By the time fall rolls around, most of us are ready to say ‘goodbye’ to the summer heat, and hello to a few months of cool weather. However, autumn is more than just a time to enjoy the changing color of the leaves and the dropping of the mercury in the thermometer; it’s a time to prepare your home for the coming ravages of winter. After all, if you don’t take care of potential problems now, before they actually happen, you could find yourself stuck with some major repair work right in the middle of the Holiday Season. Here’s a quick list of things you need to do to prepare your home for the coldest months of the year.
1. Prune back your hedges, shrubs, and branches.
When it comes to being covered in snow, the plants with less surface area are less likely to get damaged. Trimming back your outdoor plants will help keep them safe, and will give them a nice fresh start to grow from once spring arrives.
2. Check around your doors and windows.
With the cold fast approaching, now’s the time to locate any areas of your home through which heat could escape. Make sure that the caulking around you windows is solid and free from cracks, and check around your doors to make sure that they shut securely without leaving gaps.
3. Give the heater a test run.
Replace your furnace filter, open your vents, and kick the heater into high gear, because you’ll want to make sure that your heater works before you get trapped inside during a blizzard. If you notice any problems, call a repairman and get it sorted out quickly.
4. Clean and cover the AC outdoor condensing unit.
This is good idea especially if your area drops into low temperatures or has heavy snowfall. Use a high pressure hose to clean any debris out of the condensing unit, and then cover it up for the winter. If left open, the harsh winter weather could damage your system, leaving you without a cooling system once things begin to heat up again.
5. Clean out your gutters.
If you have any trees near your house, then chances are that once all the leaves have fallen, you’ll have rain gutters that are absolutely full of debris. Clean these out before the weather starts to get any worse, otherwise you could have to deal with water buildup and ice damage.
6. Check the roof.
If you have any missing or damaged shingles, you should hurry to get them replaced before winter arrives. Also check to see if you have any significant air leaks coming up through the roof, and have them repaired if you do.
7. Blow out your sprinkler system.
In many areas, simply turning off your sprinklers isn’t enough to protect them. Have your sprinkler lines completely emptied of any residual water by using an air compressor (or hiring someone to use an air compressor) to blast it free. Water left in the pipes could freeze, causing massive damage to your home irrigation system.
8. Fix any cracks in your driveway and other paved surfaces.
Small cracks can become big eyesores if you allow water to get into them and freeze. So, before that happens, take a close look at any of your paved surfaces and fill any cracks with either poured concrete or special concrete crack sealer.
9. Store an emergency food supply.
Winter can often mean storms, which in turn can result in loss of power, being snowed in, or even being unable to access running water. If that should happen, you’ll be thankful for a well stocked food storage to help keep your family healthy and happy. There are many sites online that can help you figure out exactly what kind of foods you should store for winter.
10. Automate your home.
If you really want to get ready for winter, contact one of the leading home automation providers such asVivint. Home automation can help you regulate house temperature, keep an eye on your property during storms, and conserve precious electricity.
The editors here at MOTHER EARTH NEWS benefit greatly from the involvement and opinions of the magazine's readers. Our Advisory Group members (whose ranks you can join!) vote on their interest in the topics and artwork we propose, and give us feedback on all kinds of subjects, including gardening and poultry.
In the spirit of such involvement, we'd like potential homeowners to answer some survey questions on their preferences when it comes to their future homes' designs and features. This survey will be particularly relevant to you if you plan to build a new home or weekend cottage in the near future, but even if you're still just in the dreaming-about-it stage, we welcome your opinion.
Thank you for your participation and feedback!
Photo by Fotolia/KB3
Collegiate teams involving more than 1,000 students from around the world have assembled at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif., to showcase their highly energy-efficient, solar-powered houses for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2013. The opening ceremony on Oct. 3 kicked off the highly anticipated biennial competition that challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate houses powered by the sun that are affordable, energy efficient, attractive and easy to live in.
“These inspiring collegiate teams show our onsite visitors and online Solar Decathlon audience around the world how efficient building design and clean energy products available today can help families and businesses save money by saving energy,” said Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. “The event provides student competitors with unique real-world training to become the clean-energy workforce of the future and helps ensure that our nation remains competitive in the global race for clean energy.”
In addition to educating the public about money-saving and energy-saving opportunities available today, this award-winning competition engages students from across the nation and around the world to develop the skills and knowledge to become the next generation of architects, engineers and clean energy entrepreneurs. Over the last decade, the competition has prepared approximately 17,000 students to become future innovators in clean energy technologies and efficient building designs that cut carbon pollution and help slow the effects of climate change to leave a cleaner, more stable environment for future generations. The Solar Decathlon also supports the Obama Administration’s goal of transitioning to a clean energy economy while saving families and businesses money.
Student teams in the 2013 competition span two continents, including teams from the United States, Canada, Austria and the Czech Republic. Over the next 10 days, they will compete in 10 contests that gauge each house’s performance, livability and affordability, rewarding teams that build houses with estimated costs at or below $250,000. The teams will have to perform a variety of everyday tasks, including cooking, laundry and washing dishes, to test the livability and energy use of their houses. The winner of the overall competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.
Thousands are expected to visit the houses, which will be open to the public free of charge on eight days over two weekends: From Thursday, Oct. 3, through Sunday, October 6, and again from Thursday, Oct. 10, through Sunday, Oct. 13, from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. PDT. Visitors are able to tour the houses, gather ideas to use in their own homes, and learn how energy-saving features can help them save money today. The overall winner will be announced on Saturday, Oct. 12 at 10:00 a.m. PDT. This Solar Decathlon is the sixth such competition since 2002.
This year’s collegiate teams were chosen nearly two years ago through a competitive process. The selected teams and their projects represent a diverse range of design approaches, building technologies, and geographic locations, climates and regions – including urban, suburban and rural settings. They also aim to reach a broad range of target housing markets, including veterans, disaster relief, retirement, and single family. Teams have gathered their combined interdisciplinary talents to design and build the houses, as well as to raise funds, furnish and decorate the houses, and optimize the houses’ performance.
For the first time, the Solar Decathlon will be hosted alongside XPO, a clean, renewable and efficient energy exposition, featuring visionary and innovative companies, products and educational opportunities, organized by the City of Irvine and Orange County Great Park. Through fun, interactive exhibits and activities, the XPO will provide visitors with information about the broad spectrum of energy efficiency in home design, transportation, consumer products, food production and education. Visitors will experience a 21st century festival of creativity, technology, design and educational experiences that will inspire children and adults alike at this years Solar Decathlon.
May is the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Preservation Month. Because many historic homes are built with aging and perhaps brittle or discolored wood, Sansin Corporation — a company specializing in eco-friendly, “water-borne” interior and exterior stains — offers five tips for historic home renovators to keep in mind when tackling a DIY historic home renovation project, such as Frank Robinson's renovation of a 108-year-old cabin in Alberta, Canada.
Preserving Historic Places, Naturally
Wood — our most renewable resource — is often a showcase of historic homes, and something that many renovators, including Robinson, want to protect naturally. Many also want a coating to protect and even reinvigorate the wood, yet not mask the innate beauty of the grain. But homeowners aren’t willing to sacrifice stain quality and longevity in order to “go green.”
Water-Borne vs. Oil-Based Stains
Oil-based paints are traditional coatings for wood surfaces and have a history of great performance and durability. Because of environmental reasons, water-based acrylic latex products have replaced oils in many areas. Oils, however, still have some benefits over water-based products, including penetration and sometimes stain-blocking and durability, as well as water resistance and possibly even flexibility.
Water-based products have low toxicity and low-volatile organic compound benefits (VOC). They also tend to be somewhat more stable with respect to discoloration from ultraviolet light. However, many renovators find them difficult to work with, since they tend to raise the wood grain, create an uneven surface, streak, and dry too fast.
That’s why Sansin developed water-borne alkyd formulas that combine the benefits of both technologies: the low VOCs and environmentally friendly benefits of water, combined with the durability of oils. A water-borne alkyd wood finish uses water as the vehicle to allow oil to penetrate deep into the wood. Water-borne means the formulation comprises pure alkyd and water — and doesn’t use acrylic or synthetic resin.
The water-borne formula leads to long-lasting durability, easier maintenance, and outstanding performance without the toxicity found in conventional stains that contribute to smog and ozone depletion.
108-Year-Old Log Cabin: A Sansin Success Story
Robinson is one of Sansin’s most recent historic home renovation success stories. He is refurbishing a 108-year-old homesteader’s log house near St. Michael, Alberta, which will serve as a vacation retreat. The home is a 1,000-square-foot, two-story cabin that was abandoned in about 1968. Robinson bought the property and decided to preserve its historic significance while creating a more modern, comfortable vacation retreat. Robinson met the Sansin team at a home show, and was immediately convinced that Sansin’s products were the right choice for his project.
“I wanted wood protection that would be climate-appropriate and would last, so I wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time on maintenance,” says Robinson, a busy administrator at Alberta University in Canada. “Sansin’s low-VOC stains are not the only way I have ‘gone green.’ I also salvaged old windows, clear fir flooring, and staircase treads from other abandoned homes to use in our cabin. It’s a way to keep the historic significance of the property, while also reducing, reusing and recycling.”
Tips for Historic Home Renovators
Historic home renovators like Robinson should consider the following tips to improve on a historic home without damaging the character and significance of the property.
Determine whether the home is a designated historic structure by checking with the state preservation office. If the home is in a historic district, there could be restrictions on the changes that can be made to the exterior. Also, easements and tax abatement programs could be available. By getting to know what makes the home unique in terms of design, architecture and materials, choices can be made that maintain the character of the home.
Stain, Don’t Paint
Staining — particularly with a low-VOC stain — treats historic wood surfaces with respect. Follow this rule of thumb: If a surface isn’t already painted, it shouldn’t be.
Know Your Wood Species
Maple and pine can be very difficult to apply finishes to, while it is easier to apply stain to hardwoods, such as oak. Also, darker stains are more difficult to work with than lighter ones. Those planning to use a dark stain should consider practicing on a scrap piece of wood before diving into the project.
Select the Right Product
A low-VOC penetrating stain wears gracefully, allowing the restorer to apply maintenance coats to sustain beauty, clarity and protection without excessively increasing the thickness of the finish. This approach allows the wood to breathe. Also, request samples and practice on scrap wood before applying to ensure the color is what you want.
Prepare the Surface, Apply the Stain
Repair any defects with acrylic-based wood filler. Sand the surface, working with the grain. Then clean the surface with a vacuum and a damp cloth, making sure it is clean and dry before applying the coats of stain and topcoat per the manufacturer’s direction.
Finally, selecting a color is important when considering exterior maintenance as the pigment loading will affect the performance of the coating. The more pigment, the longer it will last, as good-quality pigments, particularly iron oxides, provide excellent UV protection.
However, wood on historic buildings has a very attractive and distinctive character that most homeowners wish to retain and not hide. With clear or nearly clear coatings, new technologies use finely ground iron oxides, such as trans-oxides or nano tints, to maintain clarity and enhance UV protection, even in a clearer coating.
Wood is an amazing and strong material that creates unparalleled atmosphere, bestowing on historic homes a timeless aura. With some homework, preparation and the right wood stain, one can enjoy the beauty of a historic home for years to come.
To calculate the amount of stain you’d need for your project, use Sansin’s coverage calculator. For more tips on applying stain and details on where to purchase Sansin’s eco-friendly, low-VOC products, visit Sansin's website.
There has been a lot of talk in the past few years about the importance of “going green” in our day-to-day lives. And while most people can see the benefits of reducing one’s personal carbon footprint, there are still some skeptics who can’t see the initial price tag attached to a lot of green technology. So what we want to know is, is it worth it? Are you doing any good for the environment, and are there any other benefits to renovating your home to make it more eco-friendly? Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of a green home.
When we see the phrase green home, the “green” part is obviously referring to the environmentally friendly benefits. However, for many people, there is a more important “green” that they are concerned about—money. As a result, when they see the high price tag that is attached to eco-friendly technologies such as solar panels, home automation, and smart thermostats, they are often put off immediately. However, there are a lot of energy companies who are working to make such things more affordable, meaning that there is less to pay out, and more to save. For example many energy companies are offering solar panel installation at a low price, and allowing you to buy the energy rather than the panels themselves—something which can save you thousands of dollars.
Furthermore, if you install home automation products such as smart thermostats and automated lighting, you can save money on a regular basis, by creating a more efficient heating and cooling for your house. Even a simple, programmable thermostat can be enough to cut your energy bill in half.
What is more, automating one’s home provides a multitude of opportunities to improve convenience at home. You can use your smartphone to monitor your system, meaning you have greater control over things such as your lighting and temperature controls. This allows you to turn them off remotely and not only save energy and money, but time and effort. Most home automation companies like Vivint offer reviews and assessments of their tech, and even their competitor's in some cases, to help you find the best fit for you. Although some aspects of these systems do not do as much for the environment, you can also use home automation to your advantage by purchasing an automatic floor cleaner. This will clean the floor while you do whatever you want, and switch itself off when it is done.
And so we get to the bottom line—what is this doing for the environment? It should never be underestimated just how large of an impact a single household can have on greenhouse gas emissions, and subsequently the overall environment. Although may not notice the difference yourself, your efforts make an impact that cannot be measured. If for no other reason, helping the environment helps you to cut down on your monthly bills and chores. But the overall impact is far more important—you are doing your part to help the earth.
Kerosene lamps hold a place in many hearts as they provided light in homes before electricity arrived. For over 100 years Aladdin lamps in particular have been filling homes with their bright light. These lamps feature a unique incandescent tubular mantle that makes their light much brighter than other kerosene lamps. Older Aladdin lamps have become collectors items. The photos below are from the 2013 Lamp Show of the National Association of Aladdin Lamp Collectors in Topeka, Kan. The pictures illustrate the wide range of styles and shades that were popular during the early 1900s. Today, Aladdin lamps remain an excellent choice for emergency lighting, or simply to provide softer, old-fashioned lighting in your home.
Victor S. Johnson was the man responsible for bringing the Aladdin non-electric lamps to homes across the country and the world. Johnson sold his first Aladdin lamp in 1909 and their popularity took off from there. These unique kerosene lamps were especially helpful to those families without electricity, although the lamps were equally appreciated by city dwellers.
Today's Aladdin lamps are a result of several centuries of development. "Air lamps" were invented and patented by Ami Argand in 1784 where a center draft of air inside a tubular wick kept the lamp lit. A vast improvement on this lamp was made by Dr. Auer von Welsbach in 1885 when he created the incandescent gas mantle. In the 1900s after the U.S. learned of incandescent lamps from Germany, Aladdin lamps quickly became the world-wide leader with their blue flame that heats the mantel which emits the bright, white light of 60 candlepower (equivalent to 60 candles).
Source: History of Aladdin Lamps, by J.S. Courter
My story: how I became a healthy home consultant.
My degree is in Architecture. I never imagined that being a Healthy Home Consultant would become a regular part of my professional practice. In the early 80’s I lived in a home that made me chronically ill. Once it became clear that the cause of my poor health was my home I also realized that my education had been woefully deficient when it came to health. In my quest to become well again my architectural background turned out to be a huge asset. I was trained to understand how buildings are put together and how the standard construction process works. I had an insider view of how it needed to change to incorporate all of the many facets that go in to creating a healthy home. I went on to become a student and practitioner of Building Biology. This science, which originated in Germany, studies the relationship between human health and the built environment. Between my architectural education, my own personal experience with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities and my Building Biology training I gained a set of specialized knowledge that I have remained passionate about for over 20 years. In my healthy home consulting work I have been able to help hundreds of people throughout North America, Mexico, Costa Rica and as far away as Israel, and Switzerland. I have had the opportunity to experience many climate-and culturally-based variations of “home” and to work with professional colleagues including architects, builders, physicians, building officials and inspection and remediation specialists world-wide to determine what makes buildings sick and what makes them support health.
Four Reasons for Hiring a Healthy Home Consultant
There are a variety of reasons for hiring a Healthy Home Consultant and here are the four most common:
1. Something in my house is making me sick but I don’t know what it is. It is prohibitively expensive to test for every chemical that might be in your air so before calling a Healthy Home Consultant you would benefit by doing a little detective work on your own. Refer to my article What the Nose Knows for some tips on scoping out your home. Once you have gathered some information a Healthy Home Consultant who specializes in detection and remediation of unhealthy situations can help you by doing a general visual inspection aided by various instruments to measure general air quality, electro-magnetic radiation, water quality etc. The consultant can help you determine the most important testing and then design a protocol for remediation once your test results are in. The Building Biology website has a great deal of free information to help you with your initial investigation and lists Healthy Home consultants certified through the Institute.
2. A family member has environmental health issues such as MCS or electro-hypersensitivity and I need to have a potential purchase or rental checked out. For a general list of what to look for when seeking to rent or buy refer to my article Tips for a Healthy Home. When you locate a home that seems like it might work for you, hiring a real estate inspector is your first stop. There are various certifying bodies for this type of inspector and requirements differ from state to state. The primary purpose of a home inspector will be to do a thorough visual inspection of landscape, building envelop, electrical, mechanical and plumbing. Interview your local inspectors and compare their scope of services, training and references as there can be quite a range of experience and services offered. Your realtor may have good recommendations based on past experience. Combining the inspection information with various observations that you may make will help you to determine whether you need a more specialized healthy home consultation. A general home inspection may not tell you about the presence of lead, asbestos or mold. It will not cover some areas that are very important to anyone with Environmental Illness. An environmental home inspector trained through the Institute for Building Biology and Ecology will be able to address issues of special concern in more detail such as VOC measures, water quality, particulate count, presence of pesticides, mold and Electro-Magnetic Radiation. They will also be able to direct you to proper remediation of these problems.
3. A family member is disabled with environment related health issues and I want to build a healthy home from scratch. Consider hiring someone just like me to train and work with your local team! It is important to understand your areas of greatest concern from the outset and to address them from preliminary design to move-in day. You will need to pick the right site (refer to my article Insights on Siting Your Home. This might involve an EMR inspector with the right equipment to detect any site electrical radiation issues. Once your home site has been located you will need to put together a solid team to work with you: The team should include your health practitioner, local architect, local builder and Healthy Home Consultant. Individuals with chemical sensitivities will need to find a method for testing the various materials to know which, amongst the healthy options, work best for them, because no two people with environmental sensitivities will be the same. You will need a very detailed specification document describing the materials and special procedures that must be followed and this document should be referenced in your construction contract.
4. I am healthy but I have heard that homes can cause health problems and I want to live in the healthiest environment possible to stay healthy. As with number 3 above you will needa Healthy Home Consultant who specializes in new construction…like me! I approach a project differently for a client who is basically healthy and one with sensitivities although many of the parameters will be similar. I explain the difference this way: “If you are healthy and want to enhance your health then visiting a spa is a better choice for you than a hospital stay. On the other hand if you are having a heart attack a health spa won’t save you.” There are many things that people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities cannot tolerate that are perfectly fine for a healthy person. An analogy would be food allergies. On allergic person may go into anaphylactic shock by eating a strawberry but for someone who is free of these allergies, a strawberry is a healthy treat packed with vitamins and anti-oxidants. I would still recommend the pesticide-free version! Similarly, in a construction example, many with hypersensitivities to chemicals may not be able to tolerate wood terpenes but a healthy person may enjoy the look and feel of wood. So I would recommend to a healthy client that they consider a natural, breathable finish on their wood rather than an acrylic sealer to help regulate the home’s humidity and electro-climate but if that person requires a more durable finish then I would direct them to a healthier choice amongst the available acrylics.
Creating a house from scratch or an extensive renovation will require thousands of choices and the role of the Healthy Home Consultant is to educate my clients as to the best choices for them within a given budget and to work with the team to make sure that these choices are understood and implemented.
Five Important Requirements for a Successful Project
1. Realistic expectations: On its own a home will not make you healthy. If someone has severe sensitivities it is very important that they are working with the right health practitioner to build their health as they build their home. I always tell my sensitive clients that it is a piece of cake to create a home that is 99% better than the Standard American Production home but impossible to create something that is absolutely perfect. It might take time for some products, even healthy ones to cure completely and although the client is always anxious to get into a healthy environment as soon as possible they need a realistic time line for completion of a more complex construction and then possible additional time for the new home to completely cure. They also need to understand the client builder relationship in light of their special requirements. I explain that the builder will be using products and techniques that may be unfamiliar and a little more difficult to apply and that it is necessary to communicate more and appreciate these extra efforts on their behalf Often the contractor will have some trepidations about committing to such a project. A good consultant can help owner and contractor to put together contract language for their attorney’s review that addresses their special concerns that doing something so customized presents.
2. The right design: There are certain very basic things about the design of a healthy home that fly in the face of standard home design. For example for optimum health you don’t want the garage attached and you don’t want wall-to-wall carpeting. If I am called in early enough in the project I can usually get owner and designer buy-in on these major departures. However if I am called in after the fact my job is to introduce protocols for the healthiest carpet installation or the best ways to seal a garage etc.
3. The right team: One can spell-out all of the protocols and materials for a healthy home but unless the designer and builder are on-board with the mission and all of the builder’s sub-contractors are properly educated, things can fall through the cracks. I always advise my clients to select a designer and builder who work well together. They should be excited about the prospect of working on a healthy house and willing to learn something new. Even if someone advertises that they are “green” this is not necessarily an indication that they know how to create a healthy home. The various green building scorecards that are popular now often advocate non-toxic finishes and improved ventilation and this is a good start but it is only scratching the surface. The Owner needs to be an informed and empowered integral part of the decision making process and because of this should plan their time to be available when needed to do their part in keeping things running smoothly and on schedule. The Healthy Home Consultant also needs to be available throughout the process to look at potential material substitutions and help the team solve problems that may arise.
4. The right information: A good written specification is a key document for a successful outcome. Detailed project specification documents are usually included in commercial construction but rarely part of home construction documents. A healthy home specification is a document that lists all of the acceptable materials options and the special project procedures and accompanies the drawings. I believe that the contractor has enough on his plate without creating an extra research project so my specifications contain all of the source material for all of the products and a very clear description of special procedures. My book Prescriptions for a Healthy House is a good primer for anyone wishing to understand the general scope of healthy home construction. By including detailed specifications as part of the construction documents the Owner is assured that the contractor is familiar with and has agreed to the parameters for creating a healthy home.
5. The right communication: Good communication between the Owner and the various team members can make the difference between a joyous process and a contentious one. . One certainty is that unforeseen issues will come up during construction no matter how good the documents or the contractor. Construction is an exercise in problem solving and an open and honest dialogue and positive problem solving attitude amongst all concerned will pave the way for success in combining a difficult process … construction, with an unconventional but very worthwhile mandate … healthy home construction.
In an ideal world healthy homes would be the norm and unhealthy homes would be outlawed. In that world, which I hope to see in my lifetime, a healthy home consultant would be as antiquated as a typewriter repairman. Sadly we have not reached this stage of enlightenment yet, or by a longshot so my consulting shingle still hangs on my virtual door!
Paula Baker-Laporte FAIA is an architect, healthy building consultant, instructor for the International Institute of Building Biology and Ecology and author. She is the principle of EcoNest Architecture. She is primary author of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of “Econest-Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber.”