Green Homes
Building for the future, today – combining the best of historical wisdom and modern technology.

Geothermal Heat Pumps: How We Installed Our Green Alternative to Fuel Oil Heating

Removing Oil Tank From Yard 

Removing an old fuel oil tank from yard. Photo by Steve Ehrman

During summer 2018, my husband and I began searching for a home out in the country. For 10 years we had raised our two sons in a kid-friendly townhouse neighborhood in the exurbs of Northern Maryland, and we were ready for a change. We had become known as the weird neighbors who insisted on raising vegetables in a garden that ran all the way around our end-unit home, and we had come to realize what we really wanted was a large yard with a full garden.

After our youngest son graduated from high school, we found our dream house. Built in 1977, this place was beautiful on the outside and had many new updates on the inside. But the best part was that it sat on an almost 2-acre lot with lots of open space, and was surrounded by large trees on all four sides. It was love at first sight.

Finding Greener Options for Fuel Oil Heating

Then came the home inspection. Everything was going smoothly until the very end when the inspector discovered a fuel oil tank buried in the front yard. We insisted on a pre-sale inspection which revealed that the tank was leaking, and by law the state EPA was brought in. Fortunately, the sellers were able to take advantage of a Maryland compensation program to help offset much of the expense of having it removed and properly disposing of the contaminated soil.

This meant that at the time of closing in late June we were without any heat in the house. We had decided we didn’t want the sellers to simply replace the old tank with an above ground fuel oil tank. Fuel oil is an increasingly expensive way to heat a home, and of course it’s not environmentally friendly. At this point we decided our best option was probably a conventional electric heat pump. Our dream was a geothermal system, but we thought it would be too cost prohibitive. I’m happy to say we were wrong.

How a Geothermal Heat Pump Works

A geothermal heat pump uses the same general process of heat transfer as a traditional air heat pump, only it’s much more energy efficient, because the temperature of the earth is consistently warmer than the air during the winter and cooler than the air in the summer.

When it’s cold outside, a geothermal pump draws the heat from the ground, concentrates it, and delivers it into the home. In the summer, the opposite happens as warmth is pulled from the house and sunk into the cooler ground. This is accomplished by running water through a series of “ground loops,” which are basically heavy-duty coiled tubing. This means that about 70 percent of the energy required by a geothermal system comes from the earth itself, which in turn draws its warmth from the sun.

According to the EPA, geothermal heat pumps can reduce energy consumption up to 44% compared to air-sourced heat pumps, which are generally considered to be very efficient heating and cooling systems. BGE, our local electricity and gas utility, estimates that many home owners will see a return on energy cost savings in as little as two years of investing in a geothermal system.

Closed Loop vs Open Loop Heat Pumps

Ground loops can be “closed” or “open.” In a closed ground loop system, they are filled with a mixture of water and antifreeze which never leaves the piping as it circulates through the ground and home.

Our company uses ethanol, which is more environmentally friendly and efficient than propylene glycol, and they test the system regularly to ensure there are no leaks. If there is a well or body of water on the property, an open system can be installed, depending on local regulations. This type of setup uses plain water, exchanging the warmed or cooled water directly back into the well or pond as it runs.

These loops can be installed vertically or horizontally. Vertical loops require less disruption to a yard but are more expensive due to the increased cost of digging to a greater depth. Horizontal loops can be placed just five feet below the surface but require tearing up a good deal of the lawn, depending on the square footage of the house and the heating capacity of the water furnace.

Due to the size of our backyard, the fact that we haven’t started any gardens or landscaping projects yet, the lower cost of horizontal loops, and the increased number of regulations and permits in Maryland for vertical ground loops and open loops, we opted for closed horizontal loops.

Different geothermal companies offer different options with installation, including heating for your hot water, smart thermostats, humidifiers, and dehumidifiers. After doing some research into the cost of buying and installing some of these things on our own, we decided that the only other option we wanted was the hot water heating, because it will provide an additional cost and energy savings over time.

Incentives for Geothermal Heat Pumps

Installation and equipment costs vary by location. The total setup for our 1,900 square foot home, including the hot water option, will cost $24,000. But the reason we can afford to do this is because we’re not paying anywhere near that amount. With incentives and rebates, we will receive from the federal government, State of Maryland, our county, and our local energy utility company, the total final cost to us will be closer to $11,200.

And we won’t have to pay anything up front because we have taken out a special one-year, interest-free geothermal installation loan from a reputable company. We will have received the tax breaks and grants before the loan is due. Other longer-term payment options are available, but you need to be careful to consider the amount of interest that they will charge past any interest-free period.

In the end, we estimate that the geothermal installation and equipment will only cost us about $1,200 more than installing a top-of-the-line air heat pump and furnace. If we’d foregone the water heating option, it would have been about the same cost. And since we’ll be using less energy, we’ll end up saving much more over the years. If we are able to afford solar panels in the future, the house will be more efficient and almost independent of grid energy.

I will be writing more articles about our journey into greener living through geothermal in the coming weeks and months, including what the installation process entails and what it’s like living with geothermal. I will also be writing about our adventure in rebuilding our lives in the country and all the plants, good food, hard work, and fun that involves.

If you live in Northern Maryland and are looking for a reliable geothermal company, I recommend the services of Ground Loop, Inc.

Allison Ehrman works in the corporate world, but her heart and soul reside in her Northern Maryland country home, where she and her husband grow and preserve herbs and vegetables, prepare exotic dishes from locally-sourced foods and craft natural body care products.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Boat Builder Constructs Sailboat-Inspired Handmade Home


The following is an excerpted from Home Work: Hand Built Shelter (Shelter Publications, 2004) by long-time MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributor Lloyd Kahn. The book features more than 1,500 photos illustrate various innovative architectural styles and natural building materials that have gained popularity in the last two decades, such as cob, papercrete, bamboo, adobe, strawbale, timber framing and earthbags. If you love fine, fun or funky buildings, you will want to own this splendid book.

Dean Ellis grew up in West Vancouver. He studied science at the University of British Columbia in the 1960s. When psychedelia came along, he switched to studying art. Dean became a photographer and did a number of shows. “Conceptual stuff, sort of like Andy Goldsworthy,” he says. In the late 60s he started working as a carpenter in Vancouver. Then he built a 35-foot sailboat “to sail the world.” But he ended up selling it and borrowing $100,000 to build a 42-foot fiberglass long-liner for cod fishing.

From boat building he learned to work with metal. With this house overlooking a beautiful stretch of coast, he decided to build a metal-frame house. To get the curves he wanted, he got a metal fabricator to run the 2-inch-by- 2-inch roof beams through a roller, bending them to the right curve. Posts are 3-inch-by-3-inch and 4-inch-by-4-inch steel tubes. The frame was welded in place and then plywood was attached with self-tapping metal screws.

“I never relied on welding,” says Dean. “I always welded things as strongly as I could, but I didn’t want to depend on the welds.” So he stacked the steel beams on top of the steel posts, as you would with a wood frame. “It allowed me to take a leap into steel.”

To make this kind of curved steel framing possible, he says, you need:

1. A nearby fabricator that will do the rolling at a decent price

2. A hand-held Makita grinder with cut-off blades

3. A wire-fed 220 Hobart welder. It weighs about 50 pounds, and costs around $,000 ( No acetylene tanks to lug around. He says it’s like using a glue gun.

4. A welding mask that gets darker when you look into the light, so you can work up high

He first put up the curved roof, directly influenced by Lloyd House’s building techniques. I asked him if he ever built a tilt-up wall and he said: “Well, how would you get the windows right?” Meaning you put up posts and the roof, then decide where windows go by looking both out from inside the house, and then back at the wall from the outside.

All the tables, chairs, light fixtures, and plumbing taps are homemade. The steel counters in the kitchen are bold and striking.

Dean clearly remembers my second book, Domebook 2. “I came from Domebook 2. The whole trip. I built an 18-foot dome in the woods. My wife was pregnant. It leaked, but it gave me a place to live for eight years. We had a potbelly stove — we cooked a turkey in it — we were living your dream. Right out of your book. It was gorgeous. We lived in a leaky dome, but the climate was so benign.”

Dean knew and admired Allen Ferrell, ­legendary BC boat builder (also featured in Home Work). “He lived totally simply.” Allen would typically sail in the Strait of Georgia in the summer (when water is warm enough for swimming), and then pull the boat up on the beach in the intertidal zone in the winter. In Canada, no one can own land below the high tide mark; this means, with say an 18-foot tide, there’s a lot of unowned land at water’s edge.

“It’s not just about boats,” Dean goes on. “It’s living in a beautiful place, a nice community. But that era has about ended now. Everything is too expensive these days; there are too many regulations.”

Lloyd Kahn is a sustainable living visionary and publisher of Shelter Publications. He is the author of natural building books, including Home WorkTiny HomesTiny Homes on the MoveShelter II , Builders of the Pacific Coast, and The Septic System Owner’s Manual (All available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store). He lives and builds in Northern California. Follow Lloyd on his blogTwitter, and Facebook, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Considering a Tiny Home? 8 Things to Think Through


Photo by Pexels/James Frid 

More than a trend, the tiny house movement has engendered a philosophy. It's the idea that people can do more with less, that they can cast off inessential luxuries and take only as much as they need. For many Americans, this mindset is a much-needed diversion from the country's obsessive consumerism.

But a tiny house is a giant leap in lifestyle for those who haven't experienced them. For individuals who have come to enjoy a certain degree of comfort, the constraints of a tiny house can prove disenchanting, failing to meet their expectations as an alternative way of life.

Those who want to make a tiny house their home should research the many different angles of this complicated subject. We've compiled the main points that every person should address before they invest, including advantages and disadvantages of the tiny house lifestyle.

Advantages of a Tiny Home

People seeking to buy a tiny house will find no lack of enthusiastic testimonials about the tiny lifestyle. Many of these claims are rational, with evidence to support them. Below are four reasons why a tiny house is a smart choice for those looking for a change.

1. Reduced Expenditure

The immediate appeal of owning a tiny house is the reduced cost of maintenance. It's a simple matter of scale. With a smaller property, the owner pays less for regular upkeep, while a larger property demands a constant stream of money to account for regular fixes and perpetual servicing.

For homeowners looking to downgrade, this factor might contribute to their final decision to buy, as it should. Many attribute their decision to the money they save in their monthly utilities, from reduced energy expenditure on efficient appliances to lower heating and cooling costs. These small cuts add up quickly.

2. Increased Mobility

Those who participate in the tiny house movement cite the mobility of their homes as a factor behind their purchase. As long as the tiny house is road legal and the homeowner has the proper equipment, they can hitch their house to their vehicle or transport it via trailer to a destination of their choosing.

Much like an RV in this regard, towing a tiny house allows the owner to bring their home with them anywhere. Retirees who are looking for an alternative living situation to their current property — if even for a brief period of respite — will find that a tiny house can serve as a little home away from home.

3. Lower Carbon Emissions

To add to the material benefits a homeowner enjoys, a tiny house also lessens their carbon footprint. Tiny houses produce only 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per year. Compare that to the 28,000 pounds produced by an average-sized house. This significant difference is a strong selling point.

In addition to reduced emissions, tiny houses require fewer resources to build. With the population in the U.S. rapidly growing, a sustainable method of making more houses that take up less space is needed to alleviate stress. If more citizens were to make the switch, it would aid both the country and the planet.

4. Accessibility

Individuals with an aptitude for carpentry can try constructing a tiny house of their own, without the need for outside contractors. Those who work with their hands, particularly farmers, might find that building a tiny house is within their skill set and that they have the space and materials to do so.

On average, those with a DIY attitude can build their tiny house for an average of $23,000. Construction demands more than just a rudimentary knowledge of putting two boards together, of course, but with determination and commitment, almost anyone can turn their dream into a reality.

Disadvantages of a Tiny Home

Though many homeowners with a tiny house can attest to their advantages, certain disadvantages are impossible to ignore. Before taking the next step, those interested in owning a tiny house should thoroughly educate themselves on the pros and cons that downsizing entails.

1. Lack of Space

Families will find that a tiny house doesn't afford them nearly as much room as a regular house or homestead. For a nuclear family, or parents that are expecting children, the "tiny" part of the tiny house equation can serve as a significant barrier to entry that's difficult to overcome.

In an environment that parallels the close quarters of tiny house living, researchers found that crowding-related stress can lead to higher rates of domestic violence and substance abuse. A tiny house might cause strain on the owner's mental health, especially if they're prone to claustrophobia.

2. Fewer Appliances

Homeowners who downsize will have to make compromises in the way that they live. This change is a simple fact of owning a tiny house — one that every potential buyer should come to grips with right away. With less space, there's less room for the modern comforts that most people enjoy.

Some tiny houses have to do without a washer and dryer, and others without an oven. Plumbing is its own issue, with small-scale infrastructure depending on compost toilets when standard pipes won't fit in the space. Fortunately, there's a market for compact appliances to account for this problem.

3. Trouble Socializing

Homeowners who frequently host guests should know that a tiny house is no place for socialization. It's difficult — if not impossible — to entertain an entire group within the confines of a tiny house, and those who try will soon find themselves transitioning to the front lawn for roomier accommodations.

It's reasonable to have a single visitor, but inviting multiple people is unrealistic in many cases. That said, the novelty of a tiny house is sure to attract attention, and if the property is large and the season is right, there's no reason a homeowner can't hold a successful outdoor party.

4. Legal Implications

There are legal implications to owning any type of property, but tiny houses are often under scrutiny. Without an understanding of local laws, homeowners with tiny houses can face zoning fines and in extreme cases, eviction. It can prove challenging to process and account for all of these regulations.

Grassroots organizers have pushed for a wider acceptance of tiny houses in their communities, but ordinances often differ on a town by town, city by city basis. Homeowners should research which areas of the U.S. are flexible in their laws and which will cause more trouble than they're worth.

Deciding What Matters Most

Those interested in downsizing their property have much to consider. A tiny house is no small investment. It represents a significant change in lifestyle that a homeowner will have to come to terms with, and they should set aside time to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the shift.

A tiny house comes with challenges, of course. But as many Americans have found, even the tiniest house has a lot to offer.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How To Conduct a Simple DIY Home Energy Audit

modern energy-efficient home

While implementing renewable energy options at home, such as solar panels or wind turbines, can offset your energy usage and potentially reduce your utility bills, it’s a good idea to periodically check on your home’s efficiency and ensure that you’re not wasting energy unknowingly.

Performing a home energy audit is a quick, simple, effective way to reduce your carbon footprint, maintain your home, and save money on your energy bills. The following 7-step guide will help you to determine which areas of your house have room for improvement, as well as provide recommendations that you can implement for a more energy-efficient home.

Step 1: Find Air Leaks

Air leaks can let air from your heating and cooling systems out, let outside air in, and make your home drafty. Common spots for air leaks include doors, window frames, baseboards, and electrical outlets.

To determine whether or not you have an air leak, go around to the spots mentioned above and hold a feather or string in front of them. If it moves, there’s likely an air leak.

If you do find air leaks, use caulking, expanding foam, or weather stripping to fill and seal them. For air leaks near electrical outlets, place an electrical or switch plate insulation pad behind the plate.

Step 2: Examine Lighting 

Do some research on your light fixtures and figure out the size and wattage of bulbs they require. Then, consider switching your current bulbs out with light emitting diodes (LEDs) or compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), as these can put off the same amount of light as a normal incandescent bulbs while using much less energy.

Step 3: Check Windows

Sun rays streaming into your home through windows can put a huge strain on your cooling system, so in hot summer months, ensure that your windows are shaded or covered. You may consider putting up awnings or investing in solar screens.

However, during colder winter months, you should un-shade your windows, as letting sun rays in will help heat the home.

Step 4: Inspect Plumbing 

Standard shower heads, sinks, and toilets utilize a significant amount of energy. To save water, energy, and money, consider switching to low-flow options.

You can also conserve energy by turning down your water temperature. To determine your current water temperature, run hot water to your sink and test it with a kitchen thermometer. The Department of Energy recommends setting your water heater to 120°, so if the water is hotter than that, turn down the dial on your hot water tank and test again in a few hours.

Step 5: Look at Electronics and Appliances

Keeping your electronics and appliances plugged in at all times, even when you’re not using them, utilizes a significant amount of unnecessary energy. If you don’t want to worry about plugging and unplugging your devices, you may consider purchasing a smart power strip to plug your devices into. Then, you can simply turn the strip off when your electronics are not in use. 

When it comes time to replace appliances, buy Energy Star rated products, which are certified to meet certain standards of energy efficiency and save on operating costs.

Step 6: Assess Heating and Cooling Systems

Check the ductwork for your heating and cooling systems and make sure that they are all connected, both to each other and to the unit. Like you did with your windows, doors, baseboards, and electrical outlets, test for air leaks in the ductwork of your systems and seal any leaks that you find.

It’s also a good idea to have your heating and cooling systems serviced annually to ensure they are in top working condition, as well as replace the air filters in your HVAC systems as often as recommended.

Step 7: Evaluate Insulation

Attics, basements, walls, and pipes should have their insulation checked every few months.

Looking across your attic, if the insulation is level with or below the floor joists, you probably need to add more insulation. Make sure the insulation in your attic is evenly distributed with no low spots.

To check insulation in your walls, cut the power and remove outlet covers. Shine a flashlight into the crack around the outlet box and you should be able to see if there is insulation in the wall and how thick it is. If you think you may need more insulation in your walls, it’s a good idea to have a professional take a look. 

If your water pipes don’t have any insulation, you can reduce heat loss by adding pipe wrap insulation wherever you have access to the pipes. Pipe wrap insulation is easy to install: simply duct-tape one end to the end of a pipe (if the insulation isn’t already self-adhesive) and wrap the insulation around the pipe, overlapping it by at least one-half inch with each wrap. Completely cover the pipe, taking care not to leave any areas exposed, then tape the end in place.

Sarah Hancock educates consumers about the workings of the solar industry to help people make decisions that benefit both their own interests and the environment. Connect with her on the Best Company Solar Blog and on Twitter.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

5 Smart Home Upgrades That Are Good for Your Pocket and the Planet

The synergy between the smart home and the sustainable home is a beautiful thing. Technology brings conveniences, and by reducing our consumption of water and energy, sustainability brings savings. Put these two powerful features together, and you have the sustainable smart home. This is a home that saves its owner money and the planet precious resources—by automating many of the things we forget to do, don’t know how to do, or don’t realize we need to do.

Here are five of the best smart home upgrades you can do in your own home that will benefit both the planet and your pocket.

Replace Your Standard Thermostat with a Smart Thermostat

smart thermostat photo

Resource Savings: According to Energy Star, installing a smart thermostat is the best way to save energy in your home. While programmable thermostats save energy by running the heating and cooling system when you think you’ll be home, smart thermostats know when you’re home. They use geolocation of your smartphone and/or sensors to figure out when the house is empty or occupied and adjust accordingly.

Convenience: Apart from never needing to fiddle with the thermostat again, smart thermostats can be controlled remotely using your smartphone. For example, you can turn the heat down when you’re away for a few days and then adjust it on your way home so it’s nice and cozy when you arrive. Some of the higher-end smart thermostats can actually learn your heating and cooling patterns and preferences and program themselves for you.

Cost: Smart thermostats run from $100 to $250, but some promise to pay for themselves in energy savings within a year or two. Also, you may be eligible for a rebate of between $25 and $200 through your energy company. Enter your zip code here to see if you qualify.

Control Solar Gain with Smart Blinds

smart blinds photo

Resource Savings: Reduce the work your HVAC system has to do by installing smart blinds. Solar heat gain is our friend in the winter and enemy in the summer, and smart blinds can help you tame this tricky resource. They can be programmed to automatically close when they start to heat up or when the temperature in the room rises. Additionally, smart blinds can adapt to the seasons and be programmed to automatically open and close at certain times of day during the winter, allowing the sun to heat your home naturally.

Convenience: Smart blinds work with your smart thermostat to “sense” when you are away and close the blinds for you, another thing you don’t have to remember to do on the way out the door. Additionally, they can work with smart voice assistants so when you wake up in the morning, you can simply say “Open my blinds,” to welcome in the day.

Cost: Installing a set of smart blinds in your home is a high-cost proposition, one not offset significantly by the energy savings. However, if you are building a new home or renovating a space, it’s definitely something to consider. There are some smart devices you can retrofit onto existing blinds that will offer some of the benefits, but the most effective, least expensive way to benefit from the energy savings and conveniences of smart blinds is to install a couple in your most used, south-facing room.

Start Using A Smart Ceiling Fan

smart fan photo

Resource Savings: Ceiling fans help reduce our reliance on an energy-hungry HVAC system by cooling us off when it’s hot and pushing rising heat downward when it’s cold. But if they’re left running when no one is there, they’re wasting energy. Smart ceiling fans can sense if a room is empty and turn off automatically, preventing wasted energy — up to 30 percent in some cases. Some can even integrate with your HVAC system to automatically switch the fan to the correct seasonal settings.

Convenience: Smart fans can adjust themselves based on your desired temperature to automatically speed up as temperatures rise, and because they can sense your presence thanks to built-in sensors, they’ll just turn on when you need them to. No need to get up and flip a switch. You can also set a schedule for a smart fan.

Cost: Fans range in price from $300 to $600, but they boast of energy savings of up to 30 percent, so they’re a worthwhile investment.

Install a Smart Irrigation Controller

smart irrigation photo

Resource Savings: A smart irrigation controller can drastically cut back on your water usage, while still maintaining a healthy landscape in your yard or garden. With the power of science, the Internet and weather forecasting, smart controllers decide when to turn on, and more importantly, when not to. Using evapotranspiration calculations to determine the moisture content of your soil and a connection to the Internet to know when it will next rain, smart sprinkler controllers can determine when your sprinklers need to run. According to the EPA, replacing a standard irrigation timer with a smart irrigation controller could save you around 7,600 gallons of water each year.

Convenience: With a smart irrigation controller to control your sprinklers you no longer need to deal with that tiny, confusing LED screen on your irrigation clock. You can program all your zones and easily set up your system using a smartphone app, or just let the system take care of your lawn all by itself. You can also start or stop your sprinklers from your phone, or with voice control.

Cost: These systems run between $100 and $250, depending on how many zones and whether you want to integrate with other smart home systems. However, if you have high water costs, this device will pay for itself very quickly. You can also look into rebates offered by local water companies.

Stop Wasting Light with Smart Lighting

smart lighting photo

Resource Savings: Smart lighting cuts down the energy you use to illuminate your home in two ways: First, because all smart light bulbs are LED bulbs, they use around 80 percent less energy than other bulbs and last up to 25 times longer (cutting down on waste). Second, smart lighting can be programmed to automatically turn off based on your location, a schedule or motion sensing, meaning you’ll never leave your lights on unnecessarily.

Convenience: With smart lighting, you need never flip a light switch again, if you don’t want to. Motion sensors can turn lights on when you enter your house and geofencing can shut everything off for you when you leave. You can also set schedules in your smart lighting app or use voice control by pairing smart lighting with a compatible smart speaker.

Cost: Smart lighting can be as inexpensive as buying a few LED bulbs (from $5 each) and installing a motion sensing switch (from $20), or you can outfit your whole house with high-end, color-changing, smart LED bulbs that can be automated with motion sensors, voice control, geofencing and scheduling for upwards of $600. An in-between option, especially if you already have LED bulbs, is to swap your standard light switches for a line of smart switches. These can activate your lighting based on various triggers — motion, time of day, schedule, and geofencing.

The smart home and the sustainable home go hand-in-hand. By harnessing the power of technology to reduce our use of natural resources right in our own homes, we can each make even greater strides every day in our quest to preserve this planet for future generations. And it’s never been easier. With a smart home hub, like one provided by your local Internet company, you can manage mange of these devices within one mobile app.

Have you implemented smart home technology to save resources in your own home? Share your experiences in the comment section below.

Jennifer Pattison Tuohy is a freelance writer and editor covering the intersection of sustainability and technology for Xfinity Home. She writes about the smart home, consumer tech, small businesses, and green living for a variety of newspapers, magazine and online publications.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

SunRay Kelley’s Two-Story Treehouse in the Woods


The following is an excerpt from Lloyd Kahn’s Small Homes: The Right Size (Shelter Publications, 2017), available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store.

The structure of the treehouse is a two-story wooden yurt with the roof supported by a web of small branches and spiraling cedar boards.

I love to drop in on my buddy SunRay Kelley (see Builders of the Pacific Coast, Tiny Homes, Simple Shelter, and Tiny Homes on the Move), because he’s always building something. Whether it is a fleet of electric, art-car gypsy wagons or a cedar-and-clay temple for a hot springs church, it’s always worth hunting him down.

If you manage to make it to his magic forest north of Seattle, you can book a stay in one of the wild treehouses popping up among the second-growth cedars. There’s also an outdoor kitchen pavilion and a cedar sauna and a trout pond to jump into.

My favorite place to stay used to be the Stump House, built on the stump of a huge cedar cut down a hundred years ago, but the latest treehouses are pretty amazing.

First in the new crop of treehouses is Bob’s stump house, a bachelor pad made of hand-hewn cedar with a garden growing on the roof — it’s the only place with any sunshine. When I came to see the place, Bob was up top watering his vegetables. Down the path from Bob’s, there’s a rope-bridge crossing the ravine to a two-story treehouse pagoda with hammocks to sleep in.

On the other side of the property, in a gnarled, old‑growth fir is an actual tree house. Not a treehouse, but a house in a tree. Two stories fully enclosed and insulated with kitchen and bathroom and woodstove. A spiral staircase leads up from the ground into the house. Another spiral leads up to the loft with a commanding view of the valley and an amazing light-filled cupola.

When we arrived, SunRay was using his homemade boom truck to hoist loads of drywall and aspen poles inside through the upper-story balcony doors. With the help of my friends, he soon had the drywall up and a circular log formwork built for the shower stall.

Like most of what SunRay does, his formula for building flies in the face of any mechanical, technical approach. He prefers his buildings to feel as if they grew there. The structure of the treehouse is a two-story wooden yurt with the roof supported by a web of small branches and spiraling cedar boards. The walls are cedar and hand plastered, tinted, gypsum over drywall.

The “tractor cob” shower is sculpted from the local sand-clay soil and straw mixed to a putty with his tractor-mounted tiller. Colored bottles laid up in the walls bring light into the cave-like interior. Local stone covers the floor and countertop.

SunRay works hard and plays hard. Even the experienced builders among us had to hustle to keep up with him when he was “on,” and when he was “off,” there were lovely meals together, time in the sauna, and dips in the ponds. Each night, we took turns staying in the different gypsy wagons and treehouses.

Total floor area for this build is 600 square feet (56 square meters). Visit SunRay’s website and Uncle Mud’s website for more inspiration.

Lloyd Kahn is a sustainable living visionary and publisher of Shelter Publications. He is the author of natural building books, including Home WorkTiny HomesTiny Homes on the MoveShelter II , Builders of the Pacific Coast, and The Septic System Owner’s Manual (All available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store). He lives and builds in Northern California. Follow Lloyd on his blogTwitterand Facebook, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How to Make Your Home-Based Business Greener

Green home business

Taking steps to make your business “greener” is a win/win. It can help your bottom line, improve your company’s image and promote a healthier planet. As the owner of a home-based business, you have an advantage over most companies: Your carbon footprint is already smaller thanks to cutting out a daily commute and the expense of heating, cooling and lighting an extra space. Use this head-start wisely and be sure to implement a “Green Policy,” even if you’re your only employee.

A Green Policy is a simple list of the things you do or plan to do in your office to achieve a more sustainable environment. Write it down and promote it on your website and in your company brochure to demonstrate to your clients and vendors the efforts you’re making. Here are some steps you can take and policies you can implement to make your home-based business a green one.

Be Energy Efficient

Reducing your energy consumption is one of the easiest and most effective ways to go green. While you should consider all areas your business consumes power, the simplest place to start is with lighting and equipment:


Replace burnt out bulbs with energy efficient LED bulbs or lighting solutions.

Install dimmer switches—dimming a light substantially reduces its energy drain.

Install presence or motion sensors to turn lights off when the room is unoccupied. “Smart lights” can also be controlled remotely, preventing wasted energy. You can turn off the lights from the road when you forgot to do it as you left the house.


Plug all your electronics into easily accessible power strips so you can power them down at the end of the day with one button. This cuts down on the “vampire power” that drains from electronics in standby mode.

Another option is smart plug. These let you schedule a time to turn the device off and on automatically, so you don’t have to remember to do it yourself.

Always buy EnergyStar rated appliances whenever you replace or purchase new equipment. Even your home office fridge should be as energy efficient as possible.


Install a smart thermostat that reacts to your presence in your home office, so it will keep your space comfortable when you’re there and save energy when you’re not.

If you work alone, consider investing in a good desktop fan so you can stay cool without using an air conditioner to cool the whole space.

If you set up a suite of energy-saving smart devices, you can control all of them through a central smart home hub and make them all work together for maximum efficiency. Your local internet or cable provider may be able to help you set it up.

Go Paperless

Offices, even home offices, are one of the biggest culprits when it comes to wasting paper. Cut down how much you use with these tips and make sure the paper you use has a high percentage of recycled content. Also try these tips:

Adopt a cloud-based filing system to reduce paper as well as boost efficiency, as you can access your files from anywhere. Services such as Dropbox, Apple’s iCloud and Microsoft’s OneDrive are good options.

Invest in a good desktop scanner, so you can put every piece of paper that crosses your desk right into the recycling bin, once it’s been scanned and uploaded to your filing system.

Switch to paperless billing for all your vendors and billing systems.

Learn how to use PDFs. When you go to print something from a web browser or email most computers now have an option to “print as a PDF.” This saves your file in a readable “Portable Document Format” that you can put into your cloud-based filing system rather than print it.

When you have to print, use recycled paper and set your printer to use both sides of the page.

Reduce Water Use

This is an easy one to overlook in a home office, but it’s a crucial one. Here are some tips:

Install WaterSense Certified low-flow faucets in your office bathroom (and the rest of your home while you’re at it).

Replace older toilets with WaterSense Certified ones and cut in half the amount of water used in every flush.

Keep our waterways cleaner by cutting out any chemicals you use to clean your office. Instead, choose “green” VOC-free cleaning products.

If you have an irrigation system for your outdoor space, install a smart sprinkler controller, which conserves water by dynamically adapting its watering schedule to the weather. It won’t run before, during or after any significant weather event, but will still keep your space green and healthy.

Choose Local

Use local resources for your business whenever possible. Choosing local cuts down on carbon emissions from shipping/travel time and helps boost your local economy. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Reduce your own travel time by using video conferencing and communication channels like Slack when you need to communicate more effectively with customers and vendors who aren’t nearby.

Institute a local-first purchasing policy—you’ll save money on shipping costs and reduce the carbon footprint of your business.

Practice green procurement by sourcing goods or services from companies with their own Green Policy in place. Look for businesses that promise to help reduce waste, lower greenhouse gas emissions, conserve energy and water, use renewable energy sources and not to use toxic substances or pollute the environment.

Whatever steps you take to improve your home-based business’s eco-cred will be beneficial, so don’t be afraid to start small and work your way up. Just look around your home office and consider what you use every day. Then consider how that product could be more efficient. For example, if you use a wireless keyboard and mouse powered by batteries, invest in rechargeable ones. Once you take that first small step and realize the benefits you can get from it, you’ll quickly want to do more.

Image from Shutterstock

Jennifer Pattison Tuohy is a freelance writer and editor covering the intersection of sustainability and technology for Xfinity Home. She writes about the smart home, consumer tech, small businesses, and green living for a variety of newspapers, magazine and online publications.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

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