Tag Archives: cost


Has the cabin fever set in by now? If so, let me lead a quick expedition into the hot and muggy summer months. Even though we may yearn for summer heat at this time of the year, once it is upon us, we are rapidly looking for ways to keep cool. How do you keep cool?

I dislike the typical excessive air conditioning we exercise, but I am a big fan of ceiling fans.

You could argue that any ceiling fan would do a good job as it is most likely to operate more efficiently than a conventional air conditioning system. This comparison is somewhat unfair as the product of air conditioning is different from that of a ceiling fan. But then again, humanity is famous for buying products that are non-essential.

We needed to make a decision about what ceiling fans we should acquire for our deep energy retrofit. I started by looking at the extremes. On one end there is the $25 product, cheap but flimsy, “delightfully” humming along while it moves air (for all those lovers of white noise), and dumping the one thing from the motor and light that we want the least – heat.

On the opposite spectrum is … well, other than expensive, I don’t really know. This is a good time to consult the EnergyStar product list for ceiling fans.


EnergyStar rates the efficiency of ceiling fans by how much air they move (cubic feet per minute or cfm) with one watt of energy. If you download the list of certified ceiling fans in Excel format, you can easily sort for the most efficient EnergyStar certified models. Here is a summary of the top three contenders as of February 2014:


There are plenty of other efficient ceiling fans on the EnergyStar list. But after my big time-waste tracking down an EnergyStar efficient range hood, I acquired an attitude. If I can’t find a product listed on the EnergyStar list in a simple online search, I move on.

Back to the top three contenders that were all easy to track down. The Haiku and MidwayECO are built with the efficient and very quiet electronically commutated motors (ECM’s). I assume that the Aeratron is also powered by an ECM, but couldn’t find corroborating information in the specifications.

The Aeratron is a ceiling fan unit only, while the Haiku can be fitted with a 1,500 lumen LED light module. The Midway ECO comes with a light module that takes four LED or CFL bulbs with the GU24 pin base. Tthe typical light output would be around 3,600 lumens. The Haiku can be dimmed as can the Midway ECO, as long as dimmable LED or CFL’s are used.

Prices for the models vary widely as of February 2014:

  • Haiku from $825 to $920
  • Midway ECO from $476 to $529
  • Aeratron from $224 to $349

Because we need dual functionality from our ceiling fans (air movement and light), the Midway ECO emerged as the best contender, even though it is still a very pricey piece of equipment.

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Price check, and – surprise!

I needed more rock wool insulation – a whole lot more. It’s for the second floor exterior walls and the attic.

My primary rock wool supplier, the Chicago Green Depot, went out of business about a year ago. I needed to find a new supplier!

Back in the day, the Chicago Green Depot had the best priced rock wool. I got the last batch in early 2012 for around $35.00 per bundle (60 square feet of 3 1/2 inch rock wool batts). All other sources I contacted, including your typical big box home improvements stores, always came in more expensive.

This time around, April 2013, didn’t seem to be any different. The Home Depot had the bundle of rock wool listed for around $43.00! I thought, though, that it couldn’t hurt to double check the pricing for 120 bundles at the Pro-Desk in my local store.

The printout I was handed listed a total of $3,340.80. That breaks down into a unit price of $27.84 per bundle plus tax (or $0.13 per board foot). That is a considerable price drop from the listed $43.00 … around 35%! This is even less that the first batch I bought for the basement installation.

Do I need to say that I was a very happy camper?

Why that 35% price drop? If I go to the Home Depot and place an order over $2,500, I am referred to – what they call – the bid room. Because I am buying in bulk, I have access to a different pricing structure. That said, I would be surprised if that 35% discount will last for long; this may be part of a current promotion.

The significance is that this is the first time that I bought a substantial amount of building materials from a typical big box home improvement store. Materials for a deep energy retrofit like ours were in the past not available, hard to get special orders, and/or too expensive.

Is this a sign that green building materials are on their way into the mainstream?

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Painting, equipment and sidetracking

Thanks to our friends Scott and Carlos, priming the drywall was like eating cake! And – because we got the priming done so quickly – I now can shift gears and start with the proper paint.

While looking for a suitable zero VOC paint product, I ran again into the issue of finding something that has a price point of $30/gallon or less and is not a special order.

After some back and forth, we settled on Behr Premium Plus Interior Eggshell Enamel. It meets our price point and zero VOC requirement, and is labeled low odor.

I found out that low odor does not mean odor free. Don’t get me wrong – it is not obnoxious. In fact, it is really nice to paint without being engulfed in the fumes of other conventional paints that still contain some level of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). But, as I said, it is not odor free.

While I was in the store, waiting for the color to get mixed, I browsed through the various rollers that were on display. I picked up a rather pricy one to give it a try.

To my surprise, it lasted through the entire paint job, and it still in such good shape that I probably will use it on the second floor. Compare that to the cheap rollers I started with. They lasted for one day and had to go into the trash.

That got me thinking – about the trash we produce because we fall for a lot of cheap stuff. Plus, economically it made sense to get the expensive but good quality roller. By now it has paid for itself, outlasting God knows how many cheap rollers.

It is also a microcosm of what happens with green buildings and deep energy retrofits like ours. A lot of people shy away from the green or more energy efficient option because it appears so expensive when compared the the conventional (cheap) options.

But if green building technologies are executed wisely, they begin to pay for themselves – and may even begin to save some real money at the end.

Wow, I really had a lot to say about painting – didn’t I?

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1st floor priming

Our freshly restored hardwood floors are all carefully covered up, because its time to start painting.

There are two components to this task: the straightforward and the not so straightforward parts.

Getting the paint on the wall is what I would call the straightforward part. Actually, we won’t start with paint. We’ll start by priming all the drywall.

The not so straightforward part has to do with the product choice. We are set on zero VOC primer and paint products. This is non-negotiable, as it has an direct impact on the indoor air quality (IAQ).

Back when we painted the garden unit, I sourced the primer and paint from the Chicago Green Depot, which has gone out of business since. With that, I lost a convenient and affordable source for zero VOC paint products.

“No problem, there must be other products and suppliers.” Yep! But few of them are conveniently accessible (i.e. brick and mortar business), and even fewer have zero VOC products at a reasonable price point.

I mean, if you look around and online, you can find coolest products under the sun out there. But we are not about to spend $60, $50 or even $40 per gallon for paint or primer. Our threshold is at $30/gallon, or preferably less.

That really begins to narrow it down!

For the primer we settled on Bulls Eye Zero Primer-Sealer by Zinsser. Even though it is water based, it has a really thick consistency – almost too thick. We diluted it to the maximum recommended ratio, and it still was thick, but we were able to get a few additional square feet of coverage out of it.

Thank you to our dear friends Scott and Carlos who master roller and brushes like few others do!


Floor coating – cost fuzz

Sanding our old hardwood floors was the easy part. Particularly for me, as my job was just to watch and learn, to get stuff out the way and to manage the power cords.

Getting things set up for the floor coating was a lot more complicated. Mainly because it involved a lot of research.

Most common floor finished are polyurethane based and have a very high VOC (volatile organic compound) content. Something that was not acceptable to us, as we are very conscious about managing indoor air quality (IAQ). And like with paint, we were looking for a VOC free option.

Well, the first thing I learned is that there currently is no such thing as a zero-VOC floor coating. But there are water based products that have very low VOC levels.

The current LEED system, which can be used as a guideline, permits a VOC content up to 275 g/l (grams per liter) for floor sealers. Some water based products are at the 275 g/l threshold, others have a lower VOC content. A look at the specifications usually tells how the product performs on the VOC spectrum.

The next lesson was about the product costs. Your typical polyurethane/high VOC products run around $40 per gallon. The water based options ranged from $40 to $120 per gallon.

Needless to say that I immediately focused on products at the lower price range. That didn’t last long, for two reasons. First, the products reviews that I found were non-conclusive. Second, our flooring contractor, Frank, flat out refused to use any water based product that was not two component based, i.e. did not come with a catalyst.

All right – this will need some more dissecting:

Frank likes quality work and has a good business sense. He knows that using a economic product that has a limited performance span will eventually nip him in the butt. That explained his refusal.

What I learned is that the more economical water based products do not come with a catalyst (also referred to as hardener) and apparently wear off pretty rapidly. Only the higher priced options come with a catalyst, which is mixed into the sealer just prior to the application. These have the reputation to last a few years longer.

Still, the purchasing decision was anything but straightforward. Using the most economic two component water based product with the lowest VOC content would be the logical choice. Except that we ran into supply problems.

Water based floor coatings are not that commonly used, because of their price point. Retailers are hesitant to keep them stocked, because they have to purchase the product by the palette and then sit on it for several months, if not over a year, before it is all sold.

We had to investigate all the products that were locally available, and see which one was stocked at the quantity we needed. We finally settled on Arboritec Avenue, but had to source it across three different retailers to get the quantity we needed.

Here is a quick summary of the few products we investigated:

Arboritec Avenue
VOC content: max. 200 g/l
Coverage: 350 – 400 sf/gallon
Drying time: 1/2 – 1 hour

Bona Traffic
VOC content: max. 210 g/l
Coverage: 350 – 400 sf/gallon
Drying time: 2 – 3 hours

Bona Traffic HD
VOC content: 125 g/l
Coverage: 350 – 400 sf/gallon
Drying time: 2 – 3 hours

VOC content: max 250 g/l
Coverage: 550 – 700 sf/gallon
Drying time: 2 – 3 hours


An expensive gap – or not?

Great! We had invested quite some time in cleaning up and restoring the 100-year-old oak trim around the doors, windows and window sills only to discover that we were quite a bit short of trim around the windows.

We actually realized that a while back, but it became acute at this stage.

What do we mean by being short of window trim?

The original trim fit the depth of the original walls, which had no insulation. To reduce our energy needs, we will add insulation to the walls. To be precise, 6 1/2 inches of insulation. That means that the wall moved by 6 1/2 inches into the building (plus the drywall depth).


This is a gap we have to plug. With the nicely restored original trim, we have little choice but to turn to oak again.

I almost had a heart attack when I looked at the prices for oak board in the lumber yards and home improvement stores. This was about to become a very expensive restoration project indeed!

To introduce what happened next I would need a sound track that announces the arrival of super hero figure: The RX man (or woman for that matter).

On one of our frequent trips to the ReBuilding Exchange (RX) we began to poke around in the trim section and found a bunch of old oak trim of various dimensions that could help us plugging that gap.

We will have to see if we can fit the trim and remove the paint and stains from the pieces that need extra care.  But they will have a similar character with similar imperfections to the original oak around the windows.


Clean trim-onomics

While we are talking about salvaged materials and their reuse, let me mention the trim we bought at The Rebuilding Exchange. Although it was very economic, it required some time-consuming prep work.

As one would expect, used trim is typically stained, lacquered or painted. To remove the paint, Cathy took out the Silent Paint Remover and suspended it from a couple of saw horses.


This ‘industrial setup’ allowed her to crank out spanking clean trim at an intimidating speed.

Although the Silent Paint Remover works great on paint (as the name suggests), we found that lacquer and stain is better removed with the Soy Gel product. A couple of coats and a little scrubbing typically do the job.

What we appreciate about the salvaged and cleaned up trim is that it has character. Unlike new material, it has history and tells a story.


Picking an ERV

With the ducts in place and sealed it’s time to think about the energy recovery ventilator (ERV). Actually the thinking, i.e. the product selection, already happened a few weeks back.

How does an ERV work?

The ERV is basically an air to air heat exchanger. The idea is to achieve effective air exchange in a building while minimizing the heat energy losses.


Image source: Little Deschutes Lodge

The heat exchanger in the ERV transfers heat energy from the exhaust air to the incoming, fresh supply air. In other words, fresh, cold winter air will be preheated by the exhaust air, while hot, incoming summer air will be cooled down.

While the ERV is yet another gadget drawing electricity, it actually contributes to substantial energy savings through its ability to reduce heat loss, not to mention the auxiliary benefits of maintaining good indoor air quality (IAQ) and moisture management.

To maximize the energy savings benefits, it is important to us to find a highly efficient unit, efficient in heat recovery and efficient in its operation.

The Motor

An ERV, or for that matter a heat recovery ventilation (HRV) requires a blower motor that can run at variable speeds to meet the specific ventilation requirements.

The typical motor option is the PSC (permanent-split capacitor), which provides the variable speed option and runs on alternating current (AC).

A significantly more efficient option is the ECM (electronically commutated motor). It also runs at variable speeds but is powered by direct current (DC).

With the knowledge of these two motor options at hand, I limited the product search to ERV’s with ECM motors only.

The product options

I came across an ERV called the ComfoAir HRV/ERV System by Zehnder America.

This rather expensive unit has all the bells and whistles I could wish for.

It runs very efficiently, has a very high heat recovery rate and comes with a summer by-pass cooling option. The cooling option basically turns the heat exchanger off once its senses that the outside air is cooler than the inside air. It also comes with the option of geothermal preconditioning, also known as earth tubes.

My problem is that this unit has been developed in Europe and not yet re-engineered for the North American market. As much as I liked the bells and whistles, I was not in the mood to accommodate the 220 volt requirement and deal with the metric connections.

There is a North American alternative I stumbled upon. It is the UltimateAir RecoupAerator. At the writing of this post, it appears to be the most efficient HRV readily available on the market, particularly at the lower airflow rates.

  • 50 watt draw to deliver 65 cubic feet per minute (cfm)
  • 75 watt draw to deliver 100 cfm
  • 250 watt draw to deliver 200 cfm
See also: Product performance data

GreenBuildingAdvisor.com lists anther metric that rates the UltimateAir efficiency at 2.04 cfm/watt.

The heat recovery rate is listed at around 80% or 95% for sensible recovery efficiency and apparent sensible effectiveness, respectively.

The UltimateAir also comes with bells and whistles, including a number of controls and an EconoCool option that senses cool summer night air and delivers it into the building.

One of the optional features that caught my eye is a Water-to-Air Coil Module or heat exchanger. We could upgrade our ERV system with this module if our indoor air becomes too hot and muggy, despite our airtight and well insulated building envelope.

I might come back to the Water-to-Air heat exchanger sometime down the road.


The price point of the UltimateAir fits our budget. It meets our energy requirements, in terms of heat recovery and electrical usage.

What I particularly like is the flexibility – the option to provide additional cooling and dehumidification if required with the Water-to-Air heat exchanger module.

Well, all what’s left is to place the order, wait for the delivery install the ERV.



I alluded in the last post (Utility sink) that we are ready to paint the freshly installed and finished drywall.

I will not delight you with another time lapse showing us painting, but rather talk about our product choice.

Based on our project principles and goal to provide good indoor air quality (IAQ), using anything but a zero-VOC product was non-negotiable.

I expected, in this day and age, to find a good choice and range of products and suppliers of zero-VOC paints.

Considering that zero-VOC paints are one of the lowest hanging ‘green’ fruits out there, and probably very popular with the ‘green’ and/or ‘green-wash’ minded population, I anticipated that commerce would drive this train fast and furious.

To my surprise, it took me a while to research and find a suitable and affordable product. My experience was vaguely similar to that described in the post Service Desert, although nowhere near as painful.

The Home Depot advertises their ‘eco-option’ products, and has had a strong showing at the USGBC Greenbuild conference over the past few years.

Yet, my local Home Depot does not carry zero-VOC paints. I would have to drive all the way to a store on Chicago’s north side, where they stock zero-VOC paints. And I am apparently not the only one running into this problem.

It appears that rather than leading the market, The Home Depot is following the customer.

Fair enough, let’s try my local Menards. Lo and behold, I find zero-VOC paint for a very good price – and a ‘Green Cert’ label. This is where I got suspicious. There are a couple of ‘green’ designations that I am aware off, such as LEED compliant or Greenguard.

And there are designations that, for whatever reason, feel they have to come up with their own label. This may be an effective marketing strategy, but also confuses the consumer and makes it difficult to separate the green-wash from actual sound sustainable products.

Does the average consumer have the time to research all this? Probably not, and nor have I. Why not turn to someone who has done the research for us, the consumers?

After a moment of thought and short trip, I find myself in the Green Depot, where I have access to a variety of zero-VOC paints in different price ranges.

We opted for the zero-VOC Ivy primer and paint. I didn’t know any better, but our neighbor Norman, who does quite a bit of painting and helped me out, commented about how nice it was without those nasty fumes.


3rd layer – rock wool insulation

I shared our experience with the 1st and 2nd layer of insulation in recent posts.

We originally intended to use spray foam for the entire wall section, but decided after some more research to add another material, or a third layer: a rock wool batt product.


What is rock wool? It was first discovered as a byproduct of volcanic activity, where lava came into contact with air and cooled into fibers. Modern manufacturing processes spin molten rock into thin fibers. The process is said to look like cotton candy production.

After adding a binder to the fibers and letting it cure, the batts get cut into the required dimensions and are ready for packaging.


The rock wool option subtly slipped into the picture for a number of reasons:

  • It has the thermal resistance we are looking for.
  • Unlike spray polyurethane foam (SPF), rock wool is not a petroleum based product.
  • It has a high recycled content.
  • Because rock wool is made out of stone and slag, it won’t burn.
  • It is a very economic insulation material (typically around $0.16 per board foot), more economic than SPF or recycled cotton batts.
  • Rock wool is very easy to handle and install.

I found two rock wool manufacturers (Roxul and Thermafiber) that distribute their products in Chicago. The Roxul Comfort Batt was sold for a price that fit our budget at the Chicago Green Depot, where I placed my order and picked up the material.


The batts are very light and dimensioned to fit between 16 inches on center wall framing or floor joists. Due to their somewhat soft nature, we could squeeze the batt, slide it between the framing and let go. Right away it expands back to its original size and firmly sits between the studs or floor joists.

We appreciated the ease with which rock wool can be cut. A long, serrated bread knife was the perfect tool to trim the batts to the required length or fit them around outlets and light switches.

The heat has been on for a few weeks and with all three insulation layers in the walls (an R-value of 25 to 27), we should be able to keep that heat where we need it.