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Businesses join to sell homeowners on the value of green remodeling

By Elizabeth Razzi
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, October 8, 2010; 9:15 PM

Icicles hanging from the eaves were not the result Dave Parsons had in mind when he installed a geothermal heating system at his Oakton home during the summer of 2009. But that's what he got during last winter's brutal cold spells, when the new system leaked hot air into his under-insulated attic. And monthly electricity bills as high as $560, the result of his geothermal's backup electric resistance heater kicking on too frequently, weren't welcome, either.

"The icicles made me say, 'Hey, there's something wrong here,' " said Parsons, who runs H 2 Options, a local company that evaluates condo and apartment buildings to reduce their water usage, usually by finding hidden leaks.

This winter, Parsons's home is armed with an abundance of insulation, two geothermal heating/cooling systems (the original system having been repaired), a solar-powered hot water collector, several efficient mini-split heating/air conditioning units, Internet-based energy-usage monitoring, and a "smart" thermostat, equipped with WiFi, that can read the weather report.

He has replaced nearly every light bulb in the house with bright, white compact fluorescents and other modern bulbs and redecorated with paints and carpeting that are made with fewer volatile organic compounds, or "low-VOC," and do not give off the noxious fumes of traditional versions.

His home - which is decidedly not for sale - is open for free public tours on Oct. 16, so other people considering a remodel can get a look at the technology.

Parsons's home, about 4,500 square feet on five acres of land, is "Energy House One," a demonstration project put together by a group of Northern Virginia businesses, including several construction trades, who were looking for a way to re-cast themselves as experts in cutting-edge green technology for the remodeling market.

In exchange for a discount on the work they did on Parsons's home, he has agreed to allow the group to monitor his energy usage for a year, so they can document the effectiveness of the individual technologies - and perhaps persuade others to make similar investments in their homes. He also agreed to open the house, at 2931 Melanie Lane, for several tours (some of which were invitation-only) this fall.

The house was built in the mid-1960s and originally heated with oil. Standing in his garage, amid displays about the various new technologies spread about the house - and with a TV monitor showing the peaks and valleys of that day's energy usage, Parsons explained why he went for the deal, instead of just fixing his insulation and the faulty geothermal system: "I'm just kind of a geek," Parsons said, sheepishly. "This stuff always fascinated me."

The comprehensive approach to green remodeling demonstrated in Parsons' house is the product of the Northern Virginia Energy Leads Group. Note that it's "leads" as in "business leads," not LEEDS, which is a tough-to-get designation of environmental sustainability awarded by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council. The informal business leads group was formed as a way for its members to weather the economic recession. They held meetings over pizza over the course of a year to compare notes on energy- and water-saving products and methods for the remodeling market. By referring business leads among each other, they would be able to offer homeowners a comprehensive approach to lowering their energy and water usage, starting with an independently provided energy audit and, very often, basic insulation and weatherstripping.

The informal group formed a new limited liability company, the Energy Resource Management Construction Co., to market their combined services. It's led by Charles Juris, who before the housing bust used to do speculative building - constructing new houses before lining up buyers - on infill lots in Washington's close-in suburbs. "New construction right now is just not that great a market," he said. "We should be trying to retrofit existing houses. Save people money. And that's where the market is."

Juris said they tried marketing their services to homeowners in various ways, including renting a booth at Eastern Market in the District, with limited success. They got a lot of lookers at their booth, but not much business. "You'd follow up, and people would say, 'I was really there for some lettuce,' " Juris said.

The group includes Rich Abernathy, president of Air Cool & Heating Systems in Alexandria, which installed the geothermal and mini-split systems in the demonstration house. He explained that mini-split systems have the evaporator unit outside, and send cooled liquid indoors through a tube to condenser units installed in one or more rooms. Operated by remote control, the quiet indoor units allow homeowners to cool or heat a room only when they will be using it. And though they do feature an oblong piece of equipment hung on (or built into) the wall, they don't require installation of big air ducts inside the walls - an important factor for many older homes.

Jason Heron, CEO of Arlington-based Peachtree Power, sold many of the tech products used in the demonstration house, including the Google power meter, which is new to the U.S. market. It monitors all of the home's energy usage, which can be broken out appliance by appliance, and sends the data to Google, which collects data on the energy usage of all its meter users, scrubbed of personally identifying information. Homeowners can monitor their own energy use online, and, if they wish, can authorize specific people to have access to their data. Peachtree also supplied the Ecobee Smart Thermostat, which monitors energy usage, can be operated through an iPhone app, and pulls in weather forecasts. Peachtree supplied power strips attached to a motion sensor, which automatically turn off appliances after people have left a room empty for a specific period of time.

More information about the tour is available at the group's Web site, www.ermcc.com, or by calling 571-269-4383.

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