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There are things I might do if I were handy ... plumbing is not one of them.  Getting it wrong can be a disaster.  With our house, it could become very bad.  Our home will be heated by a radiant slab. Thus, all the rough plumbing fixture penetrations must be placed with care or the sinks, shower drains etc... will be slightly off. 

As part of the planning team, Barrett assembled experts in plumbing, electrical, and heating. We worked through several technologies and options. This process started in March ... 4 months before we broke ground.

Early on the plumber he selected was terribly picky. I thought he was simply trying to understand some of the idea we were exploring.  We produced a two page brief outlining the basic features, we went shopping for fixtures well before we broke ground with our interior designer, and we identified suppliers for everything from cisterns to steam units.

However, when push came to shove, and we had broken ground without a firm quote from the plumber, he finally delivered his quote. It was easily 50% higher than we expected. But, most importantly, Kevin put the entire burden on us to purchase fixtures and appliances that we had been discussing with him for around 4 months. We were in a difficult place. Did we swallow hard and pay his $10,000 extortion because we had broken ground, or did we stop everything, and hope to find another plumbing company. 

We immediately scrambled to find a plumber who could step in and get the job done without stopping the project. Brad Thorkildsen, Shamania Plumbing, came through with a complete quote promptly, professionally, and around what we had expected earlier.  But, most important, when we described the project, Brad said the magic  words, "Interesting project, I might learn something." There are many competent plumbers, but building a green home, with some out-of-the-ordinary items, requires someone willing to learn along with you.  Brad is great to work with.  We traded up ... big time!!  He was my new hero contractor of the month!!!  If you need a plumber in Thurston County ... call Brad.

I initially did not want a hot water tank, opting instead for two instant on water heaters located near the main hot water usage areas in the house.  Instant-on or on-demand water heaters are common in Europe but rare in the US. Roughly 25% of the energy used in a water heater is for maintaining hot water, and 11% of the total energy used in a home is for hot water. However, instant ons required extra electrical load (There are natural gas models, but Zelonedom is an all electric home.).  In the end, we determined that using a ground sourced heat pump for heating also could be used to heat water at an efficiency of roughly 3:1 unit of energy.

Water use is a key element in building a green house, and a priority was to minimize our water use.  Instant on water heaters can do this by not wasting water while you wait for the hot water to hit your shower (16% of total usage) or sink. (Ideally, the hot water heater should be sited centrally in the house, our is in the garage on the far end of the house, like most houses.) One feature we insisted on in our instructions to Brad was that the hot water line must be insulated.  It takes enough energy to heat the stuff, it's important to make certain the energy is delivered to where the hot water is used and not dissipated in the walls or into the ground.

Once we moved in we discovered a problem with instant on water heaters ... they are best as stand alone systems.  Ours was inline with the hot water tank run from our heat pump system.  Thus, we got hot water until the water in the heat pump tank arrived.  Then we got REALLY hot water.  In other words, the instant on system did a great job of raising the water temperature from 50oF to 120oF, until the 120oF water from our heat pump tank arrived and hit the instant on hot water elements. It was not a pleasant surprise.

To over come the problem with sudden changes of temperature in the domestic hot water system, we have installed a  Metlund on demand system to save water and energy. The Metlund Hot Water D'MAND System consists of an electronically controlled pump and valve assembly that allows for the rapid delivery of hot water to plumbing fixtures without the loss of cold water down the drain.  It's perfect for remodels as well as new construction. 

The D'MAND System is activated with the push of a button to activate the pump. We have a button in the Master Bath and by the kitchen sink   Once hot water from the garage reaches the pump below one of our master bath sinks, the System detects a 3 to 4 temperature rise and completely shuts off so there is no loss of energy or water!

Our plans are to keep the original electric instant on to fill our tub, but keep the circuit breaker off until we want a whirlpool bath.  In our previous house, we had a jaccuzi that would fill around half way before the hot water was depleted.  Over sizing the hot water tank wastes energy, under sizing can be a real pain with house guests or kids. Thus, the stand by instant on keeps us from wasting energy with an overly large hot water tank.  For most houses with a traditional hot water system.  Instant ons make sense. Instant on water heaters can supply unlimited hot water, and use no energy when not in use.  However, they can draw 27 Kw. (a 60 minute shower would take roughly double our daily allowance, not to mention making us look like prunes.)

The Metlund system should accomplish the water savings we originally envisioned by installing the instant on and save energy by maximizing the use of heat pump conditioned water. One lives and learns!!!

Dual flush toilets are a no brainer for any environmentally friendly house. Toilets consume 27% of the water used inside a home, and dual flush toilets can make a big difference. We installed Sterling dual flush toilets to cut our water needs by around 12-15%.

 

Most toilets have a 1.6 gallon flush.  Ours has this, but also a .8 gallon flush.  Since most flushing is for urine, this single item reduces our water use by dramatically.

Appliances such as clothes washers (22% of total use) needed to be the most water and energy efficient on the market ... frankly less water equals less energy, particularly when using a dryer.  The key is the spin in the washer than gets as much water out of the clothes as possible before they are put in a dryer.  We purchased the Bosch side loading models that were the highest rated models among all energy star washer-dryer models.

With water efficient appliances, the Metlund system, and dual flush toilets, we estimate that our water use is 20% or more less than the average home in America.

Finally, to be totally green we wanted to eliminate PVC or Polyvinyl chloride, there are a number of substances that use the term vinyl, but PVC is something to be avoided because its manufacturing process creates dioxin and has been tied to cancer islands.  We insisted that all interior piping be Pex which is polyvinyl butaline.  However, the sewer lines are PVC as are some of the outside piping.  PVC will also be used around wiring.  NonPVC wiring is virtually nonexistent. The major interior drain pipes will be UPC which is not great, but at least they it's not PVC.

Another consideration was the use of water in the greenhouse.  We would be using large amounts of water daily for our vegetables and trees.  Thus, we put in a 5,000 gallon cistern to collect rain water.  This rain water will be available in the green house and two out door spigots for plant irrigation. 

Our pond and waterfall also needed water to keep the level constant after evaporation during sunny hot summer days. Thus, one of the outdoor lines also will  provide an auto fill for our pond. In Olympia, Washington, a quarter of the rain hitting our roof will fill the cistern in two weeks in January.  The problem will be summer when rain is scarce.  Thus, we are also plumbing a conventional water system for the greenhouse and landscaping.  Practical experience shows that 5,000 gallons looks and sounds like a lot of water, but it is a fraction of what is needed to irrigate a landscape, particularly our with almost all new plantings.  Hopefully, once our landscape is established, we can use some of the cistern/rain water for supplemental irrigation.

Using rain water is a major benefit for the environment. It does not need to be pumped from deep under ground, and run to our house. This takes energy. Reducing water use can increase our home's overall contribution to regional energy demand.

It's hard to believe, but clean water is becoming more precious than oil.  We are over pumping aquifers, lakes and streams are becoming polluted and acidified.  In the west, rivers are fed by melting snow, which acts like a reservoir. As global warning increases the elevation for snow pack and starts melting the snow pack earlier, less and less is stored for when we need it in late summer.

Thus, we thought it might be interesting to investigate a grey water system to irrigate our landscape. Grey water captures water from all uses except the toilets and delivers it through a piping system around 6-9" under a lawn, e.g. the waste grey water is recycled.  We inquired with the local public utility district and the county.  No one was interested in discussing the idea of an experiment because of the health implications of reusing waste.  It's probably a better idea in dry climates, but July-September are very dry west of the Cascade mountains.


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You can email Christine Garst at
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