http://pleasantonweekly.com/print/story/print/2013/03/29/home-sweet-low-energy-home


Pleasanton Weekly

- March 29, 2013

Home, sweet low energy home

Couple aims for comfort and is rewarded with lower bills

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

When Anne and David Stark landscaped their front yard in Pleasanton three years ago, their goal was for it to be low maintenance and water efficient as well as attractive and enjoyable.

They hired Livermore landscaper Susan Ballinger to design a replacement for the lawn, which needed watering twice a day in the summer.

"And the rest of the year it didn't look that good," David said.

Ballinger chose a generous number of drought tolerant plants placed around a floor of flagstones with Dymondia growing in between.

"A big truck pulled up and started disgorging all these plants," recalled David with a laugh.

Ballinger placed each plant in its appropriate spot and the Starks -- veteran do-it-yourselfers -- went to work.

"We planted them all," Anne said, remembering both the hard work and the satisfaction.

The front yard is anchored by a slightly mounded central garden with a basalt column bubbling fountain, which is run by solar energy from a panel on the sunny side of the house. Raised flagstones provide seating around the perimeter, a perfect place for the Starks to enjoy the blooms and the soothing sounds of running water.

"It created this whole new big space," David said.

A drip irrigation system with more than 200 emitters supplies the scant water the plants need.

But the Stark's biggest move toward energy efficiency has come with improvements inside their home, which is in Amador Estates, built in 1965-66. Stark is public affairs director of the Bay East Association of Realtors, and when he was approached by a regional energy efficiency group, he offered up his own home as a site to train energy auditors.

"They were welcome to use our house but I said I want to sit in on the training," he recalled.

A half dozen contractors came to the training and were led through the procedure -- looking for drafts, checking the insulation, water heater, heating and air conditioner units, lights, windows and doors.

"They had a field day with our furnace. It was the original furnace from 1965," Stark said. "It gave me pause -- they spent a lot of time testing for combustive gases."

The Starks bought the home 12 years ago, moving from a condominium mainly because they needed a garage to store and do maintenance on the vintage motorcyles they both race. They knew the older home needed upgrades but wanted to do them in a cost-effective manner.

"We definitely live within our means," David said, explaining that they keep the thermostat low. "We wear hoodies -- and snuggle up."

At the end of the energy inspection, the auditors had a long list of deficiencies.

"The bottom line? The house was bad news," David said. "At the culmination we realized this really was a 'leaky' house."

The Starks looked into solar energy and were told their home had the ideal roof, facing south and with no shade. But their energy bill was already so low that the investment was not worth it.

They said the real reason for their energy conservation improvements was to have a more comfortable home, which they share with their two cats, Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo.

"It's nice to save energy but that was not the real reason we did it," David said.

"And we didn't do the project to make the home more valuable," he emphasized. "We're not expecting any kind of return on inverstment -- aside from a more comfortable home."

As with the yard, they were hands-on with the house's energy upgrades.

"We removed the insulation in the attic ourselves," Anne said. "It was a really awful job."

Donned in face masks and goggles, they removed 30 full-sized garbage bags of the old disintegrated insulation.

"At one point we looked at each other cross the attic and said, 'At least we're together,'" David recalled.

Then the professionals blew 14 inches of new insulation into the attic. They also installed new ducts, sealed the old attic entrance and cut a new access in the hallway, and relocated the heater to the attic. This freed up the small hallway closet, which was converted for storage.

"They also suggested a vapor barrier under the floors -- insulation under the floor from the crawl space," Anne said.

Now the hardwood floors are no long cold to the touch.

The Starks rave about the new heater, which is both efficient and quiet.

"For years we said we have to get a new heater," Anne said. "We were sick of it being cold. The older heater would kick on every 30 minutes. Now we set it at 65 degrees and it kicks on once."

"Sealing up the house also made a huge difference in the noise," David said, explaining that they no longer hear the rush hour traffic on nearby Santa Rita Road.

"We're saving $30 a month on our energy bill," Anne noted.

This would not be much for some households but the economical Starks are saving between 20% and 25% on their PG&E bills from the same time last year.

"The home is warmer, costs less and is more comfortable," David added.

They researched online to find rebates through Energy Upgrade California as well as Alameda County and the city of Pleasanton.

"We did a test when they came in and a test at the end to get our money back," David said. "The contractor handled all the paperwork."

Their rebates added up to $4,000 for a job that totalled approximately $20,000.

"The largest cost was the furnace/air conditioner," David said. "The actual construction was two weeks, 10 days."

Their next project will be the back yard, which was paved over by former owners.

"We've heard it was gorgeous -- they did a lot with potted plants," David said. "But we like the concept of water permeable surfaces."

The first step was to hire Ballinger to again design a low-maintenance, drought tolerant, beautiful yard.

"We've found out we can have all those things and an effective space for entertaining, which is also cheap to operate," David said.

"We've spent the last few weeks dismantling the patio cover," he added. "We removed all of the nails, and we were able to set aside the recycled redwood to sell to someone."

From top to bottom, front to back, the Stark home is energy efficient, up to date and easy to maintain. But most of all, it's comfortable.

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