Greening of a House on McGee Street

Shauna and Mark, both retired software engineers, live in a small two-bedroom house on McGee Street in Berkeley. The house was built in 1907. In 2022, they gave it a “greening.”

We sat and talked in chairs in the garden in their backyard. Shauna wore a t-shirt that was emblazoned with the words “Bringing Back the Natives Tour.” The tour it refers to is of gardens in the East Bay area where at least 60% of the plants are native to the area.

She was saying that native plants complement each other and feed beneficial birds and insects. Then she broke off and said, “See, there’s a monarch butterfly right there hanging out in our yard.” It began sunning itself on the leaf of a tomato plant next to a milkweed bush in full bloom.

The butterfly was a sign of rebirth. After a precipitous drop in its population, the monarch (which is native to the United States and Mexico) is starting to come back. There is a movement of sorts of folks who grow milkweed just because the monarchs eat it and breed on it.

Shauna and Mark’s neighborhood is full of gardens: fruit and vegetable plants, native plants and every other sort of greenery. On the sidewalks, there is a flow of foot traffic of people of many different cultures, all of whom make Berkeley their home. They smile and say hello. It feels almost utopian.

The couple met in the mid-1980s volunteering for Tecnica, an organization that sent tech workers to do two-week training and other support in Nicaragua. They also spent six months providing technical support in Mozambique and Zimbabwe with Tecnica around the time the apartheid system fell in South Africa.

Shauna’s mother was a social worker, and her father was an avid gardener, laying the basis for her concerns with social justice and the environment. Upon arriving in Berkeley as a student, she began to absorb political and environmental influences from her peers. She learned, she said, to “think globally and act locally.”

The decision to green their house was made primarily to lower their carbon footprint. It also made them more resilient. If there are power cutoffs, the new battery on their back porch stores electricity from their new solar panels and will take over the powering of their home.

They switched from gas to electric with a new heat pump water heater, heater and induction stove. Switching from gas improved their earthquake safety, made them more efficient and brought an improvement in functionality.

“I think a lot of things start here in Berkeley, and the rest of the country kind of laughs at them for a while,” Mark said. “And then eventually they start becoming more mainstream.”

For example, a new ordinance went into effect in 2020 that bans natural gas hookups in new home construction. Reading about that in Fresno, I did think it was kind of funny. However, learning from Shauna and Mark, I can see it is mission critical in the effort to reduce fossil fuel use.

They switched from gas heating and cooking to electric with new heat pump versions and an induction stove. Heat pumps are the product of constantly improving technology originally based on refrigeration, which can efficiently produce both cooling and heat from small amounts of electricity.

They installed two heat pump units, one for HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and one for hot water. The HVAC “mini-split” system uses its single outside compressor to send either warmer or cooler liquid (as needed) to three separately controlled, fan-driven wall-mounted indoor units.

They placed 12 solar panels on their roof after they insulated the roof and put on reflective shingles. They went for high-end panels with microinverters that convert from DC to AC before sending the power they gather down to the home and its battery.

While the heat pump for the water heater is in the crawl space beneath the house, its tank is on the outside, inside a stainless-steel cabinet. It stands next to a catchment tank, one of two, that collects rainwater for watering the garden. “Gray water,” which is water from the washing machine and the bathtub, flows underground to where there is a small, but thriving apple tree.

Online during the pandemic there was a green homes tour. It produced a dozen videos, Shauna said, of different people’s houses. The videos showed “the unique ways they each dealt with greening their homes, which really inspired me.”

Shauna and Mark’s greening took five months. Choosing top-of-the-line products, it came at a cost of $76,500 after rebates and tax credits. They worked with various contractors, and they worked in stages, insulating the roof first, then adding solar panels, then installing the new electrical systems and appliances.

The induction stove uses electromagnets to heat and cool quickly. It needed installation of 220-volt wiring. That will also make possible a charger for an electric car in the future. To top off everything, they installed a new circuit breaker, replacing a creaky old one that was a fire hazard.

“We fall at the tail end of what you would call early adopters,” Shauna said. “The technology has been improving quickly, and the information [on how to use it] hasn’t gotten out to people so well. So, we wound up having to research things on our own.

“But that’s changing because the information is getting out. And nonprofit agencies are helping out, helping people to keep track of everything.”

Early adopters have done the service of making it possible for prices to go down for an increased number of subsequent users.

However, as more consumers go solar, PG&E and other electricity and gas corporations have been influencing the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to reduce financial support for the installation of solar energy equipment and even to charge a prohibitively expensive monthly fee for connection to the grid for solar users. The fee would go in part to maintain power lines, as PG&E strives to make a profit.

Glen Garfunkel, legislative chair for San Jose Community Energy Advocates, said that in mid-August the PUC decided to postpone decisions about support of solar for a full year so they can be better considered. He thinks this is helpful.

“It’s a complicated problem,” Garfunkel said. “Overall, I think the big overriding goal of all this is to be able to reduce [costs] for everybody equitably, reduce our emissions [and] our carbon footprint and keep the grid reliable at the same time.

“There’s many different stakeholders. The rooftop solar installer industry is a strong vocal stakeholder, but their interests, of course, might go against the utilities, and the homeowners have another set of interests and so on.

“So, it’s hard to make everybody happy, but in the end what we want is a system that [respects that] the most important thing is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as quickly and financially as practically and equitably as possible.”

Garfunkel added that experts will be going over President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act to figure out exactly what further supports there are for environmentally sound home energy policies.

In the meantime, rebates and credits stay in place for going solar. There is also financing available, which can be paid off, in part, by savings from electric bills, including credits for adding power to the grid (when excess power is generated).

The structure for those credits could change for new users when the PUC makes its ruling in a year. During that year is a time for folks interested in greening their homes to one extent or another to exercise their influence.

*****

In the photo above: Shauna and Mark’s green home. Attached to the wall on the second floor to the right is an HVAC unit, with conduits leading to three indoor heating/cooling units. On the porch is a battery for solar power, about the size of a small refrigerator. At the far left is a stainless steel cabinet inside of which is a water tank for the water heater. If you look carefully, next to the hot water tank, toward the porch, is a catchment tank for rainwater from the roof for watering the garden. Photo by Peter Maiden

Peter Maiden is the photo editor of the Community Alliance newspaper.

  • Peter Maiden is the photo editor for the Community Alliance newspaper. He studied media at UC Berkeley. Contact him at maidenfoto1@gmail.com.

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