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Energy efficient homes can be a dicey topic because some of us avoid discussing the environment at all costs.
Because let’s face it:
Even though most people have a vague desire to do something to help (or at least not do anything to harm), they can still feel uncomfortable talking about it.
But the good news is:
We’re getting better at talking about the environment, and much of it has to do with the environment itself. We’ve realized that humans have a lot of impact on the world, and we want to make sure it’s a good impact.
And even though we know that one individual alone can’t reverse the course of earth, we still know that collective action matters.
Human Impact On The Environment
In 1992, 1700 independent scientists, including the majority of living scientific Nobel laureates, issued a dire warning about the environment. They urged humanity as a whole to curtail environmental destruction and cautioned that:
“a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”
In 2019, we now have even more specific information about what “vast human misery” can mean.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released a report on their findings on the environment. They concluded that the world is 1º Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels.
That has big implications for the environment, like:
- Risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, and human security
- Risks of droughts and rainfall shortages
- Risks to crops and livestock
Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?
But don’t worry — I’m not here to scare you. But before we look at solutions to a problem, we have to understand it first!
By now, you’ve most likely heard about the ozone layer. But what is that and why does it matter?
Basically, we know the sun is great but dangerous.
You look like a lobster when you come back from vacation because of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Fortunately for us, Earth is a bit different than other planets.
Unlike Mercury, which looks like Swiss cheese as a result of being constantly pounded by space rocks, Earth has an atmosphere. For example, most rocks that approach us on-target burn up (although not always!)
Another thing the atmosphere does well is protecting us from those ultraviolet rays.
And the ozone layer is the part of the atmosphere that does that the most. So it’s good to keep handy.
Sometimes, what’s outside of earth (like ultraviolet rays) is just as important as what’s in it.
Greenhouse gases are like that.
On their face, they’re not bad — but too much of them can be. Like sugar, medicine, or ska music, dosage matters.
Some examples of greenhouse gases are:
- Carbon dioxide (CO2) is put into the atmosphere from things like fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil), solid waste, trees, and wood products.
- Another famous source of CO2 is you! Humans are an important part of the biological carbon cycle, as we breathe in oxygen produced by plants and breathe out carbon dioxide.
- Methane (CH4) is produced by some of the same processes as CO2, but also by livestock, some agricultural practices, and landfills.
- Nitrous Oxide (N2O) is produced through a combination of agriculture and the use of fossil fuels.
- Fluorinated gases are synthetic gases, and particularly strong. So they’re sometimes referred to as High Global Warming Potential (GWP) gases.
So with greenhouse gases, the main concern is the overabundance of them, how long they stay in the atmosphere, and how they affect the atmosphere.
The fact is:
Despite the Industrial Revolution making us capable of providing more for a larger amount of people, bigger machines, bigger factories, more cars, and more humans are impacting the environment more strongly than humans historically have.
Because we can’t make breathing illegal, many have taken aim at cars to reduce carbon emissions.
According to Transport and Environment, transport is the single largest source of carbon emissions for Europe. It comprises 27% of the EU’s total emissions.
The EPA says that in America, a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. So clearly our vehicles do more than get the kids to soccer practice!
The bad news is:
Cars are one of the biggest offenders against the environment, and they’re a necessary part of life right now. But they’re not the only source of troubling emissions.
Methane from cows
According to How Stuff Works, agriculture accounts for 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. Given a huge demand for meat in America, cows remains essential to agriculture.
Through burps and farts (yes, you read that right) cows can contribute a high amount of methane — some estimate as much pollution as a car produces in a day.
Why it’s important
We’re not done yet.
But we just went through a lot of information. And it’s important to ask why.
Here’s the deal: There is absolutely no point in owning or building energy efficient homes if you don’t know why.
Here’s the truth:
Though some may see energy efficient homes as a fad or a trend, there can be real benefits to your life from owning one. And furthermore, it might take a lot of effort to change from your current lifestyle.
Do you want to do all that just to keep up with the Joneses?
Or would you like to brag about your home and educate your friends at the same time?
Yeah, we thought so.
So here are a few casualties of all this environmental damage.
Talking about the environment can seem abstract. It’s a big thing, including forests, oceans, and entire ecosystems.
So let’s get specific.
A village called Belushya Guba on the Novaya Zemlya islands in northern Russia has played host to over 52 polar bears in the past couple months. The polar bears did this for two major reasons:
- Wildly reduced levels of sea ice
- Tons and tons of garbage
Because of the ozone layer damage, greenhouse gases, and the enormous increase in the CO2 emissions we talked about, the ice where the polar bears hunt is melting.
So that means:
They raid the town to eat because the town’s garbage is available.
This story can be replicated the world over. From fish to deer to goats becoming addicted to human urine, humankind’s spread across the world hasn’t always been kind to animal habitats.
But it’s not all about the animals.
As you might imagine, these gases and environmental damage can have an effect on human health as well.
According to a UN study:
- Many infectious diseases, including water-borne ones, are highly sensitive to climate conditions.
- Changing climate can mean that diseases like malaria and dengue live longer and spread farther.
- Heat stress can make some work environments unreasonable, and that increase risk of cardiovascular, respiratory and renal diseases.
So even if you don’t care about animal habitats, you might care that what impacts the environment impacts human beings, too.
Let’s say you don’t care a bit about animal habitat, crumbling ecosystems, or diseases you’ll never get from places you’ll never go.
Most people still care about money.
To offset some of the costs of energy efficient homes, the government is willing to offer you tax credits to upgrade.
The Department of Energy says that you can save money by switching to energy efficient homes. Whether you’re building one out of whole cloth or making renovations to your current home, you’re almost guaranteed to keep more of your hard-earned cash.
Home Advisor puts it this way:
The beauty is that, no matter what you spend in the short-term, your costs are offset or completely recouped in the long-term in the reduction of your monthly energy bills.
Every time you look at the potential costs of energy efficient homes, you have to think of the sweet feeling of drastically reduced energy bills.
You can save the environment on the side.
And still, the nagging question lingers on your mind: Is it worth it?
What? Even after all those facts and statistics? You’re still on the fence?
Of course, it doesn’t work that way. A bunch of charts and tables don’t just make you decide you want to upend your living room.
I get it.
But would it help if I told you we can make it easier?
By now you’ve learned that the environment is in a bit of a pickle and that humans have a lot to do with it. But the good news is that we’ve also learned humans can have a lot to do with reversing it.
Scores of articles are published every year about the rate of earth’s decay and our rapidly changing environment. They encourage us to recycle, bicycle, and compost.
But energy efficient homes are for people who want to do something … BIGGER.
And we can show you how!
Energy Efficient Homes
Now that we know why you should build energy efficient homes, let’s talk about how.
Let’s face it:
Being a homeowner can be complicated, and upgrading can be even more so. So it’s best to know what you’re dealing with.
History of energy
According to a report by the Alliance Commission on National Energy Efficiency Policy, buildings of all types consume nearly 40% of the nation’s primary energy.
So in 1992, ENERGY STAR was created.
First, they started with rating the energy efficiency of smaller products and they later moved on to whole buildings.
ENERGY STAR is a voluntary labeling program and is run jointly by the EPA and DOE. Since 2000, ENERGY STAR benefits have more than tripled.
In 2011, Americans with the help of ENERGY STAR reduced their utility bills by an estimated $23 billion and prevented 210 million metric tons of GHG emissions, the equivalent to keeping 41 million vehicles off the roads.
You may have noticed the ENERGY STAR logo when you bought the appliances for your house.
When I worked in Best Buy, we often pushed customers toward ENERGY STAR-certified products. We did it because those products could save them lots of money down the line.
And listen to this:
One time, a customer tried to get us to name one delivery address and deliver the washer to another. As it turns out, she wanted a kickback that her town’s energy company offered for energy efficient appliances.
Also, that’s fraud, kids. Don’t commit fraud.
The point is that the rewards must be substantial.
Push for energy efficiency in the U.S.
Energy efficiency has become a big thing, but the big push for it came in the 1970s. California led the way with mandatory appliance efficiency standards and keeping their electricity and energy consumption per capita nearly constant since then.
It’s hard to have a direct comparison of how all 50 states are doing on energy efficiency, but we know that some of the best are:
If you don’t see your state up there, building energy efficient homes can help push it up the ladder.
Is An Energy Efficient Home Right For Me?
I can’t tell you if energy efficient homes are right for you, but I can tell you that you’ll have a lot of help.
Here’s the thing:
Between environmental activists, government programs, the advice of other homeowners, and of course, this guide — building energy efficient homes is almost universally seen as a good thing.
That means you won’t be alone.
Plus, you’ll have more than enough aid to make your project a success!
So let’s talk about some of the specific features you’ll want to focus on if you want to build an energy efficient home.
A geothermal heat pump or ground source heat pump (GSHP) is a central heating and cooling system that transfers heat to or from the ground.
With the core of the Earth being an estimated 6,000º C (about 10,800º Fahrenheit), the Earth provides a lot of heat on its own. So part of making your energy efficient home is going to include using natural resources instead of man-made ones.
As a geothermal installer said in Popular Mechanics, “You’re not making heat, you’re moving heat.”
One of the best things about a geothermal well is that its heat source is stable.
Do you hear that?
The Earth’s core certainly isn’t going to die in your lifetime, and that means you’ll only have to do it once.
Heating and cooling
With a geothermal well, it’s not just about the heating.
Because it uses the same technology as a refrigerator, it can remove the heat from a given environment, making your warm in the winter and cool in the spring/summer.
According to Popular Mechanics, you’ll be able to recoup your money through tax credits and savings on your monthly bill immediately.
And that’s good news:
In the long term, over a span of 10 years, the project will pay for itself entirely.
Everyone has an intuitive understanding of insulation. You may live in a drafty old building, where the walls do nothing to keep out the cold and keep in the heat.
Insulation is also related to your monthly energy bills, and if your energy is escaping out of your window or walls, they increase dramatically (and everyone had at least one parent who shouted at you to keep windows closed when the AC or heat was on.)
The point is that:
Even if you have a great heat/AC source like a geothermal well, it’s not going to matter a lot if your money is escaping through the walls.
The bad news is:
With old homes, it can be very difficult to seal them too tightly, making renovation necessary. However, if you’re thinking of building energy efficient homes, you can add it as a priority.
This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to seal up an old home.
Caulking and weather-stripping can stop air leaks and still improve the energy-efficiency of an old house.
According to SFGate Home Guides, leaking ducts can lower your home’s energy efficiency by up to 20%.
That makes intuitive sense.
If you had a pipe with a leak in it, less liquid would get where it’s supposed to go, making it less efficient. It’s the same with your air ducts, so it’s important to seal them up and save yourself energy and money.
And since heat rises, one of the most important places to insulate is going to be your roof.
Not only can fixing your insulation lead to a more comfortable home, but it can also deliver big savings.
The Department of Energy provides different guides for insulation, whether you’re building a new home or renovating an existing one.
So, much will depend on the type of insulation you use and the type of home you’re building/renovating. Some side benefits of proper insulation include:
- Reduced noise from outside
- Less pollen, dust and insects (or pests) entering your home
- Better humidity control
- Lower chance for ice dams on the roof/eves in snowy climates
So when building energy efficient homes, a focus on insulation is absolutely critical.
Remember that parent yelling at you about leaving windows and doors open?
That’s nothing compared to thermostat wars.
Lives have been ruined because two or more people have different ideas about comfortable temperatures (okay, not really.) But thermostats have a lot to do with your home’s efficiency as a whole.
Away from home
Here’s something easy:
Increase energy efficiency by turning your thermostat down when you’re away from the house.
In my hometown of Rochester, NY, we’re a little greedy about heat, and for good reason — it’s freezing! But even we can turn down the thermostat when no one is using it.
Longer is better
It seems pretty obvious, but the longer your thermostat remains at a lower temperature, the bigger your savings are going to be.
Not only that:
If you have a programmable thermostat, you can tell it to warm your place up at times when you’ll be using it — like when you’re awake or on your way home from work.
Remember the time
Thermostats change the temperature of the house, but they can’t make your heating system turn on a dime.
So if you want to maximize your benefits:
You have to think ahead. If you’re coming home, it may not have your house warm in 20 minutes, and it won’t cool down that quickly, either.
Tech Invasion: How Tech Changed Energy Efficiency Forever
Captain Obvious says:
Technology has changed the world we live in forever.
Sometimes this can be a good thing, and sometimes not. But we know that we can’t run away from it.
So here’s the question:
How can you make technology work for energy efficient homes?
Does your tech actually make your house more efficient?
As creepy as some people find it, there is loads of tech out there for controlling your home. From controlling your lights to your doors to your disco ball (I know you have one), the tech revolution has led to truly incredible advancements in our home lives.
And one thing we know for sure is that everything nowadays is smart.
Smart light bulbs
Smart LED light bulbs can be better and cheaper for your home. Instead of replacing and throwing out your old ones every few months, you can get the same light for a reduced cost.
Fun fact: You can also program them into different colors using Bluetooth or Wifi.
With an existing home, this can be as simple as replacing existing bulbs.
But if you want to build energy efficient homes, you can also start with this idea in mind! Homes.com claims you can save $75 annually by making this relatively easy switch.
And that’s not all:
Another great feature of controllable bulbs is that you can dim them when more light is not necessary, saving energy and money.
You can also avoid the nasty heat that can come with some light bulbs — which is especially important in the summer or in places with scorching weather.
Some of the biggest energy hogs in your home are your appliances, like your oven, dishwasher, washer, and dryer.
But there are options for these too, including:
This one will certainly change your relationship with Thanksgiving. When I worked at Best Buy, this was one of the most impressive machines we told customers about.
Imagine being able to cook a time-intensive meal like a full turkey without even having to be at your house.
You also won’t waste energy guessing the wrong temperature to cook at.
Some smart ovens can weigh your meal, understand the type of thing it is, and adjust to the correct temperature.
Nobody needs to know how to cook anymore.
You should probably connect this one to a smart outlet, though, to make sure you don’t burn the house down.
Getting a smart dishwasher can help you control the cycles and water usage of your dishwasher, reducing your energy costs.
You can also use a fast wash to reduce water usage for things that don’t need a deep clean.
This one is pretty obvious.
Your devices continue to use energy when plugged in.to your outlets. This can be great for your refrigerator (which needs to stay on) but not for your phone (which is already charged long before you wake up).
A smart outlet can help you with that.
By cutting off the power when you don’t need to use it, you’ll save big on your energy bills.
And that’s not the best part:
Smart outlets can also provide additional comfort, because if you think you left something dangerous on (like an iron), you could just turn it off from your smartphone at work.
We talked about thermostats before, but mostly in the context of manual ones. However, if you get a smart thermostat that’s capable of learning your routine and preferences, you’re looking at saving up to 30 percent on your energy bill.
Washers and dryers
ENERGY STAR is your friend when it comes to washers and dryers. By looking for that sticker, you’ll be able to tell which washers use water more efficiently and which dryers use more energy.
According to ENERGY STAR, certified clothes washers save on energy and water cost using about 40% less water and about 25% less energy than a regular washer.
Tech to the rescue!
Although switching to energy-saving tech will not be the end of your journey, it’s a great place to start.
Best of all:
It can be very helpful for homeowners without the means to do complete home renovations. Switching out thermostats, light bulbs, and appliances is, by definition, easier than a home makeover, and it will still get you some big results.
But if you’re looking to make a real splash, let’s talk about home improvement.
Any home project can seem like a massive undertaking at the start.
Whether hiring contractors or doing the work yourself, home renovation is not easy. However, there is one thing that always makes it easier: preparation.
Let’s go through some of the areas you can improve for your home’s energy efficiency.
Areas of improvement
Likely, the first step you’ll want to take before changing your home in any way is to consult a professional.
If you yourself are not a builder or contractor, they’ll tell you what you need to know. What kind of home you want to renovate/build will depend on multiple factors:
These are just some of the factors you’ll want to think about before any major changes. As for the inside of your home, that will come with a host of new challenges.
ENERGY STAR estimates that you can save up to 10% on annual costs by air sealing your home. The best steps to take is to decide what you want to fix, how much effort it will take, and the return on your investment.
Here’s what’s best:
Tackle the energy projects that will give you the most bang for your buck. Because air sealing affects your home as a whole, it’s almost guaranteed to save homeowners money when they do it. And the average cost is only $300 – $600!
Just like with thermostats, lighting can be fixed by manual changes to your habits (like turning lights off in unused rooms)
However, the Department of Energy also has suggestions for lighting your home for energy efficiency, including using halogen incandescents, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), and light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
These bulbs can be more expensive on the front end, but they save you money in the long run.
Water heating can account for up to 18% of your home’s energy use. So it’s important to think about.
For water, changing up your habits can make a ton of difference, including:
- Not leaving water running while brushing your teeth
- Taking shorter showers
- Using energy-efficient dishwashers vs. hand-washing
However, your water heating system also plays a role in your overall energy efficiency.
An option you might consider is a solar water heater, which can be used in any climate.
And the best part about a solar water heater is that the sun is free of charge, even though installing it won’t be.
Using a solar heater can cut your water heating costs by up to 50% and typically costs a little more than $1000.
If you’re looking to upgrade your energy efficiency, you can’t do it without focusing on all the money that slips right, well, out of your window.
Just by making this change, you could save $125 to $465 a year. Energy efficient windows cost $270 to $800 to install, so do the math.
If you’re making the high end of that money back, you’ll have a return on your investment in no time.
And maybe you don’t stop there:
You can even get windows triple-paned to increase your payback. And like all the other forms of air sealing and insulation, this will add to your home’s comfort in all seasons.
Replacing your doors is an important part of energy efficient homes. Some changes that you can make to your habits include just one:
- Close them.
But other than that, there are also exciting ways to make sure your door isn’t the problem child on your energy bill.
Though you probably know that doors can lose heat by air leakage around them, you may not be aware that direct conduction through the door frame can also result in heat lost.
Here’s what to do:
When building energy efficient homes, you should pick doors that are ENERGY STAR certified, and check out state guidelines to see if you’re getting your energy efficiency right.
Tracking Your Progress
So you’ve decided to make your home more energy efficient.
Let’s harness this enthusiasm (and, of course, energy to get the job done!)
How to track energy efficiency
After you make all these changes to your home, you’re probably going to want to know how you’re doing.
The truth is:
Tracking your efficiency is the only way to know whether you’re meeting your goals, or where your problem areas are.
But there are right ways and wrong ways to do it.
Do not simply compare
You would not compare the amount of heat you used in January to the amount you used in July. Homeowners can fall into similar traps with energy efficient homes.
Flat comparisons, without understanding the factors involved, won’t give you what you’re looking for.
Energy Lens has some suggestions when it comes to tracking your efficiency:
Do’s and Don’t’s
By now, you’ve probably realized that energy efficient homes can be complicated.
No matter which way you turn, you’re likely to get conflicting information on what you should or shouldn’t be doing.
So here are some helpful pieces of advice that will help you along.
Don’t go it alone!
Even though the advice you get might be confusing, it’s best to involve others in your energy efficient journey. Tips from other homeowners and professionals can be key, as well as reliable information from studies and industry experts.
Wash with cold water
This one is pretty simple.
Washing your clothes in cold water can save you up to $63 a year.
Use low-flow faucets
Using these can help you even further reduce your water costs.
Check and clean filters regularly
If your furnace is filthy, for example, it won’t run efficiency.
The same goes for most things in your home.
Regular maintenance, on its own, can help you increase your home’s energy efficiency.
Reduce water heater temperature
Doing this can help you save on costs, and nobody likes that friend’s house with scalding water, so it’s a win-win!
Keep your oven closed!
If you open the oven while baking, it will use more energy to bring itself back to the correct temperature. It will be ready when it’s ready, so keep it closed.
The same idea goes for your refrigerator.
Keep your refrigerator well-stocked
Surprisingly, fridges and freezers operate best when they’re full, so keeping them full of goodies can be good for your energy efficiency.
Just thing of all the yummy stuff waiting for you in there.
Don’t jack up the thermostat
If your house is cold, it won’t get any warmer by throwing the temperature up to a higher number. So, you might as well just place it at your desired temperature.
Use your appliances at night
This will reduce strain on the power grid and keep your house cooler.
And that’s not all:
It also means you won’t be competing for energy by using it at peak hours.
What You’ll Gain
The journey to energy efficiency can be daunting for any homeowner. And although we didn’t talk about it in this article, there are many homeowners that simply can’t afford to do it.
However, if you are one of those homeowners, and you can afford to build or renovate energy efficient homes, the results are astounding.
From the environmental impact to the energy savings, building energy efficient homes is a towering achievement that ends up being its own reward.
If you’re thinking of doing it:
You’ve already done the first thing.
You read this article!
Next, talk with your friends and neighbors — they probably have stories about the effect of energy efficiency on their own homes.
And they can help you.
When you’re more advanced, consult a professional to work out the details and figure out what type of energy efficient home is right for you.
And finally, as Nike says, just do it.
Building/renovating energy efficient homes is not the easiest task, but I think that if you commit to it, you’ll learn something and find that it was truly worth it.
Are you thinking of tackling an energy efficient project at home? Or have you done little things bit by bit? Tell us all about it in the comments!