Food For Thought

Green Building

Is it all it's cracked up to be? 

by Deborah Huso, Contributing Writer

When I began planning for the construction of my new home three years ago, energy efficiency was high on my priority list. Like most rural homeowners, I was frustrated by high utility costs, but I also knew, as a long-time writer for the home building industry, that 50 percent of U.S. global warming emissions can be attributed to the building sector, according to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Admin­i­stration. While I wouldn’t call myself a “tree hugger,” I knew I wanted to do my best to have a building project with a minimal environmental footprint and a home that would give me big energy savings for the long-term. Little did I know then that what looks good and “green” on paper doesn’t always perform in practice.

My first step was cutting my energy bill. In my previous home, I relied on an oil furnace as the main heat source, spending as much as $240 a month on fuel in the coldest months and sometimes close to $100 a month on electricity for a very modest 1,200-square-foot house. So when I broke ground on my new home in 2005, I decided to install a geothermal HVAC system. Because geothermal uses heat from the earth to warm one’s home, relying on no fuel oil or gas and purportedly very little electricity, it seemed like a no-brainer for saving on energy consumption. Today, I have no fuel oil bill, and my worst electric bill yet in the new home (for a grueling February with temperatures regularly dipping below zero), was about $250 for a house twice the size of my old one. So am I sold on the benefits of geothermal HVAC systems? Well, not quite ...

Hank Almond, who manages territory in the Mid-Atlantic for WaterFurnace Inter­national, says that while most homeowners can expect to pay one-and-a-half to three times more for installation of a geothermal HVAC system over a more conventional heating-and- cooling operation, they can expect cost savings of 30 percent to 70 percent on their utility bills. 

Too good to be True?

All of this sounds too good to be completely true, and it can be if your geothermal contractor isn’t thorough or fails to take into consideration home elements that can compromise a furnace’s efficiency — like lots of windows, cathedral ceilings, and fireplaces, all of which I have in my home. In order for me to keep my home comfortable in winter, I have to place the thermostat at 75 to 76˚F. Anything less and I feel persistently chilled, as geothermal heat pumps don’t provide the warm blast of air you may be accustomed to with a gas or oil furnace. And when temperatures go below freezing, my geothermal unit’s electric back-up heat kicks in, which sends my utility costs up pretty fast.

Almond tells me, “You’re an example where a little larger system might have helped you on heating efficiency.” Typically, a geothermal system’s electric back-up shouldn’t kick in until temperatures dip into the teens to low 20s. I wish I could say my system worked that way, but it doesn’t, especially when high winter winds bring wind-chill factors below zero.

However, I’m still better off cost-wise than I would be with an oil or gas furnace. But since Virginia doesn’t offer green tax credits, I won’t get a payback on the extra cost for this system for maybe a decade. So I’m not quite ready to pat myself on the back just yet.

Of course, there are thousands of other ways to go green — buying sustainably harvested lumber, upping the ante on your insulation, installing the most energy-efficient windows and doors you can afford, purchasing energy-efficient appliances. The list goes on and on, but how much do all these efforts really save on your energy usage and in reducing global climate change? It depends.

It won’t do the planet a darn bit of good if you purchase sustainably harvested lumber for your home if that lumber is coming from halfway around the world. I did the right thing in purchasing locally and regionally harvested cherry and maple for floors, cabinets, and trim, but in a misguided effort to save additional money and “protect the planet,” I also purchased sustainably harvested Amendoim, a tough, tropical hardwood, for flooring in part of my home. Big mistake, I later discovered, as far as cutting down on global warming goes, because the wood came all the way from South America .

Before you buy green products, consider how those environmentally friendly items are getting to you. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, trucks carry about 66 percent of all freight shipped in the U.S., and rail accounts for 16 percent. The result is the consumption of 35 billion gallons of diesel fuel a year, which accounts for some 350 metric tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, not to mention the release of nitrogen oxides, which produce smog.

And if your building products are arriving by air or ship (as my hardwood floors did), the situation isn’t any better. Bunker fuel in ships has 5,000 times more sulfur than diesel, and air transport is by far the worst greenhouse gas emitter of all. Thus, the impacts of shipping green materials will often outweigh the benefits. Buy locally whenever you can.

This isn’t to say the green building buzz is all hype. It isn’t. I’ve certainly benefited, both in terms of saving on energy and maintenance costs and in building a little more sustainably, by siding my home in fiber cement (which should last till I die anyway), putting on a commercial-grade steel roof that should never have to be replaced, installing composite decking that requires almost zero maintenance, and using local stone in my foundation and chimney.

Do Your Homework

The important thing is to view building products touted as “green,” “sustainable,” and “energy efficient” with a critical eye. Even items that do meet tough environmental standards can lose their Earth-friendliness under closer examination. Whatever you do, don’t rely on a “green” sales pitch alone. Do your homework. Look for the Energy Star label on appliances or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified labels on lumber and wood products. But even these labels can be misleading. I bought an energy-efficient refrigerator, and its energy-efficient fan died in less than a year. So that fan had to be replaced with a conventional one that will probably last me 20 years, but the fridge is no longer energy efficient. Read customer reviews. There are plenty available online these days.

Transportation emissions and fuel usage have a huge impact on the environment, as do a lot of manufacturing processes. Make sure you know how and with what your building products were constructed, and try to minimize the transportation needed to get them to you. And, if you can, try before you buy. Heap abuse on the environmentally friendly cork flooring in the showroom — see if it will stand up to the same wear and tear as porcelain tile. Go check out the composite decking in the Everglades (where it’s been installed for about 15 years now) or on your neighbor’s back porch and see if it really does stand up to the weather over the long haul.  

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor. Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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