Archive for the ‘Alternative Energy’ Category

by Margie Schuler

Semmes hosted a local interior design group at a recently completed home remodel project and the event was enjoyed by all.

It’s not often a client is gracious enough to open up their home to 30 local designers and their design and build teams but when this happens we are honored at the opportunity to show off our work. This particular home remodel project took just over one year to complete and encompassed remodeling the main house with a garage addition, conversion of original garage wing into home gym with sauna and bath and a media room, remodeling a horse barn into a guest house with garage and wine cellar, converting the horse dressage arena to an orchard with raised planter beds and storage, and extensive landscaping. The transformation of a “vanilla” house into a spectacular custom home was remarkable. Our clients now have a home they are proud of; a home that fits their personality, their lifestyle as new retirees and showcases their various collections. Semmes and Co. Builders, Inc. appreciated working with the Architectural firm Studio 2-G and Jeffrey Gordon Smith Landscape Architecture on this impressive project.

New courtyard between new garage and remodeled garage wings

Dressage arena converted to orchard and garden

Converted barn guest room and wine cellar



Barn exterior after


House exterior before


House exterior after


Back of house


paul-rose by Paul Rose

lemons-into-lemonadeLos Osos  is a leader. It is the first city in California, and the second city in the entire country to implement the water saving, resource conserving program of saving its septic tanks! As part of the conservation direction from the California Coastal Commission the County of San Luis Obispo gave a grant to Central Coast Green Building Council (previously known as  SLO Green Build) to develop a system to save water, develop codes, and a program to promote the re-purposing of septic tanks into water saving cisterns.

LO Sewer 1

You may ask how is this done. Well, when a whole community is building a new sewer system and almost all of the population is going to hook up to the new sewer within a year there can be (in this case), over 4000 septic tanks averaging 1000 gallons each, that were to be crushed or filled with gravel.

LO Sewer2


By simply pressure washing the tank while it is being pumped, and sanitizing it with less than a gallon of bleach, the possibility of this waste can be turned into a community plus.

Once the sanitizing is accomplished, residents can use this resource to re-charge the water zone that used to carry nitrates into the bay with fresh water.

LO Sewer 3

If a resident wants to do more, they can use the stored water for landscape irrigation, or even create legal systems to pipe water back into the residence for toilet flushing.

Currently, Los Osos is still in the process of transferring their home septic systems over onto the municipal sewer system, and over 25% of the residents have chosen to save their tanks. This is just another example of what a group of dedicated individuals can do.

It’s time to get out there and participate!

The CASBA Annual Conference that encompasses all things Strawbale is coming April 21-24, 2016 in the beautiful setting of the California Corrizo Plains. Click here to find out all the event information. And remember to bring your good camera!


turko with hat

by Turko Semmes

In the past, I have written before about Passive Solar Solutions for buildings. And still they are an important way to reduce energy costs and increase comfort levels. There are four components that must be considered when applying passive solar solutions to a project. They are Orientation, Ventilation, Insulation, and Mass (OVIM). Each part of the solution is used in different ways depending on the climate where the building is being built as well as certain site, budget and human factors. But by applying these applications appropriately, the building’s energy use can be greatly reduced. The comfort levels can be raised even in severe climate zones, sometimes at little extra cost.

Today, I want to talk about Mass, sometimes known as Thermal Mass. In particular, let’s discuss Phase Change Materials (PCM’s). The Thermal Mass role is to act as a battery to moderate the temperature of the home through the daily and seasonal cycle changes.

There are two applications of mass. One is direct gain where the sun strikes the material directly – think Trombe Wall systems.

The other and more common application is indirect gain. This is where the temperature of the mass is affected by the room temperature – think all surfaces in the building. We try to incorporate standard high mass materials into buildings to achieve this, but it is not always practical. Some of these materials are concrete in the floor, walls and counters. Also used are extra layers of drywall, fireplace facings, etc.

But for years, we in the industry have thought it would be super to have a material that can store more heat than its actual weight or volume. Now that material is here and it’s called Phase Change Materials (PCM). PCM’s can store 5 to 14 times more heat per unit volume than conventional storage materials such as water, masonry or rock. They do this by changing from a liquid to a solid (much like Freon does in heat pump/air conditioning systems). The trick has been to find a way to incorporate them into buildings in a format that can be standard for all buildings.

Now, the National Gypsum Company in partnership with BASF has ThermalCORE PCMmanufactured a drywall that has small capsules – beads of phase change material within the board. The drywall is installed and finished in the same ordinary way. The only extra cost is the material itself. But, don’t jump up and run down to Home Depot or Lowes. This material is in the economic and marketing development stages. However, I do have some samples, and they are performing quite well, as specified.

Soon, this material will give your energy analyst another tool to help design your building to be more energy efficient and comfortable. All without adding additional systems, complications or maintenance. Since drywall is used on most buildings, one can place it strategically to achieve the comfort and energy savings desired. This is just one more reason Passive Solar Solutions should be applied to their maximum potential before any active or complicated systems are considered.

Phase Change Materials for
Building Applications



Jessica by Jessica Steely

Imagine a power outage in your neighborhood, but your lights are on and your refrigerator’s running. Or perhaps you don’t have to buy expensive peak-day electricity? Elon Musk’s new Tesla Powerwall, released in April, promised these luxuries. The sleek and futuristic look of the wall-mounted batteries was designed to be affordable for the average homeowner. It’s available if you have a solar array or not, whether you want to use the battery on a daily basis, or have it available for a backup situation.

So, is the Tesla Powerwall a fiscally responsible choice or an expensive novelty?

Let’s take the case of the daily use model. Say, you’re on a net-metering program with your local electric tesla-powerall - tah-dahutility company. This summer’s peak rate is .32 cents per kWh (May 1 through October 31: Weekdays, 1-7 PM) and the off-peak rate is .13 cents per kWh. The winter partial-peak rate is .15 cents per kWh (November 1- April 30; Weekdays, 5-8 PM.) There’s no peak rate in winter, and the off partial-peak rate is .14 cents per kWh. The Powerwall designed for daily use, holds 7 kWh and costs $3,000. If you use the Powerwall battery during peak-times when electric costs are higher, you will save $1.33 per day during the summer and .07 cents per day through the winter. At this rate, it could take you over 16 years to break even. The unit has a 10-year warranty, so even within the projected product lifespan you can’t expect to break even.[1] But with upcoming new regulations on power production, energy costs are likely to increase and the price recovery period could change significantly.

Now, let’s look at the units designed specifically for backup usage. These models carry 10 kWh of backup Tesla Powerwall -Housepower with an available average draw of 2 kW. Their cost: $3,500. These batteries are compared to a small generator that runs on gas or propane. A generator that produces equivalent output can be bought from your hardware store for $500 to $1,500. With propane at roughly $2.24 per gallon and gas at $4.25 per gallon, the cost to run these backup generators is variable. Again, it is likely to take longer than the 10-year warranty period to break even on the unit.

A couple of additional caveats to consider: If your demand surpasses the needs of a single battery, each of the models of the Powerwall can be installed in a bank of up to nine batteries. They can also be installed in conjunction with a solar electric array. But if the unit is installed outside of a solar electric system, you will have the additional cost of purchasing an inverter to convert the electricity from AC to DC for usage and storage. It is worth acknowledging that the battery, designed to cycle on a daily basis, could provide the added utility of serving as an emergency backup.

From a financial perspective when compared to the alternatives, the Tesla PoTesla Powerwallwerwall is not the most economical response…yet. However, the sense of being part of a progressive movement, having a renewable energy backup and helping to reduce the strain on our utility grid, has attracted more than 38,000[2] reservations for the Tesla Powerwall in the first week of its announced release. It’s projected to be sold-out by mid-2016. I doubt we have seen the last from Tesla’s technology center, but I do look forward to what’s next.


[1] Rates are based on PG&E Tier 1 Residential Time-Of-Use Service Electric Schedule E-6 effective March 1 2015

[2] Bloomberg Business Tesla’s Battery Grabbed $800 Million in Its First Week, 5-8-2015

Kevin-HauberSpecial editorial by Kevin Hauber, Green Mortgage Consultant
The Mortgage House – San Luis Obispo

Remember all the claims made by solar companies about the value of rooftop solar systems? Well, it turns out they were right. And a study out from the US Department of Energy and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory backs that up. The study is called “Selling Into the Sun: Price Premium Analysis of a Multi-State Dataset of Solar Homes.”

What they did was look at tens of thousands of sales over eight states from 2002-2013, including properties that had solar systems installed at the time of sale and those that did not. What they found was that both new and existing homes sold for $15,000 more on average with a solar system than those that did not have one.

That is a noticeable number. It’s one of the first times substantial figures have been offered to quantify solar homes for the market. It says that if you can lower the operating costs of a home and provide energy independence, that’s worth something.

Selling into the sun

Selling into the Sun

So, everyone knows this. Right?

No, in fact very few people take this into account. If you are going to buy or sell a property with a solar system, you need to make sure the people involved in the transaction are familiar with how to give the system value. That includes the listing agent, the selling realtor, the lender, and the appraiser. The appraiser will use a form called the energy addendum to help quantify the value of the solar system. As well as any other energy related improvements on the property.

You would be surprised how many appraisers have no idea about this, and how many lenders and realtors don’t even know to ask. Since energy costs are becoming an increasing consideration for owning property, make sure you are working with professionals who know what they are doing in this regard. This includes familiarity with the incentives and financing available for energy-related improvements.

By the way, the figures quoted in the study are only for purchased solar systems that are part of the real estate. Leased systems were not included in the study, so this is an important distinction to make. Leased systems have become popular in the last few years, but there are still many questions to be answered. Such as the assumption of leases by subsequent buyers, and the appraised value of the system at the end of the lease. (The appraiser is usually hired by the leasing company). The effects of these leased systems remain to be seen.

Now this research concludes what we’ve assumed all along: people who have purchased solar systems for their homes and businesses have made a substantial investment that has lasting value.

by Paul Rose

paul-roseRainwater harvesting covers many applications, from small and simple projects to large, complex ones. The California drought has residents realizing their water needs are demanding their some attention. Cambria residents, with their drastic need for water (and its high cost), have more water collection systems than anywhere else in San Luis Obispo county. Our recent October rainstorm gave most systems just enough water to fill their storage more than half way.

And this brings us to an important concept: Storage is the hardest part. The size of your rainwater harvest system is based on your usage, your available space, and the amount you are willing to pay. Average storage containers cost about a dollar ($1) per gallon.

If you have a sloping property, that will help your rainwater collection system. Consulting a professional experienced with water collection systems is important. If you are installing a smaller system with minimal storage, you could experiment with a design yourself, but an experienced professional can save you time and money.

Permits are required for any system that has over 5000 gallons of storage. If you intend the water for indoor use, a permit and a water treatment system is mandatory, even if it’s just for flushing a toilet. Permits are also needed for sprinkler irrigation use to place the stored water on the ground surface. However, if you are using a drip irrigation system, you won’t need a permit if your storage is less than 5000 gallons. SLO Green Build has created a guide that can help with many of the specifics. This printed guide can be purchased and shipped to you for $13, or downloaded for free. This manual will give you basic guidelines for developing your system, such as how to estimate the amount of water you will harvest per inch of rain.

Water is one of our most precious resources. At Semmes and Co. Builders, Inc. we work on learning the most current technologies that affect the use and development of our systems and resources. Combining these systems into a cohesive package for each individual home is our forte.

For more information about Rainwater Harvesting, contact Paul Rose.


by Paul Rose

Recently, a Semmes project had a lot of concrete needing removal. Consulting with some of our sub-contractors helped us decide to recycle it into gravel for the drain rock behind the site’s retaining walls, and as base material for some of the slab work. This was a great decision that meant we did not need to haul multiple truckloads of waste material to another location, process the material there and haul it back. It was just done on-site:

1. Stack the slab and block wall pieces

1. Stack the slab and block wall pieces

2. Break down into sizes fitting into the crusher

2. Break down into sizes fitting into the crusher

3. Crush them

3. Crush them

4. Screen and clean to become free draining material

4. Screen and clean to become free draining material

While this process meant moving the material a couple of times, it was done all within a hundred yards, not a hundred miles. Re-using materials is fairly common these days, but it usually occurs at a larger centralized location. This is another way Semmes and Co. Builders works to save resources, providing the best solutions.

Contact Semmes and Co. Builders, Inc. for your building or remodeling project.

There is little not to love about the wonderful home Semmes & Co. built for us, but our favorite features are the solar systems – photovoltaic and hot water – and all that relate to them.

We have a 2.4 KW photovoltaic system that was expected to provide most but not all of our electrical needs.  Now that we have been in the house for a full year and have had our “true up” with PG&E, we have an accurate picture of what the system can do.  We have to pay a service fee to PG&E of about $13 per month for the privilege of being hooked into the grid, so that was an outlay of $156 for the year.  We received a small refund for actual power use because we generated more electricity than we used.  Thus, our electrical bills averaged out to under $13 per month.

Our primary heat source, when needed in the cool weather months, is a high output gas fireplace.  We also use gas for cooking and grilling.  Our gas bills averaged approximately $20 per month over the year, so our total monthly gas and electrical bills for the year have averaged out to about $33.  In previous homes it was more like $300 per month.

Other features of the house contribute to our low energy use, the solar hot water system being a major one.  We try to use hot water-using appliances when the sun is heating water, especially on weekends when electric rates are the lowest.  We don’t know how this system is impacting our electrical bills but it must be helping a great deal.  We also have passive solar heating and thick walls with blown-in insulation that lower heating costs.

It will be a great day when all new homes are required to install solar systems!

by Sandi and Lou Pitelka

On Saturday Oct. 10, Semmes and Co. sponsored me to participate in Solarthon, an annual fundraiser for Grid Alternatives. Grid Alternatives is a nonprofit organization that works to install solar panels for low income families that would otherwise never be able to afford them. The goal is to provide enough panels to produce nearly all of the electricity needs for each family.

One woman thanked the effort stating that her disabled son needed an electric bed and an electric wheel chair which results in high utility bills. We completed the solar arrays for a total of eight homes in one neighborhood.

While Solarthon is an annual event, Grid Alternatives works throughout the year training volunteers for in exchange for free labor.  What a great way to promote social and environmental welfare with the added benefit of teaching people an employable skill.