The Power Punch
8 Ways to Make Your Home Energy Efficient

By Mark Meier

Originally appeared in October 2011

In America, our homes represent about one-fifth of all the energy we consume. The energy we spend getting from our homes to other places is another matter. Fortunately, we have ways to save money by making our homes more energy efficient, and Charlottesville has expertise in that regard. We talked to some of those experts and they offered us the top ways to make your house more energy efficient.

1. Assess your particular situation

The first thing to do, says John Quale, a professor of architecture at the University of Virginia who emphasizes sustainable design, is to read and understand your utility bills. There is a ton of information buried in there. Its your map to find out whether youre using most of your energy on baseload, heating or cooling. If youre confused, ask for help. The Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP) has a video on its website (leap-va.org) that shows you how to interpret your bill. The website also allows you to create an energy profile for your home to see how it compares against others in the area. Even if you find yourself doing better than average, dont rest on your laurels. Get a comprehensive home-energy assessment performed by a Building Performance Institute certified auditor, says Annie Suttle, who works for LEAP, a non-profit based in Charlottesville that helps people in Central Virginia recognize how to make buildings more efficient and how to pay for those improvements. They will give you a prioritized list of where and how you can get the biggest bang for your buck in energy savings. As a bonus, she notes, the audit will also give you information about potential gas leaks, mold and mildew.

2. Seal cracks

Although it might not sound glamorous, Quale says, I would absolutely start with caulk and sealant. The general industry consensus, he says, is that if you added up all the cracks and holes in the typical American home, theyd equal a one-square-foot hole in the wall. If you had that hole, you would never tolerate it, but its so easy to forget it when you never see it. Caulk is cheap; the payback is quick. Suttle concurs: The money you put into air sealing will pay back in six months to a year. Its the least obvious improvement and the biggest return on investment. Look for gaps everywhere, not just around doors and windows.

3. Add insulation wisely

This step, Quale cautions, probably requires consulting an expert because theres a lot of misinformation out there. People think if they buy the pink stuff and put it in the wall, thats a good thing, but it may not be the best from a cost or efficiency perspective. For instance, R value measures the insulating power of a material but does not consider how that material is used. If you install insulation with a high R value but leave gaps, you wont get the best performance from that insulation. Youd do better using a foam or something else with a lower R value that completely fills the gaps. In addition, you want to make sure the house remains breathable. Moisture moves with heat, and you dont want to trap moisture in your house with the wrong insulation, or the right insulation used incorrectly. Finally, if you are concerned with life-cycle performance, some insulation such as rigid foams may emit more greenhouse gases than others during manufacture. That means they may save your house energy but take a long time to offset their total environmental impact.

If you have to pick your insulation battles, start in the attic. Both in summer and winter, Quale explains, thats where the heat is flowing the most. Again, he recommends professional advice, as our knowledge of building energy use has been changing. For example, the conventional wisdom was that you put insulation on the floor of the attic, not on the underside of the roof itself, but new research indicates that insulating along the roof might be more effective.

4. Use natural flows of heat, or block unwanted ones

Ventilation where you want and blocking hot sun where you dont want it; those things, according to Quale, are often much cheaper than more complicated options. You have a few ways to achieve these results.

Add vegetation. Shrubs or trees, especially evergreens, planted to the north of a house can help block winter winds. Deciduous trees planted to the south of a house can block intense summer sun but let through sunlight to warm your house in the winter once they drop their leaves. You can grow vines on trellises near your house to shade the walls, or plant shrubs to shade air conditioning units to help keep the intake air cooler. If you are lucky enough to design your house from scratch, you could even consider a green roof. As a bonus, plants help retain water, thereby reducing stormwater runoff and further cooling your yard.

Use louvers, blinds, and energy-efficient windows. If youre trying to keep your house cool, you ideally want to block the sunlight from reaching your windows in the first place. Exterior shutters, for instance, would accomplish that. If thats not possible, insulated and glazed windows can help reflect the summer sun or prevent heat from escaping the house in the winter. Finally, you can use blinds and drapes to prevent winter drafts and to block hot, summer sun.

Open and close your windows. If your house is hotter than the outside air, such as on a summer night, open your windows to let the heat out and the cool air in. If your house is cooler than outside, such as during a summer day, keep the windows closed to keep the heat out. This seems counter-intuitive, notes Quale, as people think of breezes as refreshing, but use the natural temperature differences in your favor. Remember, keep the heat (and the cool) where you want them.

5. Heat and cool only what you need

This suggestion might seem obvious, but often, our houses need some help to accomplish this task, especially if you are the kind of person who forgets to adjust the thermostat when you leave the house in the morning. Install programmable thermostats to reduce the energy consumed when you are gone. If possible, you can also get a heating or cooling system zoned for different rooms or areas of the house, so that you dont air condition your bedroom while youre in the kitchen and vice versa. Remember that you can also adjust the thermostat up or down with the seasons. According to Suttle, You can save at least two percent on your heating bill for each degree you lower the thermostat in the winter. Likewise, you can raise the thermostat in summer. Another variation on the heat-what-you-need theme is tankless water heaters. They heat water only when you need it, not when youre on vacation. According to Department of Energy estimates, they can operate 10 to 50 percent more efficiently than storage tank heaters depending on your particular situation.

6. Keep the HVAC equipment tuned

If you keep your house well sealed, why tolerate inefficient HVAC equipment inside it? First, change your air filter at least every three months and more frequently in the dead of summer or winter, when the system is working hardest. Second, seal leaks in heating and cooling ducts, which can lower the efficiency of your heating and air conditioning by 20 percent or more. Next, says Suttle, make sure all of your ducts are insulated, especially if they are located in attics. If they arent, you might as well be flushing cold air down a hot pipe. Finally, she adds, Ask your HVAC service provider to conduct a combustion and efficiency test. If necessary, upgrade to a more efficient model, but sometimes maintenance will pay dividends.

7. Use efficient appliances and lighting

Even though our homes heating systems have become more energy efficient over the years, houses have grown and added central air conditioners, DVD players, flat-screen TVs and other features that demand more overall energy. Electrical devices now account for about one-third of the typical homes energy usage. If appliances like your refrigerator are at least 10 years old, consider upgrading to a new, efficient model, advises Suttle. There have been major advances in efficiency of these units in recent years. The Energy Star label will identify appliances that are among the most efficient in their category. Meanwhile, replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents or LEDs is one of the easiest things to do yourself (aside from sitting by a bright window to read). An LED bulb can use 90 percent less energy than an incandescent and operate for 30,000 to 50,000 hours, or four to five years of continuous light! You can also consider plugging devices into power strips that you turn off when you are done using them to reduce the so-called vampire or phantom load, energy that appliances draw when turned off but in stand-by. (Picture those green, yellow, and red lights staring at you from the dark.)

8. Use less water (especially hot)

Although you might not think about it, water requires a lot of energy. The Department of Energy estimates about 15 to 20 percent of a homes energy is used to heat water. Even cold water has a cost: about 1 to 2 percent of all energy consumed in the United States is to pump and treat drinking water. Hence, anything that saves water saves energy: repair leaks, turn off the tap when you arent using the water, harvest rain in barrels for watering the lawn, etc. To focus on hot water in particular, choose a water-efficient dishwasher or clothes washer, low-flow shower heads, or more efficient water heater. You can also use laundry detergents designed for cold water high-efficiency washing machines.

These eight items can be distilled into a few key principles: keep heat where you want it and not where you dont; use nature as an ally whenever possible; and keep electronics and other equipment operating efficiently.

Want to do more than eight things? You can, of course. After all, you import energy into your house in many ways besides gas lines or electrical cables. If you buy bottled water, for instance, youre importing the energy needed to make that bottle, fill it and ship it, which is more than the energy needed to get water from your tap. Or consider the energy needed to run your lawn mower and make fertilizer for your grass; maybe a landscape of native, low-maintenance plants would help. Once you consider all the bigger connections, you will probably find more to do without adding solar panels and a windmill, but these eight ways to make your home more energy efficient are a great start. This winter, enjoy a cozy home and a lower power bill!

Mark is a writer and part-time professor in Pennsylvania who maintains fond ties to Charlottesville.

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