Seattle Home Inspector's Blog


Does Net Zero Energy really add up? Ask the dinosaurs


Politics, ego and selfishness all play roles that sometimes blur the more altruistic desire to do what is right for the planet, the country, and our families.

In the widest of contexts, most people involved in the Green Movement are well meaning, well intentioned, thoughtful and serious folks.  But that does not prevent it from being a bit like herding cats.

Herding catsMost cats, including myself, have LOTS of ideas about where we think the green movement should be going.  We are all hampered to one degree or another by what we bring to the table.  Some bring vested interests (either have something to sell or have personal issues) that further muddies the waters.  All of this can prevent us from seeing the other cats in the room.  When cats join forces it can result in the exclusion of more singular cats with equally valid ideas of where we all should be going.

In a sense this is why the government is the way that it is in terms of getting nothing done--it is merely a reflection of the rest of us--it is us.

I have been involved in this discussion since the early 70’s, so there are not too many cats I have not come across.  Most initial wounds have long since healed and I only occasionally get scratched nowadays. However there is always some snake-oil salesperson willing to pull the insulation over my eyes.

I think it is totally amazing that so many of the conversations, arguments and discussions common in the 70’s, still seemingly have no clear answers nearly 45 years later (it is more likely accurate that we either refuse to see the solutions or vested interests make so much noise the solutions can't be heard).

Here is a partial list of what is causing the rub--you can probably think of others:

1.     People want to maintain a “perceived” standard of living.

2.     People want to keep the toys they are used to having.

3.     People want houses to look like what they are used to living in.

4.     People want to use the planet’s resources as they see fit.

5.     People want to drive wherever and whenever they want, in whatever they want.

6.     People want cheap fuel.

7.     People expect technology and government to guarantee the things listed above.

8.     People think they have a God given "right" to the things above.

These can all be pretty much summed up with:

People want to piss upstream!


It is my opinion that as long as the things on the list above have some amount of truth, we will continue to not resolve the conversations, arguments and discussions surrounding what it means to be “Green" in a meaningful time frame.

As long as people continue to be “green with envy” for what someone else has, we will not likely come together as a planet to tackle the difficult questions that lie ahead.  So what are the big problems?

1.     Lack of conservation.  As long as we think that there is an unlimited supply of anything, besides love, we are likely to fail in saving the planet (actually our species--the planet would be fine without us).

2.     Planned obsolescence.  As long as profit is the driving force behind the way things are constructed, we will likely be unable to save the planet.

3.     The combustion engine & incandescent light bulb.  As long as we cling to technology that has outlived its usefulness (the two examples are representative, symbolic), we will likely be unable to save the planet.

4.     Politics and Religion.  As long as we cling to the idea that the groups we belong to are “more special” than someone else’s group, there will always be conflict; and, the choices necessary to benefit the many, over the few, will not be made (implicit in this aspect is the problem of economic disparity).

5.(and perhaps most important)    The focus on residential construction.  In terms of the creation of greenhouse gases, both residential and commerical structures only take about 10% of the pie.  Why not focus more on the big hogs of the pie---transportation (20%), industry (28%) and the making of electricity (32%)?

Ultimately, I think conservation holds the key, not matter where we are placing our focus.

I can best answer why I think this is so, with a question.  But first what is the problem?  Isn’t the goal to consumeless fossil fuel and reduce greenhouse gases what the green movement is all about?  There are also a myriad of other concerns that get gunny-sacked with the notion of clean air, water and simply not running out of natural resources. 

Things like indoor air quality (wasn’t such a big concern prior to tightening up our houses).  Some might even say, "well lets open them up again."  Unfortunately there is no going back—or at least not back in any way that most people would find acceptable.  If we want to consider The Road as a viable reality—then yes, opening our houses would probably work. I think that would come with its own set of challenges however.

There are also conversations about what materials to use in our homes.  Thus there is the war between “natural materials” and “unnatural materials” that gets all bogged down in the all too "natural bickering."  There are the arugments over what is "sustainable" and what is "not sustainable."  These are but distractions really. 

One only has to drive through any city in the world and  see all the ticky tacky houses with the ticky tacky cars buzzing from house to house and lining the streets to come to the conclusion that we are already at "unsustainable."

The next time you are driving about or looking out an airplane window and seeing the gazillion houses decorating the landscape, think about how many rolls of toilet paper that represents and how many trees cut down just for that one item.

There are actually people that would legislate that certain materials not be allowed in homes because of purported allergic responses etc. These same people would not for a moment consider that it is perhaps the inadequate ventilation of their homes, the pets in their homes, the VOC's in their world, their diets of highly refined foods, or the overuse of antibiotics that is, or are, or could be the real problem. (Just to mention a very few.)

While it may be true, that the planet cannot afford 7+ billion people consuming its resources, who among us is willing to leave?  For all our sake's we better hope it is not true. Like it or not, we are in this mess together and we either have to figure out a way to solve the issues together or we will be much less successful as a species than any of the species of dinosaur were. Most people seem to spend there lives consumed by issues that do not matter as if they do matter.  All around the planet there is strife.  If politics, ego, religion and selfishness were removed from the equation, the strife would evaporate from the artificial containers that confines it.  All that energy could then be redirected to sorting out the real issues of our times.


I truly think that the degree to which we think this is not so, is a measure of just how difficult a road we do have to go down.


Without getting into a discussion of whether single family homes (regardless of efficiency) are themselves a type of dinosaur, let’s assume for a moment that they are not.  A huge portion of our energy consumption around the world goes to heat, cool and provide lighting etc to our homes.  A big part of the problem is that once a house is built, real meaningful conservation becomes VERY difficult in making a perceptible dent in energy resource usage.  If we get everyone that lives in dinosaur-homes to conserve what they can (improve the efficiency of everything they can) it can make a difference.

Another dinosaurWhere the biggest difference can be made in residential construction is by not making any more dinosaurs!

Most people would argue that the building codes and energy codes now require homes to be very energy efficient.  I can argue that, with rare exception (where individuals have done more from their own initiative), this is simply not true.  Modern homes are likely to be no more than 25 to 35 percent better. 

It is quite simple to make houses as much as 80 percent better, in terms of heating and cooling at virtually no extra cost in the worst of climates.  This should mean that in some climates these costs should be able to be reduced to close to nothing. 

For example, the codes do not require that "orientation" of the home be considered.  In fact modern codes require types of window that prevent solar gain.  Solar gain could be used to heat the house in the winter. 

Modern codes do not require proper overhangs to protect the glass from solar gain in the summer to help keep homes cooler in the summer.  Without both of these simple things that can be done at virtually no extra cost, the cost of operating the home goes up whether it is an Energy Star certified, or a Leeds certified home or not.

We typically install thermo-pane windows that fail before they pay for themselves in terms of energy savings and the cost of replacement is not reflected in the original calculations that support the necessity for them.  Might it not be better to be "slightly" less efficient and require windows with removable panels like we used to see in old storm windows or with the Pella Designer Series windows (Anderson used to make one--not sure if they still do or not)?

And what is the solution to this short fall?  Gadgets.  I wish I had a better word for it, but historically we have always attempted to use gadgets to fix things.  For example we can heat water with expensive solar panels (that still have a relatively short life span before they have to be replaced--think planned obsolescence again) to lower our water heating costs.  In fact it is not hard to get >75% of one's hot water heating done by solar panels; and as long as this is done through tubes as opposed to photo-voltaics, it probably makes economic sense over the long haul.  Baring a tree limb going through a panel cover, tube-type solar panels can be made to last almost indefinitely.  The same cannot be said for expensive photo-voltaic panels (without even getting into the whole discussion about how environmentally “dirty” it is to make them or how long they last).

What if electric water heaters were required to come from the factory with 6” to 8” of foam insulation instead of 2?”  The payback on any kind of panel would likely just plain never happen except possibly with tube-type panels (not glass type tubes) that are designed to last the life of the home.  Payback is too often only relative to inefficient homes.  In terms of improving heating and cooling efficiency, the more inefficient your home is the quicker the payback on your “investment” with any kind of gadget that you install.  That is why installing inexpensive things that have an unlimited life expectancy, like good quality insulation or improving air-sealing of the home, makes more sense than installing complicated HVAC systems that have to be replaced by, or before, their payback time-frame.  When you do what conserves the most first, the latter becomes less necessary, or results in downsized versions—and quite possibly become unnecessary all together.

Saving the planet is not really about any of  what I have just written however. 

All of this stuff is easy compared to the real job of getting people to change themselves.

After nearly 45 years of involvement, I can only conclude that most human beings pretty much don’t give a damn.

The power companies and industry certainly don't give a damn.


Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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25 commentsCharles Buell • July 27 2014 12:30PM
Does Net Zero Energy really add up? Ask the dinosaurs
Politics, ego and selfishness all play roles that sometimes blur the more altruistic desire to do what is right for the planet, the country, and our families. In the widest of contexts, most people involved in the Green Movement are well… more
Sounds simple enough!
“Access and working space shall be provided and maintained about all electrical equipment to permit ready and safe operation and maintenance of such equipment. ” This is from the National Electric Code, and for the purpose of today’s… more
An idea whose time has not come.
I was a design build general contractor for more than 30 years and I have been a home inspector for more than 10 years. I have seen a lot of interesting things in houses over all those years. At a recent inspection, I found a type of window… more
Who doesn't like getting “lucky? ”
Part of the way that Merriam Webster defines “luck” is: “the accidental way things happen without being planned. ” People talk about luck, whether it is about being “lucky” or about being “unlucky. ” I find the whole notion of luck… more
A little more duct tape please!
When “fixing” something, it is important to do the whole job or you might as well forget doing it at all. Someone knew enough to know that combustion by-products should not be allowed to enter the building but apparently they ran out of… more
What are skylights for?
Many people think of skylights as past, present or future leaks. Actually, a skylight that is properly flashed is no more likely to leak than any other thing attached to your roof. Chimneys and pipe flashings can leak too---when they fail. … more
Stack Effect---it affects your home whether you can see it or not.
You don’t have to be around the questions of moisture control, heat loss, and air infiltration in homes for very long before the term “Stack Effect” come up. Stack effect is when the natural buoyancy of air causes it to lift due the… more
Moisture Control in Homes in the Northwest
I get lots of calls from people about moisture issues inside their homes. Sometimes these moisture issues are related to the building itself, such as: roof leaks, plumbing leaks, foundation leaks, flooded crawl spaces, etc. Obviously these sorts… more
It clearly must be “art! ”
On a field training inspection with my students the other day, we came across this big heavy rusty wrench attached to the bottom panel of the garage overhead door. My first reaction was that perhaps it was art. However, later on in the… more
Untrained and unlicensed natural acupuncture! WASPS!!
It seems that there are always uninvited guests that know how to ruin a good picnic. As near as I can tell they rank right up there with rats and mosquitoes. I am equally sure that in the “big picture” they do serve some useful purpose as food… more