Archive for the ‘Guide’ category

What to Consider When Purchasing New (Green) Appliances

September 30th, 2011

Buying new appliances can be a pretty overwhelming task, even if you’re just buying a replacement for one that’s finally konked out. And if you’re buying a suite of new appliances as part of an overall kitchen/laundry room renovation, they will represent a significant expense. While there are so many options and levels of quality available that you could do your research for days or weeks before you really know what you want. Consider on top of the myriad of  features available, that you also want to buy the most energy and water-efficient appliances you can afford.

Clara Puskas, Green Kitchen Designer and Chair of the Green Committee for the National Kitchen and Bath Association Ontario Chapter, points out that you have to remember that there are two costs associated with any appliance: its upfront cost (purchase and shipping) and its running and maintenance cost. When you buy a cheap appliance, that is, one that’s cheaply made and not energy efficient, it will have a shorter lifespan, cost more to run, and won’t perform as well as its mid-level and top-level brands and you will end up having to replace the replacement sooner.

So, what are the elements and points to consider when purchasing a new appliance? For Clara, some of the main factors to consider are as much design-related as energy related.

  • Keep refrigerators out of direct sunlight and away from heat generating appliances such as stoves and dishwashers. Excess heat added makes refrigerator motors work harder and use more electricity.
  • In small households in particular, consider getting a two-drawer dishwasher instead of one large dishwasher. No t only is it more efficient, because small loads can be cleaned, but also, in small households, one drawer can store clean dishes and one drawer can store dirty ones, saving cupboard space.
  • Make sure appliances are installed properly to maximize energy efficiency and functionality.
  • When searching for new appliances, consider the two price tags: the purchase price and running and maintenance costs. Appliances have Energuide ratings and average costs per year right on their tags and will have the comparison with the average comsumption for the category.
  • Look at your preferred appliances’ energy efficiency ratings and buy the one with the best rating. (The Office of Energy Efficiency has a webpage that explains how to read an Energuide label. )

When looking for new appliances consider that an Energy Star qualified one has to have the minimum rating — but many more than exceed it:

Dishwashers: Must consume no more than 492kWh/year. (A standard dishwasher consumes 592 kWh/year.)

Refrigerators: Must consume no more than 540 kWh/year. (A standard refrigerator consumes 540 kWh/year.)

Clothes Washers: Must consume no more than 299 kWh/year (front or top loading). (A standard washer consumes 799 kWh/year.)

Clothes Dryers: Must consume no more than 896 kWh/year. (A standard dryer consumes 916 kWh/year.)

Note: Energy Star certification is not available for ranges or freezer chests. Average annual consumption for these items are:

Freezer chests: 368 kWh/year

Ranges: Self-cleaning: 735 kWh/year, Non self-cleaning: 784 kWh/year. I wonder why the non self-cleaning oven uses more electricity than the self-cleaning? Any ideas?

For more information on Energy Star qualified products, visit the Office of Energy Efficiency’s website.

Although these are the Energy Star qualifications, there are vast differences in appliances’ energy consumption depending on the model and the manufacturer. For superior energy efficiency, European appliances have been sipping energy for years. Three of the reasons, I believe, they’ve been slow to catch on in the North American market are: they have been smaller and significantly more expensive, and the availability of qualified repairmen in the event that they break down. While European appliances are now being made for North American kitchens, there is still a price premium.  If you’re interested in purchasing European appliances, check out Euro-Line Appliances in Oakville, ON or Integrated Appliances in Rexdale. The companies deal exclusively in European appliances and also have the repair service in case an appliance needs attention.

Clara Puskas is the owner of XL Kitchen Design Studio, as well as Chair of the Green Committee for the National Kitchen and Bath Association, Ontario Chapter.

To reach Clara:
Phone: 416-820-1605

How to Shop for Windows

July 19th, 2011

Windows are usually the “path of least resistance” when it comes to heat loss/gain. Because you’re cutting a big hole in your building, it’s not hard to see where your heat loss is likely to come from. So compromising on window quality could cost you more in heating and cooling bills than you will be saving on your window purchase.

round and vintage wooden window on a brick wall building

Our windows are of medium quality and, while only four years old, I noticed the other day that they are already beginning to warp. Good windows don’t warp. Good windows open and close easily despite the temperature outside and inside. Good windows frames don’t deteriorate after only four years. Conclusion: Our windows suck. (Note: these windows were installed when we bought the house. When I asked the builder which company the windows were from, I learned it was a reputable local manufacturer, but the builder chose sub-quality windows….to save money. Big surprise.)

So, IF you have to replace your windows — and really think about that, because a lot of older wood windows with storm windows don’t necessarily need to be replaced, just restored —  as with anything, buy the best you can afford, with maximum energy efficiency. Energy resistance here is measured as “U” value which is the inverse of “R” value and therefore you strive for a lower number (clear as mud, right?).

There are at least five things to consider when choosing energy efficient windows.

triple-paned window profile

  1. Single, double or triple paned (glazing). Unless you are building in a climate that is 20C 365 days of the year day and night, you should consider buying double-paned windows. They protect against the weather significantly better than single-paned glass. Whether or not to go the step further and invest in triple paned depends on many factors. They are usually significantly more expensive and the additional weight needs to be taken into account when adding to an existing building or new build.  [note – if you live in a designated historical house, you may be restricted by what you can do. Check local by-laws to see what is permitted.]
  2. The spacers between the glass panes and the frame. The seal can wear over time due to exposure to direct sun and extreme temperature swings. Ask what the spacers are made of. Metal spacers can hasten the seal breakage as they can expand and contract quickly in direct sunlight.
  3. The insulation used in the window frame itself, and between glazings (glass panes). What type of gas (if any) is being used between the double or triple-paned glass? Usually argon or krypton are the gases of choice and offer the best protection against air-flow.
  4. The installation process and insulation added around the window frame. Above all else, if the windows aren’t installed properly with sufficient insulation wrapped around the frame, they won’t be as effective as they are intended to be. Make sure the installers know what they are doing and fill and seal any gaps that are left after the windows have been installed and before the rest of the framing is put in place.
  5. High-quality frame: Glass expands and contracts at one rate and wood, aluminum and vinyl all expand at different rates. It means that the seal between the glass and window, if not well-made, will separate and the seal can break. A fiberglass frame provides one of the best framing materials because the material expands and contracts at the same rate. Aluminum frame is one of the worst frames because aluminum is a conductor of heat/cold.
  6. Adding a low emissivity coating, and argon gas to the windows for more effective resistance to heat loss/gain. Note, that in cooler climates the low e coating should be applied on the interior side, and in warm climates on the exterior glazing.)Glass expands and contracts at one rate and wood, aluminum and vinyl all expand at different rates. It means that the seal between the glass and window, if not well-made, will separate and the seal can break. A fiberglass frame provides one of the best framing materials because the material expands and contracts at the same rate.

Tankless Hot Water Systems — Benefits and Drawbacks

May 10th, 2011

I’ve always been on the fence about tankless hot water, or “on-demand”, and whether it’s worth my while. The biggest advantage is that it can save a significant amount of money and CO2 output. In fact, Sears Canada has this really neat little calculator that shows just how much money and emissions you can save by switching to a tankless system. In my case, if I switch from my high efficiency hot water heater to a condensing tankless system I can save:

  • 921 kg CO2 emissions per year, 11,056 kg over the estimated 12 year life of the unit,
  • 484 m3 of natural gas or 5,811 m3 over the life of the unit,
  • $229.89 yearly or $2758.62 over the life of the unit.

These numbers are worth paying attention to. But I’d also heard that there were certain drawbacks to a tankless system that worried me. I figured it was time to get to the bottom of when a tankless system is a good idea, and when it isn’t. I contacted Aaron Goldwater of Goldwater Solar Services, a company that installs both solar hotwater and solar photovoltaic units. It turns out that solar hot water and  tankless systems complement each other, with each system optimizing the other.

I sent Aaron a whole list of questions, concerns and observations and he patiently answered with thorough, thoughtful responses. If you were wondering about tankless hot water and whether it’s right for your home, read on; Aaron clears up a lot of misconceptions about it, as well as pointing out the reality of a tankless system.

Cathy: A tankless hot water system cannot service a typical family of 4 or more, especially in the mornings when many showers might be being taken and the kitchen is in full swing. Same for night time if there are young children taking baths and the washing machine and dishwasher are on.

Different tankless water heaters have different flow rates and can supply different rates of hot water.  Some can produce 5 or more gallons per minute which is sufficient to run two showers at the same time.  You have to choose the right size tankless water heater for your household.  The amount of hot water (flow rate) that a tankless water heater can supply depends on the incoming temperature of the water and the set temperature of the tankless water heater.  The higher the temperature rise the lower the flow rate.  So in the winter when the city water comes into the house colder than in the summer, tankless water heaters will produce a lower flow rate.
As the difference in temperature decreases between the set temperature and the incoming temperature of the water, the flow rate increases.  Some tankless water heaters can produce as much as 9 gallons/minute if the difference in temperature is as low as 40 degrees F.  This could happen for example if the tankless is set for 105F and the incoming water temperature is 65F.  A solar hot water system will preheat the water before it reaches the tankless thereby increasing the flow rate of the tankless.
Having said that, water pressure is usually the real limiting factor for how many household facets you can run at the same time with hot water.  Many households don’t have sufficient water pressure to run 2 showers and do the dishes at the same time and this is NOT as a result of the tankless water heater not supplying enough hot water but a result of the size of the water pipes coming into the house.

Cathy: A cold water “sandwich” can occur if water is quickly turned off and on again in one part of the house (like the toilet flushing in older homes while someone is taking a shower).

In my experience and talking to my customers, the cold water sandwich doesn’t seem to be an issue.  I think the cold water sandwich occurs not when someone flushes the toilet but when a small section of the pipe has cold water trapped in it.  For example, lets say you take a show and then someone else in the house takes a shower 20 minutes later. The tankless water heater will take a few seconds to heat up again so although there’s warm water in the pipe after the tankless water heater, some cold water will pass through the tankless water heater before it gets warmed.  This would be eliminated with a solar water preheat system because the water would be warm or hot before entering the tankless.

Cathy: There is significant water wastage while the heating unit is warming up.

The one disadvantage of a TWH (lets use this acronym from now on) is that when the tap is turned on it takes about 10 to 20 seconds for the TWH to trigger and get hot enough so that the water passing through is at the set temperature.  Its this extra 10 to 15 seconds on top of the usual wait time that people notice and it can waste a bit of water.  Having said that, adding a solar water heater before the TWH as a preheat eliminates the added wait time most of the time because the water coming into the TWH is already warm or hot.  So the TWH doesn’t have to work as hard to heat up.

Cathy: An electric system uses too much electricity to off-set any real environmental or cost savings. A gas system (either propane or natural) is better.

An electric tankless water heater needs I believe a 100amp service and uses a lot of electricity to heat the water.  They also typcially have low capacity compared with gas units and can usually only run 1 shower.  Its not something we usually recommend unless there are no other options.

Cathy: Wouldn’t the optimum use of a solar hot water heater, combined with tankless, be during the middle of the day when the sun is shining? Is there any sort of storage unit for solar-heated hot water?

A solar water heater has a storage vessel (tank) usually next to the tankless water heater that heats up during the day and stores the heat for when its ready to be used.  Most solar tanks are insulated well and only lose about 1 degree F/hour once the sun goes down.  So if you shower in the morning, the water in the solar tank will still be hot.

Cathy: Are the “hybrid” systems a better bet for a large family? (ie., a tankless system that includes a small storage tank).

Not really.  A TWH with a small storage tank is usually only used to eliminate the wait time for HW.

Cathy: The pressure is often stronger than is needed for faucets in order for a larger capacity tankless system to work.

TWHs have a minimum flow rate to trigger the burner so if you only have the facet on partially the TWH might not trigger.

Cathy: Tankless systems are best suited for one and two person households.

Not true, because 20 people could live in one house and use a small tankless water heater.  As long as they shower one after the next, they will all have HW.

Cathy: I also wondered if you could pair a tankless system with a drain water heat recovery unit or a circulating pump on a timer.

A drain water heat recovery (DWHR) unit will increase the hot water flow rate of a tankless water heater because it increases the incoming temperature to the tankless and therefore lowers that differential I was talking about earlier.  For example, if the DWHR unit increases the city water temp by 10 degree F and the city water was coming in at 45F, that means that its now reaching the TWH at 55F instead of 45F.  Lets say the tankless is set at 110F.  Then that means instead of having to raise the temp by 65F it only has to raise it by 55F – this increase the hot water flow rate of the unit.

A recirc pump will keep the water running to the taps hot at all times so that when you turn on the tap the water is hot.
However, this is costly to install and will add more electricity consumption and gas consumption.

With a tankless water heater you can’t run out of hot water.  There is no storage of hot water. When you turn on the tap the tankless water heater is triggered and heats the water as it passes through it.  Therefore you can have the tap on 24/7 and never run out of hot water.  With a correctly sized tankless water heater you could run two showers all day a the same time.

Cathy: What’s the biggest obstacle to installing a tankless hot water system?

One of the biggest obstacles to having a tankless water heater installed can be installing the venting or exhaust from the unit. Because they produce a lot of heat in order to heat the water as it passes through the TWH the exhaust from the unit can be a very high temperature. Some tankless water heaters use stainless steel 5 or 6 inch venting pipes as a result of the high temperature. This type of TWH comes with a venting kit, however, any additional venting needed can be very expensive.

However, some units, called condensing tankless water heaters, recover the lost heat that would have travelled out the exhaust. This increases the efficiency of the tankless water heater to as high as 98% efficiency. These are the most efficient water heaters on the market. Also, since the exhaust is at a lower temperature these units use smaller PVC venting. PVC venting is cheaper and can be easier to run longer distances thereby making it easier to find a spot to vent the TWH.

The biggest issue with TWH for installation is that the units aren’t typically exhausted up a chimney. They are direct vent so the exhaust is typically run out the side of the house. Locating an appropriate spot for the venting can be tricky because the building code dictates how close the vent can be to different objects. For example, a vent cannot be within 3 ft of any door or window and it must be 1 ft above grade. It also has to be 2 ft from the property line. So if you have a very narrow passage between houses it may be difficult to find a spot to run the vent. A tankless installer should be able to determine if it can be installed within code.

Thanks for all your help Aaron!

For more information visit their webiste:

or, you can reach Aaron at:

Goldwater Solar Services
231 Fort York Blvd, Suite 716
Toronto, ON M5V 1B2

Phone and fax: +1-416-400-4747

Goldwater Services North
38 Algonquin Cres.,
Aurora, ON, L4G 3M5

How Do you Know if a Building Product Is Truly “Green?”

February 3rd, 2011

Yesterday I wrote about experiencing “green washing” first hand. So how do you know when you’re being bamboozled by a company or if the product is legitimately green? I wish I could say there’s a sure-fire way to tell, but the problem is, there’s no one right answer. In fact a big part of the problem is that experts in the field will disagree with each other on what makes a product “eco-friendly.” That, unfortunately, makes your job as a consumer, that much harder. However, there are a few guidelines to help you make informed decisions and I’ve outlined a few of them to help you out:

Third Party Certification: Definitely buying a product with an independent third party certification will help you know you’ve bought a ‘green’ product. Look for products that have been certified by reputable third party groups such as the Forest Stewardship Council and GreenGuard. Lloyd Alter, over at Treehugger, is writing an excellent 4 part series on greenwashing that’s worth reading.

But what’s also important is your own criteria of green. For some people a ‘green’ product is all about the absence of chemicals so that there is no off-gassing into indoor air or no tracking of chemicals from a carpet to other areas of the house. For other people a ‘green’ product is something that has the smallest carbon footprint possible relative to a traditionally produced similar item. For example, a second hand sofa refurbished by hand, with jute and recyclable metal springs, using organic cotton, goose down and other renewable, natural products, rebuilt in your hometown, will, in theory, have a much lower carbon footprint than a new couch manufactured overseas using synthetic (petroleum-based) fabrics and fillings, wood from an unmanaged forest and labour that isn’t respected. The irony is your second hand refurbished couch will probably cost twice as the new one.  Even with the second-hand couch, you could get really caught up in the fine details, so sometimes just knowing that you’re extending the life of a sofa and employing your neighbourhood upholsterer might be enough. When there are carbon counters available for every single product we buy, making these decisions will become a little easier. Finally, “green” products may be those that might help your home conserve energy, regardless of how they’re made.

Does the business practice what it preaches: Another way to tell if a product is green, or even trying to achieve a certain level of greeness is through the company’s business practices. Does the company practice what it preaches or is the product ‘green’ merely to take advantage of the latest buzz?  On the positive side of my tour of the Interior Design Show, there were many businesses who practice environmental awareness within their own facilities. I visited two exhibits of companies that are striving towards carbon neutrality but neither of them mention it in their exhibits — they just show their products as high-quality competitive products. Lowering their carbon footprint is just part of their business practice.

An established company that’s just introduced a new “green” product on the market without greening its own business practices first probably doesn’t really have a grasp on what it means to be green and is just doing it for the quick buck. If, on the other hand, they have genuinely started to work towards lowering their over all carbon footprint, then the product might be legitimate.

Energy Consumption in the making of a purportedly “green” product: The tar sands in Alberta apparently produce only 6 barrels of oil for every barrel of oil used to extract it, and that’s not including the environmental damage inflicted on the area. Producing ethanol from corn is even worse, with a ratio of 0.8-1.5 per one barrel of oil used to produce it. (See Alex Wilson’s post on Energy Return on Investment.) The same is true for some environmental products. For instance, a report came out in late 2010 that indicated that some insulations actually use more energy in their manufacture than they save in the house it’s being used in. Any product that uses more natural resources than it conserves is not a green product.

Watch out for the words “natural” and “renewable”: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “natural” doesn’t always mean better. Neither does “renewable.” Petroleum is a “natural” product. So is granite, but neither are renewable resources and petroleum is causing a lot of huge environmental problems these days besides climate change. On the other hand. mahogany is renewable — but only if it’s managed properly. Same with bamboo. Don’t think that buying bamboo flooring is going to help you save the earth. There are millions of acres of tropical forest being razed and replanted with bamboo to satisfy our “eco-craze.” Make sure bamboo comes from a certified, well-managed forest, and if you’re intent on buying a stone counter top, go for quartz.

Ask questions: Don’t accept the marketing speak on the labels of products. “Upcycled”, “Recycled,” “Reuse” “Zero-VOC”, “Natural” are all environmental buzz words. Dig deeper into the words and find out what’s behind them — and if the vendor can’t answer your questions, don’t buy the product. They should know as much about what they sell as possible. Find out where products are made. Sometimes vendors will even be aware of labour practices if products are manufactured in developing countries (fair trade, social change, etc.).

These are just a few of the things to think about when looking at how to assess whether a “green” building product is actually green.

LED Lighting Illuminated

November 26th, 2010

LED lighting has some significant advantages over both incandescent and compact fluorescent. For one thing it uses significantly less electricity which saves you money and puts less strain on any electricity system. For another, it doesn’t contain mercury or other harmful elements that our current lighting systems have. LED bulbs are fully recyclable and parts can be reused in new LED lights, and finally, if you buy the right bulbs, you won’t have to change them for years and years. But (there’s always a “but”) it’s also expensive and if you don’t choose the right bulbs you might not be satisfied with the results. LED isn’t like incandescent or compact fluorescent (CFL) lighting; if you want to be satisfied with your LED lighting, you’re best to hire a lighting consultant to guide you through your first (and possibly last) light bulb purchase.  I have been researching LED lighting for a few years now. Each time I visit IIDEX I take a half hour and go and talk to the lighting experts about LEDs for use as everyday lighting. I always ask the lighting reps: “Is it ready for prime time?” The answer, it turns out, depends on who you talk to. When I spoke with representatives from Phillips and GE the answer was “not yet, but it’s coming.” When I spoke with Dmitri Shaffer from evoLED Green Lighting Solutions, he said, “Of course it is, but it’s not as easy as walking into Home Depot and buying a replacement bulb.”

You’re telling me. When I first went on to evoLED’s website I was overwhelmed with the selection. I really didn’t know what my needs were, and considering the cost outlay for one bulb (averaging $40), the investment, if done properly, can be significant, and depending on how often your lights are on, so can the savings. So, the best solution was to book Dmitri for an appointment and have him come and take a look at my lighting needs. While he was here, I took the opportunity to ask a lot of questions the different LEDs available and how to choose one. It turns out that the reason you don’t want to buy one from the big box stores has more to do with familiarizing yourself with LEDs rather than the actual light bulb itself — although that too is an issue.

LED 50 watt halogen replacement bulb (9 watt version)

The quality of Light Emitting Diode “bulbs” is highly dependent upon the chip that is inside the light itself. The quality of this chip in turn will determine the longevity of the light. So, as Dmitri points out, “if an LED is selling for $10, don’t expect it to last the usual 40,000 to 100,000 hours expectant of a name brand LED.”  There are, in Dmitri’s opinion, three chip manufacturers that are the best, although he acknowledges that there are many manufacturers who are improving their chip quality all the time. The three chip manufacturers he recommends are CREE, Nichia, and Epistar. So how do you know whose chip is inside the LED you’re about to purchase? Ask your lighting professional. In theory, they should know who manufactures the chip inside the LED. I must say though, I have my doubts that sales people at the big box stores will be able to answer this question, but I’m happy to be proven wrong!

Another factor in an LED light’s longevity is the design of the light itself. According to Dmitri, each diode can use up to three watts of power. However, the more diodes the bulb has, the more likely the entire bulb will get hot, so another important factor in a light’s design is the size and quality of the heat sink. The larger the heat sink, the better, because it allows higher brightness without overheating the diodes. However, the manufacturers are confined to existing bulb sizes when trying to design a heat sink, so in small sizes, like the MR16 for example, they have to find the balance between brightness and heat management. Bright diodes without an adequate heat sink will fail shortly after the installation. Luckily, most manufactures take this into account.

Finally the design of the LED lamp is another important factor and consists of the size of the bulb, the number of diodes, the colour temperature of the light and the angle or span of the light.

Colour temperature. This term actually refers to the colour the light casts, not the heat emitted from the bulb, and is measured in degrees Kelvin. The cooler the light temperature, the whiter or crisper the light. If you’re interested in keeping the same cast as an incandescent bulb then the recommended light temperature is 2700K. As the Kelvin degree increases, the light becomes whiter then blue, as in daylight blue. I tested 3000K LEDs and the colour temperature provided both a crisper, white light, but without the cool colour that the daylight bulbs cast, which are usually between 4000 and 6000 K.

Another issue with LED lighting is the angle of the light. A 30 degree bulb casts a spotlight, whereas an 80 degree light casts a wider angle and the light disperses earlier, so ceiling height becomes an issue: if ceiling heights are 12 feet, probably a narrower angle is better because the light will likely still make it to eye level and maintain its intensity.

LED lights come in a variety of designs. Some are made for replacing your 50 watt halogen potlights, some are excellent for undermount lighting. Choosing one will depend on your fixture, where it is, and what the purpose of the light is (ie., task lighting or general lighting.

The light spectrum of an LED is much wider than a fluorescent, without the same heat emission as well. One thing to consider is depending on how often your lights are on, they may contribute to the heating of your home/business. Changing to LED lights will lessen the air conditioning load in the summer, but may increase the heating load in the winter.

I asked Dmitri what the main reasons were for people wanting to switch to LED lighting and it turns out there are two:  the first is to save money and energy, the second is comfort level. Undermount halogen lights turn out not to be great lights. They are hot, so food and wine shouldn’t be left underneath them, and they can leave unlit areas on the counter if the light pucks aren’t placed close enough together. Fluorescent undermount don’t contain the full light spectrum so decorative items can lack their usual colour. LED undermounts are in strips with the diodes placed so closely together that very little of the counter isn’t lit.

Regarding strength, or lumens, of light. One of the complaints of LED lighting is that the light output isn’t as strong as incandescent or CFL lighting. However, there has been a lot of progress in this area, and there are now sufficient substitutes to replace 50 watt halogen bulbs. When Dmitri did our lighting audit he told me to focus only on the the most used rooms in the house, which in our case is the kitchen. I estimate that on average, the kitchen lights are on for 5 hours per day, every day. There are 7 halogen and two 60 watt incandescent bulbs. We estimated that if we replaced all those bulbs, we would break even at the current electricity rate in 3 years and 9 months, which is much less time than I thought .

Having spoken with Dmitri, I now have a much better understanding of the complexities of LED lighting. I also believe that if you’re going to make an investment in LED lighting you’re best to call in a consultant who can help you choose the right bulbs based on your needs and your current lighting design.

Contact Dmitri Shaffer at evoLED for more information on having a lighting audit done in the Greater Toronto Area.

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