Earth day was April 22nd, trees were planted and hugged, beaches were cleaned and everyone’s weekend newspapers were responsibly recycled. What now? Now what actions can an everyday homeowner take to make the built environment healthier, energy efficient, and create a positive impact on the world around us for years to come?
So many things can be done in the home to practice living sustainably and reducing impacts of climate change. Energy efficiency arguably the single easiest and most effective thing a homeowner can work towards “green”. When it comes to saving energy the low hanging fruit is heating and cooling the home. A standard home can lose up to 35% of heat or cool through walls and floors. Because of this, a home’s HVAC system is usually the highest energy user because It must compensate for these losses. Building a sustainable home starts and stops with air sealing. High efficiency appliances, LED lighting, and solar panels are important, but it is much better (and more cost effective) to conserve rather than to invest in alternative energy immediately.
Heat moves in three ways; convection, conduction and radiation. Convection is heat being carried by air, either warm or cold. Conduction is heat moving via transfer through a material. Radiation is the direct heat transfer via open space. In other words, If you can see the heat source line of site you can get radiant heat transfer. This is well explained by the fact that it is cooler in the shade. Most of the heated or cooled in a house is lost through convective heat transfer or air moving through some part of a building that it is not supposed to. For example, if an attic is poorly ventilated and the ceiling is not insulated properly, even the breeziest of houses will get excruciatingly hot in the summertime. If there is air flowing through a blanket of fiberglass (insulation), convection is reduced because it the fiberglass pulls the heat away before it passes through the ceiling or wall. However, if the seal is not good insulation won’t work well. Sealing works well because it addresses heat loss convection which makes the insulation work better. Sealing also works to make the air healthier because the environment is now controlled. Sealing is beneficial in reducing prevalence of indoor allergens too. Proper sealing reduces water vapor. Minimizing moisture passing through walls, floors and ceiling prevents rot and will extend the life of a building. Follow sealing with a great insulation job creates a bulletproof building envelope.
The next step in energy efficient living is installation of an ultra-efficient water heater. The right choice in water heater can save both water and energy. Traditional water heaters heat a huge tank and don’t put any pressure to the pipes. An old style hot water storage tank is why we need to wait a while for water to get hot. We don’t want to run a lot of water out of the tap when we have no water to waste! Do it yourself gurus beware! Many will try to install a new water heater, but it is not for armatures and can be done incorrectly. Leave this upgrade for the professional to solve.If sealing is done correctly, a high efficiency HVAC system will be one of the smallest energy users in the house instead of one of the largest. When shopping for HVAC, look for products that have the Energy Star rating. ENERGY STAR products are independently certified to save energy without sacrificing features or functionality. A good place to look is in the “Energy Star Most Efficient” report. This designation recognizes these heaters and air conditioners that are the most efficient product sampling those that are Energy Star certified.
Energy saving is gained by simply using less. Control plug loads and install ultra-high efficient appliances. Use technology to let your home do this on its own! Lighting can be a large or small part of a home depending on the size and impact. Retrofitting the bulbs with high efficiency LEDs and changing out switches for those that detect motion are easy changes. Check energy use on bulbs by looking at the energy star rating. Research some of the newer “smart home” technologies to manage your power draw automatically. There is so much available to reduce energy use. For reducing plug loads install smart strips to decrease power used by idol electronics. You know that little blue light always on when your computer is plugged in? Hit a “smart” switch and these “vampire loads” from electronics and chargers disappear. An example of a modern high efficiency appliance is a Condensing dryer.
Sustainable citizens often think “I want to do something super green and they quickly default to a super-efficient but expensive high tech house. You don’t have to go exotic. There is a good argument that you don’t need to get crazy and expensive to do high tech things, just employ the techniques mentioned in this article. If you do want to go ultra-efficient and non- traditional you can consider building with SIPS (structural insulated panel system). Straw bale construction with plaster is a great insulation though not seismically sound enough for compliance with California building code. Insulated concrete forms ultra-airtight and permanent insulation. Foam and steel framing panel systems work well but can be very costly. Always remember as you are building and remodeling that more efficiency equals less solar and more cost savings. Do these simple things to bring earth day into your home and environment every day of the year!