What Can You Learn from a Frosty Roof?

Viewing a frosty roof, or a one without frost on an icy morning, can provide useful information about the home’s insulation.

Frosty roof photos (and why it matters)

Here are some homes in Los Gatos viewed early one winter morning when the sun had barely risen.   The home on the left shows some ice over and near the eaves, but not higher up on that roof.  The house on the right  has frost all nearly all of its roof except over the garage where it connects to the 2nd story.   What is happening?


Two homes on an icy morning - one with more frost than the other


In the left house, the roof is warm and the frost is melting or gone, while on the right the roof is not warm except in one spot.

Frost is a good indicator that the insulation in the attic is keeping the heat in the home and that it’s not being lost to the attic and roof. The house on the right is very well insulated. The one warm spot may be close to the furnace, water heater, washer, or dryer – something in the garage is heating up that corner of the roof.

This has nothing to do with the roof type, by the way. The one on the left is metal and the one next to it is composition shingle. In the photos below, at the left is another comp shingle and to the right of it has a concrete tile roof.

Let’s look at another example:


Mulches and Fire Danger

Tanbark or mulch in front of a San Jose home

Tanbark wood mulch separated by a dry creek bed, cement path, & brick retaining wall in a low-water San Jose yard.

May Day is a celebration of spring, but “April showers” were few and far between and it’s already starting to feel like summer! With another record-breaking hot year and the Bay Area in severe to extreme drought conditions homeowners concerned about water use and fire prevention are turning to gardening and landscaping for the solution. But a word of warning! Since updating my surprisingly popular post on mulch vs tanbark and the risk of termite infestation, I came across another reason to be cautious when applying it to your perimeter: fire.

Organic Mulches and Fire Hazard

Mulch can work wonders in a garden – it helps soil retain moisture, protects roots, reduces weeds, insulates the ground, can add nutrients and enrich the earth, adds visual appeal, and it’s affordable. It’s on every guide for landscaping water conservation (including Valley Water’s recommendations and San Jose Water’s tips)! Do a search and you’ll find it comes in a broad variety of materials. These can be divided into two groups: organic and inorganic. And organic matter can burn.

The University of Nevada Cooperative Extension has published their (easy to read) findings from a study comparing the combustibility of various organic landscape mulches. I recommend reading the booklet, but here are some of the key points I found most interesting: (more…)

Residential Wood Burning: What You Can and Cannot Do

Fireplace with Lone Hill Quarry Stone.pngMore likely than not, you either own or have shopped for Silicon Valley homes with fireplaces. In that case, you’ve likely also heard tale about the new law that would force homeowners to replace older fireplaces with new gas only ones or decommission them entirely before selling. Let me quash those rumors now – homeowners with wood-burning fireplaces do not automatically need to replace them at the sale of the property at this time. But what’s behind the rumor anyway?


A few years ago, there were proposed regulations in place that were going to make stipulations for home sellers with older fireplace in the San Francisco Bay Area. Amendments have since been made to the ordinance, removing this requirement. These were part of Regulation 6, Rule 3: Wood-Burning Devices, which was adopted in July 2008 to regulate and improve air pollution levels for the health of the Bay Area community (Wood Burning Regulation). Its immediate effect was to enforce Winter Spare the Air Alerts and Mandatory Burn Bans.

The regulation also stated numerous rules that would be effective at future dates (mostly beginning November 1, 2015/6), including many that will be passed this year and in the future, up to 2020. So, while you don’t need to worry about replacing your fireplace before you sell, there’s plenty to be aware of when you use, replace, repair, and install your fireplace – and you may still need to replace it.


Smokey sky from fire June 2008With 1.4 million woodstoves and fireplaces around the Bay Area, it’s no surprise they make up a major part in the region’s air pollution – approximately one third of winter pollution! That’s greater than the amount of pollution caused by vehicles. Burning solid fuels produces what is known as soot, or more scientifically, PM2.5, which stands for Particulate Matter with diameter of 2.5 microns or less (Ordinance). These particles in the air are a form of pollution which is so fine that when breathed in it can penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the blood stream.

Wood smoke contains a group of compounds that are similar to second-hand cigarette smoke and are likewise hazardous (2012 flier). Studies show that this type of pollution can cause a variety of health conditions which can put undue stress on individuals with weak respiratory or cardiovascular systems.

Apparently 1 in 7 Bay Area residents has a respiratory condition, and these folks of course are more vulnerable to problems from pollution. Immediate effects might be watery eyes and coughing, while long-term exposure to polluted air can permanently harm lung function, capacity, and development – possibly instigating diseases like asthma and bronchitis. “Eliminating residential wood burning during a Winter Spare the Air Alert can reduce soot in the Bay Area by 35 tons each day” (Wood Burning Regulations Flier). On top of the particulate pollution, wood smoke also contains a variety of gases, including toxins like dioxin (Wood Burning Regulations Flier).

But why winter? What about summer barbeques? Weather is important in regard to the displacement of these polluters. Spare the Air Alerts are hardly ever called when it’s been raining. Cold, still weather conditions cause the smoky air to become trapped near the ground, allowing pollution to build up to unsafe levels (Flier). When a Spare the Air alert is not called but data indicates worsening conditions there may be an optional compliance health advisory in the form of a Recommended No-Burn Day. And as for summer barbeques – the weather conditions in summer are more prone to heightening levels of ozone than soot, so Summer Spare the Air Alerts are placed based on very different weather and pollution concerns.

Other than pollution, there are still plenty of reasons to not burn. Fires are not a very efficient form of heating, and many fireplaces actually rob your home of heat, sending hot air up the chimney and out of your home. Prevent heat loss (and the need to burn more fuel or crank the thermostat) by keeping your home well insulated and weatherized. Get more efficient heating with an EPA certified device or alternative natural gas or electric heater. (more…)

Garbage bins – what goes where?

Campbell, Saratoga, Monte Sereno, and Los Gatos are working together to reduce the amount of waste going to the landfill.   Below, please find a short YouTube on how to use the bins if you live in any of these areas and to take the mystery out of “what goes where?” for yard waste, garbage, recycling. In many areas, such as Portland, food waste goes into another recycling or composting bin. We are not there yet, unfortunately – so still room for improvement on that front.





A Bug in the Bay: a Warning for Citrus Lovers

Original image courtesy of mcatalena of Flikr

California is famous for its oranges and other citrus crops.

This is not your seasonal Flu shot advisory. Nor is this a post about home wrecking pests. There is a citrus quarantine in the San Francisco Bay Area, as those pesky bugs mean business.

Do you like citrus?

Maybe you’ve heard stories about the disappearance of oranges in Florida. The cause is orchard destruction due to citrus greening – a disease which destroys fruit and eventually kills trees. Since it was first discovered in Florida, it has now infected 90% of groves in the state. No tree is naturally resistant and, while scientists and farmers race to find a solution, there is no treatment for the disease. (source)

California may have strict agricultural transportation rules, but citrus greening has spread to many areas of our state as well. Including the Bay Area.


Why is that window wet or foggy looking?

When house-hunting in Silicon Valley, it’s good to take note of how clear the windows are. Sometimes when a dual pane window appears wet or foggy, it’s not just a matter of the sprinklers hitting it, but instead could be a failure of the vacuum seal. If that’s the case, the window will not be as attractive as intended.

There are some window repair professionals who claim that they can de-fog windows with condensation (the common belief is that foggy windows must always be replaced).  What many consumers do not know when purchasing dual pane windows is that many of them will fail, unlike the single pane windows they are replacing. (The Old House Authority site says 30% of the time, a replacement window will be replaced within 10 years. It also advises that “More heat is typically lost though your roof and un-insulated walls than through your windows. Adding just 3 and 1/2 inches of insulation in your attic can save more energy than replacing your windows.”)


Seal failure of dual pane window

Seal failure of dual pane window


Many of my home buyer clients for Los Gatos, Almaden, Cambrian and San Jose insist upon having dual pane windows in their future house or townhouse.  Before assuming that any brand is OK, though, do some research to learn about the windows’ failure rate and how long the warranty on them will be.  Dual pane windows look great and do save a little energy, but if you have to replace one third of them within ten years, it won’t be a bargain at all.

Further reading on insulation and windows

What Can You Learn from a Silicon Valley Roof on a Frosty Morning?

Closed curtains or blinds in an open house? What is the seller trying to hide?

Why does it matter if the bedroom windows are small or high?

Creating pleasant window views




Do Silicon Valley houses with solar panels sell faster and for more money?

Solar and resale valueA question posed to me recently was whether or not houses with solar panels sell faster and for more money.  We would tend to think so, because solar panels make paying for electricity considerably less expensive, especially here in sunny Silicon Valley.  Conversations with buyers reveal that solar is highly valued.  Placing a dollar amount to that value isn’t so easy right now, however.

The difficulty is in the lack of data.  Recently, in my Belwood of Los Gatos neighborhood, we’ve seen a lot of houses getting fitted with solar just in the last year.  I believe that 3-4 years from now, we’ll have a larger pool of closed sales in which solar was part of the equation, but at the moment, only a tiny fraction of closed escrows were houses with these energy efficient features.

Here’s what I’m seeing as I pull the numbers from our MLS:

All of Santa Clara County, all houses which have closed escrow in the last 30 days: 916

All of SCC, all houses with solar panels on the grid which have closed escrow in the last 30 days: 13

This is a mere 1.4% of the sold properties in the last month.   (more…)

From the Valley of Hearts Delight to a Paved Paradise: Where Does the Water Go?

Orchard blossomsIn the middle of the last century, the Santa Clara Valley was bursting with vineyards, fruit and nut orchards, and groves of citrus trees. The mild climate and all of these beautiful blossoms mile after mile warranted the nickname, “The Valley of Hearts Delight“. Most of it was, of course, unpaved.  Following the end of World War II, the agricultural land began giving way to housing and industry, later more housing and high tech in particular, and Silicon Valley was born. And, to quote a song, “they paved paradise”.

Water can be somewhat scarce here at times – the sub tropical climate means mild temps and just enough rain, about 20″ per year for most of the San Jose area, but more as you get closer to the Monterey Bay and Pacific Ocean.  When we do get rain, where does it go? In the days of big agriculture, most of it found its way back into the drinking water: it was absorbed by the soil, and then it filtered down into the underground streams.  Wells tapped into this water source and the water was used for drinking, cooking, bathing, watering the crops and more.  Now, though, much of the valley is paved.  Water runs to gutters, and they lead directly to the bay, skipping the aquifers and also skipping the filtering process that the soil provides.  As you might imagine, this can screw things up a bit.

One solution is to create more places for the runoff water to get back into the soil and meander back to the aquifer.  The City of Cupertino has vegetated swales for just that purpose behind the library and city buildings, and a large sign explains why the landscaping looks the way it does (a dirt strip with a sunken section in the middle, but landscaped).  This is not uncommon in many parts of the US – I have seen it all over the east coast and the southern states – but a little less common here.  A great idea, I hope it catches and becomes more typical. Kudos to Cupertino for working to improve the local ecosystem and water quality! We need to do more for water reclamation. If it gets all the way to the bay, it cannot be drunk any more, but from the aquifer it can. So many reasons why we should be diverting water away from pavement and gutters and onto soil!

After taking note of this a week or two ago, I did some searching online and found a 2006 article by the Cupertino Courier (now owned by the San Jose Mercury News) about this same effort. It’s a well written piece and if you want to learn more, read on over at the archive: