Blog :: 03-2015

Welcome to our blog! Here you will find posts about can't miss properties, local events, and more! Here at Maple and Main Realty we pride ourselves on our knowledge of the Northampton area. Feel free to leave a comment, we would love to hear from you! If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact us

Lower Electricity Rates on the Horizon!

Good news! It seems that we can expect to see lower electricity bills, and perhaps lower gas bills, imminently here in the Pioneer Valley. I must say, I still hear the voice of my own parent's resonating in my ears with demands to "turn of the lights when you leave a room!". I have, of course, carried on the same tradition with my own children (harping on them to turn off lights/power when not in use, that is). Someday, I'm hoping this they will do so without even thinking about it (and demand the same of their own offspring). Meanwhile, Northampton area residents who are still reeling from the sticker shock of extremely high electricity bills this winter, can now breathe a sigh of relief -- and hopefully still remember to turn off anything that requires electricity when they aren't using it. Read on for the details about lower electricity rates from the Daily Hampshire Gazette article.

 

National Grid to lower rates May 1

A National Grid crew member works to restore power on lines in Revere, Mass. Monday, July 28, 2014, after a tornado touched down. Revere Deputy Fire Chief Mike Viviano says the fire department in that coastal city has received dozens of calls reporting partial building and roof collapses, and downed trees and power lines. Viviano says there are no immediate reports of deaths or serious injuries. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

A National Grid crew member works to restore power on lines in Revere, Mass. Monday, July 28, 2014, after a tornado touched down. Revere Deputy Fire Chief Mike Viviano says the fire department in that coastal city has received dozens of calls reporting partial building and roof collapses, and downed trees and power lines. Viviano says there are no immediate reports of deaths or serious injuries. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

 

By GENA MANGIARATTI

Staff Writer

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 

(Published in print: Wednesday, March 25, 2015)

 

Valley home and business owners can expect some relief from high electric bills this spring.

 

On Monday, National Grid announced that, pending Department of Public Utilities approval, the cost of power is expected to drop from the current rate of more than 16 cents per kilowatt-hour to just above 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, a more than 40 percent decrease, starting May 1. With the cost of delivering the power remaining the same, this means that typical basic service customers using 500 kilowatt hours of electricity a month will see a decrease of $32, or 26 percent, on their overall bills. 

 

National Grid spokeswoman Danielle Williamson explained that energy costs typically go down in the summer since there is less demand for natural gas than in the winter, when wholesale costs go up due to pipeline constraints.

 

“It’s not a shortage of natural gas that makes the price higher. It’s pipeline capacity constrictions,” she said Tuesday. “There’s enough natural gas, but in New England we don’t have enough pipelines to get into the area.” 

 

Meanwhile, natural gas customers can also anticipate lower bills this spring. Customers of Boston Gas and Colonial Gas, affiliates of National Grid, can expect to see their bills drop by approximately 30 and 25 percent respectively, according to Williamson.

 

National Grid has almost 1.3 million residential and business electric customers in Massachusetts and serves several Hampshire County communities, including Northampton, Belchertown, Granby, Williamsburg and Goshen. The news of lower rates was welcomed by residents and business owners in these communities.

 

Patricia Shaughnessy, who lives in Florence and is director of the Northampton Senior Center, called the news encouraging both as a city resident and professionally.

 

“I work with a population who in many regards cannot afford rate increases for anything,” she said. “So I think it will be a great experience to have their bills going down.” 

 

Customers of Eversource, the utility that formerly operated in this area as the Western Massachusetts Electric Co., will wait another month or so to learn whether their rates will also drop.

 

Unlike National Grid, Eversource operates on a January-through-July schedule with the Department of Public Utilities. In the next month, the company will put out a request for proposals from wholesale electricity suppliers, then submit the lowest bid received for state approval. Eversource does not generate power.

 

Priscilla Ress, an Eversource spokeswoman, said the new National Grid rates hold out hope for consumer rate relief.

 

“This is a very good sign for what’s happening in the electricity market,” she said.

 

The wholesale market has been shifting, she noted, now that customers are seeking alternative suppliers in the face of rising rates. Ress noted that over 90 percent of Eversource customers were previously signed up for the basic rate, but that percentage has fallen since rates jumped by roughly 29 percent Jan. 1.

 

“It’s a very volatile market. That’s why we hesitate to predict how the rates will go.”

 

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.

 

Decorating On A Budget

 
With the spring real estate market now upon us, buyers and sellers alike are gearing up for the busier real estate season.  For buyers, this may mean speaking to their bank about pre-qualification, connecting with a buyer's agent to receive up-to-the-minute information and advocacy, and attending many showings and open houses.  For sellers, this will likely mean readying their home to put on the market.  Whether this will require a deep cleaning, some new coats of paint, staging of certain rooms, de-cluttering and organizing - or all of the above - a seller's agent will help you to prioritize and connect with any contractors you may need to get the job done.  
 
Regardless of whether you are gearing up to buy or sell a home - many of us feel the urge to purge and start anew with the onset of spring.  This feeling can lend itself nicely to taking on home decorating projects which have fallen by the wayside this long winter.  The following article from Apartment Therapy has some great advice about how to tackle certain decorating projects on a tight budget.
 
 

5 Sneaky Money-Saving Solutions for the Discerning Decorator

 

Wouldn't it be nice if there were some kind of grant that would allow people with exceptional taste to decorate their spaces however they please? It's a nice idea, but we live in the real world, where more often than not extraordinary taste is paired with a less than extraordinary budget. But that doesn't mean you can't have the home of your dreams — you just have to get smart. Here are five sneaky solutions that will have your home looking like a million bucks — without you having to spend, well, a million bucks.

Design Problem: Upholstered furniture is super, super expensive, and none of the couch offerings at IKEA is striking your fancy. 
Smart Solution: It will definitely take a little more legwork, but if you're searching for a beautiful sofa on a budget, vintage furniture is the best way to go. Find a couch you like on Craigslist or in a thrift store, and then get it re-upholstered in a fabric of your choice. Professional upholstery also isn't cheap (you can get an idea of the price here), but once all is said and done you'll have a unique, high-quality piece, in a fabric of your choice, for about the same price as a generic-looking, mid-range sofa.

A Scandinavian home from Entrance.

Design Problem: You've finally found some dining chairs that you really love. The price, however, is less lovely. 
Smart Solution: Who says everything has to match? Buy a pair of the chairs you really love, to anchor the ends of the table, and fill in the middle with more budget-friendly pieces.

Design Problem: You have a whole wall that you want to fill, but oversized artwork is out of your budget. 
Smart Solution: Instead of a single piece, creating a grouping (like the one above) of same-sized frames. Extra-pretty calendars are great for this — use 'em for a year, and then hang them on the wall.

Design Problem: You have things in unusual sizes that you want to frame, but custom framing costs an arm and a leg. 
Smart Solution: Go to a craft store and get a custom mat cut. Make sure the outer dimensions of the mat are a standard size, and then buy a frame off the shelf.

Design Problem: You find a rug you love, but you can't possibly afford to buy the size that's actually big enough for your room.
Smart Solution: Get an inexpensive sisal rug in the size that you need, and then buy a smaller size of the rug you like and layer it on top. You'll save money AND add a little bit of interest and texture to your room.

(Image credits: Esteban CortezEntranceWilliam Waldron for Architectural DigestAndrea SparacioNancy Mitchell)

Energy Efficient Construction in the Pioneer Valley

When we decided to move from our 100 year old home in downtown Northampton, we never thought we'd wind up with new construction.  We are both drawn to older homes with interesting architectural details and quirky design elements (dumb waiters, back staircases, hidden storage perfect for "hide and seek"), but we also loved the idea of purchasing an energy efficient home.  When we first saw our now new home (85% constructed when we signed the offer to purchase) we were wooed by the view from the attic/office, and the fact that the home would have an energy star rating upon completion.  It feels good to know that we are living in a home that helps offset our carbon footprint.  I was excited to see the following article in the in the Daily Hampshire Gazette about the "Passivhaus" in Amherst - new energy efficient construction with much forethought given to every element of design and construction.  

 

Soaking up the sun: Physicist Alexi Arango’s ‘passivhaus’ in Amherst is more than a simple solar home

 

 

By Cheryl B. Wilson Gazette Contributing Writer

Practice what you preach — or what you teach.

Alexi Arango teaches renewable energy at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley where he is an assistant professor of physics. And he lives in a “passivhaus,” a passive solar house that is heated without a conventional furnace.

Arango, who uses a video about a passivhaus in Maine for instruction in his class, decided to build a similar home himself, partly because he believes in the concept and partly because he wanted to create a living lab for his students.

“I teach how in all aspects of our living we can use energy more efficiently,” he explained during a tour of his new home. “Now, what I’m trying to do is show ways to be efficient and also pleasant and comfortable. You don’t have the sacrifices you expect in living efficiently.”

After a year of construction, Arango moved into his house in South Amherst last September. He lives alone, but he is engaged to be married and plans a family.

On a recent February morning, snow was falling and the temperature outside was 8 degrees but inside the 1,000-square-foot-house, it was light and airy and toasty warm.

The bright yellow home sits in a field adjacent to wooded conservation land with views of the Holyoke Range to the south and a stable for his neighbor’s goats to the west.

Passive solar construction was first promoted widely in the 1970s. Designed with large south-facing windows, solar houses relied on thermal mass, usually of concrete floors, or often huge translucent drums of water to capture and hold the rays of the sun streaming in from large windows, storing it by day and releasing it at night. 

But the whole concept of siting houses to take advantage of southern sun, northern windbreaks and shade trees actually goes back centuries. “Then we lost that sense when energy became cheap,” Arango said.

Beyond simple solar 

“Passivhaus” is a German term and it describes a building more complicated than a simple passive solar structure. It goes beyond proper siting and thermal mass to incorporate the latest technology. Heat recovery ventilation systems, super insulation, triple-pane windows, an air barrier enveloping the structure, tankless hot water and energy-efficient lighting and appliances are all essential elements of a passivhaus.

In Arango’s home, the downstairs is a single large room with a long kitchen wall opening into a sun-drenched dining area with large windows adjacent to a snug seating area with an off-white upholstered sofa and matching chairs. There is a bright geometric rug on the concrete floor.

A staircase leads to three bedrooms and a full bath upstairs.

Tucked under the stairs are a tiny lavatory, a coat closet and storage. There is no basement so the mechanical necessities are also hidden under the stairs.

A large mirror on an interior kitchen wall brings reflected light into the house while camouflaging the electric circuits that are tied into a computer system that allows Arango to monitor every bit of energy use, from home or from his workplace. His students can also access the information. When he turns on a light, runs the hot water or uses the stove, a graph records the new electrical use.

“Everything you do, you can see the results,” he said. He learned it is actually more efficient to use the dishwasher than to wash dishes by hand.

“Monitoring the use is fun. You could do it all day,” Arango said. “You know you are paying for energy but you never see it. What else do you pay for but get no receipt?”

No oil, no gas 

What is startling is the lack of any furnace. No oil, no gas, just a heat pump on the wall that looks like a large air conditioner.

“The truth is that as far as heating the house, solar heat gain is what heats it,” said Kyle Belanger, project manager for the builder, Integrity Development of Amherst.

Also lacking at the moment are the expected photo-voltaic solar panels on the roof or any solar hot water panels. The heat pump operates on electricity provided by the traditional electric company grid. The house is planned eventually to be off the grid, but that is in the future.

“There will be solar panels someday but I think it’s a good idea to live in a house and see what energy needs you have first,” Arango said. Some solar advocates have installed hot water panels only to discover they produced more hot water than they actually needed. Belanger said they made sure everything was put in place for photo voltaic panels to be added later.

Hot water for showers, laundry and dish washing at Arango’s home is produced by an up-to-date drain water recovery system. The residual heat from water runoff from a shower or washing machine, actually heats fresh water through a coil so that the water heater itself doesn’t have to work so hard. 

“In a shower the hot water hits your body for a very few seconds and then goes down the drain,” Arango said. In his system that water is recaptured and helps warm the fresh water before being flushed away. A tankless heater boosts the warm water up from 80 degrees to 115 degrees.

“It is supposed to save 60 percent of your water-heating costs,” Arango said. He expects it to pay for itself within three years.

Sealed tight 

“It takes a lot of planning with the architect to build a passivhaus,” Belanger said. Arango’s home is believed to be the first official passivhaus in the Pioneer Valley. Belanger and his crew had to learn new construction techniques from the architect, Matthew O’Malia, from GoLogic of Belfast. The video Arango uses in class came from GoLogic, so “I thought I might as well call them up. We got along very well. It was so inspiring,” he said.

Two critical elements in a passivhaus are the continuous air barrier that surrounds the foundation, walls and roof of the house, and the heat recovery ventilation system, Belanger said.

“The first thing is to create a continuous air barrier around the house,” Belanger explained. Under the foundation is a polystyrene insulation film that is sealed up against the wall sheathing. The “poly” continues up the walls and over the roof, sealed at every possible point. The walls, Belanger said, are SIPs panels (structural insulation panels) that “look like a sandwich cookie.” Parallel panels of rigid foam eight inches thick are filled with blown-in cellulose or fiberglass insulation.

Making the house as tight as possible to avoid heat leakage and drafts requires a carefully calculated air exchange system. “When the house is so tight, you need air to live but you limit the air exchanges,” Belanger said. The manufacturer of the heat recovery ventilation system does the calculations.

Fresh air wafts through unobtrusive vents that look like miniature stereo speakers high on the walls.

“You have a constant supply of clean air that is brought up to room temperature without the clicking on and off of a furnace,” Arango said.

Arango’s house features German-made triple-pane windows that are two inches thick. 

Insulation, rated by R-values, is R-55 in the walls and R-96 or R-100 in the roof, Belanger said, adding that the R-value is less important than that continuous air barrier. Industry standards call for R-49 to R-60 attic insulation in new construction.

Cost decisions 

Arango acknowledged that his passivhaus cost more to build than a conventional house. “No question about that.” 

However, he said, other people might make different decisions that would reduce the costs. “I wanted to have nice appliances and good windows,” he said.

Arango’s appliances are primarily the German-made Miele. He is especially happy with his induction flat-surface stove top. With a conventional open-burner gas or electric stove, “you lose 50 percent of the energy,” Arango said. This stove is very fast, he said. For example, the hot water kettle heats the water before you can get your cup ready, he said.

The three upstairs bedrooms are small but filled with light from the large windows. 

Double doors into his study make the room feel much larger as does the view of Mount Norwottock from the south window and the placid woodland view in the opposite direction through the window at the top of the stairs.

A vaulted ceiling in the master bedroom enlarges that room as do the triple south-facing windows. The bath features an unusual sink and vanity from Ikea with drawers deep enough to serve as a linen closet.

Arango’s research convinces him that solar energy has a great future as do other forms of renewable energy. He cautions, however, that only 25 percent of existing roofs aren’t shaded by trees. “Not everyone has the perfect site,” he said.

But he found one and has built a snug home filled with light and warmth for himself and his future family. It also demonstrates to Mount Holyoke students that renewable energy is not only feasible but practical, comfortable and attractive.

Cheryl Wilson can be reached at valleygardens@comcast.net.