Home & Design July 29, 2008

Alternate Energies

Reconsider Your Sources, Nurture the Planet

Muffy Ritz and her husband John Tormey have a new favorite color and though you may not find Kermit’s green pallor painted on any walls, the home they will build in consideration of the symbol of environmental good deed doing will instead be it.

When the pair break ground next spring in Hulen Meadows, everything about their abode will be chock-full of energy-saving and energy-generating features.

Here is a sampling of their plans: to build their house into the hillside to use the earth as an insulator; to complete a sun study to figure out how to harness the most sun they can to warm their house in winter while providing plenty of cooling shade in summer; to orient their home so the sun will come through the south-facing windows heating up the fireplace masonry, which will then store the heat and release it as needed; and, they’re planning to add what Ritz calls “eyebrows” to shade the house during summer.

Among the other things they are exploring is the feasibility of tapping into geothermal properties to maintain a comfortable heating range inside without having to crank up the furnace. Structurally insulated panels are being considered because they provide superior insulation while involving less material and less waste than traditional 2-by-4 walls.

They hope to install solar panels to provide the electricity they do need; plan to establish a drought-tolerant lawn to cut down on the water they will use; will install a water reclamation system to collect rainwater and snowmelt–which they’ll re-filter and purify for irrigation and other uses; AND, they’re thinking of planting vegetation on the roof to infuse the atmosphere with a little more oxygen.

Stone will come from local sources because that cuts down on the energy used to transport the materials. They’re also thinking of purchasing recycled timbers from a Salt Lake City train trestle as some other green seekers have done. Regenerated cork or bamboo will comprise the floors and they will choose their countertops with like conscientiousness. Their hot water heater will be tankless and all appliances will meet the maximum standards of energy efficiency.

And, finally, they are exploring the construction of a wetland in their yard to treat the wastewater that is not treated by their septic system.

Even with all of that said, “It probably won’t be a full green house but we’re doing as much as we can,” says Ritz, who has been traveling with her husband to green building conferences throughout the United States to educate herself. “With what’s happening in the world today—global warming and all—I wouldn’t feel good about doing a traditional house. I think it’s time for everybody to think green—green and sustainable.”

Green energy sources and materials are being incorporated into more and more homes around the Wood River Valley. As technology improves, the availability of green materials increases and the prices come down.

Tormey, who owns Tormey Con-struction, Inc., says he doesn’t have a clue at this point how much energy he will save—or, how much he might generate.

“But the building industry is starting to see an influx of green because of what’s happening with petroleum supply and costs. And, after seeing the amount of waste I have in this business, I’m anxious to implement materials I think will be more sustainable,” he says.

“The whole field is like the electronic industry right now—there are so many innovative things going on, it’s hard to keep up with them all.”

Indeed, there are several technologies we could start seeing more and more of in the Wood River Valley, the Camas Prairie and the Sawtooth Valley in the near future. >>>



Geothermal – Hot Water Good for More Than a Soak

Hot water piped from Guyer Hot Springs out Warm Springs Road might one day heat the new pavers lining the new Fourth Street Heritage Court. An alternative technology team for Ketchum’s Community Development Corporation is studying that feasibility.

Bald Mountain Hot Springs was once the town’s hotspot with hundreds of Ketchum children learning to swim there. And Clarendon Hot Springs near Hailey was once considered one of the top spas in the West.

Consultant Tom Hudson proposed to the city of Ketchum earlier this year that the city build a geothermal swimming pool in the Warm Springs area to attract tourists. And studies suggest that all of Ketchum could be heated by geothermal energy, according to Brian Barsotti, attorney for David Cimino, who owns Guyer Hot Springs.

“When I came to town, the snow and ice on all the sidewalks along Main Street were melted by geothermal heat,” said architect Dale Bates, who serves on the committee. “There have been 11 hot springs resorts in this community and people used to heat their homes on Warm Springs Road by geothermal. But the infrastructure crumbled and, with cheap electricity, people saw no need to do anything about it. The time’s right to take another look.” 

Chlorine Free – Kinder H2O

More and more consumers and businesses are incorporating green methods of cleaning pools, hot tubs and even septic systems.

AmericInn, Hailey’s newest hotel, uses salt to clean its 30-foot-by-50-foot indoor pool. The treatment eliminates the need for chlorine and other chemicals, which some people are sensitive or even allergic to. And it leaves the skin feeling softer and cleaner. It’s much less saline than ocean water so swimmers don’t need to worry about the salty taste and feel they get during a day at the beach.

“Chlorine is one of the nastiest chemicals there is—it smells bad and it makes peoples’ eyes smart,” says Michael Frith, the motel’s general manager. “Naturally-treated pools like this provide a superior experience.” 

Some Valley homeowners already have installed saltwater chlorine generators to treat their swimming pools, says Anthony Naghsh, maintenance manager for Aqua Pro Pool & Spa, Inc. A system costs about $1,500 for a swimming pool and $800 for a hot tub.

The chlorine salt generator generates the sanitizer (chlorine) through a process called electrolysis. The salt passes by the cell and is zapped by a low-voltage charge. “This process makes chlorine in its purist form without all of the other nasty byproducts they add to production chlor

ine making it much softer feeling water,” says Jeff Smith, owner of Aqua Pro Spa & Pool, Inc. _But, he adds, “Chlorine is the most widely used and effective sanitizer in the world. I love the salt chlorine generators, but you need to use electricity to produce the sanitizer, therefore producing CO2 emissions. Don’t get me wrong, I think everyone needs to look into using renewable resources, but I have to set the record straight.”

Morgan Brown has gone one step further, starting a company he calls Whole Water Systems to partner with the European manufacturer BioNova to build natural pools cleansed by engineered or constructed wetlands.

The pools are cleansed by water that circulates through regeneration zones consisting of wetland plants in a process Brown says is similar to, but better than, the wastewater lagoons that used algae and zooplankton to break down and assimilate pollution.

BioNova designed the first community natural pool using biological plant-based filtration in 1990 in Austria and they have since become popular throughout Germany and Austria.

Pools cleansed in this fashion cost less than conventional chemical pools to install, according to Brown. There’s less maintenance and the use of expensive chemicals required. And heating costs are reduced because the plant filtration area acts as a solar collector, warming the swimming area.

“Wetlands do an amazing job of cleaning water. They can even treat industrial waste and mine tailings,” Brown says. >>>



Green Interiors – More Than Just Green Paint

“There are many ways to incorporate green solutions for the home without compromising style,” said interior designer Jennifer Hoey Smith.

“It’s easy to create that ‘green’ look with the obvious choices, such as bamboo, recycled glass and concrete,” she adds. “However, there are things you can do that would work with any style and contribute to the sustainable movement.

“Use reclaimed wood whenever possible. Not only does it add a great patina unattainable with new wood, but it also saves trees. Often, the wood has so much character you don’t have to use stains or other complex processes to finish it.”

Countertops made of recycled paper are a nice alternative to stone, are heat resistant, stain resistant, water resistant and extremely durable, says Marina Broschofsky, whose Red Door Design House offers plenty of building products that make use of products that would otherwise be thrown away.

The unfinished countertops can be treated by applying a natural oil finish or natural wax, rather than lacquering over them.

Recycled copper sinks can be beautiful and decorative. And you can substitute rapidly renewable wheatboard for particleboard and fast-growing bamboo, cork or recycled glass for floors.

“Green supplies are comparable in price to other custom options such as stone countertops and solid wood flooring,” Broschofsky says. “They’re beautiful and unique, easy to install—it’s just a matter of opening your mind. Unfortunately, so many people still have a mindset that things like granite countertops are the only way to go.” Leave countertops unfinished and you can apply a natural oil finish, rather than lacquering over them.

“All of these are competitive price-wise with conventional floors and countertops,” Broschofsky says. “They’re beautiful and unique, easy to install–it’s just a matter of opening your mind. Unfortunately, so many builders still have a mindset that things like granite countertops are the only way to go.”

Furniture designer Laura Higdon’s Lilipad Studio furnishings are ecologically sound. Built from FSC-certified, responsibly-forested wood, and painted with nontoxic, no-VOC paints, she intentionally strayed from the “green” movement’s aesthetic of monochromatic minimalism showing that being environmentally correct doesn’t mean bland. Her whimsical designs are meant to become functional art.

One more way Valley residents can see green energy in action is to buy locally produced food from such growers as Heather and Judd McMahan.

The couple started Wood River Organics along Townsend Gulch Road in Bellevue after they realized how much they missed farm life while living in an apartment in Seattle.

 Using local manure and bone meal, they raise thousands of tomato plants, lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, chard and other produce, selling it at Hailey and Ketchum farmer’s markets and Atkinsons’ grocery.

“I’ve heard that produce travels a thousand miles, on average–that’s lot of petroleum and a lot of CO2 being put into the air,” Judd says. “It’s pointless to try to bring this in from California when you don’t need to.” >>>



 Passive Solar – Build to Maximize the Sun’s Power

While some technologies generate electricity, others reduce energy consumption. And that adds up just as much as harnessing energy through wind turbines and solar panels, say the energy experts.

“Passive solar houses, for instance, don’t generate energy, but they reduce the amount of energy you use so you’re achieving the same purpose,” says architect Rebecca Bundy.

The home Bundy and husband Morgan Brown designed in Hulen Meadows lets sun through the south-facing windows that stretch 25 feet into open-truss ceilings.

A masonry fireplace and concrete floors and countertops absorb the heat, storing it during the day to release overnight in winter when evening brings cooler temperatures.

The combination allows the house to maintain temperatures ranging from the low 60s to the high 70s year-round, says Brown.

Overhanging eaves protect living spaces from scorching summer sunlight, as do a minimum of windows on the west side of the house.

Bathrooms, garage and utility spaces are placed along the north wall where windows would just mean heat loss during winter.

Passive solar design should cost no more than traditional house design, Bundy says. It’s just a matter of paying attention to such details as how you orient the house to the sun and the amount of glass you install.

“Even the Indians at Mesa Verde built with passive solar in mind,” says Brown. “But artificially cheap energy caused people to stop thinking about it. Sun Valley is perfect for it, however, because the sun is almost always shining when it’s cold.”

Energy-efficient building products, such as concrete blocks incorporating foam insulation, also help reduce utility costs, says Garth Callaghan, whose Energy Savers of Idaho provides such materials.

The products offer greater insulation value than do traditional 2-by-4 construction with much less waste. >>>



Wind Power – It’ll Blow You Away

Some believe the wind turbine may be the most cost-effective source of electrical power in the future.

Idaho Tower Co., a new Ketchum company, installed a pair of 50-kilowatt wind turbines in Mountain Home, enabling Ketchum resident Thomas Griffith to sell hydrogen to companies that would otherwise have to import the fuel from Canada.

But, if you think of wind power in terms of giant skyscraping turbines that stand 120 feet catching the wind that blows over prairie and sea, think again.
Manufacturers are coming out with wind turbines designed to provide energy for individual homes.

They’re three to four feet in diameter and stand just 35 feet tall. The small turbines make less noise than the average washing machine, says Eric Demment, a spokesman for Idaho Tower Co. And some are being designed to look like yard art.

“Obviously, the higher you go, the more you can get out of the wind,” says Demment. “But smaller systems have become popular even back in New Jersey where the houses are crammed together.”

A number of Wood River Valley residents, including Morgan Brown, are doing wind studies right now to assess what kind of system might work best for them.

Currently, a business might pay $1.5 million for a system producing 1 megawatt of wind-generated electricity. Since the average U.S. household uses 10,000 kilowatts of energy annually, this would be enough to power 140,000 homes.

A 10-kilowatt turbine that could supply an entire house given the right amount of wind at its blade tips could cost $6,000, estimates Demment. The towers could cost twice that again to install.

Among the products on the market is the Skystream 3.7, a new generation residential wind generator designed to provide quiet, clean electricity in low wind. A tower 34 feet tall with a 12-foot blade can produce 400 kilowatts a month, given a wind speed of 12 miles per hour.

Homeowners who generate more energy than they can use can sell it back to the electrical company. If the wind stops blowing, they can fall back on conventional electricity.

On the surface, it appears that the Wood River Valley is not the optimal place for such turbines, despite the morning’s down valley wind and afternoon and evening’s up valley wind.

Other areas, such as the Camas Prairie around Fairfield, seem to boast more wind.

Homes need to sit on at least a half acre of unobstructed ground. The wind needs to be at least 10 miles per hour.
That number should come down, though, as turbines are continually refined, says Morgan Brown.

Given Idaho’s low electrical rates–among the lowest in the nation—there’s not a big rush by homeowners to put turbines in their backyards, Demment acknowledges. Those who get them first will be people like Brown, who want them to raise awareness about the possibilities.

“We can put them in. But you’re probably not going to recoup your costs in five years as you could in Texas,” he says. “But anything we can do to reduce greenhouse gases and dependency on foreign oil . . . The technology of solar and wind is coming along, so if we had more federal incentives and help with research, if we put our minds and money to it, it could take off.”

To help consumers, the Snake River Alliance is constructing an informational site on its website where consumers can get answers to questions about wind power and other alternative energy sources.

“We hope to be able to help people figure out the best alternative energy sources for Idaho,” says Deb Bohrer, president of the local branch of the nuclear-watchdog agency. “And we all want to bring in experts to analyze the best alternative energy sources for Idaho, ranging from wind to geothermal.”

This article appears in the Fall 2007 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.