Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Global Warming Begins (and Ends) at Home

By Matt Cantor
Friday June 09, 2006

Although I am generally sympathetic with the varied plights of the home buyer, I have to admit, in all my curmugeonitude that I have no tears to shed for anyone in Berkeley that has to meet the requirement of our RECO ordinance. 

No, I’m not talking organized crime (although I have more and more trouble distinguishing between government and organized crime as the days flow by—that’s RICO, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations), but I date myself (and I had a very nice time too, thank you very much). 

I’m talking about our Residential Energy Conservation Ordinance. When I look down the list of requirements that compliance entails, it’s just beyond me to feel anything other than pride and pleasure that we finally institutionalized some of the things that we were all talking about so passionately back in the ‘70s. 

This is the rubber on the road and it’s nicely presented and fairly non-violent. There are even spending limits for every house that rough out to less than 1 percent (actually 0.75 percent) than the purchase price for a house. So when you buy your little bungalow for $700K (amazin’ ain’t it!) you won’t have to pay more than about five thousand dollars to comply. 

Actually, a lot of the RECO jobs end up costing far less than that. It’s also something that only has to be done once per sale cycle and since RECO rules don’t change very fast, a house can actually change hands several times without having to do very much at all. 

But none of these things are the thrust of my arguments in favor of RECO. They are the simple and vital care of the planet. If any of you haven’t yet seen Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, it’s time to rush out and see it. One thumb up from this reviewer. 

We who live in the developed world should be doing all we possibly can to help reverse the harm we’re doing to our atmosphere and the RECO ordinance focuses almost exclusively on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from your house (or the power-plant that feeds your house) and it does so in the best possible way, by conserving the heat that you’ve already placed in your house.  

In other words, it doesn’t force you to turn your heat down, your lights or your shower off after 5 minutes. 

It just makes sure that these processes don’t liberate any more excess heat than is necessary. Furthermore, the benefits to you are more than spiritual—there are real financial benefits to be had as well. 

A well-insulated house costs a lot less to heat and the cost of insulating your home is going to come right back to you in terms of our rapidly increasing PG&E bills. 

So, when you complete your RECO checklist, you get to feel good about helping the earth, good about the cost savings you’ll experience and good about making some capital improvements in your house. So, what has to be done to comply? 

First and foremost is attic insulation. Attics, when they meet accessibility requirements, have to be insulated to R-30. This can be done with blown-in cellulose (which I’m not crazy about), blown-in fiberglass, fiberglass batts (my favorite, especially when they’re fully surrounded with a plastic film) or any of the newer breed that’s coming down the pike including (no joke) recycled denim jeans (you get extra credit if your old lady embroidered ecology symbols on them first). 

Insulating the attic is the prime expense in most RECO lists and it does a great deal of good by keeping the warmth inside the house. 

You can do this job yourself but be cautious about the respiratory effects of dealing intimately with fiberglass or the detritus in your attic. A respirator is de-regeur, as well as long sleeve everything when doing this job. 

The list also includes wrapping your water heater in a blanket (unless it’s inside the heated part of the house). The hot and cold pipes attached to this also need a little bit of insulation (2’ in each direction). Very simple. A damper is needed for your fireplace. 

If you don’t have one, there are two relatively simple solutions. One is a damper installed at the top of the chimney (controlled by a cable that drops down into the fireplace), or a set of glass doors. The latter can be done by you, if you choose, but an expert might be the better choice for the former. 

Toilets, showerheads and sink faucets need various restrictors to control excessive water use. These are all very simple and in most cases just require a little device to be screwed on, which lowers the use of water. 

For showering this can be a bit of a hardship but a review of the best low-flow showerheads should result in at least one good choice. Toilets get dams to lower the amount of water (unless they are already 1.6 gallon types). 

By the way, I’d like to say, for those of you who have had a bad experience with low-flow toilets that these have improved greatly in the last few years and the early models which failed to do the job on the first try have been replaced by ones that actually work.  

The last things on the list are these: check your ducts for leaks and insulate them with at least R-3 (about 1” thick) insulation. This may mean no work at all if your system is relatively modern. 

Next is insulation on a hot-water heating system (almost nobody has these and anyone who has an uninsulated hydronic system needs this anyway (and badly). Then there is the requirement to put flourescents in common areas on your multi-family common areas (the laundry room in the duplex). 

This is super easy and it makes so much sense. I’ve got compact flourescents (free from Ranch 99!) in my laundry room and it’s just fine. 

I don’t do much reading down there anyway and then I don’t have to yell at my kids when they leave the light on. The last one is exterior weather-stripping. This one matters a lot. Many exterior doors leak lots of heat and the small cost of this job has big returns. 

When you think about this simple list of things to do, think about the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have already died in Iraq over a war which mightn’t have been fought at all if we didn’t feel that we needed all that oil. Also, think about the shrinking polar ice caps and planet your children will have to adopt from their foolish parents. 

RECO is like a kindergarten course in the reduction of global warming. If you live in Berkeley and have to meet these regs, raise your head high and do it with pride. 



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at realestate@berkeleydailyplanet.com.