Editor’s note: David and Kayo Murakami Wood are building what they hope will be Ontario’s first certified Passive House on Wolfe Island, the largest of the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River. They are documenting their work at their blog, . For a list of earlier posts in this series, see the sidebar below.
While almost all Passive Houses have advanced, triple-glazed windows, many of these windows, especially those made in North America, fall down in certain respects, particularly in the frames. The frames often seem like an afterthought, with thermal bridges allowing heat to escape and gaps where there should be insulation.
For some reason, manufacturers here just don’t seem to bother going all the way. This is certainly not true of windows made in Germany and Austria, whose manufacturers seem to think of everything. The downside? First, price. Such technically advanced windows can be very expensive. Second, weight. These highly engineered windows are often heavy and with the large spans of glass on our south wall, we will need a crane to install them.
However, if you cut corners on the windows and doors, you undermine many of the insulation gains you make elsewhere. We also wanted wooden frames, not fiberglass, aluminum, or the most common (but environmentally the worst solution of all) PVC.
Going with Optiwin doors and windows
We have been lucky enough to find a solution. Again, through Malcolm Isaacs of the Canadian Passive House Institute, we were introduced to Optiwin, a cooperative of small window manufacturers in Germany, Austria, and other central European countries, which produces some of the best windows and doors in the world.
However, they don’t have much of a presence in Ontario, or Canada more generally — at least not yet. So we’re going to be one of the first customers for them, and as a result they are providing us with windows at a great introductory price, and will be sending over one of their installers to train our builder to install them.
We’re using three of their products:
(1) The new Resista windows with aluminium-clad solid wood frames and triple glazing with inert gas fill.
(2) The new Motura lifting/sliding door, which has the same window construction as the Resista windows. Because of the aircraft door-type closing mechanism, it suffers from none of the poor insulation properties of standard French doors.
(3) The Premium Frostkorken front door.
These are all certified at the highest performance level (A) by the German Passivhaus Institut. In fact, the front door may be the world’s only Passive House certified door! (Spec sheets for the windows and sliding door appear below.)
Home battery system
Our project is not fundamentally a high-tech one. Most of what we plan to do is, by choice, relatively low-tech and affordable. But a reliable and efficient off-grid electricity generation system is the one exception.
A breakthrough in battery technology is a necessity for a society based on renewable energy. Does the recently announced home battery system from electric car manufacturer Tesla fall into that category? As we’re in the process of building an entirely solar-powered house, which will be finished when this new battery is supposedly going to be available, we are naturally curious about this.
The standard battery technology for renewable energy at the moment isn’t fundamentally much different from lots of linked-up old-fashioned lead-acid car batteries, and these need ventilation because of the dangerous off-gassing. These batteries preferably should not be inside a Passive House envelope at all.
But Tesla’s electric motor doesn’t work that way at all. It uses a very dense array of lithium-ion batteries, familiar to many of us as the rechargeable batteries used in consumer electronics. Presumably, the new home battery system will be based on similar technology. Lithium-ion batteries are smaller, less bulky, and contain less toxic material than either lead, cadmium, or mercury-based batteries. There are some suggestions they can be less safe and are vulnerable to overheating. Consumer varieties have a life in constant cycling use of no more than three years, although supposedly 30-year lifespans are not impossible in theory.
If these batteries do become available when Tesla is saying they will, at a price that makes sense, I’ve no doubt we’ll be among the first to install them. However, even if not, there are other less publicized lithium-ion battery systems available or under development from Bosch and others. That means we are almost certainly going to have solar panels installed. If we have to, we’ll wait until we can get a lithium-ion battery rather than buying lead-acid batteries.
Water and septic systems
Wolfe Island has neither a municipal water nor sewer system. This means that householders have to deal with whatever water supply and septic systems came with the property. Inevitably, there is a lot wrong with both and neither will conform to the contemporary standards set by the local public health authority.
So, when renovations or a new build is planned, the first thing you have to do is have the property and the current water and septic systems inspected with the equally inevitable outcome that one or the other or both will have to be replaced entirely.
First, water. Most people on the island who are close enough to the shore take water directly from the lake. The big problem is that if the water levels drop enough, you can find the end of your supply pipe above the water line and you’ll be sucking in air.
For those farther from the lake, the best option is a drilled well, which takes water up from deep in the bedrock. That’s fine if your bedrock doesn’t contain anything too nasty. However, the island’s water seems to have very large amounts of iron and sulfur.
There’s one other conventional option, and one of the oldest: a dug well. This is what we have right now and it is just about the worst of both worlds: prone to running dry if you aren’t very careful, and full of excess sulfur and iron as will as all the run-off from farms and old neighboring septic systems. We stopped drinking water from our dug well after we first had it tested (without the UV filtering) and saw just how much E. coli bacteria and fecal coliform (i.e. poo) it contained.
We still use the filtered water for washing and bathing. But we’d really not have to use this at all.
The rainwater option
There is, of course, another possibility: rainwater. Some people, including our neighbors on the street who built their own place a few years back, have cisterns that collect rainwater from their roofs, and this is what we are going to do.
The only problem is where to put the cistern. Around the house, there is only about 12 inches of soil before you hit limestone. And digging very large holes in limestone is hard work. Luckily, the verdict of the public health authority on our current septic system – that is must be replaced – helps us out here.
We have a very large two-chamber concrete septic tank, mostly under the deck to the northwest of the old house. If we didn’t have any other reason, we’d just leave it, but the space will be perfect for a big rainwater cistern. We’ll be getting someone in to break up the old tank and take the pieces away.
We’re also lucky in that we will have two buildings adjacent to the new cistern and two roofs to collect from.
A low-profile septic system
As for the septic system, we decided, as with most things, to get it right from the beginning and had an excellent local sewage engineer, Martin Burger of Groundwork Engineering in Kingston, take a look at the site and design us a system to suit our needs and the legal requirements.
He identified two systems that would work best for us: Premier Tech’s Ecoflo biofilter and the relatively new . Both are good systems and both have similar annual inspection requirements from the makers. But the Waterloo system needs less excavation and is less prominent in the landscape than the Ecoflo, so that’s what we’ve selected.