it all it's cracked up to be?
by Deborah Huso,
When I began planning for the
construction of my new home three years ago, energy efficiency was high on
my priority list. Like most rural homeowners, I was frustrated by high
utility costs, but I also knew, as a long-time writer for the home building
industry, that 50 percent of U.S.
global warming emissions can be attributed to the building sector, according
to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
While I wouldn’t call myself a “tree hugger,” I knew I wanted to do my
best to have a building project with a minimal environmental footprint and a
home that would give me big energy savings for the long-term. Little did I
know then that what looks good and “green” on paper doesn’t always
perform in practice.
My first step was cutting my energy
bill. In my previous home, I relied on an oil furnace as the main heat
source, spending as much as $240 a month on fuel in the coldest months and
sometimes close to $100 a month on electricity for a very modest
1,200-square-foot house. So when I broke ground on my new home in 2005, I
decided to install a geothermal HVAC system. Because geothermal uses heat
from the earth to warm one’s home, relying on no fuel oil or gas and
purportedly very little electricity, it seemed like a no-brainer for saving
on energy consumption. Today, I have no fuel oil bill, and my worst electric
bill yet in the new home (for a grueling February with temperatures
regularly dipping below zero), was about $250 for a house twice the size of
my old one. So am I sold on the benefits of geothermal HVAC systems? Well,
not quite ...
Hank Almond, who manages territory in
the Mid-Atlantic for WaterFurnace International,
says that while most homeowners can expect to pay one-and-a-half to three
times more for installation of a geothermal HVAC system over a more
conventional heating-and- cooling operation, they can expect cost savings of
30 percent to 70 percent on their utility bills.
Too good to be True?
All of this sounds too good to be
completely true, and it can be if your geothermal contractor isn’t
thorough or fails to take into consideration home elements that can
compromise a furnace’s efficiency — like lots of windows, cathedral
ceilings, and fireplaces, all of which I have in my home. In order for me to
keep my home comfortable in winter, I have to place the thermostat at 75 to
76˚F. Anything less and I feel persistently chilled, as geothermal heat
pumps don’t provide the warm blast of air you may be accustomed to with a
gas or oil furnace. And when temperatures go below freezing, my geothermal
unit’s electric back-up heat kicks in, which sends my utility costs up
Almond tells me, “You’re an example
where a little larger system might have helped you on heating efficiency.”
Typically, a geothermal system’s electric back-up shouldn’t kick in
until temperatures dip into the teens to low 20s. I wish I could say my
system worked that way, but it doesn’t, especially when high winter winds
bring wind-chill factors below zero.
However, I’m still better off
cost-wise than I would be with an oil or gas furnace. But since
doesn’t offer green tax credits, I won’t get a payback on the extra cost
for this system for maybe a decade. So I’m not quite ready to pat myself
on the back just yet.
Of course, there are thousands of other
ways to go green — buying sustainably harvested lumber, upping the ante on
your insulation, installing the most energy-efficient windows and doors you
can afford, purchasing energy-efficient appliances. The list goes on and on,
but how much do all these efforts really save on your energy usage and in
reducing global climate change? It depends.
It won’t do the planet a darn bit of
good if you purchase sustainably harvested lumber for your home if that
lumber is coming from halfway around the world. I did the right thing in
purchasing locally and regionally harvested cherry and maple for floors,
cabinets, and trim, but in a misguided effort to save additional money and
“protect the planet,” I also purchased sustainably harvested Amendoim, a
tough, tropical hardwood, for flooring in part of my home. Big mistake, I
later discovered, as far as cutting down on global warming goes, because the
wood came all the way from
Before you buy green products, consider
how those environmentally friendly items are getting to you. According to
the Environmental Protection Agency, trucks carry about 66 percent of all
freight shipped in the U.S., and rail accounts for 16 percent. The result is the consumption of 35
billion gallons of diesel fuel a year, which accounts for some 350 metric
tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, not to mention
the release of nitrogen oxides, which produce smog.
And if your building products are
arriving by air or ship (as my hardwood floors did), the situation isn’t
any better. Bunker fuel in ships has 5,000 times more sulfur than diesel,
and air transport is by far the worst greenhouse gas emitter of all. Thus,
the impacts of shipping green materials will often outweigh the benefits.
Buy locally whenever you can.
This isn’t to say the green building
buzz is all hype. It isn’t. I’ve certainly benefited, both in terms of
saving on energy and maintenance costs and in building a little more
sustainably, by siding my home in fiber cement (which should last till I die
anyway), putting on a commercial-grade steel roof that should never have to
be replaced, installing composite decking that requires almost zero
maintenance, and using local stone in my foundation and chimney.
Do Your Homework
The important thing is to view building
products touted as “green,” “sustainable,” and “energy
efficient” with a critical eye. Even items that do meet tough
environmental standards can lose their Earth-friendliness under closer
examination. Whatever you do, don’t rely on a “green” sales pitch
alone. Do your homework. Look for the Energy Star label on appliances or
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified labels on lumber and wood
products. But even these labels can be misleading. I bought an
energy-efficient refrigerator, and its energy-efficient fan died in less
than a year. So that fan had to be replaced with a conventional one that
will probably last me 20 years, but the fridge is no longer energy
efficient. Read customer reviews. There are plenty available online these
Transportation emissions and fuel usage
have a huge impact on the environment, as do a lot of manufacturing
processes. Make sure you know how and with what your building products were
constructed, and try to minimize the transportation needed to get them to
you. And, if you can, try before you buy. Heap abuse on the environmentally
friendly cork flooring in the showroom — see if it will stand up to the
same wear and tear as porcelain tile. Go check out the composite decking in
(where it’s been installed for about 15 years now) or on your neighbor’s
back porch and see if it really does stand up to the weather over the long