Archive for July, 2009

Pick the right solar vendor, save more money!

Maybe all my talk so far has convinced you it doesn’t cost more to build energy-efficiently or install alternative methods of power generation, and now you’re ready to make the big move to solar. If so, let me be the first to thank you for making that decision! Not only are you a true leader, but you’re sure to be the next big topic of discussion in your neighborhood. But before you make the final choice on a solar installer, here are some key points to keep in mind as you meet with your local solar vendors:

  1. Get the contractor’s license number. Once you find it, look it up. All U.S. states have a website to look up a contractor’s license and give you some background information on the contractor. This is key: your installer MUST have a contractor’s license, without question. For Massachusetts residents, you can check a contractor’s license record at the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety license lookup site
  2. Check the contractor’s record with the Better Business Bureau. Not all contractors will have information on file with the BBB, but if there have been any complaints or unresolved warranty issues, they will most likely be listed here by previous customers. Eastern Massachusetts residents can check the local Better Business Bureau business listings here.
  3. Does the contractor outsource their crew? This may not sound like a big issue, but it is. Some companies outsource their installations to other, often unqualified, sub-contractors. Remember, these contractors will be installing solar power, most likely while walking on your roof, drilling holes in your roof and making all sorts of electrical connections within your home. You need to be assured the contractors have been properly trained and certified, and if the crew is outsourced, you can’t be sure of that.
  4. Get Referrals. Ask for a list of the most recent three, four, or even five customers. Not every customer is willing to be a reference, though, even if the contractor did a great job. So don’t be alarmed if the contractor can’t give you the name of every customer s/he’s ever worked with. But get a few names and phone numbers of recent customers, call them up and ask them if they were satisfied with the contractors work. Did the contractor meet their initial estimates? Was the work performed in a timely manner? Has the customer realized the expected savings with the new equipment? These are all valid questions to ask. You may also consider driving by the customer’s home as well, just to check out how the installation looks from the outside.
  5. Ask what brands of equipment the contractor uses. Not only does solar power involve the installation of solar panels, but you also need to have the proper A/C and D/C converter units installed (solar power produces DC current which needs to be converted to AC current to power things like your computer, lights, and washing machines). Like all other types of equipment, there’s good quality and lesser quality (to be kind). Most solar equipment will not require a high level of maintenance, but be sure there is a warranty offered on the equipment and that the contractor stands behind the warranty claims.
  6. Get a second quote. Not only will this help assure you that the quote being offered is reasonable, it also helps ensure cost competitiveness across installers. But don’t select your contractor on price alone. The more expensive quote could be advantageous if that contractor uses better installation procedures, higher quality parts, or extends greater warranty coverage. In general within Massachusetts, the current average is roughly $8.60/KwH generated. So depending on the size of the system you’re installing, a typical residential installation should cost between $16,000 and $50,000+ for a full passive heating and cooling system. Massachusetts residents can find a spreadsheet with information on the costs of recent solar installations in Massachusetts over the past several years, along with the applicable rebates the homeowners received, at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s web site.
  7. Get a fixed date for installation to begin and end. Your contractor should have the work pretty much all figured out ahead of time and should be able to tell you how long installation will take and when they will be able to begin the work. A good contractor won’t get thrown by a project overrun and should be able to plan accordingly for all contingencies. Be sure to ask the previous customers if the contractor finished their job on time as well (see Get Referrals above). You don’t want to be starting an installation in central Massachusetts in late September only to have it held up past the first cold spell in October.
  8. Get the warranty specifics for your equipment and save it in a safe place. Solar equipment lasts a LONG time and requires very little on-going maintenance, so chances are you’ll forget the brand name and maybe even the installers name after 20 years, so you’ll want to have this information handy in year 18 should anything go awry.
  9. Don’t forget your rebates! Most U.S. state have some form of rebate program, and if your state doesn’t, your local utility company most likely does. Your contractor should be intimately familiar with all the available rebate programs and how to apply for them. A good contractor may even file the rebate requests on your behalf – it never hurts to ask them if they will! Check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, for a list of available rebates in your state.

Congratulations on taking the first steps toward energy independence! If you have more questions on solar power or other forms of alternative energy in the home, read my other blog posts or visit my web site at www.CyberGreenRealty.com for more information. You can also find a listing of Solar vendors in the Eastern Massachusetts region on my web site under the Eco Friendly Partners page.

Until next time, Peace!

-TMC

Bad Breath Indoors? Freshen It Up!

I send out a quarterly newsletter to my favorite clients and I thought over the weekend, “Why not post it on here as well”? Each person who reads my posts and subscribes to my blog is also a valued client, so why shouldn’t you also get the same benefit, right?

So for your reading pleasure, and summer comfort, here’s an article* I sent out in my Summer Quarterly newsletter this year. Enjoy!

You can easily clean up bad indoor air quality at home with just a few lifestyle changes and adjustments in your air-quality management. According to the American Lung Association, here’s how:

  • The best way to freshen air is to clean up the source of odors and ventilate, such as running bathroom exhaust fans. Run fans that exhaust to the outside, such as those in the kitchen or bath, or open windows and place window fans to blow air out. Add ventilation when you use household cleaning products indoors.
  • From cleansers to pet shampoos, some household cleaners leave behind harmful chemicals or give off gases that can irritate or harm your lungs. Read the small print on labels before purchasing any household chemical, including health and beauty products and air “fresheners.” If the product has an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) number, the product is classified as a pesticide. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Labels like “organic” and “natural” do not mean a product is safe for everyone either.
  • Don’t be so quick to turn off exhaust fans in the bathroom or kitchen. They help remove both moisture and air pollutants. Install a quiet, low-energy model. The air inside your home, where you spend up to 95% of your time, can be two to five times more polluted than air outdoors.
  • Change the way you clean. Dust mites are everywhere and they trigger allergic reactions ranging from sneezing to asthma attacks. A central vacuum cleaner vented to the outdoors is best, but a vacuum cleaner with a micro filter bag or High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter will also help remove allergens. If the “yuck” factor motivates you, consider this – dust mites feed on skin flakes. Yuck is right!
  • Hard-surfaced floors like wood, tile, or linoleum are easier to clean that carpeted floors. Real hardwood flooring is a better deal – when it comes to breathing easy – than engineered wood products used in flooring, which can contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Damp mopping or using a damp cloth to clean hard surfaces at least once a week is a better approach than “dry dusting,” which just stirs up the mites and other particles.
  • Relative humidity higher than 50% helps not only mold and dust mites thrive, but creepy cockroaches too! Another big Yuck!
  • If someone in your family has allergies or asthma, it’s important to encase their mattress and pillows in dust-proof or allergen-impermeable covers and replace wool or feather-stuffed bedding materials with synthetic materials. Wool or feather-stuffed bedding attracts more dust mites than synthetics.
  • All combustion appliances that burn gas, oil or wood emit carbon monoxide and other dangerous gases. Properly installed appliances vent the fumes outside, but you should also have a carbon monoxide detector in your home and smoke alarms, installed as close to sleeping areas as possible. Remember, carbon monoxide alarms are now required in all Massachusetts’ households and apartments.

Follow just a few of these simple steps and you, too, could be breathing easier this summer!

If you’d like to know more on this topic or other eco-friendly ideas related to real estate, housing, or the Massachusetts housing market, please visit my web site at CyberGreenRealty for more information.

Peace!

-TMC

*Article courtesy of RE/MAX Life; written by Broderick Perkins copyright 2009

It Doesn’t Cost More to Buy an Eco-Friendly, Green Home

I already knew this from my EcoBroker course and the research I’ve been doing, but now my (new) favorite channel, Planet Green, has show after show confirming it – you don’t have to spend a lot more money in order to buy eco-friendly housing. If you’re building anew or remodeling, follow the three R’s – reuse, renovate, and recycle – and you’ll spend maybe even less than your original budget to be eco- and energy-friendly. In both cases, you’ll more than make up for it on the back-end with reduced utility bills, greater home comfort, and improved personal health.

Wanna do it? Wanna buy an eco-friendly home and reduce your ecological footprint? Here’s how to go about it:

  1. Shameless self-promotion first – hire a qualified real estate agent with a green designation, such as the Certified EcoBroker or NAR’s GREEN designations. We’re trained to help you deal with issues and find expert resources in areas such as indoor air quality, moisture/mold/mildew, asbestos removal, and we can even help you find lenders who are familiar with the extra mortgage features for energy-efficient homes that are available in the market today.
  2. Next, if you’re buying, go out and find a home you like. Your Realtor will be able to help you find all the homes in your area with the eco-friendly features that are important to you.
  3. So now you’ve found the home you want to buy, or you want to rehab/remodel your current place, the first step in the formal process is to have an energy audit conducted. The audit will list, in priority order, what projects should be undertaken to make the home more energy-efficient. You can find a list of qualified home energy raters at the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) web site.
  4. Follow the recommendations as outlined in the energy audit – be sure to have professionally trained contractors perform the work where necessary (such as asbestos removal). Even something as simple as using low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints can help make your home greener by eliminating many of the chemicals emitted from standard paint.
  5. If the work has required the use of contractors, they will be paid by the mortgage company out of the escrow funds your lender setup when you got an Energy Efficient mortgage. What? Don’t know about EEMs? See my previous blog post for more info.
  6. If your plans from the audit didn’t include solar, geothermal, or wind power, you can still take advantage of green power by switching your electricty source with your local provider. Just call your provider and tell them you want to buy a portion or all of your electricity from green sources. They can give you all the details when you call.
  7. If you did install any of the alternative power methods noted in #6, also be sure to check with your state for appropriate rebates and incentives. You can find a database of the state rebates and incentives at the DSIRE web site.
  8. After all those inside improvements, it’s time to look outside to see what you can do – try some landscaping to help with natural heating and cooling patterns of the seasons. Deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in the fall) are best planted along the southern side of the home – this way they provide shade from the heat in the summer and they allow the sun in during the winter to add some heat to the home. Plant firs and pines to the north-northeast to act as windbreaks, especially during those winter nor’easters we’re all familiar with (most of us anyway).
  9. Don’t forget some composting or even water reclamation. In my hometown of Arlington, MA, the town annually sells blue rainwater barrels for homeowners to use to collect the rain, which is then used for watering gardens, washing cars, etc.

Ha! I’ll bet you thought I might end with a “Top 10” list here, but I like to be unconventional and I’ll stop at #9.

But where’s the money savings? First, your utility bills will be reduced, keeping more money in your pocket every month. Next, many energy improvements are eligible for federal and state tax incentives or rebates. For example – in Massachusetts, the portion of land on which a solar array or wind turbine is located is not subject to state property tax for 20 YEARS after installation! Imagine covering your backyard with solar panels and not paying any tax on your yard! Well, don’t imagine that maybe – your neighbors wouldn’t like you and you’d never be able to have a cookout. But you get the idea.

See? Not so hard after all, is it? For more ideas and links to Eco-Friendly partners in the Boston/Cambridge/Arlington Massachusetts area, visit my web site at CyberGreenRealty.com.

Until next time, Peace!

-TMC

House of Horrors – The Day The Mold Spores Appeared

I recently toured a home wherein the listing agent referred to the basement as having “slight discoloration” from water damage. Of course, this is a bank-owned property so I took it with a grain of salt, expecting more than just some discoloration. Particularly after learning the house had been empty all winter and the pipes had burst in the first-floor kitchen, I knew there had to be more than just “discoloration.” I informed my buyer, who’s looking for a “good-deal fixer-upper,” and off we went to view the property.

Let’s start by saying this listing agent should have her license revoked – there wasn’t just “discoloration,” there was mold EVERYWHERE in the basement! It was like entering a house of horrors and all the walls were fuzzy with living organisms. This wasn’t just white or green mold either – this was thick, black mold on the doors, walls, windows, furnace, water heater, everywhere. It kinda looked toxic and I thought, “Man, they should be handing out gas masks to people before coming down here.” And I don’t think it was just a coincidence that my eyes were itchy and watery the rest of the evening.

I tell this story not to gross people out (though that’s always fun to do, too!), but to bring up the topic of mold and how every house actually has mold in it – but it’s a matter of keeping moisture under control and not allowing the mold spores a chance to land in a moist spot and grow. There are many types of mold, but none will grow without moisture present.

Some mold basics:

  • Every house has mold; it’s a matter of controlling the moisture level in your home.
  • Molds have the potential to cause health problems – allergic reactions are common.
  • Molds produce allergens, irritants, and in some cases toxic substances (mycotoxins).
  • You can never totally eliminate mold spores from your home, but you can keep them from growing by controlling the source of their growth – moisture.

How to get rid of mold:

  • First and foremost, you must address the moisture problem; if you don’t, the mold will return.
  • If the area with mold is less than a 10×10 foot space, you can usually clean the mold up yourself.
  • If the area with mold is larger than a 10×10 foot area (such as in the house referenced above), you should hire a professional contractor with experience in mold remediation to perform the job.
  • If you also suspect mold may be contaminating the ventilation system, you should also have an HVAC professional investigate. In the meantime, do NOT turn on the ventilation system as that will cause more mold spores to be spread throughout the home.
  • If carpeting, ceiling tiles or other porous types of material have mold growing on them, they may need to be thrown away, as mold fills in crevices and empty spaces and you’ll never be able to get rid of all of it.
  • Avoid exposing yourself and others to mold
  • Do not just paint over moldy surfaces – the paint will eventually crack and peel

If you decide to do the cleanup yourself, be sure to wear a mask, gloves, and eye protection, preferably without ventilation holes. Scrape the mold off any hard surfaces, then clean and dry the area thoroughly. As mentioned above, porous materials may need to be tossed (unfortunately, no reuse or recycle here!). If you have furniture, sentimental or valuable items that have been affected by mold, consult a local furniture or other type of restoration professional who is familiar in restoring items damaged by mold or water.

For more information, refer to the Environmental Protection Agency’s pamphlet on mold, which can be found at the EPA’s web site. You may also call the toll-free EPA hotline at (800) 438-4318 for a free copy of the pamphlet. If you live in the Massachusetts area, feel free to check my CyberGreenRealty.com web site for some local eco-friendly partners who may also be able to help you.

Until next time, Peace!

-TMC

Clean Energy Too Techie or Costly? You Can Still Buy Green Power

I’m slightly off-focus in this entry, wanting to talk about purchasing green power as opposed to the more activity-oriented approaches upon which I’ve been writing. And since I just signed up for this myself today, I can attest to the ease with which you can make the switch yourself to clean energy.

Let’s look at some of the reasons people don’t go with clean energy already:

  • Sometimes homeowners are unwilling to make the technological leap and be one of the first to try out a “new” technology (even though solar has been available for decades).
  • For others, it’s still too cost-prohibitive to have the necessary audits and evaluations done, or they just think it’s too complicated to install an active or passive solar system or a geothermal pump (well, I’ll give them the pump thing…).
  • And let’s not forget renters – I have yet to hear of a landlord allowing a renter to install solar panels on the roof and have the hot water heater converted to an on-demand heater connected directly to the panels!

Now let’s see what people find so attractive about clean energy:

  • Reduction in air pollution
  • A chance to reduce your carbon footprint
  • No radioactive waste is produced, nor is the earth mined or drilled
  • You are contributing to environmental awareness and doing your part to help the planet

To allow consumers the opportunity to purchase green power, the EPA has partnered with utility companies across the nation as part of the Green Power Partnership. Depending on your utility company, the alternative forms of enery will vary, from solar to wind to water and biomass (methane gas recapture).

How it works is pretty simple, with a small cost attached. Follow these steps:

  1. Go to the Green Power Locator on the US EPA web site, click on your state and find your local utility company.
  2. Call and tell your utility company you want to enroll in the clean energy program and tell them the percentage of green electricity you’d like to purchase – it can range from 25% – 100%.
  3. Depending on the percentage of green power you elect, your cost per kWh will be increased. For example, with NSTAR in Massachusetts, if you elect 50% to be clean energy, you would pay an additional 0.837 cents per kWh. If you choose to have 100% clean energy, your rate would increase by 1.396 cents per kWh.
  4. The alternative energy is then purchased directly by the utility company via the regional grid (in NSTAR’s case, they purchase wind power from the Maple Ridge Wind Farm in upstate New York, which connects to the New England grid).

Why does it cost more? Because, at present, it still costs more per kWh for clean energy providers to produce the power. However, as the technology improves, more competitors enter the market, and more people demand cleaner energy alternatives, the prices will eventually come down.

So if you can’t invest in alternative power sources right now, why not consider purchasing at least a portion of your electricity from cleaner sources? You’ll feel SO good knowing you’re doing something good to help the planet!

Until next time, Peace!

-TMC

What Can a 203(k) Loan Do For You?

For some reason, I’ve been attracting a lot of buyers interested in finding a rehab property lately. Perhaps it’s because there are so many foreclosures on the market now, it’s the prevalent type of property to grab at a good price. I’m surprised, though, at the number of people who aren’t familiar with the 203(k) Rehabilitation Mortgage program, available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Here are just a few details on the program:

  • 203(k) mortgages can be used for both single family purchases as well as condos. However, there are certain restrictions regarding the condo loans, including the requirement that it be owner-occupied or be a non-profit owner.
  • The loans are available for buildings with up to 4 units.
  • Mixed-use buildings are eligible, but the mortgage can only be used for rehab to the residential portion of the building.
  • Can an investor get a 203(k) Mortgage? No.
  • Can a first-time homebuyer get a 203(k) Mortgage? Absolutely!
  • Can a 203(k) Mortgage be used to convert a single family or two-family into two or more units? Yes – but it can not exceed the maximum of 4 units.
  • Is there a minimum loan amount? Yes – $5,000 is the minimum loan amount you can get.
  • What is the time frame for construction requirements? Work must begin within 30 days of the signing of the Agreement and must not continue more than 6 months beyond the first date of construction.

These are just some of the highlights of the 203(k) Mortgage Rehab program. For more information, visit the HUD’s web site and their detailed Q & A section on the program.

As always, my web site at CyberGreenRealty.com has more information on energy efficient improvements and other programs that may help qualify you for a higher mortgage.

Until next time, Peace!

-TMC

When it comes to solar, are you passive?

A passive solar home means there are no moving parts or equipment that need to be maintained. Being “passive” means just that – it’s all about how your house “lays” there and absorbs or reflects heat.

Heat naturally moves from a warmer material to a cooler material until there is no temperature difference between the two materials. Passive solar homes take advantage of this property to distribute heat in the winter and to deflect heat away from surfaces in the summertime.

Direct heat gain is the simplest passive type of solar system, as it relies only on sun entering through a collector of some sort (such as a large south-facing window with a glazing material of transparent or translucent glass), and being absorbed by a darker material, such as a masonry floor. The floor acts as the “thermal mass” and absorbs the heat during the day. At night, as the floor cools, the heat is radiated back into the room as heat.

Some people use water-filled containers to absorb the heat, as water stores twice as much heat as masonry material. However, these types of systems need to be carefully designed and placed, as the structural support required is high.

In the summertime, if the home has been designed and oriented properly, with appropriate roof overhangs, awnings, or shutters, the sun does not enter through the windows and no heat is absorbed. Think of how the sun is aligned in the winter and summer and this will make sense. In the winter, the sun hits us from a much sharper southern angle. That allows more of the sun into our windows in the winter. In the summer, the sun is higher in the sky and shines down more directly. The sun can therefore be blocked with larger roof overhangs, window awnings, shutters, and even trellises with blooming vines.

An indirect heat gain system is more complex, as it involves installing the thermal storage medium (the thermal mass) in between the south-facing windows and the living areas. In this type of setup, a Trombe wall is installed which consists of an 8-16 inch-thick masonary wall on the south side of the house. A single or double layer of glass is mounted about 1 inch or less in front of the wall’s surface. Solar heat is then absorbed by the wall’s dark-colored surface and stored in the wall’s thermal mass, where it begins to radiate into the house. Because the transfer of heat takes a lot longer, the heat doesn’t begin to radiate into the living spaces until the sun has set. It typically will take about 8 hours for the heat to radiate into the home, so this system is very affective in winter-time heating. And as with the direct heat gain method, proper use of roof overhangs, shutters, and trellises will eliminate the summer-time heat gain.

For more information on designing a passive solar heat system for your home, see the Energy Savers web site, part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s web site.

If you live in the Massachusetts area, be sure to check my web site at CyberGreenRealty.com for local solar vendors and others who can help you get as “active” or “passive” as you want!

Until next time. Peace!

-TMC