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Welcome to the Philadelphia Pennsylvania blog. This blog contains a wealth of information about Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Apartment living, and housing opportunities in our great city and other metro areas of the U.S.. Learn about efforts at restoring architectural relics of the past - former factories, warehouses, schools, hotels, hospitals, train stations - into first-class houses and apartments, and in preserving these distinguished residential communities for future generations. Please enjoy your stay on our Philadelphia apartments blog and feel free to share your stories on life in Philly and the city of brotherly love. In addition, we welcome all commentaries regarding building remodeling, home remodeling, kitchen remodeling, bathroom remodeling, and house hunting. Thank You!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Pittsburgh Home to Harness Sunlight

Philly dot Com

PITTSBURGH - When Michael Merck's Pennsylvania remodeling crew is finished, sunlight that once streamed through dusty cracks in a vacant East Liberty home will strike a solar panel array capable of generating enough energy to support a family of five.

At least, that's the goal the owner of West Penn Energy Solutions set for himself in a novel bid to transform a deteriorating 100-year-old shell of a house into a Zero Energy Home , a "green" living space that produces as much energy as its occupants consume in a year.

"We want to show that we can take this great example of Pittsburgh housing stock and convert it into something as energy efficient or more energy efficient than what people are building new," said Merck, 32, of Regent Square.

Work began in March on the North St. Clair Street home and could be finished by year's end.

Merck hopes to sell the five-bedroom house for about $265,000. He'll list it for sale soon before it's finished in case a buyer wants his company to customize it.

Since minimal air will be able to enter or escape, Merck will use special wall paints and wood stains that emit little or no toxic gas. Rain barrels outside will catch water to irrigate the lawn and garden. Solar-thermal panels mounted atop awnings over two master bedroom windows will block some sunlight, yet catch enough to heat a water tank in the basement equipped with a 400-gallon reservoir. Sun-heated water will flow to showers, sinks and the wood-floored home's radiators.

Merck said the annual cost for electrical service and heating the home will be less than $300.

One drawback: No air conditioning, but a ventilation system will bring in cool, fresh air and exhaust stale air. A single window-mounted air conditioner could cool the entire house, if the owner installed one, he said.

"This really is Michael's dream and his initiative to do a net-zero energy house, and it's one of our core principles, so we're happy to be working with him on this Pennsylvania home remodeling project," said Nate Cunningham, director real estate for the nonprofit East Liberty Development Inc.

ELDI owns the house, but it has worked out a unique business deal with Merck and with two other developers: father-and-son-team Albert and Chas Suter and, separately, Thomas Bencho, who are renovating homes on North Euclid Avenue and Beatty Street, respectively.

The nonprofit purchased the vacant homes typically in economically depressed or crime-prone areas , and gave the small developers an option to renovate and sell them for a profit. Cunningham said ELDI is slowing creating a market for higher-priced homes with the goal of creating a mixed-income neighborhood of homeowners and renters.

"What we liked about them was they're not making us pay anything up front," Chas Suter said. "When we go to close with a buyer is when we pay them for the house and we pay a finder's fee."

The Suters are the first to nearly complete renovations to a house on North Euclid. Theirs is not a net zero-energy house. They preserved a stick-and-ball staircase, pine wood floors and created a master suite. The asking price is $239,900.

"It allows them to continue their mission of bringing homeownership back to East Liberty, and it allows Pennsylvania remodeling contractors with limited resources to renovate a property ... and sell it," said Coldwell Banker real estate agent Holly Sisk, who is working with the Suters.

Cunningham said a real estate market analysis shows there are few who own homes worth between $150,000 and $300,000 in East Liberty. ELDI is changing that.

Three of six homes on North Euclid that ELDI helped to build are sold or under contract. Each falls in or above that price range. People want to live near the improving Penn Avenue corridor, he said, which offers easy access to Whole Foods, Border's, Trader Joe's, a planned Target, and other retail and commercial gems.

ELDI has nine more homes it could offer to small developers.

"We are getting the pioneers now, but we are seeing a pick up in momentum from home buyers," Cunningham said.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hershey Modernizes, Tells Workers to Hit the Highway


Hershey said late Monday it is planning $250 million to $350 million in capital investments to improve and expand its facilities, while at the same time cutting 500 to 600 jobs as part of its overhaul.

Hershey said it will expand its West Hershey facility to takeover production from its 100-year-old plant at 19 East Chocolate Avenue. The job cuts will be the result of improved efficiency in production. Hershey will also make improvements at an administrative and distribution facility in Hershey.

Hershey said the project, which it calls its Next Century program, will incur charges of $140 million to $170 million over the next three years.

As of 2014, ongoing annual savings will total $60 million to $80 million.

Hershey also said it is looking for 2010 net sales to rise 6%-7%, with earnings per share for the full year of $2.31 to $2.38, including $0.14 to $0.16 in charges per share.

The candy maker competes with Krafts Cadbury, privately held Mars and Switzerlands Nestle.

Monday, June 7, 2010

State Submits Plan for High-Risk Health Insurance Pool

Philadelphia Inquirer

Pennsylvania's Insurance Department announced Wednesday that it had submitted a plan to achieve one of the provisions of the new national health-overhaul legislation: creation of a special insurance program for people who can't buy insurance because they're already sick.

People with preexisting conditions such as heart disease, cancer, or major mental illness would be able to buy into the proposed high-risk insurance pool for about what healthy people would pay, up to $5,616 a year.

The problem is that those payments, plus $160 million in federal funding through 2013, can provide insurance for only about 5,100 people in a state where 800,000 are uninsured. State officials do not know how many people can't buy insurance because of health problems.

"The unfortunate reality is that there are more folks that need the program than what the state can afford to cover," said Melissa Fox, a spokeswoman for the state Insurance Department.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has said it would decide by July 1 whether to approve the plan, said Shelley Bain, policy director for the department. Bain said the program likely would not begin accepting applications until the fall, although the plan calls for the state to begin taking applications as early as August. Members of the pool will be selected on a first-come, first-served basis.

States had the option of letting the federal government administer their high-risk pools or creating their own programs. Thirty-five states already had high-risk pools.

"We believe that we know more about what the people of Pennsylvania need than the federal government does," Bain said.

New Jersey submitted a proposal last week. It already requires insurers to offer plans to people with health problems, but said cost was a problem. It suggested modifying its current insurance system to make use of the federal funding. It didn't specify a proposed cost for people to participate in the program.

Pennsylvania's proposal calls for charging individuals with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level $168 a month. People who make more would pay $468 a month.

The state will seek insurers to administer the plan in much the same way they manage medical payments for self-insured private companies.

Bain said members of the high-risk pool would receive coverage comparable to typical policies in the state. The proposal calls for a $1,000 deductible within a defined network and $10,000 if subscribers go to out-of-network doctors or hospitals. There would be significant cost sharing, including $30 copays for specialists and $20 copays for generic drugs. Patients would be responsible for 20 percent of the cost of many services after paying the deductible.

Abortion was a controversial issue during the overhaul debate. The proposal would not cover elective abortions, although it would cover medical problems resulting from elective abortions.

The program will be available to citizens, nationals, and people who are lawfully present in the United States who have not had insurance coverage in the previous six months and who can prove one of the following: that they have a preexisting condition, that insurance has been denied them because of a preexisting condition, that they can get insurance only if their preexisting condition is excluded, or that coverage was quoted at a "substandard rate" due to a preexisting condition.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Shale-Gas Producers Obey New Pennsylvania Rules Early

Bloomberg / Business Week

Shale-gas producers told Pennsylvania regulators most of them are already complying with new regulations for protecting aquifers that aren’t scheduled to be adopted until October.

Thirty-five shale-gas producers, members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, also agreed today to work with the state to develop better tests, record-keeping and drilling procedures to prevent methane gas from contaminating groundwater.

“We want a world-class regulatory environment and a world- class industry environment in Pennsylvania, since we have a huge opportunity in front of us,” Ray Walker, chairman of the coalition and a senior vice president at Fort Worth, Texas-based Range Resources Corp., said today in an interview.

The state Environmental Protect Department called energy companies to Harrisburg today to make sure they understand proposed rules for cementing metal casings around their wells. The meeting came after the state last month ordered Houston- based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. to cap three wells with defective casings in the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania.

“Cabot is an example of what can go wrong,” John Hanger, the state’s environmental secretary, said in an interview before today’s meeting. “Their drilling led to gas migrating from the drill sites to people’s water.”

Pennsylvania is home to much of the Marcellus Shale, a formation that may hold 262 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, making it the largest known deposit of the heating and power-plant fuel, according to a U.S. Energy Department estimate. Today’s meeting was intended in part to instruct companies accustomed to drilling in southern states like Texas on how Pennsylvania’s geology differs, Hanger said.

‘Zero-Impact Drilling’

“There’s no such thing as zero-impact drilling,” Hanger said. “We’re in the business of maximizing the benefits, which are considerable, and minimizing the costs.”

Cabot drilled 50 Pennsylvania wells in the Marcellus Shale last year and planned 81 wells this year, according to a March 22 investor presentation by the Houston-based company. The wells without proper casings, located in Dimock Township, caused gas to migrate into groundwater, Hanger said.

Drill bits descending toward gas-bearing shale are surrounded with three concentric rings of metal casings that are cemented in place to protect surrounding aquifers.

Under the new Pennsylvania rules, companies will have to use thicker pipes and stronger cement as they drill wells thousands of feet below ground, said Tom Rathbun, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Department. Gas producers also will be required to rapidly notify state and local authorities when gas migration occurs, he said.

Cabot Order

The state also ordered Cabot to stop drilling in Dimock Township for a year, provide equipment for removing methane from groundwater at 14 homes near its wells and pay a $240,000 fine.

Cabot has made “significant” progress in complying with the state order, Chief Executive Officer Dan Dinges said in an April 27 statement. The company said it accepted the order without agreeing that it caused the gas migration.

“Cabot is committed to working with Secretary Hanger to ensure we have the best regulations for Pennsylvania,” company spokesman George Stark said after today’s meeting.

Water contamination at Dimock has drawn the attention of environmental groups opposed to drilling and the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract gas from shale formations. Drillers inject a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to bust open shale and unlock gas deposits.

The new Pennsylvania rules will require companies to disclose the chemicals they use during fracturing, said Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

Bubbling Water

Victoria Switzer, 57, a retired schoolteacher who lives within 1,300 feet of three Cabot wells in Dimock, said she had so much methane in her well that her water bubbled like Alka- Seltzer. Methane blew an eight-inch concrete slab off the top of neighbor Norma Fiorentino’s well on Dec. 31, 2008, she said.

Along with Fiorentino and other neighbors, Switzer is suing Cabot for negligence.

“We were unwilling participants in a grievously-gone-wrong experiment in rapid industrialization of a pristine natural area,” Switzer said.

“What we’ve done here is put up the drilling rigs before we had the regulations in place. It’s ridiculous.”