Efficiency: Honor the Old,
Embrace the New
Story by Jody Horton, Contributing Writer
Illustrations by Gil Adams
Some home improvement investments
the ones that reduce your utility bills are more important than ever.
Its pretty clear to see that the age of excess is over. We are all on our
way to becoming smart energy users if not outright misers. Our aim here is
to provide a brief overview of projects, designs and products for increasing
home efficiency and comfort. Well look at old and new ideas, as well as
some emerging technologies that we hope to see on the market in the near
Some investments pay off better
than others. The first step in deciding
what's feasible for your home is to get an
energy audit or learn to perform an audit yourself. Well say it again: Get
an energy audit. Many cooperatives do energy audits or will guide you to
other professionals who do them. Audits vary in scope, but their primary
intent is to identify your problems and come up with solutions.
Often, some of the greatest
savings involve relatively low-cost repairs. This especially is the case
with older homes. For expenditures of $2,000 or less on weatherization, some
households can save more than $1,000 annually on electricity costs, experts
Before beginning weatherization or any other improvement
project, check with your co-op, local conservation officials and state
energy office. They can provide advice on local contractors and suppliers
and information on incentives and rebates available in your area.
Some Things Old
Your grandparents and great-grandparents knew what they
were doing. The design and orientation of their homes was crucial in
creating a comfortable living space before the advent of centralized heating
and cooling. Thanks to the current trend in green building, attention has
again been placed on these time-tested methods. Homes designed around the
conditions in which they are built not only use less energy, but also are
more comfortable. Consider some basic principles of design and orientation
from the following examples:
1. Homes designed for warmer regions emphasize shading and
passive ventilation. They are long and narrow, minimizing exposures from the
east and west where the sun is most direct. Homes designed for colder
regions (not shown) work to passively collect and preserve heat. They are
traditionally more compact in shape to minimize exterior surface area,
retain heat and reduce overall heating needs. Windows are minimal on these
sides for the same reason.
3. Porches and deep roof overhangs offer protection
against the harsh summer sun.
4. Awnings shade windows and walls in warm climates. To
passively capture heat in cold climates, windows are placed on the south
side of the house and aren't shaded by awnings or overhangs.
5. Deciduous trees shade the east and west walls in warm
climates. In winter, when trees lose their leaves, houses benefit from the
suns warmth. In cold climates, evergreen trees are planted as a windbreak
on the north/northwest side.
6. Higher ceilings allow heat to rise above occupants in
warm climates. In cold climates, ceilings are lower to keep heat where it is
7. Light exterior colors reflect the suns heat. Dark
exterior colors absorb the suns heat.
Some Things New
1. Sealing and insulating are not exactly new, but they
remain the most important step in improving a homes efficiency. Use
weatherstripping around windows and doors and caulks and spray foams around
window frames, pipes, fixtures and other gaps. Attic floor insulation is
typically the most cost-effective investment whether you do it yourself or
hire someone to do it for you. Dont forget to seal and insulate ductwork as
well. For the benefit of your health, consider using sealants that are low
in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and a form of formaldehyde-free
insulation. VOCs are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids and
include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term
adverse health effects.
2. Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are profoundly more
efficient than traditional incandescent lightbulbs, which waste up to 90
percent of the electricity they consume in creating heat. An estimated $25
to $45 can be saved per CFL over its lifetime. The newest generation of CFLs
is finally coming of age and even includes dimmable bulbs. Stick with 2700K
(Kelvin) lights Kelvin, a unit increment of temperature, measures the
color temperature of light sources for interiors to best match the warmth
of incandescent bulbs.
3. Programmable thermostats offer one of the easiest and
most affordable ways to save energy at home. They can save almost $200 per
year by reducing household heating and cooling at times when its not
Tankless water heaters save energy by operating only when hot water is
needed. They have the added benefit of taking up much less space, allowing
homeowners to partly reclaim closets taken up by bulky, traditional tanks. A
low-cost alternative is to add a tank blanket to existing water tanks so
they will lose less heat.
5. High-tech double- and triple-pane windows with
low-emissivity (low-E) coatings virtually invisible layers of metal or
metallic oxide that reduce the amount of heat that passes through the glass
are vastly more efficient than single-pane windows. For this reason,
replacing windows is often a top choice when considering major renovations.
Such windows are very expensive and should be much lower on your priority
list than good old caulking and insulation. For a low-cost alternative,
apply a low-E film to existing windows. It is effective both in reflecting
unwanted heat in summer and in retaining heat in winter and is widely
available as a do-it-yourself kit. Solar screens are still another choice
and particularly appropriate for large, scenic windows. Exterior
applications are far more effective in blocking heat.
6. Advanced direct-vent, sealed-combustion stoves have
revolutionized fireplaces in homes. Unlike conventional fireplaces, which
can actually lose more energy than they generate by drawing interior air up
the chimney, this new breed of stoves reaches about 90 percent efficiency.
Since the stoves are vented directly to the outside through a hole in an
exterior wall, there is no need to construct a chimney or run a freestanding
flue above the roofline. These stoves are available as inserts for existing
fireplaces and can be fueled by gas, wood or pellets.
Some Things Future
Advanced metering devices Many co-ops
currently use digital metering to record electricity use
problems on lines. Some meters have two-way communication. In the future,
such electronic communication tools will be more sophisticated so customers
can determine when they use the most electricity and where they might reduce
consumption. Time-of-day metering or rebates will probably be in effect to
discourage electricity use during peak hours. Appliances will be
programmable for use in non-peak hours.
2. Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) Home applications of
LEDs now are found mainly in flashlights and task lights. With a lifespan of
approximately 60,000 hours as compared to CFLs 10,000 hours and
incandescent bulbs 1,500 hours LEDs are a product with a great future.
The market is waiting for costs to decrease.
3. Thin-film solar photovoltaics
(PVs), like conventional PVs, convert sunlight into electricity. They
improve on conventional PVs by being lightweight, flexible and, most
importantly, far cheaper to produce. Expect to see a variety of home-related
products from several manufacturers in the next two to three years. Many
believe that the greatest advancements in future solar technology will
involve the use of quantum dots tiny semiconductors that use the unique
light-harvesting properties of nano-sized crystals. The science is
complicated, but the result is a theoretical doubling in efficiency
(estimations are as high as 65 percent) for quantum-dot solar cells as
compared to today's most efficient cells. Preliminary experiments suggest
that quantum dot cells could be produced with relatively low material costs.
4. Smart windows work a lot like those funny eyeglasses
that tint in the sun and then change back to clear indoors. In the case of
electrochromic windows electronically tintable glass that can be switched
from clear to darkly tinted, and vice versa the glass responds to an
electrical current that can be controlled by a switch, light sensors,
thermostats or even a motion sensor. New designs including ones that use
integrated solar cells to produce power promise greater efficiency. Thermo
reflective windows are activated only by heat, and, according to the
manufacturer, they are superior in stopping heat from entering a building.
Because they respond only to heat, the windows let in more heat (and light)
in cold weather and block it in warm weather. The manufacturer uses a
similar approach toward managing heat with an advanced thermo reflective
wall or cladding technology that can be programmed at the time of
manufacture to reflect heat at a specific temperature.
Go Green, $ave Green
With these Federal
Energy-Related Tax Incentives
Investing in renewable energy and energy-efficient home
improvement projects may help stimulate our economy and earn you some
energy-related tax breaks. The 2009 Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed in
February extended and added to many of the incentives existing before. These
incentives go into effect this year.
A tax credit is generally more valuable than an equivalent
tax deduction because a credit lowers your taxes dollar-for-dollar, while a
deduction lowers your taxable income.
The table at left reflects a summary of available federal
tax credits for energy-efficiency projects or purchases. For more detailed
information on federal energy-related tax incentives, visit
A few guidelines:
Unless otherwise noted, the tax
credit includes cost of equipment and original installation costs.
Must be for taxpayers principal residence.
Maximum for 2009 and 2010 for all improvements combined
is $1,500 (except geothermal heat pumps, solar water heaters, solar panels,
fuel cells and wind power systems, see table).
For tax purposes, the Manufacturers
Certification Statement and receipt are generally required. For Energy Star
products, save the label.
New home construction cannot claim credits for
windows, doors, insulation, roofs, HVAC (except geothermal), non-solar water
Verify all tax-related information with a tax advisor.
Do you qualify for the Federal Weatherization Assistance
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says weatherization
the process of sealing air leaks and properly insulating a home can
produce an average energy savings of $358 per year. Most people would like
to save energy dollars by making their home more efficient, but not everyone
can afford the improvements.
As a result of the federal stimulus package, DOEs
Weatherization Assistance Program is expanding with a goal of weatherizing 1
million low-income homes per year. Households with incomes at or below 200
percent of the national poverty level are eligible. For a family of four,
that's an income limit of $44,100.
Each house has different needs; the stimulus bill allows
an average of $6,500 to be spent on each home. Program participants receive
professional energy consultation that analyzes energy bills, a blower-door
test to locate air leaks and advice on how to be more efficient. Workers
then arrive to make energy upgrades like insulating walls and roofs, sealing
air leaks, and installing more efficient heating and cooling systems. For
details, visit www.eere.energy.gov/weatherization.
Information is also available from the Virginia Department
of Housing and Community Development. Visit www.vhcd.virginia.gov, or call
Nancy Palmer at (804) 371-7000.