Weatherization and Energy Retrofit
Now is the time to be thinking about how long you plan to live in your house. With the housing market in such an unprecedented state many people have decided to stay put and wait out the economic recovery. If this is your situation, take a long look into the economics of living in your house. What does it cost you to live there? The mortgage payment is just one of your monthly expenses. Utilities make up the next largest expense of operating your home. What if those costs double in the next few years? Is your house still affordable?
It is hard to know how to manage money these days. Stocks are unpredictable, real estate is for wildcat investors, money markets are making less than 1% so many people are keeping their money in cash. One thing we know for a fact is that fossil fuels, including electricity, will get more expensive over the next few years. Over the long term China and India will require more fossil fuels than the US currently imports. The implication is that money invested in energy conservation and solar can be one of the safest investments with the highest returns you can make.
Step One: Asking the Right Questions
An energy retrofit requires you to make countless decisions. Yet what will you use as criteria for those choices? We find that the most successful remodels take the time before they begin the project to get in writing what they want to get out of their project. It's best if each household member answer these questions individually. The whole house should then have an informal meeting to share answers and create a shared vision for the project.
Starting on the Right Track
If you aren't a rocket scientist or a builder yourself, you probably want to have an energy audit done. If are serious about a deep energy retrofit you might want to hire your contractor first and have them there when the audit is being conducted. It is a very technical process that will yield lots of data. The biggest challenge is deciding what to do with all the information you get back. The audit will tell you what needs to be done but not when or how. Prioritizing your upgrades is the challenge you and your contractor have to figure out.
Always the first thing you want to do is to reduce your "loads". This means the amount of energy you use for any purpose. Some of this is lifestyle, some is simple product replacement like light bulbs, and the rest means altering how your house performs.
Basic Building Science
There are three things that happen all the time that you can't see but you can certainly feel.
First is conduction, or how much energy you lose through the "skin" of the house. Think of it as putting on layers of clothes when the weather gets cold. In this case, the more insulation you have the better.
Second is infiltration or drafts. Air leaks into the house around doors, window and any other penetration that goes from the inside to the outside like electrical wires, hose bibs and vents. You can put on a down jacket in the winter but if you don't zip it up it doesn't do much good. Sealing the leaks in the house is one of the easiest and most cost effective things you can do to make the house more comfortable.
Third is radiation. This is the effect of being outside on a hot summer day. Are you more comfortable in the shade of a tree or in the sun? Simple question but we don't apply the logic to our houses. Radiation heat gain in summer generally happens in our attics and through windows. We want to shade the windows to keep heat out and use reflective barriers in the attic. The more air conditioning you use, the more important these steps are.
So what do we do with all the information provided by the energy audit?
Step Two: Setting Goals
Once you have all the information in hand you need to decide how far you want to go and what your budget is. Remember that energy retrofitting your home is an investment not a cost. And it is a great investment today. What stops most people is not knowing what to do and who to call to achieve their goals.
Write Down Your Energy Saving Goals:
- Is your primary motivation to improve comfort?
- Are you determined to reduce your energy bill?
- Are you concerned about the future affordability of living in your home?
- Are you looking to do your part to slow down climate change?
Your answers to these questions will start to determine you priorities in home improvement projects. If you have a contractor already you can discuss options and costs for the project. If not you may want to assemble your team yourself.
Determine your Sustainability Goals:
- Remember that as you tighten up your house, indoor air quality becomes more of an issue. Use only products that don't compromise your home's indoor air. Keep formaldehyde to a minimum.
- Make sure that there is sufficient ventilation designed into your project
- Be very careful when insulating existing walls that you don't create an environment behind the drywall that allow moisture to get trapped there than can lead to mold problems.
- Resource efficiency is important for some homeowners. Cellulose is primarily recycled newspapers. Fiberglass insulation has a high embodied energy (it takes a lot of energy to make glass fibers) but can use recycled glass for up to 30% of the material.
Depending on the size of your project you may need several different professionals on your team. If you are thinking of building an addition at the same time you may want to start with BEY-Design as your architect.
Another option is to hire a design/build remodeling firm. Again, BEY-Design will know how to approach your specific job.
If you feel confident you understand the audit and what needs to be done with your house you can hire specific trades yourself.
Look for an insulation contractor who has been trained in the installation of cellulose and/or spray foam.
Find a good window company that can help you decide which windows are best for your home, not just what they want to sell. A simple question is how would they specify south facing windows differently from other orientations. Home shows are a great place to compare one window type to another.
Talk to a variety of heating, ventilation and air conditioning contractors. There is a world of difference between a company that has been doing the same thing forever and one that has kept up with the times and has been trained to size equipment to the actual conditions of your house.
Start exploring local solar companies. Some have been in the business for a decade or more and others are "Johnny-come-lately" companies that see there is a buck to be made in the solar business. The last thing you want is an electrician doing your roofing or a roofer doing your electrical installation.
Overall, it is best to assemble the team and talk to them all at once about your game plan, whether it is with your contractor or on your own. If they all are on the same page and understand what you are trying to do they will work together much more efficiently and it will save you money.