Keep your Water

For decades, the construction industry has had one main way of dealing with drainage; drain the water to the street. And for decades, storm drains have sent water to our local creeks and rivers downstream to the next city who then treats that water and distributes it to the community.

In the last 15-20 years the country has undergone a large amount of construction and growth in cities, suburban and rural areas creating less free ground to absorb rain water into ground water and aquifers. In recent years we have experienced a much higher demand for water in residential areas in spite of watering restrictions, conservation education and large corporations creativity in using less water. And with this demand, it is increasingly more expensive to treat water for our use.

We have also noticed a change in weather patterns. An article from Environment Florida, a report on the rising frequency of extreme precipitation states, “In 1999, researchers at the Illinois State Water Survey and the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) found that storms with extreme precipitation became more frequent by about 3 percent per decade from 1931 to 1996.” This means that the amount of rain may still be about the same but in patterns of longer drought times and larger more intense rain fall.

Another article from the United States Department of Agriculture states, “In the Texas Blackland Prairie, an important agricultural region with a large and increasing urban population, drought and excess rainfall can be experienced throughout the year.”

With heavier periods of intense rain surrounded by longer droughts, storm water has less of an opportunity to soak into the ground which creates an even bigger strain on the already taxed storm water drainage and local stream systems.

For these reasons, it makes sense to rethink our approach to handling storm water through methods of passive collection and absorption to keep your water on site.

A large scale example is in Hays county. In the 1980’s, flood control dams were built to protect cities like San Marcos from flood waters and to control storm waters. Click on the link to read more about the dams and thier locations. With out these dams, flood water would quickly find its way to the Gulf of Mexico causing considerable damage in San Marcos and other areas downstream and potentially loss of life. Freeman ranch, part of the Texas State University property, is home to one of these dams and a direct sink into the Edward’s Aquifer. Here is a Google image of the dam and sink..

West of the dam you can see the area where water has settled and the depression in the center which is the sink. My husband, John Klier, is a PhD student at TSU studying geographical remote sensing had the unique opportunity to spend a year collecting data at Freeman Ranch. He says that during heavy storms and rain fall, water fills behind the dam. The ranchers at Freeman report that they have observed the water swirling into the sink as it drains into the aquifer. What a sight that would be!! On a residential scale, this is exactly what we need to be doing with our storm water.


This concept is foreign to our way of thinking. Builders will be cautious in slowing drainage because they would fear issues associated with standing water for long periods of time. But this is not the case. Berms, swales and depressions will slow water run off so that there is more time for water to soak into the ground. One solution for this is a rain garden.

Chris Maxwell-Gaines of Innovative Water Solutions shared his knowledge with me on the subject. Chris says, “A rain garden is a depression created in a lower part of your property with an augmented soil mix and a palate of plants that can tolerate somewhat boggy conditions.” The soil mixture is compost and sand which will allow the water to drain into the ground quickly. A depth of only 6-12” will also help the water drain quickly. “It’s basically a depression with plants.”

Rain gardens in a residential setting can be large or small and typically located in a place that can tolerate being wet. With our soil conditions, we would likely not see water standing for more than a ½ a day unless there is a heavy amount of clay. If this is the case, the soil can be modified.

In some cases where a detention pond is required, a permanent rain garden can be created in place of the detention pond. This is a more natural and low impact way to develop proper drainage and absorption. In the case of drought conditions like we are seeing now, this rain garden would legally have to be maintained so that the plants would not die.

Moving rain water on a site has many times been done with french drains or an inlet that flows into a pipe. Because the pipes can be clogged, it is better not to depend on this method but rather to let the water flow naturally over the surface of the land soaking into the ground is it flows. Low impact development is a better solution.

If it seems a little odd to discuss a topic like rain water when we currently have none, it is so that we can be more mindful when we do have some. Pray for Rain!!

Chris also is very excited about his new blog about water catchment and related water issues. In this time of drought, Chris will be a good resource on how to take good care of the water we have. Read his blog here. Visit the Innovative Water Solutions website and contact Chris at 512-490-0932.

try a leaf lawn!

Leaf Lawn

This leaf lawn is in my own back yard and the result of delaying our plans to plant a Zoysia lawn until the drought is over. It is quite nice to walk on bare foot and has an earthy, natural look. Installation involved raking the dirt level and laying about a 3” layer of partially decomposed leaves. About each 3 months a fresh layer of leaves should be added over the old. No watering necessary!

Helpful factoids about Mercury and CFL’s

Here are some helpful factoids about Mercury and CFL’s (compact fluorescent lamps)

– Coal-fired power plants are the largest man-made source of mercury because mercury that naturally exists in coal is released into the air when coal is burned to make electricity. Coalfired power generation accounts for 51 percent of the mercury emissions in the U.S.
– The amount of mercury in mercury-based thermometers, 0.5 to 3 grams, is 100 – 600 times as much as a common CFL, about 5 milligrams.
– If the electricity used to operate your lamps is generated from coal, and you operate 100-watt incandescent lamps for 10,000 hours, the power generating plant will release between 40 mg and 70 mg of mercury into the environment, depending upon the type of coal being used. If instead of the 100-watt incandescent lamp, you use a 25-watt CFL, the power plant mercury emissions drop to between 10 and 18 mg over the same 10,000 hour period, again depending upon the type of coal used.
– The use of CFLs reduces power demand, which helps reduce mercury emissions from power plants.

Sources for these factoids from:
Mercury and the Environment – Sources of Mercury – Mercury Containing Products
For more information on all sources of mercury.
For more information about compact fluorescent bulbs.

Thank you for reading!! If you noticed a long gap between our newsletters recently, it is because we have been busy with our clients! This is good news because the economy is recovering and we are please to serve more Central Texas families and homeowners in designing their homes. THANK YOU!!

Manual J for a Proper Fit

When building or remodeling a home, the mechanical system will play a big role in it’s overall comfort and energy efficiency. No matter what the type of heating and cooling system you choose to install, installing correctly sized equipment is critical. The way to determine the correct equipment heating and cooling capacity is by using a Manual J Load Calculation, then use Manual S to select the correct equipment and Manual D to lay out the ductwork.

The Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) created the Manual J Load Calculation to allow mechanical contractors to accurately calculate the size equipment needed to heat and cool a given home. The completed calculation is essentially an energy model for your home that uses window sizes, insulation values, orientation, and construction type to tell you how much thermal energy is gained or lost during the hottest and coldest outside temperatures your home will commonly encounter.

In years past, many contractors and mechanical installers would often guess or use a “multi-finger method” to figure how much capacity to install. The multi-finger method was to stand at the curb, hold up 3 or 4 fingers at an arms distance. If 3 fingers covered the house, a 3 ton unit was ordered and if 4 fingers covered the house, a 4 ton was ordered. Yes, this really happened! The sloppy habits have persisted through the years because they didn’t want to do the homework involved in filling out paper forms, looking at tables and performing calculations. They would also often “super-size” a system in order to make certain that the system was big enough to guarantee the power to heat and cool to the clients comfort even during extreme conditions that might happen every decade or so. The problem with a system that’s oversized is that it will not properly control humidity and the inside of the house can seem stuffy or muggy even though the temperature is where the thermostat has been set. Short operating cycles also wear the equipment out prematurely.

Manual J Load Calculations are now completed with computer software that automates most of the tedious parts, similar to the way that tax software has streamlined filing tax returns. Like filing a tax return, as of last October a Manual J calculation is now required in Texas for any new HVAC installation. This is a huge step in the right direction and helps to eliminate the multi-finger method or guessing. A mechanical installer will do the manual J calculation for you, however it would be prudent to understand what goes into the calculation for yourself. The report is only as good as the data that has been entered. Your designer or architect can be a good resource for double checking that the orientation, window, door and wall sizes and other parameters of the home have been properly interpreted from the blueprints.

Once the Load Calculation has been completed, it’s time to choose the heating and cooling equipment, and size the ductwork to distribute the air around the house properly. This is where the load calculation can often get “inflated” since most equipment is in sizes such as 1 ½ Ton, 2 Ton, 2 ½ Ton, 3 Ton, 3 ½ Ton, 4 Ton, 5 Ton. As you might guess, there is an ACCA Manual for these activities too: Manual S will help your mechanical contractor choose the proper equipment combination to meet the Manual J results, and Manual D will help with the design of the distribution system (ductwork) for your system so the proper amount of air is put into the right locations of the house. Custom Design Services offers third party Manual J calculations as an additional service.

When you install a new mechanical system be sure to ask for a copy of the Manual J and other reports involved in sizing your equipment. Ask your designer or architect to review this with you and go over the “house facts” to make sure the data in the reports is correct. You will be glad you did when you feel the comfort of your home and of your electricity bill.


In the years I have been designing homes, specifically remodels, I have been eyes to many different homes, styles, lifestyles and people. The pattern I have noticed is that the retiring baby boomers are often sizing up in their retirement homes and younger couples who are building or remodeling their first homes are building a more modest size. Certainly, the retiring age group has more money and more accumulation of belongings after a long career and 20+ years of raising their children than the younger people who are just starting out. But more than that, the younger people have a different perspective and attitude that comes from the era they have grown up in. The 80’s 90’s and 2000’s have been the home of 2 recessions, 2 wars and multiple military conflicts and a rising awareness of healthy and green living. Maybe some of these things have had an impact on a younger generation on how they might like to live in their homes.

For some clients, I find my self designing as much (or more) for the people’s stuff and their guests than I do for the people themselves who actually live and breath in the home. Stuff plays a huge roll in our lifestyle.

I can say from personal experience that my own STUFF is too vast for my comfort level and that it is getting in my way. Purging STUFF is not so easy, especially when you are negotiating with family members and yourself for what must leave your home. It also takes so much time and energy. I have noticed that my clients who have a cluttered home often have a cluttered lifestyle. Similarly, I have also noticed that my clients who live in a simply decorated, clear home void of mass collections of things (weather neatly or not so neatly displayed) have a calm and peaceful way about them. They seem happier without all that STUFF cluttering their home and their lives.

STUFF is psychological.

Last year, when I met Dawn Janssen of Simplify Life, I knew she would have some great stories of how she had helped people. She and her partner Susanne Rodriguez are the owners of Simplify Life and help people de-clutter their homes and their lives. Their clients- who call them angels- range from true hoarders to people who simply need help organizing their closet and everyone in between.

They have found that true hoarders are usually an artistic type of person who can see a great future use for a thing and have a hard time letting go of it. They also say that many of their clients, hoarder or not, have a memory or sentiment attachment to a thing and keep many of these things as reminders of the past. They find comfort in consistency and hang on to their stuff. But when these things, kept for legitimate reasons, start closing in on their clients, they see that the person can lose a sense of self because of the maintenance, mental energy and chaos that the person must live with. In some cases, their clients have simply moved out of their homes and left their stuff behind because the negative energy was too intense to deal with.

Simplify Life will get a call from a new client in many cases because of a life change. A death, divorce, or simply an “AHA” moment because they have finally reached a saturation point. Dawn says, “We love our clients and we come in to help unfold a persons life. We help them with kid gloves or sometimes firmly”. Their clients sometimes just can’t do it on their own. Susanne says, “We are both systems gals and we are looking for the best course of action for each client as individuals”. They truly want the process to be stress free and cleansing.

A typical consultation starts with asking the client, what is the goal? What is the client hoping to achieve with their services? Some people are embarrassed about their homes, but Simplify Life is never negative. They evaluate each person’s lifestyle and proceed with a plan of action. Dawn and Susanne are good at turning spaces into beautiful, healthy and functional spaces with what is already there in the home.

They will ask that decisions be made and also do understand that it can be a slow process for some people. They do not suggest purchasing other furniture, plastic storage bins or decorating items. They encourage their clients to use the many good storage solutions already in the home and get rid of the extra stuff as opposed to buying more stuff to put the stuff in. The whole idea of the process is: Less stuff = Less maintenance.

After a home or space has been sorted through, they use many levels of resources to remove unwanted items from the home. The most common way is to have a garage or an estate sale that will help offset the cost for their services, but a trip to GoodWill and an itemized list for a tax write off might be more valuable. They also use Freecycle, free ads, paper shredding services and a number of contacts who need specialty types of things for their business such as artisans, fashion designers or furniture consignment shops. As a last resort they will send it to the dump, but not before a last ditch effort to find a home for it.

There are some really good references that Dawn and Susanne offered for us to check out:

Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli
The book is about how we labor over rituals and things surrounding Christmas instead of enjoying the people and moments of what the season is really about. See it on Amazon.

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. This book is written by a professor of psychology and a professor of social work who have spent 20 years studying the sufferers of hoarding. See it on Amazon.

Too Many Toys by David Shannon. This book is an awesome illustration for children on how holiday gifts and fast food toys can overcome a child’s life. See it on Amazon.

When they are done, they have happy clients. A common quote is “I love being in this room!” My guess is most all of us could use some help with de-cluttering some part of our homes. Dawn and Susanne have the right touch and a good service at a reasonable price. If you would like a chance to meet them in person, please visit their latest project which is an estate sale this weekend! The address is 3302 Yellowpine Terrace off of Anderson and Shoal Creek. More info here Call them anytime at 512-771-8743 or visit their website at

An Update to the Energy Audit Demonstration Last Fall

Last fall we asked BMC to audit my home and invited our readers to observe the process. We would like to share with you how the process was that day and our results!

Basic Energy Audits are required for home sales in the City of Austin to help buyers of an existing home to know more about that home’s efficiency. They are also a good idea for homeowners wishing to remodel their home and improve the home’s performance while they’re already paying an insulation contractor, dry-waller, electrician, and other trades to work on the addition. The idea is that while the trades people are working on the addition they can come into the existing portion of the home which may not otherwise be modified during the project and to make improvements that will increase the level of insulation and air sealing, and reduce the amount of electricity and/or water being used by major appliances, lighting, and plumbing fixtures.

To assist with prioritization on my own home and to get some personal experience with the process I’ve been recommending to my clients I had an energy audit performed on my own home. Built in 1981, my house had reasonable amounts of insulation in the walls and cathedral ceilings, but was not well insulated on the attic floors (flat ceilings) and not air sealed very well – so I figured it would test out to be very leaky even though I had shot 16 cans of air sealing foam into various openings around the perimeter in the past year.

The process started with a call to an energy auditor. I used BMC’s Energy Auditing division, and after scheduling a visit, which had to be rescheduled due to poor weather, Josh Peterson and Alex McIntyre came to my home with a few pieces of equipment about the size of large suitcases, a ladder and a clipboard. The audit started with an inventory of the appliances and light fixtures in my home. The windows were measured, the walls and doors were classified and measured, and exterior conditions such as shading, solar orientation and roof reflectivity were noted. They were gathering information about the shape and makeup of the house to input the information into an energy usage calculator too.

Next came about 20 minutes of questions about how we use the home and it’s appliances. The answers to these questions were for the same energy usage calculator, and would help the calculator program understand how much a particular appliance would typically use due to our family’s behavior. For example, our oven uses 2500 watts and our TV uses 175 watts. It’s easy to see which one uses more power at a given moment when they’re on, but since the TV is on 8 hours a week in our house and the oven is only on for about 30 minutes on average (once it’s up to temperature the heating coil switches off and on) we see that the TV is the larger user of power over the course of a month. If you have your previous year’s electric and gas bills handy, they are helpful to compare the modeled energy usage with the actual energy usage in your home.

Although the actual modeling is done back at BMC’s office, when we received the report we noticed a large difference between what the computer program said my family uses and what our actual use is. Since I am a geek and needed an excuse to put my electrical engineering degree to work, I set out to find out why with Josh and Alex’s help. Part of the difference was our PV array that powers most of our home’s small appliances and lights, but we also noticed that some large wattage appliances like the oven, toaster oven, microwave oven and hairdryers are easy to overestimate due to the fact that their wattage draw varies during usage. If we estimated 4 hours of oven usage the actual time the heating element was on would make a big difference in the actual wattage used. I was able to use an energy monitoring computer I have installed in my home to determine the average wattage our oven uses is 1000 watts per hour if cooking something for at least an hour, even though the coils use 2500 watts. The heating coils were cycling on and off once the set temperature was reached.

For items like the water heater, which may be rated at 4500 watts but mostly only runs when hot water has been used, the modeling software uses averages as determined by the Department of Energy. I found that our actual usage is lower than the averages, which could be because our water pressure is set low to save water and help our well pump, which doesn’t have to work as hard, plus our showers are short because of tight schedules in the morning, and we don’t run the water long to warm up the shower since our most used bathroom is right above the water heater. The DoE averages were fine for the purpose of the audit, however. I just wanted to see why our numbers were different.

The next part of the audit was the most fun. Thermal imaging cameras are like an X-ray machine for a home – they can detect and display temperature differences in materials – so for instance, if you look at a door you can see that the door is cooler than the surrounding walls (because it’s thinner and less insulated) and you may see air streaming around the edges of the door – leakage – that you can’t normally see and might not even feel. Josh went through the whole house, including the attic, viewing the walls, ceilings and floors to determine where there was temperature difference, and therefore, energy transfer (loss) Part of the reason we had to reschedule is that this particular part of the Audit requires a decent temperature difference between inside and out, and a calm day is helpful. A rainy, windy day with the outside temperature the same as the inside temperature is not the ideal condition for testing. The camera stores images just like a digital camera – so the worst places with energy loss were photographed and placed into the final report. We also took the time to look at some places where loss was particularly bad while the blower door was running to see the path that some leaking air was taking to get in the house – this allowed the option of sealing both ends of the leakage path rather than just the part we could feel inside the house.

The next test performed was to measure the duct leakage, which is critical in Central Texas due to the fact that most homes have their air handling equipment and ductwork located in the attic. Duct leakage can pull 120-140 degree attic air into the house, or create negative pressure which pulls that air or hot, humid outside air into the house through gaps and cracks in other parts of the home. A newly built home should have less than 10% duct leakage, but most older homes have much greater leakages – as much as 30-40% of the air could be wasted due to torn ducts or connections that have come loose. The duct leakage test was performed by Josh and Alex covering all of the registers and the return air grill in the house, then attaching a fan that pulls the air out from the duct system. A computer calculates the total airflow being “sucked” from the ducts, and based on the size of the AC system, the auditor can then calculate the leakage rate during normal system operation. My home has a very worn and leaky duct system that I’ve had to repair numerous times in the two years I’ve lived here. The ducts are in need of replacement due to the insulation material (fiberglass) falling off of the ducts due to the decay of the outer jacket. My main repair technique has been to wrap the broken ducts in new insulation and to seal them with aluminum foil tape to seal them up until we replace the whole system. We were rather shocked to find that the house was only leaking about 11-12% of it’s air. Apparently I did a pretty good job sealing up the leaks, but we could still see some major leaks with the thermal imaging camera. We re-tested the duct leakage by “blowing” air into the duct system just to double check our figures, and the results were the same.

Finally – the big test. The blower door test is similar to the duct leakage test, but on a larger scale. It measures the total leakage into the house from all sources other than the ductwork. This includes gaps around building materials like the exposed wood beam in my master bedroom, the cracks around windows and doors, and unknown sources – such as the vent duct under our kitchen floor for a downdraft range that was never installed. For the blower door test, the house is completely closed up and all interior doors are opened. One door of the home is then opened, and a tent-like apparatus with a metal frame and fabric panel with a large fan in it is installed in the opening. Pressure sensors then determine the airflow into the house just like the duct leakage test. The results are compared with the size of the house, and a figure is arrived at that shows the total air changes per hour. I was expecting my house to leak quite a bit due to errors in it’s construction, and the test did not disappoint. Every 8 minutes, my home can completely exchange it’s air with the outside air while pressurized. The test takes place with the house pressurized as if there is a 20 mph wind acting on all sides of the house, so it’s easy to understand why in the winter, with 30+mph winter winds coming up the hill toward my house, that the house can be so difficult to keep warm!

Once all of the testing was complete, Alex and Josh went back to their office and compiled the results into a comprehensive report. The report was in several sections, including energy consumption patterns, energy efficiency upgrades, (suggestions for improvements) results from the duct leakage and blower door tests, and the IR (thermal imaging) camera photos. Along with each section was information from the DoE with suggestions for improvements, with explanations written for the “normal” consumer who may not be an electrical engineer energy geek like myself. The report was personalized with suggestions based on the usage patterns of my family, and not just the national averages.

So what did I learn from the report? The biggest lesson was that most of the leakage in my house was through the interior, not the exterior walls and windows and doors where the builder had focused all his energy and effort in ’81. We found that the interior walls were letting in most of the leakage through interior electrical outlets (the ones in the outside walls were sealed) and through door casings and baseboard trim. The IR camera confirmed that this air was coming from the attic and between the first and second floor, which was not sealed from the outside when the house was built and which effectively made worthless the extra money originally spent on “upgraded” windows.. Because of these air leaks, any insulation present in these areas is worthless, because the air just goes around it and it might as well not be there. The solution is to partially disassemble the house and seal up the perimeter framing with spray foam, which will unfortunately mean the removal of part of the ceiling in nearly all of the rooms in my home. The Audit has told me however, that the payback in utility bill savings will be very long since we’re already using less than average amounts of energy to run our home. The decision to spend the money to make these upgrades will need to be justified by our comfort – reducing drafts and cold floors in the winter, and better temperature control in the summer.

The comprehensive energy audit allows us to decide how to spend our upgrade money and plan repairs in the future. We would like to remodel the interior in the next few years, and we now know that we should plan to remove some of the perimeter ceilings to fix the leakage in the floors and ceilings. We also know that we can continue to use our current forced air heating and cooling system until the end of it’s useful life, because replacement of the current system will not save us much energy due to reasonably low leakage and our minimal pattern of usage. Our plan is to schedule additional blower door and thermal imaging camera tests in the future after we make upgrades, to keep track of our progress and to make sure we’ve done all we can to tighten up our home and reduce energy usage with that project.

Thank you to BMC, Josh Peterson and Alex McIntyre for indulging my need to explore the inner workings of the audit process while conducting the audit on our home. In addition, I had invited others to observe the process, and Josh and Alex generously shared their knowledge and showed everyone how the equipment works and what they were looking for during the tests.

To obtain a copy of the test results and the audit report, please email me at and put “Energy Audit” in the subject line. Three PDF documents from the audit. (about 2.5mb total) will be sent to you. Thank you for your interest!

A New Life in Furniture

Over the last few years, many people have found value in buying pre-owned items from clothing to household items to furniture. Some of the most enjoyable moments in buying used is when you find something far better than you would have encountered had you gone to a big box store! It’s like winning the lottery!!

Pre-owned furniture has some definite advantages over buying new including no out gassing in your home, a second life product, no raw materials used in it’s second life, more of your money stays local , less expensive – more value, more variety, higher quality AND one less new item purchased encourages fewer new items made therefore reducing production waste. My rule for purchasing anything is to try to find a used product first before looking at a new one. I have found that I can most often find what I am looking for and often find better than I expected in a new item.

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting the owner of a local furniture consignment shop. Lisa Gaynor of “Design it With Consignment” has always loved furniture and made a career of it when she opened her first 4000 sq ft shop off S. Lamar six years ago. Her upscale consignment shop features brand names and high quality for 50 – 75% of the original purchase price. Lisa is moving her showroom to Steck and Mopac, expanding to 10,000 s.f. of showroom space. The new showroom will open sometime in February.

I talked with Lisa to find out how she finds quality home furnishings for her shop and she happily shared her secrets. In an upholstered piece of furniture, you should feel only the padding, not the frame, when you press down on the arm. Next, look at the cushion to inspect the zipper. A pocket for the zipper tap is a good sign. A better quality cushion will have the foam inside the cushion wrapped in netting, muslin or olefin.

Case goods are any piece of wood furniture. When looking for quality, run your hand along the back side of a hutch or dresser to feel for solid wood in lieu of particle board. In drawers, look for interlocking joints. Veneers are not always bad, especially if the veneer is a thick layer of a rare wood that has been artfully applied to a solid base. A well done job is tricky, and requires years of training. If a good veneer is done on a solid wood base, that is a good sign and is found on quality table tops, to prevent them from warping or cupping over time.

Lisa has found many simple and crafty ways to take care of and repair furniture. Simply keeping it clean with a microfiber cloth or regular vacuuming will make a big difference. Dust, dog hair and crumbs get caked into the upholstery which damages the fabric and is also not healthy. It is very rare to find a high quality resale shop that will take upholstery furniture which lived with a smoker.

For very delicate upholstery like tapestry or sequined pieces, she uses a panty hose over the vacuum hose! Clever!

Wood furniture is porous and needs to be moisturized. Lisa uses Natchez Solution ; a solution of lemon oil and beeswax. She conditions her wood 2 times a year and applies it with her bare hands because it is good for skin too! Let it sit for 20 minutes and polish off. This will also cut down your future dusting time.

For heat rings or overly waxed furniture, Lisa uses a product by Old Masters called Cleaner and Wax Remover It is very thin, like water and is applied with 4/0 very fine steel wool. Gently scrub the waxy build up in the direction of the wood grain and let it sit for 20-30 minutes. The wood gets a white haze which is unattractive, but you can feel that the wax is gone. Buff off the haze with a soft cloth. The next day, use Howard Restor-A-Finish with a color to match your wood. Apply with 4/0 steel wool, (in the direction of the wood grain) let it soak in. This may take 20 minutes to overnight, depending on the condition of the piece, and remove with soft cloth. 6 months later begin your Natchez treatments 2 times per year.

Lisa also likes to use the Melaleuca laundry products as a superior spot cleaner on upholstery. She recommends using the lowest concentration and strengthen as needed until the spot is removed. Always test on an inconspicuous spot first.

Lisa’s new showroom is located at 3301 Steck Avenue and the phone number is 512-301-9800

Visit her website at Lisa was kind enough to share so many of her time honored tricks and secrets, but I am sure she kept some to herself. Visit her lovely show room and you will be amazed at the quality and beauty of her furniture with a new life.

Insulation – It’s HOW You Use It

Insulation is an important component of comfortable, efficient buildings. While many people remember hearing about it quite a bit after the 1970s energy crisis’s, it’s history goes back a little farther than you might think.

Waaay back, because in Ancient times the Egyptians used thick brick walls to protect their homes from the heat of the sun and asbestos was used to insulate their clothing. (yes, the same asbestos we wear respirators while working around nowadays)

The Ancient Greeks and Romans used cavity walls, a technique now used in double pane windows. The idea was and still is that a “dead space” of still air will slow down transfer of heat between the two sides of the wall.

The Northern Europeans used a mud and straw mixture to press between the cracks of their log walls, called chinking. In addition to separating the heat and cold, it was also a good way to stop air infiltration. In the middle ages, walls were lined with cloth or ornate tapestries to keep the room warmer as well as absorb moisture from their damp stone walls.

In the industrial age, asbestos was used again to insulate steam and hot water lines, and in clothing to protect people working near intense heat in steel mills. Now that we know that asbestos fibers can get into our lungs and cause cancer, other forms of insulation such as fiberglass have taken asbestos’ place in those same applications.

When homes were built 100 or more years ago, insulation was not commonly used, and the solution to a cold home was to install more or larger fireplaces, and central heating (such as boilers and furnaces) were available to easily heat a whole house no matter how cold it was outside. In the summer, insulation wasn’t needed because large porches and overhangs combined with transom windows, high ceilings and large windows ventilated the house for cooling effect.

Only after central air and heating began to make an appearance along with increased energy costs did we realize that keeping the heated or cooled air inside our buildings was important. Rockwool and perlite were common in the middle of the century as people first started to fill up the cavities in their walls and cover attic floors. These were both forms of “loose fill” insulation – they were poured into the walls and spread on the attic. Over time, cellulose insulation made from newspaper has become the dominant loose fill insulation.

Batt insulation, first of Rockwool then Fiberglass, became popular due to the batt’s ability to stay in place in walls and ceilings during construction without the walls or ceilings being complete, and both types of batts were able to incorporate a basic vapor barrier in the form of tar-coated paper facing, helping provide moisture control.

More recent forms of insulation have included wet-applied cellulose insulation – which is sprayed onto a surface and it “sticks” as it dries due to starches in the cellulose, and spray foam insulation, which works by spraying a liquid onto a surface which then foams up and expands to fill gaps and cracks. Space exploration has also brought us reflective insulation – which is typically a metallic coating applied to a plastic film. While not separating heat and cold in the same manner as “bulk” insulation like the types described above, it nonetheless does stop heat transfer due to radiant heating, which bulk insulation cannot do without considerable thickness.

Installation of insulation has as much to do with it’s performance as what type is used. Batt insulation, while inexpensive and easy to install, must be placed into the wall cavities with surgical precision to be at it’s most effective. Spray foam insulation is easy to apply if you know how and have the proper equipment, but also suffers if cracks between framing members are not caulked first – the hot or cold air will just go right around the expensive and high performing foam and reduce it’s effectiveness.

So in summary, insulation plays an important part in how our building performs, but must work in tandem with the air seal to be most effective. Here is a comparison with some of the most common types of insulation used today.

Insulation ProductR ValueCostAdvantages / Disadvantages
Fiberglass BattR-13 – R-30 (R-3.25 per inch)$Low cost and quality quality product but a total fill installation is difficult. Craftsmanship is critical. No air barrier.
Recycled Denim BattR-13 – R-30 (R-3,4 per inch)$$A recycled product with no chemical irritants and less energy used in manufacturing. But any batt insulation is difficult to install properly. No air barrier.
Damp or Dry Blown CelluloseR-3.2 – R-4 per inch$A total fill application is not difficult and the fill is typically made with recycled newspaper treated with borate. It is safe for air quality. No air barrier.
Open Cell Spray FoamR-3.8 per inch$$$A quality installation is not complicated and total fill is complete because the foam expands into all crevices. An air barrier inherent however it is more expensive that other types of insulation.
Closed Cell Spray FoamR-7 per inch$$$$$A quality installation for total fill is not complicated. Because of the extra dense quality, roof leaks may not be immediately apparent. Much more expensive than other types.

The most common insulation specified in Green homes in Central Texas today is open cell spray foam applied to the underside of the roof decking in the attic, creating a sealed attic. In the walls, open cell spray foam is common as is blown cellulose because of cost and the fact that heat gain on the walls is not as great as on the roof. Blown cellulose can also be used at the underside of the roof decking, but the appeal of the foam is that the air seal is an inherent quality of the product. The combination of the air seal and a quality total fill installation of insulation is exponentially a greater advantage.

The Way to Weatherization

In recent newsletters we have discussed energy audits and ventilation and their relationship to maintaining comfort and good indoor air quality. The next step is to weatherize your home, which can help address air infiltration – the “bad” ventilation – while helping our homes fight the elements and last longer.

Buildings rely on many different materials to resist the sun, rain and wind. These materials are prone to shrinking or swelling, warping, cracking, and wearing down, so it’s very important to inspect the exterior of our homes twice a year and know what each area should look like. (see Green Living tip below) If you see caulking pulling out of a crack it’s obvious that repair is needed, but if you see gaps under a window or near the bottom of a masonry wall they might be there to properly drain the wall. You’ll have to know the difference!


In this photo, this little hole almost looks like it was made by a insect, but it was made by a mason for the purspose of letting condensation drip out from the back of the masonry. So don’t seal it!

Last month, we invited our readers to view an energy audit on a 30 year old Southwest Austin home. We had a great audience and the results were fascinating! The thermal imaging scan was so graphic, you could literally see streaks of heat where hot air was moving through the roof rafters at the vaulted ceiling. Isn’t this a fantastic photo!!!

The depressurization test, also known as blower door test, found major sources of air infiltration, including an unused vent in the slab that was pulling in moldy outdoor air from the soil in a flower garden, and air leaking through interior walls that was coming directly from the dusty attic. The reaction of those in the house during the test was immediate – that air was hard to breathe! It must be remembered though, that this “bad” air is always entering the house in small doses, so while the effects aren’t as dramatic as they were during the depressurization test, they are always there in small amounts! If you have an energy audit conducted, your more detailed knowledge of your home can even assist the auditor in tracking the sources of leaks. Thanks goes to BMC’s Energy Auditors, who performed the energy audit and entertained and amazed our guests.

Once you have found leaking areas it’s time to seal them up. Visit Building Performance International – BPI and find a certified weatherization expert in your area. Or if you like to “DIY”, you can pick up a caulk gun and spray foam and tackle it yourself.

Small cracks can be handled with sealant or caulking from a tube. Look for a product that has silicone in it and is paintable if necessary. Areas with metal to wood or metal to cement connections will generally best be sealed by a 100% silicone product. Ideally the crack is accessible from both sides and is wide enough to get a bead of caulk positioned between the two materials being sealed so that there is a cushion of caulk to move with the materials. More likely, however, is that only one side can be sealed and it’s an irregular shaped crack that the caulk can’t be pushed into. That’s OK, seal it anyway and check it each time you re-inspect the house. Cracks in some materials can be scraped to be a little wider so the caulk can be pushed in – that little bit of extra “surgery” will help the seal last longer.

Larger cracks and holes require something that can expand. Spray foam is ideal, but keep in mind there are two types. Minimally expanding foam is best around windows and doors. If you find that the jamb is leaking and put in standard polyurethane foam you can cause the frame around the opening to warp, interfering with the operation of the door or window. You can also seal other holes with the minimal expanding foam without as much worry of putting too much in. If you put too much standard foam it will come billowing back out of the opening over the next hour, making a sticky mess! Whichever type of foam you use, if it is exposed to light it will deteriorate, so apply caulk or latex paint over it to protect it.

When sealing up the house, prioritize your leaks, and hit the biggest first. Sealing the easiest 20% of your leaks will solve about 80% of your air infiltration problems. The harder to find leaks will take some time.

There are also products available to help in areas that might otherwise be difficult to seal. Electrical boxes are often not sealed, but are a major source for leaks. While you could ideally remove the cover (with the power off) and seal up around the outside of the box and the holes where the wire enters, there are products that stop most of the airflow with just a gasket and outlet caps. Maybe you do the gasket and caps one year, and then next invest the time to fix the back side of the outlets more permanently. Sealing should be an ongoing process.

Depressurization tests sometimes show that the outside walls are less leaky than interior walls – the air finds it’s way in through the attic or a crawl space and gets to the interior where sealing was not considered important, so once you think you have the outside walls sealed be sure to focus your attention on the interior walls! It may be possible to seal the walls from above in the attic, but if not, treat the interior openings such as doors, plumbing penetrations and electrical boxes as if they were on the exterior.

Now that you have sealed up your home – remember to repeat the process regularly. Materials will always keep moving around and changes to your home over time will create new paths for air to get in. If you are having major remodeling work done, consider testing the whole home with a blower door test to identify areas that might have been impossible to seal in the past but can now be accessed or where access could be gained with a little extra work. One example of this is having a trim carpenter remove and re-install it for a reasonable extra fee. You may find that the house uses less energy to heat and cool after the remodel, even when adding space.

In coming months, please watch for more information continuing this path of understanding building science. We will cover insulation, mechanical systems, thermal bridging and more in this series called Building Performance with Intention.

Come join us…

And see what’s Green in the Hill Country!

Custom Design Services is excited to be an exhibitor at the Fredericksburg Renewable Energy Roundup next weekend, September 24 – 26th.

We will also be an exhibitor at the Dripping Springs Rainwater Revival on Saturday, October 9th.


Green Living Tips!

We welcome inspirations from your home to put into future newsletters. Email them to me; Cammi Klier. Thanks!!

Do-It-Yourself Weatherization Inspection

Regular inspection of your home’s exterior will help you quickly identify unusual conditions that can lead to greater damage over time. Here’s a quick, basic inspection routine you can use a couple times a year to make sure you get the most life out of your home’s exterior materials.

The Inspection should start with checking the roof – either from a ladder or from the ground with a pair of binoculars. Observe the vent stacks and boots that seal where they go through the roof, looking for torn or bent material (such as where a tree branch may have fallen) Look for stains on the sides of fireplace flues or adjoining walls where the flashing may have leaked, and check that the flashings are properly lapped over each other from top to bottom – just like shingles. Remember that flashing materials are designed to shed and drain water so don’t be tempted to seal the bottom edges of the overhanging pieces.

Next, make sure that the drip edges along the edge of the roof are crisp and straight. Gutters should be clean and straight with no evidence of pooling water inside. Why are these items important? Water that never hits the wall below is much easier to keep out.

Next verify that the soffit vents (if present) are clear for easy air movement. Blocked soffit vents can contribute to the buildup of negative pressure in the attic, making air infiltration in the rest of the home more likely. Observe any caulked joints to make sure they are completely sealed, and check again that no water has leaked from the roof deck into the soffit area – signifying a leak somewhere further up the roof that hasn’t showed up inside the house.

Now look at the walls – again checking that all caulked areas are completely sealed and have not shrunk, cracked, peeled, or pulled away. Any place where one material meets a different material (such as a metal dryer vent on wood siding) is a likely failure point for caulking. Check the condition of the paint too. Any loose or chipping paint must be removed, the material below it re-primed, and re-painted before caulking as the caulk will not seal effectively if it’s applied to raw wood.

Now to the most important part – window sealing. Check that the materials around the window have not shifted. Check that the glass is properly sealed into the frame and that any glazing putty (rare these days) or rubber weatherstripping is not dried out and cracked. From the inside, check that all windows and doors are properly opening and closing in their frames and making good contact with the weatherstripping around them. Windows should be checked frequently throughout the year on their own because they may be opened during good weather then improperly closed and forgotten during the long cooling season, potentially adding unintended air infiltration for months at a time.

All joints should be typically be sealed with some exceptions – the bottom of the window sill and trim will sometimes have gaps near the sides of the windows. These are weep holes to allow water out, and should not be sealed. The same is true on the bottom of the window unit itself. There are slots or holes along the frame to allow water that gets in the frame to escape. Do not seal these up, they are designed many window frames. You will also most likely find holes or slots in masonry walls near the bottom and over openings. Sometimes they’re filled with rope, and they’re also called “weeps”. They are there to shed the water that has penetrated the wall further up because a hard rain with wind can actually drive water right through the mortar. Make sure these openings are clean and clear, other than rope or screen which is usually part of the drainage system.

Finally, inspect the foundation for signs of staining, splashing, or insects. The area immediately adjacent to the foundation should be clear for a foot or two to allow air to circulate to help dry the siding after rain occurs, and the ground should slope down away from the house for at least 10′ or as far as possible if on a small lot.

By inspecting the exterior of the home a couple times a year the homeowner can identify problems quickly and easily.

Thanks for reading today! Please watch for more on maintaining your home in a coming newsletter on maintenance manuals for new and remodeled homes. If a new car comes with a manual, shouldn’t your home as well?

The Ins and Outs of Ventilation

When designing a new home, most people give a lot of thought to a home with an efficient layout, warm pleasing interior, hansome elevations and plenty of light and views outside. One characteristic that is often overlooked, however, can make the home harder to keep clean, may reduce the life of the structure, increase the operating costs and can even make the occupants sick. It’s Indoor Air Quality, or IAQ, and it’s controlled by well designed ventilation.

We often associate pollution with transportation, manufacturing, and heavy transportation like trucks, buses and trains because it’s pretty easy to see in the air. Research has found, however, that often the air inside our homes is often more polluted than the worst smoggy day in a major city. Common activities in our home can reduce the air quality; cooking, bathing, cleaning, and even breathing all contribute to the pollutants in our homes. The materials we build and furnish our home with can also contribute to this indoor pollution, because most modern materials will “off-gas” when they are new – think of the smell of a freshly painted room or a newly laid carpet for instance.

How do we make sure that the indoor air is as clean as or cleaner than the outside air? Ventilation, of course! There are three types of ventilation; natural, mechanical, and infiltration. Natural ventilation is the means of using open windows to draw air through by use of the stack effect or wind. In mechanical ventilation a whole house fan or other power driven vent fan is used. Infiltration ventilation is the air exchange forced through leaks in the building envelope. Though the least desirable, infiltration is the most common way our homes are ventilated.

Natural and Infiltration Ventilation –

In the days before Air Conditioning and central heating, deliberate ventilation was accomplished with the use of windows and doors. Many traditional home features that are desired today, such as high ceilings, transom windows and wide porches, were put there to allow the owner control over the movement of the air! Moving the air through and around the house was the only way the occupants could stay comfortable. A home was often “operated” by opening and closing windows throughout the day, and if it was a very hot day, the occupants moved out to a sleeping porch to take advantage of the cooler night air! Older homes also had a lot of “accidental” ventilation – the leaks around radiator pipes, chimney flues, wood sash windows, and wide wood trim often kept the house aired out even when the occupants were trying to keep the house closed up.

These days, very few people have the time to “operate” their homes – they expect them to stay comfortable on their own and not require sleeping outside when the weather is hot. Most homes are also better insulated and tighter than they used to be. While we may be more comfortable without much work there are some drawbacks. Most heating and cooling in North America is done with a forced air system, typically in the form of a furnace with an air-conditioning coil. Warmed or cooled air is moved around the home by a powerful blower and ductwork. This equipment, however, can often set up pressure differences between different parts of the home and even between the interior and exterior which can make even a relatively tight home leak (infiltrate) air. This infiltration can cause a lot of problems and change the IAQ, and is in some ways worse than the “old” leaky homes.

When a house from the early 1900s leaked air, it was often through large gaps between building materials and the cavities in the walls. Moisture that was in the house would move very easily out of the house through these air currents, as well as through the open windows. When insulation came along it was simply tucked into the cavities, and buildings eventually started experiencing moisture problems because water would become trapped in the walls. Mechanical ventilation in the form of kitchen and bathroom fans was introduced and helped with moisture, but now created a negative pressure inside the house which would pull air with dust, mold, and pollen out of the gaps in the walls and ceilings! To make matters worse, once we started sealing up those gaps in the 1970s and 80s we found that the moisture was again being trapped in the walls because the air was no longer flowing even with the vent fans running, and mold and indoor pollutants began getting worse due to higher moisture levels in the homes. It seemed like “tight homes” were causing the problem, but it was the lack of proper ventilation!

Mechanical Ventilation –

Most people are familiar with the acronym HVAC. They know it has to do with heating and cooling a building – but the “V” is there for a reason – it’s Ventilation! Heating, Ventilating and Air-Conditioning systems always have a connection to the exterior on commercial systems to bring in fresh air to replace ‘stale’ air inside the building. Most residential systems, however, do not incorporate this “make-up” air in their design because it has been assumed that the house will be leaky enough to introduce enough air to keep the inside fresh. Once the homes are sealed up, that is no longer the case.

A properly designed HVAC system will follow a set of design criteria laid out in the ACCA Manual J. This series of calculations shows how much heating and cooling each room in a home needs, what it’s air supply should be, and even how much fresh air should be introduced into the home, room by room. It’s this part of the Manual J calculation that’s often omitted which can make homes unhealthy. Most older homes leaked at a rate of 1.75 to 2.5 ACH – or Air Changes per Hour.
Newer, “tight” homes leak at .25 to .35 ACH, or in other words, when under pressure, the air inside will be replaced every 3 to 4 hours. That might not be quick enough to vent out moisture or cooking odors or the fumes from that new carpet or paint. .25 ACH might even make a room feel “stuffy” because carbon dioxide from the occupant’s breath is concentrated.

A quality HVAC system will bring in outside air to replace the “stale” air and keep the pressure on the house as close to neutral as possible. A house under no positive or negative pressure will not leak air and therefore won’t be pulling pollutants like mold, dust or pollen in through the cracks. When the fresh air enters the house through the HVAC system, it can be filtered and brought up to the desired temperature before it enters a room, which means there will be no drafts.

How can we do better than a make-up air intake on our HVAC system? An Energy Recovery Ventilator, or ERV is a good choice. With this system, air is exchanged constantly through a set of smaller, dedicated ducts in the home that bring in fresh air and exhaust stale air through a heat exchanger. The more advanced heat exchangers – the kind we need in central Texas, also exchange humidity, so they reduce the humidity of the incoming air and send it back out with the “used” air. Advanced ERV’s can also adjust the pressure on the house as conditions change, such as doors opening and closing and wind currents outside, and they filter the air to a very high standard often referred to simply as HEPA, which effectively eliminates pollens, dust and molds that exist naturally in outdoor air.

Natural Ventilation – again!

OK, so we now know that we should seal our houses up tight and ventilate them correctly to reduce moisture, reduce pollutants, and to stay healthy – but it’s still possible to ventilate our houses naturally even with these improvements. Some days are just too nice to stay locked inside our Heated, Ventilated and Air conditioned boxes! We know that if we open our windows on a day with low humidity that the house will “air out” and we will save electricity and money, but how do we take advantage of the nice weather?

Well placed operable windows and doors with insect screens are the answer. There are several ways to take advantage of natural breezes in any house, such as opening more windows on the leeward, or “down-wind” side of the home, or opening all the windows upstairs and some of the windows downstairs to create a chimney effect, but your results may not be optimized if your house is not designed to take advantage of the breezes.

A home designed for good natural ventilation through the windows and doors will have good orientation of the windows to the wind, porches or walls positioned to direct extra air to the openings, and will even have operable windows in a clerestory, cupola, monitor or Tower to create a breeze where there is none by the chimney effect due to warm air rising and pulling fresh air in through the lower openings. If you are designing a new home – ask about these features. An added benefit of properly placed windows is day-lighting which will also save energy.

Ventilation has been one of the most neglected characteristics of new homes but as we’ve seen here – it shouldn’t be! Make sure that when you are designing or remodeling to remember how important the quality of the air you breathe can be to your well being as well as your wallet and make sure to ask about it during the design process.

Todays information on Ventilation is part of an ongoing series called Building Performance with Intention. Thank you for reading!

Green Living Tips!

I welcome inspirations from your home to put into future newsletters. Email them to me; Cammi Klier. Thanks!!

If you read our Energy Audit Basics article last month you may be interested in learning more about energy audits. You now have an opportunity to see one in action! Next Tuesday, September 7th at 2pm, a full scale energy audit will be performed at a residence in Southwest Austin. A blower door test, a duct leakage test, and a thermal imaging scan will be performed. The homeowner, Ron Van Sickle, is hosting an open house for people interested in observing and learning more about the process. Please RSVP to Ron at 512-745-1394.

Energy Audit Basics

In the last several years, home energy audits have gained popularity because of general awareness and The Energy Conservation Audit and Disclosure (ECAD) ordinance. This ordinance requires a home owner to disclose a homes energy performance to potential buyers.

A typical ECAD includes an inspection of the window shading, attic insulation, duct system (by a duct blaster test) and air infiltration / weatherization. While required for selling a home older than 10 years, it is not a complete audit and most likely will not find all of your weak spots. A more complete energy audit can include the ECAD and other inspections, a blower door test and/or thermal imaging.

A blower door test measures the air tightness of a building detecting leakage sites in the home. A door panel system with a calibrated fan seals an exterior door. The fan is used to blow air into or out of the building creating a pressure difference between the inside and outside. The pressure acts like natural barometric pressure and the pressure created in our homes mechanical systems which forces air through leaks in the envelope. The air flow is measured in pascal units. The higher the pascal rating, the higher the infiltration and leakage. You can use a smoke stick to visually see where your leaks are.

A duct blaster test is very similar to the blower door test. The fan is connected to the air handler, pressurized and measured to find leaks in the duct system.

An infrared camera can display heat energy as a visual image, called thermal imaging. These heat infiltrations identify where the insulation is weak or where leaks in the envelope exist. This is highly effective in illustrating to a homeowner how much of a problem exists in their home. In this thermal image, it is clear to see how the insulation has sagged at the top of the wall.


A typical energy audit cost can be from $250 – $1000 depending on the range of services.

With the results of the audit, a weatherization expert can help you seal the gaps and provide new insulation to help you save energy. Some auditors will provide post-testing and inspection to make sure weatherization has been done correctly. Some auditors will provide weatherization as part of their service.

The choice of professional can be:
BPI certified auditor by Building Performance Institute , RESNET auditor or RESNET HERS rater by Residential Energy Services Network, or an independent Auditor or Engineer.

An Energy Audit is important for new as well as existing homes. Builders who hire a HERS rater to rate a new home are providing an excellent service to their home buyers and insuring quality installations with their subcontractors. Homeowners planning to build can specify to the builder that the home be rated before they close. Any detected problems can be identified and corrected before they move in.

A special thanks to Dondi Atwell and Sean Jurica for their contribution to this information.

Dondi Atwell at ATS Engineers, HERS rater


Sean Jurica PE,CEM, Energy Auditor / Weatherization


Green Living Tips!

I welcome inspirations from your home to put into future newsletters. Email them to me; Cammi Klier. Thanks!!