… with energy improvements on my home?
This is probably the question I get most often.
Whether you are thinking about smaller improvements or bigger ones, like our deep energy retrofit, here are some guidelines on how to go about it.
The big picture
It is not just about energy improvements, but it is also about where you get the biggest bang for your buck. So let’s take a look at the big picture.
For more data go to: https://www.eia.gov/consumption/
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.
For more information on home energy audits go to: https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/home-energy-audits/professional-home-energy-audits
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.
For more information go to: https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/weatherize/air-sealing-your-home
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.