Home Energy Monitoring

Here’s a post from Jetson Green about a new software/hardware system for tracking energy use: Plugwise Eliminates Excess Energy Use. I’ve been monitoring these types of systems for a while now and this one seems to offer the most user friendly experience so far. You can track by outlet or room the energy usage across the entire house. The cost could be a hurdle to getting this system widely placed enough to make a huge difference, the system shown on their screen views, to my calculations, would be in the $6-700 range at $50 per outlet. Package deals may be available. The next step I would like to see is a water usage app based around a similar platform. It shouldn’t be to hard with non-invasive fluid metering devices now available, someone just needs to make them wi-fi ready. Once that system is in place we can get on to my pipe dream of a holistic home energy center, able to monitor energy and water together, and while we’re at it let’s add combustion fuels and a way to track for example; how much energy solar thermal is saving per shower, or laundry load. I’m thinking big, and such a system would be out of reach for most homeowners, but if all houses could be tracked in such a way it could become a topic of conversation, a way of comparison. Imagine neighbors with competing high-performing homes instead of sports cars. That’s when we’ll get to the real energy savings.

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Urban and Regional Planning

City planning is a topic that interests us here at Flying Colors but it’s really outside our sphere of influence professionally. That’s okay though, that means we get to not take it so seriously and enjoy videos like this one about Jerry Gretzinger. A thoroughly fascinating process, and an interesting individual.

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Green in tone and principle

Emory Knolls Farms in Street, MD

I just got back from a visit to Emory Knoll Farms, an amazing place to pick up green roof plants. We installed two green roofs this past month here in Baltimore, the plants I was picking up were for the smaller of the two, a 150 square foot composition on the front of our own building. While intended to serve as an example for potential clients, I am also very excited about the potential to look out of the upper floor windows upon a lush bed of green.

Emory Knolls is unique in the nursery industry as they have focused for the last 10 years solely on vegetation for green roof applications. A 5th generation family farm, it is now run by the appropriately named Ed Snodgrass, and is staffed by some of the most friendly and helpful people I have come across. I was treated to an impromptu tour of the growing areas, as well as a few of the many test gardens they have set up, which were quite inspiring. Upon explaining my desire to inspire the local neighborhood, it was suggested that I might be able to coax some delosperma cooperi, or Ice Plant, to cascade over the parapet walls in time, so I left with a flat, as well as 4 more mixed flats to create an undulating sea of various shades of green.

It’s fortunate that Emory Knolls is so close to us here, as Baltimore itself happens to be one of the leading cities in green roofs as demonstrated by this 2010 study. While driven by commercial installations, anecdotal evidence and our own workload has shown that homeowners are getting their hands dirty as well. Quite often as I am picking up supplies, I see someone cramming drainage plates or separation fabric into a compact car. Other times I have homeowner friends put forward their ambitions for rooftop gardens. We are fortunate as well to have Blue Water Baltimore, a great organization with the mission of reviving the areas waterways. Area homeowners interested in seeking to reduce the impervious surfaces under their stewardship can seek assistance and even grants to facilitate their projects through some of Blue Water’s initiatives. Not only are we removing runoff into the bay, but we are helping to reduce the heat island effect and hopefully even lowering heating bills.

If you’re in the Baltimore/Washington metro area and interested in green roofs, give us a call. There are a wealth of resources in our community and we can help get you pointed in the right direction.

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appropriate technology

In a recent conversation with a friend I used the term ‘appropriate technology’ and I got a blank stare. Although it was declared dead recently, it is generally the idea that in making choices with regards to technology, you select that which is the simplest machine you need to complete a given task. It was conceived by EF Schumacher in the book Small is Beautiful and in the beginning generally was applied to developing nations who had a large labor pool yet little capital for purchasing technology. As it was adapted to the western world it came to represent choices that are more sustainable. It’s a substantial subject and possibly one more for economists and engineers, but it’s something I like to think about and how it relates to how we do business at FlyingColors. Contracting is an equipment heavy business, from tools to vehicles, and with our decidedly unspecialized approach, we often need to source equipment specific to a single job. That’s when I try to think about what’s appropriate for our situation. Do we need the latest widget that does a million-and-one things or do we have something we can adapt for the situation. I often think about the resourcefulness of entrepreneurs I’ve seen in Latin America who might have a vehicle that is more often than not loaded at, or slightly above, capacity. I think the tendency here in the States is often to buy more than you need – just in case. But is that really the best way? Larger equipment means higher maintenance costs and higher usage costs for unused capacity. On the other hand, we all know that not having the right tool for the job leads to poor results. So what is the answer? It might be found in the Swedish word lagom which roughly translates to ‘just the right amount’, which I think is the balance I seek, or even in the Buddhist philosophy of the middle way which is said the Buddha realized as he stood on the banks of a river listening to a lute player. He realized that if the string was too tight or too loose, the pitch wouldn’t produce a harmonious sound. I think that gets back to the heart of appropriate technology, seeking technology solutions that are harmonious with our needs.

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HardiPanel as an open joint rainscreen?

I have a client interested in an open joint rainscreen. We have installed them before, problem is the usual concrete panels for this application are quite expensive, so I have been investigating using HardiPanels. One nice thing about the pricier panels is that they are through colored and have a beautiful surface with the slight color variations that concrete is famous for, the HardiPanel must be painted. The benefit of Hardi is that they cost about one half to one quarter of what typical panels cost that are sold for open joint installs.  In speaking with Hardi, they initially relayed that their product is ‘not permitted’ for use as a rainscreen. After further dialog, they sent me a pdf outlining the correct procedure for rainscreen applications. Problem is, they also stated that all joints must be ‘concealed’, that rules out open joint applications. My feeling is that they want to be absolved of liability due to moisture problems from a poor install. The ironic part is that in an open joint wall, their panels would be exposed to far less long term moisture damage. Am I willing to take the risk and liability of an unauthorized install? I certainly don’t want to get stuck with a costly tear-out, and worse, repairing water damage to the rest of the building. With a properly detailed moisture barrier, I’m confident I can avoid the second, as far as the panels holding up, they should stay consistently drier than a typical Hardiboard so I’m willing to take the risk. I won’t get the beautiful concrete surface, or the excellent customer support I’ve gotten from companies like CBF, but it seems like a valid option for a more economical install.


If you are going to attempt something like this there are a few things to keep in mind; the waterproofing of the building must happen beneath the rainscreen, with the building wrap, and standard Tyvek style wraps will NOT work. There are products out there which are engineered for these types of installs, for example VaproShield, but they need to be installed correctly. In addition when using HardiPanel all 6 sides must be painted, cuts included. The particular mix of concrete James Hardie uses has wood pulp mixed in which can absorb water and destroy all your hard work. Good luck and good night.

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rainy day reflections

It’s been raining here in Baltimore this week. It’s good because everything is super green. That makes me happy because we’re installing a green roof and I want to imagine a lush surface with leaves cascading down building walls. It is also frustrating because it means we can’t work. We’re using a liquid applied membrane which requires an absolutely dry surface. So as I sit inside watching the rain, I’ve been going through some books by the late Malcolm Wells. He was an avid supporter and visionary, not only of green roofs but an entire civilization covered with vegetation.

I find his books interesting not only for his beautiful drawings, but for the fantasy world he creates based on sound principles of sustainability. As a thinker and architect, he promoted a humble existence in symphony with our surroundings, which he wasn’t able to live to see widely accepted. Now if only this rain would stop, we might be able to make our small contribution to his vision.

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