Let’s Chat About Energy Conservation

John Portrait In-Text ImageToday we feature a conversation with green builder John Hill. He’s a graduate of Appalachian State University, a leading school for sustainability education and home to the longest running sustainable development program in the nation.



Q: Have you always been passionate about protecting the environment?


A: I’ve been interested in renewable energy technology since high school. So when I was ready to attend college, I researched universities and found Appalachian State. They had been teaching appropriate technology for a couple of decades and their list of courses looked super interesting. I worked my way through all of the course work and then some, eventually earning a degree.


Lets Chat About Energy Conservation - In-Text Quote 1 I really enjoyed the renewable energy courses as I thought I would, but ended up being more passionate about energy efficiency. The building science and sustainability courses forced me to consider the bigger picture of our energy use and consumption, as well as its generation. It was an eye opener to see how many systems and details need to work together to make the most durable, comfortable, and efficient buildings possible. As it turns out, our built environment uses a tremendous amount of the energy we produce. Also generating power is one of the largest impacts we have on planet earth and therefore on all of its present and future inhabitants. Which means building smarter, smaller, and more durable buildings can make a real impact. Low hanging fruit really.



Q: How did you get involved in the green building industry?


A: Once my wife and I settled into Boone, North Carolina (where Appalachian State is located), we realized that rent costs were pretty darn high. We decided to build a house while we were there, thinking we could use some of the strategies and technology that I was learning in school. The building business was booming in the area at that time and I couldn’t find a contractor interested in taking on a small alternative home, so I entered the building industry out of necessity. My wife and I, along with friends and occasionally a hired builder, eventually finished the project. We ended up with a great little house and a great big education. I later went to work for one of the builders that had helped with the project and I’ve been working in the field since.



Q: What were some of the special features of your first green house?


A: Our main design goal was to create a low-impact home that would appeal to people because of its functionality and comfort – not just that it didn’t cost a lot to power. We spent a ton of time designing out wasted space, and figuring out how to get multiple uses out of certain areas so that we could keep the footprint small. That was the hardest part. We used high ceilings, plenty of daylighting, and an open floor plan to help the space feel big. We designed one bedroom to open up to the great room so we could expand the living space for entertaining.



Lets Chat About Energy Conservation - In-Text Quote 2Fortunately, almost everything you do to make a house more efficient also makes it more comfortable. For instance, by using heat recovery in the ventilation system, you not only save on heating and cooling energy – the fresh air that supplies the house is a more comfortable temperature. By orienting the house to the sun and using passive solar strategies, you can capture solar energy during the winter while avoiding overheating in the summer. That’s a win-win for year-round comfort. Of course, we made the shell of the house super resistant to heat and air transfer and chose efficient appliances, all of which increases performance and lowers energy use. Our solar water heating system was significantly more complex and expensive to install than a traditional water heater, but month after month, it used free solar energy to do most of the water heating, offsetting around a quarter of the house’s energy needs. The payback for that effort is more than financial – it just feels good to take a shower and know the water was warmed by the sun, not a power plant or oil well. In the end, the home we built operated on less than half of the energy of a typical new home in that region and we made plenty of mistakes on our first try.



Q: What’s new in the green building industry that’s exciting to you?


A: I really like the tiny house movement for exposing us to how much downsizing is possible while maintaining or probably improving one’s lifestyle. I also dig electric drive vehicles, especially bikes. I think plenty of us could trade a 5000-pound auto for a 50-pound electric bike and have a hell of a lot more fun getting around, using a fraction of the energy.



Q: What are your top energy saving tips?


A: Localize or regionalize your diet. Live near where your main activities are in the smallest residence imaginable – and think hard about this one! Turning off electronics that you’re not using is helpful, too.



Q: How do you envision our world in 50 years?


A: We should all be living in buildings that produce more energy than they use and zipping around in lightweight electric vehicles powered with renewable sources. Maybe by then we will no longer be harming our planet, but sustaining it and repairing it – leaving it cleaner and more resilient for future residents.


Honda’s Smart Home

Yes, that’s right. Not a smart car or a smart phone – a smart home. Considering that 3D printers are printing food these days, a smart home is not such a stretch. In fact, Statistica says revenue for smart houses in North America will hit $9.4 billion next year – a 42 percent jump from 2012. Honda’s smart home hints at the direction we’re heading, and it’s unique in that it was developed to show how both a house and an electric car can be powered by renewable energy. According to Michael Koenig, the project leader for the Honda smart home, the initiative was designed to showcase “Honda’s vision for zero-carbon living and personal mobility.”



Welcome to the “Zero Net” World


Welcome to the Zero Net WorldAll of the energy used in the house and to charge the car is monitored and controlled by a Home Energy Management System (HEMS) designed by Honda. Solar energy is stored during the day and then used at night when more electricity is demanded and the car needs to be charged. All in all, the 1,944-square-foot Honda smart home actually produces more energy than it uses – 75% less than a typical home – which makes it a “zero net” home. It’s fitting that Honda’s smart home dwells in an entire community that’s zero net, UC Davis West Village in California – the largest of its kind in the nation.



Bye-Bye Old-School Heat and AC


Bye-Bye Old-School Heat and ACWhat may be most amazing about this home is that it remains comfortable to live in without an air conditioner and heater. This is achieved in a number of ways, from sloping eaves on the windows, to thicker walls, to a roof that reflects light. But the real star of the heating and cooling show is a unique heat pump system that regulates the indoor temperature. Holes are dug into the ground to use the earth’s temperature to heat or cool water, which is then run through the house in pipes under the floor and in the ceiling on the second floor. This isn’t a new idea. What is new is the size of the holes they dug. Typically, they’re dozens of feet deep and small in diameter. Honda’s smart house heat pump holes are 24 inches wide by 20 feet deep. According to Jonathon Woolley, one of the engineers at UC Davis who designed the system, this can reduce the cost of the heat pump system by 90 percent!


With innovation like that, smart homes could become mainstream before we know it. To learn more about Honda’s smart home, check out this video.



Save Energy and Enjoy the Tiny House Lifestyle

There’s a whole “tiny house” movement in the U.S. that’s appealing for a number of reasons, one of the most compelling being that tiny houses significantly lower your carbon footprint. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 80 percent of a house’s greenhouse gas emissions over its lifespan are due to fuel consumption and electricity. Since most tiny houses are only 400 square feet at their largest – as opposed to the average American’s house of 2,600 square feet – they obviously have less space to heat and cool and use much less fuel and electricity.



A Stepping Stone to Financial Freedom


A Stepping Stone to Financial FreedomWhile conserving energy is top of mind these days as a way to protect our natural environment and stop global warming, there are other very real benefits to downsizing. According to a survey conducted by the Demand Institute, 40 million Americans are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing payments, property taxes, and other home expenses. Another survey by Bankrate.com revealed that 76 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. The tiny house movement says that you don’t need to live your life saddled with a mortgage payment. Instead you can use that money to travel or enjoy other adventures. Speaking of traveling, that’s another benefit of a tiny house – you can literally put it on wheels and take it with you.



Choosing Experiences Over Stuff


Choosing Experiences Over StuffCornerstone to the tiny house movement is the idea that when you clear the clutter from your life, you can focus on what makes you happy. Financial freedom means you have more time to do what you want, and when in a tiny house, it goes without saying that you’ll spend a whole lot less time doing chores around the house. To learn more, check out this video where tiny house owners talk about what living in a tiny house means to them.



The Mind-Blowing Benefits of Wind Energy

From creating thousands of new manufacturing jobs to being a clean and renewable energy source, wind energy has been the energy industry’s darling for more than a decade. Here are some interesting facts from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).


Wind power in the U.S. is…


  • Generating electricity with zero emissions, pollution and water use
  • One of the fastest-growing sources of new electricity supply
  • The largest source of new renewable power generation added since 2000
  • The employer of 73,000 people in more than 500 manufacturing facilities
  • The generator of enough electricity in 2014 to power the equivalent of 16.7 million homes



Blow Off Your Power Bill


Blow Off Your Power BillConsider this: according to the AWEA, a small wind turbine could generate enough energy to cover the electricity costs of the typical American home. It’s true that a small wind turbine isn’t cheap – you’re looking at least $4,000, but you can fully recover the cost in as little as six years. The U.S. government also gives a 30% federal Investment Tax Credit for fully certified wind turbines. If you’re thinking of buying one for your house, here’s the list of certified small wind turbines.


As appealing as never having to pay your power bill again sounds, wind energy is, unfortunately, not for everyone. There are some basic requirements:


  • You live in an area that has adequate source of wind
  • You live on at least one acre of land
  • Your area is zoned to allow wind turbines
  • Your electricity bill is $150/month or more on average

If you’re still interested, learn everything there is to know about small wind electric systems in this consumer’s guide from the U.S. Department of Energy. And you can still support wind energy by joining the AWEA’s community of advocates.


4 Trends in Energy Efficiency

When it comes to energy efficiency, there are numerous terms that are constantly being thrown around. You might have heard a term before but your’e not quite sure what it means exactly, and sometimes you’re left scratching your head in confusion. Here are four popular energy efficient trends explained.



Going Green


Going GreenThe phrase “Going green,” often associated with environmentalism, dates back to the publication of The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau written in the 19th century. The phrase has been gaining popularity in recent years and has become a movement to achieve a more sustainable lifestyle that helps protect the environment and its resources. The end result is not only benefiting the environment, but also benefiting your wallet.



Triple Bottom Line


Triple Bottom LineThe Triple Bottom Line (3BL) is essentially the highest form of “going green” for businesses. It factors in three components to a company’s bottom line (net income) – people, planet, and profit – hence Triple Bottom Line. This concept suggests that a company conducting fair business and practicing energy efficiency will experience additional economic value to the total net income. Below is an explanation of each element:


  • People: focusing on doing honest and favorable business for both employees and customers
  • Planet: practicing sustainability, limiting resource consumption, and reducing negative environmental and community impact
  • Profit: instilling people and planet into a company strategy will lead to an economic value adding to your total profits

Renewable Energy


Renewable EnergyMost of you have heard the term “renewable energy,” but it is gaining serious recognition as more companies, states, and even nations, are trying to further their efforts of becoming more energy efficient. Denmark is currently on a mission to get the entire country to be energy efficient by 2050. The Danes plan on accomplishing this by primarily using renewable power and ending the burning of fossil fuels indefinitely. Already off to a great start, Denmark expects to have 50% of its energy supply coming from renewable power in 2020!



Home Appliances Implementing Technology


Home Appliances Implementing TechnologyTechnology is constantly evolving and has been a huge enabler of promoting energy efficiency. You can now reduce your electric bill with updated household appliances that lower energy consumption. Programmable thermostats reduce your energy use and can even be linked to an app on your smartphone. There are also apps that help you calculate your electricity usage. As technology advances, more companies are communicating digitally, increasing the ease of transitioning to a more energy-efficient lifestyle.


These are some common energy-efficiency trends we’ve noticed. What trends have you noticed?


4 Free Energy Savings Apps for Your Smartphone

Taking steps to save energy can be as simple as pulling out your smartphone. Download these apps to help make you smarter about energy efficiency. Best of all, they are free!


Click the app icons below to view and download in iTunes.



Energy Cost Calculator


Energy CostThe Energy Cost Calculator assesses the operating cost and energy usage of electrical equipment. First, enter your consumption per hour, the number of hours used daily, and the cost per wattage. The app breaks down your cost and energy usage per day, week, month and year. Available on iTunes.





JouleBugJouleBug is a fun tool that teaches you how to create energy efficiency habits that save money. The app guides you to perform simple sustainability tasks, and you are awarded points based on the cost savings and impact to the environment. Along with information on local initiatives, you’ll get supplemental educational stats, videos, and links that educate you further on the tips. The app gives you the ability to share to Facebook or Twitter and allows you to connect to your utility account to track your home energy usage. Available on Google Play and iTunes.





WattBuddyFor data crunching junkies, Wattbuddy will measure your exact electricity usage all the way down to hourly intervals. Scan your analog electricity meter like a bar code or access your digital meter’s data and the app will also plot your historical usage to help you note patterns, fluctuations and inconsistencies. Depending on your location, the app can show you energy deals as well. Available on iTunes.





GasBuddyWhy not save money on your vehicle’s energy usage, too? The easy-to-use GasBuddy directs you to the cheapest gas prices based on your current location. The app’s information is generated through its community of users. For every gas location and price you report, you earn points towards prize giveaways, including the daily opportunity to win $100 worth of gas. Available on Google Play and iTunes.


These days, you can find a mobile app for every aspect of your life, including energy efficiency. Right at your fingertips, these tools can help you save energy and might even decrease your budget in the process.