As people become more aware of climate change and other environmental issues, homeowner demand for resilient, sustainable, and energy-efficient design is growing. The benefits of a lower energy home include saving money on utility bills, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving occupant comfort and wellbeing, and reducing energy demand on overloaded power grids. But where is the best place to start improving your home’s performance? What if you aren’t planning a new build and just want to make improvements to the house in which you’re already living?
It’s more straightforward to incorporate sustainable products and systems into new construction, but making improvements to existing buildings is possible as well. The first step one should take is to become more aware of the energy efficiency of the home. Refer to the US Department of Energy’s website on Home Energy Assessments for information. If you don’t have the resources or knowledge to figure out now your current home operates and what the performance baseline is on your own, then you can hire a professional to perform a residential energy audit assessing your home. While there is a cost to hiring a professional, they have the expertise to help identify the most effective home upgrade strategies so you can start realizing paybacks sooner.
If you prefer to evaluate the performance of your existing home on your own, begin by understanding the building envelope, which is comprised of the concrete slab on grade (either the basement or lowest level), outer walls, windows, exterior doors, and roof. Have you noticed any air leaks, or do you experience significant heat loss in parts of the home during cold seasons? Adding or upgrading the insulation can make a huge difference, as can replacing weather stripping around windows and doors to reduce drafts. If your house is uncomfortably warm in summer, reflective films can be applied to windows to reduce solar heat gain. There are inspections that can be done by professionals to review your existing insulation levels and compare them to today’s codes. Take a look at the Energy Star Seal and Insulate Program for more information about how to seal your home effectively.
Are there significant issues with your old windows and doors? Consider replacing them. Recent advances in materials and installation methods will help keep your home comfortable while saving money on heating and cooling bills. (Keep an eye out for our blog coming up in the next couple of months that’s all about windows!)
Is your roof in need of replacement soon? Install light colored shingles instead of black or charcoal gray. As we know, dark materials absorb more sunlight, and all that heat radiating down into the house forces your cooling system work harder to keep the house comfortable, while a light colored material can help reduce the amount of heat gain in the house. Check to make sure insulation levels in the attic are adequate and there aren’t any gaps. Confirm that a vented attic is venting properly to the exterior.
Next, look at the home’s major systems, including the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, hot water tank, and household appliances. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), 51% of a home’s annual energy consumption is dedicated solely to heating and cooling a home; water heating, lighting, and refrigeration consume 27% of energy use; and the remaining 21% goes to other appliances and devices (EIA 2015 Survey Data). Therefore, a generally reasonable rule of thumb is to consider replacing or upgrading any system that’s more than ten to fifteen years old. If your home’s systems are older, then you can likely expect to see big jumps in performance and energy savings right away when you upgrade to more efficient systems.
If you’re replacing appliances or other equipment, look at resources like Energy Star. Energy Star rated equipment appliances use approximately 20% less electricity than standard models while matching performance. If you can’t afford to replace all of your appliances, focus on the ones that use the most electricity. A dishwasher or clothes dryer will use more energy than a refrigerator or freezer, so replacing those first can make a bigger difference in your monthly bills. There may also be government tax credit incentives to offset the costs of your home upgrade project(s).
Also, consider renewable resources for supplying electricity to in-home systems and appliances, such as roof-mounted solar panels. The upfront cost of installing solar is obviously higher than replacing appliances, but advances in technology have made solar much more affordable than it used to be, and tax incentives help realize payback on investment more quickly. If you are thinking about installing solar panels, get an estimate of how much energy you use annually. A reputable installer can help you determine the best panel configuration for your home and calculate how many kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity the system will produce. Installers can also help you navigate tax credits, financing programs, and any other rebates or utility incentive programs. If you have the space, consider installing a solar water heating system as well, which can lower your water heating bill by nearly half.
Here are a few other easy ways to make your home more sustainable and efficient:
- Install a programmable thermostat to regulate the temperature of your home while you’re away.
- Consider swapping out fuel-powered home maintenance equipment like mowers, leaf blowers, etc, for electrical options with rechargeable batteries.
- Switch to energy-efficient light bulbs like LEDs, which can help lower your energy bill significantly. Also, be sure to turn off lights and appliances when they’re not in use.
- When renovating, use sustainable finishes with limited or zero VOCs and try to use recycled materials instead of buying new ones.
- Plant trees and shrubs near windows to screen sunlight, to help lower heat gain inside. If you live in a location with colder winters, consider deciduous plants that will allow sunlight to naturally brighten and warm interiors in winter.
Living in a more sustainable and resilient home is about making smart choices for the future, and there are many strategies to choose from. Whether the goal is to save money on future utility bills, help protect the environment, or adapt your home to better endure changes in climate conditions–a more sustainable home will pay off in the long run.