CategorySustainability

Two-flat journal 6: How to make an all-electric house

After the bill drama with Peoples Gas last year, in which I was billed a $50 “base” fee per unit per month for the privilege of having a gas line to my house, I decided to make the gut rehab of my two flat all electric. I think that making an all electric house is easy, but it takes a lot of research to know what that means and how to select materials and appliances.

Read all of the “Two-flat owner journal” entries

Why go electric?

I have several reasons for keeping natural gas out of my house:

  • Natural gas has point source emissions causing indoor air pollution that need to be vented and evacuated properly (gas stovetops emit methane into your kitchen, so turn on your hood that hopefully vents to the outside)
  • The price of natural gas is not falling as fast as electricity is falling
  • Electricity is more and more likely to come from renewable sources, especially in Illinois because of our state policies that require ComEd and Ameren to buy more and more power from renewable sources
  • A future photovoltaic solar panel array could be integrated and some of the electricity in the house would come from its own generator
  • Without gas pipes in the house, there is less infrastructure to build and maintain

There are still some downsides to having an all electric house, namely when the power goes out on the block then nothing in the house will turn on. There are solutions, for this, though, including integrating a battery pack or using a fossil fuel-powered generator with its own tank.

The Passivhaus-certified single-family house in Hyde Park that I toured in 2018 has a small natural gas-powered generator in the rear yard, fueled by a typical Peoples Gas supply line.

What does it mean to have an electric house?

I think there are three categories of choices that one makes, about visible appliances, invisible appliances, and heating and cooling.

A visible appliance is one you use directly and frequently, like an oven and a clothes dryer. These are essentially the only two appliances that have gas and electric versions and electric versions are just as commonly available as gas version.

An invisible appliance is one that’s in a closet or in the basement, like a water heater. Most people I know have a gas-powered water heater (usually a tank, not tankless), and there are two kinds of electric water heaters (which I detailed in Two-flat journal 3). Again, these are very common and electric water heaters (standard with resistance heating, tankless, and hybrid heat pump) can be picked up anywhere a gas-powered water heat can be purchased.

Heating and cooling is the complicated category of the three. A typical new construction house or condo has gas forced air for heating, a condenser for air conditioning, and the air is pushed through the house via ducts. In the electric universe, however, mini splits/air source heat pumps have been around for 40 years and are extremely efficient at both heating and cooling. In cold climate region 5, where Chicago is, air source heat pump manufacturers have additional products to deal with the extreme cold temperatures.

Going electric in the heating and cooling category is the only one that necessitates deeper research on windows, wall assembly, and insulation to go beyond the basic energy efficiency code (Illinois Energy Conservation Code 2018). While the air source heat pump is efficient (some have a coefficient of performance, COP, of 3-4, meaning it transfers three to four times as much heat energy to the house as the energy they consume) it will work very hard to keep a house warm during negative temperature days (F°) and thus it’s important to have a well-sealed house so the conditioned air you’re paying for doesn’t escape.

If you want your house to be all electric, a lot of these choices can be made over time. For example, you can stop the air pollution by buying a range with an induction cooktop, which is extremely efficient, safe for households with children, and very easy to clean. I like to cook soup in my Dutch oven (which is compatible with induction cooktop) and I would rather not have to have the burner on for an hour, accompanied by a noisy vent fan.

Financial benefits of an all electric house

In addition to certain federal tax credits for replacing certain appliances, which you can claim when you file your tax return, there are often local incentives. ComEd has a new Electric Homes program that offers $4,000 cash (to the builder or general contractor) for an electric house (new construction or renovation) that meets their requirements. (2021 is the second year in operation, and there’s no guarantee it will operate next year.)

I’m planning to buy these products

I’ve done a lot of research on appliances in all three categories because my architect needs to know exactly which appliances I’m selecting so the kitchen, utility closet, basement, and other spaces can be designed to fit them. Thankfully, a lot of appliances have similar dimensions so it’s easy to match the available space with the catalog of laundry machines, refrigerators, etc.

My architect and I reviewed a printed set of plans last week, mainly so he could alternate between drawing on AutoCAD and marking up issues.

There are two main attributes to watch for when selecting electric appliances: the yellow Energy Guide label that estimates the annual cost of operating the appliance, and whether it has Energy Star certification. One of the ComEd Electric Homes requirement is that every appliance that can be Energy Star certified is – I’ve found that there are no certified ranges.

My favorite place to shop for appliances online is Abt. When I polled my Twitter followers last summer for appliance store recommendations, Abt was overwhelmingly the most recommended store.

Note: I have no idea which ones will be in stock when it comes time for me to buy any of them, but these are the ones I would pick right now.

All appliances and equipment are Energy Star-certified except where noted.

Visible appliances

  • Dishwasher. I’ve got three options on my list (each costs less than $500):
  • Refrigerator (a different one for each dwelling unit)
  • Oven/stovetop/range
    • Frigidaire FCRE3052AB ($629) – Not Energy Star certified, not induction
    • Frigidaire GCRI3058SS ($1,169) – Not Energy Star certified, yes induction

Invisible appliances

  • Water heater. Something to know about tankless is that it’s not necessary to have a single tankless source for the whole house, as it’s possible to have multiple tankless water heaters at each water source, sized to the need – the kitchen sink can have one, and the shower and the lavatory can share another. The hybrid heat pump water heater currently has a 10% federal tax credit, up to $300.
    • Rheem brand’s “Performance Platinum 40 Gal. 10-Year Hybrid High Efficiency Smart Tank Electric Water Heater” (Home Depot)
    • Each dwelling unit will have the same water heater but may not have the same kitchen and laundry appliances.
  • Clothes washer. Stacked, to save space, from (each is about $800):
  • Clothes dryer. Stacked, to save space, from (each is about $800):

Heating and cooling (HVAC)

Mini split systems have two parts: An outdoor condensing unit and one or more indoor fan units. They’re connected by a refrigerant line, an outgoing condensation line, and electricity from the outdoor unit to the indoor units that is routed through a small diameter (3″) hole in the exterior wall.

Three outdoor heat pumps on the roof
Three larger-capacity heat pumps on the roof of a new construction and all-electric three-flat in Pilsen. Photo: Steven Vance.

There are several options for indoor units: Wall-mounted, ceiling mounted cassette, ceiling mounted box, and ducted (the outdoor unit will provide the hot or cold refrigerant and the ducted unit will blow air through a duct network). My architect and I have selected two ceiling-mounted cassettes per dwelling unit; these fit within the 16″ between joists and avoids the protrusion of wall-mounted units.

  • Outdoor unit, Mitsubishi MXZ-3C30NAHZ2 (Ecomfort, $3,365 x2)
  • Ceiling cassette indoor unit, Mitsubishi MLZ-KP09NA (Ecomfort, $895 x4)

I will need a venting system to exchange fresh air into each dwelling unit, without relying on the typical situation where the leakiness of houses brings in fresh air. An energy efficient way to do this is to use an “energy recovery ventilator” (ERV) that transfers the heat or chill of outgoing conditioned air to incoming fresh air to reduce the amount of energy that the heat pump would expend to warm or chill the incoming air.

An alternative to ducted ERVs is to use a wall-mounted model, such as the Zehnder ComfoAir 70 ventilation unit, Holtop ERVQ-B150-1A1F, or Blauberg VENTO Expert A50-1 W (that’s on Blauberg’s German-market website, and that company has a subsidiary called VENTS that has an American-market website). There’s also Panasonic’s WhisperComfort ($420) that can be mounted on the wall or ceiling. However, I need to verify that either has air moving capacity required by the indoor air quality standard ASHRAE 62.2, specified in the ComEd Electric Homes program. It might be possible to use two of these, including one in the bathroom.

What’s missing

Oh, one more thing, the electrical panels in the basement will need to be replaced (which is part of the replacement of the entire electrical system), and ComEd will likely need to string higher-amperage lines from the alley overhead power lines to the house. This area requires more research and possible a conversation with an electrical contractor or ComEd. I’m currently assuming that I can specify that the electrical contractor will handle this with ComEd.

Don’t ban apartments on this vacant lot if you want more affordable housing – a case study

A vacant lot is for sale near the 606’s Bloomingdale Trail, a popular amenity that’s now known to have an effect in increasing home values. It’s zoned RS-3, which means it bans apartments. If the zoning stays the same, then the vacant lot will only allow a rich family to move in here. If the lot’s zoning is changed to allow apartments or condos, then the vacant lot could welcome families that earn median incomes.

You can build multi-family housing on the lot if you can get a zoning change, but you’ll have to pay the city a fee, convince your future neighbors that they shouldn’t oppose it, convince the alder that he should support it, and you’ll have to hire a lawyer.

Let’s say that zoning changes in Chicago were free and frictionless*. What should be built on this lot?

If the lot would allow multi-family housing, we can build several units for less money per unit than if we built a single-family house. That means that three families (let’s stick with three, which requires a zoning change to RM-4.5) could be housed for less money per family than the cost of one family.

How’s that? The sticker price for this lot is $425,000 right now, and if one family is paying for that plus the cost of building a house, then your minimum investment is pretty massive. (I suspect the lot will sell for something closer to $400,000.)

I looked at new construction costs on Chicago Cityscape, as indicated on building permits issued within 1 mile of the vacant lot, took the average, and added it to the cost of land per unit.

Construction costs

The average new construction single-family house, from the 10 most recent permits, is $304,052.78.

The average new construction multi-family housing, from the 10 most recent permits, is $230,192.13 per unit.

Total cost per unit (land + construction)

Add in the land cost per unit ($425,000 for the single-family house and $141,666.67 per unit for the 3-flat) and you end up with the total costs of:

  • $729,052.78 for the single-family house
  • $371,858.80 per unit in the 3-flat

Add in the profit or “cap rate” that a builder wants to make and the price is even higher, but the people who would buy in the multi-family house would be paying much less for their homes.

Takeaways

The city can generate more affordable housing if it “upzones” vacant land and stops banning multi-family housing. (Much of the city’s parcels have been “downzoned” to ban multi-family housing in a process that creates “exclusionary zoning” and allows only – expensive – single-family housing.)

The city and the Chicago Transit Authority will earn more real estate transfer taxes (RPTT) from the sales of the units as condos than from a single-family house.

Three families instead of one would enjoy living to the wonderful amenity that the Bloomingdale Trail and the parks that the 606 offers.

Want this kind of analysis for a property in Chicago? You can order a zoning report from me.

* The City of Chicago charges a zoning change fee of $1,025, and you will most likely have to hire a lawyer, and it will take about 3-6 months, depending on the complexity of the proposal that requires the zoning change. You can use Chicago Cityscape to see actual approval times (excluding the time meeting the alder for the ward of the proposed project).

Which Chicago buildings have the worst energy efficiency?

About five years ago (I’m too lazy to look it up right now), the City of Chicago adopted an energy benchmarking law. This means that owners of buildings of a certain size would soon be required to report how much energy (electricity, natural gas, district steam, chilled water, and other fuels) their buildings use. Every few years they have to audit their reports.

The city has posted three years of energy reports for the “covered” buildings (the ones of a certain size) on its data portal. I copied the Chicago Energy Benchmarking dataset into the Chicago Cityscape database (for future features) and then loaded it into QGIS so I could analyze the data and find the least efficient buildings in Chicago.

The dataset has all three years so I started the analysis by filtering only for the latest year, 2016. I first visualized the data using the “ghg_intensity_kg_co2e_sq_ft” column, which is “greenhouse gas intensity, measured in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per square foot”. In other words, how much carbon does the building cause to be emitted based on its energy usage and normalized by its size.

In QGIS, to symbolize this kind of quantitative data, it helps to show them in groups. Here are “small fry” emitters, medium emitters, and bad emitters. I used the “Graduated” option in the Symbology setting and chose the Natural Breaks (Jenks) mode of dividing the greenhouse gas intensity values into four groups.

There are four groups, divided using the Natural Breaks (Jenks) method. There’s only one building in the “worst” energy users group, which is Salem Baptist Church, marked by a large red dot. The darker red the dot, the more energy per square foot that building consumes.

Among the four groups, only one building in Chicago that reported in 2016 was in the “worst emitters” group: Salem Baptist Church of Chicago at 10909 S Cottage Grove Avenue in Pullman.

The Salem Baptist Church building was built in 1960, has a gross floor area of 91,800 square feet, and an Energy Star rating of 1 because it emits 304.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per square foot (kgco2esf). (The Energy Star rating scale is from 1 to 100.)

The next “worse” emitter in the same “Worship Facility” category as Salem Baptist Church is several magnitudes of order lower. That’s St. Peter’s Church at 110 W Madison Street in the Loop, built in 1900, which emits 11.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per square foot (but which also has an Energy Star rating of 1).

The vast difference is concerning: Did the church report its energy usage correctly, or are they not maintaining their HVAC equipment or the building and it’s leaking so much air?

A different building was in the “worst” emitter category in 2015 but improved something about the building by 2016 to use a lot less energy. Looking deeper at the data for Piper’s Alley, however, something else happened.

In 2015, Piper’s Alley reported a single building with 137,176 gross square feet of floor area. The building’s owner also reported 5,869,902 kBTUs of electricity usage and 1,099,712,681 kBTUs of natural gas usage. Since these are reported in kilo-BTUs that means that you multiply each number by 1,000. Piper’s Alley reported using 1 trillion BTUs of natural gas. Which seems like an insane amount of energy usage, but could be totally reasonable – I’m not familiar with data on how much energy a “typical” large building uses.

Piper’s Alley in Old Town is the building that reported two different floor areas and vastly different energy usage in 2015 and 2016. The building’s owner didn’t report data for 2014 (although it may not have been required to).

There’s another problem with the reporting for Piper’s Alley, however: For 2016, it reported a gross floor area of 217,250 square feet, which is 36 percent larger than the area it reported in 2015. The building reported using significantly more electricity (58 percent more) and significantly less natural gas (137 percent less), for a vastly lowered kgco2esf value.

I think the energy benchmarking data set needs more eyes on it. Discuss in the comments below, or reply to my Twitter thread.

Upzone the 606

Map of the single family-only zoning around the Bloomingdale Trail

The area in green only allows single-family houses to be built.

Something’s gotta give.

This is all of the land area within two blocks of the Bloomingdale Trail that allows only single-family housing to be built (view full map). This isn’t to say that multi-family housing doesn’t exist here; it definitely does, and there’s probably a handful of two-flats on a majority of the blogs.

All of the five parks of the 606 are within this two block radius, and 49.6 percent of the land allows only single-family housing to be built.

But why build a transportation corridor, a park, a new, expensive, public amenity, and not change the kind of housing – which often determines the kind of family and makeup of a household – that can afford to buy a home near here.

It’s already been shown that detached single-family housing prices have grown intensely the closer you get to the trail. That price growth has meant displacement for some, and “no chance to buy or build a house here” for many others.

There are still plenty of vacant lots within the mapped area; lots that should have a 2-4 unit building built on them, but where only a 1-unit building is allowed.

This map was made possible by the new Zoning Assessment tool on Chicago Cityscape. Read about it or use it now.

How much of the land within walking distance of a CTA station is zoned to allow multi-family housing?

I recently created the Zoning Assessment tool on Chicago Cityscape, which shows a map of aggregated zoning districts in a given community area, ward, or near a CTA or Metra station. Per Paul Angelone’s suggestion, you can now show the walk shed – the area within walking distance to the station, following the streets.

The maps in this post show where one can build apartments (including a simple and common two-flat) within a 15 minute walk to the Logan Square Blue Line station, which has 24-hour service. Try it yourself.

Thirty-one percent of the walk shed allows multi-family housing.

In a second version of the same map, I’ve marked in red the gaps in the zoning map. These are areas that are zoned to allow only single-family housing. That doesn’t make sense: The land near rapid transit stations should be much denser than the land away from the stations.

Sixty-four percent of the walk shed allows only single-family housing. The remaining five percent are planned developments (at least the Mega Mall is going to have a couple hundred dwelling units), manufacturing, and parks.

And if most of the block is already zoned to allow multi-family housing, why are these parcels skipped?

This is the same map as the one above, but with areas that allow only single-family housing marked in red (however, I skipped some areas to save myself time).

How it works
The walk shed boundaries are generated by Mapzen’s isochrone service. The Zoning Assessment map asks Mapzen for the polygon of a specified walk shed (walk or bike, 10 or 15 minutes), receives the polygon and sends that polygon to a custom API on the Cityscape server, which compares that to the server’s copy of Chicago’s latest zoning map. The comparison is then returned to the browser and replaces the default Zoning Assessment map.

City selects buyer for former fire station in Rogers Park

This was originally published on Chicago Cityscape’s Medium.

The city-owned fire station at 1721 W Greenleaf Avenue in Rogers Park is set to be sold to Jim Andrews and Dean Vance (no relation). Chicago Cityscape visited the building at an open house in February.

This was the third attempt to sell the property, and the Chicago Plan Commission will review the sale at its June 15th meeting.

Photos of the fire house taken during the February 2017 open house by Justin Haugens.

The two created a website dedicated to their proposal, and published a video introducing Scott Whelan, a developer who will be helping renovate the building. Whelan’s company, Red Line Property Group, pulls building permits mostly in the Edgewater and Lincoln Square community areas.

The image on the top-left shows the original bay doors. Renderings from the buyers’ website.

Andrews and Vance will locate their existing businesses to the building, restore the façade and historic features, add a garden and greenhouse to the rooftop, and provide on-site parking for up to 10 cars. Sustainable design features include photovoltaic solar panels on the roof, passive solar hot water, and geothermal heating and cooling.

Read their full proposal.

At least 2.5 percent of the land area in Chicago is covered in parking lots and garages

Here’s how I know that at least 2.5 percent of the land area in Chicago is covered in parking lots and garages, as of February 5, 2017.

That’s a lot of polluted water runoff.

I grabbed the land area of 227.3 from the Wikipedia page.

I grabbed all the parking lots from OpenStreetMap via Metro Extracts, which is going to be the most complete map of parking lots and garages.

Volunteer mappers, including me, drew these by tracing satellite imagery.

With the parking lots data in GIS, I can count their area in square feet, which comes out to 160,075,942.42. Convert that to square miles and you get 5.74.

5.74/227.3*100 = 2.5 percent

The last snapshot of parking lot data I have is from February 2016, when only 3.39 square miles of parking lots have been drawn.

There are still many more parking lots to be drawn!

There are still $1 lots that no one has applied for

I’d like to point out my story on the Chicago Cityscape blog highlighting the fact that ~1,800 city-owned lots that are being sold to $1 to nearby property owners that haven’t been applied for. The City of Chicago is selling 3,844 vacant lots for $1 in these 34 community areas, but the city has received only 2,031 applications.

A century old former radium extraction site in Bronzeville gets building permit

Map of the Carnotite Reduction Company site near Bronzeville

The Carnotite Reduction Company site near Bronzeville. Map: OpenStreetMap

A recently-issued building permit on 26th Street just east of King Drive in the Prairie Shores neighborhood of the Near South Side community area (near Bronzeville) caught my eye.

Installation of temporary wood poles and aerial cable, to powering air monitors, for the Carnotite Reduction Company site project

Carnotite wasn’t a word I’ve heard before, and “Carnotite Reduction Company” isn’t a business I’ve heard of before, either.

I searched Bing and found that 4 of the 5 results were about cleaning up a contaminated site, and one of the results was a letter in PDF form hosted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website prepared by a scientist at the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The letter is 11 pages long and tells the story about Carnotite Reduction Company, which had a factory in 1915 on what’s now known as the Michael Reese Hospital site, the buildings of which have all been demolished.

The Carnotite Co. mainly produced radium, along with some uranium and vanadium as byproducts.

The Carnotite Co. owned and operated mines in Colorado and Utah. In 1919, it was one of four companies that mined 95% of the carnotite ore produced in Colorado. The U.S. dominated the world radium market until 1922, when Belgium began using pitchblende ore from the Belgian Congo. The pitchblende was 40 to 100 times more pure than carnotite, and by 1923, Belgian competition ended carnotite ore processing in the U.S.

This article from the “Chicago Chemical Bulletin” publication in 1917 linked on the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s website about the cleanup project describes carnotite ore and mining process. They’ve cataloged this site as EPA ID# ILN000510371.

Chicago Chemical Bulletin: 1917 article about the Carnotite Reduction Company

The letter describes where radioactive, contaminated soil was found during boring tests made within the last three years, and how it potentially got there. The factory was extracting radium there, for an exploding cancer research trend, until 1920.

The company, the EPA believes, may have disposed its waste into public infrastructure.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) suspects that the Carnotite Co. may have sent this liquid waste into the sewer, floor drains, or reintroduced it into the process for further refining. Because streets in the area, including Inglehart Court, were abandoned during the redevelopment in the 1950s and 1960s, sewers running along those abandoned streets likely also were abandoned. Other options for liquid waste disposal commonly used at the time included streams or ditches (with Lake Michigan in the vicinity), waste ponds, dug wells, and dumping wastes on porous ground (such as the sand on-site).

When the City of Chicago was preparing the site in 2009 for a potential Olympic Village for its 2016 Olympic Games bid – buying the property for an insane amount of cash and then razing it all, while eventually losing the bid to Rio de Janeiro – conducted “Phase I and Phase II environmental investigations” but didn’t survey for radiological contamination and didn’t uncover an important survey from 30 years prior.

The Illinois Department of Public Health found radioactive contamination after a “radiological surface survey” of the Michael Reese hospital site in 1979.

The IDPH Division of Radiological Health concluded that the contamination did not pose an immediate health threat, but should be taken into account before any future construction. In 1979, IDPH did not notify USEPA about the contamination they found.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency surveyed the site in August 2009 and found the contamination, alerted the EPA, and met with the City of Chicago to discuss remediation.

The letter details further testing by AECOM, a global transportation, infrastructure, and engineering company, the levels of contamination, and risk assessment. It appears that the contamination won’t be a danger to most people.

The Illinois Department of Public Health concludes that exposure at the Carnotite Co. site to the area with the greatest surface radium and uranium concentration for 20 minutes per day, five days per week, 250 days per week, for 50 years is not expected to harm people’s health. IDPH considers this to be a maximum likely exposure scenario, given current conditions at the site.

It notes that a change in land use – the site is currently occupied by vacant hardscape, tennis courts, a park, sidewalks, and grassy areas – “could increase exposure duration”, especially if housing was built here.

The City of Chicago applied for a license in 2013 to temporarily store radioactive material on site before shipping it to a disposal facility. The EPA last updated its website in April 2014 to say that it was considering this application.

Two things I don’t like about TIF expenditures in Chicago

Chicago Cityscape's TIF Projects map

I built a map of most Chicago TIF projects that you can filter on the fly. Type in any keyword, alderman’s name, or neighborhood and the map will re-center and zoom to the results.

1. Millions of dollars ($14.4 to be exact) has been or will be given to rich corporations, like Home Depot, to build massive stores with huge roofs and parking lots far away from where people live so everyone has to drive there. It’s highly unlikely they don’t mitigate stormwater runoff (except through temporary storage in a retention pond) or treat any of the water on site, contributing to local flooding and clogged pipes.

According to the project descriptions, property tax payers in these four TIF districts have partially subsidized the construction of over 1,903 car parking spaces and the associated ills of expansive asphalt areas and motorized traffic.

2. A massive subsidy was approved – $96 million – for McCaffery Interests’s Lakeside development on the former U.S. Steel South Works plant to build a mixed-use tower of 250 apartments in an area that has weak transit access and will take decades to fully fill out. We should instead be spending this kind of money building housing in already developed parts of the city (where there’s already amenities, or infrastructure for amenities – the Rezko land comes to mind).

What’s interesting about the Lakeside TIF project approval is that the containing TIF district, “Chicago Lakeside Development Phase 1”, has collected zero property tax revenue because there is no property in it!

Trolley on the future Lake Shore Drive

A tour bus drivers on the Lakeside development. Photo by Ann Fisher.

There are some projects I like, though. TIF has been used frequently to build affordable housing, housing for seniors, and housing for people who need assistance. 78 out of 380 projects mention the word “affordable”.

The City Hyde Park building, designed by Studio Gang Architects, will have 20% of its residential units designated as “affordable”, for families (of varying sizes) earning up to 60 percent of the area median income. The city standard is 10 percent but developers are also able to pay an “in lieu” fee so they don’t have to build the affordable units and instead can offer those units at market rates.

Other projects have a majority of affordable units.

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