The solar panel industry has yet to find a strong home in central Virginia, despite Charlottesville’s reputation as a forward-thinking, cautiously modernizing mid-size town. It’s estimated that around half a million homes are solar powered (probably with a higher concentration in west coast cities). The fact is that any avenue which diminishes a reliance on fossil fuels is an avenue worth exploring, especially in light (that pun was very much intended) of ever-changing weather patterns. Springs and summers are the best seasons for stockpiling photovoltaic energy, simply because the sun is out more. claims that a combination of PV cells and energy efficient appliances can cut your home energy costs by more than 66%! By the way, check that site out for handy applications like their Solar Calculator or Solar Power Cost.

A brief discussion on how it works. Photovoltaic cells are comprised of silicon and other semiconductor materials. Together with other elements, they stimulate the movement of electrons. There are a few different options for harnessing this energy. The prevailing image of PV technology is probably the flat solar panels, typically seen on the roofs of green buildings. In the past, the construction and design of these panels was seen as aesthetically unappealing. PV engineers and providers have started to make the panels more muted colors like black, which blend well with the look of modern roofs. There are still building permits for which you’ll have to apply, and you should definitely check with your resident Homeowner’s Association before getting started.

One of the most enduring narratives about solar energy (and solar panels in particular) is that it’s no good for property values. While it might be easy to believe that the huge, rectangular structures which dominate the roofs of solar-powered houses would repel potential buyers, this has been proven false. An interdisciplinary team comprised of universities, appraisers, and scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and Sandia National Labs has discerned that there is an average premium of $15,000 for homes with a photovoltaic system. They looked at the sales of 22,000 homes (4,000 of which were solar-powered), in eight different states between the years of 1999 and 2013. The data says that homes with photovoltaic systems sell at a rate 20% faster than homes without. The homes also fetch an average price 17% higher than their coal-powered counterparts. Depending on where you live, there may also be government rebates and incentives for installing/maintaining a photovoltaic system in your home. Wouldn’t it be pretty nice to get a full or partial property tax exemption for converting sunlight into energy?

At this point you may be thinking about solar power for your Charlottesville home. There are several factors to consider, and the majority of people who decide to invest in photovoltaic technology consult some sort of outside party, known as solar installers. A little research online will bring up a list of solar energy providers and installers in your area. Here at home in Charlottesville, SolarizeCville and Dasolar appear to be prominent names, but there are likely several others, especially with major cities like Washington, D.C. and Richmond nearby. These installers will evaluate your home, needs (are you retrofitting a pre-existing house or building one from scratch?) and budget. The more research you do, the better. Think and ask your installer questions regarding the quality of the input components used by the recommended solar companies. Have a look at the claims rates; they shed much light on the experiences of other customers and are indicative of how well the hardware holds up over time.

Find out the efficiency percentage…all solar panels should have one readily available. This percentage is simply the ratio of “raw” sunlight hitting the roof to converted energy. The higher efficiency, the less surface area required to power a home. You definitely want at least 10% efficiency…aim for the 15-20% range if it’s within your means. Look up reviews from panel owners who live in climates and situations that are similar to your own. Read assessments from unbiased third-party organizations. If you’re considering a specific company, ask the manufacturers for test results from different climates, environments, and installation circumstances. Most people agree that a photovoltaic array lasts an average of 25 years, and most warranties reflect this. Read the terms of the warranty carefully and make sure you’re covered every step of the way. For example, you’re going to want efficiency minimums that reflect wear, tear, and years. Good luck on your quest…to greener pastures and lower electricity costs!  If you are looking for a green home in Charlottesville, check out our website

5 Smart Home Gadgets You Never Knew You Needed

In this day and age, anything is possible. We’re talking hoverboards, self-driving cars, and virtual reality video games. Why shouldn’t your home keep up? Many homes in Charlottesville are equipped with smart home technology, and some of these products can go a long way towards making your life easier.

Nest Learning Thermostat ~$245.00

If you live in Charlottesville, you’re no stranger to the mid-Atlantic temperature flux. After a long day at work, the first few moments you spend in your home will often set the tone for the rest of your evening. It’s nice to walk into a house that’s exactly as warm or cool as you want it, and the Nest Learning Thermostat is quick to pick up on your habits. After an easy installation, you can start controlling the temperature remotely via Wi-Fi and a free app (which is available on multiple devices). The cool thing about this device is that over time, it becomes accustomed to your preferences without manual input. If you like it at 68 during the daytime and a little warmer at night, it’ll pick up on that. Eventually it becomes sensitive to the hours when the house is empty, and will adjust temperature to save power. It can differentiate between weekday and weekend preferences with just as much ease. It even takes your home’s heating system into account. If, for example, your forced-air radiant system takes 30 minutes to reach your desired temperature, it’ll start 30 minutes before you get home, but if it takes 10 minutes to get your furnace going, it’ll start 10 minutes before. Sometimes we think it knows us better than we know ourselves.

 iRobot Roomba 980 ~$899.99

The Roomba has been around for a while; it’s the little vacuum cleaner that could. If it has to take a break to charge its batteries (which it does automatically), it’ll pick up exactly where it left off. The AeroForce Cling System with Carpet Boost uses 10 times the power on carpets and rugs to get a really deep clean. It also features tangle-free extensions to prevent clogging from hair and debris. The iAdapt Response Navigation system imbues the Roomba with an almost eerie sense of self-awareness, helping it avoid (but not climb) stairs. Like many of these smart home products, it comes with an app that allows you to program a schedule, so you can get your vacuuming done when no one’s home, at night, or on the way home (but will you beat your in-laws there?) The 980 literally creates a virtual map of the area as it goes, and refers back to it. It’s also cordless and bagless, so it really can go anywhere…except stairs. They haven’t gotten there yet.

 tattletale Security Device Model #CU Kit 2 ~$558.00

Okay, if you’re reading this, you probably live in Charlottesville, or are thinking about buying a home in the Charlottesville area. Crime is everywhere today. And it only takes one incident to change your life completely, so there is absolutely no harm in being prepared. Enter the tattletale, possibly the most thorough smart home security system on the market today. This completely wireless, portable alarm system comes with three sensors (though you can add an additional 47). Its 20-hour backup battery will keep you safe even in the midst of a power outage. The military-grade plastics make this system tamper proof. Each sensor has a built-in motion sensor that scans 90 degrees around and up to 300 ft. away. The pet mode lets your pets wander and roam without triggering the alarm. If something does trip the system, it emits sirens and strobe lights to let you know; often, those features alone are enough to frighten potential intruders. The emergency response is activated in 6/10ths of a second, and unlike most systems, it’s not reliant on a phone line, so you’ll be assured that help is on the way. Add all this to a touchscreen and intuitive user interface, and the tattletale definitely ranks as one of the finest home security systems on the market.

Sonos Play: 5 ~$499.99

Awesome, high-quality tunes in every room? This is every music lover’s perfect gadget. We’re fully willing to admit that you can see great local, regional, and nationally touring acts live in Charlottesville every weekend, but sometimes you want crisp, clear, high-fidelity sounds right in your living room (or kitchen, or bathroom, or laundry room). Enter the Sonos Play: 5, one of the company’s most sophisticated systems yet. You control the music completely through the phone, tablet, or device of your choosing, so once the speakers are installed, they stay there, and you can add as many Sonos speakers as you want. The material is humidity resistant, so you can finally sing along to your favorite songs in the shower. Sonos’ technology is perfect for a house divided, and let’s face it…there’s a good chance that your kids hate your music. Eventually they’ll come to realize how great Johnny Cash is, but until they do, each speaker has the capability to play something different. If everyone’s on the same page, the system can play the same music throughout the house; it’s completely up to you. The software updates automatically, and with six synchronized drivers, you’re not compromising quality for convenience. The music sounds as good as it does anywhere else, and with zero audible distortion, you can crank it up LOUD!

Toto MS982CUMG-12 Neorest 550H ~$3,520.99

We’ve arrived at our final smart home product. We know you’re excited to see what could compare to robots that take care of the vacuuming or thermostats that predict your temperature preferences. Well you better be sitting down for this one…because it’s a toilet. Not just any toilet. This porcelain throne comes with a ton of features to optimize the Sacred Ritual. The cyclone siphon jet flushing system is incredibly energy efficient. The surfaces are coated in SanaGloss ceramic glaze, which prevents mold and debris from sticking, keeping your toilet clean with fewer chemicals and less water. It’s also essentially hands-free, with auto-flush technology and motion sensors that open and close the lid for you. In true Japanese style, it’s got washlet cleansing features. It also comes with a remote control and dock, and the heated seat is adjustable, so you can cultivate the perfect experience. The built-in air purifier actually kind of works, and the nightlight makes it helpful during the potty-training period.

And with that we wrap up the five best smart gadgets that we’ve seen!

Winter Worsts: Frozen Pipes are No Fun

The cold, hard reality is that winter will soon descend onto the land in the Greater Charlottesville area. And the Virginia winters of late have been unpredictable, the weather shifting from benign to blizzardous in the blink of an eye. With winter approaching, anyone who owns property in Charlottesville should be thinking about their pipes. Most houses with pipes that freeze tend to be of new construction but older homes with little insulation have their share of frozen pipes as well.So we know that pipes freeze and burst because of the weather, at the simplest explanation. Ice forms along the pipe, expanding. Water is a generally incompressible substance and so when the ice starts to expand, pressure builds up in the pipes and this causes the pipes to rupture. It all has to do with increasing water pressure in a confined location. So we know we want to keep the water away from its freezing point. How do we do this?

You want to leave the pipe exposed to the warmth from inside the house, usually by placing the pipe in interior walls. If the pipe is in an exterior wall, builders should try to position it between a warm room and some insulation; it’s cooler than the room but still above freezing in most cases. You or your builder may have to resort to using heat trace on your pipes. Heat trace is a resistance heating tape that gets wrapped directly around the pipe. It’s pretty pricy and requires electricity, so if the storm that hits is so bad it cuts the power off, the trace won’t be of much use.

Then there’s always insulating the pipe. It’s something you always want to do, and tend to do to varying degrees based on how cold you expect your house to get. Prevent freezing by slowing conduction (cooling coming directly from the walls) and convection (cooling coming from the cold air). The “wind-chill effect” from the convection of cold air is usually mitigated if insulation is present. For most wintry climates, inexpensive foam insulation will suffice…although there is always the heat trace for extra protection. Insulated materials are rated by their “R-value”: resistance to heat flow. There’s also K-value, a measure of conductivity/inch of material. If you’re really looking to secure your pipes this winter, think about molded fiberglass insulation with a plastic outer wrapping.

There’s also a device called a water shut off valve that senses leaks and cuts off the water main when detected. There are also air chambers; if measured and distributed effectively along the length of the pipe, they can handle the elevated fluid pressure caused by freezing. The air chambers have a reservoir of highly compressible gas which creates a cushioning effect, counteracting the elevated water pressure that causes pipes to burst.

Pipe Materials

Pipes are made from many different materials, all of which have positive and negative attributes. Here’s our brief breakdown.

Copper: Copper is king of pipe material. It’s been used as the standard for piping in the U.S. for 80 years, and many of those pipes are still going strong today. Copper is a very good conductor, so it’s likely to benefit from warm interior conditions and any residual heat, but it can also get cold very quickly if exposed to cold air. Insulation can sometimes block the pipes from getting heat quickly, or if there are gaps in the length of insulation, the heat will flow to those cold areas. But the longevity of copper can’t be disputed. It’s also the most expensive option.

Pex: Crosslinked polyethylene is a pretty flexible material that usually runs from fixture to source in a single straight line. Since it’s so flexible, it has the potential to freeze and thaw without the pipes ever rupturing, making it a good choice for cold climates.

PVC: These are firm pipes, whose walls are thicker than copper. They are poor conductors, and so tend to be more resistant to fluxes in temperature, even with insulation flaws. They can definitely expand a bit with increased fluid pressure, but don’t have as much flex as pex (ha). Also, the colder it gets, the more brittle this material becomes, so it’s not bulletproof.

You know the old saying. “An ounce of prevention…”

Selling Your Home? Resist These Costly Renovations

If you’re reading this, we assume that maybe you have a home in central Virginia that you’re thinking of selling. If so, you want to do everything in your power to make your house look attractive, and it’s hard to compete with some of the other homes in the Charlottesville area. But go overboard on your pre-sale renovations and you run the risk of alienating potential buyers and losing thousands of dollars in the process. The key ideas expressed in this article relate to a) making modest but effectual improvements while maintaining the spirit of the house and b) depersonalizing the space as best as possible without compromising its attractive features. Let’s begin.

Leave the garage alone
A garage is more than just a place for high school bands to sound terrible. It’s a valuable reservoir for seasonal storage, a place to keep stuff dry, and oftentimes the place where your cars and lawnmowers live. If you’re considering a garage overhaul, you may want to think again, and carefully. Is the resultant space going to be more attractive to buyers than a huge space devoted to junk storage and safe, dry parking? Consider the volatile rainy season that could land in Charlottesville at any point…it’s nice to have a place where you can toss wet stuff in a hurry. There are, of course, some instances in which a family would prefer the garage to be a living space, but that option will still exist if they decide to move in, and you will have spent zero dollars on costly garage renovations. You may be contemplating a home office or TV den in the space where your garage is now, but what if your prospective buyers are neurosurgeons (can’t work from home) who hate television and drive convertibles? You get the idea…let the garage be what it is, and if people want to change it, they can. Chances are if the house has a garage, it probably has a sufficient amount of bedrooms. At the very least, leave the garage doors on…that way buyers have the option to change it back.

Keep the outside in check
Some people believe that potential buyers make up their minds as soon as they see the outside of a house. Whether or not that’s true, it’s pretty crucial that the outside of your home maintains a certain standard. You want your grass cut and hedges trimmed and all that, but you want to avoid anything too showy or flamboyant. We’re talking about that army of garden gnomes and flamingos, or that expensive fountain; anything that may come across as excessive, you know? The lawn could come across as high-maintenance, which isn’t what you want. You want the house to stand out, but you don’t want it to look markedly more expensive than other places in the neighborhood; this affects the resale value, as the biggest, most elaborate looking house on the block is often the most difficult to sell.

Avoid excessive bedroom conversions

People like bedrooms…after all, they are great places to sleep, and they provide storage for beds.
Thinking about knocking down that wall and making those two small rooms into one big one? Generally speaking, quantity is more important than quality, plus for some, a bigger bedroom isn’t necessarily better than a smaller one. People tend to react favorably to big master bedrooms, but not as much as they used to. And buyers generally want separate rooms for all their kids and a guest room if possible. But there are no hard and fast rules here. If the house has a substantial number of bedrooms already (over five or six) then it may be wise to break some walls down, but always be thinking, “Does the amount of money I could potentially add to the asking price outweigh the cost of these renovations?” And if you can’t give a definitive “Yes,” then keep thinking. This also speaks to the idea of depersonalizing the home. If you’ve converted your college-aged kid’s old room into a home gym or music studio, emphasize that it was a bedroom first and if possible, convert it back. This is the same logic we employed when advising against eccentric wallpaper choices in an earlier article…prospective buyers are looking to buy their house from you; present a blank canvas where possible, and allow their own ideas and aspirations to inhabit the space.

High-end renovations are not always great
It’s been said before (even in this very blog) that when you’re selling a house, you’re really selling a kitchen (insofar as the kitchen is often the most memorable room and the one that makes or breaks a potential buyer’s relationship to your place). Even so, think carefully about springing for those expensive upgrades right before selling. These have the potential to show a house’s age, especially if the new improvements clash with the existing feel or vibe of the house. Consider your dad wearing backwards hats and picking up on some of the youthful colloquialisms…more often than not, this will only serve to reinforce his quintessential “dad” characteristics. This applies to everywhere in the house but especially the kitchen and bathrooms, often the areas of the house that need a facelift. The $3,000 built-in coffee/espresso system is probably pretty cool, but if it’s next to a dishwasher and sink from the 90s, it may do more to make the house look dated than to make it look fresh. This goes double if your potential buyers prefer tea. Stainless steel looks good with granite and marble but maybe not with all shades of porcelain? Hard to say…choose wisely. It’s always a good call to update cabinets, countertops, and sinks by the way.

If you are thinking about selling your home and want suggestions, feel free to give us a call!

The Most Popular Trends in Kitchen and Bathroom Design

If you’re thinking about updating your home, kitchens and bathrooms still top the list as the most popular construction renovations.  According to Residential Architect, they have identified some of the latest trends in kitchen and bathroom design.

It’s not just about cooking! Kitchens are becoming the central hub of the family home.  Yes, kitchens are where you store and prepare food, but kitchens are also being used for family gathering, entertaining family and friends, and for everyday living.  How many of you have a computer, phone chargers, or some type of technology in your kitchen?  You need to have easy accessibility to that recipe you saw on-line, or that “honey, please stop by the store and pick up…” for those missing ingredients.

For 2014, Residential Architect found LED lighting to be the most popular feature in a kitchen.  This feature is followed by computer areas with recharging stations, large pantry spaces, upper-end appliances, double islands, adaptability/universal design, and drinking water filtration systems.

When it comes to bathroom designs, Residential Architect found the most popular features to be LED lighting, door less showers, as well as adaptability/universal design.

So if you’re contemplating a renovation to your home, consider the current trends in both kitchen and bathroom designs.

Choosing a Paint Color to Create the Right Mood

Can color really affect your mood?  Paint is an inexpensive and easy way to personalize and update your home.  Choosing the right color is more than just selecting the first color that pleases you.  Many design experts and psychologists have found that taking the time to choose a color combination that’s pleasing to your eyes and home will affect your overall mood. The color combination you pick can create a soothing and relaxing environment, or a lively and an energetic one.  In choosing a color for each room of your home, you need to step back and think about the mood you want to create for that area. Do you want the room to be active, tranquil, or neutral?

Light colors will make a room seem larger, brighter and more airy.  Whereas dark colors tend to make a room appear more intimate, sophisticated and warm.  Let’s talk about colors and the affects they have on the mood in your home.

Blue, the color of the sky, is said to create a calm, serene, tranquil spa-like atmosphere.  Soft blues tend to lower stress and promote a restful sleep. Blue is often used in bedrooms and bathrooms.  Make sure to balance the blue with warmer accents.  Too much blue can overpower a room and create a stark and cold environment.  Try a lighter shade to create a calming effect for you and your family.

Yellow, the color of the sun, is said to promote happiness and create a more welcoming bright environment.   Yellow is best used sparingly as not to overwhelm family or guests. Yellow is often used in kitchens, dining rooms and bathrooms.

Green, the color of nature…and money, is considered a restful calming color suitable for any room in the house.  Green works to bring the color of nature into your home, as well as create a new and fresh inspirational mood.

Purple, the color relative to royalty, is rich, regal, more formal and dramatic and brings a sense of sophistication to a room. Darker purples stimulate the creative mind and promote a feeling of luxury. Whereas lighter purples, such as lavender, create a restful mood.

Orange, “go hoos”, is not often used as a main color in a home.  Orange tends to be used on an accent wall or as an accent color to brighten a home. Orange is said to evoke the mood of excitement, creativity, and energy.  The color orange would work well in an exercise room.

Neutrals, the basics, such as white, black, gray and brown, are very flexible.  Neutral colors can be used alone with bright accent colors thrown in, or as an accent color to compliment a bright color.  Small doses of black can also give rooms a sense of depth. 

So when you decide to paint your home, take a step back and think about the purpose of that room and the mood you are trying to create for your family and guests.  Do you want a calm and relaxing mood, a creative mood, or an energetic and socializing mood?  Choosing a color is very personal and the decision should be made based on you, your family, and your lifestyle needs.  Once you make a decision about the mood, pick a color, whether it’s blue, red, green, orange, purple, yellow, or neutral. Your next step is to get your hands on a color wheel (you can go online or visit your local home improvement or paint store) and determine which shade creates the right mood. Finally, go buy your paint and start creating that mood.  Initially, you might want to buy a sample portion, go home and paint an area, look at it for a few days and see how it affects your mood.  If that color doesn’t work for you, the good thing about paint is that you can easily change it.  On the other hand, if the color you chose creates the mood you want, then go ahead have fun and paint away.  Now, sit back and enjoy the fresh and new atmosphere you’ve created in your home.