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

A Couple's Decision to Build a Tiny House on Wheels

woman builds tiny house

“What do you think about building a tiny home?” When I asked my partner Mary Beth that very question, it felt a bit crazy. “Can we do it?” “Can we afford it?” “Where do we start?” All of these questions were suddenly already bouncing around in my head. For the first month or two after I initially proposed the idea (nearly two years ago), we certainly had more questions than we had answers. But after the idea sank in a bit, it began to feel like perhaps we were onto something. We don’t have a piece of property to call our own, we both enjoy travel, we’re both striving to pay off student loans as early as we can, we’re constantly working toward shrinking our footprint, and we’ve both been focusing on paring our possessions down to the belongings that really matter. Neither of us have ever built a house, but we knew people who had, and we both had the mindset that what we don’t know now we can learn from others, from books, and from the internet. We’re both also fortunate enough to have incredibly supportive family and friends that we knew we could call on if we needed help.

After we took some time to fully digest the idea, identified the benefits and risks, scoured blogs, watched videos, and read articles on the topic, we felt even more confident about it. Others are out there doing it, and with a growing number of folks successfully living in tiny homes on wheels, we knew that (while it wouldn’t be easy) we could figure out a way to make it work for us too. The positives really began to outshine the doubts, and so we dove in.

Why Tiny? The Initial Idea

I think to fully understand how Mary Beth and I began on our journey, we need to start from the beginning, when a chance meeting with a very special woman planted the tiny seed that grew into this big idea. I was working on my permaculture design certification, and through the course of my studies, our class visited this special woman’s property to participate in a practicum course to present permaculture designs and put them into action. During lunch, I sat down and struck up a conversation with the property owner. During the course of our talk, she shared that she envisioned hosting a young couple on the property in exchange for helping her keep up the place. I really enjoy working outdoors, so this idea intrigued me. It stuck with me for months, until that little seed began to grow into an idea. Perhaps we could be that couple? Months after our initial meeting, I called her and she invited us over for lunch. We talked about the idea more in-depth, and we came to the conclusion that it could be a positive thing for both her and us, and so we began taking steps toward making it a reality.

man builds tiny house

While Mary Beth and I were hunting for apartments closer to the potential build site and my job in Topeka, Kansas, Mary Beth’s mom graciously extended the opportunity to live in the finished basement of her home for little more than help with the utilities. I can’t even express how helpful this was. It provided a giant boost in how quickly we could save up the funds for our tiny home project and made us that much more confident in fully committing ourselves to building a tiny home.

Decision to Build on a Trailer

We were originally exploring the possibility of renovating an existing small building on the property, but, after talking it over, we eventually landed on the idea that perhaps something mobile would be better. This would allow us to keep our investment (take it with us, sell it, etc.) if we decided to go a different route in the future. However, it also opened up a lot more complexities and some hurdles that we’d need to overcome. And that’s what Mary Beth and I are going to be sharing in this series, not just our perspectives, but also our goals, our obstacles, our solutions, and everything that goes into a journey like this. You can look forward to how-tos, how-comes, and how-nots in our tiny home series of posts: everything from what to look for in a tiny home trailer, how to install windows, what type of framing we went with and why, our design process, dealing with zoning, and so much more.

community builds tiny house

Mary Beth and I may be on the same path, but our perspectives, strengths, fears, and experiences are very different. So we’ve decided to blog individually but in tandem, sharing two perspectives of a shared journey. We hope you’ll find them both useful and entertaining.

If you’d like to join us on this journey, sit down and buckle up. We’re in for a ride.

Read all of the posts from Russell and Mary Beth’s journey to build a tiny home on wheels by clicking 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.

Going Green: What Should You Do with Your Old Phone?

mobile phones 1

When it comes to today’s smartphones, there’s always a shiny, newer device out there to tempt you. Most phones should last at least four to six years, but with technology moving so fast, it’s not uncommon to feel like your two-year-old device is obsolete.

Thankfully, smartphones are one of the easiest electronics to recycle, and there are many ways to put your old phone to good use. If you’re looking to upgrade, keep the “three Rs” in mind when disposing of your old device.


mobile phones 2

Giving your old phone to someone who needs or wants it may not prevent new devices from entering the market, but if more people did, it could certainly put a small dent in demand. When it comes to the environment, every little step counts!

If you’re looking to hand your phone down, consider asking your family members if they’re looking for a new device, giving it to your son or daughter, donating it to a local charity (or a national one like Cellphones For Soldiers), or selling it online using a site such as,, or


mobile phones 3

There are so many new ways you can put your old Android or Apple smartphone to use. Even if you’ve stopped paying for the monthly cellular data plan, your old phone can still do much of what it used to over WiFi and Bluetooth. Remember, it’s a computer, and just like any other computer, all it needs is a little tinkering and some new software to have a whole new purpose. For example, you can turn your phone into:

A remote control for your TV/Smart Home

Download just the apps you need to run your home’s connected devices. Put the phone on a charging stand in the living room for a handy home control device.

A dedicated video conferencing device

Do you work from home and do a lot of video conferences? Buy a charging dock for your old phone and set it up exclusively for Skype, Lync, or Duo chats.

A distraction-free consumption device

Remove all the apps from your phone and load it up with just music, digital books, and magazines – if they’re downloaded to the phone, you can access them without WiFi.

A child’s first phone

Kids under 12 who are begging their parents for a phone generally just want it for games and messaging friends. Pre-load the phone with just what you want them to have access to (such as the Kindle app and a messaging app that works over WiFi), then lock down the App store so they can’t download anything else. Put a few games on there, too, and choose ones that don’t need an always-on Internet connection so they can use it out of the house.


mobile phones 4

If your phone is unusable or broken beyond repair, make sure it’s recycled properly. The plastics and metals from smartphones can be melted down and resold (one ton of melted aluminum can go for up to $1,000), and it’s a lucrative proposition for recycling companies. Check out Call2Recycle for a drop-off location near you.

Many manufacturers and retail businesses have trade-in/recycle programs, so you can send your device to them to be recycled, or even get some money for it if it’s still in usable condition. If it does still work, they’ll give your old phone a new life by sprucing it up and reselling it as “refurbished” or by shipping it off to be resold in bulk.

Sell it back to your carrier

If your smartphone is in excellent working condition and you just want to upgrade to the latest and greatest model, take it back to your phone carrier and put its value toward the cost of your new device.

As you can see, there are many ways to make sure your old phone doesn’t end up in a landfill. Just remember to erase any personal data before passing it on by going into “Settings” and looking for the option to “Factory Reset” or “Erase all Content and Settings.”

Jennifer Pattison Tuohy is a freelance writer and contributor for Xfinity Mobile. She writes about green living, mobile phone technology, consumer tech, and small businesses for a variety of newspapers, magazines, 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.

An Earthbag World at 84!

Three Moons Earthbag World in Nevada

You might think building mud homes, especially earthbag houses, is age-dependent. But let me introduce you to Jehane Rucquoi, one of the most inspirational people I’ve met in the natural building world recently. Her creations will mash to a pulp any age-related limitations you harbour about earthbag construction. At 84 she’s not just building an earthbag house, but she’s founded and is constructing and entire off-grid world. It’s beautiful, daring and sustainable. 

The 3-Moons Project in Nevada

Nestled in the dusty landscapes of Arizona, a magical world of domes is being born. The 3 Moons Project is an inspiring exhibition of alternative building techniques. Jehane has been committed to creating this off-grid natural haven for years. Like all pioneers, she’s experienced her ups and downs. Initially she began the project somewhere else, and then had to move. But now 3 Moons has settled near Nevada, and is growing.

Earthbag Dome Construction

Jehane is very experienced in earthbag building. Indeed she met the famous Iranian architect Nader Khalili, who invented the technique. Earthbag inspired her to such an extent, she stayed at Cal-Earth and studied with Khalili himself for almost two years. Her speciality is definitely domes.

Jehane and friends have already constructed two perfect earthbag domes at Three Moons. The design is fascinating; one is covered with a deck (a brilliant idea because the deck protects the dome from sun and rain), the other is topped by a cupola. Both domes are completely naturally plastered with earth, clay, lime and sand to create a rustic finish on both exterior and interior walls.

Jehane's Earthbag Dome 

Earthbag Building Basics

For those who don’t know how earthbag building works, it’s a system that utilises polypropylene, burlap or hemp sacks filled with moist clayey earth. The sacks are then laid end to end and tamped flat with something smooth and heavy. 2 courses of barbed wire are then run between each layer of bags. The barbed wire grips the sacks preventing them from sliding in an earthquake. Earthbag building is sometimes called superadobe, and has been proven both on the shake table and around the world to be one of the toughest, most earthquake resilient construction methods around. If you'd like to know more about it, have a look at my step by step earthbag building guide.

Using Tubes

At 3 Moons, Jehane and friends have used special polypropylene tubes in their build, as opposed to the individual sacks that many people build with. With earthbag construction, the clayey soil mixture cures in the bag within the wall itself (in contrast to standard adobe where mud bricks are formed and dried in the sun before being used for construction). The sacks hold the damp earth in place until they are properly dried, thus forming a semi-permanent mold. Whether you use sacks or tubes, both create strong, earthquake resistant structures if used properly. The key is tamping the moist earth sufficiently to create a solid brick. You can learn more about how to fill tubes and sacks here.

Dome Building 

Earthbag in the Desert

Jehane has chosen the right construction technique for her climate. All mud homes, be they earthbag, adobe, cob or rammed earth are perfect for the desert. Earthen walls provide thermal mass. This means they absorb the heat and store it (at a rate of about an inch of wall an hour). If you are in a hot, dry climate like Arizona, this is what happens: The house absorbs the sun’s heat in the day, and then at night when the temperature drops the walls radiate the heat back into the house. By morning the earth has released all the stored heat and has become cool. So in the heat of the day the opposite occurs; the walls release cool air into your house instead. It’s a type of natural air-conditioning.

Other Features at 3 Moons

3 Moons is completely off-grid, solar powered with composting toilets, and a rocket stove and solar oven for cooking. One of the most striking natural building features is the now enormous snaking bottle wall that runs through the property. Made from hundreds of bottles mortared together with earthen plaster, the wall is a testament to tenacity and patience, and shows exactly how far you can get with glass bottles and mud mortar.

The Earthbag Greenhouse

Still in the making is a greenhouse with earthbag stem wall. This structure is square, not round, and will be topped with glass to house a number of plants.

Volunteer at Three Moons

The Three Moons project has been open to volunteers for a while now, and runs from March to June. The community is going to suit folk who are comfortable living in simplicity off-grid in the desert, who are open to group creativity, and to all things Earth-loving.

People with campervans are welcome too. Bear in mind you can expect freezing nights in March, and boiling days in July. For those who stay and work, there are two small beds in the earthbag shed, and two queen sized beds north and south of the trailer under the sun shed. Meals are basic, often cooked in a solar oven. Nearest stores and eateries are 18 miles away in Pahrump, NV.

Rustic interior of one dome 

All photos are courtesy of Jehane Rucquoi and the Three Moons Project.

For more details and a way to contact Jehane go to her website. For more information about earthbag building pick up my free PDF and email course on the subject.

This story was covered by Atulya K Bingham, natural builder and prize-winning author. Her most popular books include Mud Ball, the story of how she built her earthbag home in Turkey, and the recently released Dirt Witch.

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.

Geothermal Heat Pumps: How We Installed Our Green Alternative to Fuel Oil Heating, Part 3

Geothermal Water Furnace 

Geothermal Water Furnace. Photo by Allison Ehrman

This is part three of a three article series on geothermal heat pumps. Part one can be found here and part two can be found here.

Living with a geothermal system has been great so far. We only ended up using the cooling function for two days before autumn arrived in our part of the country, so I may revisit this topic again in an article next summer. But other than dealing with a torn-up yard as winter settles in, we’ve been very happy with the end results.

Our geothermal company sent a representative to our home several days after installation to teach us how to use the system. As tech-savvy as my husband and I are, I didn’t really think this was necessary, but it turns out there were a few things we still needed to learn in order to maximize the furnace’s efficiency. Anyone who buys a home with an existing geothermal heat pump or installs a new one should find an expert to demonstrate how that specific setup is meant to be used. 

At our old home, we allowed the indoor temperature during the winter to get down to 55 degrees at night and kept it at 68 during the day. But geothermal heat pumps generally come with an auxiliary “emergency” heat generator to supplement the main furnace’s heat on extremely cold days or to kick on if the system fails for some reason. Large temperature fluctuations also cause the emergency heat to run because the system is trying to play catch up, and emergency heat consumes much more energy and is therefore much more expensive than regular geothermal heat. Our thermostat automatically triggers the emergency heat if a temperature change of more than 2-4 degrees is suddenly required (we’ve since set the default to 4 degrees). So we now keep our thermostat at 70 during the day and 68 at night. We were keeping it at 72 during the day and 70 at night, but it was just too warm. The highest daily bill we’ve seen so far has been $3, but it’s only been getting down to just below freezing outside. We may adjust it to be cooler inside as winter really settles in. 

Another difference is that our system has a variable speed compressor. This means we can control how fast the cool or warm air comes out of the vents around the house. When the system was first installed, the company had the speed cranked up as high as it would go. I found the increased “whooshy” noise a little annoying and didn’t feel that we needed to be blasted by conditioned air in every room. A simple change reduced the flow back to normal. But I can see how such an option could come in handy some days. 

Although it isn’t noticeable this time of year, I know we will also enjoy not hearing the drone of an outdoor AC unit during the warm months. A geothermal pump doesn’t have an outdoor compressor and is just as silent in the summer as it is in the winter. Since the old unit was situated between our deck and patio, this will be a wonderful change. 

And the system can be set to automatically switch from heat mode to cooling mode, which is convenient for those times of the year when the weather is in transition.

Lastly, geothermal is also helping to heat our hot water. I can’t tell a difference at all, but I do feel less guilty when I stand a little longer under the shower on sleepy mornings, especially when I remember all the flood rain our well received this summer. The expert from the geothermal company did tell us that we may want to consider switching off the hot water option when outdoor temperatures get very low because using it at such times can also help trigger the emergency heat. So we’ll be keeping an eye on that as well. Luckily, our smart thermostat makes monitoring and controlling everything quite simple. 

Water Furnace Thermostat

Water Furnace thermostat. Photo by Allison Ehrman

All in all, I highly recommend geothermal heat pumps as a green alternative, especially if you find yourself in the market for a new system. Current rebate incentives make the price comparable to traditional systems, and the cost and energy savings can’t be beat. As for the comfort they provide, I really don’t mind not having to wear three layers of clothes in my home at night while still using less energy for heat each month. 

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. You can read more of her Mother Earth News articles 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.

Geothermal Heat Pumps: How We Installed Our Green Alternative to Fuel Oil Heating, Part 2

Vertical ground loops. 

Installing horizontal ground loops. Photo by Steve Ehrman.

This is part two in a three article series on geothermal heat pumps. Part one can be found here.

Our geothermal installation took five days and was followed by an inspection and training session. The amount of time and effort involved in setting up a new system varies, depending on the location of your existing heating and cooling units in relation to where the ground loops enter your house, and on the location and configuration of your ductwork, electric wiring, and hot water heater.

Day 1

We awoke early in the morning as the ground loop installation crew arrived. A large flatbed trailer parked in front of our home, carrying an excavator and a compact track loader. This day’s work consisted of digging the horizontal trenches for the ground loops, laying the loops, replacing the removed soil, and running the loops into the back of the house.

In total, our Water Furnace required four 150-foot horizontal trenches, each five feet deep. These were joined at the end of our yard by a “header” which routes the water/antifreeze mixture from the house through each of the loops in parallel and then sends the heated or cooled mixture back to the house.

It was a little disturbing watching our entire back yard being dug up so quickly, but we were excited and took more photos and videos than was probably necessary. We had been told by a neighbor that he had been present during the original construction of our home and had never seen such rocky soil in his life. So we were a bit nervous that the condition of the ground would add extra time and expense to this portion of the installation, especially since our contract stated that this could be a possibility. Luckily, the large excavator easily handled the stones and the workmen said our yard wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

By the end of the day all of the loops were in place, along with the header, and they had been filled with pressurized air and left for the weekend to make sure there were no leaks.

Day 2

The crew returned early on Monday and began by confirming that the ground loops had maintained pressure. This day consisted mostly of removing our existing heating and cooling systems and beginning to make alterations to the ductwork to accommodate the new unit. Our home was built in 1977 and the positioning of some of the ducts in the utility room had us scratching our heads because one glance was enough to see that they were inefficiently and poorly placed. Our geothermal company reconfigured the ductwork nearest the location of the new furnace at no additional charge.

If you are replacing an oil tank, you will need to check with your geothermal company to see if they will remove and dispose of it. Our company did not provide this service, but that wasn’t a problem for us since the previous owners had completed that process already. Our company did, however, remove and dispose of the interior furnace and the exterior air conditioning unit. This was probably the noisiest day of work inside the house, and the workers opened the windows and doors to the basement while we set up fans to help remove the smell of oil from the old furnace. I can’t tell you how glad I was to see that old system go.

Day 3

The third day was spent installing the new Water Furnace, connecting it to the header for the ground loops, and beginning electrical updates. Our setup consists of a Geolink variable flow center which pumps the water/antifreeze solution through the ground loops to and from the 5 Series Water Furnace. The furnace uses a compressor to heat and cool the house and also sends supplemental hot water through a separate loop to our water heater using a desuperheater (DSH) generator. A Little Giant pump removes any water that condenses during the heating and cooling cycle, sending it out into our yard through a drain pipe. It is all controlled through a Water Furnace color touchscreen thermostat which was installed in place of our old thermostat and provides us with information on temperature, humidity, furnace and fan settings, and real-time cost and energy savings calculated by entering local electricity costs.

Day 4

The big day had finally arrived! It was now time to fill the loops with water and ethanol and finish the electrical and duct connection. When I got home from work that afternoon the installation crew had already left for the day and my mind was preoccupied with other matters. As I stepped into the house, my first thought was, “Geeze! Why is it so cold in here?!” Then it hit me. The Water Furnace was running and the icy cold air rushing through the vents was being cooled by the ground loops in our own yard. Nothing beats the satisfaction of knowing you’ve made your home more comfortable and more efficient.

 Digging ground loop trenches.

Refilling and smoothing the ground loop trenches. Photo by Allison Ehrman.

Day 5

The final task of installation consisted solely of running heated water from the Water Furnace to our existing hot water heater. This took a full day’s work in our home because our water heater is on the opposite side of the basement from the furnace room. The geothermal company ran pipes from the furnace to our existing 17-year-old water heater, and connected them via a valve at the bottom of the tank. This plain water is warmed in the DSH and is completely separate from the closed outdoor loops. This function was optional with our installation, and only serves to supplement the hot water heater when there is a surplus of heat from the geothermal system.

By the end of day five, the system was completely in place and running. And due to a timely weather transition, we went from cooling our house with geothermal the day before to heating it with the same system the following day. 


A week after the work was complete, the county sent an inspector to take a look at the installation. This was a very brief walk-through, as the geothermal company had taken care of all required permits throughout the entire process. The company also sent an expert to our house to train us on using the new system, which is a critical step for getting the most in energy and cost savings from the setup. I will go into our experience managing and living with geothermal in the upcoming third article of this series.

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. You can read more of her Mother Earth News articles 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 I Prepare My Smart Home for a Hurricane

Hurricane home 1

As a resident of South Carolina, my fall pastime these last few years has become evacuating for hurricanes. In 2016, it was Matthew, then came Irma, and this year, as the wrath of Hurricane Florence barreled towards the Carolinas, I packed up my family once again and headed for safety.

The hardest part about evacuating is leaving your home and all your possessions behind to an unknown fate. But I have a “smart home.” It’s in these times of emergency that the connected technology I’ve installed throughout my home has really proven its worth — beyond the everyday conveniences, added security, and fun features these Internet-of-Things devices already offered us.

In fact, smart home technology can help in many ways before, during and after any natural disaster. Chief among these is to provide peace of mind, or, if the worse does happen, the ability to know about and act on a problem even if you’re hundreds of miles away.

With a connected home, you can check in remotely from wherever you are. During an event like a hurricane, as long as the power stays up (and in some cases even when it’s out), you can get notified if there’s fire, smoke, water, carbon monoxide or other dangerous pollutants swirling around in your home, keep an eye on your property and neighborhood, and even give someone access to the house if there is an emergency. Plus, you can know what that problem is while there’s still time to mitigate it, not weeks later when the damage could be catastrophic.

Today, part of my pre-evacuation checklist includes prepping my smart home to make sure it can keep me connected and informed during and after the disaster. Here’s what I did prior to Florence’s arrival.

Set My Smart Thermostat to Eco Mode

Smart thermostats can be controlled remotely, but before I leave, I manually set my thermostat to “eco mode” — which keeps the home’s climate within two set points (62 and 84 degrees). This saves money on the power bill, and it also helps keep pressure off the electrical grid, which can be strained in times of disaster.

Hurricane home 2

I also have an air-quality monitor, which alerts me if the humidity is going above a certain level and automatically turns the system back on to deal with it, helping keep the air in my home healthy and mold-free. It also alerts me if there are high levels of pollutants in the air, so we can mitigate these before ever stepping foot in the house.

Check My Security System

I have a smart security system installed in my home with a motion sensor and two door and window sensors to alert me on my smartphone if someone enters. It’s plugged into the power most of the time, but I changed out the backup batteries in the system’s hub before I left to make sure it continued to work if the power went out. It has built-in cellular backup so will still alert me to any intruders even if my WiFi router went down.

I also have a camera installed in my backyard that’s connected to the security system. It is battery powered, so to make sure it stayed charged for however long we would be gone I set up a solar panel to power it.

Prep the WiFi

A smart home runs on WiFi. If it goes down, it wouldn’t matter how many battery backups I have, most devices will no longer be able to communicate with me if I’m not in the house. The best solution is to connect a UPS (uninterruptable power supply) to the router and to the smart home hub I use to control many of the devices. These will only give me a few extra hours of “uptime,” but it’s worth it.

Check the Smoke Alarms

I have two smart smoke detectors in my home that send an alert to my phone if it detects fire, smoke or carbon monoxide. Before leaving, I also installed smart batteries in my remaining non-connected alarms. Interestingly, these smart batteries also have weather alerts built-in, and I received one telling me about the storm.

Switch the Smart Lighting to Vacation Mode

I use a smart home hub to control my connected lighting, and before I left the house (although I could do it once I’d left if I needed to — that’s the beauty of a smart home!), I turned on the three “vacation” routines I have created. These turn the lights on and off at different times of day on different days, helping give the impression the home is occupied.

Position the Leak Sensors

I have ZigBee-enabled leak detectors connected to my smart home hub to tell me if there is any water where it shouldn’t be. Before we left, I placed them in strategic locations around the house where water from flooding might intrude and near any appliances that could spring a leak.

Monitor the Sprinkler System

Have you ever seen someone’s sprinklers running during a hurricane? I have. In order not to look foolish or waste water, I set my smart sprinkler system into standby mode. However, it already knew a storm was coming and had turned off so it wouldn’t water for the following seven days. I also added a wireless flow meter to the system. This monitors water flow and shuts down the system if too much water is running through it.

Check the WiFi Cameras

In addition to the security camera in the backyard, I have three cameras watching over my home. A video doorbell, an outdoor camera and an indoor camera. Before leaving I repositioned the indoor camera to look out our back door, so I could monitor the whole perimeter of the house from afar.

Putting It All to Use

The beauty of a connected home is that you don’t need to constantly monitor it — if there’s a problem, it will tell me. If a smoke alarm goes off, I’ll get a notification. If the leak detector senses water, I’ll know about it. If someone approaches my front door — I’ll see live video of the event, even if they don’t press the doorbell.

In theory, I could just sit back and relax on my Hurri-cation in Florida, but in reality, we were all glued to The Weather Channel, and I was checking on my cameras every hour or so, especially when the storm arrived, which thankfully just grazed us.

When we got home a week later, we counted our blessings that we had been spared, packed up all the extra canned food, batteries and other supplies we had bought before the storm, and sent them a few miles up the coast to where they were now desperately needed.

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, mobile phone technology, 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.

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.

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