By: Jack Morris, Guest Blogger
We are often advised to ‘Take only pictures and leave only footprints” when enjoying some aspect of this wonderful world. It could be added to make those footprints as light and small as possible. One of the largest prints we leave is our energy footprint, so minimizing that helps minimize our tracks on this planet.
We recently built a new house, which we intend to be in for a long time, with an eye toward doing what we could to require and use energy efficiently. I would like to share some thoughts on our experiences. Mostly, I want to talk about our time since we moved in as I think energy conservation is an on-going project to continually reduce your need for this resource.
I installed a whole house energy monitor (no longer sold) to determine where to focus our efforts. No big surprises. As you probably know, the largest consumer of energy in your home is most likely your HVAC system. Unless you are planning on replacing that, there is probably nothing major you can do, but that doesn’t mean you can have no effect. This brings up a good resource – your utility company. All energy companies are interested in reducing their need for more generating capacity and are actively promoting conservation activities. Ours (LGE-KU) has a section where you can get energy saving tips and in many cases, rebates/discounts for appliances, home energy efficiency upgrades and the like. Check your utilities website for specifics.
OK, back to your HVAC system. Almost everyone will tell you the first efforts should be to stop wasting what you use. While we all probably appreciate the value of insulation (energy conduction) we shouldn’t forget that air infiltration (drafts – energy convection) may be as big a source of energy loss or gain as conduction through the walls, ceiling and floor. Again, check with your utility company to see if they will offer free or discounted professional advice to help guide your efforts. There are also many independent energy consultant contractors that will offer advice, but for a price. Even if have no option of getting a free service, you have a wonderful heat flow sensor for determining where your drafts are – your skin. Feel the relative temperature of walls, put your hand or face near suspect areas and believe what you feel. Then weather strip or caulk until you at least feel no more draft. If walls or surfaces still seem cold (its winter now, so that is my point of view), that may indicate where you should consider additional insulation. This may be simple or very difficult and expensive. On the simple end (maybe still expensive, depending on what you like), if you have a large window with no covering, a good moveable shade will provide additional insulation. This may be significant, particularly if you have poorly sealed and/or low R-value windows and, of course, you get the aesthetic value of the window covering. Some shades even come with good side air seals and may provide about an R-3 addition. On the expensive end would be where a cold wall is found, away from obvious thin spots (like an electrical outlet) which may indicate inadequate insulation. There are contractors that can add insulation to existing walls (or you can do it yourself) but the work is complicated and expensive. It is probably best to have a professional give you advice on this. Intermediate would be replacing old, poorly insulated/sealed windows with better ones. If doing this, remember to compare air infiltration (there are standard ratings for this) as well as R-value. Another thing to consider, is which way the window faces and level of Low Emmisivity coating you need. If your window vendor seems puzzled by these concerns, you may need to look for another vendor.
Your next largest user is probably the various consumers of hot water – showers, dishwasher, laundry, (hot tub?) . . . in your house. Review your water temperature setting and reduce that as much as you can stand. If you don’t have a water heater blanket, get one if your tank feels hot to you. They are inexpensive and relatively easy to install.
Entire books have been written on the subject of home energy conservation so much more could be written. The real purpose of this article is just to get you to start (assuming you haven’t already) considering what to do. Do your homework before starting your project so you don’t waste money on unimportant things or wind up with an inadequate solution to a real problem. One of the biggest mistakes I made when building our new house was not doing enough prep work and not having a support group of like-minded folks to help resist the different agendas others had.
A few quick words on energy economics. While there are strong moral arguments for energy conservation, I think it is correct to say that, at least in this country, that we are paying a ‘green’ premium – i.e., we pay more than the work/materials should cost because it is ‘green’. There are numerous reasons for this which are too complicated to go into here, but until the consumers of energy conservation demand reasonable and competitive solutions, we are probably perpetuating the excessive green premium. Shop around, find someone you are comfortable with that can give you supportable details for their costs.