Tag Archives: energy efficiency

Stretch Your Budget the Furthest

By Brad Fletcher, Energy Analyst 

When a homeowner engages in energy efficiency upgrades on their home, the list of possibilities can sometimes feel exhausting. Unlike a kitchen upgrade or the addition of a bedroom, a whole house energy efficiency plan may be designed and executed over an extended period of time. An energy professional will help homeowners find the incentives and/or rebates available for the upgrades they recommend. Homeowners, with the help of an energy professional, typically develop a hierarchy of upgrades based on the cost effectiveness of each improvement for the home. Here are a few to start with:

Air sealing and insulating the home is an investment ranging from $50-$2000. Keeping the heat in and the cold out makes practical sense and is often the upgrade that stretches the homeowner’s dollar furthest.

Replacing the lighting with higher efficiency bulbs such as Compact Fluorescent Lighting (CFL) or Light Emitting Diodes (LED) can cost between $5-$50 per fixture and result in a short payback period making this investment a no brainer.

In a typical home, the heating and air conditioning system(s) consume the most energy and cost the most to operate. Upgrades to the HVAC system can result in considerable savings. Improving the mechanical system can include duct sealing, thermostat replacement, cleaning and tuning or in some cases, replacement with a more efficient system.  These improvements can range from $50-$3000 depending on the size of the home and extent of improvements.

Replacing water fixtures may seem like an unlikely way to save energy, but installing low-water usage or aerated fixtures in your kitchen and bathroom will reduce the amount of hot water needing to be generated by a home’s water heating system. Improving the efficiency of faucets and shower heads can range from $2-$200 and save both energy and water.

Older kitchen appliances can consume much more energy than newer, Energy Star rated appliances. Replacing old appliances that have become one of your home’s largest energy hogs will not only cut your total energy cost, but improve the look of your kitchen as well! A combination of dishwasher and refrigerator replacement range from $1500-$3000.

While there are abundant opportunities to improve the efficiency of an existing home, there are even more possibilities that exist in new home construction. This is due to both the technology that can be applied during the construction process as well as the ‘blank slate’ approach where builders can utilize more stringent standards and design features to improve the energy efficiency of your house. When constructing a new home, be sure to speak with your builder about how they can help reduce the cost of operating the home.

If you’re building a new home or doing energy upgrades to your current home, an energy professional can work with contractors and homeowners to calculate which upgrades provide the homeowner with the biggest bang for their buck. Beautiful light fixtures and stunning floor coverings are amenities you are able to see every day while energy efficiency is an amenity you can also feel and see on your monthly utility bills. With a wide range of upfront investment possibilities, energy efficiency is the only investment that will pay you back!

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How Tight is Too Tight? (Part 2)

Our last blog post highlighted some of the indoor air quality issues that may be present in energy efficient homes. You may have felt somewhat discouraged to learn that tight building construction, a process that is very good for conserving energy, may not be as good for indoor air quality.

Modern construction methods typically include stricter air-sealing requirements and engineered wood made with lots of formaldehyde-containing glues that release that harmful gas and others when the wood gets warm. One obvious solution to this conundrum is to use non-toxic building products, a technique some builders embrace. With safer products that release fewer chemicals into the air, a tightly built home will be a better place for humans and pets to live. If buyers insist on energy efficient homes that are certified to contain very low levels of potentially toxic materials, the builders will respond by marketing homes certified to a green building standard. The responsibility would then lie with the homeowner to furnish the home with items known to contain few or no harmful chemicals so the home remains toxin-free once they move in.

Green homes and green furnishings are a great start, but there’s more to the story. The ideal ‘green’ home will have a fresh air ventilation system that filters and conditions outside air before it reaches the air handler. Often known as ERV systems (short for energy recovery ventilation), these HVAC components heat incoming cold air with hot combustion gases being exhausted out of the building during winter. As heating cold air uses more energy than cooling warm air, an ERV system makes perfect sense in most climates. The challenge most homeowners face is that these systems are not widely used and therefore expensive. As more homeowners request ERVs, and demand for the product increases, the cost for adding an ERV to a home will become more affordable.

Until the day when all of us can afford an energy recovery system, opening windows to let the contaminants out is one option. Another option, especially for properties in an urban area, is to add activated charcoal air filtration to reduce the level of gases in a building, either as a stand-alone system or to an HVAC air plenum. Activated charcoal effectively absorbs many gases, and combined with a high efficiency HEPA filter, can provide very good indoor air quality. 

If you have concerns about the level of airborne gases or particulates in the air of your home or office, contact an indoor air quality professional who offers an assessment that includes comprehensive measurements and not just an air test for mold spores. You will learn a lot about what is in your air. The solutions presented above will help you understand how to properly address many of the issues identified during the assessment. 

How Tight is Too Tight? (Part 1)

Craig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group (ESG) in 2002 to provide impartial evaluation of properties relative to environmental health and safety. An important part of all indoor air quality evaluations conducted by ESG is measuring the level of airborne gases and particulates that can impact the health of occupants.

Imagine having a house or office that is so energy efficient, undesirable elements to include bacteria, dust and gases such as carbon dioxide or formaldehyde are trapped inside. ESG’s environmental investigators frequently record elevated levels of airborne chemicals and gases in new homes owned by someone who has called us because a family member is having health symptoms commonly associated with mold. They are often very surprised to learn that the culprit is not mold, but elevated levels of gases that are causing them to have watery eyes, a scratchy throat, or a feeling that they are always coming down with a cold.

Before you regret having bought an energy efficient home or decide you will avoid owning one, understand that an efficient building is not necessarily a less healthy building. Many energy efficient designs include sophisticated mechanical systems that provide fresh air ventilation designed to minimize ‘stale’ air. In addition, if your energy efficient home has also been verified as a ‘green’ home, the building products contain fewer chemicals. This greatly reduces the possibility that your home has unsafe levels of unhealthy gases, especially if your furnishings are also ‘green’.

A significant challenge, however, is the new home constructed to meet the building code. These newer houses have to be constructed to the current state energy code, and the builders often refer to them as energy efficient houses in their marketing materials. Often lacking fresh air ventilation on the HVAC equipment and containing building products loaded with chemicals such as formaldehyde, these homes are indeed energy efficient but come with a significant price – the health of those who live in them.

My training with the Building Performance Institute (BPI) taught me how to evaluate air tightness and the level of carbon monoxide that can build up inside a tight building. This is very important on weatherization projects, where older homes with natural gas appliances are air-sealed and insulated. Make the house too tight and carbon dioxide (CO) can build up to a deadly level. This is especially true around the holidays, when family and friends are visiting and the gas stove, furnace, gas fireplace logs and hot water heater are running more than usual.

While a new, all-electric home is not nearly as likely to suffer from high CO as a home with natural gas service, the house can still have elevated levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases from volatile organic compounds. These gases can rob the air of oxygen and make people feel lethargic. We often hear comments like “I feel like I need to take morning and afternoon naps” in houses or offices where the level of CO2 exceeds 1000 ppm. This is more common than you may realize, and while CO2 is not considered a dangerous gas, it can make people feel ill.

You may wonder if opening windows is the solution to indoor gas build-up. Allowing fresh air into a building can be beneficial but can also bring in undesirable elements – especially when the environmental conditions outdoors are not ideal. Allowing cold air into a home on a winter’s day, for instance, may lead to occupants turning up the heat in order to be comfortable, which will increase energy costs, produce more CO (if a gas furnace), and create more greenhouse gases.

I will post more on this topic later in the week, so visit again to learn about solutions for poor indoor air quality in tight buildings.

 

Aside

As we head into winter and high heating bills, many homeowners will be tempted to get some help with their house in an effort to decrease their energy costs. We see contractors and utility companies advertising their ‘free’ energy analysis, … Continue reading

Steve Armstrong in the NCEEA Blog

The North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance has written a blog item about ESG’s Steve Armstrong.

Attic Stairs May Be Your Biggest Energy Loss

How many readers of this blog have pull-down stairs to their attic or know someone who does? You are probably not going to believe how much energy is wasted when the stairs are not insulated to match the rest of your attic.

For illustration purposes, let’s use an attic with 1000 square feet of ceiling area. There is R-38 insulation everywhere except the 10 square feet of the attic pull-down stairs. Maybe you have some of the fiberglass batts shoved between the stairs – we see that in about half the houses we assess when conducting home energy audits. The other half of the pull-down stairs have no insulation. With the latter situation being quite common, let’s figure out the likely R-value for the 1000 SF attic. With 990 SF at R-38 and 10 SF at a generous R-1 value, the whole attic R-value drops to R-28.

Because of the 1% of attic that is not insulated, the average R-value for the attic is decreased by a whopping 27%.

Why such a huge drop, you ask? Although the attic pull-down stairs account for only 1% of the total area, the rate heat passes through the stairs is 38 times the rate it passes through the rest of the ceiling. Therefore, it’s like having 380 SF of uninsulated ceiling when 10 SF of attic stair is not insulated.

I need to mention that we are only addressing how heat passes through the attic stair surface, not the additional heat that passes through gaps around the edge of the stairs. A building envelope has both insulation (to limit heat flow by conduction through building materials) and an air barrier to stop leaks.

Attic pull-down stairs with no insulation

The learning lesson here is to find a way to insulate your attic stairs. It’s as easy as constructing or buying an attic stair cover or placing rigid foam insulation on the wood surface. Just be sure to cover the entire surface area of the wood.

The same stairs with a minimal amount of batt insulation

Local Homebuilder Ron Ricci Achieves the NAHB’s Emerald Certification

Our builder partner Ron Ricci, owner of Ricci Builders & Management, recently achieved Emerald certification on an NAHB Green home built in Sandy Ridge, NC.  There are four levels associated with the new National Green Building Standard: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Emerald, Emerald being the highest.  Ron’s project is the first Emerald home in North Carolina and one out of only 22 Emerald homes in the Unites States.

Under the National Green Building Standard, there are six categories where builders must use sustainable practices: lot and site development, resource efficiency, energy efficiency, water efficiency, indoor environmental quality and homeowner education.  For detailed information on all the items that are evaluated, visit the NAHB Green website.

Ron shared with me some of the exceptional features that took the home from the lower green levels to Emerald, categorizing them under the Standard’s six categories:

Lot & Site Development Gravel and pervious walkway pavers were substituted for solid pavement and walkways to avoid the “heat island” effect.  The home is oriented to face “true” South for both a passive and an active solar advantage.

Resource Efficiency The lumber used in the home’s construction was harvested from trees growing on the jobsite.  All waste produced in the building process was recycled.

Energy Efficiency To achieve the Emerald level, it was imperative that Ron incorporate power generation into the home.  3.6KW solar photovoltaic panels were installed along with solar hot water and radiant floor heating. The house has a geothermal ground source heat pump with de-superheater, also for domestic hot water.  The whole house envelope is insulated with closed cell phone.  The home is so efficient that it received a HERS score of 11, the lowest that our company has ever seen.  We were even questioned by Advanced Energy, a non-profit energy management firm in Raleigh, about the score’s accuracy.

In our conversation, Ron noted that incorporating power generating features into the home was one of the more challenging aspects of the project, as these features are expensive and have a longer pay-back period.

Water Efficiency The home has a rainwater collection system, involving a 1000 gallon cistern with a pump and hose for irrigation.  Low flow plumbing fixtures were installed without.

Indoor Environmental Quality The home’s interior is finished with natural products with low or no VOCs.  The HVAC system was designed with fresh air intake and MERV 11 filtration.

Homeowner Education The homeowners received a Customized Homeowner’s Manual along with a three hour new home orientation, complete with energy saving tips.

To other builders wanting to pursue Emerald certification, Ron advises diligence.  The goal is attainable and worthy, but it takes extraordinary effort to achieve along with maximum attention to detail. We have enjoyed working with Ron as he navigated Emerald certification as a third-party verifier and are proud to be part of such an exciting accomplishment within our local building community.