Building Energy Efficient Homes
Whether it’s new construction or updating existing houses, homeowners can realize significant savings when using energy-efficient materials and construction practices
When David and Rochelle King decided to build their new, 2,800-square-foot home in Nancy in 2005, their son Chris, a building consultant, steered their focus toward one goal: building the most energy-efficient house possible.
With Chris overseeing the construction and doing much of the work himself, the Kings installed geothermal heating and air. They used insulated concrete form (ICF) walls and installed a concrete subfloor with radiant heat. They opted for soybean-based spray foam insulation and the highest grade energy-efficient windows and doors on the market.
Their use of so many increasingly popular energy-saving building products helped their home achieve certification as a Touchstone Energy Home through their local electric cooperative.
These days, the Kings love how quiet and comfortable their new home is. They love coming in from the winter cold and walking in their sock feet on warm floors. But what they love best of all is their low monthly utility bills.
While neighbors with similarly sized houses complained of wintertime electric bills of $200 to $400, theirs was just a little over $100 each month, David King says.
Energy Conservation is Focus
Bob Geswein, an energy services expert with Harrison Rural Electric Membership Corporation, an electric cooperative in Corydon, Indiana, has been leading workshops to educate homeowners about energy-efficient home building strategies for more than 10 years.
In that time, he’s seen a real reversal in homeowners’ approach to energy consumption. A decade ago, when energy prices were lower, many people were content to buy more energy to stay comfortable. When it was cold or hot outside, they just cranked up their furnace or AC accordingly. Today, he says, “All of a sudden, that strategy has kind of flip-flopped, in that buying energy to be comfortable has become rather expensive.”
The growing focus now is on energy conservation.
In addition to his role at Harrison REMC, Geswein leads free monthly seminars for homeowners in Louisville and Lexington, as well as Evansville and Bloomington in Indiana, for The Energy Pros, a consortium of area contractors, builders, and manufacturers dedicated to building high-performance, energy-efficient homes (www.theenergypros.net).
Thanks to education campaigns like theirs, the growing trend toward availability of energy-saving building products has been largely consumer-driven, says Emma Kuhl, operations manager for The Energy Pros.
As consumers become savvy about the benefits of innovative building technologies like spray foam insulation, ICF walls and foundations, and geothermal heating and cooling, they’ve begun to expect these products from area builders. That’s a marked shift from a decade ago, when most builders were convinced the average homeowner didn’t care what was behind the drywall, as long as the home had nice aesthetic features like granite countertops and Jacuzzi tubs.
The new demand is clear: since the Touchstone Energy Home program was launched in Kentucky roughly two and a half years ago, approximately 450 new homes across the state have been certified, according to joint estimates by Russ Pogue, who oversees the program at Big Rivers Electric Corporation, and Josh Littrell, an energy advisor with East Kentucky Power Cooperative (the two generation and transmission cooperatives that provide power to distribution cooperatives in Kentucky).
In 2006, between 3 and 11 percent of new homes built in Kentucky were Energy Star-qualified homes. In Kentucky, there are currently 90 builders who offer Energy Star options across the state.
Vince Kimbel’s Louisville-based Kimbel Construction has constructed 15 Energy Star-qualified homes to date. The company has specialized in energy-efficient and green building techniques since 1999.
Last year, Kimbel began construction on a home in Jeffersontown that is on track to become the state’s first LEED-certified house. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, a certification program sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council, is even more comprehensive than the Energy Star system in its additional consideration of environmental factors like green landscape design and site selection to minimize commute time from home to work and other amenities.
For now, Kimbel has left the walls of the Jeffersontown model home without drywall, so visitors can see the energy-efficient components inside, including its geothermal heating and cooling system, precast insulated concrete foundation, structural insulated panels (SIPs), and spray foam insulation.
And in case you’re thinking there’s no way you can afford all those energy-saving bells and whistles, think again. Incorporating such high-tech features into a new home’s design can cost as little as $1 or $2 per square foot up to $10 a square foot more than the cost to build a home to conventional code, Kimbel says. The higher value would net a five-star plus Energy Star rating.
Kimbel feels it’s an investment that pays for itself quickly, in terms of savings on monthly utility bills. He has several clients with 2,500- to 3,000-square-foot homes who have total utility costs under $100 per month.
Sealing the Home Envelope
So, what is it about these products that make them so energy efficient?
Many of them offer superior means of sealing the home and insulating it against leaks and cracks that can be siphons for our heated air in the winter and cooled air in the summertime. Less leakage means less energy consumption.
Not only are foundations made of ICF amazingly strong—they can withstand winds up to 240 mph—thanks to their construction of foam and concrete reinforced by steel rebar, they also offer a superior sealed barrier that keeps conditioned air in.
“Years ago, we used to think that an airtight home was not good. Now we’ve dispelled that idea, and we understand that an airtight home is exceptionally good,” says builder Randy Reese of Hustonville, whose company specializes in ICF installations.
Nationally, it costs about 5 percent more to build with ICF versus standard products, Reese says, but that investment reaps energy bills that are 40 to 70 percent less than in a conventional home.
Kimbel also likes the structural insulated panel systems in place of conventional 2x4s. Because they are made of two sheets of oriented strand board (OSB) sandwiching a 3-1/2-inch foam core interior, the SIPs are “super tight, super insulated, super wind-resistant, and super quiet” he says. Using SIPs allows builders to insulate the entire wall cavity and avoid the loss of insulation at each stud, which is common with a traditional building envelope.
Insulation and Caulk
Sixty percent of a home’s energy loss is literally through the roof. Thirty percent of a home’s energy loss comes through the floor. The walls account for only 10 to 15 percent of a home’s energy loss, according to building science studies cited by Jim DeBold, a member of The Energy Pros and owner of Epiphany Foam Insulation in Lexington.
That’s why Geswein’s seminar emphasizes the particular importance of insulating against energy leaks by caulking in the attic and along a home’s floors at the crack near the baseboard.
“Have a caulking party,” he advises. “Caulk works.”
Opting for high-efficiency spray foam insulation is another energy-saving strategy.
“Foam insulation is superior insulation when you compare it to cellulose or fiberglass,” says Kimbel. “It keeps that air infiltration to a minimum.”
DeBold’s company sells The Icynene Insulation System brand foam, which was developed 21 years ago. It costs about 200 percent more to insulate with DeBold’s product than with traditional insulation, but he tells customers they can recoup their investment in just 28 days—with the net positive savings on their first month’s utility bill. (That’s because the $80 to $90 in utilities savings most customers enjoy each month is more than enough to offset their additional mortgage investment of around $30 each month to install the insulation.)
Even existing homes can have spray foam applications done to their attics and basements with little intrusion, DeBold says. One recent customer had his attic and basement band joists sprayed, and his utility bill dropped from a high of $900 last year to $330 this year.
For existing homes, DeBold says that band joists are “probably the most economical in terms of the amount of foam and the amount of savings.” Kimbel agrees, and also advises that if homeowners in existing homes opt for spraying only one location, they consider insulating their attic cap.
“That should pay for itself faster than anything else,” Kimbel says.
Geothermal Heating and Cooling
Most everyone agrees that geothermal systems offer the most economical means of heating and cooling a home. Geothermal systems operate like massive underground radiators that circulate water and an antifreeze solution through hundreds of feet of polyethylene pipe. The system “exchanges degrees of heat in the ground, depending on the time of year,” explains Bob Peck of Versailles, a territory sales manager for WaterFurnace International, which markets geothermal systems.
The temperature underground is a constant 55 to 70 degrees. For example, in the summer when it’s 95 degrees outside, the geothermal system injects heat into the ground as a cooling mechanism. In the winter when it’s 10 degrees outside, the system works to extract heat from the ground, Peck says. Because geothermal systems transfer heat rather than create it, they are much more energy efficient.
The systems can be installed on most any lot, even those with small yards, Peck says. And for those in existing homes, the transfer from another system to geothermal is easy: “Geothermal systems are sized just like heat pumps or air conditioners, based on tonnage,” Peck explains.
“So if you’re going to go with the same system, the existing ductwork should be fine.” The new geothermal unit would be installed where the furnace or air handler was, and the noisy outdoor air-conditioning unit would be eliminated altogether.
Peck estimates that installing a geothermal system would cost a homeowner “about double” what a minimum-efficiency electric heat pump or gas furnace would cost. But using a similar logic to DeBold’s regarding spray foam, he too says the investment can be recouped, by saving them more money on their utility bills than the payment for financing the new geothermal system. Geothermal systems also have a longer life expectancy than outdoor heat pumps or air handlers, and can add value to your house if you sell your home in the future.
Peck has seen many clients enjoy $100 a month or more in savings on their utility bills after installing a geothermal system.
Contacting Your Local Co-Op
For homeowners preparing to build a new home, the key is to sit down with your builder and identify and prioritize the high-efficiency products and services that best suit your needs and budget, advises Kimbel.
If you’re interested in the possibility of certifying your home with the Energy Star or Touchstone Energy Home programs, it’s required that you contact an energy advisor with your local energy cooperative right from the start.
To achieve Touchstone Energy Home certification, you’ll want to have a rater with your local cooperative review your blueprints to offer energy-saving suggestions. Then the rater will visit the home before the drywall stage to inspect for proper insulation, home sealing, and other energy-efficient components. Finally, the rater will visit the home again just before you move in, for a final inspection and to conduct what’s called a blower door test, Littrell says.
During the test, a fan is mounted to an exterior door, pulling air out of the house and lowering the air pressure inside. The higher-pressure air outside then flows in through the home’s unsealed cracks and openings. Tight, well-insulated homes should have less than 30 percent air change in one hour, says Dan Hitchcock, manager of customer services at Inter-County Energy in Danville.
Homeowners in existing homes can also contact their local cooperative for help with an energy audit.
Inter-County Energy Cooperative recently purchased an infrared camera, which the staff uses to help show homeowners where they have cold spots, leaks, and drafts in their rooms. Then homeowners know where to target their caulking and insulation efforts.
So whether you’re planning a new build or trying to increase your existing home’s energy efficiency, rest assured your efforts won’t be in vain.
“You’re really building for the future,” says Kimbel. “And as energy rates continue to go up, you’re going to be saving even more money down the road.”
PROPER FIREPLACE USE AND OTHER ENERGY SAVING TIPS
Every winter it’s the same: Bob Geswein gets calls from customers upset about the size of their electric bill. When they ask him what they can do to lower it, he immediately asks them: “Do you have a fireplace?” Often, they’ll say yes. Then he asks them, “Are you running your heat while you burn the fireplace?” Usually the answer is yes to that question, too.
Geswein says a fireplace draws 1,500 percent more air than what a standard efficiency gas furnace will. To fuel its need, it is drawing air from anywhere it can—from the cracks around electric outlets and light switches, from ceiling penetrations, from the base of walls. So you end up bringing in lots of cold air from outside, only to see it get sucked right up the chimney.
To lower their electric bill in the winter, Geswein advises that homeowners either opt not to use their fireplaces and seal them up entirely, or if they choose to have a fire, not to run any other heating system at the same time.
Geswein’s other top energy-saving tips for existing homes:
• Be sure to seal up and insulate your attic access. The ill-fitting boards that many people have there are a common source of heat loss.
• Standard recessed can lights are another common source of heat loss. Geswein says that every 30 days, enough heated air leaks through a single standard can light into the attic to fill the Goodyear blimp. Instead, opt for sealed, airtight recessed lights, which cost only $5 more each.
MORE ON ENERGY STAR AND TOUCHSTONE ENERGY HOMES
The Energy Star Home program was introduced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1992 to encourage energy-efficient home building practices. Since then, some 750,000 Energy Star-qualified homes have been constructed across the country. It’s estimated that by the end of the decade, more than 2 million homes will earn the Energy Star rating.
The Energy Star Home program calls for use of effective insulation, high-performance windows, tight construction and ducts, and efficient heating and cooling equipment. For more specific guidelines, see www.energystar.gov.
To be qualified as an Energy Star Home, a home must be certified as being 15 percent more energy efficient than homes built to the 2004 International Residential Code. Most Energy Star Homes include additional energy-saving features that generally make them 20 to 30 percent more efficient than standard homes.
Specific guidelines and rebate incentives for the Touchstone Energy Home program vary among electric cooperatives.
“If any home is an Energy Star Home in Kentucky with our rural electric cooperatives, it’s automatically a Touchstone Energy Home,” explains Jeff Hohman, manager of marketing services with East Kentucky Power Cooperative.
For specifics on the Touchstone Energy Home guidelines for your area, contact the member services department at your local electric cooperative. General information about the Touchstone Energy Home program can be found online at http://touchstoneenergyhome.apogee.net.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: MORE ENERGY SAVING STRATEGIES FOR EXISTING HOMES
For 10 easy strategies to saving energy and money—how to identify “energy vampires” that suck energy—go to energy consumption.