I recently wrote an article for Jetson Green about the ecobee programmable thermostat (which Matt Grocoff (Greenovation TV) first brought to my attention after he saw it at this year’s Greenbuild. It’s a nice programmable thermostat with wireless connectivity and a number of other good features.

But then, earlier this week, I saw a bunch of posts (including one at Jetson Green that I didn’t write) about another programmable thermostat called Nest that learns about the house over time. It’s also a nice thermostat with a more user-friendly appearance and a number of appealing features.

Of the two, I’m more intrigued by the Nest thermostat. The ecobee sort of struck me as a basic programmable thermostat with some nice features tacked on to it (WiFi connection, color display), but not much to really justify the $300-$400 price. The Nest doesn’t necessarily do a whole lot more, but the adaptive learning that it does perform is certainly intriguing, and the suggested price of $250 is lower than that of ecobee.

I’m less certain that the little green leaf displayed by Leaf is as useful as it is touted. The product literature says the leaf lights up “when you are saving energy,” but does that just mean it’s lit up when the furnace (or AC) is cycled off? Does that really help?

I’m interested in finding out more about how both of these perform in real-world applications, so I will be looking for real users stories about these. Of course, as I said in my article about the ecobee, “…many programmable thermostats are, in fact, never programmed and consequently, the benefits and savings that could come from having it aren’t realized. A smart appliance like this will only save energy (and money) for you if you use it intelligently.”

Links: Nestecobee

Edit to add: After writing about these here, I adapted this and posted another piece for EcoGeek about these thermostats.


[This was/is going to be a post for  But Matt has been busy with other projects and hasn’t been able to post it to the blog yet.  I’ll revise this when he does.  In the meantime, I had also planned to use this as a contribution for a Pratt & Lambert Paints blog. I’ll update this with the link when they post it.]

There was recently a little bit of discussion I took part in among a local parents group about the issue of formaldehyde in furniture. A parent was investigating new bedroom furniture for a child, and raised a question about the issue of formaldehyde in furniture and concerns about it off-gassing from some kinds of materials. In addition to looking at this issue, I have some suggestions about how to avoid furniture that has formaldehyde.

While this isn’t going to be an issue that saves you money by increasing the energy efficiency of your home, indoor air quality is, nevertheless, also a green building issue. Green building rating systems like LEED and engineering standards from organizations such as ASHRAE (some of which are incorporated by reference into green buiilding guidelines) address the issue of indoor air quality. We spend most of our time inside buildings, and the air indoors is generally far more polluted than it is outdoors, even in urban environments.

Formaldehyde is an irritant to the airway and to the eyes, and can cause allergic reactions in some individuals. It has also been classified as a known human carcinogen by the WHO. Formaldehyde has also been implicated in the infamous case of the FEMA Katrina trailers which allegedly sickened hundreds of families. This has also led to a growing public awareness of the issues surrounding formaldehyde and indoor air quality.

The message that began the discussion was from someone looking for a new child’s bed, but was concerned that most new furniture is “made of particleboard that releases toxic formaldehyde” and wanted to find other options.

First of all, formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical, and even raw wood (and lots of other natural materials) will release some amount of formaldehyde. Zero formaldehyde is unlikely except in laboratory conditions since there is naturally occurring formaldehyde in the atmosphere. However, you certainly don’t want excess formaldehyde in your environment, and there are things you can do to help reduce the levels of it in your home.

The binders used to make particleboard and plywood are often made with formaldehyde, and these glues can be a source that slowly releases formaldehyde into your home through off-gassing from the material. Formaldehyde glues can also be used to attach furniture parts to one another and to adhere laminates and coverings to the substrates of the furniture.

There are two broad categories of glues that use formaldehyde, and plywood, particle board and similar materials use a lot of these glues to hold the bits of wood together. One off-gasses formaldehyde (urea formaldehyde glues), but the other locks it into the glue (phenol formaldehyde glues) and is nearly inert from a formaldehyde perspective. With phenol glues, think of it like the chlorine in salt. Salt doesn’t have a chlorine smell because it is tightly bound as salt molecules NaCl. Likewise, in phenol glues, the formaldehyde is locked into the compound, so there is very little that will contribute to off-gassing. Just because an adhesive uses formaldehyde doesn’t immediately mean it’s going to be hazardous. Manufacturers do make materials that don’t off-gas significant amounts of formaldehyde.

That said, the phenol types of glue and binders are mostly used for exterior use materials, since the phenol glues are weather-resistant, and they are also more expensive. Urea types of glues are less expensive, and are used for most indoor particleboard materials that will not be exposed to weather. I have heard of manufacturers sealing the particleboard on urea-type materials, which may slow the rate of release and lower the amount of formaldehyde that is released, but I don’t know how effective that may be. Slowing the release may keep the formaldehyde level lower, but might also extend the length of time that formaldehyde is released from a source.

Greenguard is a certifying organization dealing with indoor air quality issues. While I think of them predominantly in terms of paints and coatings for indoor use, they do also have a section of certified furniture, but for now, that list is mostly school desks and baby cribs. For this particular question, there is nothing currently listed that would be suitable.

So, what options are there for furniture that won’t off-gas lots of formaldehyde and won’t be detrimental to your home’s indoor air quality? I have a few suggestions:

1. Reuse and recycle. It doesn’t have to be new. Existing goods are also a particularly green choice since it reduces waste and keeps material out of landfills. Used goods will have had a chance to off-gas a significant part of the formaldehyde from their original fabrication, and could be an inexpensive way to get something, as well.

2. Better quality materials. This will be more expensive, but furniture built with higher quality materials that don’t rely on boards using the cheaper glues. It will likely still take investigating and asking questions in order to find what you are looking for, but it should be worth it.

3. Custom construction. Custom doesn’t have to mean high-end (though it certainly can be). There are lots and lots of builders and cabinetmakers and other skilled tradespeople who could easily build a bed using the materials you want. It’s probably going to be a more expensive proposition than getting the cheapest thing available from the super-discount big-box, but you’ll end up getting something better and likely more durable. In the long-run, that might make something more affordable, if it lasts far longer. And it’s good to support local businesses, and use more local materials, instead of having something shipped across oceans.

4. Solid wood instead of composites. If the furniture is built from solid wood rather than using particleboards or plywoods, then you are greatly reducing the amount of glues in the materials. Pieces can still be glued together, so you should still check, but it’s likely less of an issue than with anything with particleboard.

5. Metal or other non-wood materials. Metal would be another possibility, of course, if you want to avoid formaldehyde altogether. Wood isn’t the only choice available, though price may be a factor.

6. Ventilation. If you do have something that is off-gassing, getting those compounds out of the living space is the next best option. As the weather is beginning to turn nice, leave windows open as much as possible to let the formaldehyde and other compounds dissipate, and keep it from building up in the indoor air.

Lastly, I don’t think you should rely on a ‘sniff test’ as a determining factor as to whether or not something is safe. You’re not a dog, and it doesn’t mean everything is okay if you can’t smell it. Your nose will only pick up formaldehyde at a concentration of about 0.5 to 1.0 parts per million. The EPA says, “In homes with significant amounts of new pressed wood products, levels can be greater than 0.3 ppm,” so you aren’t necessarily going to be able to smell it, though if you can, that should be a definite warning sign.

Link: US EPA on Formaldehyde [Ed note: broken link repaired]

[This article originally appeared on GreenovationTV.  I like Matt’s headline for it (which I retained, above) much better than mine, which was kept as a subhead.]

Track Your Compact Fluorescent Bulb

I recently had an unusual occurrence at my house: one of the lightbulbs in my kitchen burned out.  What’s so special about that, you ask?  Lights burn out all the time.  But I’ve been using compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) for the past few years, so it is rare that I need to change a bulb.

Sure, you’ve heard about the advantages of compact fluorescent bulbs.  Maybe you don’t think that they are going to be cost effective, and you can’t bring yourself to invest in one or two in order to find out.  I have a couple of suggestions for those of you who are still holding out.cfl

We think about the energy savings from using CFL bulbs, and that’s one of the big advantages to using them.  But they also save time and effort.  If an incandescent bulb has an average life of 750-1000 hours, then you’re going to end up changing that bulb about twice a year, if it’s being used an average of 4 hours a day.  CFLs have an average life of 6,000-15,000 hours, so they last about 10 times as long, which means you would be changing that bulb about once every 5 years (maybe 10), instead of twice a year.

Maybe that’s not a big issue for a table lamp, but if you have ceiling lights that are harder to reach, changing bulbs is more of an undertaking.  (Those of you with high ceilings that need a maintenance visit and someone with a ladder to replace your bulbs should definitely be thinking about this.)  Isn’t that a chore that would be better if it needed to be done less frequently?

Most of the standard light sockets in my house now have CFL bulbs of one variety or another.  Some I like better than others.  I’ve identified a couple manufacturers and brands that I won’t buy again.  But others have good brightness and a color that I like.  I was dubious a decade ago when I first started trying CFLs.  One way I tried it out was to put one CFL and one regular bulb in a two-socket fixture.  That balanced out the color and let me find that the fluorescents weren’t that bad, and it also gave us some instant-on light with that fixture (since the first CFLs were often dim for the first couple minutes).

CFLdated-revCompact fluorescent bulbs are now available for only a couple dollars, and, even if the energy savings aren’t convince you, maybe the longer life of a CFL will make a difference for you.  If you absolutely don’t like them, you can still swap them away into a utility space like a closet or basement where, if you only turn on the lights there occasionally, the bulb might last for decades.

If you want to convince yourself (or perhaps a dubious relative or neighbor) that your compact fluorescent bulbs are really lasting for a long time, write the date on the base of the bulb when you put it in (you can use a Sharpie or a pencil and write on the plastic covering on the base).  Unfortunately, I didn’t do this with that last bulb, so I can’t tell you how long that one lasted (our kitchen light is on for more than 4 hours a day, especially in the winter time, and I think this one was about 3 years old).  But if you check in with me in a few years, I can tell you how long the new one was good for.

[Originally posted on GreenovationTV. A shorter version of this article was also posted on EcoGeek yesterday, as well. ]

Solar Scorecard Assesses the Manufacture of Solar Panels

Solar panels are one of the greenest and least controversial types of renewable power generation technology. Some neighborhoods don’t like how they look on roofs of houses, but there are no concerns about harming wildlife, as with wind turbines or tidal power systems. And the technology to make them is continuing to improve.Solar cells on our house

But not all solar panels are created equally. Solar panels are energy intensive to produce, and potentially harmful materials such as
cadmium and lead are sometimes used in their production. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has begun to assemble a ‘Solar Scorecard‘ that evaluates solar panel manufacturers.

There are already standards in place for other kinds of electronics. EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) rates information technology equipment such as desktop and laptop computers and monitors. The European Union’s RoHS Directive also mandates restrictions on the use of six hazardous materials in electronic equipment: Lead (Pb); Mercury (Hg); Cadmium (Cd); Hexavalent chromium (Cr6+); Polybrominated biphenyls (PBB); Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). The Solar Scorecard offers a voluntary rating system like EPEAT to rate the greenness of the manufacturing process for solar panels. Solar Scorecard used the RoHS list to identify the chemicals to inquire about in their survey.

The Solar Scorecard site indicates that six of the responding companies’ survey answers said that they presently use lead in their modules, but all also said that they have plans to phase it out. Three companies indicated that they use cadmium compounds, but none of those have present plans to phase out those chemicals. However, none of the responding companies use mercury, hexavalent chromium (Cr6+), polybrominated biphenyls (PBB), or polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE).

Because the Scorecard is based on company self-reporting, presently there are only ten PV module manufacturers and one solar cell manufacturer with scores listed. Four compaies also have a gold star, indicating that the company “has a takeback program and has policies against exporting waste and using prison labor to dismantle end-of-life panels.”

Scoring is based on a 100-point scale, with four major categories: Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and Takeback, which deals with end-of-life and recycling for the panels; Supply Chain Monitoring and Green Jobs, which looks at employee exposure to toxic materials among other issues; Chemical Use and Lifecycle Analysis, which looks at
hazardous material use; and Disclosure, which considers a company’s transparency about these issues. The survey was originally sent to 227 solar PV companies in October 2009 and the survey dealine was extended to late January 2010. Hopefully more companies will respond and the listing can be kept current in coming years, providing consumers with more information about the panels they are considering.

If you are considering buying solar panels for your own project, this information might be useful in evaluating different suppliers of solar panels. If you are the kind of person who pays attention to other rating systems like EPEAT, why wouldn’t you also look at those same considerations for solar panels?

A shorter, earlier version of this article appeared on EcoGeek. Edited to correct typo on number of surveys sent.

As you may know, I’ve been writing for EcoGeek since 2006.  Since then, I’ve delved into writing for other blogs from time to time.  I’ve been a semi-regular contributor for JetsonGreen for a couple of years, and have been looking for some additional opportunities to do additional writing, now that I’m working for myself.  A couple of new things are nowcoming into the mix, as well.

I’ve been talking with Matt Grocoff about his project, GreenovationTV for the past few months, particularly since we are both working from the Workantile coworking space.  I’m starting to contribute articles for the Greenovation blog, with the first one being posted earlier this week.

I also responded to a call for writers for Inhabitat, and got an email from them last week saying I was one of their top applicants and asking me to provide a couple of sample articles.  So I’ve had one article on Inhabitat so far, and another one I’ve turned in that should be posted later this week.

All in all, the writing leg of the work I’m trying to do now seems to be pretty well set.  Getting the photography and the architectural practice to the same level are going to be the next steps.  There are some leads on the architecture, and a couple of other possibilities that could be in the offing, as well.  And now that the weather is beginning to turn nice, I’m going to have to get out a bit and start working on my photography portfolio, as well.