounding good until I come to its Global Warming Potential (GWP).  A gases GWP allows us to compare how much a gas contributes to the greenhouse effect.  The scale is all based against CO2.  A rating of one means it is as significant to global warming as releasing CO2.  A rating of 2 would mean it is twice as harmful per kg.  The rating for HFC-134a over a 20 year span is 3840!

12.89 kg package of spray foam,
20% HFC-134a by weight = 2.58kg
GWP= 3840

Holy Shit.  I just sprayed the equivalent of 10 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.  For the second time on this project. As a comparison that is a year of heavy SUV driving and it only produced 200 board feet of insulation.

I am now reeling a little bit, surprised this product is even legal and worried I messed up my math.  So I again turn to the web where I find an excellent article on GreenBuildingAdvisor.com.  In the article, they look at various insulation types to determine how long it takes for that product to have a net positive impact on the global warming.  i.e. how long until the energy savings resulting from your insulation upgrades offset the damage caused by your insulation.  The bad news for spray foam:  payback was in the order of 30 to 50 years and that was for professional application which is probably more efficiently applied.

Their computations are riddled with assumptions causing some spirited discussions in the comments but no matter how you choose to massage that data, spray foam is a concern.  But the article then proceeded to kick me when I was down.  The other insulation suspected of having a high global warming potential?  Extruded Polystyrene!  The blue Styrofoam that I installed I throughout the kitchen (not to mention my last house).  It will be 46 years before my kitchen starts to contribute positively to fighting climate change.  My six year old will be finalizing his retirement plans by then.

What does all this mean?  Besides the fact that I need to do my homework a bit better. [ I made the mistake of taking Dow's press release at face value].

For LEED?  nothing. There is no reference, prerequisites or points associated with insulation blowing agents

For our home?  Well that was the last time I will use Touch n'Foam 2-part spray insulation [their foam sealant has appropriate blowing agents].  And I just returned the 39 sheets of XPS insulation that were in my basement.

Luckily, there are alternatives out there.  The two prominent ones are expanded polystyrene (EPS) and  polyisocyanate.  Both of them use a much greener blowing agent and the same article I referenced before has their payback in the 2.7 to 4 year range.  In the end I will probably try both those products out and write reviews on them.  The replacement for those 39 sheets of XPS in the basement:  Isolofoam which is an EPS product.  It doesn't have quite the R value of EPS and requires a protective barrier to act as a vapour barrier but I can at least use it with a clear conscience.

Friday, January 21, 2011

How not to insulate

Now that the kitchen in wrapping up (yes we still haven't "finished" that project), we are setting our sights on the basement.

The basement is unfinished. 85% of the walls are framed and insulated but nothing further.  In surveying the job, there is a lot of room for improvement on the insulation and I think most stems from the fact that who ever put it in probably did not understand how cavity insulation works.

Cavity insulation such as Roxul or fibreglass insulates well because in between all the fibres of poor insulating material is trapped air.   Air is a miserable conductor of heat especially in small pockets.

It is importenat then to fit the insulation into the cavity it was designed for.  If it is compressed, you squeeze out the air pockets and lose insulating power.  If you stretch it out you create larger air pockets that allow air to circulate and you lose insulating power.

In our basement, the goofs were all due to compressing the insulation.

In the exterior walls, they installed insulation intended for a 2x6" wall in a 2x4" wall.
Even with no wall coverings, the vapour barrier is already compressing the insulation. In the small section with wood paneling over it, they thought to add two 1" strips of wood.  But these strips cross over the front of the insulation and vapour barrier so really offer no relief.

In the ceiling over the old cold room, they installed insulation for 16" centres in a 12" spacing.  So with an extra 33% material the insulation is all squished and folded over.

In both these cases I am sure the renovator figured that more was better and was trying to improve the quality of their insulation but in the end really hurt it.

The key to proper installation is to trim to fit; there should be no gaps and no compression. This includes around receptacles, plumbing, window frames, etc.

Below is the picture of our kitchen. It took some patience to get it proper fit but it is so important that the job is done right.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fireplace: Round 3 - EnerChoice

As some of you may remember, when we started this process we lamented over what to do with the old wood burning fireplace, deciding in the end to put in a natural gas insert.

For LEED, you are permitted to have a traditional fireplace. However, under Indoor Environmental Quality (EA 2.2) you get 2 points for having no fireplace (there are also some pre-reqs that need to be met).  You can get 1 or two points in this category with a fireplace but they need to be greener or more efficient models.

For our natural gas insert, we were gunning for the full 2 points which meant:

Direct or power vented insert

Direct vented means that the combustion takes place completely closed off to the interior of the home.  Fresh air comes straight in to the fireplace and exhaust goes straight outside.  This was fairly standard so not too hard to meet.

Permanent fixed glass door 

Yeah... I don't think I have ever seen an insert you can crack open and toast marshmallows over so this was also easy.

Electronic Pilot
This bumped us up into higher end models.  An electronic pilot (goes by a lot of different trade names) means that in place of a traditional pilot light which burns continuously,  combustion is initiated by an electronic starter.  Becomes more efficient by not constantly burning gas.

EnerChoice certified
Headaches galore!!

EnerChoice is essentially EnergyStar for fireplaces.  Fireplaces are already evaluated through EnerGuide to tell you how efficient they are.  The problem is that as a consumer you probably don't know what to expect rating you should be targeting. Should I expect 50% or 80% in an insert?  EnerChoice identifies and certifies the top 25% of fireplaces to answer that question.  Great, sounds perfect.

The problem lies in the fact that EnerChoice is a relatively new program.  Launched in 2007 it is just starting to take root now.  When I first began looking into the rating system last spring their website was pathetic.  Visually appealing but lacking any type of valuable information. They have since started to add  some valuable content such as participating retailers and minimum efficiency standards [I would have killed for that 4 months back].

But to date, the website still has no contact information, no listing of approved products.  Heck their FAQs section doesn't even have the word EnerChoice appear in it.  It is focused purely on the EnerGuide ratings system.  So I could not find the answer to what I thought was a very important question:  "What fireplace inserts are certified EnerChoice?"

Barring any support from the website, we turned to retailers for support.  The website does list 55 participating retailers... all in BC.  Turns out this program is very regional: launched in BC, supported in BC - they even have the provincial gas company providing rebates for consumers who replace their wood or old gas fireplace with a EnerChoice model.  This obviously explains the very high level of interest in BC retailers to be involved in the program.

Out in Quebec, every person I asked about the program met me with blank stares.

So what did we do.....  we found what we hoped was the most efficient natural gas insert that fit our heat output requirements and physical space. At the time, there were no cutoff efficiencies listed on the website so we had to hope for the best.  In the end... looks like we missed it by 2%.

Long story short.  We have a beautiful insert that we enjoy very much and we get one LEED point out of a possible two.

My advice for anyone else on how to proceed with the program outside of BC.  Look at the minimum efficiencies listed on the EnerChoice website, on the "What is EnerChoice?" tab.  [currently 61% for inserts]. Then go to the EnerGuide website and use their search tool. It allows you to search for specific types: fireplace vs. insert, fuel type and efficiency level.  Gives you an excellent starting point to view the options that are best for your specific situation.