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Old World Solutions for Amazingly Efficient Modern HVAC Alternatives

Posted by Ruben Keogh on November 25, 2013
Old World Solutions for Amazingly Efficient Modern HVAC Alternatives
As cool as having a green, living roof is/would be, turning your house-top into a garden just isnt a practical option for a lot of people.

I’m anything but a Luddite (I suppose I wouldn’t be writing an article for the internet if I was). If given the choice between a “classic” piece of equipment/technology and the most recent version or, say, between a homeopathic/alternative medical treatment and the most contemporary course of Western treatment, it’s a no-brainer: I’ll take the modern option every time. I only bring this up to clarify that I’m not the type to take “they don’t make anything like they used to” as a default position.

That being said, there are a few cases in which the old (even ancient) methods for keeping a home at a comfortable temperature were fixed, despite not being broken—sometimes to the detriment of the environment’s health and the homeowner’s pocketbook. Here are a few examples of the unbroken-fixed, from the ground up.

The Ground Floor

A friend of mine committed to building an entirely green home and aware of my interest in and familiarity with all things heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), invited me to check out her earth-based air conditioning setup. Considering our dual familiarity with the much-lauded advances in geothermal heating and cooling, I thought she’d rigged up a DIY geotherm coil or something. It turns out that her solution was even lower-tech than that. It was a passive cool-air distribution apparatus that consisted of a tube sticking out of the ground.

She’d dropped a shaft down to a cooler layer of earth, lowered her pipe into it and attached a small fan to distribute the cool air throughout that level of her home. The contraption seemed about as useful as a spoiler on a pickup truck… until she turned on the fan. It really worked. Well. And for a fraction of the price that running a traditional air conditioning unit would cost.

Above ground, builders, contractors, and homeowners have been increasingly drawn to the ease, efficiency, and eco-friendliness of less synthetic flooring material. The most popular components for flooring right now are also the greenest­­—not a coincidence. Those almost entirely include substances that would have been familiar to our pre-Industrial Revolution forbearers: cork, bamboo, reclaimed lumber, and hardwood that’s been verifiably sustainably harvested. They’re great insulators, easier to clean, and far less environmentally taxing than carpet, linoleum, concrete, etc.

Walls, Siding, and the Roof

Modern architects, construction companies, and contractors are looking at many of the same materials for siding. Much of our recent residential (and commercial) siding material history has been defined by the popularity of synthesized, semi-synthesized and refined stuff: vinyl, aluminum, steel, and concrete board. Unfortunately, while they’re hardy, they’re not particularly environmentally friendly. The production process for vinyl is caustic, as is the refinement of aluminum. Steel is less energy and pollutant-intensive than aluminum but still far from super-green and coloring containing PVCs are par for the course with steel. Concrete board usually contains fly ash, which is both a health and environmental hazard.

Wood, however, is produced primarily via solar energy (and chlorophyll). Wood used to be unpopular primarily because it was considered much less enduring than its metal and synthetic counterparts. And the preservatives, sealants, and shellacs used to toughen it up were nothing you’d really want your kids or your verdant forest ecosystem interacting with. Despite the old-school heating and cooling angle of this article—the technology for wood siding and roofing technology, and its preservatives, has vastly improved in recent years. If you insist upon buying Forest Stewardship Council-OK’d wood construction products, going with wood shingles and shake for your siding and roofing can prove the greenest and most aesthetically-pleasing option.

When going with wood shake or shingles for the roof, consider the lightest shade available. Having a light or white roof alone can cut cooling costs 20% or more, not to mention cutting CO2 emissions from A/C units by one ton every year. However, the most efficient and arguably coolest (in all ways) roofing option is also the oldest school. It’s a variation of the thatch roof but with living thatch—the green or living roof.

You may have seen them: building crowns composed of sod with actual foliage growing. They’re amazingly effective insulators, slashing HVAC expenditures between 50–90%! They absorb CO2 and virtually eliminate rainwater runoff.

Your Current System

As cool as having a green, living roof is/would be, turning your house-top into a garden just isn’t a practical option for a lot of people. Don’t despair though, there are steps you can take to improve the HVAC system you have in place. Most people heat with either hydronic or forced air systems, both of which, of course, are a mixed bag of pros and cons.

The first and most important of those aforementioned steps is basic maintenance and upkeep. If you have a hydronic water or steam HVAC system, bring in a tech to check the piping, pumps, coils, seals, etc., for leaks, corrosion, breaks and cracks, calcification, blockage and anything else that can threaten your heating/cooling efficiency.

For forced air units, be sure that all of your filters, ducts and grilles are new and/or up-to-date, and that they’re clean. As someone unlikable would say: “A clean and well-running HVAC system is a happy HVAC system, and an efficient one.” And, just as an added treat, consider fabricating your own cool, DIY floor or wall grille. Good luck and stay cool… or warm, whichever is more appropriate at the time.


Ruben Keogh is a retired plumber and sprinklerfitter who discovered his true calling after graduating from apprentice to journeyman blogger. When he acquires enough experience, wit, and insight to become a master blogger, he'll let you know. Meanwhile, Keogh spends his time daydreaming about the fishing in Costa Rica, surf and turf grilling, and his lovely wife Gina (not necessarily in that order, of course).

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