Saturday, March 13, 2010

The first month

We've moved in almost exactly one month ago now, and are starting to get a feel for the house. First off, it is a wonderful space: it works almost exactly the way that we want to use the house. Every time I step in the front door, I am amazed out how our not-so-big house opens up into a big, bright, sunny and airy space. It's an idea Frank Lloyd Wright called, I think, compression and release - the entrance is low (just as in our case, on the side of the house with the low roofline), but then opens up into a high-ceilinged space. Well, it gets me every time.

One of the great things about living in the house is the radiant heat. There's nothing like getting up out of bed and stepping on a warm floor barefooted. When, during construction, people looked at us askew when we told them that the concrete was going to be the finished floor, we sometimes second-guessed the wisdom of this choice. Well, no second-guessing should have been required - it's just a wonderful way to heat the house, and a beautiful floor to live on.

The radiant heat system has five zones: the basement, the master bedroom, the master bathroom, the guest bed- and bathroom, and the great room. For now, we have our thermostats set like this (temperatures in Fahrenheit): basement - 60; master bedroom - 65; master bathroom - 70; guest bed- and bathroom (while nobody's staying) - 62; great room - 68. We found we could set the temperatures lower than you'd typically expect and it still feels comfortable - presumably because the heat radiates exactly from where you do most of the living - within the first 6 feet of the floor! (5 feet 11 inches in my case.) We keep all three ceiling fans on low pretty much all the time - mostly just because I like the feeling of air moving a bit - I don't know if there's a real energy advantage during the heating season. They probably make a big difference in a home heated by forced air (they distribute the warm forced air downward to where you experience it), but since we create our heat in the floor, they probably have less of a role to play. We've decided to leave the TRV (Total Recovery Ventilator) running on the lowest setting 100% of the time. It uses almost no energy to run, you lose almost none of the heat from the house because of its efficiency, and it gives us nice indoor air quality. Oh yes, did I mention that, in comparison to the old condo that was heated by forced air, we have almost no dust here?

The passive-solar heating aspect of the house works very well too: as soon as the sun comes out, the house heats up to - on a really sunny day - 78 degrees, even with outside temperatures in the 40s and 50s. It still looses a bit too much heat during the night - presumably through the large expanse of (U 0.31) windows - but that's going to be fixed as soon as we have curtains up (not that we have a big problem with that, but it will give us some privacy as well). After that, what we need to worry about for the summer is to create some shade so it doesn't get too hot!

Now that we've lived here for a while, I have a better grasp on energy use as well. It looks like we used 355 kWh of electricity during February. That's apparently about one-third of what an average home uses during an average (not winter) month. Not as low as we'd hoped, but (a) it's the middle of winter and (b) we have some fine-tuning still to do. I'll post our natural gas use once we get a reliable bill from Washington Gas as well.

Speaking of electricity, just like in our condo, we've also signed up for Dominion Virginia Power's green power program (see Mike's earlier post on that topic). Unfortunately, in Virginia, you can't buy green power yet. But what you can do is to buy RECs - renewable energy credits - basically a voucher that funnels extra money to certified green power generation plants - currently a mix of about 3/4 wind and 1/4 biomass. The hope is that the extra money provides the economic incentive for more green power generation. It's a good program, it costs only a cent-and-a-half per kWh, and everybody should do it. (Well, short of being able to get the choice over which power generator you want to buy your electricity from! When I lived in England in the 1990s, they gave you the choice of which generator to buy from - the local utility would then just distribute the power and pass on the price you paid for the power to the generator that put that amount into the national grid. It was, for the '90s, quite an advanced idea. Now that it's almost 20 years later all I can say is: America, get with the program!)

So much for a brief status report. After all the heartache during building, it is amazing to finally live here - and what a wonderful space it has turned out to be. There's work still to be done (I suspect like with any house that will always be true) but it's nice to be able to just attack little projects one-by-one, and under less time pressure.

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