HVAC, AC, and Heat Pumps with Friday Apaliski

sustainability Apr 07, 2021

Friday Apaliski is the San Francisco-based authority on sustainability and has developed a process through her company Sustainability Concierge to aid homeowners in developing a more holistic and sustainable home. 

If you would like to get in touch with Friday, you can reach her by email at [email protected].

Watch our interview or read the transcript below: 


Jenny: I'm super excited to be here with you and talk about sustainability and how to apply it to a construction project. I'm thrilled to talk with you about your recent experience and just anything that you can share with us about how to prepare for a more green project. 

Friday: Thanks for having me. I'm really excited to talk about this too, because you're right you know. I don't want to say that doing the green way is harder, but what I will say is that. It feels like you're swimming upstream still because so many contractors are not so well-versed in this. They're learning and you're learning, and that just means that things can be more difficult. And also as with all things sustainability, there is no silver bullet. Every project is different. So no matter what I say, I'm sure that anybody watching this and anybody doing a project is still going to have to weigh pros and cons because there's no super simple solution. Let's get into it. 

We start at the highest level. The highest level when you're thinking about your home being as sustainable as possible, or I should say when you're thinking about construction and building or remodeling, that that version of sustainability is really around your systems. The most sustainable house is one that is all electric. The reason for that is because the electric grid can be fed through all different types of electricity. In California right now, that is quite a bit of natural gas, but also wind energy and solar energy and hydro energy. And in the future, you can put whatever kind of energy you want made from algae made from wind made from any kind of sustainable source that makes electricity. You could put it on the grid and that's what you use to power your house. 

So what's great about an all electric house is that it's going to get more sustainable over time, as the grid gets more sustainable. If you put natural gas in your house, that's the end of the story, right? Because it's not going to get more green. Natural gas is still made from dinosaur bones. It still has to be drilled and there's no easy replacement there. What we want to do is turn off that faucet and plug it into the grid no matter where you are. That means you've got, I would say three major systems in every house. Heating and cooling is one, or HVAC. You've got water heating and cooking.

What I just put into my house is called heat pump technology. And a heat pump is something that we're all actually very familiar with. We just don't realize. It is how a refrigerator stays cool. Heat pump technology doesn't use fuel to create heat. It moves heat from one place to the other. So when you stand in front of your refrigerator and you open the door, it's cold inside, but your feet are toasty warm, right? You get the little fan with the hot on your feet. That's because your refrigerator is moving the hot air in your refrigerator, out into your house. 

We're not physically moving the air. We're moving the temperature. Heat. The way that this works is I have a machine in my backyard. It could be on my roof in the side yard to be anywhere. And it pulls the heat out of the ambient air, and it puts it into my house. It actually puts it into the refrigerator or some kind of liquid that then goes up to a machine that's in my house and makes the hot air come out. 

And it works in reverse also. So when I'm really hot, it pulls the coldness out of the ambient air outside and puts that into my house. So rather than have a full heating system and a big giant air conditioner outside. I have one machine and it does both. And because it isn't using combustion to heat, it's super efficient. It doesn't cost me, hardly anything to use. 

Jenny: Well, I was immediately just like, what's the square footage of your home and what's your monthly bill?

Friday: Yeah, okay, let's talk about that. The square footage of my home is 1500 square feet. And my monthly bill is less than $100. But that also now I have an all electric house. So we're going to talk about these other aspects. Right. But that a hundred dollars is my heating and cooling, all of my cooking, and all of my hot water. It's everything. I don't have any gas, so it's not like the electric portion is $100 and the gas portion is $100. It's a whole thing. I should say the normal living section of my house is 1500 square feet. But in fact, my house is larger than that. There's another unit there's like an outdoor component. We have a backyard.

Jenny: Still very reasonable. 

Friday: Very reasonable. And I will say part of the reason that it is very reasonable is because when you are planning for any HVAC system, if you're not thinking about your whole house, you're gonna miss something. The most important thing in the whole big house is insulation. And this is so important if you are doing a remodel project, because insulation was just not a thing before the 80’s. So, if you have any kind of age house, you probably don't have insulation. And it is by far the cheapest and the most effective way to keep your house warm in the winter and cool in summer. 

The prime example of this in our house is that we moved in first and then we put all the insulation in walls, and we had to push all of the furniture into my son's closet. All of his bedroom furniture. His little postage stamp of a closet is not going to get insulation. And now when you go in his closet, it is 20 degrees different than the rest of the house and his bedroom.

What you'll find is that if you call an HVAC person and you say, you know, this room is really cold, they are going to say to you, Oh, well, what you need is a larger heater. Blow more heat and you'll be warmer. And the truth is what you're doing is just you're heating up the neighborhood. So it's really important to insulate an air seal before you go to make a new HVAC purchase. You want to make sure that the ducts that you're using are well sealed. That there's no cracks or leaks in the walls and that there's good insulation. And that will go a long, long way, and it is far less expensive than a new HVAC system. 

During fire season, I also found that you then also don't have all of this smoke leaking into your house either. So it was much easier to keep the air inside clean when you don't have all those cracks and leaks everywhere. 

Jenny: Did you go from a forced air system to a heat pump system? And you've made the conversion in your last remodel? 

Friday: Yes. Well, we had a gravity furnace, so it doesn't blow quite as much, but it is about four feet, maybe five feet cubed. I mean, humongous, very popular in the 1950s. Every single house in my neighborhood has it. They last forever. And it still had the duct, so we could keep our ducting infrastructure already. Basically, we're just plugging into those depths. Through a different machine. If you have a furnace system already, you don't necessarily have to redo your whole house. The ducts that you have already are fine. You just plug a new machine in basically. 

I think the reason it's the most important for people to think about now is I cannot tell you how many people have said to me, I need air conditioning. And I'm like, yeah. The climate is warming. We do need air conditioning. If we all turn on air conditioners, the old fashioned way, we're going to burn this place down. We just can't do it the old way anymore. We really have to be thoughtful. I just want you to plan to get a heat pump and there are so many different options for heat pump technology. 

So I have what's called a mini split. So it has a machine that's inside and a machine that's outside. If you don't have ducts in your house, there are ones that you can put on the wall. In fact, I didn't have any room for ducts in my little office downstairs, so I can show you that that's what my downstairs one looks like. And it heats and cools fantastically. So this one still plugs into my outdoors, but there are other beautiful Italian ones that look kind of like swamp coolers. They're just one piece and you stick them in the wall. There are so many different solutions. So I would say definitely talk to a professional who's used to putting in heat pumps and really get into that. If you're thinking about, at all in the near future about a new furnace, or if you're thinking about air conditioning. 

There's a whole host of people who do this work, it's called home performance. And they're going to check for air sealing and insulation. They're going to check your HVAC system. They're going to check everything and they're going to look at it more holistically and say here's what the best solution is because those people are on the forefront of energy efficiency. They're going to know about heat pumps for sure. 

Jenny: Do you have a preferred insulation? 

Friday: This is one where it's a little bit depends on who you work with. It a little bit depends on the house that you have. And it a little bit depends on where you live. There are some insulation companies that will use wool, which is awesome. There are some that we'll use. Jeans or denim. Denim is super good if you don't live in foggy San Francisco, but not so great if it’s damp. We ended up using, it's a newspaper recycled cellulose, and you blow it in because again, we didn't take down all of the sheetrock in our house. So, if you take all your sheetrock down, then you can roll in something or you can kind of push in something. We did not do that. So you do this other thing where you poke a hole in the top of the wall and poke hole in the bottom of the wall every 12 inches or whatever it is. And they literally put like a, it looks like a vacuum, but it's in reverse and it blows the insulation into the wall. Packs it in. They're really good. 

Jenny: Probably slightly better than spray foam, which I would imagine might have some toxic chemicals to it. 

Friday: I would want see specifically what product, but I would say generally speaking, a spray foam is not going to be on the top of my list. I would also say that insulation is inside your wall. If you do a really good job of air sealing, then I'm not quite as worried about what is inside the wall. If though, you have old insulation that is known to be toxic and a bunch of cracks and leaks all over the place. And now you're breathing that stuff that could be really bad. This is one of those things where you have to weigh the pros and the cons, and you have to really think about what situation am I in and what makes the most sense. And that's going to be a little bit of a case by case basis. 

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