meenal

Heating our Philadelphia row home without fossil fuels

In no fossil fuels, solar on November 7, 2017 at 12:40 pm

As we gut a Philadelphia row home, we’re also making plans for it to become a frack-free house, a phrase popularized by the architecture firm Bright Common. This translates to: No gas appliances delivering fracked gas from Western Pennsylvania into our home. Everything that used gas will be replaced with electric options.

So far, we’ve happily removed the gas oven / range and the associated gas pipes out of the kitchen. For cooking, we’ve selected an electric stove. And already have other electric appliances to supplement this: toaster oven, microwave, induction cooktop and crockpot.

We’ve also begun removing the cast iron radiators in each room, along with the associated hot water pipes coming up from the boiler in the basement. 

For heating the house, we realize the row home design that abounds in Philadelphia means we are tucked in between two neighbors. The only heat loss would be from the exterior walls. We’re therefore building out the walls by 4” so that we can pack in insulation. Matus Windows, a local company with a good reputation, will replace the windows. After this, the exterior walls should be draft free.

We’ll still need a heating system. Looking at our options, we’d heard that mini-split ductless systems are the most efficient. So we called in a recommended HVAC company to advise us on this. They were fixed on one brand: Mitsubishi, and that’s what was priced for us, a 20,000 Btu system. They were unable to advise us how much electricity this would use. And we learned that our favorite thermostat, the programmable and self-learning Nest, would not be compatible.

What we did learn was that one outside compressor and 2 inside air handlers would do the job, offering us 2 zones to heat and cool. I’d hoped the compressor could stay in the garage or basement, spaces with the least temperature swings during the summer and winter, but was advised this was against the building codes in our area.

I’ve since learned that 12,000 Btu equals 1 ton. Also, that estimates vary on the area this would “condition”; from 400 – 500 sf, and up to 800 – 1000 sf. Most sites mention ductless mini-splits when discussing indoor cooling, but since we prefer to cool off with ceiling fans and have rarely used air conditioning, our focus is on using the mini-splits for wintertime heating.

Per one site (7 tips to get more from mini split heat pumps), we also learned to

  • plan for average lows, not record lows.
    • For Philadelphia, the mean minimum is 6.4F, with record low of -11F. We should plan for 6F.
  • plan on using space heaters during extreme cold spells.
    • We’ve got plenty of these from when we used a gas boiler to ramp up indoor heat in the mornings, and then, like task lighting, used space heaters in the specific rooms with people.
  • plan for outdoor compressor to draw air from indoor space.
    • This makes so much sense, since the interior air has less temperature fluctuation. The one installer we called advised us this isn’t to code. I’ll have to see what the next company says.
  • position interior air handler about 18” off floor
    • This too was a surprise. Most mini-split installations I’ve seen are mounted closer to the ceiling. But perhaps that’s because they were designed for cooling the space.
  • an actual example of a 3/4 ton (or 9,000 Btu) system suffices for a  1,500 sf home in Massachusetts, and uses about 1,500 kWh per year.
    • A system this size (9,000 Btu) should definitely work for our 650 sf row home in Philadelphia. Note that this is much smaller than the size recommended by the first HVAC company (20,000 Btu).
    • Assuming it will use proportionately less electricity, we estimate the annual usage to be 650 kWh per year.
  • select higher HSPF (heating season performance factor), which is measured in Btu / Wh.

The buying guide from Consumer Reports suggests we also consider noise levels and demand defrost options. The recommended noise level is about 7 decibels. The demand defrost option is to keep icicles from forming on the outdoor compressor fans, which sounds worthwhile.

My initial reason for asking annual electricity usage from the HVAC company was because we’re also planning to install rooftop solar. We wanted to know that the rooftop system would not only suffice for our lighting, electronics, cooking, and hot water needs, but also for our heating and cooling needs.

Chatting with Dara Bortman of Exact Solar (an area residential solar installer), I learned that there were solar mini split systems out there, powered by either DC from the panels or AC from the grid. The system I’ve got my mind set on is the unit by HotSpot, sold as an air conditioner, i.e. cooling needs.

This 35 SEER system cools by using 11,500 Btu per hour, or about 328 W (11,500 / 35).  Assuming we might only need cooling for 8 days, about 8 hours per day, the electricity used for the season would be

328 W x (8 days / season) x (8 hours / day) = 20,992 Wh, or 20.9 kWh per cooling season.

Of more interest to us is the heating season. This 10 HSPF system heats by using 13,000 Btu per hour, or about 1300 W (13,000 / 10).  Assuming we need heat for 5 months, 8 hours per day, the seasonal electricity usage would be

1300 W x (5 months / season) x (30 days / month) x (8 hours / day) = 1,560,000 Wh = 1560 kWh per season

Note that we had estimated 650 kWh per heating season, based on the Massachusetts example. It could be they like the house a little cooler. Or it could be we don’t really need to run a heating system for 8 hours per day. The other difference is that their 9,000 Btu Fujitsu system has an HSPF of 12.5, whereas the Hotspot’s HSPF is 10.0.

My concerns are

  • Noise – the indoor noise level is stated to be 26 dB at the low setting, while 7.6 dB is recommended. Would this feel too loud?
  • Placement of compressor – I would like the heat exchanger to be in the basement,  not outside in extreme temperatures. If it must be outside, we’re thinking of mounting it over the garage door, with the 3 panels above as a protective awning.
  • Circuit load – Could I have the heat going, while making tea or taking a shower on a cold morning? Without blowing a fuse? The stove is rated for 30 Amps, the tankless hot water system at 60 Amps, and the mini-split heating system at 5.3 Amps. All together, about 95 Amps. Well within the 100 Amp panel in the garage.
  • Thermostat – It’s unclear how the setback thermostat works for this. I plan to keep the house cool at night, and expect a thermostat to warm up the house before I wake up.

Thoughts?

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Electricity for the house. From Renewables, please!

In no fossil fuels on October 21, 2017 at 5:33 pm

You understand all the reasons to switch to renewables: the climate pickle we’ve got ourselves into, and the resultant unbreathable air from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas to generate our electricity.

You also understand the need for a rapid transition to renewable energy, particularly in the electricity sector. But… you may live in an apartment, a condo, or just a house with a shady roof — all of which made it impossible to invest in solar panels on your own roof. Or, though your roof gets tons of sun, you may not have the funds to invest in rooftop solar.

What do do?

  • We suggest you switch your electricity supplier to The Energy Co-op, choosing their EcoChoice 100 product.
  • We also suggest you join us: The Northwest Philly Solar Co-op for a $25 annual fee. We offer tips like this, and also one-on-one energy efficiency help.

Why?

The Energy Co-op is a local, well established company, spun off from Weavers Way Co-op. Their EcoChoice 100 product offers 100% renewable electricity, 99% from PA wind farms and 1% from solar. With a fixed rate, you won’t get surprised 6 months from now! Other companies may offer cheaper options, but most promote renewables in other states, and all appear gimmicky to us. Don’t take my word for it. Read Marion & Dave Brown’s experience; then read Chrys Brown’s experience, both shared in the Weavers Way Shuttle. Then, buy local!

How?

Go to The Energy Co-op’s website.. Or call their only office, in Center City Philadelphia, where someone from their small staff will assist you with the switch. Their number is 215.413.2122. Tell them Meenal sent you!

Now to get my own mother to switch back to The Energy Co-op after someone came to her door and presented a gimmick…


Originally published on NW Philly Solar Co-op’s site, here.

Marcellus Shale – A Blessing or a Curse?

In banking, clean renewable energy, divest, no fossil fuels, pipelines, solar, transition on March 15, 2017 at 11:32 am

Our state has been blessed, some say. Possibly cursed, say some others. I’m talking about the abundant gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale. Cursed because of issues during Extraction, Transportation & Consumption.

Extraction is also known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. When chemicals are forced into the ground, they contaminate the water table, affecting the well water of rural townships. As the gas is forced out & captured, there are leaks. Leaks that affect the local air quality and detrimental to the health & property values. The same methane leaks are an important contributor to climate change, worse even than carbon dioxide. 

Transportation of fracked gas is typically by pipelines. Pipelines that are known to leak or explode, with cleanup expenses left to the taxpayers. Rights for these pipelines, going thru wetlands, woodlands and private property, are gained via eminent domain in the name of public utility.  but are really for private gain by fossil fuel companies. Permit applications are shoddy, and fragmented construction begins in communities with the least resistance. Communities are not compensated for the devastation, nor the liability.

There are several pipeline developments, all headed to or through the greater Philadelphia area – the Mariner East 2 pipeline slated to carry fracked gas liquids from west to east, ending up in nearby Delaware County, and destined for export, to be made into plastic bags in Europe. How does this qualify the pipeline builders to claim in the courts that they’re a public utility? 

Then there’s the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline destined to travel north to south, going through farmland in Lancaster County. And the PennEast pipeline thru Bucks County into New Jersey. And smaller segments across the Delaware River (which supplies the drinking water for 15M people), and into the Pinelands in South Jersey.

gas burning from a kitchen gas stove

Which leads us to …Consumption. The pipeline going thru the Pinelands is headed to a gas power plant, where the fracked gas will be burned to generate electricity. Much like the SEPTA gas plant locally in Nicetown that 350 Philly and others are fighting. Advertised as clean burning at point of ignition, the industry ignores the devastation left in its wake. 

Once you realize that natural gas is the same as methane, and that methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than even carbon dioxide (86 times), you’ll agree, it’s no longer clean burning.

Who’s doing this extraction, transportation & building up the large scale demand for fracked gas? The same companies behind the Dakota Access Pipeline:  

Sunoco Logistics, Williams Company, Energy Transfer Partners

Who’s funding these companies?

Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citibank, Citizens Bank, HBSC Bank, TD Bank

And many of us thru our personal accounts, our investments and our retirement plans.

It’s time to #divest and #reinvest all of our funds into clean energy from #solar and #wind, and leave the Marcellus Shale reserves resting safely underground.


Initially presented at Indivisible NW Philly meeting on March 12 2017.