Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 6: Durability and Reliability

How long something continues to work properly and efficiently is practically synonymous with the concept of sustainability. Using durable shopping bags instead of one-use paper or plastic is a simple example of this concept. The more use we get out of things generally points to those things being more sustainable as they don’t have to be replaced as often. That being said, keeping an old, gas guzzling car around isn’t sustainable in a number of ways. And, as long as homes generally last, failing to upgrade the insulation, appliances, windows, etc. is problematic in this sense as well.

However, when you have a system in your home that works efficiently and well for its purpose for decades without the need for repair, that reliability and durability is not only one less thing to worry about, but it is one less thing adding to the waste, embodied energy, etc. that is choking our landfills, and heating up our planet in production and transport.

Motorized fans, heat pump compressors, valves and piping, and many components of forced air heating systems are subject to inevitable failure because of the friction and pressures involved. These systems don’t work if they can’t blow air around, or if they spring even the smallest leak. That tiny leak in a pressurized pipe, for example, represents dangers such as carbon-monoxide poisoning, the risk of fire or explosion, or a release of toxic refrigerants.

Using gas to heat air is a further example of how, even if the system were to last forever, the inefficiency and impacts of burning fossil fuel means the system fails, in the environmental sense, well before it ceases to function. Upgrading to an electric or geothermal solution is the only way to increase the sustainability of your home heating solution in this respect.

On the other hand, far infrared radiant heating is a great example of the type of sustainability associated with a solution that is truly built to last. Because the technology uses no moving parts, it is not only silent and unobtrusive, the opportunities for failure are small. And, since the basic technology used in infrared radiant heat has been around for decades, its durability and sustainability have been proven over and over again in actual use around the world. Finally, since it is converts electricity directly into heat, upgrading the source of the electricity automatically upgrades the system itself.

This is why Ducoterra, maker of the SolaRay II infrared radiant heating panel have established a lifetime warranty. Most people will have to upgrade or replace the insulation in their walls, and install new windows before they have to replace their infrared radiant heating system.

The more we can apply this simple principle of sustainability to how we design and build the things we use every day, the greater the overall sustainability of our society will become. When something works efficiently and effectively for a long time, it’s hard to see the downside.

see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms Part 2: Environmental Impacts | Part 3: Embodied Carbon | Part 4: Installation Impact
Part 5: Operational Emissions

 

The NW Green Home Tour: New Social Equity Projects

No matter at what scale you examine the impacts of Climate Change, the people with the least resources are impacted the most while contributing the least to the problems involved. It’s not hard to understand this dynamic. The more impoverished a person is, the more likely it will be that they live in a place with environmental challenges. Yet this aspect of ‘eco-friendliness,’ and sustainability often goes unaddressed by even the most conscientious of efforts to mitigate negative environmental impacts.  

This makes two of the new entries into the 2021 NW Green Home (Virtual) Tour exciting additions: Facing Homelessness’ BLOCK Project and the BIPOC Sustainable Tiny Art House Community (BIPOC STAHC)

Both of these great endeavors incorporate green and sustainable building practices, literal small footprints, and community building. Unlike most ‘green’ building projects, they also address inequities as they apply to sustainability.

Facing Homelessness’ BLOCK Project takes a highly creative approach to addressing the issue of houseless people. Not only do they design and build astonishingly clean and comfortable tiny homes using environmentally friendly materials and techniques, they locate these homes in the backyards of generous neighborhood residents. And they proactively seek the input of the entire neighborhood in doing so.

The actual small footprint of these homes automatically make their carbon footprint low. But it doesn’t stop there. If scaled up to a more ‘normal’ square footage, these homes would still maintain a small carbon footprint. And, on top of that, the project provides homes with all the amenities needed to help break a people out of the vicious cycle that, otherwise, keeps the houseless in their predicament.

Mighty Energy Solutions and Ducoterra are proud to have provided the infrared radiant heating systems for these wonderful tiny homes. And Mighty House Construction is also proud to sponsor this entry into the Green Home Tour. It is an honor to take a small part in this notable approach to the pernicious cycle of homelessness experienced by more and more people.

BIPOC Sustainable Tiny Art House Community (BIPOC STAHC) is taking a similar approach to a slightly different challenge. Seattle is losing artists in droves as housing becomes more expensive. And making art often requires spaces, equipment, and amenities that are also becoming less and less affordable. Most artists already face financial challenges by virtue of the difficult realities of art economics. This situation is made even more untenable when compounded by the social inequities experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC.)

Some artists move into vulnerable neighborhoods – partly for the lower costs – and apply their creativity to the betterment of their community. But this tends to lead to gentrification as these neighborhoods get noticed for this creativity and ‘hipness.’ This is a disaster for the existing residents and, very often, the artists themselves as more privileged people move in and drive up property values up – along with the cost to live there.

So, in order to overcome this conundrum, BIPOC STAHC is working to build a non-gentrifiable community of tiny, eco-friendly homes in a healthy setting with access to a larger, shared set of amenity spaces. This will improve the living conditions, affordability, and provide the opportunity to build wealth for disenfranchised artists of, so far, low privilege. Going from renting a tiny, unaffordable apartment in a dirty, industrial part of town to owning an, albeit small, but clean and healthy home in a community of creative people is certainly a move in a better direction for everyone involved. And, since any city planner will tell you, diversity and the arts are significant factors in the health of a city, this project will be a boon to the city and the region as a whole.

We sincerely hope these types of solutions gain traction as we move into a cleaner, more sustainable way of life.

Please be sure to check out the 2021 NW Green Home (Virtual) Tour for all it has to offer. And do not miss the chance to learn more about these amazing Social Equity initiatives:

Facing Homelessness’ BLOCK Project:  Saturday, May 15 |  9 am – 11:30 am
BIPOC Sustainable Tiny Art House Community: Saturday, May 1 |  9 am – 11:30 am

 

 

 

 

 

 

Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 5: Operational Emissions

Generally, calculations of the impacts of using a machine only take operational emissions into account. As we have seen so far in this series, these negative effects are only part of the sustainability equation. However, given a durable application like heating your home, operational emissions represent the most significant portion of the environmental impacts over time.

Basically, the carbon emitted when using any machine depends on a few factors:

  • What form of energy does it use?
  • If that energy is electricity, how is it generated?
  • How efficiently does the machine put that energy to work?

As we move toward a decarbonized world, electricity is one of the best forms of energy for the point of use: electric vehicles, electric lights, electric ovens and stoves, and electric climate control, etc. Electricity is safe, clean, and highly controllable. There is no pilot light, no toxic and potentially explosive gas lines snaking all over town and into your home, and it can be switched on and off for any specific use and location. But how clean electricity is depends on how it is made.

The great news about electricity is that its sources can supply many applications and locations. So, even if the supply isn’t as clean as desired at the moment, as soon as it is made cleaner, everything that uses it instantly becomes cleaner. So, for example, when a coal-fired power plant is replaced by solar or wind power, every home and business powered by that source instantly goes from dirty power to clean power. And, even when electricity is generated by coal (since power stations are huge and super-efficient) it is far cleaner than, say, burning wood in a fireplace.

The final component in reducing carbon emissions is energy efficiency.  Energy efficiency simply means using less energy to do the same work. This is a critical part of the decarbonization and sustainability equation because requiring less power for the same amount of work is equivalent to generating more power. This not only increases the overall supply capacity. Machines that work less hard tend to last longer. And the more energy efficient machines that are put into service, the faster the supply of clean energy can take over the demand.

All of Mighty Energy‘s solutions are electric, highly controllable, and energy-efficient for their purpose.

 

see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms | Part 2: Environmental Impacts | Part 3: Embodied Carbon | Part 4: Installation Impact

     

    Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 4: Installation Impact

    When installing any important, durable system in your home, such as a heating solution, it is important to consider that there are environmental impacts associated with this as well.  The largest concern is, usually, the resulting waste products that have to be dealt with such as product packaging and construction waste. No matter what, whether you install a new or upgraded system for an entire home, or just need to get extra heat into those problematic ‘cold’ spot’ areas, some waste products will result. This may not be much from smaller projects – maybe some small bits of sheetrock and pieces of wire. Or it could involve larger quantities of old sheetrock, wiring, insulation, etc.

    First, it is important to note that sheetrock is recyclable. In some respect, the resulting recycled product is superior to brand-new. So, if you recycle the old sheetrock and use recycled sheetrock to replace it, you will likely save money and reduce the impact of this exchange. Old copper wiring that may no longer be safe and needs to be replaced can readily be recycled as well as it is in high demand. Fiberglass insulation is tougher in this respect. There aren’t a lot of options for recycling fiberglass and there is a good discussion of this you can find at Recycle Nation. Still, while there is likely at least some recycled glass in the fiberglass insulation in your home, recycling it when you are replacing it is, currently, not easy. Even disposing of it is more difficult than ordinary construction waste.

    This leads to another consideration when doing any project that may require replacing or adding insulation. When it comes time to recycle, at the end of its useful life, what you are installing, how hard will it be? Staying away from fiberglass would be good, although recycling this should become easier in time. However, while it is relatively inexpensive and effective, spray foam insulation should be avoided whenever possible – which is usually always. Why? Because not only is spray foam not recyclable, it basically encases everything in the walls with a toxic, unrecyclable mess, making the sheetrock, the framing, and even, in some cases, the wiring impracticable to separate – so it will all go into the landfill.

    As is becoming clear from this series of articles, every stage of getting products from raw or recycled material, through its lifespan, and either disposed of or recycled, there are environmental costs involved. And to increase sustainability means decreasing the impact as well as moving to a circular economy where most materials are not disposed of at the end of their life, but made into useful materials for new products.

    (see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms | Part 2: Environmental Impacts | Part 3: Embodied Carbon

     

    Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 3: Embodied Carbon

    Often, when we think about the energy we use, we  only consider the energy it takes to run our tools, appliances and devices. However, when examining the sustainability of a product, we need to also include all the energy that went into making and transporting it to where it will be used. This ‘built-in’ energy is called embodied energy. And the carbon emitted generating that embodied energy is the embodied carbon of the thing. Embodied carbon represents a specific type of environmental impact as it contributes to all the negative effects of Climate Change.

    In a globalized economy with its extremely complicated supply chains, the embodied carbon of a thing can rapidly become high regardless of the energy efficiency involved in using it. Often, garnering the raw materials, transporting them to be refined and made into component parts, and assembling the product itself happens in places where labor is cheap,  regulations are weak, and the distances involved to get the finished product to the end-user are great. All of these things tend to vastly increase something’s embodied carbon.

    For this reason, Mighty Energy Solutions only sells products where everything from the basic materials, to the component parts, to the end products are made in the United States. This means everything is manufactured under US regulations. They are transported shorter distances than products that may involve several overseas facilities, etc. This policy of US only supply and manufacture of our products means keeping jobs in the US, and the embodied carbon low – even for replacement and repair. As a result, yet another factor of sustainability is supported. 

    (see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms | Part 2: Environmental Impacts