Finding your Finish – Natural Furniture, Floor and Wall Coatings -by Erin Diamond

You have taken the time to choose the perfect hardwood for your floors, avoided the drywall laden with hydrogen sulfide, and picked the perfect table for your deck or dining room.  Finishes cover the majority of surfaces in your home, including the stain-guard on your carpet and the wrinkle-reducer in your favorite shirt.  Why skimp (or poison yourself) on the most prevalent building product in your home?

A few more nature-based coatings have made appearances or received acclaim in the marketplace lately, and we thought they were definitely worth mentioning.

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Ductless Heat Pumps – No to Ducts, Yes to Comfort! • by Aaron Winer

Ductless Heat Pump Indoor and Outdoor Unit

You’ve probably seen the ads from your local energy provider about incentives offered for ductless heat pumps (sometimes referred to as “mini-splits”), or heard from a neighbor about how much they like their new ductless heat pump… but what are these things?  Why would you want one?  Ductless heat pump technology has been around for a long time, but recent technological refinements have made these systems extremely energy efficient to operate and affordable to install.  Ductless heat pumps work by expanding or compressing refrigerant to deliver hot or cold air to the indoor area being conditioned.  They are able to extract heat from the air in the winter and cold from the air in summer.  Think of how your refrigerator is cold inside and hot by the outside coils.  In the summer, you would want to blow the cold air from inside of your refrigerator into your home, right?  Just reverse that in the winter when you would love all that warm air from the coils to be circulated throughout your living spaces.  This is basically the way that the ductless heat pump works.  The system is comprised of an outdoor unit (about 1/3 the size of a central AC unit) and one or more indoor units (about the size of four shoe boxes stacked end to end).  They are mounted high on the wall in places that would provide good airflow.  Outdoor units and indoor units are connected only by the refrigerant lines and a power cable.  There is no ducting used with these heat pumps, as they rely on strong variable-speed fans to circulate air quietly.  We have seen many of these units in action, and they are adept at providing consistent heating and cooling to homes with a variety of floorplans.  The indoor units are controlled via remote control, which provides an easy way to regulate temperature, fan speed, and humidity.  Yes, that is right, ductless heat pumps can also dehumidify!

Here in the Pacific Northwest, these units cost approximately $4,000 and up to install.  Right now there are many incentives and rebates that can help offset much of this cost.  With all these benefits, and low cost to install and operate – you might be wondering why this technology is just starting to catch on in North America.  We have found that the only reason homeowners hesitate to install ductless systems is that they are different than what they are accustomed to.  It seems we are somewhat stuck in the old paradigm of ducted furnaces and air conditioners with wall mounted thermostats.  The indoor ductless units look and function in a different way – they look a bit like a long, narrow air conditioner that is mounted high on the wall, compared to more traditional vents and returns that are located on the floor, ceiling, and walls of the home.  The use of a remote control vs. a wall mounted thermostat takes a little getting used to as well.  Every one of the homeowners we have visited with ductless systems have quickly gotten used to this new way of heating and cooling their homes.  The wall units visually disappear into the background in a few days, and the remote quickly becomes your new best friend… particularly during these intense heat waves we have been getting in the Pacific Northwest.

Along with increased comfort, ductless heat pumps save a good deal of energy – especially compared to traditional electric heat sources such as cadet heaters, ceiling cable, and baseboard heat.  We have seen percentage savings in the double digits, when comparing energy use year to year.  For more detailed information, contractor referrals, and incentive information, we recommend a visit to .

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Flushing Our Future? Water Efficient and Dual Flush Toilets -by Erin Diamond

Do you or someone you know have the same toilet that was installed 50 years ago?  If so, you are using up to 7 gallons every time you flush – more than the average person uses in a whole day in many developing countries!  Chances are, though, that your toilet is a little newer than that.  Back in the 90’s the EPA required all new toilets to utilize no more than 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf), giving way to a whole era of poorly performing low-flow toilets.  Lingering stigma from these early models lead many people to think that a low flow toilet means more than one flush, increased cleaning, and regular battles with the plunger.  Not the case these days.  Several types of toilets exist now that are both high efficiency and high performance.  We’ll help you distinguish different types and what to look for.

Before we delve into specifics, a good place to start is to look for the WaterSense label.  WaterSense is an EPA-sponsored program that provides third-party laboratory testing to ensure toilets are meeting rigorous standards for performance and efficiency.  Only those that make it through the testing process with good results are eligible for the WaterSense label.  A list of applicable models is also available on the WaterSense website.

In addition to the WaterSense label, another great resource is a regularly updated report on the performance of popular toilet models by Veritec Consulting Inc. and Koeller and Company.  If you want to see how your own toilet rates, all 65 pages of the latest edition from January 2009 is available here.  Veritec and Koeller and Company also have a simpler 10 page rating report on just WaterSense toilets at the same link, if you prefer to choose a toilet from only those options.

Dual Flush

Many manufacturers are now catching on to the toilet trend that has been used in Australia and New Zealand for years – the dual flush.  This toilet has two buttons – one for liquids (a half-flush) and one for solids (full flush).  No more “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.”  The two flushes take care of your dilemma without the stagnant odors.  So, what to look for in a dual flush model?

1. Trap Size – This refers to the size of the hole the waste has to get through when the toilet is flushed.  Trap sizes can range, but the standard diameter is between 2 1/8″ and 2 1/4.”   Logic would tell us that the larger the trap, the fewer the clogs.  This is often the case… as with the new American Standard Champion  with a 3″ trap, and Caroma toilets with a 4″ trap.   Aaron has ditched his plunger after years of certainty that his Caromas will not clog.   All in all, we’d recommend going with a large trap… unless it’s a Toto.  which brings me to the next point.

2. Flush mechanism – The Toto Aquia is one of the most popular dual flush models on the market today.  Though it has a standard size trap, Toto has perfected (and patented) the physics of their trapway, increasing the velocity of the flush.  These models are the preferred brand for Mike at Black Cat Plumbing here in Portland. According to him, the Totos offer better performance over other brands, meaning fewer callbacks and higher customer satisfaction.  In addition to the flush itself, talk to your salesperson about durability of the interior parts – how sturdy are the components?  How often do they need to be replaced?

3. Water Level – Every dual flush model has a slightly different water level in the bowl.  This may seem like no big deal… and to some it isn’t.  However, what I call the “kerplunk factor” must be taken into account when choosing the correct product for your toiletary needs.  When something with mass falls from a longer distance, the splash is intensified, if you catch my drift.  There also tends to be a larger amount of “debris” on the sides of the bowl when the water level is very low – though the high intensity flush takes care of most of it, there can be some lingering remains.

This Caroma Sydney Smart 305 ranks very high for performance, and has a lower gpf (1.28g for full flush and .8g for half flush).  Most dual flush models are 1.6g and .9g

This Caroma Sydney Smart 305 ranks very high for performance, and has a lower gpf (1.28g for full flush and .8g for half flush). Most dual flush models are 1.6g and .9g

High Efficiency

With water usage reaching epic proportions in this country, many manufacturers are responding to the need for toilets that use less water per flush than the 1.6gpf our national code requires.  There are several models on the market now that are labeled as High Efficiency Toilets, or HET’s, meaning they use at least 20% less water per flush – usually 1.28 or 1.1gpf.  (This category includes the dual flush models, but I have separated those out for differentiation in this post.)  When looking for a single flush toilet that uses as little H2O as possible, many of the same rules apply.  Look for a larger trap, a strong flush, and talk to the salesperson about any problems that each particular model may have.  Again, refer to Veritec and Koeller’s  Maximum Performance (MaP) of WaterSense High-Efficiency Toilet Fixtures (HETs) for specifics on the model that’s right for you.

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Sustainably harvested wood… no certification required? • By Aaron Winer


In many parts of the country trees are an abundant natural resource, and when used wisely they can provide a long-term source for many building materials.  Locally grown and selectively harvested trees can be milled into dimensional lumber, flooring, trim, furniture, and other products for our homes.  There are a number of certification programs that have been established to help consumers determine the true sustainability of their purchases.   The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) are the largest wood certification programs in the U.S forestry market.  In the Pacific Northwest, we are also lucky to have the Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities (HFHC) partnership to promote economically, environmentally and socially responsible wood products.

The Forest Stewardship Council is an independent, third party group that monitors and certifies wood products that have been produced under strict guidelines.  They strive to maintain a balance between environmental, economic and social sustainability.  An FSC certified forest has to be visited by a team of experts who evaluate all of these elements prior to certification.  Once certified, a “tracking number” is established.  Much as we track a shipment through the post, we can use this chain-of-custody number to view the path of the wood from the forest through milling, processing, packaging and retail, to the end user.  Each entity that handles the wood must also be certified, in order to provide verification that non-certified wood has not been combined with certified wood.  FSC also certifies wood products containing mixed-source and recycled wood and/or paper. FSC has long been considered the premier and most valid forest certification program.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative started out as a self-certification for companies in the wood products industry.  It has, however, undergone significant change in recent years.  Due to SFI’s recent efforts to shift away from industry funding and increase standards, they are on track to achieving a much more credible and robust program.  It works in much the same way as FSC, and even has its own certification number system to follow the path of the wood from the forest to the consumer.  The one area that has received criticism, when compared to FSC, is that SFI lacks a clear and detailed set of guidelines for achieving certification.  This can be seen as a benefit to some, however, as it allows more flexibility and could be more inclusive to newcomers in the sustainable forestry industry.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have another source of sustainably harvested wood products, the Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities Partnership. HFHC is a part of Sustainable Northwest, an organization that works to support and encourage a locally based, sustainable economy in the region.  HFHC helps make the connections between landowners with sustainably grown trees and the marketplace for products made from those trees.  HFHC does have a group certificate for FSC chain of custody, which those members with FSC status can use, but not all of its wood is FSC certified.  HFHC is a great example of a “hybrid” supply of wood.  Some of it is coming from FSC sources, some from selective thinning, some from standing dead or reused wood, and some from very small forest land that is planted with a diverse selection of species.  For many people, the personal connections that are such a strong part of HFHC override the need to know that the wood is “certified.”  Because HFHC is a regional organization, it is possible to develop personal relationships with some of its members.  Knowing where your wood is coming from and the methodologies used by those landowners allows a personal connection and reverence for the products they produce.  In some cases, this connection may preclude any necessity for a more widely known certification.

Another noteworthy option for wood products is salvaged or recycled wood.  Using flooring that has been removed, re-milled, and reinstalled is a great way to minimize environmental impacts.  In some cities, there are places to purchase salvaged and re-graded framing lumber and larger timbers.  This wood typically does not carry any type of certification.

Though all certifications are not created equal, some can provide the buyer with a sense of affirmation that the wood has been harvested in a more sustainable fashion.  However, the knowledge that comes with being involved with our local and regional sustainable economy, and the ability to create something beautiful from recycled wood is proof that certification is not necessarily the only choice for environmentally friendly wood.

To learn more about Greenhaven Consulting, visit our website :!