Your Gradual Guide to Energy-Efficient Bliss
It’s not as exciting as putting in a hot tub, but creating an energy-efficient home reaps plenty of long-term rewards
Making a home more energy-efficient is not only good for the environment, it can reduce energy bills by up to 40 percent. Begin with an energy audit, which is an assessment by a certified professional who will determine how energy-efficient a home is and what can be done to make it more so. Using sophisticated tools that can identify such issues as air leaks and insufficient insulation, the auditor will typically come up with recommendations for six areas of concern.
Poor insulation, especially in the attic, can be a major source of heat loss and higher energy bills. A simple solution is to add more insulation. The energy audit can help determine how much more by noting the type, thickness, and R-value, or resistance to heat flow, of your current insulation. With this information, a contractor can determine how much insulation needs to be added to meet the recommended thickness. In order of priority, though, the need for insulation should be determined after addressing air leaks.
2: Windows and doors
In addition to the attic and the wall openings through which heating and air-conditioning systems are run, the most common air leaks are around inadequately sealed windows and doors. If they are in relatively good condition, replacing them may not be necessary. It usually makes more financial sense to repair the seals and install storm windows and doors.
With new installations, windows should be Energy Star certified, which is a recognized national standard based on energy performance ratings for specific climate zones. New windows should have double or triple pane glass, with an insulating layer of argon gas between the panes, and a Low-E coating, which helps keep heat out during the summer and in during the winter, while still admitting visible light. New exterior doors are performance rated, too. Despite their natural beauty, wooden doors are less energy efficient than their insulated steel and fiberglass counterparts.
3: Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC)
Replacing older HVAC units with high-efficiency furnaces, air conditioners, water heaters, and other components, combined with adopting such green practices as turning down water heater temperature and using low-flow bathroom fixtures, can have a significant impact on utility bills. One example of a high-efficiency system is “smart” thermometers that automatically adjust to your habits and preferences. Another is on-demand water heaters that use a special pump to speed hot water to a tap in seconds and then shut the pump off until needed again; you avoid the waste that comes from running the tap water until it is sufficiently warm.
As with windows, HVAC components, and just about any other source of home energy consumption, when shopping for an appliance a good way to measure its energy efficiency is to see if it has an Energy Star rating, which was developed by the EPA. The label can tell you, for instance, how much more efficient than a standard model a particular Energy Star certified appliance is and how much in energy costs it could save annually. The numbers are important, because Energy Star-rated appliances have proven to be up to 20 percent more efficient than standard models, and, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, refrigerators alone on average account for 7 percent of all energy consumed in American homes.
The most effective way to increase home lighting energy efficiency is by switching to LED bulbs. The initial cost of the bulbs can give pause: around $8 compared to a traditional 60-watt incandescent bulb that might cost $1. But over the lifetime of an LED bulb, which is up to 25 times as long as that of an incandescent bulb, the cost and energy savings are significant. Stretch those savings farther by using smart devices to ensure that the lights are only on when they need to be.
6: Solar Energy
In some cases, an energy audit might evaluate a home’s suitability for incorporating solar panels. A north-facing roof, for instance, would make the possibility less likely. While a solar-powered system can substantially reduce energy costs, sometimes even eliminating a monthly electric bill, a number of factors need to be thoroughly investigated before committing. Among them: what state and federal policies and tax incentives apply? And will the system be owned outright by the homeowner or leased from the company installing it? The answers could affect the system’s upfront costs and impact a home’s resale value.