Thursday, February 21, 2008

Retrofitting an older house for energy efficiency

When replacing the HVAC and hot water systems in our house this past summer, we were faced with a 44 year-old brick home, supplied by natural gas. Research indicated that a geo-thermal system would be too disruptive and expensive, while installing a standard high-efficiency natural gas forced air system would not provide the fuel efficiency that we were after. A solar hot water system or gas tankless system for water would have been workable, but, since we had to replace the furnace, AC, and hot water heater at the same time, the best choice was for an integrated hydronic system, which involved a natural-gas fired ultra-high efficiency boiler. This provided heat for the furnace (no more "dry" heat), still utilizing the forced-air ductwork, while providing virtually "free" hot water all winter as a residual benefit of the HVAC's boiler system. This system met the federal standard for energy credits, while costing only about 10% more than the installation costs of a new standard high-efficiency system. It is working flawlessly. Energy conservation and sustainable living are among my major concerns, and I have made a study of many of the techniques, materials, and systems that are being developed to "green" our world. I am delighted to share this information with any neighbor, customer, or client who is also interested in this exciting and promising area. Reducing your energy usage, living "greener," and, in general, being more sensitive to our impact on the environment is a huge area of study. Among the topics are
  1. Modifications that can be made to an older home to conserve energy (such as adding insulation, plugging up gaps around windows and exterior outlets, replacing windows, doors, and old appliances with Energy Star items, installing solar or wind systems)
  2. Materials that can be used in construction that are sustainable and renewable
  3. Lifestyle changes to reduce waste (such as choosing products with less packaging, choosing items that are local, changing lights to compact fluorescents, and composting)
  4. Choosing transportation & workplace options that reduce the use of the automobile

A note about compact fluorescent light bulbs. We tried many of them, and find that, if you search for the bulbs that are rated 2700-2800k (kelvin), you will have a bulb that most closely replicates the light quality and color of an incandescent bulb. The lower the kelvin rating, the "yellower" the light; the higher the rating, the "bluer" the light. We found the higher k bulbs to be very harsh. You cannot use the standard compact flourescent bulbs on circuits with dimmer switches; there are special compact bulbs for that purpose. We are using them everywhere we can, and find virtually no difference at all. They also last many, many times longer that the comparable incandescent bulbs. Just be sure to take the "spent" bulbs to the Shady Grove transfer center (not in your recycling bin) so that they can be disposed of properly; there are trace amounts of mercury inside the tubes.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Church tower driving neighbors crazy

The new bell tower at St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church is lit all night long, and the bells are set to ring every 15 minutes, causing havoc in the houses across the street on Tildenwood Lane. Our neighbors need our support to ask the church to turn off the lights after 9pm and to stop ringing the bells all day, every day. Below is a letter I received from Julie Winston, outlining the difficulties they are having: The bell tower started operation around December 10th (we were away till the 16th, but they certainly coordinated with the opening of the Montrose Parkway). We returned from our trip and the entire upstairs of my house (6709 Tildenwood Lane) was lit up...thought I had been robbed, but found it was the LIGHT from the church bell tower brilliantly shining into my upstairs bathroom, hallway and bedroom. Little did I realizethat the church BELLS would affect me even more than this problem. These "lovely" bells ring EVERY 15 minutes all day long, and even more so on Sundays. They are on a BIG BEN system like in London, and very few churches buy this program because it does affect the neighbors. I can accept Sundays, as this is church time. I contacted the church 6 times via phone, and was told it was the holiday season and no one would be able to respond to my message until after the 1st of January. No one ever returned my call, but on January 8th, I finally spoke to a Mr. Foria who is the building engineer. He said he was surprised to hear about the light being an issue, and would try to dim it with a filter. I asked for it to be turned off after 9pm, as it was disturbing our sleep. He told me that was impossible as they wanted it to be seen all night from the MONTROSE PARKWAY! The noise from the bells was not an issue, as far as he was concerned. He never did get back to me, as he had promised. I called the county Dept of Environment , and Dan McAnn (240-777-7743) has been out here to check the sound levels and has even spoken personally to Mr. Foria at the church, but to no avail. Dan says the sound levels are ok and they do go off at 9pm, so that is acceptable to the county, but he agrees that the quality of life is definitely disrupted by the bell sounds every 15 minutes. This is not a way to live..... the light is shining on my breakfast room table, in my den, and my entire upstairs... and the bells are driving me crazy!!!! Happy retirement at 6709 Tildenwood Lane. At least 4 of the residents of this street are affected as well, and I haven't asked the remaining houses as of yet. I so appreciate the community's support in resolving this awful problem. See the article below re: Reston Church bells, law suit. Thanks again, Julie 301-468-9399

Monday, February 18, 2008

Montrose Road bridge construction

Dan & I just took a walk over to the closed section of Montrose Road. They are well on their way to creating the new bridge over Old Farm Creek. The photos here were taken while walking on the St. Elizabeth's Church side of the street, heading east toward East Jefferson Street. You can see the Montrose Parkway veering off to the right. To recap what the construction is all about:
  1. Montrose Road used to have a "dip" over Old Farm Creek between St. Elizabeth's Church and Treeline Way (townhouses). The creek passed under Montrose Road through a small culvert. They are raising Montrose Road about 7' above where is used to be, eliminating much of the dip, removing the culvert, and building a bridge over the creek that will be large enough to accommodate a wildlife crossing beneath it. I believe that they are also talking about having a human path (bike path? - I'll be checking on this) to link our new parkway bike path to the north side of Montrose Road, into Rockville.
  2. Once Montrose Road, traveling westbound, crosses the new bridge over the creek, it will veer left (south, and away from St. Elizabeth's) to intersect with the parkway. When you are on the parkway, you can see what looks like an incomplete intersection, with the booms for the traffic lights already installed. That's where Montrose Road will tie into Montrose Parkway.
  3. The part of the old Montrose Road that went in front of St. Elizabeth's (between Tildenwood Drive and the new Montrose Road/Montrose Parkway intersection) will be removed.

So, here are the pictures of the construction so far...

View eastward from Tildenwood Drive & Montrose Road, taken from the north side. You can see the parkway veering off to the right. The construction is further along on the left, on the closed section of Montrose Road.

Here is where the construction begins, just past St. Elizabeth's old entrance.
Continuing eastward, they built a temporary footbridge over the creek for pedestrians & bicyclists. This will be removed after the new roadway is opened.
Standing on the footbridge, this is the view north into the Rockville side.
Turn around in the same spot, and this is the view south into the construction of the new Montrose Road bridge. The cylinder is the old culvert that used to go under Montrose Road, with Old Farm Creek channelized through it. Flanking each side of the culvert are the forms, under construction, for the embankments of the new bridge. You can see how much higher it will be than the old roadbed was.
More of the same. Montrose Parkway is in the distance, past the strip of trees.
We have crossed the pedestrian bridge and are now standing in the middle of Montrose Road, near the townhouses, looking back (west) across the gulf where they are building the bridge (between where the cranes are). It is apparent that the "dip" is now pretty much gone. On this side, they are also working on building the new roadbed.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Montrose Parkway construction problems

There are still many problems with the way the contractor has left the neighborhoods around the parkway as they work on completing construction. If you know of issues beyond the ones I will outline below, please post them as comments so that I can bring all of our problems to the contractor and the county for correction.
  1. The Tilden Woods gazebo, just east of Tildenwood Drive & Montrose, is falling down and needs to be replaced or removed. In fact, contractors who illegally removed trees from the adjacent property felled limbs on the gazebo, making a bad situation worse.
  2. On Tildenwood Drive, the traffic island was ripped up and has not been rebuilt or replanted.
  3. Sidewalks were not built along the new length of Hitching Post Lane; the sound walls only allow vehicles through so that walkers cannot follow Hitching Post Lane to the swim club.
  4. Numerous cherry trees were cut down along Tildenwood Drive, particulary near the new storm water management pond south of the back of Faith United Methodist Church and near the intersection with Montrose Road, leaving large blank spaces in our tree canopy. I have arranged with a county department to have these replaced, no thanks to the parkway construction contractor.
  5. The contractor was to replant and landscape the earth berm between the storm water management pond (just mentioned above) and the sidewalk.

That's just near the entrance to Tilden Woods! Further east on the parkway,

  1. The bike path gets to East Jefferson Street, continues on the other side, but there is no crosswalk. In fact, the vehicular traffic around that corner does not stop, and it is decidedly treacherous to cross the street to stay on the bike path.
  2. The county transportation department (DPWT) has striped and re-striped the pavement along East Jefferson Street so that lanes suddenly appear, disappear, merge, and make forced turns in such a bizarre pattern that accidents are nearly a daily occurrance.
  3. Although the utility companies have finished moving cables from the poles that were in the middle of the widened Montrose Road, not all of the poles have been removed. Notably, there is a pole in the street at the corner of Montrose & Tildenwood Drive. After I sent an email to the county, the contractor put a few barrels around it and nailed neon stripes to it, but it's an accident waiting to happen if someone rounds that corner and doesn't see it (or the barrels get blown aside, as one did this past week).

Do you know of other problems to be addressed? Be sure to post them. Thanks.

Street trees - County policy

The county will be replacing cherry trees on Tildenwood Drive due to the immense destruction that was caused by the construction crews when building the Montrose Parkway. Since first notifying everyone that the dead trees will be removed and new ones planted, a lot of people on other streets have asked to have trees removed and/or planted. First, I will outline the county tree maintenance department policy, as I understand it (having discussed these requests with Brett Linkletter, the tree maintenance program manager). Next, we can discuss the Montrose Parkway construction "fallout" as it pertains to the contiguous neighborhoods. I will put that into another post. A short course in ownership does not extend to the street curbs. The grassy strips at the edge of the streets are generally easements for utilities and the county to do public maintenance. As a side note, the street itself is a public right-of-way, and parking along the streets is open to the public at large, if parking is permitted on that street. No property owner "owns" or controls the parking space on the street in front of his/her house. This issue has come up in the past, so I thought I'd clarify it. The trees next to the street are county-controlled. If there are power lines on that side of the street, pruning of the trees is done by Pepco, with the intention of keeping the lines clear and free from breakage. Pepco's tree-trimming subcontractors are notably unskilled at properly pruning for appropriate future growth. The county government is not responsible for these prunings. Any tree that is a county street tree in poor health or decayed beyond saving can be removed by the county, with a new tree planted in its place. The new tree may not be the same variety or species as the one removed. Since our communities were built 45-50 years ago, the science of street trees has grown, so that the list of "approved" trees for different locations has changed. In addition, the tree removal and subsequent replanting schedules vary widely. It may take a year to get a dead tree removed, and another year to get its replacement planted. The county will not plant a tree just to fill in a blank space; if there wasn't a tree there, they won't be likely to add one. It is up to each homeowner to notice if there is a problem with the street trees in front of his/her house. The county doesn't cruise the streets, inspecting all the trees. If you note that your tree(s) are dead or diseased, the county will respond if you notify them of the problem. You can reach Mr. Linkletter at or by phone at 240-777-6000.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Turnout in our voting precinct in bleak weather

Hello, friends & neighbors! This is the first post on my new blog, and I hope to write regularly to share my thoughts about North Bethesda, real estate, community concerns & updates, and some politics. Thank you for checking my blog, and I hope you return often and post your comments and wisdom. I can't promise wisdom from my side, but I love to learn from others. Voting went smoothly for our precinct, 4-13, at Farmland Elementary School. The Board of Elections suggested a new circulation pattern and layout, and the school obliged by allowing us to let people enter and leave through the main doors. From the point of view of those of us working at the polls, it was a far superior layout, and no one had to stand in line outside in the rain and sleet. We opened promptly at 7am with all touch-screen machines functioning perfectly and experienced no glitches during the day. Turnout was great for a primary election. Of the 2020 voters registered to vote at Farmland, 1026 were logged as "voted" in the electronic register when we closed the polls at 9:30 pm (that's right- we were held over to extended hours; more on that later). By party, there were 760 Democrats, 234 Republicans, and 32 Un-affiliated voters. Since the Democratic primary has been hotly contested, the turnout for that party was extraordinary. A recent court case resulted in permissible voter registration of 17 year olds who will be 18 before the general election in November. We were delighted to see several enthusiastic voters take advantage of this ruling. We had to give them provisional ballots, so all of them voted on paper. Provisional ballots will be counted at the Board of Elections by next week. In November, when they are 18, they will use the dreaded Diebold touch-screen machines like the rest of us. Many people asked my about the security of the voting machines. As I said, we had no glitches or problems with the operation of any of our 12 voting units, but Maryland does not have a paper trail capability or requirement to be able to audit any of our elections this year. This means that, if a hacker were to change votes in the machines or at the mainframe, no one could ever prove that the system had been hacked or the election tampered with. This happened in 2004 in Ohio in at least one dramatic case, where a precinct, voting on these same machines, delivered over 6-times the number of votes for George W. Bush than there were voters in that precinct. No one could prove tampering (no ability to audit the election), but the mathematics were unmistakable. To our knowledge, this type of thing has not happened in Maryland, since we are not known as a contested state in the general elections. Thankfully, after long court battles since 2002, the last MD general assembly passed a bill to require a paper trail for all elections after 2008. We will use the current Diebold system in the 2008 general election, but will have something new (and auditable!) by 2010. Back to our primary... The weather got worse all day, and we were hearing reports from the "outside world" that traffic was snarled all over and people were skidding on ice outside. We were about to close at 8pm (after being open for voting for 13 hours) when we received the dreaded call from the Board of Elections, instructing us to stay open until 9:30pm. Some judge in Anne Arundel County had decided that people needed more time to get to the polls. Our extended-hours rules require that we close the electronic voting units and use provisional ballots for all voting after 8, so we closed down the machines and re-arranged the room to accommodate additional provisional voting. Seven brave souls came in to vote between 8 and 9:30. Again, the provisional votes will not be tallied until next week. As required by law, the pre-voting and closing paper tapes (which show the tabulation of each race, by candidate, for each machine) were taped to the wall outside of Farmland ES at the main entrance. In the future (this may only apply to the November general election, which could be the last time we use these machines), if you are interested in the election results from our precinct, you can come to Farmland after 8pm and examine the tapes. It can take us up to 1/2 hour or so to close the machines and run the final tallies, printing the tapes out, but they will be there. Although the hours are loooonnnngggg when working at the polls, it is really fun. I encourage anyone who can take the time & has the strength to volunteer to be an election judge. You will learn a lot, and meet wonderful people. We had a fabulous group, and I was proud to serve with them. As an aside, there is a small stipend paid to election judges. Don't spend it all in one place! To sign up, or, if you want to reach the Montgomery County Board of Elections for any reason, the site is