this sucks (a wee story of central vacs)

We are planning to put a central vacuum cleaner in our house. Why? In part convenience, in part indoor air quality (they tend to vent outdoors), and in part because the Canadians often have them. If they're good enough for Canadians, they're good enough for Texans.

HowStuffWorks also notes that central vacuum suck more because they are three to five times more powerful. That's cool! Central vacs are also locally quieter (the motor is elsewheres). Fine Homebuilding reports that a central vac can reduce allegory symptoms by 60 percent. Not bad... And they can reduce overall dust levels because of the external exhaust. Most canisters only have to be emptied out twice a year. Folks on the inter webs seem to recommend cyclonic systems (think Dyson).

On the negative side, they cost more than regular vacs. Also, running a central vac that exhausts to the outdoors can depressurize a home, especially if it's running the same time the dryer and/or range vent is running.

Consumer Reports rated central vacs back in 2004:

(Although it's hard to ignore, please ignore the green box.)

Essentially they're all about the same.

The folks at centralvacuumstores.com seem to have quite a bit of good information about central vacuums including comparison data for different sized houses, including "smallish" houses less than 4,000 square feet. If we want cyclonic action, there's only one choice for houses less than 4,000 square feet: the Vacuflo 260:

new Mexi-Arte museum?

According to an article in today's Austin American-Statesman, Mexi-Arte would like to build a pretty fab new museum on their Congress location (which must mean that they can tear down that building that used to house the "Union occupiers" after the South lost the war [which may be why they can tear that building down...]).

I'm not sure how practical this translucent concept is for Texas summers (and for art...), but it is rather gorgeous. Designed by Mexican architect Fernando Romero, the Mexi-Arte folks are trying to get the city to cough up $10 million for the building. That may prove harder than anything...



According to the current state of the landscape design, we have a wee bit of turf in the back and a plan for turf in the driveway between the carport and the garage. So what turf shall we plant? Well, we were out at the Wildflower Center last weekend to gawk and gander at some flowers (saw two baby owls too!) when my bride picked up a brochure on Habiturf, read it, and said "This is what we are planting." Well, OK then. Decision made.

Habiturf is a drought-tough turf developed by the Wildflower Center that consists of buffalo grass (bouteloua dactyloides), blue grama (bouteloua gracilis), and curly-mesquite (hilaria belangeri). By the photos, it looks like a good-looking grass, and the yuckers yuck it  up as "soft". I likes my grass soft, so that's a plus.

They claim that once the turf is established you have to water it at most once every  five to six weeks. It will go dormant and brown up during lengthy dry spells but it will green back up pretty quick (just like the weeds we currently have!). Pretty darn cool, methinks, and probably worth a try. The Wildflower Center has a patch they just seeded, so we'll go back out in a few weeks and see how it's coming along.

Since I mentioned Wildflower Center, let's show some wildflower photos (whoop! whoop!).

[all photos by mwah except the top one]

a boring story

The bride stopped in to check on the ripeness of the figs and saw that the geotech crew had been to the lot. It took them what seemed to be awhile to make hole (I was fixin' to give them a "What's up?" call), but who knows what the standard response time is. And building in Austin seems to be on the uptick lately, so I reckon they have been busier than usual, at least since the banking crisis and subsequent recession. Suggest you put your call in at least four weeks (six weeks?) before you need the info!

The geotechs wound up drilling two boreholes (no word on whether or not they hit oil or gas [yes, we do have Eagle Ford Shale deepish beneath us! {No, it doesn't produce gas at these relatively shallow depths...}]). I'm guessing they bored no deeper than 6 to 10 feet. I did my dissertation many years ago on the Austin Chalk, which are the rocks beneath our lot. A few feet of clay-rich soil, weathered-tan (oxidized) chalky limestone after that, and then a cool steely blue unweathered chalky limestone after that is what I would expect in these parts (check, check, and check). Once you get past the first few feet of clayey soil, it's a good solid foundation for building.

Actual diagram from mwah's dissertation! 
(Look ma: I actually used it for something!) 

The original quote suggested that they would drill one borehole, but I'm glad they did two. Austin is located amidst the (no worries: long dead!) Balcones Fault Zone (when the Rocky Mountains lifted up out of the Earth, it also lifted this part of the country, causing stuff to sluff off toward the Gulf Coast, greased as it were by deep and malleable salt deposits; we have the Balcones Fault Zone to thank for Mount Bonnell!). Even though the geologic maps didn't suggest any faulting in the area, it's always good to know for sure. Since a foundation can be quite costly if conditions aren't right or the geology itself might dictate the economic placement of the house, I suggest doing geotech early, before the design phase (do as I say, not as I do! [although I checked the geology maps early on {and reviewed a copy of the Green House, Good Life people's geotech survey that they were kind enough to share} and felt pretty good that we would find what has apparently been found {as any good geologist, I carefully inspected the cuttings}]).

Just down the street toward the park there's an old road cut that has an outcrop of the chalk. Soils are probably a little thicker here because we are getting close to Shoal Creek. Yep, that chalk looks pretty dense.

As a geologic aside, these rocks were laid down back in the good ole days when Central Texas was part of a shallow sea. The chalk is made up of the secreted carbonate shells of phytoplankton that slowly drifted to the ocean floor to collect and create a pelagic goo that eventually was deeply buried and slightly cooked to create the rock we know and love (and bore) now. Wished we had bought our lot back then. We could have probably gotten it for a steal!


in hot water?

So I had this post about getting a tankless water heater all written and stuff when [bing!] here's this email from The Green Building Advisor (a freakin' awesome site, btw...) with the title "Are tankless water heaters a waste of money?" And then, mere hours later, here comes an email from Beaker's Bro with links to Gary Klein who makes a pretty strong case for having (a) short and small supply lines, (b) a tanked water heater, and (c) a circulating loop. What to do, what to do...

This prompted some more research on tank v. tankless. The punch line is: hmmm.... There are lots of things to balance here: Efficiency of energy to heat, overall efficiency (including standby), cost efficiency, space efficiency, maintenance efficiency, life of product, carbon footprint, water efficiency, house design, numbers of occupants, local climate. Unfortunately, not much pulls in the same direction to where there is a clear winner. Again: hmmm....

Electric is the most efficient at converting energy to heat. Most report the efficiency at close to 100 percent if not 100 percent. Can't beat 100 percent (unless...well, hold on, we'll get to that). Standard gas-burning water heaters have efficiencies from 60 to 80 percent. Condensing gas-burning water heaters (gas heaters that harvest heat from the exhaust fumes) can approach 95 percent. Not bad, but not 100 percent. And then there are heat-pump electric water heaters that achieve (wait for it...) 150 to 250 percent efficiency! Even a standard electric can achieve a greater-than-100-percent efficiency with photovoltaics, so imagine what a heat pump water heater coupled with PV can do!

I'm vaguely head-over-heels in love with heat-pump water heaters. These heat-pump heaters harvest heat from the air around them to heat water and, as a by product, cool (and dehumidify) the air around them. That sounds good for hot ole Texas. This has prompted dreams of putting one in the pantry, opening the wall behind the refrigerator (which is also a heat pump, but is pumping heat out of it's interior and dumping it out the back), and having the water heater absorb heat (in part) from the fridge. This system heats the water and cools the room (good for the wine!).

However, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, pretty much all the experts (including the Green Building Advisor) recommend using gas if you have access to inexpensive gas. And gas these days is pretty darn inexpensive and appears to be so for the next 50 to 100 years (there's a whole lotta, whole lotta fracking going on...). So I think the recommendation for gas comes primarily from financial concerns. Heat-pump water heaters are great, but if you use up your hot water, standard electric heaters fire up and suck up the juice. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a heat-pump water heater that uses gas as a back-up (a dream device?).

The folks at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy produced this table that says electric heat pumps are the most cost-effective approach over the life of the technology:

but the table doesn't include a condensing tankless gas unit. Electricity in Austin goes for 6.02 cents per kWh over 500 kWh in the winter and 7.82 cents per kWh over 500 kWh in the summer. Gas goes for ??? Couldn't find on the interwebs...

Gary Klein is partial to tanks and loops. He's also partial to small diameter distribution lines. His point is that the more water you have stored in your lines, the longer you wait for hot water and the more water (and energy) you waste. First and foremost, when designing a house, you want your plumbing to be as close as possible to each other to centralize the hot water demand. Although this wasn't a driver for us in designing the house (and wasn't mentioned), the architects did this very thing (those sneaky green devils...). I'm assuming that  the water heater, in whatever form it takes, will be in the pantry outer-wall area, so perhaps this is how the water gets run:

Bottom line, regardless of how the lines are run, the water heater is close to the kitchen and two full baths. The laundry is more distant, but that doesn't (really) matter (too much). The powder is a ways away, but that's OK.

So.... as near as I can figure out:

If you have a choice between geothermal (i.e., you already have or are putting in a geothermal system), electric, and gas, the order of priority is (1) geothermal, (2) gas, and (3) electricity.

If you have a geothermal system, use a desuperheater.

If you have access to gas, use gas. If your primary hot water  use areas are relatively compact, consider a condensing tankless system. If your water is hard (thus impacting the life of a tanked system), consider a condensing tankless system. If your hot water areas are more distant, consider a tanked system with a circulating pump.

And that brings us to [trumpets]: A tankless system! So after all the (appropriate) handwringing, here's the original (unpublished) blog post, still relevant after all:

We are currently spec'd for a tankless water heater, which seems to be what all the cool kids are getting (unless you're really cool; in that case, you have a desuperheater!). It shows up as an allowance in the builder's budget for $950 (the architects have it at $1,200). Given that it's an allowance, which one should we get?

I'm thinking a Rinnai, specifically a RC80e (KA2530WD-US) condensing tankless water heater:

Kinda looks like something Iron Man would have at his house. It has a 97 percent thermal efficiency (as compared to the 80 percent of some of their other models). Amazon has the sucker for $1,066.91!

Rinnai recommends a cold climate kit for those of us in the cold climates. The kit auto drains the outdoor bit of the system when the power shuts off. Although we don't live in the colder climes, it does freeze down here from time to time in the winter and, with the growing unreliability of our electric grid, methinks we should get one (the bride wants a back-up generator, but those cost more...).

More stuff on water heating to confuse you::

  - Water heating.
  - Heat pump water heaters come of age.
  - Solar thermal is dead.
  - Get rid of your gas water heater!


hooks (and ladders)

hmmm... Need to decide which hooks to have in the bathrooms... Let's see what's out there at allmodern.com.

There's this Smedbo Boslagsboden hook at $7.20 a piece:

or this one at $12.80:

Dig that it's square and that crazy name. But.... what's with the screws? Those screws are killing the vibe, man...

Smedbo also has a non-screw-showing choice but in cylinders (for $8.80; comes in chrome):

Or, if we want the uppy-downy cylinder to be completely up front (for an additional buck sixty; also comes in chrome):

If we want more of a hockey puck look, there's this by Smedbo ($12.40):

or the Hansa at $12.00:

This one by Blomus is interesting and different, but dude, you put your name on it! [GONG!!!!]

This Hansgrohe at $14.30 is minimally cool:

But for the true de Stijler, there's this blocky wonder by Fresca for [cough, cough] $21.99:

and [oh my!] look at this other one from Fresca ($24.10):

This USE is kinda cute at $27.99:

Then the prices start to get a little out of control...

Jado at $42.35:

WS Bath Collections at $63.00 (a piece!):

which also has a beautiful towel holder at [gulp.] $273 bucks:

and a gaspingly gorgeous toilet paper holder at a mere [cough. cough. snort.] $168.00:

If we worked as lobbyists for lobbyists, we'd probably get the WS Bath Collection stuff. Oh yes we would.

Midrange, that Fresca stuff is nice. Here are the towel and paper holders:

And holy HÃ¥agen Dazs! Check out this Fresca faucet:

Very close to our (my...) dream faucet (that costs some $700) for only $140!

And then there's good ole IKEA. Two (count 'em!) hooks for a mere $3.99:

Oh yeah. Here's some ladders:


is micro-solar getting cloudy in Austin?

Article in today's local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, about solar in the city and a desire by the city to support macrosolar (solar farms in West Texas) instead of microsolar (solar on roofs here in Central Texas). Local microsolar currently has about 6 megawatts of capacity (out of 2,800 megawatts of total capacity). The city has a goal of having 200 megawatts of solar capacity by 2020 (which ain't all that far away). The city could continue with incentivizing local microsolar, but it's twice as expensive compared to larger solar farms: 22 cents per kilowatt-hour versus 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. And given the criticism Austin Energy is taking for raising rates (the first rate increases in 18 freakin' years, fer cry eye!), it's hard to fault them for pursuing a more affordable path toward more expensive renewables.

The local solar industry is not happy with the plan and has pressed for the creation of Local Solar Advisory Committee to advise city council on microsolar, something the council will vote on Thursday. The local industry points to the local jobs created with solar here as opposed to solar over there in West Texas. Perhaps a combined local goal for micro solar and broader goal for overall solar is the path. We shall see.

Read the full article here.

[photo from Wikipedia]