The Extraordinary House That Jim Built

It took one man’s special needs, one woman’s special imagination, one family’s determination to pitch in and one craftsman’s ability to translate the plan to reality.
This is the house that Jim built. He built it mostly for Murray.

Murray and Aurora Galves moved to Las Cruces from New York nearly 10 years ago. For eight of those years, the two lived here only during the cold months, going back to their home in New York when it got warmer there.

But Murray is confined to a wheelchair, and the moving got to be too much for him. The couple decided to make Las Cruces their permanent home since they had a son here whose family was able to look after Murray while Aurora, who is still quite active, traveled and took care of the couple’s outside interests.

It soon became apparent that caring for Murray would require special accommodations. Besides the difficulties inherent to getting a wheelchair through a home of standard design, there was the problem of shuttling people back and forth from the house of son, Al, his wife, Nancy, and two children, Andrew and Becca, which was several blocks away.

The answer, of course, was to regroup. And the plans for the house that Jim built began to take shape.

Jim Graham is an Albuquerque native who graduated from New Mexico State University in 1969 with a degree in biology. He’s a natural carpenter who worked construction jobs to put himself through school and has always had a project going somewhere. He was approached by the Galves family in June 1985 regarding the project of building a single, large home with two separate family living areas divided in the center by an enormous common atrium.

“It’s quite nervy at 81 years of age,” Aurora says, “to worry about a new house, and this one was my idea. But you live. And I’m alive. I get ideas.”

The Galves family bought two lots within the city limits, but were told by zoning officials that a building permit could not be issued because the house would contain two totally separate family dwellings under one roof.

Instead of scrapping the plans, however, the family scouted for land outside, but near the city limits. They found an excellent location on Engler Road just north of the city and a quarter-mile east of US Highway 85.

Construction began in June, 1986 with the erection of the 18-foot-high frame front of the atrium.

Graham said the frame had to be assembled and laid down on sawhorses, then pulled upright by a winch truck using chains and pulleys for leverage.

“People would drive by and look at it standing out here all by itself and wonder what we were up to,” Graham said. “A few even stopped to ask.”

The second order of business was to build a two-car garage that Graham could employ as a wood shop. Every beam in the house, every door, every cabinet, every window frame and even an elegant spiral staircase in the atrium were handcrafted by Graham’s crew using predominantly white ash, with black walnut and African purple heartwood for accent.

Inside the house are 5,300 square feet heated by a combination active/passive solar system. Graham said, however, that by the time all is said and done, there will be closer to 6,000 heated square feet.

There are five entrances, two double car enclosed garages, a double car carport, two kitchens, two living rooms, both with kiva-style fireplaces, six bedrooms, two full- and four three-quarter baths, an enormous built-in jacuzzi (on Al and Nancy’s side), a second floor writer’s room/office for Aurora (who is an aspiring fiction and non-fiction author) and an outside, second-story deck that faces west and provides an impressive view of the Mesilla Valley sunsets.

Built-in shelving and cabinets – all handcrafted by Jim Graham and his crew – soften the ambience of the living areas and kitchens. All the door and window frames are dovetailed; nails and screws were used sparingly in the construction of this behemoth.

“It’s a pretty astounding house,” Graham said, leaning against the staircase railings. “It was miraculously free of backtracking and screwups. We had a high skill level on the crew, a good foreman who kept me on track and top quality journeymen all along the way.”

Graham said that a large part of his pride in the home resulted from the high standards he set for himself and the many requirements set by the owners.

An integral part of the plan for the house is privacy. There is enough room for all six occupants to get away and be alone, yet all are close enough to help Murray if he needs it. An extensive intercom/alarm system ensures that anyone in any part of the house can communicate with anyone, anywhere else.

“Caretakers,” Aurora explains in a lilting Italian accent, “need time off. The way the house is designed we can be alone, but available if Murray needs us. I can travel without worrying and the children can help take care of Murray without sacrificing their privacy.”

The west side of the house – Murray and Aurora’s side – is designed particularly with Murray in mind.

Graham made all the doorways extra wide and almost eliminated doors inside the house, opting instead for wide and graceful archways.

The archways, Aurora says, were Jim’s idea. “I like them except they take up so much wall space where I wanted to hang art. As far as design, it’s more Jim’s house than mine.”

Graham acknowledged that he played a large part in planning specific aspects of the home that helped to fit the specific needs of two families and one handicapped individual.

Murray has a special place at the kitchen counter to which he can roll up and talk with Aurora while she cooks. In the spacious bathroom is a vanity arrangement that allows Murray to take care of his personal needs. There is even a roll-in shower so he can bathe with minimal assistance.

All the floors in the west half of the house are elegant tile or hardwood to make it easier for Murray to get around in his chair. Kitchen cabinets and drawers are down low so he can get to items he needs, and there are plenty of windows where he can sun himself and read.

The east half of the house is for Al and his family.

Seventeen-year-old Andrew has the room farthest south. The walls to his room are all solid adobe so he can crank up his stereo without disturbing other members of the household. He has his own bath on the east side of his room, which provides yet another insulation against sound.

His sister, Becca, 15, lives upstairs from her brother with a room overlooking the atrium. She, too, has a private bath.

Al and Nancy, both 46, share an enormous master bedroom that connects to the bathroom with the jacuzzi.

The upper level of the house is mostly carpeted in rich earth tones. Downstairs is predominantly sand-colored tile, with the exception of Andrew’s room, which – at his special request – is carpeted in an unforgettable purple.

The house contains, by Jim Graham’s estimation, some 29,000 feet of wiring, 9,000 of which is devoted to the intercom/alarm system. It took a full-time crew of 15, eight months to construct the thick adobe walls, piece together and varnish the woodwork, and generally stick the rest of the house to the atrium window.

“It’s quite a house,” Graham said proudly, looking around at his handiwork. And the Galves families seem to agree.

Inside the ‘Platinum Trailblazer’

Don and Beatriz Rudisill reach for the highest level of LEED certification

By Bethany Conway, The Las Cruces Bulletin
Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series following the construction of Las Cruces’ first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum Certified home. Though owners Don and Beatriz Rudisill will not know whether they achieve this certification until their home is complete, sharing their story will help others on their journey to becoming green.

For Don Rudisill, the story behind his home at 4367 Isleta Court is in many ways similar to that of “the first penguin.”

Reaching for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum Certification – never before achieved in southern New Mexico – he is a lot like the first penguin that takes the plunge into cold, unfamiliar territory.
“When you watch a film about penguins, most people notice how they bunch up on the edge of the ice. No penguin wants to be the first to jump into the water where unknown dangers may lurk,” Rudisill said, referencing an excerpt from “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. “The same happens with building something new. Many people like the idea of a green home – improved energy efficiency, a healthier home and improved utilization of the planet’s resources all sound good – but there are many unknowns.”

After two years of intense planning and overcoming many obstacles, Rudisill is blazing a trail for others to follow – a green trail. He will accomplish this with the help of builder Jim Graham of Sun and Earth, who has 30 years of green-building experience.

“It a very ambitious project,” said Miles Dyson, owner of Inspection Connection LC and the only certified Home Energy Rater in Las Cruces. “He has it very well laid out.”

Dyson, southern New Mexico’s go-to guy when it comes to achieving LEED and Build Green New Mexico (BGNM) certification, will inspect the home throughout the entire process. Credit categories for LEED homes include Sustainable Sights, Locations and Linkages, Indoor Environmental Quality, Water Efficiency, Materials and Resources, Awareness and Education and Energy and Atmosphere.

The trail began when Don and Beatriz Rudisill sat down to create the home’s footprint. The unusual floor plan is partially the result of the couple trying to meet the LEED requirements for passive-solar design. According to the LEED program, the maximum conditioned square footage for a three-bedroom house should be 1,900 square feet. By going above this amount, the couple loses points. By going below it, they gain points.

“We are trying to stay under 1,690 square feet, which gives us three points (toward LEED Platinum Certification),” he said. By creating a storage closet for seasonal clothing near the master bedroom and a sunroom on the southeast side of the house – two areas that will not be heated or air-conditioned – they will be able to add extra space not counted toward their conditioned square footage.

“This is going to generate a lot of solar heat in the winter,” Rudisill said of the sunroom. “During the summer months, we intend just to leave the windows open, and this will be a bonus room. Jim (Graham) is going to put a fan in here, because in the winter it will produce surplus heat that we will be able to blow into the house.” Solar hot water panels hidden behind the parapet over the garge roof will provide additional heat.

Another way they were able to gain points and energy efficiency was by keeping all of the hot water within a 20 foot radius. For this reason, the kitchen and bathrooms are all “clustered within the center of the house.”

“If you look at the plans, we had this 20-foot circle drawn, and that created another requirement for the floor plan,” Rudisill said.

When it came to the slab itself, they used 30 percent fly ash – a waste product from coal after it has been burned in a boiler.

Next on the list was the framing, which was done using finger-jointed lumber. “You take scraps that are too small to be used and make a usable piece out of it,” Rudisill said.

When it came to placing the Marvin windows with ULTREX fiberglass frames, Rudisill also had to be very particular in order to gain LEED points. “I put a lot of time into trying to capture the views because we are given glass budgets. You have to keep the glass within a certain percentage,” he said.

One of the most important attributes of the home are the Structured Insulated Panels manufactured by KC Panels of Animas, N.M, which will make up its 4-inch thick walls. Graham said this is the first time he has used the insulated panels. The thermal resistance, or R-value of the panels, is so high they perform almost twice as well as standard 6-inch walls and result in more than 30 square feet of space being shifted from the walls to the available living space. They are held together by polyurethane foam.

“The foam creates a complete seal around the building,” Rudisill said. “So again, through using this one product, we are saving space and improving energy efficiency. The air-tight seal contributes to improved indoor-air quality, and the foam has a class-one fire rating, improving the safety of the home.”

From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, April 18, and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 19, during the Guild of the Las Cruces Symphony Association’s green home tour, titled The Greening of Las Cruces, residents of Las Cruces will get a chance to visit the construction site and view these panels up close.

“I have an interest in trying to get the information out there about what really goes into a well-built house,” said Rudisill, adding that by educating the public he is actually gaining more points toward the home’s certification.

Though the Rudisills are hopeful they will reach their goal, they won’t know if LEED Platinum Certification will be achieved until the project is complete.

“Being the first to attempt the Platinum level means that we have to be the first in the area to earn certain points. One of the areas that we are earning points is by working as an integrated design team. We have been working very hard as a team with Miles, Jim and several subcontractors all putting their heads together to help ensure that the rating is achieved.”

Assuming they achieve the platinum rating, the Rudisills will receive $9.50 per square foot in tax credits – close to $15,000.

Jim Graham overcomes the hype of going green

Sun & Earth lays the building blocks of energy efficiency

By Jonathan Butz, The Las Cruces Bulletin
Everyone seems to be endorsing “green” lately because of rising temperatures, higher energy costs and the endless mantra that seems to ring in every corner of our lives – green, green, green.

Despite the instant recognition people feel when they hear the word, not every product marketed as “green” is what it appears to be.

Sun & Earth Construction President Jim Graham hopes to clarify the current phenomenon of “green-sploitation” by providing realistic service in sustainable, energy-efficient building and remodeling.

Since the 1970s, Graham has been on the forefront of green building in southern New Mexico, making sure that clients get exactly what they expect from sustainable living.

“We’re cautious of green washing, which means applying a ‘green’ label on something just so you can sell it,” Graham said.

Although green building has changed dramatically since the 1970s, Graham said he is still intent on building houses that adhere to Sun & Earth’s strict criteria of aesthetics, accessibility, energy efficiency, ease of maintenance, durabil-ity, safety and comfort. Specializing in energy-efficient air conditioning, solar water heating and sustainable roof coating, Sun & Earth Inc. strives to create a service and product that is more than just a buzzword.

“Green building has become more sophisticated since the ’70s and focuses not only on the sustainability of the house, but on aesthetics and livability,” Graham said. “At one time, green building was pretty raw. It may have been efficient, but it wasn’t comfortable to live in or pleasing to look at.”

Things have changed now, and more people are becoming interested in green building, Graham said. With more affordable options available, long-term utility savings and a number of tax credits and incentives, Graham said it is becoming easier for indivduals with modest incomes to have their homes remodeled or built to green standards. He said he remembers a time when he only saw a response from those associated with universities and research; however, he has seen his clientele base broaden, primarily among retirees.

“Affordability is a mainstay of what I do. If I do something more expensive than the mainstream it’s usually due to nicer amenities,” Graham said.
“I tailor to the clients’ individual needs and I try to be realistic about what I can do for people.”

With a lifetime’s worth of construction experience and a biology degree from New Mexico State University, Graham continues to challenge himself, creating innovative residences for people of southern New Mexico.

“I’ve always set a goal of making buildings 80 to 90 percent more efficient than conventional buildings,” Graham said. “When conventional buildings get more efficient, it challenges me to build more efficient buildings.”

Graham said one of his recent successes has been a two-stage evaporative cooling system, which he calls “one of the best available in the area.”

Additionally, Sun & Earth offers roof coating that can reduce the amount of needed air conditioning, and ezinc solar water heaters that can shave dollars off utility costs.

Now, after years of service, Graham said he always has the future in mind. He hopes to contribute to a cleaner, safer and more beautiful future, despite what color it may be.

“A building is not sustainable if people aren’t going to want to look at it 100 years from now,” Graham said with a laugh.

For more information, visit or call 521-3537.

JIM GRAHAM, contractor, Sun & Earth Construction

Escape from New York

Sandra Barty created her very own quiet, cozy space in the Southwest

By Bethany Conway, The Las Cruces Bulletin
It is not hard to see why those coming from the big city find Talavera so tranquil. For Sandra Barty of New York, choosing to locate her winter residence in Las Cruces was one of the easiest decisions she ever made.

Her life in the City of the Crosses began behind “A” Mountain at 5022 Black Quartz Road, a home that she purchased along with friend Laurie Churchill.

“In 2004, I visited Las Cruces and I fell in love with the sunsets and the views and the house, which was built by Jim Graham,” she said.

Since the 1970s, Graham, owner of Sun & Earth Construction, has been a pioneer when it comes to resource conservation and energy- efficient design and is known for his implementation of both active and passive solar. When it came time for Barty to build digs of her own, she could think of no one better to take on the task.

“I knew that Jim Graham was the only builder I would ever work with,” Barty said. “He is a man of such incredible integrity, and he really cares. He cares about the environment, he cares about his clients and he cares about the houses he builds. Jim is a gem.”

For her dream home, Barty chose a lot just down the street at 5012 Black Quartz Road, which did pose a challenge.

“This lot looked ridiculous,” Graham recalled standing outside of the home. “We dug it back into this hill. Most people want to build on the top of a hill – it seems like the real natural thing to do – but it doesn’t make a good environment for people because it is usually very windy. This lot is a lot calmer.”

After choosing the location, Barty set to work planning her dream home with the help of architectural drafter Naida Zucker.

“One of the things that Jim said to me when we were first designing the home in November of 2004 was to go through books of Southwest architecture and indicate the things that I liked and the things that I didn’t like. From that, I knew that I wanted a traditional adobe structure with one big room in the center and several rooms branching off to the sides,” she said. “I loved the simplicity of it, but I wanted it to have elegance.”

With the help of designer Maureen Villmer, Barty achieved her goal for grace. What came to fruition when Barty, Graham, Villmer and Zucker combined their creativity was a two-bedroom, inviting adobe with many energy-efficient characteristics.

“It has a feeling of spaciousness, but at the same time it is very intimate,” Barty said.

Though the home has more windows than Graham is accustomed to and veers from his normal passive-solar design, Barty, like any resident of Talavera, just couldn’t help it.

“We situated the house so we would take maximum advantage of the views of the mountains and the valley,” she said.

Leaving some of the adobe walls un-plastered, they gave the home a rustic appearance.

“The guys went over every single line of mortar in that exposed adobe to make it smooth and even,” Barty said. “Jim is a meticulous builder, so he made the details as good as they could possibly be.”

Not only did the adobe walls turn out aesthetically pleasing, but they also make for an energy-efficient, sustainable structure.

“The adobe walls provide a place to store heat in the winter time,” Graham said. “There is also insulation on the exterior, so that keeps the home from losing heat.”

Using solar reflectors over the skylights on the roof, Graham also created a way for Barty to harness the sun’s energy.

“Between the adobe walls, the way the house is situated and those solar collectors, I had almost no propane bill for the winter,” Barty said.

Photovoltaic panels, which Barty added later, also help to lower her bills during the summer time.

“Right now, even with my air conditioner on all the time, El Paso Electric is still sending me payments of about $90 a month,” she said.

Though onlookers are happy to hear of its many energy-efficient features, the home’s style speaks for itself. Cherry wood floors as well as custom colors and tile work are found throughout.

“Maureen helped me pick out those cherry floors. It is as though they have a personality that makes the house incredibly warm,” Barty said.

If the cherry wood floors have a personality, then the kitchen’s heavy concrete countertop has its own persona.

“I saw that in a New York showroom,” Barty said. “It has a softness to it.”

“We actually made it upside down,” Graham added. “You turn it over and you polish and you wax it. It is really a lot of work. It was more work to do this than to build the house.”

If you ask Barty what her favorite feature is, the answer is easy. Located on the north side of the house is a studio like no other. Made to function as its own suite, it includes a 17-foot window, a huge dance floor, a recessed seating area and full bathroom.

“I wanted to have space for a music concert or a free movement or yoga or anything like that,” she said. “I love that (seating) area for meditation because it really gives you the feeling that you are in the earth.”

Barty hopes it will offer the next resident a place to let their creative juices flow.

I knew that Jim Graham was the only builder I would ever work with.

SANDRA BARTY, homeowner

Energy Efficiency

The wholesale price of propane increased at 3.8% per year from 1990 – 1999. That is the lowest annual increase we are likely to see given:

  • propane is tied to the price of petroleum and natural gas
  • petroleum prices have increased and are likely to be unstable, and storage facilities for petroleum, and especially propane are limited

Natural gas prices have increased sharply in the 1st part of this millennium because

  • natural gas is difficult and expensive to transport, especially overseas
  • the United States has over invested in natural gas as a fuel for power generation.

The embodied energy (that is the energy used to make the building) can equal 5- 20 years of the energy consumption of a building. That one reason is why we prefer to use fly ash. It is a waste product that replaces part of the Portland cement in concrete. Portland cement production requires strip mining limestone, crushing the limestone, and enormous amounts of energy to convert the limestone to cement. Fossil fumes are consumed and carbon dioxide is produced both by fuel combustion and limestone conversion.

Buildings are a major source of the pollution that causes urban air quality problems, and the pollutants that contribute to climate change. They account for 49 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 25 percent of nitrous oxide emissions, and 10 percent of particulate emissions, all of which damage urban air quality. Buildings produce 35 percent of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions the chief pollutant blamed for climate change.

There are many opportunities to make buildings cleaner. As just one example, if only 10 percent of homes in the U.S. used solar water-heating systems, we would avoid 8.4 million metric tons of carbon emissions each year.

Sun & Earth Construction uses quality materials with low embodied energy, while caring about the environment around us and building cost efficient homes.

Reasons for Choosing Energy-Efficient Design
  • Tangibles
    • Economics– the short term returns to building owner
      • immediate reduction in utility bills
      • decreased household maintenance, especially cleaning
      • increased appraisal without increase in property tax assessment
      • qualification for energy efficient mortgage programs
    • Economics – long term returns to building owner
      • energy costs increase more rapidly than inflation, so energy efficient upgrades increase their cost effectiveness. They appreciate more
        rapidly than other building amenities, which may even depreciate
      • energy efficient upgrades will be saving money at the same time they are appreciating. Similar to rental property except that they are a passive investment.
  • Intangibles
    • Human rights and political self determination
    • Sustaining the environment

“We are very pleased. The house has exceeded our expectations in terms of aesthetics, quality, and energy efficiency.”


The Foundation

We offer post tensioned concrete, using fly ash as an additive material to concrete.

The roof

The advantages of metal as a roofing material are efficiency and sustainability.
We combine these attributes and integrate this roofing into the heating and cooling system.
To learn more please go our Solar Systems page.

Radiant Floor Overview

Radiant heating systems convert a floor into a large area, low temperature radiator. Warm water is circulated through closely spaced plastic tubing that is embedded in the floor slab or attached to the underside of wooden subflooring. Underfloor insulation is a critical component. Zoning depends on advanced manifolds that regulate flow or modulate the water temperature in different tubing runs. Sophisticated controls regulate the system using temperature sensors in the slab in each room being heated as well as outdoors. [Read more]

Jim Graham, Las Cruces New Mexico Contractor

Economics & Weather

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Las Cruces is located in a high desert climate. The weather is characterized by low humidity and abundant sunshine. The low humidity and relatively high elevation contribute to the large temperature swings encountered during the year. The winter days are usually sunny and mild, with a substantial temperature drop at night.

The summer has hot days and cool nights with low humidity early in the summer, increasing in July and August. With the increase in population in Las Cruces and possibly influenced by global warming trends, both the humidity and ambient temperatures are slowly increasing.
Homes are heated predominately with natural gas in incorporated areas and propane outside of them. The most common heating systems are forced air systems without return-ducts and wall mounted heaters.

The most common cooling systems are evaporative (swamp) coolers, but the use of refrigerated air (air conditioning) is becoming more common. These systems usually use the same ductwork as the furnace uses in the winter. The ductwork is usually located in the ceiling or attic where it is subjected to extremes of temperature and where air leakage from the pressurized ductwork is lost from the building “envelope.” 20% loss of heating and cooling is not uncommon with these systems.

Evaporative coolers commonly use over 10,000 gallons of water yearly and require at least twice-yearly maintenance because of the sediments and salts left after the water has evaporated. Pads have to be replaced and the units themselves have a limited service life. Moderately large houses of 2400 sq ft typically require two coolers.

Refrigerated air systems, a.k.a. air conditioning, require less maintenance but have higher initial cost, typically $4000-$10000, and much higher energy costs, usually $300-$800 more per year on a moderately large house. However, electric generating stations consume a great deal of water, the additional use of which is invisible to the refrigerated air consumer while contributing to global warming.

The square footage cost was high compared to homes in this area, but that was due to high quality stucco, roofing, insulation and other features that have saved money over time.”

Weather Considerations
  • Elevation 3850 to 4500 ft
  • 32°19’ N Latitude
  • Winter Design Temp 20F
  • Extreme Low Temperature 10F
  • Heating Degree Days/year ca 4000
  • Comparison:
  • New York City ~ 7000
  • Minneapolis ~ 10000
  • Summer Design Temp 97F
  • Extreme High Temperature 112F
  • Cooling Degree Days/year ca 1000
  • Daily temperature range 26F
  • Average Cloudy Days/year 9
  • Clear Day Solar Energy Available in January: 1900 BTU/Square Foot/Day (A BTU is approximately the heat released by a burning wooden matchstick)
Radiant Heating and Cooling

We always integrate the domestic hot water system with an active solar space heater. Then the system can produce savings 12 months a year. In this area domestic hot water heating requires as much energy as space heating.

Jim Graham, Las Cruces Contractor

How Good is that Wall?

How Good is that Wall?

With a conventional 2 x 6 wall, you get a nominal R-19 rating, but the effective R- value is usually only a little over ½ of that due to heat transfer through wood components, voids around the wiring, and real world conditions.

Our minimum preferred framing system is a 2 x 4 wall with sprayed-in-place cellulose insulation backed with R-7 rigid foam insulation on the outside. The asphalt-impregnated paper facing on conventional fiberglass insulation is extremely flammable and difficult to extinguish once ignited. The cellulose insulation is a recycled product that is treated with borax and boric acid. Another example of green products having unexpected side benefits. Additional benefits are: reduced air infiltration, reduced cleaning, increased the usable area of the house and the overall measured external square footage, controlled insects and mold, and increased fire resistance.

We have also built frame walls with a nominal R-value of up to R-35, which is about what a straw bale wall is, but requires much less floor space. This gives an effective R-value close to R-27.

Almost 20% of the heat loss in a conventional building is due to air infiltration under frame walls. About 15% is due to heat loss through the opaque wall areas. Air leakage under the walls is a more important factor than the nominal R-value of the wall, but it requires more research, more attention by the builder, and it is much harder to put in an advertisement.

A typical house with 2 x 6 walls might have 120 less usable square feet than if it were built with our minimum framing system. It would have an appraised value area of 60-120 feet more. At $100 per square foot, that would be an $18,000 to $24,000 difference in your taxed property.

More important are the long-term ownership benefits. As an example, if a $10,000 investment in energy conservation saves $800 the first year and energy costs rise at 10% per year while housing values increase at 8% a year, at the end of the second year the energy savings will be $1,680, while the $10,000 investment will have appreciated to $11,800. After ten years, that $10,000 investment will have appreciated to $52,338. It will have saved $12,750 in energy costs. Also, the initial investment is typically part of a mortgage and may be tax-sheltered.

This does not count intangibles such as protecting the environment, preserving indigenous cultures from exploitation, providing a stronger economy, and having lived in a healthier home. Experience has shown that over time intangibles are often the most valuable and the most profitable. Economy and ecology have the same root word: oikos, which is Greek for house. What goes around comes around. We pay now or we pay later with interest, and the hidden charges are the ones that hurt the most.

Jim Graham, Las Cruces New Mexico builder

Types of Solar

Passive Solar Heating

Buildings designed for passive solar heating with natural sunlight to light a building’s interior incorporate large south-facing windows, skylights, and building materials that absorb and slowly release the sun’s heat. Incorporating passive solar designs can reduce heating bills as much as 50 percent. Passive solar designs can also include natural ventilation for cooling. Windows are an important aspect of passive solar design. In cold climates, south-facing windows designed to let the sun’s heat in while insulating against the cold are ideal. In hot and moderate climates, the strategy is to admit light while rejecting heat. Interior spaces requiring the most light, heat, and cooling are located along the south face of the building, with less used space to the north. Open floor plans allow more sun inside.

Active Solar Heating

Active solar heating systems consist of collectors that collect and absorb solar radiation and electric fans or pumps to transfer and distribute the solar heat in a fluid (liquid or air) from the collectors. They may have a storage system to provide heat when the sun is not shining.

An active system may offer more flexibility than a passive system in terms of siting and installation.

Heating your home with an active solar energy system can significantly reduce your fuel bills in the winter.

A solar heating system will also reduce the amount of air pollution and greenhouse gases that result from your use of fossil fuels such as oil, propane, and natural gas for heating or that may be used to generate the electricity that you use.

Combined Passive/Active Solar Heating

We have learned to combine passive and active solar elements in our designs because they both have advantages. Passive heating allows us to use building elements (walls, floors, etc.) as heat storage, reducing the requirements for water storage while leaving the advantages of active solar systems.

A cubic foot of water will transport or store 3800 times the amount of heat the same volume of air will. Active solar systems allow the use of water to collect, store and transport heat.

While some of our houses have been completely passive, actually able to meet their heating loads with the elegant simplicity of passive heating, we believe that a combined system is most effective because the increased area of glass amplifies total heating and cooling load, and active systems allow the greatest flexibility of site design, landscaping, and room layout.

One advantage to using the sun to heat your building in New Mexico is that it allows you to use the unique ”solar right of way” law preventing neighbors from shading your collecting surface, and preserving
the open spaces to the south of your building.

Sun and Earth are distributors of ezinc Solar Water Heaters. What better way to save money than to use the Sun to heat your water!

Other systems are available as well. We help you decide what’s best for you!

Jim Graham, Contractor/Builder Las Cruces New Mexico

Air Conditioning in Southern New Mexico

For the next issue, I would like to start an article on air conditioning systems that are commonly used in Southern New Mexico. We will begin with a brief explanation of how an evaporative cooler system works, how it can be improved and how it should be operated and the environmental costs of an air refrigeration system in comparison to an evaporative cooling system.

The evaporative cooling system works on the principle of evaporating water by drawing air through a moistened media. The media is typically either fibers of aspen or pleated paper. It requires about 7,000 BTU’s to evaporate one gallon of water. The amount of cooling you can achieve depends on how much air you can put through the cooler and how much water you can add to the air as it moves through it. The air coming into it with a lower humidity is going to absorb more water and will be cooled more thoroughly, so the temperature of the air coming out of the cooler is going to be lower than if you are working with outside air with a higher relative humidity. Evaporative coolers are much more effective in places like the Southwestern United States. But they also have limited use even in more humid areas for industrial applications.

There are several ways to improve efficiency on an evaporative cooler – to move more air with the same amount of electricity or to add more moisture to the air that’s being moved through it. The more modern evaporative coolers, which are sometimes called a single-pad cooler, such as the Master Cool Unit, are much more effective than the older, three- or four-pad units. They have a single pad that’s 8- to 12-inches thick in comparison to the older coolers whose pads are typically only an inch and a half thick. The pad on the Master Cool Unit only have to be replaced once every three to ten years in comparison to once or even twice a year with the older style evaporative coolers.

Two ways to make the coolers more efficient by moving more air are by having larger ductwork or shorter ductwork. A third way is to have a higher efficiency motor. The motors that are typically used on evaporative coolers are very low efficiency, shaded pole motors. It’s possible to put a higher efficiency motor on there that will have up to three times the efficiency of the more typical motors. The fan speed should always be adjusted by means of changing the diameter of the pulleys. They typically have an adjustable pulley to optimize the efficiency of the motor. This is done by using an ammeter. The ammeter is connected to leads outside of the air conditioner, and the air conditioner is run in its normal condition with all panels closed, pads in place, and vents open. Then the pulley speed is adjusted if the amperage reading does not agree with the amperage rating on the motor rating plate.

A properly sized duct for the evaporative cooler should be at least as large as the outlet of the evaporative cooler. Most commonly, evaporative coolers are hooked up to duct works that are sized for refrigeration or forced air heating. Efficiency can be increased by a factor of two-fold. Combine that with an adjusted, high-efficiency motor, and it’s possible to move up to six-times as much air for the same amount of electricity. In addition, the high-efficiency motor has a much greater life expectancy and doesn’t require any maintenance. The payback period on the high-efficiency motor is less than two years.

Lots of ductwork is in the attic where it picks up a lot of heat, and it is often poorly sealed so there is a lot of leakage. If the duct is insulated and sealed, it will improve efficiency or if the ductwork is moved inside the house or just greatly reduced in scope, you can improve the efficiency a lot. Much of the air distribution in a house by an evaporative cooler should be done by opening the windows in the part of the house that requires the most cooling. You can usually tell when you have enough windows open in the house because a piece of paper held up against a screen by the air pressure inside the house should barely stay on the screen. If it falls off, you have too many windows open and it’s stuck on hard, you need to have some more windows open. You should open the windows in the part of the house that’s hottest. It is not unusual for the air in the ductwork to vary from 5 to ten degrees in temperature from one end to the other. That’s quite a bit when you’re talking about the relatively small comfort range that people tolerate.

Evaporative coolers should have a bleed-off system or a purging system that removes part of the water to remove excess salt from building up in the water, which will cause corrosion. It’s very easy to move part of this water to landscaping. With a typical bleed-off system, you need 50 feet of quarter-inch black plastic tubing and two or three drip emitters and then periodically move those drip emitters around. If there is supplemental irrigation applied periodically, you’re not likely to cause any damage from excess buildup in the soil around the plants.

At the end of each cooling season, it’s important that the coolers be maintained. The ductwork connected to the evaporative cooler needs to be closed off very tightly. It’s common practice to put a canvas cover over a cooler, but it’s much more effective to close off the ductwork. Some coolers will have their warranty voided if you put a canvas cover over it. The theory being that you will build up moisture there during the winter. With the single pad units, you should put a pint or so of vinegar in it and circulate it for a half hour and then drain it.

All coolers should be hosed down at the end of the season and drained and the belt that drives the pulley should be loosened or taken off for the winter. In the springtime, the pads need to be cleaned and replaced
as needed, and all the bearings need to be lubricated. If there is any accumulated debris in the pans, they need to be washed out and the ductwork opened again. The air that comes out of the evaporative cooler eventually comes out of the house. It retains the entire cool that has been generated by evaporating the water. Ductwork registers cause a lot of airflow restriction, and substantial improvements can be made by using more and larger ducts, or by just eliminating them.

In contrast, a refrigeration system works by pumping heat from the inside of the building to the outside. A refrigeration system’s efficiency is based on how many BTU’s it can remove per watt of electricity uses. A typical refrigeration system has an efficiency rating of ten. The highest available right now is about sixteen. They are requiring an efficiency rating of twelve on new construction now. The maximum by how highly you can compress the cages that are used in it, and that is going to be limited by how high a temperature your systems can tolerate. I think we are probably reaching the limits of our efficiency already. The higher efficiency units are quite a bit more expensive than the standard units.

A substantial amount of energy that goes into a refrigeration-cooling unit is used to remove moisture from the air. The evaporator coils in a refrigeration unit are typically -20 to -40 degrees; so even in an arid climate, much of the moisture from the air will be precipitated out. This will increase the operating cost because you will have the same 7,000 BTU per gallon of water, but in this case, there is energy that has to be supplied to the unit to remove water from the air even though typically our air is dryer than we want it to be.

In a more humid climate, the de-humidification is a useful thing, but around here, it usually isn’t. In addition, this moisture will remain on the capillary coils when the unit is shut off, which encourages air-borne fungus, which releases spores, which causes health problems. The water that is extracted from the air is put into the sanitary drain where it has to be disposed of by the city sewer system. It causes an
incremental cost there before it goes into a septic system. The water that is being used in an evaporative cooling system actually cools off the immediate environment, whereas the refrigeration system heats and
dries the environment.

Commercial electric generation stations only deliver about one-third of the power that they consume as electricity to the end user. Most of the rest of it is waste heat. Most of the waste heat has to be eliminated
by evaporation of water, so electricity that is being used by refrigeration units requires the evaporation of a large amount of water be electrical generating units. It requires a gallon of water to generate one-kilowatt
hour. For the typical generating station that makes up most of our power supply, (here we will insert some figures about how much water is required for each unit of cooling the building requires, and how much power is in how many units of fossil fuel required for each cooling unit in the building.

Beating the Heat

From the El Paso Solar Energy Association:
The simplest way to keep cool is to first design and build your home for our unique climate, but that’s another article. For now we’ll concentrate on cooling an existing home.

If your goal is to keep a home cool in our desert climate, turning on the air conditioner or evaporative cooler is the LAST thing you should do. They’re expensive to operate, they use water and they’re noisy. There is no single answer to being comfortable but taking the shotgun approach is easier, and less expensive.

The three major sources of unwanted heat in your house during the summer are heat that conducts through your walls and ceiling from the outside, heat that is given off inside your house by lights and appliances, and sunlight that shines through windows.

Keeping the sun out of your home is obviously a major goal. Closing curtains and drapes makes your home darker but doesn’t effectively stop the heat. Stopping the sun’s energy from entering your home is best done on the outside of the window. Solar screens or shade cloth can stop as much as 80% of the sun’s heat before it enters your home. These materials are available at most home centers and window and screen suppliers. Windows on the west side are typically the biggest problem followed by the east and north facing windows. South facing windows are often protected by your roof overhang, which shades the glass when the sun is at its highest point. High-performance windows with “low-emissive” coatings (Low-E) and low “shading coefficients” will stop heat from the sun while allowing visible light to pass through the glass. These same windows help keep heat on the home during the winter.

Landscaping can play a large role in achieving comfort. Trees located on the west, east and north can not only put windows in shade, but also shade the walls of the home as well as the ground area. This shaded
area keeps the home cooler and cools breezes as the reach the home. On the south side, you should choose low growing shrubs and plants so as not to block the winter sun from entering south facing windows. This
vegetation will reduce the amount of solar energy, which is reflected
into windows by lighter colors.

The colors of various materials around your home can have a dramatic effect on your comfort and wallet. A dark colored roof can reach temperature 40 degrees hotter than a light colored reflective roof. This heat not only increases the cooling load of your home but also decreases the life of your shingles. Ventilate your attic space to reduce heat build-up during the summer, which finds its way into your home. Darker colored
walls especially brick and stone will actually absorb solar energy, which increases cooling problems and slows the nighttime cooling process. To reduce heat gains through walls and your ceiling, you can add insulation
and seal up cracks to reduce air infiltration.

You can reduce heat from lights and appliances by purchasing energy-efficient products. A conventional, incandescent light bulb uses only 10% of its input energy to produce light and the other 90% is wasted heat. Compact Fluorescent lights can produce the same amount of light as an incandescent lamp but use about one-fifth the energy and produce about one-fifth the heat. Check out the EPA’s Energy Star web site ( for energy smart options for your home.

Natural ventilation by opening windows is only effective when outdoor temperatures are lower than interior temperatures. An indoor/outdoor thermometer is a useful tool to determine the optimum time to open your windows. Open your windows when this temperature difference is reached in the evening and then close your windows in the morning. Opening windows more on the downwind side will increase airflow.

Evaporative Cooling

Opening windows is very important when operating an evaporative cooler. A common mistake in the El Paso area is not opening windows enough. If we think of an evaporative cooler as providing a nice breeze, then the best way to kill that breeze and its cooling effect is to close windows. You can increase the amount of cooling in one particular room simply by opening those windows more. The amount of force from an evaporative cooler is limited and can’t compete with a strong summer breeze/wind. If you have a 100-degree breeze coming from the west, then close those windows. When checking the operation of your cooler, make sure that the entire pad(s) is wet. Hot, outside air will flow freely through dry openings and dry pads drastically reducing the cooler’s effectiveness.

It’s very important to supply fresh water to an evaporative cooler and flush out the salts etc. left behind in the evaporation process. Typically this is accomplished with a bleed-off line but there is better, water saving method available at most home centers. Sometimes referred to as a “power dump” this new pump is installed in addition to your regular pump. This new pump operates on a timer and is designed to flush all the water in the pan once every 8 to 12 hours of operation.

The more attention you pay to the sun’s impact and the way you operate your home, the less you’ll spend while being more comfortable.

Don’t Forget your Ducts!

From the US Department of Energy:

Identify any leaks with diagnostic equipment. Seal your ducts with mastic, metal-backed tape, or aerosol sealant. Duct tape should not be used; it cannot withstand high temperatures and will not last. Test airflow after ducts are sealed. Your new or existing cooling and heating equipment is only as good as the system that carries its heated or cooled air. Central air conditioners, heat pumps and forced air furnaces rely on a system of ducts to circulate air throughout your home. To maintain comfort and good indoor air quality, it is important to have the proper balance between the air being supplied to each room and the air returning to your cooling and heating equipment. Leaky ducts can cause an unbalanced system that wastes energy. Sealing your ducts improves your system’s ability to consistently cool and heat every room in your home.

Duct Improvment Checklist

To improve your ducts, make sure to have your contractor:

  • Insulate your ducts where it counts to keep the air at its desired temperature as it moves through the system.
  • The contractor should use duct insulation material rated at R-6 to insulate ducts located in unconditioned spaces such as the attic.
  • Conduct a combustion safety test after ducts are sealed to be sure all gas or oil-burning appliances are working properly.