Thursday, June 24, 2010

“Net-zero energy” home nearing completion in Urbana

“Net-zero energy” home nearing completion in Urbana

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Last September, on the Fall equinox, Debra and Ty Newell began construction of a new home in northeast Urbana. Barring any unforeseen hang-ups, they will move into it this July. In some ways, the house is like other 1-story homes in Beringer Commons, where it is located. It features about one-fourth an acre of usable yard, approximately 2,100 square feet of living space and a two-car attached garage. The Newell’s home differs from others nearby in that it will generate as much energy as it uses in a year, making it a net-zero energy house.

How is that possible? There’s nothing futuristic about it.

The Equinox house will achieve net-zero in part by using far less energy than even a well-built conventional home—about one-fifth as much.

The walls and roof of the Equinox House are constructed with twelve-inch thick structural insulated panels, which are four to five times more effective at preventing thermal transfer than the walls of a typical house. Great care has also been taken to minimize any leakage of air through envelope of the house

The Equinox House uses high performance, triple-pane windows, which also help to prevent thermal transfer. Beyond that, the windows are oriented to allow direct sunlight into living space for the heat it provides during the cooler half of the year—beginning on the Fall equinox—and to exclude direct sunlight during the warmer half of the year—beginning on the Spring equinox—when it would increase the load on the cooling system.

The demands of the Equinox House for heating, cooling, ventilation, and humidity control will all be met by a single, heat-pump based system, developed by Ty Newell and his son Ben through their company, Newell Instruments. Aside from the fact that it maintains a comfortable temperature and level of humidity in the house, this system also delivers a constant flow of fresh air from the outside, and it does that without the loss of conditioned air that occurs in a drafty house.

Of course the Equinox House will be fitted out in other ways that emphasize conservation, including LED lighting, low-flow plumbing fixtures, etc. It even features a system for collecting rainwater that is designed to meet 80 percent of the annual water needs for a family of four.

Although the Equinox House is designed from top to bottom to conserve energy, it will still require electricity to operate. So to be “net-zero energy,” it will produce some, by means of a ground-mounted array of solar panels. The solar array has been in service since February of this year and already produced enough electricity to offset all of the power used in construction of the house.

In addition to providing the energy required to run the Equinox House, the Newell’s solar array will also generate enough electricity to power an electric car (c’mon Chevy Volt, go Nissan Leaf!) for something like six to nine thousand miles worth of driving every year.

Does the idea of a net-zero energy home intrigue you? The Newells hope so. That’s partly why they chose to build where they did—so people could see their house in the context of a conventional development, and understand building it as a natural step for conservation-minded baby boomers preparing for retirement.

You can learn more about the Newell's home at the Equinox House Construction Blog at

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A quest for wild animals close to home

A quest for wild animals close to home

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This past week the Boy Scout at my house was busy finishing up a few last requirements to earn the rank of Second Class before heading off to Camp Drake with his troop. It took only a little creativity for me to figure out how I could help him, and at the same time accomplish some of my own work.

Rank Requirement #5 for Second Class Scout reads as follows:

Identify or show evidence of at least ten kinds of wild animals (birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, mollusks) found in your community.

Together, the scout and I decide he could fulfill this requirement by an outing in our own neighborhood in southwest Champaign, with bikes for transportation. We wear river sandals on the chance we might need to wade, and carry just a few tools for making and recording observations: binoculars, a camera, a pencil and a 3 X 5 notebook.

We ride first to a nearby retention pond, where we had come across the remains of a crayfish (1) on the sidewalk the evening before. They are still there: a claw, the hard exoskeleton of the head and thorax, and a bit of tail. Identifying crayfish to species can be quite complex, and requires body parts we didn’t have, so we just leave this one at “crayfish.” [Photos by Will Kanter: Crayfish parts, toad underwater, northern water snake.] Nearby a Canada goose (2) honks, so we count it, too. (As you might imagine, we see much evidence of Canada geese on the sidewalk.)

As we continue riding, we hear the high pitched trill of an American toad (3) and head in its direction. To my ears it sounds a long way off, but the scout suggests we check a nearby fountain. enough, the toad calls again as we approach, and we are able to find it by moving a few rocks around.

Our next and saddest find is the upside down body of a painted turtle (4) that has been killed by a car in the street. Painted turtles are adaptable enough to live in highly developed landscapes, but they have no defense against drivers who are too distracted or too mean to avoid running over them.

The scout wonders if we can count some of the insects we observe—a sulphur butterfly, a lightning bug, and others--toward our total, but I point out they are not “wildlife” according to the common use of the term, or the scout manual. That said, I can’t resist the urge to lecture him about how crucial insects are in most food webs, but I’ll spare you.

At our next stop, a couple of ponds where willows and other vegetation have been allowed to grow up, red-winged blackbirds (5) dominate the scene. They’re disturbed because we’re close to their nests, and keep up a steady racket until we move on.

Just over an embankment, the Copper Slough is running high and muddy from the rains of the night before, so there will be no fish or mollusks observed on this day. But three mallard (6) bachelors loaf on the opposite bank, and a green heron (7) stalking the edge of the stream takes flight as we approach.

On the wire-bound rock used to stabilize the creek bank, we see a northern water snake (8) sunning, our first live reptile. Better still, after a pause we realize we’re seeing two snakes, partly intertwined, both of them 18-24 inches long.
The most exciting moment of our excursion occurs when the scout turns and spots a great blue heron (9) flying behind us. The enthusiasm in his shout tells me our quest has been a success far beyond our tally of species.

Wild animal number ten is an American robin. We have passed many since starting out, but it counts only after the scout makes a note of one as we head home.
If you need extra motivation for a wildlife excursion of your own, you should know that June is “Leave No Child Inside Month,” by proclamation of Governor Pat Quinn. For a list of associated events visit

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cultivating an appreciation for toads in Illinois

Cultivating an appreciation for toads in Illinois

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Two species of toads inhabit Illinois, and neither one of them is threatened or endangered. It seems the factors that are contributing to the decline of other amphibians in the state and around the world—habitat loss, fungal infection, chemical contamination, etc.—pose no insurmountable obstacles to the continued health of toad populations here.

So, why give toads a second thought? They are common and approachable. [Pictured is a Fowler's toad I came across on a gravel bar along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.] For me, encounters with such creatures hold their own pleasures, and they reinforce the natural inclination to value other forms of life, even animals I’ll probably never see for myself.

At a glance, most people would not notice a difference between adult American toads and Fowler’s toads. Both are about two to three inches long, and they are similarly marked. Their skin is a light shade of gray or brown, dotted with darker spots. One way to distinguish between the two toad species found in Illinois is to observe the number of warts per dark spot on the back: the dark spots on American toads contain only one or two large warts, while the dark spots on Fowler’s toads have three or more smaller warts.

Toads have thicker skin than frogs, which enables them to inhabit drier environments. They thrive in forests, prairies, and wetlands, along the margins of lakes and streams, and even at the edges of highways. Toads can live in the midst agricultural fields and in urban settings, too, as long as they have access to bodies of water for reproduction.

Even when it comes to the choice of where to breed, toads are not very discriminating. If the nearby body of water is a pristine vernal pool, toads will get together there. If it’s a ditch or a flooded field, toads will use that as well (although toad offspring will survive only if the water persists for at least the 40 days it takes them to develop from tadpoles into terrestrial creatures). My family once received a gift of toad tadpoles from the water that had collected on top of a friend’s swimming pool cover.

You might well recognize the mating call of American toads even if you don’t realize you have heard it before. It is a sustained, high pitched trill that carries a very long way. Near ponds and other places where they breed, it is the background sound of evening in April and May.

Do I need to say people don’t get warts from handling toads? People don’t get warts from handling toads.

Under extreme stress toads secrete a toxin from the oblong glands behind their eyes, which irritates the mucous membranes of other animals that would eat them. (For this reason it’s a good idea to wash your hands thoroughly after handling a toad.) This defense works well in many cases, as you know if you’ve ever seen the reaction of a dog that picked up a toad in its mouth, but not all. Some snakes are not bothered by the toxins toads release, and other animals, including skunks and raccoons, get around the problem by eating them from the underside.

If you’re interested in a wildlife experience close to home this summer, you might start by looking for toads in nearby window wells, since they have a knack for falling into them. You can then increase the odds of survival for toads you find in window wells by releasing them a little ways off.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Loss of manager a setback for natural areas at Allerton

Loss of manager a setback for natural areas at Allerton

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By late May the grass pathway adjacent to the prairie restoration at Allerton Park has usually been mowed a couple of times already, but that’s not the case this year. When I was there last week the vegetation on the path was thigh high in places. Why? Budget cuts. The position of the person who would have mowed the path has been discontinued.

That position, Natural Areas Manager, was held most recently by Drew Becker, a native of Watseka, Illinois, who grew into the job at Allerton as he completed a Master’s degree in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the UI.

(There’s no need to worry for Becker about the loss of his job. In June he will begin work as a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service at Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui, which represents a step up professionally, and a golden opportunity to experience a different part of the world.)

I was at Allerton with Becker last week to get his perspective of the impact on the park of not having a natural areas manager there anymore.

He pointed out that some routine work, such as mowing trails and clearing them of fallen trees, will likely get done on a delayed basis, or not at all. That will make the natural areas of the park less hospitable to visitors, but probably won’t result in any lasting damage.

Other work, especially long term projects aimed at restoring and protecting the ecological integrity of Allerton’s natural areas, is more likely to be neglected altogether, resulting in losses that will be difficult to make up.

To illustrate this point, Becker took me to a section of woods where intensive efforts over the past five years have drastically reduced populations of invasive plants, especially garlic mustard and bush honeysuckle, and thereby promoted a resurgence of native woodland flowers-- spring beauty, Dutchman’s breeches and Jack-in-the-pulpit among them.

The current, desirable state of affairs in this section of woods could be maintained with a minimal amount of effort in the years to come, provided that effort is consistent, since invasive plants are easier to manage before they become established. Without that effort—if it is nobody’s job anymore—invasive plants will come to dominate again in just a couple of years—far less time than it took to get them in check in the first place.

In a similar vein, Becker pointed out that without a natural areas manager at Allerton it will not be possible to maintain the special character of the deer management and research program that has been developed there over the past six years. That program has greatly benefited the natural vegetation and ornamental plantings at the park, both of which were being destroyed by unsustainably high numbers of deer in the years prior to its implementation. In addition, the deer program has provided important research opportunities for UI scientists, and allowed park management to cultivate a skilled and motivated cadre of volunteers, since each person who hunts at the park has also been required to contribute time toward its upkeep.

I should emphasize that I do not mean to suggest that somehow some way someone should have managed to keep Drew Becker on the job at Allerton. If the money’s not there, it’s not there. But I do mean to call attention to the real losses we, the public, will experience there as the jobs of a natural areas manager are left undone.