Hurricane Sandy and the case for updating your home

By: Matt Grocoff , Contributing Writer
In: In The News, Green Renovations

"If they lose electricity, few buildings in the U.S. can provide as much comfort as my backpacking tent."
-- Terry Brennan, Westmoreland, New York, quoted in the Environmental Building News feature article, "Passive Survivability: A New Design Criterion for Buildings," May, 2006

Hurricane Sandy was a sober awakening for millions of homeowners along the Eastern seaboard. We're likely to see many more storms like this in the future. We'll need practical solutions to create more resilient buildings and we need to prepare our existing homes and design new ones for more intense storms.

Many casualties of major storms are actually from the aftermath. We need buildings that can improve performance of building AFTER storm event. People must be able to survive in the building if it stands.

Old homes start with an advantage over new ones. One hundred years ago fewer homes were being built in vulnerable coastlines, lowlands and floodplains. They tended to be built recognizing the patterns of nature.

Yet, there are some precautions we can take when we have the opportunity for remodeling or retrofitting our old homes. A few of my tips are below. But, there's an exciting new resource from Alex Wilson, who founded BuildingGreen and Environmental Building News (EBN). He recently launched the Resilient Design Institute as a tool to address concerns related to both catastrophic events, such as storms, floods, fires, and sudden power outages, and with long-term shifts like drought, rising temperatures, and economic dislocation.

6 tips to make your home storm-resilient

1. When installing a new furnace or other mechanicals, consider moving them to higher floors. Avoid installing them in basements with the potential to flood. At minimum, put furnaces on pedestals off the floor.

2. Consider adding a high-efficiency wood stove as back up heat.

3. If you are on well water, electric pumps won't work in a power outage. Install Bison Pumps, they are like your grandmother's hand pump, but far easier to operate. They don't need priming and they can pump 250 - 350 feet of static head. The top portion drains back for freeze protection.

Tristans pump

Tristans pump

4. Add solar panels with a central inverter. Currently, most solar panels are tied to the grid. As a safety measure for line-workers, inverters shut down when there's a power outage. If feasible, install a small battery backup to store solar energy in the event of an emergency (again, install them in permanently dry areas rather than flood -prone basements or lower floors). There are inverters coming soon that will allow a switch back to allow current to flow to the house and provide electricity while the grid is down - while shutting off flow to the grid to protect repair workers. Solar pays for itself over its lifetime and helps to mitigate carbon pollution. So, it's good for your wallet and helps make your home a little more resilient.

5. Consider also converting your home to all-electric (using induction cooktops, convection ovens, heat-pump water heaters, etc.). By decommissioning your gas you begin to wean yourself from fossil fuel and prepare yourself to be supplied with 100% clean, renewable energy. But importantly, you reduce a major post-storm risk: fire. During Hurricane Sandy entire neighborhoods were destroyed by fire from exploding gas lines. You'll not only reduce the danger of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning, but you may also qualify for reduced rates on your homeowner's insurance.

6. Small back up bio-diesel or solar generators or portable solar panels can be used during power outages to provide some basic needs.

solar generator

Solar generator

To learn more about how to make your home and community more resilient, visit Resilient Design Institute online at http://www.resilientdesign.org/.