In praise of Martin Holladay: Musings of An Energy Nerd

martin holladay of green building advisorblogger of the yearIn line with today’s topic, “Greener than What”, I want to give a big shout-out-read-this-blog-love-letter to pretty much my favorite blogger in the universe: Martin Holladay. His column “Musings of An Energy Nerd” appears regularly on the Green Building Advisor blog. Martin’s bio says he has “worked as a roofer, remodeler, builder, and plumbing wholesale counterperson. He built his first passive solar house in northern Vermont in 1974, and has lived off the grid since 1975.”

Yes, Martin has mad home building skills — but it’s his reporter’s mindset that has captured my heart. In his Musings of an Energy Nerd column, Martin regularly assesses various home improvement products that either claim or are widely believed to provide certain environmental benefits. Alas … quite often … Martin ends up having to knock these claims off their pedestal. Since my blog is fundamentally about resources to help homeowners get their renovation projects done, I really value his research — because it provides actionable information, based on data, to help make important — and usually, expensive — home improvement decisions.

In fact, this is the #1 reason I love Martin’s columns: He is data driven. If a product claims it will save energy — and therefore, money — he digs for the research to see if it really did, or will. Furthermore, he bakes in how much it costs to buy and install the product — to determine the final financial/environmental calculus. I have not been able to find this level of practical, data-driven, environmentally-focused home improvement journalism anywhere else online.

I also love Martin’s columns for all the comments that they generate. Green Building Advisor’s readership seems to be building professionals. There often is a great dialog, with Martin responding. It gets… passionate… sometimes.

Here are some examples of relevant product assessments that I have read, and learned from, on Martin’s blog, and which may be useful to Retro Renovation readers:

Martin Holladay’s Energy Efficiency Pyramid

So what steps can you take to improve the energy efficiency of your home? Looks to me like Martin’s Energy Efficiency Pyramid (click on the image of the pyramid itself once you get to the page) is a must-read for anyone who wants to take measured, sensible, cost-effective steps. I have used it as a guidepost in my own home renovation and thinking — including my continued “warning” to homeowners to be skeptical of claims that new windows will save you money longterm or that they are “green”. We also discussed the topic here, in our story about the 10 most endangered features of midcentury homes.

Note: The Energy Efficiency Pyramid is now more than two years old — and I knew solar cell prices had been dropping — so I asked Martin if there were any technology breakthroughs that would cause him to reorder it? Sure enough, he responded:

Pam,

Yes, in light of dropping prices for photovoltaic modules,m= the priorities shown in the Energy Efficiency Pyramid need to be changed. Now that an installed PV system costs about $3.50/watt, PV drops down a notch on the pyramid, pushing window replacement to the pyramid’s apex.

Thank you, Martin, you are my Blogger of the Year!

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Comments

  1. Jay says

    Interesting, thanks for the lead; I’ll have to check out his columns. I can relate to many of the things you highlighted. I just spent a small fortune installing central air (hot water heat) and I am well aware that the electric bill will quadruple but I am no longer able to install the window units plus they annoy the $#&* out of me even if you are just cooling the room you are presently occupying.Attic fan? it’s coming out next week when the gable ends get new siding. I opened my solid soffits and had ridge vents installed so I have good air flow-through the attic now. Pam, I am always amazed at the topics you cover.

  2. Christa says

    Pam, thanks for the info on Martin Holladay and his blog. Lots of good information. And I 100% agree with the concept that buying new stuff and throwing out old stuff is generally not green. Buying things that are built to last, and caring for/preserving things you already own are the true “green” behaviors.

    I also have to say that removing original windows is a SUPER pet peeve of mine. It’s bad enough when people remove original solid wood cabinets and replace them with some trendy particle board POS, but the windows are part of the original architecture, and generally those thick white vinyl windows do not look right on a mid century house. Plus, they DO fail. My parents just replaced all the windows on their home again – after 19 years, the first set had failed (leaks between the double paned windows, UV breakdown of the vinyl framing material).

    I am very lucky to have a home with walls of tempered glass. Several house pros have suggested that I should replace the windows in my house with energy efficient ones, or they wonder aloud at the cost to heat it. For the record, the bills are not that high – $70/summer, $220 winter. So maybe 4 months per year I am paying a $50/month premium for my windows. That’s $200/year to have my beautiful, original, custom made walls of glass. Fine with me.

    • pam kueber says

      Thanks for your comments, Christa! For old windows: Exterior storms seem to be the way to go if you want more comfort, in particular. Again, the very LAST thing you would do, from an energy efficiency standpoint, is replace original windows!!!

      • Jay says

        Pam, you are so right. Energy efficiency never entered the picture when I decided to start replacing my windows. It was a matter of having functioning windows. The cost would have been prohibitive to have someone attempt a rebuilding of all the windows and storms. They were too far gone, falling apart and non-functioning.

      • Dulcie says

        Like Jay, I’ve got a preference for windows that open, aren’t surrounded by rotted wood and have screens. That, and I hated seeing my curtains blowing back and forth when it was windy outside. Previously, we’ve tried caulking the windows closed, but it’s a big pain cracking the caulk when spring finally shows up again. Sometimes, it’s best to replace the old. We’ve already noticed a HUGE difference with new windows and it’s only November.

        Same with insulating the walls of my house, the north wall had little to no insulation in it, the inside of my kitchen cabinets were 20 degrees colder than the rest of my kitchen, and while chilled dishes are great for salads, a 40 degree plate (I’m totally not exaggerating!) is not the best way to keep your supper warm and tasty. I’m hoping for a warmer, more comfortable winter in my house this year than I had last year.

      • lisa says

        I have to chime in with Jay and Dulcie here. We replaced all the windows in our 1947 Cape Cod with new ones and it was great — however, we were not replacing original wood windows but aluminum replacements from the 70s or 80s. We also spent the money for metal-clad wood windows instead of vinyl, and used sash replacements instead of new framing. The result was amazing. The house was warmer and quieter. Our heating bills went down, although I never did the math on how long it might be to recoup our investment. The improvement in comfort was enough.

        Now we are in a 1907 Craftsman and wondering about doing the same again. This time the windows are original or at least very old and wooden. But some are falling apart and they let in huge amounts of cold air (and rattle in the wind!). The main floor windows have storms and are in better shape, but upstairs they are a mess — new storms would be expensive and so difficult to put on and off each year. I feel bad contemplating removing these REALLY old windows but long for the comfort of new!

  3. Cynthia says

    Good article about tankless water heaters. I was thinking of getting one, now I won’t bother. For electric water heaters (of the regular kind), here’s an idea to save not only the electricity but also slow down the corrosion and rust that eventually destroys the tank: install a timer so the water heater runs only for several hours, at certain times of day – such as in the morning for showers or laundry, and then again in the evening for cooking, dishwashing, more showers, etc. The constant heating of water and circulation of the heated water in the tank is reduced and therefore, the rust develops much more slowly and the tank has a much longer life. I had a tank on a timer which didn’t start leaking until it was more than 35 years in service, about 3 times as long as normal.

    • pam kueber says

      When the energy inspection folks came in to assess my house, they also turned the water heater down a 20 degrees or something like that. I forget exactly and to “what”, but the point I recall them making is that many people can turn their water heater down to save energy and money….

  4. says

    The article on tankless water heaters did not take into account the value of the added square footage. I gained a closet when I switched to one hung on the wall in the garage, instead of in the house in its own “closet.”

    Also, although their typical users did frequent “draws” of hot water through the day, I don’t. I never turn on the hot-water faucets unless I intend to wait for the water to get hot and use it; every time you turn that faucet, it triggers intense use of gas to heat the water, which is totally wasted if you turn it off before it gets to you.

    Often, depending on whether dishes need to be done, I only use hot water once a day (for showering), especially on weekdays.

    • ChrisH says

      Me too. Put in a tankless a couple years ago and built a closet where the old 30 gal. water heater used to be.

      Pam, thanks for the link. I was reading Martin’s articles all morning. It’s a great resource.

      • Christa says

        I also put in a tankless on an exterior wall so that I could put a W/D stack in the utility room that used to house the hot water heater. Another consideration for tankless is earthquakes — regular hot water heaters can topple and spill in a quake. On the other hand, those hot water tanks are a source for water in other disasters…

  5. Bob Connor says

    Oh, and there is one circumstance where having an attic ventilator is a big help. Once I worked for an air conditioning contractor and we had to install a central unit in an attic. Thankfully, they had an attic ventilator we could turn on, or the heat would have been unbearable. If you think you will ever store anything in the attic or have to go up there, it might not be such a bad idea.

    • pam kueber says

      I think I read you are never supposed to install a central air conditioning unit, or ductwork, in an attic — big energy mistake. But as I always say: Consult with a pro.

      • Bob Connor says

        Actually, installing a central air conditioning unit in the attic is common in this part of the country where a home has hot water heat and thus no ductwork and it is possible to run the ductwork into the ceilings of the rooms of the house. This house we were at was a MCM design from 1952 (the owner even showed us the plans from the architect) and was before central air conditioning. The indoor coil is in the attic and the condenser outside, as it would be if the inner unit was in the basement. This house had flexible ductwork insulated with fiberglass and covered with a plastic sheath. We also applied fiberglass to the outside of the blower/coil unit. Today, an installer could also use spray on foam. If there is enough insulation, it should not be any more wasteful than a basement indoor unit. Since the cool air comes from above in the rooms it is very effective.

        Now, you probably do not really need a fan up there but if anyone has to work or go up there it is a big help to make it bearable.

      • Jay says

        It may not be the most desireable location but I just had it installed in my attic because I do not have hot air heat. All the homes in my neighborhood with installed central air have done likewise. Remember, commercial buildings often have them on roofs and have exposed ducts running down into the building. You do what you have to do when retrofitting a 50′s ranch. Besides after this horribly hot summer in the Mid-Atlantic, I hope next year it’s mild and I wont need to run it too much because I prefer to open the windows.

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