Sustainable Resolutions To Fit Your Home

Wondering what you can do to minimize your carbon footprint at your home?  Solar panels are great, but they aren’t a good fit for everyone.  If your house is in a shaded area, or your shingles are older but not quite ready for replacement, solar electric may not be practical for your house right now.  Fortunately, there are other things you can do.

1. Even without solar panels, you can choose a 100% renewable electric supplier for your electricity- which supports the development of renewable energy whether or not you get panels personally.  Instructions on how to do this in Ohio are available here:

induction hot plate

2. Try induction cooking before buying another gas cooktop.  Induction offers the performance of a gas cooktop without the fossil fuels or indoor air quality problems.  (Yes, your gas cooktop is bad for the air quality in your house.)  If you’d like to minimize your fossil fuel cooking even before you get a whole new cooktop, you can buy an induction hot plate to try it out.  They start at about $50.

3. If you haven’t already, get an energy audit for your house.  If you are a Dominion Natural Gas customer, you can get an audit for just $25  They will do a blower door test on the house that helps to identify air leaks, which are even more important to the efficiency of the house than insulation is, and they’ll use an infra red camera to see insulation levels in the walls.  Air sealing and insulation will make the house more comfortable and reduce your utility bills, and if you aren’t using electricity for heating, reduce your use of fossil fuels too.  If your house is already all electric, First Energy offers a similar audit program:  These audits will give you more information about your house’s energy use, but if you have serious comfort problems or are ready to do a major energy renovation, you may want to talk with the consultant I used:

4. Next time you need to replace your water tank, consider your options.  My preference is a heat pump water heater. It costs about the same to run as a gas water heater, but it’s all electric so there is no need to worry about carbon monoxide.  These are best in a basement, since the air around them gets pretty chilly sometimes! If you are going to keep your gas service for quite a while and don’t mind annual maintenance, an on-demand unit may make sense, but it will need a larger gas pipe than a tank-type heater.

heat pump water heater

5. If you are due to get a new air conditioner, be sure you get a heat pump that can provide heating as well as cooling.  That way you can use it to provide much of the heat for your house with renewable energy from your renewable supplier.  

6. Start thinking ahead for when you will need to replace your furnace.  Maybe you don’t need to rely on fossil fuels for your heating at all!  An air source heat pump can provide all of your heating and cooling needs if your house has good air sealing and insulation.  It is important to work with a professional specializing in this kind of work to make sure your house is ready for this so you don’t end up with excessive operating costs.  Energy Smart Home Performance has converted many homes in northeast Ohio to all electric with good success, including my house.

A Renewable Energy Future Is Here

Greetings!  It’s been quite a while since I wrote, and a lot has happened for our family since then.  Last spring my parents moved from their home of 42 years in Athens to be closer to us here in Akron.  No matter how well a house is adapted for aging in place, having family close by has a lot of advantages, and we decided to take the idea of “close by” seriously.  While Scott & I hadn’t been planning to move, there was a house for sale less than a block from where we were living. With its split level design, it wasn’t ideal for my parents but works quite well for us.  So, my parents moved into our ranch house, and we packed our things and moved up the street. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. The new house needed some work: new barn doors between my office and the dining room, updates to the master bath, more insulation, a new heating system, new hot water tank, and a new roof.

Those last three provided some great opportunities.  As I wrote in March of last year, we had just taken the ranch house to 100% renewable electric heating and cooling.  You can read that article here, Smart Sustainability – What It Meant For Our HouseBecause we needed a new heating system, we talked with our

consultant and decided to take the new house all electric too.  This meant an air source heat pump for heating instead of a gas furnace and a heat pump water heater. Both are more efficient than the “toaster” style heating of electric resistance heat. We didn’t need a new cooktop, but I enjoyed the induction cooktop at the ranch so much I was eager to get one for the split level. That allowed us to turn off the gas service and save the monthly fee for having an account with the gas company.  

Besides that, the new house has a nice big south-facing stretch of roof without shade!  So as soon as we got the shingles replaced, we installed solar panels. It’s a grid tied system that feeds electricity to our neighbors if we are generating more than we need.  If you have a sunny roof, you may want to look into panels soon: you can get a tax credit of up to 26% of the cost of the system through 2020, and 22% in 2021. Financing is available, including PACE financing linked to your property tax bill Renovate America, and since the panels start to save you money on your electricity as soon as they are running, they can pay for themselves!  With all that renewable goodness going on, I decided to go all electric with my car too: I just got a Chevy Bolt EV, with a range of 238 miles.

So over the last 2 years I’ve learned a lot, and I can speak from experience about some of the sustainable systems you may want to consider for your home. If you’d like to know more, just send me an email or give me a call! If you’re wondering where you might start with your home, stay tuned from next month’s issue of The Leaflet!

Home Energy Renovations- when you can’t go down to the studs

A couple of months ago I met with a client who wanted to make significant energy improvements to an older house. But because the house was occupied, it wasn’t possible to go down to the studs to do the kind of deep energy retrofit Project Rebuild is doing in Canton. (If you missed that story in the last Leaflet, you can find it here in the October issue.) Still, there were a lot of opportunities to reduce the energy usage and lower their utility bills. In fact, the suggestions I made for that house provide a pretty good checklist for things you might want to consider for improvements at your own home.

First, get an audit

An energy audit will provide you with a clear game plan for the improvements you make and help you prioritize the items that will have the biggest impact. Because air infiltration has such a major impact on energy use, and because holes in the air barrier can be hidden in places that are hard to see, a blower door test is important. An auditor will also bring tools like infrared thermographs, along with training in how to identify home efficiency problems. Dominion East Ohio Gas is still offering audits through for just $50, with rebates on the energy improvement work you have done from their list. You can get more information here Home Performance with Energy Star, though as of this writing they were “undergoing administrative updates”. You could also choose to work with an independent home performance consultant to get a more customized evaluation of opportunities and possible solutions. An audit will help you to develop a comprehensive game plan for your improvements, so you don’t make one improvement only to find that you’ve eliminated a better solution to the next thing you tackle.

Wet Basement? Find the causes and decide how to manage it

This isn’t exactly about energy efficiency, but you need to get a wet basement under control before you do anything else. If you seal up the air leaks in a house with a wet basement, your heating bill may be lower but the house may become much more humid, which can lead to mold growth. So check those gutters and downspouts, slope the ground away from the house, and get your footing drains flowing or have new ones installed. If the situation and budget allows, you may want to dig down to the foundation and have new waterproofing added to the outside walls along with new drains. If the roof needs much work, you might decide if you want to have deeper eaves.

Rim joist insulation

The rim joists, where the floor joists meet the outside walls, typically allow a lot of outside air into your house. Adding spray foam insulation or rigid foam insulation sealed in place with spray foam is a great way to improve your energy efficiency. If you are thinking about finishing the basement, be sure to do this first! This air sealing at the lowest level of the house will help to minimize the stack effect that draws heated air out of your house.

Basement wall insulation

Even if the stud walls in your older house have insulation, the basement walls probably don’t. According to Green Building Advisor, “if you live in Climate Zone 3 or anywhere colder, it’s cost-effective and wise to install basement wall insulation”. Our Zone 5 weather is definitely colder. Rigid or spray foam insulation attached directly to the concrete is a great way to insulate existing basements that doesn’t invite problems with wet fiberglass or rotting studs. If you don’t want finished space, you can use Dow Thermax, which has a fire resistant coating attached. Otherwise, a layer of gypsum drywall will be needed to meet flame spread requirements. You may also choose to put a stud wall between the foam and the drywall to make it easier to run wiring and attach the drywall.

New energy efficient furnace, water heater, and air conditioner

If you are building new, a conventional furnace may not be the answer, but for an existing home simply getting a more efficient furnace makes sense. Improved efficiency with natural gas appliances includes switching from an atmospheric combustion unit to a sealed combustion one with direct venting. Here’s a great article describing the hazards of atmospheric combustion and benefits of sealed combustion: Energy Vanguard You may also want to consider providing more managed fresh air for the people in the house, as you are eliminating the accidental air leaks. A heat or energy recovery ventilator (HRV/ERV) is the most efficient solution for this and a must-have for super efficient new homes. Existing homes may want to consider simply providing a fresh air intake connected to the furnace return air duct, so your fresh air will get warmed immediately rather than first running across your toes in a cold draft the way it does in poorly sealed houses with atmospheric combustion furnaces.

Do you need the chimney? If you have a chimney that was only used for the furnace and water heater which now vent through the basement wall, you may want to remove it. Chimneys often have significant air leaks and are just one more hole in your roof. If you are planning to use the top floor as living space, they also tend to be right in the middle of the attic room. So if you don’t need it, take it out!

Attic air sealing and insulation- on the floor or at the roof

Take care of both air sealing and insulating the top of your house- in that order! If you insulate first it will be more difficult to do air sealing. This is the top half of that stack effect that started down at the basement rim joists. Seal the bottom and the top and the house stops acting so much like a chimney, sending your heated air up to the sky. The system you choose for insulation will depend on whether you have ventilated, unheated attic space or if you want living space right up to the slope of the roof.

Exterior door weatherstripping This is an in-expensive one you may be able to do yourself. If you are re-siding, you might also check to see whether you even need all of the exterior doors in the house.

Maybe NOT new windows Replacement windows are heavily marketed, but they may not be the energy problem they want you to think they are. There are reasons to replace windows, but dollar for dollar, other improvements may save you more energy.

Other Energy Star appliances and WaterSense fixtures

An Energy Star washing machine will use less hot water, and the super-spin cycle will mean your dryer have less work to do too. Water Sense shower heads can also reduce your hot water usage. Water Sense toilets will reduce your water bill, and will save energy at the water treatment plant. To learn more about the WaterSense Label visit the EPA site.

The value of good planning

Most of these projects can be done without disrupting your life while you live in your home. Like all home improvement projects, you will have a better outcome if you remember the house is an interconnected system and you have a good plan in place before you begin. Afterwards, your home will be more comfortable and you’ll have lower energy costs.

The Energy Audit Saga Continues

In my last newsletter, I wrote about the two energy audits I had done recently: one through Dominion East Ohio’s GoodCents program, the other through a company specializing in audits. If you missed that article and would like to read a comparison of the two audits, just click below: Battle of the Energy Audits. Well, after getting all that information on where my house is losing energy, you might wonder what I’m doing about it.

I’m pretty passionate about the importance of insulation and air sealing, so I would have liked to have done the deluxe package recommended by the one company, pulling back all the existing insulation in the attic and getting thorough air sealing around all of the openings there. However, since I’d had the worst of the holes closed up before insulating 10 years ago, I thought the payback on that would be minimal. So I’m moving forward with adding more cellulose insulation in the attic (for a total of 14” deep), putting air tight boxes around the can lights in the attic, sealing leaks in the basement ducts, and sealing the rim joists around the top of my basement walls. I’m especially excited about the rim joists, because having this done should make it more comfortable in my walk-out basement office. The rim joists have fiberglass batts in them now, but I know that they provide almost no insulation value without a good air barrier. Here are two details of ways to insulate the rim joist.  The one on the upper left is what I had done.  If you want to do it yourself, using rigid foam as shown on the right is a good way to go.

The next question was who to have do the work. While the other company was very knowledgeable and professional, they just couldn’t compete with the rebates available through the Dominion program. By getting the audit done and then having the recommended work done by one of their participating contractors, I’ll get a rebate of 22% of the cost of the work! I’m looking forward to a more comfortable house next winter, with lower heating bills. How about you? I’ve heard that the GoodCents program may be discontinued in the near future, so if you’d like to take advantage of the Dominion rebates, now is the time! For details on the program click on: Dominion East Ohio

First published May 1, 2012

Battle of the Energy Audits

I recently had not one, but two energy audits done on my house. I’ve mentioned before that Dominion East Ohio is offering audits through their Good Cents program for just $50. Then at the Home & Flower Show, I learned that Dr. Energy Saver will do an audit for free. I had wondered before how the Good Cents audit compared to others, so I decided this was a great opportunity to find out. My research isn’t complete though, since I have not (yet?) had an audit from Green Street Solutions, another local company who is currently charging $250. Even at $250, an audit is a great investment, since it provides you with information that can help you save considerably more than that. Here’s what I’ve found so far.

Both companies were very courteous, and the auditors were very knowledgeable. Both audits took about two and a half hours. Both used a blower door to help identify air leaks. Good Cents actually had two people there, one who asked me about drafts, cold floors, & utility bills, jpeg (1)and another who took measurements and helped set things up. One thing I liked about Dr. Energy Saver was that he encouraged me to walk through the house with him during the blower door test so I could feel & see the air leaks for myself, with the help of a smoke stick. The leaks were more evident to me during this audit because Dr. Energy Saver had the fan on the blower door turned up much higher than Good Cents did. They then use a computer to convert the data to the standard 50 Pascals pressurization values. Seeing and feeling the movement of the air was a definite motivator to get these air leaks sealed up! Seeing the recommendations on paper just isn’t the same.

The Good Cents people provided a well organized written report with their findings and recommendations. Dr. Energy Saver did not provide a written report; they concluded their visit with a presentation describing the work they recommended and the costs to have this work done. If you have their complete “core” package of work done, they guarantee the work will pay for itself within 8 years with the energy you save. You would be able to see the improvement in air sealing as soon as the work was completed though, since they re-test the house with the blower door after the work is done. If you do not get the full package, they do not guarantee the return on investment, though I’m pretty certain any of their improvements would pay for themselves in that time frame.

In summary, the Dr. Energy Saver technician seemed more excited about the importance of making energy efficiency improvements, but did not encourage incremental improvements, and provided less documentation for you to follow up on yourself. The GoodCents auditor was professional, but not passionate. This is undoubtedly due at leastjpeg in part to the fact that Dr. Energy Saver was trying to make a sale, while GoodCents was simply performing a service. I think Dr. Energy Saver might do a more thorough job if you are prepared to make a significant commitment to improving your home’s energy performance and want a “one stop shop”. If you want to make more modest improvements, or do work yourself, GoodCents provides good information on how you can most easily save on energy costs. But without the strong sales pitch, and the wind whistling through those holes in your house as the blower door runs at full speed, you might not have as much motivation to make improvements, and miss out on the chance to save money in the long run.

First published March 20, 2012

Energy Efficiency Opportunities When You Renovate

Recently I talked with two different potential new clients about renovating their homes.  Two things on both of their lists were new siding and new shingles.  I perked right up because those are both great opportunities to make a home more energy efficient, and if you pass up the opportunity it will be a loooong time before you have another.  Let’s face it, energy efficiency usually isn’t the main thing that makes us want to renovate our homes.  The need to move the Master Bedroom to the first floor, the desire for a more functional Kitchen, and even wanting to update the look of the house are the kinds of things that motivate most renovations.  But if you look for opportunities to improve energy efficiency when you do those projects, you can keep the energy performance of your home up to date right too.

Siding: insulation      Siding is a big opportunity because there are just 3 places you can put insulation into a wall:  inside the studs, between the studs, and outside the studs.  Most existing homes only have insulation between the studs.  If your house doesn’t have any insulation at all between the studs (like my 1959 house when I moved in), you can add it by making small holes in the walls and blowing insulation into the cavities.  That’s a good start, but not enough to make a house with 2×4 walls meet the standards required by code for new construction today, and I think most of us would like to have our homes do better than meet minimum requirements.  2×4 wall cavities can only hold about R13 or R15 of insulation, and the Ohio Residential Building Code now requires cavity insulation of R20 (which needs a 2×6 wall), or R13 between the studs plus R5 of continuous insulation.

How can you get more insulation in the walls of an existing house?  Most renovations don’t involve removing the drywall on the interior, so adding it inside the studs isn’t practical, and making the existing studs thick enough to hold more insulation between them isn’t possible.  So when someone is planning to replace the siding on the outside of the house, it is a golden moment of possibility for adding a layer of continuous rigid insulation on the outside of the studs!  And having insulation continuous rather than just between studs makes it even more valuable, because it reduces thermal bridging:  the heat loss allowed through the studs themselves.

Roofing: insulation and solar      Shingle replacement gives you a similar opportunity for more insulation.  This can be especially helpful with cathedral ceilings or finished attic spaces, including the 2nd floor of Cape Cod style houses. For these houses with small rafters, it’s great to be able to have more insulation than will fit in the rafter cavity.   After tearing off the existing shingles add a layer or two of rigid insulation:  2″ of polyisocyanurate will add R11, or 4″ will add R22 to the R value of the insulation between the rafters.  As with the exterior wall insulation, this reduces the thermal bridging through the wood of the rafters.  The first few years of a roof’s life is also the best time to  maximize the value of adding solar electric to your home.  The lower cost of panels and the  tax credit of 26% for solar electric systems installed before December 31, 2022 means you will pay off a solar electric system in about a decade, and after that you get free electricity!  But it doesn’t make sense to put a new solar system on top of shingles you will need to replace soon: shingles over 8 years old should probably be replaced before you install solar panels.  So if you have some south facing roof area and are planning on new shingles, it’s a great time to add a solar system!  For more information check out the Solar United Neighbors website.

And you can learn more about the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit here.

Now I couldn’t write about energy efficiency improvements without mentioning energy audits.  I recommend an energy audit before you do ANY kind of renovation. One program that helps to identify the “low hanging fruit” for saving energy is the Dominion East Ohio Home Performance with Energy Star program.  For $25, Building Performance Institute certified professionals come out with specialized equipment to identify the major areas where your home is losing energy.  The best part is that you can then get a substantial rebate on any work you have done from their list of recommendations, from insulation to a new furnace.