"Nerd Up" Michigan

You've heard it before; "Man Up" or  depending on what part of the country you are from,"Cowboy Up". Both statements imply similar meaning... individual responsibility. It's time that Michigan adopted a statement of personal responsibility and in honor of the new governor I'm offering, "Nerd Up Michigan".

Rick Snyder was not my first choice for governor during the primary. In all honesty he was never higher than fourth on my list of preferred candidates. I was wrong. Rick Snyder is exactly what Michigan needs in the governor's office. He is a Michigan man to the core and Michigan needs a governor that not only loves this state but one that believes in our ability to turn things around. Business men think differently than politicians when confronted by a problem. As a small business I know that when income is reduced expenditures have to be reduced in proportion. Raising prices may bring a short-term spike in income but are quickly followed by even deeper losses when your customers find alternative suppliers or decide to forgo your product or service altogether.

Washington is not the answer to Michigan's problems. Washington's reckless spending and over reaching regulation contribute to Michigan's historic decline over the past 10 years. I'm not discounting the global nature of the economic trials facing Michigan. What I am suggesting is that revival has to start in Michigan by Michiganders. Rivival doesn't start in Lansing it starts on the streets of Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Detroit and every other community within the borders of this great state. Waiting for someone else to solve our problems requires faith greater than any religion and an assumption that someone else can or is even willing to fix our problems.

I don't have a "dog in the hunt" with regards to the proposed bridge connecting Detroit to Windsor. Whether the bridge is necessary isn't my point here. What I found interesting is Mr. Snyder's innovative thinking and his ability to forge partnerships. The collaborative effort required to make this project possible without incurring public debt was innovative. What was brilliant was his negotiation with the feds to allow the Canadian investment in our roads to be counted as matching funds in securing federal money for road construction projects. If memory serves me, for the past several years we've heard proposal from the previous administration that we needed a gas tax increase in order to secure our fair share of federal funds. A new bridge and federal matching funds without incurring debt or raising prices at the pump... now that's a new way of thinking.

Governor Snyder has my attention and my support. I intend to contribute to the success of Michigan by working towards that goal. Michigan needs all of its citizens to collaborate in moving forward. The governor asked for our help I urge you to give it to him. Nerd Up Michigan!





The Trouble With R-Value

You've lived in your home for 10-years. You've marveled at the ice formations on your roof every winter. This winter things are different - the ice formations were so large that water leaked back into the wall structure causing sever water damage and mold growth. Couple that with ever rising gas bills and you've finally have had enough. You call an insulation contractor for an estimate. Before you know it you've entered into a contract to increase your attic insulation. The contractor installs 17-inches of lovely pink fiberglass insulation - they tout its R-value of 38 (or higher). You pay the bill - feeling snugger already. Fast forward a year - your energy usage is still rising - the ice formations are still majestic. You can't figure it out.

You are not alone. The insulation industry has been hyping R-value since the Pink Panther was a kitten. It sounds great but it is irrelevant. R-value is a measurement of a material's ability to resist heat flow. The test measures how long it takes 1-degree to travel through 1-square foot (1-inch thick) of material. The problem with the test is that it does not deal with convective heat loss. Convective heat loss is heat that travels in air currents, the major cause of heat loss in cold weather states like Michigan. This short sighted testing protocol would have us believe that 3.5-inches of fiberglass is as effective as 3.5-inches of dense cellulose or 3.5-inches of styrofoam. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the test doesn't deal with performance in real world conditions. Furnace filters are made from fiberglass, nearly an inch thick. Does the filter stop heat from traveling through the filter? No, in fact it isn't even a very effective filter material - stopping less than 3% of the average particulate inthe air stream. Now try installing 1-inch of styrofoam in the furnace filter holder. Well, don't actually try it because you risk damaging the furnace blower and other components in the furnace. The point is that styrofoam does stop convective heat movement - it works that well as an insulation material too.

The fiberglass insulation industry would suggest that the problem is not with the insulation but with the air sealing of the house. They'll tell you that if the builder did a better job of air sealing the house during construction their insulation would be just fine. Sounds good in theory doesn't it? Let's look at reality.

Fiberglass is fluffy and has a lot of entrained air within the insulation. Cellulose is a little denser and has less air. Foam insulation also has air but each air bubble is encased in a cell of foam. The air cannot move throughout the insulation. So heat loss through foam is actually conduction and the R-value is real. A cavity filled with fiberglass allows air to move within the insulation creating convective loops. The air actually circulates within the insulation. Colder air within the cavity but near the outside wall is pulled through the insulation, reducing its effectiveness and performance. If the outdoor temperature is 10-degrees the effective R-value of fiberglass (or other loose, fluffy insulation) may be 75% less than advertised.

So, if you are going to add insulation you need to stop convection. Install the densest insulation that your budget will allow. We are all aware of the price of things, we are seldom aware of the cost. Fiberglass insulation is cheaper than high performance insulations but in the long run it costs more in wasted energy than you would have spent if you purchased a more expensive insulation material.

If you really want to save money invest wisely in insulation that performs in Michigan - fiberglass can't live up to its promises in a cold weather state.


The Future of Energy

As winter drags on I'm reminded that the old paradigm of relying on warm weather to offer relief from high energy bills just doesn't work anymore. Energy costs, of all types, are going up. Some of the increased cost can clearly be the result of increased, worldwide demand but other increases are due to rising taxes, regulation and fees.

As a consumer of propane I have been amazed at the rising cost of propane, an increase of 300% in 5-years. Propane doesn't provide as much energy as natural gas (Btu's per CCF) adding injury to the insult. Propane is much less expensive to produce that refined petroleum products. It is a by-product of oil drilling. It requires no refining or processing. It is shipped (transportation costs) and stored. I've been told to expect the peak high from this winter past to be the average price next year. The reason, as explained to me by the CEO of one of Michigan's many propane suppliers, is increased demand for propane in petroleum production. Normally, petroleum producers use waste crude oil by-products for this process but when those prices rise it makes propane more affordable so that industry switches to propane, driving up the cost to the residential customer.

On the regulatory side politicians are looking at increasing taxes on energy. In Michigan a variety of special interest groups (road builders, Chambers of Commerce, etc.) are suggesting a $0.9/gallon added tax phased in over three years. This tax is supposed to rebuild our roads and infrastructure and keep these groups happy (employed and profitable). On a grander scale you may have noticed that every (viable - sorry Mr. Paul) remaining political candidate (except Mike Huckabee) has endorsed a carbon tax. This tax could be a dagger in the heart of our economy. In the early 1990's the EPA floated a 50% energy tax on fossil fuels and 30% on electricity. If this were enacted your $400 monthly heating bill would have a $200 tax added.  The tax is designed to punish energy consumption.

I don't see real leadership, on any political level, that has the courage to say enough is enough. Taxes keep them in power so they aren't likely to put national interests above their own personal agenda. I don't hold out any hope that Americans will ever stand up to government in revolt of high taxes like our forefathers did against England. We'll continue to blame Big Oil/Energy rather than the political powers that regulated the current system of supply into existence and taxes/regulates us (and Big Oil/Business) into submission.

I don't know if my bleak mood is simply a reflection of the February sky or if it is something else. I am concerned that life in American will get a lot worse before it gets better. The poor will be more adversely affected than the middle class but higher energy costs may move more middle class to poor.

Energy conservation has never been more important. As professionals associated with the housing industry we've got to toll the bell of conservation. Not for the benefit of the global community but for the survival of the family budget. While it might be possible to reduce your gasoline consumption by 10% you can save 50% or more on residential energy consumption. You'll need to make an investment to do so but the paybacks are relatively short (2 - 7 years depending on strategy).

Several years ago my wife and I began the process of weatherizing our house. We live in a 50-year-old ranch, about 1500 square feet. We dropped out propane use from 2100 gallons per year to 480 gallons, a reduction of 73%. In dollars (at a fixed cost based on our last fill) we went from $6069.00 per year to $1387.20. The total investment to achieve these energy savings was $7,000 over 30years. A return on investment of less than two years and enjoyed every year since. When I look at propane fluctuations over the years the actual payback period was just under 4-years  but has now accelerated to a repeated payback every two years. An added benefit was the improved comfort level of our home - no personal thermostat lowering sacrifices here.

If I sound bleak I hope it is an encouragement for you, your families and clients to take a stand at home and stop using so much energy. Once you've begun the process of conservation you'll find it addictive and eventually you may become energy independent. Would't that be a glorious day?


Avoiding Radon Problems in a Slow Market

I have been retired for the Real Estate home inspection business since January 2007. After 20 years I decided to focus on consulting in the home performance and environmentally friendly construction fields. Even though a good part of my time is spent traveling and speaking about environmental construction and building performance issues I still receive my fair share of calls for home inspections.

I also receive a lot of calls from agents looking for advice on problems uncovered during recent home inspections that are potential "sales stoppers". Recently I have received a lot of calls concerning high radon levels. The EPA set a recommended abatement level of 4 pCi/liter of air. This number is arbitrary, initially they were pushing for 2 pCi/liters per liter of air so we should count our blessing at the higher level.

Radon is an odorless, colorless gas that is the breakdown of uranium found in the ground. Radon is not harmful in spite of the media hype. What is harmful are the daughters of radon, the decay products of radon that breakdown and release harmful alpha radiation capable of harming soft cell tissue (specifically the DNA chain).

Radon enters the home through structural cracks and joints in the foundation walls or slab, through blocks or rocks in the air that is drawn through the soil. The soil gases are drawn into the house because the house has a significant thermal updraft resulting from hot air rising in the house, exiting through the ceiling penetrations. Any air leaving the house has to be made up from areas below the leaks. So radon can actually be sucked into the house.

When a house sits vacant for a long period of time (and we see a lot of that in this market) the radon builds up. A house sitting empty with no human activity can develop radon levels several times its normal level. Add to that a long dry summer that causes the soil to dry out, creating cracks in the soil that allow radon gas to travel up and into the house easier and you have a recipe for a failed radon test.

If you have a house that has been sitting for a long period of time you should air the house out to ensure a fair and accurate radon test. Open all the windows, on all levels, for 8 or 10 hours. Then close the house for at least 24 hours prior to a scheduled inspection. This method is approved EPA protocol for post mitigation testing so don't feel like you are cheating the system.

If the radon numbers come back high, above 4, you can put in a system to reduce the potential for a problem. If the numbers are high but below 20 I would suggest that you escrow the funds to install a radon reduction system but retest the house for one year before doing so. An alpha track testing device can be installed in the home after the new owner takes possession. The house is not kept closed, rather it is lived in normally. After one year, the test cannister is sent to a lab where it is evaluated under an electron microscope. They technician counts the number of scratches n the exposed film in a given area of the test cannister and extrapolates the year average. If the average is below 4 the escrow is released to the seller. If the results are high the funds are used to abate the problem.

While this sounds like a pain in the process it really is a prudent way to solve this problem. The seller shouldn't be forced to put a system in based on test results that average two days (which only reflect the potential for a problem) when the goal is to abate annual rate problems. A buyer should not want a system installed just for the sake of having a system installed. Sub slab suction systems have an $90/year operating cost in energy use and deferred maintenance. They also suck conditioned air out of the house at an annual cost of $60/year or more.

If you handle the initial report results wisely you can not only save the deal but do the right thing for both the buyer and the seller.


The General


Ask the General

Is it global warming or climate change? Does it matter who or what is responsible? Every 25 years we are overwhelmed with scientific certainty of some pending environmental failure. In the late 1970's we were warned of the dangers of a pending Ice Age. Today we are warned that Mother Earth is heating up to dangerous, no apocalyptic temperatures.

The truth is that the earth temperatures have always fluctuated. Whether human activity is chiefly responsible is highly debated. Whether we can do anything about climate chage is also under debate. What we can do is reduce our environmental impact and learn to adapt.

Adapting involves developing new technologies that reduce our need for fossile fuels, finding new sourves of alternative energy and building structures that will standup to the every changing climate. The average American home transfers about 60,000 Btu's of heat energy through its thermal envelope. Michigan has the weakest energy code in the nation for a cold weather state. This is a national embarrasement to anyone in the building community. As energy costs rise homeowners will need to reduce their energy usage or risk financial ruin. Low income residents in Michigan spend about 17% of their household income on energy. If we reduced their average energy costs by 50% more discretionary spending would be available for education, clothing, medical care and nutrician.

The technolgy exists, today, that can reduce the energy use of an existing home by 50% (or more). On theother end of the scale new homes can be designed to produce as much energy as it uses (Zero Energy Homes). As the green building movement moves forward the real estate industry needs to do its part in promoting advanced building performance technologies. The best place to start would be to include checkoff boxes on the MLS cards to identify buildings that were constructed to a high performance standard (Energy Star, LEED for Homes, Green Communties, and Environments for Living to name a few).

The MLS card is the best tool to let the potential buyer, the appraiser, other agents and lending institutions known that the building is something special. This would allow the system to track the financial advantages of high performance buildings when compared to conventional construction.