Green Building Q and A

John Senechal answers the most commonly asked questions about building and renovating with health and environment in mind.

1. What are the most important things I can do to make my existing home more efficient?

There are many things you could do to improve efficiency in your home. If you have an older home, you could upgrade insulation, windows, furnace, weatherstripping, and caulking. If you have a newer house, you could enlarge south facing windows, install daylighting light pipes, plant windbreaks on the west side, and buy high efficiency appliances. If you are building a new house, you could check the site and houseplan for passive solar gain, increase the thickness of your walls and insulation, insist on low-e thermapane glass, and install 10-15% glass on the south side with roof overhangs to shade summer sun. Common sense: try to keep whatever heat you have (in winter) and lower fuel and electricity usage. I suggest you should act on whatever level is appropriate for your time and budget. Talk to builders, architects, friends. Look up Amory Lovins and the work heís been doing with the Rocky Mountain Institute for the last 30 years.

A small but important thing you can do right now, is buy new light bulbs. Not just any bulbs, but the newest electronic compact fluorescent bulbs. They are a stunning improvement over the old incandescent bulbs. They will save you money and give better light. Recently, I purchased state of the art electronic compact fluorescent bulbs with a sticker on the package that says "SAVE up to $30 in energy costs per lamp." Now for a bulb that costs $2.50 and saves $30, thatís efficiency!

2. How can I build my house so that it has the least chance of having a mold problem?

Mold is a serious problem in the humid southeast. Youíll hear stories about people forced to leave their houses and burn their furniture. That_s after being inflicted with painful and destructive illnesses that seem to mysteriously come from nowhere. Mold is everywhere, it_s in the air. . Given the right conditions, molds can take over your house and kick you out.

Mold flourishes in damp places. Over time, damp places develop in out of the way spots like under the stair, in closets, in the bathrooms, in basements. Water, it is often said, is the most destructive of all elements in a house. Itís water, and itís the fungus and molds that grow in it that will eat up a house.

There are two approaches to deal with mold in a house. The first is to build with light and air circulation in every corner of the house. Keep the house dry, that is, inspect for water leaks from the roof, bathroom, and kitchen occasionally. Act on any leaks right away. Air conditioners act as dehumidifiers and are helpful in the summer where humidity is a problem. Spills should be cleaned up and dried out as soon as possible. Mold can get a good start in as little as 24 hours. Read about humidity and condensation. Use your bath and cooktop exhaust fans. Make sure you and your builder understand where condensation can happen and what needs to be done to prevent it.

The other approach is to load up all of your building materials with formaldehyde and fungicides and mold/mildewcides. Fighting mold is big business, an untold story in the building industry. Many building products are ground up and formed from wood pulp or oil, so with a little chemistry, it is easy enough to out-tox the molds from the beginning. Think of carpets, plywood, cabinets, paints. Where would we be without these beneficial mold killing products?

Guess which approach I recommend? Guess which approach is the dominant theme in building science and product sales?

Mold is toxic, and so are the mold killers. If you don_t pay attention, you may find yourself caught in the crossfire. If building a new house, tend carefully to details, and keep your eyes and nose trained to spot molds so you can reduce the risk of toxic effects to yourself and your family.

3. Iíve heard that there are some health issues with using pressure-treated wood. What other options are there?

Currently, pressure treated wood contains arsenic. The EPA recently issued new guidelines eliminating the use of arsenic in pressure treated wood sold for residential uses. The concern is mainly the leaching of arsenic into soils and the use of pressure treated wood on picnic tables and playground equipment. Also, craftsmen who frequently saw and shape pressure treated wood are at risk. New alternative chemicals will be introduced over the next few years.

There are alternatives already. Outdoor equipment, fences, and tables can be built with recycled plastic, cedar, or locust wood. Locust is a locally available wood that is under-appreciated and under-utilized. I have used locust for years. Unfortunately, it is hard to find, and harder to work with. Farmers use it for fence posts. Word has it that a rock can be placed on top of a fence post to tell when the post should be replaced. When the rock rots, it's time to replace the post.

Building codes (in North Carolina) specify rot resistant lumber whenever wood is in contact with masonry, as in foundation sill plates. Several wood species are listed, including cedar, redwood and locust. Decks are another matter. Large decks are a relatively recent innovation. Large decks and pressure treated lumber go together like glass and windows. The good news is that if you must have a large deck, you can still have one with recycled plastic or the newer pressure treatments that should be available soon.

4. What can I do to reduce or eliminate electromagnetic fields in my house?

To eliminate electromagnetic fields, try switching off the main power breaker, or stop paying the power company for a few months. Thatíll do it. But I bet that's not what youíre really asking.

The effect of electromagnetic fields is controversial in the public realm, but on the personal level it may be of vital importance. It is up to you to judge whether electromagnetic fields lower your vitality or not. There are a few practical tricks you can use to help reduce exposure to these fields.

First of all, know where they are. Generally, you will find strong fields around any electrical device. The higher the wattage (voltage times amperage), the higher the field. Electric stoves and breaker panels typically give off strong fields. Television and computer screens do also. The closer you are to a device, the stronger the field you will be exposed to.

There is a three-foot rule of thumb. If you stay three feet away from an electrical device, its field strength will be small. Look around at what electrical appliances are close to you. The duration of the field exposure is important also. If you are using a hand held appliance like a mixer or power saw, your exposure will be high, but the duration is low. Compare that to a clock by your bedside that gives you low exposure but longer duration. If you keep the clock three feet away from you (stretch your arm out to reach it) the field will be minimal.

A bedside clock is powered by wires that run inside your walls. The wires that feed an appliance give off electromagnetic fields as well. If the wires are in the wall behind your bed, you may be exposed without knowing it. If building a new house, the wires can be shielded (metal wrapped and grounded cables), or at least located away from the beds. When building a new house, install a room disconnect switch by the bedroom doors, so that each whole bedroom can be turned off at night, at the occupant's discretion.

5. What are the healthiest and most sustainable floorcoverings to use?

The old standards, traditional hardwood, tile, concrete, even slate and brick floor coverings are excellent. They are healthy and sustainable. Cotton and wool throw rugs are used to soften the hard surfaces and color a room. But floors take a lot of work to build and finish. So, in the last century, oil age developers found a way to sell more houses with low cost carpet and vinyl. Wall-to-wall carpet and vinyl, laid on plywood are now standard for low cost houses. Carpet is made with a plethora of artificial fibers and chemical binders. If low cost is the primary consideration, then carpet may be the only choice. A new carpet can be sealed with a product like AFM's Carpet Guard, keeping it from outgassing into your home.

Vinyl is another low cost oil-age development. Vinyl was preceded by linoleum, a good product made from wood dust, pine rosin, and linseed oil. Old fashioned linoleum is still available through a company called Forbo Industries. There are several other alternatives. If you look around, you can find carpet made from recycled fibers, or natural materials like bamboo, cork, or jute. Don't expect to find these in a conventional carpet store. *Check the advertisers in the New Life Journal for local suppliers of these products.

6. My housesite didnít get septic approval, but I really want to build there anyway. Are there other options for wastewater treatment besides conventional septic?

As with most codes, safety is paramount. The rules enforced by sanitarians are justified as public policy. Find out what your local requirements are and understand why they are important. Local requirements vary, of course. What works in one state might not be approved in the next.

I'm assuming you cannot hook up to a local sewer. My understanding (in my state) is that building codes do not forbid alternatives like outhouses and composters. The codes say only that you must have approved sanitary disposal facilities available. If you choose to install a composter in addition to a sewer or septic system, you will satisfy the code requirement. To put it another way, the law can make you install a toilet, but cannot force you to use it.

In rural areas, your sanitarian will help you figure out what is legal. I have used outhouses and composters myself, and I have installed them legally and professionally. Outhouses and composters may be OK, within certain parameters that are related to safety. If you cannot satisfy your local authorities, however, or you choose to bypass them, you are on your own. Some composter systems like Sun-Mar advertise systems with NSF approval. I have found a wealth of how-to books on the internet by septic outlaws and greywater pioneers. Public policy, however, may never be flexible on this subject. And a truly creative response to this question would never be simple. From a healthy homes perspective, it is important to note that there are some health risks involved with sanitary waste disposal.

7. Do I have to allow termite/pesticide treatment of my foundation if I donít want it?

Bankers and the Southern Building Code want you to be protected from termites, thus the requirements for foundation treatment. Without termite protection, a house in the southeast is likely to get hit sometime. Termites can do a lot of damage, and then lawyers get involved looking for someone to blame. Builders and homeowners willingly poison their houses to avoid liability. Personally, I would rather deal with termite damage than risk bad health from environmental toxins. It can be done if you build your own house, without bank financing, and if you are sly about it. Or, you can use this one good legal alternative. Several years ago a termite bait system was created called Sentricon. Bait stations are placed in the yard in a perimeter around the house. Monthly monitoring checks can tell if termites have been active. Only when the bait is "hit" is a termaticide placed in the underground station. The poison is targeted to termites only. The house stays clean and free of pesticides.

A building inspector for a new house project may require a certificate stating that the termite protection is under contract, even though the bait stations will not be installed until after the new house is completed and final landscaping is done. A building inspector may need to be reminded to check this last detail, as it is easily overlooked at the end of a project. Note that a different bait system is available for cockroaches as well.

8. I know that we can use solar electricity for some sites in this area, but are there other alternative energy options that will work in the Southeast, like wind or water power?

Solar electricity works best in a sunny environment, of course. The solar climate for the southeast averages about 60% of total available sunshine. Thatís enough to have some fun, even though itís not Arizona. Water power works best in a wet environment, and wind power in a windy environment.

Electricity from water is called "Hydroelectric Power" and seems like a good idea in an area that may get 40" of rainfall per year. But the real issue is whether you have a stream of water on your land, and whether there is enough flow and fall to actually harvest the power from it. If so, then you have a good opportunity and the payback is quick. Hydroelectric power is reliable, steady, and it flows all day and night. A turbine generates electricity constantly. A battery augments power for peak loads. If you have acreage with good water flow, a hydroelectric system is a very good idea.

Wind power is similarly "location specific". It is most practical in flat areas. In mountainous terrain, unless you are on top of the mountain, the wind is going to be spotty and seasonal. If your location is not buffeted constantly by wind, all year Ďround, you may not get a good payback. But if you are a tinkerer, donít let that stop you. As with solar PV power, producing your own power gives an indescribable feeling of satisfaction.

The good news in all areas is that cost of materials is continually going down and quality of hardware is improving. Cost is usually a big factor in considering practicality of an alternative energy source. But when cost gets low enough, the issue changes to how much fun can you have. A hybrid power system can be put together that uses several inputs.


9. I've heard that there could be health problems with using both PVC and copper pipes for plumbing. Is there a safer choice?

If I look cross-eyed, I can almost see two questions here. Plumbers install two kinds of piping: supply pipes that you drink from and waste pipes that you donít.

Drinking water is carried by several types of code approved piping, mainly copper, pex, iron, and PVC. In the past, copper pipes were joined with lead based solder, which is currently banned from usage. A house over 20 years old may have lead solder in the pipe joints. If the copper piping has been installed recently, it will probably be free of lead. A lead test kit can determine which kind of solder was used.

For new houses, I use copper or pex (cross linked polyethelene). Durable and safe, pex is easy to install and clean. The sections are joined with brass fittings, crimped, without glues or solder. One client even tested pex with her dowser to look for subtle influences. She concluded that copper and pex were both good choices.

Indoor plumbing was new 100 years ago, and iron pipes were screwed together for water supply lines. You can still find iron pipes, but installation and repair are costly. Iron pipes degrade by clogging and rusting. Like clogged blood vessels, the interior passages become restricted and are plagued by flaking. When you try to unscrew them for repairs, they will sometimes break off. Iron pipes will still deliver clean water, but the plumbing industry considers iron piping to be like last yearís computer, a complete dinosaur.

PVC gets a bad rep sometimes, and here is where the question divides into supply piping and waste piping. If cheap is what you want, PVC will sure get you there. The water quality of PVC supply pipes might be better if the joints werenít glued together. PVC glue is one of the most obnoxious elements on a construction site. A listed carcinogen, the stench is powerful and penetrating. Thatís the standard glue, Iím talking about. There is an alternative glue made by Gorilla Glue that works as well, and is code approved, but not as toxic. It is only available by mail, or from enlightened plumbing suppliers, of which there are few. I found it on the internet several years ago, and ordered a box. Now, my plumber wonít go back to the old stuff.

With that said, I still will not use PVC for supply pipes, because there are better alternatives. For waste pipes, however, PVC is hands down the superior choice. I want waste pipes to be slick tubes, tightly sealed. PVC waste pipes are not only that, they are easy to install and modify, and there is no other material that is even close. If an older home has cast iron waste pipes, fine. But cast iron piping is so expensive to install, few craftsmen even know how to do it anymore. PVC waste pipes and Gorilla Glue do it for me.

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Healing, Natural Foods, & Sustainability in the Southeast