Thursday, June 21, 2012

Paneling Up: Making The Switch to Solar

(Photo from Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon)
Switching to solar power doesn't have to require a second mortgage and a team of workers on your roof. Advances in solar technology now make it possible to take baby steps, switching a portion of your house's energy usage over to solar. In this article, we delve into the latest advances in the solar industry, explaining how these can be applied in your own home.

The first thing you want to do when consider solar technology in your home is to check the incentives. There are various websites that will give you regional incentive summaries. One great site for this is, which breaks down the rebates and incentives for solar power, state by state.

The following thing you should consider is the number of years you will be in your home, the affordability of traditional electricity in your state, and does your home even receive enough sunlight?
Solar panels only make sense if you plan to stay in your home for an extended number of years. When you move, you can't simply pickup your panels and throw them in the back of a U-haul. It's only a reasonable option if you don't plan on moving for the next 10-15 years. It's also worth noting that the upfront costs for a solar panel system can be expensive, and that's why you should be in your home for a long time for those upfront costs to pay for themselves.

Also, if you live in a state where traditional electricity is very affordable, solar may not even save you much money and it may ultimately not be worth it. Places with high costs make the most sense for solar like Hawaii, where electricity costs are through the roof.

And not all homes and parts of the country are created equal. You want a lot of roof space, you want that roof to be pointing towards the sun, and you want to live in a very sunny area of the country. Solar panels in the upper northwest of America – which receives much rain, may not make the most sense. Nor do densely wooded areas. You can get a solar panel installer to come to your home and give you a report on the viability of solar paneling for your home.

Lastly, you can get into the solar panel game slowly. Panels can be easily expanded so you can start small before ultimately working your way off the grid. There are a lot of DIY resources online that will give you tips and tricks like what to buy and where to buy. A good first hand knowledgebase is YouTube. People love showing off their customized solar panel systems. Solar panels can start as a pet-project and advance into a new way of living. There is nothing more fulfilling than saving money and going green! What are you waiting for?

About the Author
Bahram Nasehi is a Vice President and partner at Dulles Glass and Mirror. He is instrumental in the development and manufacturing of commercial and residential glass products including tempered glass, glass table tops and shower doors.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Green & Frugal Living: The Nuts & Bolts of Natural Building

Using Natural Materials in Various Aspects of Residential Construction
The philosophy behind natural building borrows heavily from natural resource conservation and principles of sustainability, but it takes those concepts to a new level. Rather than relying on technology to create new ways minimize environmental impact in the construction process, advocates of natural building rely on nature for the raw materials used in construction. With natural construction, resources readily available in one's local surroundings are collected and used to create shelter. The resurgence of natural building, as an alternative to traditional construction processes that rely on synthetic and processed materials, provides creative ways to use abundantly available natural resources in virtually all aspects of the construction process.

Using Natural Materials to Create a Home's Structure
Although wood framed construction has become the standard in the American residential construction industry, proponents of natural building often favor using locally available soil and sedimentary materials to lessen the burden on our nation's over-harvested forests. For example, adobe, cob, and rammed earth buildings use a mixture of sand, clay, and water, usually with some sort of binding materials included, to create the building blocks for a building. Adobe structures are built by stacking blocks made of the dried mixture of sand, clay, and water. In contrast, cob homes are created by shaping the sand, clay, and water mixture into a monolithic structure. Rammed earth involves the same process as cob, however, the sand, clay, and water mixture is packed onto a temporary surface which is removed when the mixture dries.

Although the process of constructing an adobe, cob, or rammed earth home is often labor-intensive, these homes are becoming more and more popular in the United States because the raw materials are so inexpensive. In addition, if constructed carefully, earthen homes have thick walls that are resistant to the elements and are very durable. Further, depending on the climate, structures built using these processes can conserve energy, resulting in lower utility bills.

For the ultimate in using nature to create a home's structure, earth-sheltered homes permit homeowners to basically live underground. Although not for everyone, living underground (or partially-underground) offers many advantages, including decreased energy consumption, fire resistance, and a quiet, sound-proof environment. Detractors point to the lack of natural light, but many designs of earth-sheltered homes are built into the side of a hill, for example, to make room for windows.

Cladding a Home with Natural Resources
Perhaps the most popular natural material used in exterior cladding in the United States is stone. Locally available rocks or stones can be stacked with natural mortar mixtures to create attractive, strong exterior walls. Cordwood provides another potentially environmentally sensitive cladding option. If small-diameter trees are abundant in an area, they can be cut into short pieces and stacked crosswise with mortar to secure them as cladding for a wood framed house. Even if this kind of wood is not plentiful locally, scraps from sawmills can also be used.

Wattle and daub could be a viable exterior cladding option for areas of the country that have a particularly mild climate. Wattle and daub is made by weaving thin branches that are reinforced with some sort of organic mixture made from natural materials such as mud, clay, sand, or manure. While the thin walls created by wattle and daub don't provide good insulation, thus making it uncommon in the United States, it has become more popular for certain interior applications.

Sustainable Roof Options
Thatched roofing was once regarded as an outdated craft, reserved for the inexpensive shelters of inhabitants of very poor parts of the world. However, today, thatched roofs are enjoying a resurgence in the United States, where environmentally conscious homeowners appreciate the rustic look and good insulation qualities that roofs created from dry vegetation provide. Although well designed thatched roofs can be pricey, they can be created by using local resources and can last up to twice as long as standard roof shingles. In contrast to thatched roofs, which are made of gathered or discarded dead vegetation, living roofs are covered with growing plants. Because of the cost of protecting the interior of a structure from leaks and accounting for root growth and irrigation, in the United States living roofs are most often associated with large commercial or multi-family buildings. However, some homeowners drawn to the concept have embraced the idea on a smaller scale by incorporating living roofs on outdoor patios and gazebos.

Nature-Inspired Floors
Two of the most common sustainable flooring options in the United States are bamboo and cork. Bamboo is a popular renewable resource because it is one of the fastest growing plants in the world and because harvesting it does not affect its roots. The attractive look of bamboo floors has made the product extremely popular throughout the country in recent years. The materials used in cork flooring come from the bark of the cork oak tree. Removing the bark does not damage the tree, and the resulting cork provides a floor covering that is durable, soft, and sound resistant.

If you have more traditional taste, several varieties of all natural carpet, which use no dyes or chemicals, are available on the market. In many cases, the carpet is biodegradable, so once it's removed from the home, it won't languish in a landfill for years.

This guest post is brought to you by Brent Hardy, the driving force for Extra Space Storage corporate responsibility through energy management and sustainability programs at Brent leads a conversation about sustainability at

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