We reached the point in our Chicago deep-energy-retrofit where we get to work on the renewable energy component: a solar electric system in our case. Needless to say that we are super excited.
The topic of renewable energy generally creates a lot of excitement and buzz. So let me throw in a word of caution:
If you are on a path to make your home more energy efficient, the renewable energy component should be at the very end of your list. First take steps to reduce the overall energy demand of your home, because this is where you get the biggest return on your investment.
A general rule of thumb that I have come across says: every $1 spent to improve the efficiency of a structure saves $3 to $5 on the cost of a renewable energy system. That said, I did not find any research that backs up this claim.
Nevertheless, it rings probable: I did an initial performance analysis back in 2012 and 2016. I took energy data of a building comparable to ours prior to any energy improvements and compared it to our energy usage. I converted both data sets to a square foot basis to get an apples to apples comparison.
By 2016 we had reduced our heating load by 80%, while our electrical consumption decreased by 57%. And keep in mind that we were still working on the building, meaning that there still were lingering inefficiencies.
The bottom line is a renewable energy system for our house would be 1/2 to 1/4 the size of what it would have been prior to any energy improvements. This translates into major cost savings.
And then there are spatial limitations to keep in mind.
Take a solar energy system, i.e. photovoltaic panels in an urban setting. The panels are typically mounted on the roof. But any given residential roof can only accommodate so many photovoltaic panels.
The lower the energy use of a home, the more likely that the panels on the roof cover the majority, if not all of the energy needs, which again translates into major cost savings.
How do you improve the energy efficiency of your home? I provided some guidelines in the previous post. But there is plenty of more information in this blog. Just search the blog for keywords like “building shell”, “insulation”, “air sealing”, “windows”, “heating”, “space conditioning”, “moisture management”, and “ventilation” and you will find plenty of reading material on energy efficiency strategies.
Ok, the “word of caution” turned into several paragraphs. In the next posts, I will get into the basics of solar PV and our journey to the system installed, including all preparations. Stay tuned!
The 2015 chart above from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that up to 54% of energy for a single family home can go towards space conditioning (i.e. space heating and cooling). Only 5% of energy goes towards lighting.
If you decide to make your lighting more efficient, i.e. go with all Energy Star LED lighting, I applaud you. However, the total resulting energy savings may be around 1-2%. That’s something you may barely notice on your electrical bill.
If instead you would focus on improvements to your building envelope, i.e. your basement floor, foundation walls, crawlspace, exterior walls, wall penetrations, windows, exterior doors, attic, and roof, you could make a major dent in the 54% of energy that goes towards your space conditioning. This is where you can get a big bang for your buck. And not only that, you likely end up with a home that is a whole lot less drafty and a whole lot more comfortable and healthy to live in.
The bottom line is, don’t focus on the low hanging fruit. Look at the big picture and focus on the energy hogs, such as space conditioning.
Verify and quantify
You decided to not just chip away at your energy use but instead to make a dent, maybe even a really big dent.
Based on the data above, you know that you likely need to focus on your building envelope in order to reduce your space conditioning loads. But how good or bad is your building envelope, and what is the actual space conditioning load for your home?
It’s time to find out. Commission a home energy audit. A professional energy auditor will visit and inspect your home, analyze your utility bills, and may run several tests such as a duct, furnace, and blower door test.
The energy audit report will point you to the areas where energy improvements can be most effective. The most significant recommendations will probably point you to building envelope improvements, such as insulating, air sealing, door or window replacement, etc.
With this data and recommendations in hand, you can begin to strategize.
You have a choice. Even basic insulation along with good air sealing (also called home weatherization) can save you an “average of 15% on heating and cooling costs (or an average of 11% on total energy costs)” according to Energy Star information.
Depending on how handy you are, weatherization can become a DIY project or you can hire a weatherization specialist that does the air sealing and insulating for you. If you hire someone, make sure that you contractually set performance goals based on the home energy audit. This means how much more air tight the house should be after the improvements and what cold spots should be eliminated with insulation. And at the end, go and verify. In other words, have your energy auditor come back to test that the performance goals are met.
You want to aim higher and save more? Good for you!
In this case I recommend commissioning an energy model, which your home energy auditor could provide. And if not, he or she can probably recommend someone. We commissioned an energy model in the planning phase of our project, which guided us through the decision making process.
An energy model takes a wide variety of building variables into account (type of windows, type of insulation, building exposure, air tightness, etc.) and predicts the energy load of your home. By adjusting the variables (i.e. thickness of insulation, type of windows, level of airtightness, etc.) you can see how the energy load of your home increases or decreases.
Say you want to decrease the energy load of your home by 50% or more, which puts you into the realm of deep energy retrofits. The energy model will help you to determine how to get there. It tells you what level of air tightness you need to achieve. It tells you what levels of insulation values you need, and where. It tells you what performance targets your windows and exterior doors should meet. And so on.
Decreasing your energy by 50% or more will involve major remodeling as you probably have to work on all exterior walls and the roof from the inside, the outside, or both.
Sounds daunting? Well, it can be. But there are silver linings here too.
Major remodeling allows you to get to all those quick fixes and deferred maintenance items that have been causing problems and eating money for years. And of course, you are left with major energy savings.
Take our deep energy retrofit. A preliminary analysis in 2016 showed a 80% reduction in our heating needs, and 57% reduction in our electrical use in 2012.
Be picky with your contractors
You will need help from various building trades with a deep energy retrofit. I highly recommend relying on contractors that specialize in energy improvements, or that are at least familiar with the topic. Working on energy improvements, such as in a deep energy retrofit, takes a very different mind set compared to regular construction, as the installation and construction processes often vary from the old norm. A recipe for disaster is a contractor that is set in the old ways, because that is how he/she has always done it.
Aiming high, such as with a deep energy retrofit, may seem expensive and overwhelming. You may think you should start in small increments instead.
Please think again.
Going about your improvements incrementally, each step in the process seems less overwhelming and less expensive. I’ll give you that. However you keep tiptoeing around big ticket items and associated savings (such as the above mentioned space conditioning). And you will likely end up undoing some of your own work along the process.
In the end, you may have spent cumulatively more on incremental improvements than on a deep energy retrofit with far less energy savings than you would have had if you didn’t tiptoe..
Learn how to operate your home
Owning a home, energy efficient or not, requires you to know how to operate it.
It is similar to owning a car: If you want to drive, you need to know how to start your car, how to steer it, how to accelerate and brake. You need to know what kind of gas you need, how to put gas in the tank, check tire pressure, check oil levels, etc.
The same is true for a home, in particular if you like to maximize your energy savings. You need to know when to change or clean which filters and when to schedule service appointments for what equipment. You will have to program and monitor your thermostat and other monitoring equipment. You should become familiar with the basics of indoor air quality (IAQ) and learn the basics about moisture management.
Owning a home is not a hands-off operation! There is no chauffeur. You need to drive if you intend to maximize your energy savings, assure the durability of your home and systems, and maintain a healthy and affordable living space.
Has the cabin fever set in by now? If so, let me lead a quick expedition into the hot and muggy summer months. Even though we may yearn for summer heat at this time of the year, once it is upon us, we are rapidly looking for ways to keep cool. How do you keep cool?
You could argue that any ceiling fan would do a good job as it is most likely to operate more efficiently than a conventional air conditioning system. This comparison is somewhat unfair as the product of air conditioning is different from that of a ceiling fan. But then again, humanity is famous for buying products that are non-essential.
We needed to make a decision about what ceiling fans we should acquire for our deep energy retrofit. I started by looking at the extremes. On one end there is the $25 product, cheap but flimsy, “delightfully” humming along while it moves air (for all those lovers of white noise), and dumping the one thing from the motor and light that we want the least – heat.
On the opposite spectrum is … well, other than expensive, I don’t really know. This is a good time to consult the EnergyStar product list for ceiling fans.
EnergyStar rates the efficiency of ceiling fans by how much air they move (cubic feet per minute or cfm) with one watt of energy. If you download the list of certified ceiling fans in Excel format, you can easily sort for the most efficient EnergyStar certified models. Here is a summary of the top three contenders as of February 2014:
There are plenty of other efficient ceiling fans on the EnergyStar list. But after my big time-waste tracking down an EnergyStar efficient range hood, I acquired an attitude. If I can’t find a product listed on the EnergyStar list in a simple online search, I move on.
Back to the top three contenders that were all easy to track down. The Haiku and MidwayECO are built with the efficient and very quiet electronically commutated motors (ECM’s). I assume that the Aeratron is also powered by an ECM, but couldn’t find corroborating information in the specifications.
The Aeratron is a ceiling fan unit only, while the Haiku can be fitted with a 1,500 lumen LED light module. The Midway ECO comes with a light module that takes four LED or CFL bulbs with the GU24 pin base. Tthe typical light output would be around 3,600 lumens. The Haiku can be dimmed as can the Midway ECO, as long as dimmable LED or CFL’s are used.
Prices for the models vary widely as of February 2014:
Haiku from $825 to $920
Midway ECO from $476 to $529
Aeratron from $224 to $349
Because we need dual functionality from our ceiling fans (air movement and light), the Midway ECO emerged as the best contender, even though it is still a very pricey piece of equipment.
I needed more rock wool insulation – a whole lot more. It’s for the second floor exterior walls and the attic.
My primary rock wool supplier, the Chicago Green Depot, went out of business about a year ago. I needed to find a new supplier!
Back in the day, the Chicago Green Depot had the best priced rock wool. I got the last batch in early 2012 for around $35.00 per bundle (60 square feet of 3 1/2 inch rock wool batts). All other sources I contacted, including your typical big box home improvements stores, always came in more expensive.
This time around, April 2013, didn’t seem to be any different. The Home Depot had the bundle of rock wool listed for around $43.00! I thought, though, that it couldn’t hurt to double check the pricing for 120 bundles at the Pro-Desk in my local store.
The printout I was handed listed a total of $3,340.80. That breaks down into a unit price of $27.84 per bundle plus tax (or $0.13 per board foot). That is a considerable price drop from the listed $43.00 … around 35%! This is even less that the first batch I bought for the basement installation.
Do I need to say that I was a very happy camper?
Why that 35% price drop? If I go to the Home Depot and place an order over $2,500, I am referred to – what they call – the bid room. Because I am buying in bulk, I have access to a different pricing structure. That said, I would be surprised if that 35% discount will last for long; this may be part of a current promotion.
The significance is that this is the first time that I bought a substantial amount of building materials from a typical big box home improvement store. Materials for a deep energy retrofit like ours were in the past not available, hard to get special orders, and/or too expensive.
Is this a sign that green building materials are on their way into the mainstream?
I found out that low odor does not mean odor free. Don’t get me wrong – it is not obnoxious. In fact, it is really nice to paint without being engulfed in the fumes of other conventional paints that still contain some level of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). But, as I said, it is not odor free.
While I was in the store, waiting for the color to get mixed, I browsed through the various rollers that were on display. I picked up a rather pricy one to give it a try.
To my surprise, it lasted through the entire paint job, and it still in such good shape that I probably will use it on the second floor. Compare that to the cheap rollers I started with. They lasted for one day and had to go into the trash.
That got me thinking – about the trash we produce because we fall for a lot of cheap stuff. Plus, economically it made sense to get the expensive but good quality roller. By now it has paid for itself, outlasting God knows how many cheap rollers.
It is also a microcosm of what happens with green buildings and deep energy retrofits like ours. A lot of people shy away from the green or more energy efficient option because it appears so expensive when compared the the conventional (cheap) options.
But if green building technologies are executed wisely, they begin to pay for themselves – and may even begin to save some real money at the end.
Wow, I really had a lot to say about painting – didn’t I?