The Apple Treed Guild

I want a part of my blog to make the connection between energy savings and utilizing the Permaculture principles.  To me, it does not make sense to establish a net zero home that is not connected with the surrounding environment.  Two key components for developing a Permaculture plan is having vision and even more important is having patience.  For example, the renewable / energy savings that we are incorporating in our house will just take some research time and money.  Working with nature takes years of patience, trees do not grow over night.  This fall we started the first year of a three year plan to plant over 300 trees on our 12 acre property.

One great example of how nature works as a system and not just as individual plants and animals is the Apple Guild.  I first learned about apple guilds last spring while taking Will Hooker’s Permaculture online class at North Carolina State University.  A couple of different apple guild models are out there, but I like Toby Hemenway’s apple guild model the best, plus it was the book that Will used as part of his class.  This link will take you to the actual excerpt from Toby’s book Gaia’s Garden.

Apple Guild image from

Earlier this fall, my friend and apple tree consultant, Sam Moore, hooked me up with 18 apple trees.  These are full size Liberty apple trees with either MM.111 or B.118 rootstock.  These trees were developed for this area of North Carolina and require minimal spraying.  This year, the plan is to get the trees established before I start adding the surrounding beneficial plants.  In planting the apple trees, I used a combination of the soil from the hole that was dug and compost.  I covered the area around the trees with burlap coffee bags from Counter Culture Coffee and then put some pine mulch on top to hold the bags down.  The coffee bags should last a couple of years and greatly reduce the weed pressure around the trees. Implementing the first phase of the Apple Guild plan has been a valuable and exciting learning experience.  In a few months as we start to move away from winter, we will be eager to begin another phase of the plan while appreciating the subtle changes nature will bring with time.

Apple Trees planted November 2011


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Ground Source Heat Pump

Last week, we threw the switch to our geothermal HVAC system that is correctly called a ground source heat pump.  When we bought this house, we knew the almost 20 year old, inefficient HVAC propane heat pump had to be replaced before winter.   As we made plans for this conversion, we learned that we had one factor in our favor. Joe, the original owner/builder had two wells put in and both were plumbed underneath the house.   Joe wanted to make sure he had water. One of the major deterrents to the geothermal system is drilling and putting in the wells. Luckily, we did not have this cost, and the backup well pumps at 80 gallons a minute, and the geothermal process takes 3 gallons per minute which helped our conversion in this project.  The only additional cost incurred was running a 2-inch PVC drain line to our pond.

The story only gets better.  First, all ground source heat pumps are about 60% more efficient than high efficiency heat pumps.  Second, we will program the system to run based on the “time of use” rate so most of the time it will run at .049 kW, not the normal .12 kW rate.

The next big benefit is free hot water.  Remember, we kept our electric hot water tank and installed a timer.  The ground source heat pump when running will discharge 150F water.  That hot water tank will be used as a storage tank, and it will only come on in the early AM as a backup, if the heat pump does not come on.  Husbands take note; it is not a good marriage plan to have the wife take a cold shower.

The final icing on the cake is related to the tax breaks: 30% federal tax credit for the total investment and 35% North Carolina personal tax credit.  Roll it all up; I estimate this will have a payback of less than two years!

Since moving into the house, I have used our Plotwatt data to determine that our hot water and HVAC use accounts for almost 40% of our electric bill. So, I am optimistically expecting a big drop in our electric bill and that is why I see our HERS rating improved from 90 to 61.

Stay tuned, we are over half way to the net zero home!

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The Permaculture Piece

It has been a few years since Bonnie Hutchinson introduced the Permaculture principles to me. We had hired Bonnie to paint a vision for the four acres at TS Designs. When we started construction on our building 22 years ago, we had to fight very hard to protect the one pin oak tree that was on our property. Today, we have hundreds of trees combined with a native landscape of apple trees, blueberrry bushes, vegetable gardens, bees and even chickens that work with Mother Nature and our business. I like to define Permaculture as a system that works with man and nature. We are a part of that system, and we need to stop trying to be the manager of the system.

About three years ago, I was introduced to Will Hooker who heads up the Permaculture program at North Carolina State University.  Will is now a very close friend, mentor, and my go to Permaculture person.  Over the last few years, many of Will’s classes have visited TS Designs, and I have had the honor to be a guest lecturer in his class.

Will at TS Designs in 2010

Many ideas from the students in Will’s classes have been adopted into an updated Permaculture plan for TS Designs.  I like to describe our path as trying to be a more sustainable company as a journey, and our Permaculture path is a journey too.  Mistakes are made, like the Bradford Pear trees we planted at TS Designs, but mistakes can be countered as we learned last year the benefits of having chickens in our garden.

I have come to realize that there is a gap between the renewable energy folks and the Permaculture folks, kind a of like the gap you find between eastern and western medicine.  We want to close the gap on our Snow Camp farm, and I believe by closing the gap, we will reach our goal of a zero energy home quicker by making our house more of a home.

Will brought in a couple of past students to tackle the farm project, and I have attached the first draft of their plan.   Our initial goals will focus on establishing better shade around the house, planting more fruit trees, and start breaking the property from the busy Bass Mountain Road.  The journey will start this fall.

Preliminary plan by Will, Laura and Meriwether

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Bringing it together to manage our electricity

Last week, a Smart Meter from Randolph Electrical Membership Cooperative was installed at our home.

Smart meter, but not the model that was installed at our house

This was the final piece for managing our electricity, and now we can start monitoring and reducing our electrical energy cost in real time.  Consumers are purchasing energy saving appliances, CFL light bulbs, or adding more insulation to their attics.  But it is sometimes difficult to know the payoff of these purchases, or what a month of excessive summer heat will do to the pending electric utility bill.  Over the last month, we have installed three things at our home to allow us for the first time to monitor our electricity in real time plus save money.

The first thing we added was the TED5000 that I purchased through SouthernEnergy Management.  This equipment attaches a sending unit inside the electrical panel box, and our set up required 2 units, one for each panel box.  Then you plug the gateway into an outlet and run an Ethernet cable to your router.  This allows us to view the TED dashboard via an Internet browser.

TED5000 Screenshot

The TED seems to be the industry standard for residential energy monitoring, but the big shortfall is determining what is using the energy?

I can get real time information on kW, carbon footprint, or $$$, but no clue to what is using the energy.  The old school process is that I would hook up individual monitoring units to big energy users like HVAC, hot water heaters, or refrigerators.  Unfortunately, this process will quickly raise the cost of the TED5000 from $350 to hundreds of dollars more.  This is where the smart guys at Plotwatt enter our story.  They have determined that electrical appliances have unique electrical signatures.  By allowing Plotwatt access to the monitoring data from the TED5000, they take the data and apply it to an algorithm to determine what electrical devises are on.  After a couple of weeks of analysis, Plotwatt can pinpoint the appliance in use and report back to us so we know what are the real consumers of electrical energy in our house.

Plotwatt Screen shot


The final piece was the smart meter and switching to “time of use” instead of a flat rate.  With my utility REMC (Randolph Electrical Membership Cooperative) their flat rate was .12kWh, but with time of use there is an off peak rate of .049kWh and an on peak of .249 kWh.  The summer peak hours are 2 – 8 p.m.  So, I put timers on the big users of power like the refrigerator, freezer and hotwater heater.  The HVAC already had auto set back thermostats so they just don’tcome on during this period which is mostly the time my wife and I are out of the house at work.  Before you get all worried about the food in the refrigerator going bad, I have the timers cut on for thirty-minute periods during the peak hours.

My wife has been a real trooper on making the switch to “time of use” by minimizing or not using appliances like the dishwasher or clothes dryer that are not on any timers.  The clothes dryer is not a big issue anyway since she hangs most of our clothes on the line.  The big plus to time of use is that weekends arecompletely off peak rates, the time we are at home the most.  It will be the end of September before we get our first utility bill under “time of use”, but I am estimating between $75 to $100 a month savings, not a bad return for a total investment less than $500.

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Staying with the tank

About seven years ago, Lisa and I remodeled the kitchen at our home on Parkview Drive.  The one big thing that I got to add to the project was a Bosch Aquastar natural gas tankless hot water heater.  Too bad it was hidden behind the refrigerator.  I’ll never forget the plumber who did the installation.  He had never seen a tankless hot water heater, and he refused to take out our old hot water tank since he knew that there was no way the tankless system would work.  Surprise!  It worked great, and I was excited that we would have the same opportunity to change out the electric hot water tank at our new home, but those plans changed.

Per the EPA heating water can account for about 15% of the home’s energy use.  Keeping 20 to 80 gallons of hot water around the house is not very efficient; plus, using electricity to do it is even more inefficient.  In doing some studying online, I found the efficiency of tankless hot water heaters has gotten even better with a couple of models listing almost 84% efficiency.  I was estimating about $2k for the purchase and installation of a new tankless propane heater.

I have decided to stick with our current inefficient electric hot water tank at least until it dies.  There were a lot of things that brought me to this decision.

The first one was about a month ago when I met Luke, the founder and president of Plotwatt.  Luke told me that Duke Energy offered “time of use service” rates.  Not in my 26 years as a Duke Energy customer had I ever heard of Duke Energy offering this rate system.  So I sent my contact at our new utility, Randolph Electric Coop, an email and inquired if they offered this type of service.  REC does offer a “time of use” rate.

Time-of-Day rate is simply based on the time of day in which you consume electricity.  Consumers pay a lower rate per kWh during periods of low demand and a higher rate per kWh during periods of peak demand.  With REC, the off peak rate is .049 kWh instead of the usual flat rate of .12 kWh.  With a little research I discovered a GE hot water timer at Home Depot for less than $40 bucks.

I was not comfortable completing the installation process by myself.  The directions looked fairly straightforward and simple, but I asked a good friend with more electrical experience to come over and assist.   In about an hour I had a timer, half the size of a shoebox wired into the hot water heater.  Now the hot water heater only has power about ten hours a day, and no power during the peak utility hours from 2 to 8 PM.  I also invested and installed for about $20 in a R11 hot water jacket.

Once Plotwatt syncs to my home system, I will be able to monitor the actual cost of running our hot water heater.  However, I think it will take a very long time to justify the $2k investment of a new tankless hot water heater.


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Why Care?

When I started making biodiesel about nine years ago people would ask me why?  At the time, I could buy diesel fuel at the pump for about $1, and it was going to cost me about $1 to make the biodiesel. Then I had to factor in my time, and the almost $3k in equipment start up cost. Considering those initial facts their question had merit.  I always attempted to explain that it was not about the present cost of fuel, but what the longer-term impact for both the price and the environment would be.  Fast forward to today, diesel fuel is $4 a gallon, climate change is on the doorstep, and our dependency in the United States upon an oil supply from outside our borders is about 70%.

I apply the same logic for electricity.  When I have groups come out to TS Designs, I will ask a lot of them, especially if they are from North Carolina, do they know the where their electricity comes?  I get answers like hydro, nuclear, and then sometimes coal.  North Carolina utilities get over 60% of their electricity from COAL.  Then I usually follow up by asking where do we get our coal? Typically, the answer is the ground, but I am looking for something more specific, like West Virginia.  My last question is how do we extract the coal? I’m met with more blank stares, and the stares deepen when I explain the answer as mountain top removal. North Carolina is regularly first or second with Georgia for the most amount of coal that is extracted from West Virginia using mountain top removal.  We screw the folks in West Virginia, so we can have cheap energy.  Nowhere on Duke Energy’s annual report will you find the cost of destroying a mountain much less the CO2 impact.  The way Duke Energy measures the cost of coal is as the cheapest energy source available to them. But that clock is ticking both from the EPA stopping mountain top removal; and hopefully, soon regulating CO2.

I think the first step of energy conservation is knowing where your energy comes from, and the next step is determining how you use that energy.  When we moved to Snow Camp, we moved our electrical utility from Duke Energy to Randolph Electric Membership Corporation. They supplied me this graph when I asked what were their sources of energy.  Less that 4% is from sustainable sources which tells me cost will continue to go up in future years.  The cost of nuclear plants continues to grow and coal does not have a very bright future.  A report released in February of this year by Harvard professor and Huffington Post contributor Paul Epstein, M.D., M.P.H., in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences entitled “Full Cost Accounting For the Life Cycle Of Coal” that puts the true cost of coal in the US from $175 billion or as high as $523 billion.

Graph supplied by Randolph Electric Membership

Last week, we have been looking at daytime temperatures in the high 90s, and it does not look like much will change for the next ten days.  So we hold our breath and watch those thermostats until that electric bill arrives.  This weekend we started to install the equipment to give us real time energy usage/cost via the internet.  With the help of my former neighbor and friend, Jerry, we installed the TED 5000. This will give us real time energy use and cost, but what good is that information if you do not know what is using the electricity?  That is where the big brains of Plotwatt, a new start up company in Durham fit into our learning curve.  These guys have figured out that appliances have unique energy signatures. For example, a clothes drier is going to have a different electrical footprint than your AC.  In the past that would mean the expense of monitoring equipment for each appliance making the cost of the project out of reach for most consumers.  The smart guys at Plotwatt, with a little help of a grant from GE ecomagination run an algorithm that determines these energy signatures.  By using PlotWatt we will have real and meaningful data on how much we are spending on lighting, HVAC, etc.   Not only will we have real time energy cost and CO2 impact, we will know the source of that usage so we can start taking steps to reduce it.


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Switching to LED lighting

LED vs Incandescent

As Lisa and I started to acclimate ourselves to our new house, we quickly noted in the kitchen the heat coming off the ceiling from the 150 watt incandescent floodlights.  We later determined that was the light bulb of choice used throughout the house. To be exact, we found 15 of the 150-watt floodlights just inside the house.  Incandescent bulbs where used through the house, and I only found a couple of CFLs used in the outdoor fixtures. While conducting our lighting survey, we actually found and replaced three fixtures where the bulbs used overpowered the fixture causing a meltdown into the fixture itself.

I was an earlier adopter of CFL bulbs. Over 20 years ago, my first buy was a CFL Panasonic “Made in Japan” bulb that is still working today.  I had started buying a few LED lights for our Parkview house, and once we decided to buy the Snow Camp farm I started my search for good deals on LEDs. At this point, I have replaced all the incandescent lights in the house. These 50 bulbs totaled over 5,630 watts while the replacement CFL and LED bulbs totaled only 420 watts, a savings of 5240 watts.   Burning an average of one hour a day this will mean a yearly savings of $200 dollars and cutting 3,000 pounds of CO2.

Working with Michel from Randolph Electric Membership Corporation, our electrical utility company for our house, I had him compare the savings switching from ONE 150-watt incandescent bulb to ONE 11 watt LED.  It will take 588 days (burning 3 hours a day) to cover the cost differential between the two bulbs. Over the life of the bulb that is a savings of $318 and 3,630 pounds of CO2.

Follow the link to see how I validated my numbers.

LED payback

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R50, Local, Sustainable and No Itching

One of the things that came from our energy audit done by Southern Energy Management (SEM) was to increase the insulation in our attic.  I will talk more about the SEM report in a later blog.  Nineteen years ago, our house was constructed to the required R30 insulation in the attic. Now, construction consultants recommend at least R49.  I was not looking forward to adding itchy fiberglass insulation to the attic in the summer.

Fortunately, my timing to tackle this project was good. Last week, in Paul Toma’s newsletter from Common Ground Green Building Center in Durham, NC, I was introduced to EnGuard™ insulation made by Vita Nonwovens, a product made from recycled plastic bottles in High Point, NC. This product does not itch nor require the wearing of any safety equipment.

On Friday, I drove to High Point and picked up 13 bags of their R21 insulation, which will take our attic insulation to R51. I was able to meet Jim Evans, their operational manager, who gave me a quick tour of their facility. They receive the recycled polyester in bales. The bales are plastic soda bottles that have been chopped up and broken back down to a fiber. The fiber is put into a giant hopper and mixed with a few other products in order to make it fire retardant. Then the fiber is rolled out in sheets and run through a gas dryer. Here the sheets are formed into 2 x 6 feet by 5.5 inch pieces.

Here’s a quick cost comparison:  you can buy fiberglass insulation, wear a long sleeve t-shirt and jeans in a 90 degree attic with a dust mask for $.80 per square foot or work with a much more sustainable product in a t-shirt and shorts for $1.15 per square foot. The total difference on this project was a little over $200 bucks.  Another thing I learned is that fiberglass insulation loses its R-value over time, while EnGuard is resistant to long-term degradation and has a robust compression recovery. For the Vita Nonwovens operation 50% of the materials are sourced within 500 miles of High Point.

With the help of Michel from Sustainable Alamance, we installed most of the 13 bags on Saturday.  I have to pick up an insulation-cutting tool from Paul next week to cut some strategic pieces in order to finish the attic.


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The Journey Begins

The main reason for starting this blog is to track our progress as we convert our newly-owned house into a green and sustainable home.  The house is beautiful, but in my opinion not connected to the land; it looks as if it was just dropped on the land.

This is the reason we bought the house - the beautiful land surrounding it

The land around our new home is owned by Braeburn Farm. Charlie and Cindy are great stewards of the land and ‘get it’ when it comes to sustainable agriculture. I met Charlie back in 2005 when he was interested in using biodiesel on his farm to replace the diesel fuel in his equipment. Charlie and I have since become very good friends and are part of the trio, including Sam Moore, that helped launch Company Shops Market Coop in downtown Burlington that just opened a few weeks ago.

I want to take what I have learned from the triple bottom line path we have taken TS Designs over the past 30 years along with utilizing the knowledge I have gained from my many Permaculture books and the class I took at NC State under my friend and mentor Will Hooker and apply it to our property. We are a part of nature and want our home to be a part of it too.  The connection between the principles of Permaculture and the technical aspects of energy conservation I believe are critical.  We have learned the benefits of utilizing both western and eastern medicine in order to have a healthy life.   I believe the same applies to permaculture and conservation in order to have a complete and minimal impact home.

We wanted to build our home and that was our plan when we purchased some land in northern Alamance County a couple of years ago. In this current economic climate the much better deals are with land and house. We sold the land earlier this year and learned about Charlie’s house coming available. Things lined up as we found a ready buyer for our Parkview home.

The house is much bigger than what we would have wanted and so much more the reason to reduce and manage our energy footprint.

I just finished reading Peter Gilding’s book The Great Disruption and I agree with him we have come to the point of a great shift in our society. From the depletion of natural resources mainly “peak oil”, to the impact climate change will have, to the end of economic growth and creating a society that is fair and equitable for everyone. We have to return back to our communities of local economies and agriculture while greatly reducing our carbon footprint. i.e. a simpler more connected lifestyle.

I hope you will follow our journey and share your thoughts with us.

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