Monday, October 13, 2014

A Family's Journey to the Sun: Part Two

It is National Energy Awareness Month and we're celebrating by continuing our story about a family who is reducing their energy use.

In Part One of this story, we found out about the energy Will Finn and Sandra Beirne are saving at their home through an energy assessment and upgrades. Just around the time of this HomeRx Assessment, Solarize La Plata was accepting participants. Finn and Beirne signed up to take part.

As part of the process, Shaw Solar came to their home and did a site assessment. The outcome was not what they'd hoped for.

Shaw solar's utility bill analysis surmised that they would need a 6 kilowatt (kW) system to power their family's needs. The roof is marginal because they are shaded by a hillside and many trees. The house is oriented on north-south axis with the roof facing east and west. Because of these issues, Shaw recommended a pole mount system, which would have shaded their family garden and created what some might consider an eyesore in their neighborhood.

Though this was a setback for the family, sunnier news came quickly in the form of a Community Solar Garden. 

John Shaw & Friends
 at the Girls and Boys Club
At about the time they found out that the roof-mounted system would be out of reach, La Plata Electric Association approved Policy 366, which made it possible for the creation of Community Solar Gardens. Shaw Solar had two gardens to choose from- one in Ignacio and one in Durango. 

Because the Durango array will be located on the Boys and Girls Club of La Plata County building, Finn opted for this closer array so that his son could see where their power was being produced. Since the array will be visible from Main Avenue and  it is located on a non-profit that works with kids, there is a good chance that his son and other kids will be learning about the benefits of solar in their community- which were positives for Sandra and Will.

Using a 5% increase in electricity costs, Shaw estimated their payback to be approximately twelve years. Finn's family feels good knowing that electric prices will likely be rising faster than that (potentially producing a faster payback) and the environmental choice to take part in this Community Solar Garden was clear for them. They are now signed up to subscribe for 6 kW of power from this garden and feel much relieved that this was an option since their own roof mounted array was not.   

So they've got a safe and efficient home. They are on their way to solar power. What more can they do and what is next?

Find out the surprising answer in the third and final part of this series by subscribing to the 4CORE newsletter.

About the Family
Will Finn is an internal medicine physician and his wife Sandra Beirne is a pediatrician. They have a four-year-old son Jasper. Previous to moving to Durango, Dr. Finn spent four years practicing broad-spectrum Internal Medicine on the Navajo Reservation in Shiprock. He and his wife enjoy hiking, biking, kayaking, and skiing. He believes that if everyone could make their home more energy efficient, we would make our community stronger and our world more liveable.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Family's Journey to the Sun: Part One

Will Finn and his family moved to their Durango home in April of 2013. Built in 1990, they were soon to find out how the home needed some attention to safety and efficiency.

Finn and family moved from Shiprock New Mexico, where he was briefly involved with a taskforce that worked to improve the efficiency of area homes so that they could move toward taking advantage of the area's abundant solar energy. This experience familiarized him with the notion that if a home is leaky and inefficient, there is no sense in investing in solar. Making a financial or an environmental decision for your home starts with efficiency.

Finn and his wife Sandra heard about 4CORE from La Plata Electric Association, who conducted an electricity usage assessment at no cost. The LPEA staff suggested several things that could make their home more efficient, including window blinds and a deeper analysis of their home through 4CORE's HomeRx Program.

Will and Sandra signed up for a comprehensive home assessment while getting a bid for new blinds. The estimate for insulating blinds was $6,000. In the end, they were glad to have the in-depth testing by 4CORE, which provided a blower-door and other technical assessments. Not only did these tests reveal they didn't need new blinds after all (they just needed to latch their windows), they discovered carbon monoxide was leaking from their furnace room, situated right next to the bedroom of their son.
“4CORE's thorough professional evaluation revealed many shortcomings of our home that we never would have noticed, including a potentially dangerous carbon monoxide back-draft on a part of our home that wasn't built to code.” 
Money Matters

Incentives made it possible for Finn to receive a total of $250 off the assessment and another $500 toward efficiency improvements that were recommended in the HomeRx report. All told with rebates and the federal tax credit, Finn saved $1,875 on their home improvement projects.

 Amount  Product/Service Grantor
 $150 HomeRx Assessment Energy Smart/ Atmos
 $400 Efficient Furnace Atmos
 $25 Programable thermostat Atmos
 $50 Proper Furnace sizing Atmos
 $100 HomeRx Assessment City of Durango
 $500 Efficient Furnace City of Durango
 $300 Fed tax credit for solar attic fans US Fed IRS
 $100 Marathon Water heater LPEA
 $250 30 LED bulbs LPEA
 $1,875 Total

New energy efficient furnace and marathon water heater
The 'To Get Done' List
"Many of these recommendations are cheap and easy to do on our own, but we are contracting out the bigger items, which is helping provide work for some local companies.”
The HomeRx Assessment helped educate Finn about specific tasks that would improve his home safety and efficiency. Here is the substantial list of improvements they have accomplished:
  • Sealed a heat duct that was causing an unsafe carbon monoxide back draft. Now they have a closed system in their furnace closet so that it isn't vented right next to their son's bedroom. 
  • Replaced their furnace with an efficient model 
  • Replaced water heater with a Marathon Model 
  • Installed a programmable thermostat to regulate temperature when they are not at home
  • Put a timer on the water heater in case 'time of use' from LPEA is an option. 
  • Replaced 57 light bulbs with efficient LED and CFL bulbs. This was a bigger project than he anticipated, but he took advantage of LPEA rebate of up to $10 per LED bulb. 
  • Caulked along windows
  • Insulated the attic hatch
  • Replaced recessed light housing because of the direct access to the attic from these cans. This is something he never would have done otherwise, but was a need that HomeRx revealed.
  • Installed solar powered attic fans. 
  • Sealed a heating vent in the laundry room (there were two heating vents in the laundry room so it was excessively warm) 
  • Installed new, more energy efficient bathroom fan in each bathroom
The last item that Finn is currently working on is to replace the foam board in the garage storage room.

A conservative estimate of $424 per year in energy cost savings based on these improvements was calculated by 4CORE.

Now that their home is more efficient, they are ready for the next step in their 'Journey to the Sun'. Stay tuned to the 4CORE newsletter for the Part Two!

About the Family
Will Finn is an internal medicine physician and his wife Sandra Beirne is a pediatrician. They have a four-year-old son Jasper. Previous to moving to Durango, Dr. Finn spent four years practicing broad-spectrum Internal Medicine on the Navajo Reservation in Shiprock. He and his wife enjoy hiking, biking, kayaking, and skiing. He believes that if everyone could make their home more energy efficient, we would make our community stronger and our world more liveable.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Energy Efficiency: The Carrot or the Stick?

Driving The VolvoMost of the time when I casually talk to people about energy consumption, they think the transportation sector is the largest consumer. However, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 40% of the total energy consumed in the United States in 2013, was consumed by residential and commercial buildings, and is equivalent to 40,000,000,000,000,000 BTUs. The same amount of energy is contained in over 320 Million gallons of gasoline.

If my car could last long enough I could drive 16.86 Million miles with all that gasoline. With our buildings consuming so much energy, most of which is coming from fossil fuels, what are we doing to curb this consumption?

Strategies for improving the energy efficiency of buildings include mandatory and voluntary programs. In some parts of the country there are time-of-sale, energy efficiency mandates in real estate transactions. Generally, these programs save between 3% and 6% on electricity, and between 5% and 15% on natural gas. In areas where time of sale energy efficiency mandates are in place, participation rates are around 89%. However, in areas where time-of-sale energy efficiency programs are voluntary, participation rates are less than 1%.

Green buildings, such as certified Energy STAR or LEED buildings, can see total energy savings between 20% and 33%. Across the country voluntary green building programs for new constructions have participation rates from less than 1% up to almost 8%.

In San Francisco, all newly constructed commercial buildings over 20,000 square feet, must be LEED certified. However, only about 0.2% of commercial building space is built new every year. Energy information display meters, which allow for real time viewing of energy consumption, can save between 6% and 12% of household electricity consumption. However, voluntary energy display meter programs have participation rates around 4% and I’m not currently aware of any mandatory energy display meter programs.

While these energy efficiency related programs have the potential to save a significant amount of energy, the majority of households and commercial businesses are not engaging in this programs.

CFL GlowLighting, which composes about 11% of a building’s total energy consumption, is one of the best energy efficient investments that people can make. Today there are federal regulations regarding lighting efficiency and a multitude of voluntary lighting efficiency programs. President Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) in to law seven years ago. This mandate was intended to phase out old inefficient incandescent bulbs and bring lights that are 25% more efficient to the market at reasonable costs to consumers. However, in 2012 Congress passed an amendment to the Energy and Water Appropriations Act which denies funding for the Department of Energy to enforce the 2007 EISA. Thus, there is a federal mandate for energy efficient lighting, but there is no one enforcing the mandate.

In Seattle, a voluntary mail-in rebate for free compact fluorescent (CFL) lights, resulted in a 50% participation rate. In Denver, a door-to-door campaign, which gave two free CFLs to every household, resulted in a participation rate of about 10%. Other voluntary energy efficient lighting programs include demand side management offered by utility companies. While these voluntary lighting programs can have good results, lighting efficiency alone, is not enough to reduce the energy consumption of our buildings.

Energy audits, can proved building owners and occupants with a comprehensive list of energy efficiency upgrades to improve the buildings overall efficiency. For low-income residents there is the Weatherization Assistance Program, which provides households with a free energy audit and free energy efficiency upgrades. Unfortunately, the demand for weatherization services exceeds the amount that can be covered by current funding. Only about 0.4% of the total housing stock receives free weatherization services.

In door-to-door campaigns in Denver that offered free energy audits to homeowner had participation rates around 10%; however only about 4% of those who received free energy audits followed through with installing energy efficiency upgrades. Over the last few years 4CORE has been providing homeowners with energy audits for a modest fee ($450-$650).

4CORE has performed energy audits on less than 1% of the homes in La Plata County that do not qualify for weatherization services. Has your home been assessed yet?

Through hard work and collaboration 4CORE has brought multiple incentives to the community for energy audits, including discounts from the City of Durango, ATMOS Energy, and Source Gas. Some homes in Durango could qualify for $250 in discounts for an energy audit performed by 4CORE. These programs are voluntary, and as an a-political nonprofit, 4CORE will not advocate for mandated energy audit programs. Rather, 4CORE will serve the community as a hub for energy efficiency information and inspire the community to invest further in energy efficiency on a voluntary basis.

Much of the information in this blog cam from “Quantifying Carbon Mitigation Wedges in U.S. Cities: Near-Term Strategy Analysis and Critical Review” by Ramaswami in Environmental Science and Technology, April 3, 2012.

For more information on the EISA legislation read the “How Many Politicians Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?” blog from the Alliance to Save Energy.

About the Author
Sarah Rank

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Switch: A Journey to the Future of Global Energy

Browsing through a newsletter several months ago, I stumbled across the name of a documentary created by a respected geologist and energy researcher, Dr. Scott Tinker. The name of the documentary was Switch. Intrigued, I Googled the title and discovered a treasure-trove of resources supporting a film and educational program called Switch Energy Project. After watching the trailer, I needed to see the film.

I had finally found what I was looking for: an unbiased, agenda-free documentary reporting the realities of our energy landscape. But first, let me provide a little background on why this documentary was important to me.

Coal mine from Switch
Last summer I received an internship with a major gold mining company in Nevada. At that time, I had little idea of what mining was about, or how I felt about the processes they use. All of the things I had ever read about it were extremely negative and spoke of toxic releases, damage to natural habitat, and threats to the health of humans and wildlife. After three months of working in production, I became familiar with the incredible amount of time, effort, and capital spent to produce an ounce of gold from the ground. And as I observed the immense efforts to stay within strict environmental permitting guidelines, helped in conducting a preliminary wildlife evaluation in an exploratory area, and witnessed the reclamation and replanting of native grasslands on former mine sites, my mind began to change about what it meant to safely and conscientiously extract metals and materials that our society demands. The process isn’t perfect, and many risks are involved, but our dependence on raw materials and goods will always require and support the existence of mining.

As a student immersed in the geosciences and familiar with the extractive industries, I have found myself on the fence between two warring sides in a longstanding battle between environmentalists and industry. I was, and still am, attempting to see both perspectives in a world that believes you can only choose one. The more I learned, the more I became disappointed and frustrated by the disinformation and slander exhorted by both sides. I began to search for an educational resource to share with my college and community to shed the light on the facts behind some of the most highly politicized and volatile arguments involving the extractive industries, without the presence of an industry or environmental agenda. For months, I found nothing that fit the bill until I stumbled upon Switch.

Concentrated Solar from Switch
Switch is not another documentary telling you what do. Instead, it presents the facts on our current state of energy consumption, quantitatively describes each resource in detail, and offers a prediction for the future of our energy landscape. It provides numerous interviews from leading energy experts, researchers, and officials, and brings the audience on a tour of diverse energy sites around the world to explore restricted areas rarely seen by anyone outside of industry. Its compelling and unbiased narrative has earned critical acclaim, numerous awards, and support from industry, policymaking, and environmental groups alike.

I appreciate the opportunity to have worked with the Four Corners Office of Resource Efficiency (4CORE) to bring this film to Durango. It is my desire that Switch will spark tolerant and intelligent conversations about energy and our responsibility in conserving it. I hope that the realities presented in this film provide a sober awareness of the state of our energy needs and those required by a burgeoning population in the near future.

I hope members of our community leave more educated on the traditional, unconventional, and renewable energy resources available to us and use this knowledge in their future personal, political, and environmental decisions regarding energy.

For more info on Switch, visit their website. Two screenings will take place in Durango on Thursday, September 18th and Friday, September 19th. Join us for an evening of energy exploration!

About the Author

Sara Holden is a geology student entering her senior year at Fort Lewis College. Over the past year, she has grown increasingly interested in energy resources and her responsibility as a future geologist in their management. Luck led her to an internship with 4CORE, where for the past summer she has worked on bringing a particularly unique documentary to the Durango community.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Love and Care of Red Wigglers

How to Compost Using Worms

A typical size container is 1 foot high by 2 feet wide by 3 feet long. The container will need at least six holes that are 1/2 inch in diameter located on the sides and two holes that are 1 inch in diameter on the lid for ventilation. Either hot glue screen material over the holes on the inside of the container or insert vents (which can be found at the hardware store). Containers can be made out of wood or plastic, but make sure to thoroughly rinse plastic containers before using. The container can be kept in a garage, basement or even under the kitchen sink. Ideally the temperature will be constant and in the range of 65 to 75 degrees F. If the container is to be kept outside, it will need to be in the shade in the summer. In the winter, a soil heater or infrared light bulb will keep the worms, bedding and food from freezing and the composting process will continue.

A four inch layer of shredded newspaper makes a good starter bedding. Add a handful of fine sand to provide grit for the worm’s digestion, unless you will be using coffee grounds as part of your worm food. If possible, spread some worm castings over the bedding. The castings contain a healthy web of microorganisms which will increase the rate of food decomposition. The strips of newspaper should be approximately 1 inch wide to provide maximum surface area with minimum compaction. The bedding should be thoroughly moistened (ideally before it is added to the container). At the correct moisture level, the bedding will feel like a squeezed out sponge. Spread your worms over the moistened bedding (no more than two pounds of worms per square foot of surface area). The worms should burrow into the bedding in 10-15 minutes. To retain moisture cover the bedding with a layer of un-shredded newspaper or cardboard. The worms like to be in the condensation that forms under this cover. Keep the lid off and a light on for a couple days to encourage the worms to settle into their new home.

Feeding and Watering 
The worms will consume any kind of biodegradable matter, and enjoy a varied diet. Suggested: fruits and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, crushed eggshells, stale bread and other vegan kitchen wastes. This includes napkins, paper towels, cereal boxes, tea bags, coffee filters, plant trimmings and other plant derived waste products. Do Not Add: Meat, bones, dairy, oils, very salty or acidic foods. While composted cow and horse manure are a favorite food for red wigglers, never add cat or dog manure (these carry diseases). For a faster rate of decomposition, chop or food process the food before adding to the box. Place the food into a different section of the bed each time you feed, and cover with fresh bedding material. The moisture content should be maintained at 65-75% for worm health and optimal decomposition rate. Either a moisture meter or the sponge test can be used to determine moisture content. It is best to use de-chlorinated water to avoid killing the beneficial microorganisms in the compost. Water from a tap can be set out overnight to let the chlorine outgas. Use a spray bottle to mist the bedding. This will ensure even wetting of the material and prevent compaction of the bedding. In dry climates a little misting every day may be necessary.

Harvesting the Castings 
Castings are the end-product of the earthworms’ digestive process. The castings are alive with beneficial soil organisms, some of which produce plant growth hormones and/or protect plants from diseases. The nutrients in worm castings are immediately available to the plant on an as-needed basis. You can begin collecting the castings 3-6 months after starting your worm box. Push all the material currently in the box to one side. Add fresh bedding to the empty side. Feed and water this side only. The worms will finish up on the old side and then move over to the new side. After a couple months the compost on the old side will be ready to harvest with only a few remaining worms to sort out. Depending on your intended use for the compost, you may want to pick out any unfinished paper products and add them back into the bin. If you plan on tilling the compost into a garden, it is fine to leave in the bits of partially decomposed material.

Using the Castings 
Castings Solution: Soak 4 Tablespoons of castings or two castings tea bags in one gallon of tepid de-chlorinated water for 12-24 hours. Strain, if not using a tea bag. Using a spray bottle, apply the solution directly onto the foliage of houseplants, including hydroponically grown plants. Or, water as usual using the castings solution instead of plain water. Using a garden sprayer, apply the solution to lawns, vegetable and flower gardens, landscape plants, fruit trees and any other plant which you would like to watch flourish.

Fine Castings: Use fine castings to make the castings solution, a potting mix or to sprinkle directly around the base of houseplants and other potted plants. Castings can be used with seedlings and transplants to encourage root growth and reduce transplant shock. To make a castings potting mix, use one part castings to nine parts traditional potting mix.

Vermicompost: Use vermicompost in addition to traditional compost to give your garden soil a boost of microbial life, micronutrients, plant growth hormones, and humus. Also, use a generous amount before laying sod or reseeding a lawn.

For more information, or to order castings, worms and/or starter kits, please contact us.

Note: A more comprehensive explanation of vermicomposting can be found in Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Apelhof. This book is available from the Durango Compost Company.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Is the Air in Your Home Affecting your Family’s Health?

When you hear the phrase “air pollution” what do you think of? Before I became involved at 4CORE, I often thought of cities filled with smog from car exhaust, power plants and manufacturing. You can guess my surprise when I learned that the air inside our  homes, schools and businesses can be two to five times more polluted than the air outside. When the average American spends 90% of their time indoors and 50% of their time inside their homes, indoor air pollution becomes a much larger public health problem than most people imagine.

The most common indoor air pollutants include mold and moisture, combustion sources and secondhand smoke, building materials and furniture, household cleaning products and paints, and outdoor sources such as radon and pesticides. In the short-term, people may experience asthma and allergies symptoms, eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches and dizziness. In the long-term, exposure to indoor air pollution can cause lung and heart disease and cancer.

4CORE (myself included) became concerned about the issue of healthy homes while managing the low-income Weatherization program. Eighty percent of homes we weatherized in Southwest Colorado had health and safety problems, which could have been prevented with proper education on cleaning, maintenance, and ventilation. In 2013 as the Weatherization Client Services Coordinator I attended a conference discussing the overlap of Healthy Homes and Weatherization. I was shocked to learn the numbers of low income children who developed asthma from the homes they lived in, which in some cases was made worse by tightening up their homes for energy efficiency. I learned that we don't have to choose and that good air quality and energy efficiency can go together.

In August 2013, wereceived an Environmental Justice Small grant from the EPA to educate low income families about indoor air quality in La Plata County. In the past year I was able to lead 19 educational workshops across the county and reached 352 participants.

Healthy Homes workshop participants improved the health of their homes by using the free carbon monoxide detectors, radon test kits, Healthy Homes Pledges, resources and information. One participant reported, "Our neighbors, who have a young baby, almost got carbon monoxide poisoning from a dryer venting problem - I loaned them the carbon monoxide detector that we received from the workshop and when they were able to see their dangerously high CO level they moved out of the house since the landlord wouldn't fix the problem."

4CORE also partnered with CSU Extension on a radon education program, sponsored by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to hand out short term radon test kits to workshop participants and perform 25 continuous radon tests. One workshop participant said, "The radon test has prompted me to take action. I plan to retest and contact a radon mitigation contractor."

On August 19th 4CORE and CSU Extension will be hosting a community celebration of healthy homes and radon awareness from 11 am - 1:30 pm at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. I invite you to attend this free event which will showcase successes of the programs, discuss current resources and next steps towards improving indoor air quality in La Plata County with local leaders and staff from the EPA and CDPHE. Lunch and carbon monoxide detectors will be provided. I'd love to have you join us!

Please RSVP 

For me personally it has been a wonderful experience working at 4CORE for the past three and a half years in the Weatherization, HomeRx, Radon and Healthy Homes programs. I will be sad to leave when our Healthy Homes EPA grant concludes at the end of the month. I have learned so much about healthy housing, energy efficiency, and alternative technologies in our community to say nothing of the nonprofit skills I've gained. The most meaningful part of my work has been the relationships built with clients and families and the feeling that despite everything else happening in their lives I may be able to help, just a bit, in making their homes warmer, healthier or more affordable.

I hope you join me on August 19th to celebrate the conclusion of the Healthy Homes program. See you there!

About the Author
Sandhya Tillotson is Executive Director of The Garden Project of Southwest Colorado, as well as the Healthy Homes Program Specialist at 4CORE. Originally from California, Sandhya earned her Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science from The Colorado College in Colorado Springs. After moving to Durango in 2010, Sandhya is thrilled to be working for a local environmental non-profit and spending her free time volunteering, running, biking, climbing and exploring the vast wilderness that makes up Durango's backyard.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

101 Solar Contracts Empower La Plata County

Schertz ResidenceSolarize La Plata, coordinated by the 4CORE, is now complete, with 101 contracted projects for installing solar photovoltaic systems through the program. A final report is now available detailing the program history, results, and challenges at

The Solarize La Plata Steering Committee was formed in April 2013 and began meeting to define campaign parameters. The program focused on recruiting 100 La Plata County participants to go solar, targeting new capacity of at least 325 kilowatts (kW). 219 solar system proposals were distributed, and to date 522 kW are committed, exceeding the established kilowatt goal. Seventy-four of these systems are complete and energized, with another 12 installations in progress. Remaining installations will likely be complete by fall.

“The program made it easy and was a good push for us,” said Erika Brown, Solarize La Plata participant. “We had been considering solar, but Solarize La Plata was the catalyst we needed to make it happen in a limited time frame.”

Solarize La Plata is saving our community an estimated 822,399 kWh per year, equating to $80,587 in electricity bill savings. This translates to the prevention of an estimated 567 metric tons of carbon pollution per year. Economic impacts include the creation of fifteen fulltime jobs and a monetary impact of approximately $2,173,000 in La Plata County, of which some 60-65% remains circulating within our local economy.

“Looking back to our formative meetings in May 2013, I think none of us could have guessed the outcome of our work,” said Robert Lea, Solarize La Plata Chairman. “The work was challenging. We put out lots of mental, emotional and physical effort, had fun, met lots of good people, and accomplished a lot of good for our community.”

Solarize La Plata is supported by grants from Optony’s American Solar Transformation Initiative (ASTI) through the Department of Energy’s Rooftop Solar Challenge, Ballantine Family Fund, and the City of Durango.

Find more information on the 4CORE web site at, or by calling 970-259-1916.