Cover Story

Give Your Home an Eco-Audit

Small changes can add up to a big savings!

by Deborah Huso, Contributing Writer

 

Do you want to live healthier, do your part to protect the environment, and save some money to boot? No need to call in the experts. Follow our simple checklists, and start saving on energy (and helping Planet Earth) today!

You’ve probably heard about energy audits. Many firms offer them to help homeowners cut down on energy usage and save money; but have you considered an eco-audit? In addition to helping you save on home energy costs, an eco-audit can also help you lessen your home’s environmental footprint, and you don’t have to spend a fortune to make an impact, either.

While eco-audits haven’t really hit the mainstream in the U.S. yet, there are a handful of firms in Virginia that offer them. Cville-Enviro in Charlottesville is one of them. General Manager Russell Edwards says you don’t have to be a tree hugger to have an interest in an eco-audit. “Our clients range from being ultra-sensitive to the health environment of their home to those who are just interested in energy efficiency and want a payback,” he says.

Cville-Enviro, like many organizations offering energy and eco-audits, is relatively new, having started as an outgrowth of Artisan Construction four years ago. “Clients of our construction firm were interested in green building,” Edwards explains, “but we saw a need for a service to existing buildings as well.”

Whereas an energy audit generally focuses on the technical aspects of a building, an eco-audit is more expansive and includes the way you live in your home. While improving your home’s energy efficiency may require some one-time steps to fix problem areas, becoming more eco-friendly often requires some lifestyle adjustments, too. But it’s not as intimidating as it sounds. Small fixes can often lead to big dividends. As Edwards points out, just sealing up leaky ducts in a home could increase an HVAC unit’s efficiency by as much as 30 percent.

Terry Logee, technology development manager with the U.S. Depart­ment of Energy, says the biggest environmental footprints homeowners make come from heating and cooling systems and air infiltration.

Other big draws on energy, often overlooked, include old appliances. “If you have a refrigerator that’s more than 10 years old, you’ll see a significant reduction on your energy bill if you update,” says Thomas Thompson, manager of the Virginia Energy Management Program with the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy in Richmond. Refrigerators and freezers can use up to 20 percent of a home’s electricity.

But you don’t necessarily have to hire a certified “eco-auditor” or seek out the advice of the experts to make changes that will help you save money and better protect the environment. Following is a checklist of things you can do in your home (and maybe even on your way to work) to help preserve our natural resources and decrease your carbon footprint.

Eco-Audit Checklist

Energy Conservation

• Is your HVAC system 10 years old or older? If so, you might benefit from replacement with a more energy-efficient model. Heating and cooling can use one-third to one-half of your home’s energy.

• Is your attic insulated and sealed? You can lose a lot of warmth and coolness through the roof. For the best energy efficiency, attics should have R-49 insulation, walls R-19, and crawl spaces R-25.

• Have you sealed up the space between your foundation and cladding? This is a much overlooked space for air leaks.

• Make sure there are vapor barriers on the ground underneath your crawl space and over the insulation in the attic. Moisture can reduce insulation’s effectiveness.

• Is air infiltrating around your windows and doors? Purchasing replacement energy efficient windows can be a big expense, but you can get low-E storm windows. You may also be able to cut down on air infiltration by sealing up the gaps with caulk or foam and hanging up heavy curtains or window shades.

• If drafts are coming in through electrical outlets and switches, you’ve got a leaky wall. Pull out the electrical boxes and insulate behind them.

• Check for old and deteriorating weather stripping and caulk around exterior trim, doors, and windows. Replace where it’s not holding up anymore.

• Replace old appliances with new ENERGY STAR models. If you can’t afford new appliances, make sure you only wash clothes and dishes with full loads. Don’t use hot water to wash. Keep your refrigerator and freezer full, as they run most efficiently this way. And get rid of that old deep freeze in the basement!

• Check the air filters in your heating and cooling equipment. Dirty filters can substantially cut down on the unit’s efficiency. Check and/or clean them at least once a month.

• Replace your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents or LEDs. They last five to 10 times longer and will save you anywhere from 30 to 75 percent on your electric bill in the long term.

• Invest in a programmable thermostat that will automatically adjust the temperature of your home when you’re away or sleeping. At the very least, keep the thermostat at 70 degrees or lower in winter and layer your clothing. Try to keep it 78 degrees or higher in summer. You can save up to 3 percent on heating and cooling costs for every change in degree on the thermostat.

• Get your electric meter wired to provide a read-out in your house so you can monitor your electric usage and see what appliances and activities are draining the most electricity. This will help you modify your usage.

• Turn off the lights, computers, television, and other small appliances when not in use.

• Take advantage of the sun. Use natural light to illuminate workspaces and provide warmth during winter days through south-facing windows. In summer, make sure west-facing windows have covering to keep out the sun’s heat.

• Cover wall- or window-mounted air conditioners when not in use so cold air from outside won’t infiltrate the home.

• Get a blower-door test to determine just how much air leakage is occurring in your home.

• Make sure your water heater is insulated, particularly if it is an unconditioned space. Also, insulate hot-water pipes in unconditioned spaces.

• Lower the temperature of your water heater as much as is comfortable, trying around 120˚F.

Water Conservation

• Install low-flow showerheads and low-flow toilets.

• Collect rainwater for irrigating your lawn and garden. This can be as simple as providing for your gutter system to empty into a cistern.

• If you must water the lawn, install an in-ground sprinkler system on a timer that waters early in the morning or in the evening so water doesn’t have the chance to evaporate. And, water deep so plants and grass establish strong, deep, root systems that can withstand the stress of summer droughts.

• Cut your lawn less frequently. Letting it get a little taller keeps it healthier, which translates into less watering, and will also save you on fuel costs for the lawnmower.

• Plant more flowerbeds, and reduce your lawn space. Use native plants that are acclimated to your climate and won’t require extra watering.

• Don’t buy multi-showerhead systems. They often use more water than a bath.

• If you have the space, line-dry clothes outdoors.

• Check for leaky toilets by putting food coloring in the tank. If you see the dye in the bowl, you’ve got a leak, and you can save hundreds of gallons of water a day by fixing it.

Healthy Living

• Don’t overseal your home. Venti­lation is necessary for air quality, so don’t get into a caulking frenzy and seal underneath lap siding for example (unless there are really large gaps), and make sure you have ventilation in your attic and crawl spaces to prevent moisture build-up and mold formation.

• Use environmentally friendly cleaning supplies. White vinegar and baking soda, for example, can do wonders for cleaning up and removing stains.

• Keep lots of house plants, as they help clean the air and remove toxins. Large pots also add beneficial thermal mass.

• Use native plants and grasses for landscaping, so you don’t have to rely on noxious chemicals to maintain a healthy lawn.

• On do-it-yourself projects around the house, be sure to use low- or no-VOC paints. Lots of materials for the home also have harmful formaldehyde-based adhesives, too — including carpeting, cabinets, and plywood/OSB. If you’re replacing any of these items or building, seek out healthier options and look for the GreenGuard seal.

Green Living

• Are you recycling? If not, start separating out your glass, plastic, paper, and other recyclables.

• Remember that transportation is a big consumer of energy. Car pool or use the public transportation system. Ride a bike or walk to work if it’s close by.

• Compost household waste like food scraps to prevent the amount of material going into landfills.

• If you’re remodeling or building, use Forest Stewardship Council-certified lumber or buy locally harvested wood. FSC certification means the wood has come from sustainably harvested forests.

• Use building materials made from recycled products to reduce waste. This might include kitchen countertops of recycled glass or carpet made from recycled carpet fibers.

• Buy locally whenever possible, whether it’s building materials or vegetables. The farther products have to travel to get to you, the more fuel and energy is consumed.

Edwards advises homeowners not to get overwhelmed by the details. “Most of our clients don’t fix everything at once,” he says. “They work on them over the long-term.” The best thing is to start with a few simple changes, then gradually add more changes as time and money allow. It’s not that hard to do some basic scouting out of your home’s eco and energy friendliness. “Stick your head in the crawl space and see what’s going on in there,” Edwards advises. “Does it smell musty? What condition is the ductwork in?”

Thompson agrees that small steps can make a difference, even something as simple as turning off the water heater when you go on vacation. He’s been involved in helping the Commonwealth of Virginia work on energy improvements at state facilities over the course of the last three years. “As a result,” he says, “we’re seeing millions of dollars of savings a year.”

Green Building

The green building movement is catching on across Virginia and the nation. Scott Sleeme, president of Mitchell Homes, notes that the movement’s ultimate goal is energy-efficient homes built with environmentally friendly products, employing building practices that promote sustainability.

Energy-efficient and sustainable building products are integral to this building process. What are some of these products and practices?

Advanced technologies like low-emmitance (low-E) glass coatings in windows and doors keep heat inside during the winter and outside during summer months, according to Sleeme. Laminate flooring mimics scarce hardwoods and is longer-lasting than any hardwood, vinyl, or carpet flooring. The use of vinyl siding and vinyl porch railing saves money on installation and maintenance.

House wrap is breathable, but acts as an air barrier to make the home more energy efficient, while also blocking rain from soaking the walls, which can lead to mold and rot. ENERGY STAR-rated appliances save on energy bills and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Other green-building features range from ultra low-flow toilets and advanced shower and sink faucets that reduce water to front-loading washing machines that use about 40 percent less water, Sleeme adds.

Engineered roof and floor trusses allow for more efficient use of raw materials by utilizing small-dimension lumber that might have otherwise gone to waste, Sleeme continues. This protects old-growth forests. Engineered trusses also eliminate the need to cut additional wood at the jobsite, further reducing waste. Oriented strand board (OSB) is another engineered product that does not require large trees for its manufacture. OSB also enhances durability and is used to sheathe subfloors, exterior walls and roofs, according to Sleeme. Use of increased R-value and sprayed cellulose insulation is a cost-effective way to save energy and help reduce costly heating and cooling bills, which account for at least half of all energy used in a home.

Sleeme will be one of the first builders in the country to earn the National Association of Home Builders Certified Green Profes­sion­­al (CGP) designation. The designation recognizes builders, remodelers and other industry professionals who incorporate green building principles into their homes without driving up the cost of construction.

Resources for More Info

Your local rural electric cooperative publishes its own list of energy-saving tips. For access to your member cooperative and ideas for saving energy and protecting the environment, visit the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives online at: www.vmdaec.com

The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, whose mission is to enhance the development and conservation of energy and mineral resources in a safe and environmentally sound manner, offers The Virginia Energy Savers Handbook online at: www.dmme.virginia.gov

ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy geared towards helping consumers save money and protect the environment through energy- efficient products and practices. ENERGY STAR’s  home-improvement guidelines are available online at:  www.energystar.gov

SAVE 30-75%

Replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs or LEDs can reduce electric bills from 30 to 75 percent over bulb life.

SAVE up to 30%

Reduce your heating and cooling costs by as much as 30 percent with proper insulation and air sealing techniques.

 

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