Climate-friendly Homes Tour 1

Last month we welcomed something like 150 people into Hammond Forever House in our first Climate-friendly Homes tour. It was a blast!

So many great conversations about heritage, lifting houses, insulation, heat-pumps and solar panels. It was so successful that when the Climate-friendly Homes Tours happen again in spring, we’ll do it again.

We were also proud to be the first ever stop for the Wandering Wolf Cafe which did a brisk business outside. So much deliciousness!

Of course, not everyone could make it, so I made a series of videos for those of you who weren’t here. Some of them are youtube shorts compiled together and some of them go on and on in a very geeky way. You can find those below and on the Hammond Forever House youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPB6B3OwG-6D-0ke2W-pWew

For a more-or-less complete photographic tour, here is a nice slideshow for you:

 

I’m still working on putting together the complilation videos of the interior tour, but here are the first four videos: The Exterior (and Garage):

In my next post, I will continue the virtual tour inside the house.

Solar Panels Video series

This is a post to collect all the quick Instagram videos I’ve been making as I geek out about Solar Panels. I can’t expect people to watch them in order, so I thought I should collect them all here.

Enjoy!

First, here is VREC installing the panels. I really should add some music, don’t you think?

How big is the solar array? It’s true, I don’t carry this number around in my head, but the answer turns out to be 8.8kW! That’s a lot of power!

Did I leave you with questions? The best places to ask are on my Instagram or Youtube accounts. I don’t check these comments often.

Recently I have finally gotten the doo-hickey that reports how much power the panels are generating at any given time, so I’ll be able to report more about that fun stuff.

For now, I hope you are looking into your local candidates for the municipal elections and finding those who are taking the Climate Emergency seriously. Here in Maple Ridge, the incumbent Mayor and Council have conflicting priorities which means really no progress has been made in the last 4 years. So disappointing!

See you next time!

Happy Earth Day 2022!

It’s Earth Day and Hammond Forever House has found itself nominated for a Maple Ridge Climate Champions award!

Nominee video

How exciting!

What a great time for a quick update!

Since my last post about laundry we have finally taken some steps to reduce our energy use and actually start producing power.

The current heating and domestic hot water set-up

Our fateful decision to achieve space heating via hot water pipes caused a problem since a typical hot water heater is not the cheapest appliance to run throughout the winter.

November 13, 2017 The old water heater connected to all those heating pipes.

The space-heating pipes run through the basement slab, under the main floor (stapled to the basement ceiling), in the floors of the bathrooms and finally to baseboards on the top floor. We did this because there was no way to get forced-air heating ducts up to the top floor.

We had thought to use the hydronic solar collectors that had been given to us to heat the water but when push came to shove, we realized that those collectors would produce a lot of hot water in the summer but very little in the winter which is the opposite of what we needed.

Rheem heat-pump hybrid water heater with electric back-up. Uses less electricity to heat the water.

My solution was a heat-pump water heater which is eligible for a BC Hydro grant. This unit uses the existing ducts which exhaust the stale air from the Heat Recovery Ventilator to take heat out of the air and pump it into the water we use to heat the house. The bottom line is that it’s a very efficient water heater and should save us energy and money.

Big Valley Heating helped make this ductwork which diverts exhausted air from the ventilation system through the heat pump

The other big leap forward was the solar panels.

With the help of Vancouver Renewable Energy (VREC) and Astro Plumbing and Heating we finally installed those solar collectors that have been in our basement for years. Instead of heating water to heat the house though, we are using them to pre-heat the water for domestic use.

Domestic hot water heating. The solar collectors pre-heat the storage tank (left) for the electric water heater (right)

We won’t need heat in the house during the warmer months, but we’ll always need domestic hot water for showers and washing.

Hydronic Solar Collectors at bottom heat water; Solar PV panels at top generate electricity

VREC also helped us install an array of Photo-voltaic Solar Panels and enter into a net-metering agreement with BC Hydro. Under this agreement, BC Hydro will accept the power we generate and reduce our Hydro bill accordingly. During the winter we can expect to buy power, but during the sunny months we will hopefully reduce our bill to zero or even below zero.

VREC installs PV solar panels

I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

How’s that for a quick update? I’ll do my best to post more soon!

HRVs and Climate Change

I’m trying to get shorter and snappier with my posts and videos, so here is a short and sweet cut of my recent post about our Heat Recovery Ventilator (find the more in-depth one here).

When people talk about retrofitting an older house–as in insulating and sealing it–you often hear people say that “old houses need to breathe”. What they mean is that they have no ventilation system so they rely on porous walls, windows and doors to keep the air fresh inside.

The new basement and mainfloor as drawn in 2011 and submitted for our Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA)

It’s accepted that some rooms will have fresher air than others and if you get cold, you just add more heat.

Your furnace blows warm air into the rooms which leaks out. That’s terrible for the environment and your pocketbook, but at least the air is never allowed to get too stale (in most rooms).

So what they’re really saying is, “these old houses need to leak”.

Sound ridiculous? It is!

Your house does need to breathe, so if it doesn’t leak you’ll need to help it with that. That’s what an HRV does (AKA ERV or Energy Recovery Ventilator).

With an HRV your home can breathe without leaking.

And with Climate Change causing more extreme weather patterns leading to summers of wild fire smoke, your HRV can help you fight climate change by reducing your carbon footprint AND mitigate the bad air quality which is indirectly caused by climate change.

Here’s a two-minute-ish intro to the insides of our HRV.

 

Wild Fire Smoke

This week CBC news reported that the city of Edmonton, Alberta had the worst air quality in the world due to smoke from British Columbia wildfires. The air is bad here in BC, too –another reason we’re grateful that we installed a Heat Recovery Ventilator in the house before we moved back in.

Our HRV was installed by Meadow Ridge Plumbing & Gas in September, 2016

The low air quality is due to the wild fires raging across the province as we experience the third worst fire season ever. The government has, once again, declared a state of emergency to mobilize resources. Fire fighters, armed forces personnel and other professionals are working hard and risking their lives to fight the fires. People are losing their homes and stepping up to help others in the same boat.

Doctors warn about the health impacts of climate change. People who are not under evacuation orders or alerts are curtailing outdoor activities and being advised to stay indoors. An oft-overlooked question is, how well-sealed is your home and how well-filtered is the air inside it?

Looking inside the HRV when it was brand new.

Sometimes it’s difficult to put your finger on the effects of climate change–I try to remember this and be forgiving when I pass people idling in gas-powered cars to keep their A/C running.

One easy way is to look at the filter in your furnace, air conditioner, or, in our case, HRV. It’s a lot like those cross-sections of smokers’ lungs. Unfortunately, in the same way those disgusting images of blackened lungs on cigarette packages don’t stop people from buying them, feeling the effects of climate change doesn’t seem to be speeding up our climate action.

In June of this year, 2018, I took some video of how a Heat Recovery Ventilator works and what a filter looks like after a bad season of wild fires (2017). The filter comes out at about the 5-minute mark.

As you can see in the video, an HRV is an important component in a well-insulated and sealed building. It removes stale air and exchanges the heat in it with fresh air drawn in from outside. It also filters the air so you can breathe easy.

This is a case where reducing greenhouse gas emissions by insulating and sealing your house also protects you against one of the indirect effects of climate change: severe wild fires.

Next week I’ll post a video showing you how I cleaned the filters and core of the HRV. In the meantime, check your filters!

Basement Power Centre

It’s a daunting task sifting through the photographic story of our daunting renovation. So let me bring you up to date with a snapshot of “the utility room” as it is at present.

Mountains of debris and materials surround the incomplete but functioning heating apparatus in the basement. The new steel beams stretch above and a Christmas tree of red heating pipes radiate from behind the old electric water heater which is currently keeping the house warm (with the occasional help from our as-yet still in-use wood-burning insert in the upstairs fireplace.)

November 13, 2017

The red pipes are stapled to the ceiling and, when filled with hot water, warm the main floor of the house. I’m not recommending this in most cases but in ours it worked. If you already have a system of hot air ducts and you want to go more efficient and stop burning fossil fuels, you’ll probably end up with a heat-pump of some kind and an air-handler (fan). Much easier.

This is called underfloor heat

The other water tank (to the right) is a new one and it supplies all our domestic hot water (DHW). It is designed to work with a solar hot water system so only the top half is electric. Without the solar system installed yet, it works hard and is unable to fill our large bathtub in one go (I talk about our bathing hardships in this post).

Between the tanks is a utility sink which is not hooked up yet.

In the foreground is various detritus from all the various sub-projects involved in a big renovation. It includes a stack of beautiful custom-made window-sills crafted by Ron’s friend Andy and a classic, incredibly heavy table saw which I bought from a friendly neighbour to replace my much newer one which we burned out and is, apparently, irreparable.

I have to thank Richard at MeadowRidge Plumbing and Gas again. He supplied all the pipe and let me borrow his special stapler to attach the pipes to the ceiling. His team designed and installed the Christmas tree, did all the connecting and made sure everything worked. I’ll be singing their praises again on this blog.

The big missing piece to this system is the solar storage tank. We haven’t worked out the details, but I’m expecting a fairly large tank on the left of the above photo. We were given two hydronic (hot water) solar panels and, dammit, we intend to use them.

With photo-voltaic (electricity-generating) solar panels dropping in cost so quickly, the most common advice now is to install those and use the electricity to heat your water and do everything else, too. Dave the father-in-law likes to remind people that electric water heaters are 100% efficient–meaning all the electrical energy goes into the water–unlike gas or oil ones.

Hydronic panels don’t need direct sunlight like PV panels do, but they have other drawbacks like heating too much water when you don’t need it. That’s why I’m imagining a large storage tank, but it’s also our plan to sink that heat into the basement floor concrete which is why we ran water pipes through the large basement slab. That concrete slab can accept and store a lot of heat during the day and release it through the night.

Pipes in the slab

So, unfortunately as it stands, our electricity bill is pretty high since we are heating everything with two electric water heaters. We must accept this as short-term pain at this point in our journey. With higher incomes, we could install all the bells and whistles at once and show you the finished product like some HGTV show, but we can’t.

We can’t because for the first time in years, we can’t pay off our credit card every month. It’s a scary place to be. We don’t have the capital to move the project faster, and from what I hear on CBC, neither do most Canadians. If Canada is going to reduce energy consumption as we have committed to do, aren’t we going to have to change this situation?

I have a few ideas about that, but I’m going to have to find the time between work, kids and renovations to share them. Thanks for reading and supporting Hammond Forever House!

James

PS: if you’re curious about what the basement looked like before:

May 21, 2015

 

August 5, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You may also enjoy the posts about clearing out the basement and getting the basement ready for lift-off.

Bathing in a Half-finished Bathroom

I’m so excited about my new (used) computer and ability to shoot a video and share it immediately that I took my clothes off!

The bathing room January 14th, 2018

To give us a conditional occupancy permit just before Christmas 2016, the City of Maple Ridge required us to have somewhere to bathe. We installed the Master Bath, but not the Master Shower. They inspected the shower pan to make sure it was water proof and I assisted our Master-mason neighbour, Ron, installed the floor tile.

The bathing area has not changed much since then. No shower. Red walls (sealed with Red Guard roll-on sealant). No curtain or barrier between the bathing area and the rest of the bathroom.

How can we possibly live?

This is a video Leanne shot with me last night to answer that question. In it we talk about the where we are, how we got there and where we’re going with the bathroom. I also demonstrate how we bathed when we lived in Japan and how that colours how we bathe now. You can tell I’ve forgotten how to talk publicly at the beginning of the video because I can’t seem to finish a sentence.

**WARNING!!! The following video contains middle-aged semi-nudity. Viewer discretion is advised.**

After we moved into this house in 2007, we updated the kitchen and bedrooms. The bathroom then became the focus of our discussions. It was the reason we started looking at a more ambitious renovation.

It was in this room, when it looked like this:that Leanne inspired me to dream bigger. We were talking about what changes we would like to make while standing between the old sink and the old bathtub.

I said something like, “wouldn’t it be amazing to have a Japanese-style bathroom where you can get the floor wet, bathe outside the tub and then have a nice soak in clean water?”

Leanne said something like, “Why can’t we?”

I said, “Wha-huh? Whaddaya mean?”

“There is no reason we can’t have the bathroom we want.”

I’m paraphrasing, but that conversation led us to ask Annabel the Architect to draw the generous bathing space we have today.

Even though it is not finished, I remind myself every day that we have achieved that dream.

Credits and Thank-yous for the bathroom:

Ron the awesome neighbour for donating his time and expertise. He taught me how to use his tile saw, advised me on everything from framing the tub surround structure to how to create a slope for the shower drain and how to mix sand and cement to pour over the heating pipes in the floor. He lent me his big tub o’ Red Guard, tools, and so much more.

Pro-fix Drywall for putting the drywall and Densshield boards up, mudding, taping and priming the whole room. Great job!

Meadowridge Plumbing and Gas for all the plumbing.

Splashes Bath & Kitchen Center who supplied the shower fixtures.

-Ron’s friend Andy who custom-made the new window sills for all the new windows in the house.

-Our neighbour Sue who supplied tonnes of storage advice as well as furnishings like the shelving unit in the bathroom.

Craigslist for helping me find the toilet, sinks, taps and the dresser I turned into a bathroom counter.

-Our friends who gave us their old bath tub.

-Leanne for giving me inspiration and partnering with me on this crazy journey.

Renovating a home is not easy, but by telling our story, I hope it becomes easier for you.

Snowed in without Power!

I wish I could show you a photo of the house today. It is buried in snow. Unfortunately, Leanne’s computer is still too full and I can’t download the photos from the camera yet.

This photo from New Year’s 2017 will have to suffice.

January 1st, 2017 at 12:43 am.

We thought this was a lot of snow. (Ha!) Besides less snow, the other thing that is different in this photo is all the lights are on.

Over the past weekend, due to heavy snow breaking branches, we have had 6 separate power outages.

They are not the most relaxing events, but the kids love a good black-out. We light candles and revel in the adventure. “I love Earth-hour!” says my daughter.

Beneath the fun of it lies my worry that the decisions we have made on the house leave us vulnerable to power outages. Specifically, back-up power.

I have this insecurity that there is a silent mass of onlookers waiting for us to fail. “Let’s see how this ‘Forever House’ handles a power outage” they say in my head. “Bet they wish they had a gas generator!”

Well, I must admit it was a bit shaky, but we did okay and I remind myself that we’re not done yet.

Surprising to many, my master plan calls for no fossil fuels and no wood-burning. I want to keep the brick fireplace but insert an electric fire that looks good and gives a little heat. When the power went out, however, it was very comforting to be able to light a fire. It reminded us of the winter of 2014 when we challenged ourselves to live without buying more fuel oil and so we relied on wood and a little electric heat.

Leanne wants to keep the fire, but we don’t have to decide now, because we have a lot of other things to do before we come to that.

The fact is, we moved in before the house was done. I am not finished insulating and sealing the basement and top floor. The root cellar door is not sealed and insulated as well as we plan to. I’d also like to re-apply the weather-stripping to the windows, seal up the stained-glass transom lights in the front rooms, and improve the front door.

All this insulation and sealing is key, because we are counting on it to keep our heating bills down.

At the moment, our heat is supplied by the same water heater that used to heat our tap water before the renovation. Hot water is pumped through pipes stapled to the underside of the main floor and it warms the floor above.

Heating water with electricity is 100% efficient, but it is expensive, so I have been steadily trying to finish insulating wherever I haven’t reached yet.

The first time the power went out for more than an hour, I was anxious that putting our eggs in the electricity basket had been unwise. However, we noticed that the house did not cool very quickly. The insulation we had done so far was having an effect. It was the front rooms with their thinner walls and heritage windows that cooled the fastest and that’s where the fireplace was.

I also noticed that the bathroom floor, where the water heating pipes are embedded in concrete just below the tile, stayed warm for two hours or so. I realized that one great advantage to heating with underfloor hydronic pipes is that once the water is warm, it continues giving off heat for some time.

Once the house is finished, we will be able to last a long time without feeling the chill, but maybe you still think we need a back-up source of heat for longer emergencies. They tell you to be prepared for 72 hours without assistance.

My answer to that is my father-in-law Dave’s idea which he has helped us implement: the Toyota Prius as back-up generator. Read more about how we’re doing that here. When the wiring to the garage is complete, we can use the Prius or any other hybrid or electric car to power important stuff in the house like the fridge.

A more obvious solution is a large storage battery like Tesla’s Wall. Charge it in the daytime with solar panels and charge your car from the battery at night. If there is not enough to completely charge the car, BC Hydro will tip it up.

Incidentally, this is the same principal we hope to implement with the solar hot water panels someone handed down to us: heat a large tank of water in the heat of the day and use it (or simply let it warm the basement) in the evening.

It seems I have to get used to the idea that the house will be completed bit by bit. There will probably not be a ribbon-cutting ceremony. That fantasy of moving back in with all systems working perfectly is just that, a fantasy.

Meanwhile, it looks like it will be sunny tomorrow so the kids will go back to school. Then, later in the day, another winter storm is expected. At least now we know we can handle it.

Oops, we’re a little low on dry firewood…

Anybody got some?

 

 

 

Trump the Planet

Does Donald Trump’s victory mean the end of Climate Action in the United States?

Does it mean the end of the Paris Accord?

Does it really mean that half of the American people think that Climate Change is a hoax?

I don’t know about the first two, but I can’t believe people who voted for Trump don’t understand that Climate Change is a thing that we have to do something about.

Some of them, maybe…

I suspect they are mostly sick of having it pushed in their faces as if its their individual problem to solve.

Leanne and I can relate.

img_2865At this stage in our renovation and retrofit we’re just trying to finish enough of the house so that the building inspector will let us occupy it and we can get homeowner’s insurance again.

We’d like to spend Christmas in our house for a change instead of next door.

I haven’t been writing the blog because I simply don’t have energy at the end of the day. Weekdays I wake up early to make lunches for the kids, teach a class til noon, pick the kids up from school, and then work on the house til dinner time. Leanne works full-time and keeps up the electrical work with our electrician and her Dad. On weekends its all house all the time.

If this is what it takes for average folks to fight climate change, its no wonder we’re the exception, not the rule. My Eco-Warrior Badge is heavy.

Trump often railed against “the Mainstream Media”. Apparently, it struck a chord. Maybe when you are  struggling to eek out a living and the media reports that climate change is the single greatest threat we face, it’s a little hard to swallow.

The truth is that the media have been under-reporting climate change. There is no confusion among scientists, researchers, NASA, the UN and everyone else who has looked at it for ten minutes but nobody seems to have any solutions besides buy more eco-friendly stuff.

One problem is that most mainstream news is delivered in a context of commercialism. Every story is steeped in commercials for stuff we don’t need and the solution for climate change is presented in products. Buy a more expensive car to reduce emissions. Replace lightbulbs, shop local, buy organic. The market has consumed environmentalism as an opportunity to sell more stuff and that has made everybody cynical.

CBC radio had a story on today about some people who say that Canada should reconsider its commitment to introduce a carbon tax.

Wrong! A carbon tax is precisely the kind of tool we need!

The BC example has been good for the economy while reducing greenhouse gases. It provides incentives for communities to take climate action which takes the pressure off the individual consumer who is already wracked with guilt for buying a new…anything.

What will happen if the US stops taking action on climate change? Will Canada’s economy suffer?

Can I answer that question with a question? Can we stop thinking about the profits of large corporations as if their well-being is more important than anything else for a second?

The Natural Resources minister under Stephen Harper, Joe Oliver was on the radio programme I was listening to. He was so full of misinformation I was yelling at the radio.

One thing he said was that the best way to fight climate change is to push forward in science and technology so that cheaper and better ways to solve the problem come into the market.

Sound reasonable? It’s hogwash. What makes me angry is that he is in a position to know better. All the best information was at his fingertips, but he continues to soothe the shopping public with the message that we can keep doing what we’re doing until technology fixes everything.

One of the biggest lessons we have learned as we work to make our home as energy-efficient as possible is that technology is not the issue.

The technology and techniques have been around a long time and they are so simple that most people can understand easily:

  1. Insulate your house
  2. Insulate your house some more
  3. Insulate your house to the point where people look at what you’re doing and say, “holy crap that’s a lot of insulation”
  4. seal your house (doors, windows, chimneys, vents…)
  5. ventilate your house (you need fresh air now that you sealed it so well) with a Heat-Recovery Ventilator

Now that you have done all that you should not need very much heat in the winter nor cooling in the summer. Now you can decide how you want to provide that little bit of heating and cooling. (Hint: try not to use fossil fuels, including Natural Gas)

Here are a few fun options for heating your house without emitting GHGs: an air-source heat pump, a ground-source heat pump or a sun-pump.

SPOILER ALERT: Leanne and I have decided to deliver heat in the house with water pipes under the floors (and radiators on the top floor) and heat that water with electricity. We’re eschewing a heat pump for the time being but we may be able to partially heat the water with solar panels.

Yes, there are best-practices and some gadgets which help with all this, but the technology is available.

The problem is that not enough people are doing it.

Why are solar panels expensive?

Not enough people are buying them.

Why is it so hard to find a contractor who knows how to retrofit a house?

Not enough people are doing it.

Why does it take so long to retrofit a house?

Not enough people are doing it.

Does this cycle right back to blaming the public for not taking action? No. How can we expect the 99% of people who are not rich to spend a year and a lot of money retrofitting their house when the return on investment will be at least a decade away?

So, let’s not blame the media for ringing the climate bell without offering solutions. The solutions have to come from the people we elected to manage our future. Unfortunately, I don’t think Donald Trump has any solutions and I pray that Canada stays strong and doesn’t get sucked into the past.

Til next time,

James