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Renovating for energy efficiency

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Architect Steve Schuster of Clearscapes presented this presentation at a Community Conversations event in Raleigh on June 10, 2010. In it, he walks you through steps that a homeowner can take to increase the energy efficiency of their house.

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  • Steve Schuster, principal of Clearscapes Architecture + Art (www.clearscapes.com). Many homeowners spend effort and money on the wrong things. This presentation will focus on the big issues and easy fixes. The ones that have the most impact on your energy efficiency.
  • Start in the attic. Adding insulation is a very easy fix. The majority of energy loss in a house is through the roof. It is important to seal around attic penetrations (piping, wiring, access points into the attic) before adding insulation or the air will just flow around the insulation.
  • Consider a lighter colored roof when it’s time to replace your roof. The lighter color will reflect light and absorb less energy, keeping your attic cooler.
  • Attic venting is very important. Many homeowners are concerned about making their houses more air tight and seal their attic vents, which worsens the energy efficiency of the house. Houses need to breathe, especially older homes that were designed to breathe. Air movement through the attic, either above the insulation on the attic deck or below the insulation in the rafters, keeps the attic cooler. If your vents are properly installed, they will not interfere with the function of the insulation.
  • Unless you have the unusual situation of having an older house already open to the studs, you don’t need to worry about insulating the walls. This is not a point of significant energy loss. Air movement in the house is generally in a vertical column – up and out through the roof. However, you do need to be sure to seal around the holes in your walls…
  • The biggest holes in your walls are your windows. Replacing your original windows is not necessary. The wood, historic windows already in your house are the best windows your house will ever have. Maintain them, repair them as necessary, and install a storm sash. Storm windows have come a long way and now have many options: interior or exterior, fixed or operable sashes, a variety of finishes, etc.
  • You would be amazed what a difference you can make with $20 worth of two-part polyurethane caulk. Use this to seal around your windows, doors, other penetrations where air might be flowing freely into/out of the house.
  • The opposite of the attic is the crawlspace. It is not as critical as the attic, but also should be insulated. Be sure that the bats fit snugly against the flooring – sagging insulation will not prevent the movement of air.
  • Also, the crawlspace should be vented just like the attic. If you have a dirt floor in the crawlspace/basement, you can consider a vapor barrier to control moisture. However, most older homes were designed so that the crawlspace should breathe.
  • Trees are not just beautiful, they can be practical. Large, deciduous trees on the sunny sides (south, east and west) of your house can provide excellent shade from direct sun (and accumulating heat) in the summer and allow in sunlight in the winter to warm your house. This improvement may take years to develop, but it will help reduce your reliance on the HVAC system.
  • Fans are a great way to lessen your dependence on the HVAC system, and they use significantly less energy than your heat pump or furnace. Whether in room ceiling fans or a whole house fan installed in the attic, there are many options.
  • Solar/thermal hot water installations work well in the southeast and have become much more cost effective.
  • You may consider covering your roof with photovoltaic panels and generating your own electricity. This is not as cost effective as the solar hot water installations but they do work. Also, note that if your house is in a local historic district, you may be limited as to where you can put the panels on your roof.
  • At some point, your mechanical systems will need to be replaced. New technologies are much more efficient, and it may be worthwhile to consider replacing an older system before it dies to benefit from the improved efficiency. An energy auditor can help you assess.
  • Geothermal (whether for domestic hot water or air heating/cooling) is another proven technology that is being installed more often in our area.
  • Lighting is also an area where you can significantly impact your energy consumption. As a designer, I’m concerned about the quality of the light given off by compact florescent lightbulbs. Thankfully, LED technology has advanced to the point where they are cost effective. The quality of their light is excellent, they give off almost no heat, and they last for as long as 15 years.
  • Appliances. A lot of the energy in your house is being consumed by your appliances. Take a good hard look at your appliances and consider whether a replacement would be worthwhile in terms of increased efficiency.
  • Also, be aware that computers and entertainment systems, like many other appliances that have a sleep or standby function, can use significant amounts of power while not being actively used. Considering unplugging them or using smart power strips.
  • Water is an increasingly important issue for most communities. Low-flow technologies have significantly improved and are easy to install.
  • Don’t forget low-flow shower heads and faucets. These are very often an easy change that the homeowner can do themselves.
  • The efficiency improvements in water heaters have been dramatic. You could recoup the investment in a new water heater very quickly from the savings garnered by the increased efficiency. This is another item that you might consider replacing before it is absolutely necessary.
  • In conclusion, don’t sweat the little things - focus on the big issues. Also, consider how your house was designed to perform. Older homes were designed to breathe, so be sure to not seal up your attic and crawlspace vents. But by sealing around the other penetrations (windows, doors, pipes, wiring, etc), you can significantly improve the house’s efficiency. And don’t forget to consider your home’s mechanical systems and appliances.
  • Renovating for energy efficiency

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