My Big Fat House Green-Up

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by Maryann Moise Derwin

First, it was about water. During the warm summer months my Cal Water bills struck fear in my heart, and rates were scheduled to significantly increase in the next three years. I knew I had to find a way to use less water without sacrificing my beloved landscaping and still stay ahead of the bills.

I started researching the pros and cons of greywater recycling—reuse of household greywater—vs. rainwater harvesting—capturing rainwater from the roof. I studied what other countries were doing. Australia, for example, mandates water conservation. But absent the technical expertise to identify the system best suited for my needs and a knowledgeable contractor to help me, I hit a brick wall. Frustrated and confused, I turned to the only person I knew capable of pointing me in the right direction, my neighbor Linda Yates. She recommended Bobby Markowitz of Earthcraft Landscape Design.

After reviewing the bills and walking my property, Bobby delivered the shocking news that my lawns were using 100,000 gallons of water a year. He advised against greywater recycling arguing that installation, in my case, would require opening interior walls. Plus, with only yours truly currently living in the house, there wasn’t that much water to recycle. Instead, he proposed a 30,000-gallon capacity rainwater harvesting system, catching rain in the roof gutters and directing it through the downspouts into underground pipes that conveyed it to six 5,000 gallon storage tanks installed above ground on a portion of my 3-acre property. The stored rainwater would flow into the irrigation system and water my landscape. Bobby also insisted that I replace my 8-year old shamefully wasteful irrigation system with all drip as well as convert my lawns to water-thrifty plants.

I signed contracts, watched a maze of ditches being dug on the back slopes and enormous green water tanks being installed in a corner of my property, tucked in among the oaks.

Later, the epic swath of sod in the back yard was cut up, turned over and left to decompose to be planted in November with native grasses grown from seed by Acterra.

Next came the house and pool. I live in a mid-1960s, 3800 sq. ft. rancher and despite three remodels in the past seventeen years, the rooms were too warm in the summer and too cold in the winter. The supersized furnace was on its last legs. The pool heater had stopped working after a resident rat had chewed through the wiring, and the tired old pool pump woke me up every morning at dawn when it turned itself on, whirring and roaring like a low flying plane. Too, despite investing in solar photo voltaics three years ago through the group buy with Solar City, my PG&E bills were still too high.

Working with Brandi de Garmeaux, the Town’s Sustainability Coordinator, I narrowed the field of home audit companies to Ennovationz and Sustainable Spaces, ultimately choosing the latter because they seemed better suited to what I wanted done and what I was willing to spend. After answering a questionnaire, submitting utility bills and chatting back and forth, the audit date was set and two guys with a lot of equipment spent four hours putting my house through a battery of testing including one called a blower test in which I was able to actually feel air whooshing through numerous mysterious holes in the walls, ceiling, doors, etc.

A week or so later, I was presented with a detailed report complete with hideous photographs of my spottily insulated attic, recently visited by rats. I chose to do most of the recommended work, including sealing the building envelope, insulating the attic with blown in recycled cellulose and the floors with icynene spray foam, reworking the ducts, replacing the heat registers and non IC can lights, installing a 95% efficiency furnace w/high efficiency air filter, adding solar thermal pool heating and a new variable speed pool pump. I also opted for an electronic chlorine generator for the pool that makes chlorine from salt.

Water Saving Results: A month after converting the irrigation to all-drip and programming the system to deliver far less water, my Cal Water bill dropped nearly 50%. The next month, after I turned off the water on my back lawn, the bill dropped another 50%.

I won’t kid you—pre October rains, the yard looked more parched California hills in August than lush English garden, but as I continue to replace non-natives with natives and group the water thirsty plants together, I think I’ll strike a happy medium.

As for the rain catchment system, after the first storm of the season’s torrential rains, I collected about 6,000 gallons of water!

Energy Saving Results: Now when I turn on the new furnace, the house heats up quickly and stays warm, even when the thermostat has been turned off. Rooms are more uniformly comfortable, drafts are a memory and the house seems cozier and quieter. Too, the air quality is improved, something I, as an allergy sufferer, can greatly appreciate.

The new pool pump is so quiet I don’t hear it unless I walk outside, the pool water no longer burns eyes and my roof is now wonderfully cluttered with another array of solar panels, ready to heat the water when I turn the system back on next spring.

At the time of writing this story, I haven’t received a PG&E bill to measure energy/cost savings.

Cost: Not inexpensive. My amazing rainwater harvest system plus additional work on the back slopes for erosion control cost about $60,000, not including project management fees. Permit costs were $1060. The irrigation re-do, including a new controller with a sensor that measures temperature and humidity and 8 cubic yards of compost to cover the above-ground irrigation piping was $4800.
The work on the house and pool was about $51,000, permit costs negligible. The Home Audit cost $495.

Tax Credits and Rebates: I received a $100 rebate check from PG&E for the pool pump and I’m hoping to get a $300 rebate check for the furnace. I am also eligible for federal tax credits of $1500 each for the insulation and furnace.

While I’m not sure I will live long enough to break even on all of the improvements if measured by reduced water and utility bills, I’m confident that the value of my house, should I choose to sell, will increase, particularly as HERS ratings (Home Energy Ratings) become the industry standard. Most important, as I watch my tanks fill with rainwater and turn off the thermostat on a chilly October evening, I feel happy in my heart that I have taken care to use precious resources in economical and sustainable ways.

Maryann is a Westridge resident and member of the Portola Vallley Town Council. If you have questions or would like to be added to the list of invitees for her House Party featuring a rep from Sustainable Spaces, you can email her at