Kentucky Living 2013 Energy Guide: Building Homes for Energy Efficiency
Whether you are building a new home or upgrading an existing one, choosing high-efficiency systems, insulating, and sealing leaks are all important for saving energy. Our energy advisors show you how.
Download the Kentucky Living 2013 Energy Guide.
When working with clients who are building a new home, Chuck Ball, an energy advisor at South Kentucky RECC, sometimes has to persuade them to think about the long term when it comes to selecting high-efficiency systems and fixtures.
“People will say, ‘I can’t afford to spend all that money on a high-efficiency heat pump.’ But I explain to them that they’re not spending money, they’re just investing money,” Ball says.
Over time, those clients will recoup their investment—and then some—in the amount they save on their monthly utilities bills.
Rory Dannenberg, president of Captiva Luxury Homes, a central Kentucky firm that builds exclusively ENERGY STAR and Touchstone Energy Homes, has seen proof of that return time and again, he says.
While Dannenberg’s homes, typically priced between $500,000 to $2 million, are showpieces of fine craftsmanship and elegant design, it’s the detailing behind the walls and in the construction itself for which Dannenberg is most proud.
Dannenberg uses exclusively 2x6s, rather than standard 2x4s, for the construction of his exterior walls, allowing for additional insulation space. He seals all walls with a state-of-the-art, watertight membrane to block air leaks from any outside penetrations, and makes sure all ductwork is tightly insulated and sealed with mastic and tape. Inside his homes, amenities like heat pumps, windows, and appliances are standard—all are high-efficiency, however.
And when it comes to saving his clients on their utilities bills, the proof is in the receipts: one of his clients reported it cost just $119 a month to cool their 6,300-square-foot home during the peak season of a record-high setting summer in Kentucky.
Citing one industry estimate of an expected utilities cost of $75 per 1,000 square feet to heat or cool a standard-built home, Dannenberg notes the potential savings to Touchstone Energy Home owners over 10 years: “When you compare $120 to (the expected, or average) $450 a month, that’s saving them over $30,000 across 10 years in utilities savings,” he says.
But you don’t have to spend $500,000 to have an energy-efficient home. The Houseboat to Energy Efficient Residences (HBEER) project—a collaboration between the University of Kentucky and Southern Tier Housing Corporation (see “Affordable Energy Efficiency” below)—is building homes that are so efficient they cost less than $2 a day for total energy use. The first two all-electric prototype homes in this line cost $157,000 each to build and their energy cost per day is $1.95. Southern Tier believes they can bring the costs down to $100,000 homes operating at $1 a day.
“You don’t need to spend a great deal of money. It’s more about making a few smart decisions when you’re building the home,” says Russ Pogue, manager of Member Relations at Big Rivers Electric Corporation, the generation and transmission co-op that provides electricity to three of Kentucky’s electric co-ops in the western part of the state that serve more than 113,000 members.
No matter if you’re in the market for a starter home, a mid-range home, or a luxury home, there are builders across the state that are committed to building smarter, tighter homes that are insulated and sealed well. (For a list of ENERGY STAR builders in your area, go to www.energystar.gov. Click on “New Homes” and “Find Energy Star Home Builders.”)
So whether you’re building a new custom home, looking to buy and update an older home, or simply looking for ways to retrofit your current home, this year’s Energy Guide offers a few suggestions for making sure you’re maximizing your home’s energy savings potential.
Updating an Older Home?
If building a new home isn’t in your future, don’t despair. There are plenty of steps you can take to retrofit your existing home to make it more energy efficient.
1.First, contact your local electric co-op to find out how they can help you reduce your energy consumption. Some co-ops have energy advisors who will schedule an energy audit. The advisor can walk through your home pointing out areas where you might be wasting energy to air leaks, duct leakage, insufficient insulation, or aging “energy-hogging” appliances, or do tests to locate major leaks.
2. If it’s in your budget, consider upgrading or replacing insulation to meet current code recommendations. (See “Seal and Insulate,” below, for problem areas to watch out for.)
3. Make a point of sealing your ductwork. It’s an easy DIY project that most anyone can tackle. “Often we find that ductwork in existing homes is not sealed nearly as well as it should be,” says Jude Canchola, an energy advisor and HERS rater with Owen Electric Cooperative based in Owenton. “Using mastic to seal the ducts is fairly simple. A tub of mastic costs as little as $11. When you’re talking about sealing ductwork, you’re basically dealing with three areas: where the trunk meets the main system, at every seam along the ducts themselves, and where the duct boot meets the floor.”
For much more information about sealing common air leaks or a step-by-step guide to caulking interior leaks in your home, check out Kentucky Living’s 2012 Energy Guide.
4. If your HVAC system is aging, consider replacing it with a high-efficiency heat pump system, which can be up to 30-40 percent more efficient than a standard furnace and air conditioner combined. Heating and cooling costs account for nearly half of a home’s utilities costs each year, so the money you invest to upgrade to a new, more efficient system can have a dramatic effect on your monthly savings. Contact your local electric co-op to find out what incentives are available, or go to cooperatives incentives for an updated 2013 list. See below for information on rebates and tax incentives.
5. Want more ways to retrofit an existing home? The TogetherWeSaveKY Web site, www.simplesavings.coop, offers how-to guides for adding insulation around problem leak spots like attic hatches and recessed lighting, as well as tips on weatherstripping around windows and doors. Additional tips and tutorials—including a video guide on how to air-seal your ductwork with mastic and tape—are online at http://energysavings.togetherwesave.com (click on Watch and Learn).
6. Make sure your energy habits also get a “retrofit.” Making a conscious choice to use less energy can go a long way toward reducing your monthly utilities costs. Only run the dishwasher when fully loaded. Dry your clothes outside. Install high-efficiency light bulbs.
7. Want more ideas? Check out the downloadable PDF at www.simplesavings.coop by clicking on the “101 Easy Ways to Save” photo link, located at the top right of the page. Download previous Kentucky Living Energy Guides annually, back to 2009, at www.KentuckyLiving.com when you type “Energy Guide” in the Article Search box.
DID YOU KNOW?
Developed by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index is the industry-standard scale for measuring a home’s energy efficiency. Programs like ENERGY STAR and Touchstone Energy Home use the HERS Index as part of their home evaluation rating system.
BUYING AN EXISTING HOME?
CONSIDER THE BENEFITS OF A HOME WARRANTY
Purchasing a home warranty when you buy an older home on the market can provide peace of mind should any of the covered home systems or appliances—such as oven, refrigerator, water heater, or even the HVAC system—break within your first year in the home. If you meet coverage criteria and the item cannot be repaired, a warranty may also allow you to replace it with a new, more energy-efficient ENERGY STAR-rated appliance. Most policies run around $250-$500 a year and include a flat fee per service, usually between $50 and $75 per call. Ask your Realtor for more information about getting a home warranty if one is not offered, and to see what level of home warranty coverage might be best for you. Be sure to read the fine print, as not all warranty coverage is the same.
Be Aware of Code Changes: Kentucky’s New Energy Code
Last fall, Kentucky adopted the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), which became effective October 2012. (Previously, the Kentucky Residential Building Code had followed the 2006 IECC.) The change means any new home built since October must now be constructed in accordance with stricter building standards in regard to energy conservation. Some of the changes in the new Energy Code include heightened requirements for the R-values of basement walls, tighter restrictions for acceptable amounts of air turnover in a new home, and requirements for the placement of air barriers to seal behind dropped ceilings, knee walls, behind tubs, and around attic access points. All new homes must also include at least one programmable thermostat.
The new code also mandates that all ducts must be sealed and inspected and that all ducts in unconditioned spaces (i.e., crawlspaces, unheated basements, garages) must be insulated.
All the changes do make a difference: the Department of Energy estimates that the shift from the 2006 to the 2009 IECC Code—and the more energy-efficient building the new code demands—results in a 10.8 percent drop in a new homeowner’s average annual energy costs.
Seal and Insulate
The key to having an energy-efficient home—no matter whether you’re dealing with a brand-new, custom-built home or an older retrofit—is making sure that it is well-insulated and air-sealed, says Jude Canchola with Owen Electric. “You have to define the envelope of the house and make sure that your insulation and air-sealing go together. Doing one without the other, frankly, is like throwing water to the wind.”
Naturally, making effective choices in terms of adding sealed air barriers and proper insulation is often easier during the construction process. “In a retrofit, it can be much harder to go back and define that envelope,” Canchola says. “There are times when customers quite literally have to take part of the house apart in order to get access to the air barrier or thermal barrier” in order to make improvements.
SEALING From the floor to the walls to the attic, a home’s structure should be sealed against outside air leaks. This can be done using a combination of caulk, airtight membranes, and other air barriers, including electrical outlet covers, which stop air leaks around outlet boxes and light switches.
INSULATION Whether you opt for traditional rolled or batt insulation, blown-in fiberglass or cellulose, or spray foam, the key to insulating correctly—and achieving the desired R-value of thermal protection—is making sure the product installation is done correctly, says Ball of South Kentucky RECC. Also, it’s important to insulate around all gaps within the home’s envelope, including the attic hatch, around dropped soffits, and between the original home structure and any newer additions—areas that are often left uninsulated, especially in older homes, advises Canchola.
DUCTS It’s estimated that as much as 20 percent of the air that moves through a home’s duct system is lost to leaks. Kentucky’s new Energy Code now requires that the ductwork in a newly built home must be sealed, insulated, and inspected. “If you have ductwork in the crawlspace or in the attic, we’re really stressing that it needs to be sealed well and insulated,” Canchola says.
When it Comes to Insulation, Proper Installation is Key
In just the last three to four years, building science has evolved so that energy advisors now recommend—and the new building code requires—that fiberglass batt insulation be completely encapsulated in order to work properly.
When fiberglass batt insulation is left completely exposed to the air on the attic side—traditional practice in homes with attic half-walls (also known as “knee walls”) up until recently—the insulation cannot perform optimally, resulting in decreased R-values, explains Canchola.
“What we really need to see is that the builders have put drywall or some sort of rigid board on that attic side so that the insulation is completely encapsulated. Then it works the way it was designed to work,” he says.
2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT PRODUCT
Energy-conscious builders frequently opt to use 2x6 studs instead of 2x4s for their exterior walls, to allow additional room for insulation in their homes. But the homeowner will see the benefits of those added R-values only if the insulation is installed correctly. Ball often finds builders over-compressing 6-1/4-inch blankets of R-19 fiberglass insulation in order to fit them into the 5-1/2-inch crevices formed by 2x6 exterior walls. Fiberglass insulation is not engineered to be mashed down; compressing the insulation just 3/4 of an inch in order to get it to fit in the 2x6 walls drops the R-value from R-19 to R-18, Ball says. Instead, builders should opt for specially designed insulation that’s made to fit 2x6 walls.
3. MIND THE GAPS
Many energy-conscious builders advocate the use of spray-in insulation—but like any type of insulation, it’s only effective if the builder is mindful to fill in any gaps during installation, Ball says. Occasionally Ball has seen homes where spray insulation is entirely missing behind cabinet headers (where the cabinets affix to the wall). “If they don’t bother to get the spray insulation behind things, then the R-value doesn’t do you any good,” Ball says.
In older homes, standard corners where an exterior and interior wall meet were sometimes framed without batt insulation along the joint line, leaving a “cold corner” where no insulation could reach, Ball says. Many builders today are opting to use a more energy-efficient framing design called a California Corner, which adjusts the position of the final 2x4 or 2x6 in the framed corner to allow a pocket of room for insulation to be installed there.
“It’s actually easier to build an efficient corner than a standard corner,” Ball says. “It’s just that people got used to doing it the old way.”
Another tip: make sure your builder is making ample use of the caulk gun during your home build. “You should caulk at every place that two pieces of wood meet on that outside wall,” Ball says. “Also, caulk where the sill plate sits on the floor. And when you hang the ceiling sheet rock, caulk around the edges of it, before you put the wall sheet rock up.”
(Note: For retrofitters, caulking around windows and doors and along your baseboards can be very effective in reducing energy leaks, even in older homes. For a step-by-step guide to caulking interior leaks in your home, download Kentucky Living’s 2011 Energy Guide at KentuckyLiving.com
; type “2011 Energy Guide” in the Article Search box to locate.)
For builders like Lee Coffee, owner of Coffee Construction in Eubank and a 40-year veteran of the construction industry, building energy-efficient homes is simply the right thing to do.
“Everybody is preaching energy efficiency. We’re supposed to be responsible with our energy use. And building energy-efficient homes is my way of doing that,” says Coffee, a board member at South Kentucky RECC and East Kentucky Power. “I just explain to my clients, that’s the only kind of house I build.”
Work with a certified home energy rater
If you’re considering hiring a builder to build a custom-built home, one of the most important early steps you can make is to connect with a certified Home Energy Rating System (HERS) rater, who can collaborate with the builder through the entire design and construction process to ensure that the home is as energy efficient as possible.
Some utilities in the state have HERS rater on staff, while others contract with outside agencies to provide this service. If the service is not available from your electric co-op, they may be able to direct you to a HERS rater in your area. Check with your local co-op or go online to www.resnet.us to find a HERS rater who services your area.
How does it work? A HERS rater will typically make three visits to a new home build, says Josh Littrell, an energy advisor and HERS rater with East Kentucky Power Cooperative in Winchester. First, after the house is framed and under roof, the evaluator will measure all of the surface areas of the house, including the ceiling heights, window locations, and orientation of the house. Second, during a pre-drywall inspection, the rater will inspect the quality of the insulation installation. And, finally, when the home is finished, the rater will do a last check of attic insulation and duct sealing, including doing a blower door test (see below for more about blower door tests) to check for air leaks and the rate of the home’s air turnover. Data on the energy usage ratings of the appliances, water heater, and heating and cooling system will also be taken during this final visit. All of these details will go together to provide the home’s final HERS score.
What does the score mean? The HERS score is a relative rating of a home’s efficiency; the lower the score, the more efficient the home. A new home built to standard code is rated at 100. A home with a HERS index of 70 would be 30 percent more efficient than a standard home; one with a score of 50 would be 50 percent more efficient than a standard home. For reference, many co-ops require a home to have a HERS score of 85 or lower (at least 15 percent more efficient than standard or better) to achieve Touchstone Energy Home status. Dannenberg’s homes routinely receive a HERS rating in the mid-40s, making them more than 55 percent more efficient than a standard home.
Why is a HERS rater a good idea? Unlike building inspectors, who are, by design, more focused on checking construction, plumbing, and electrical issues in a home, a HERS rater offers “a set of eyes that are specially trained on ways to make a home more efficient,” says Littrell. What’s more, Kentucky’s residential building code changed last fall to implement a more rigorous Energy Code (which mandates more energy-efficient building practices), and the HERS rater can advise builders on steps to make sure that they are meeting the new Energy Code. (See “Be Aware of Code Changes” above.)
Inspections for plumbing, electrical, and HVAC systems are paid for by contractors’ permit fees and are performed statewide. The Home Builders Association of Kentucky hopes to work toward a goal of universal statewide construction inspections. In the meantime, hiring a HERS rater offers an additional source of consumer protection—especially in areas where construction inspections aren’t otherwise performed.
Having a HERS rating done “does add some cost to the house, but it’s not substantial, and it assures you that some third party is looking at things, being sure that it’s done right,” says Dr. Robert Fehr, a professor emeritus in the University of Kentucky’s Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department, who helped serve as an advisor during Kentucky’s adoption of the new Energy Code.
WHAT IS A BLOWER DOOR TEST?
In a blower door test, a professional energy auditor will mount a powerful fan to your home’s front door. The fan pulls air out of the home, lowering the pressure inside. This causes the higher outdoor air pressure to flow in through any available leak in the home. The auditor can then use a smoke pencil to identify these air leaks around your home’s windows, doors, or exterior penetrations, and within your ductwork.
The Department of Energy estimates that homeowners can save 5-30 percent on their energy bills by implementing upgrades following a home energy audit.
For more info on a blower door test, go to www.KentuckyLiving.com and type Keywords “More 2011 Energy Guide” for the link, and scroll down to “What is a blower door test.”
Download Kentucky Living’s 2009 Energy Guide, which includes a do-it-yourself energy checkup for locating leaks.
WHAT IS AN ENERGY RECOVERY VENTILATOR?
Builders understand that to construct an energy-efficient home, the home must be tightly sealed to avoid air leaks. But if a home lacks fresh air, mold and other problems with indoor air quality can develop. Many builders today include an energy recovery ventilator with the home’s heating and cooling systems; it provides a way to bring in and exchange fresh outdoor air throughout your home in an energy-efficient way.
Rebates and Tax Incentives for Energy Upgrades
Many co-ops offer incentive or rebate programs to homeowners when they build a Touchstone Energy Home or make efficiency improvements to their existing home by upgrading the heating and air-conditioning systems, adding insulation, replacing dated appliances, or cleaning and sealing their duct systems.
For an up-to-date list of the rebate or tax incentive programs currently offered in your area, go online to cooperatives incentives for an updated 2013 list. Federal and state tax credits are also included. You can also check your local electric cooperative’s Web site for more info.
A helpful source for information on energy-efficiency rebates, tax credits, and incentives; this Web site offers a state-by-state guide of energy-efficiency programs offered across the nation.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: AFFORDABLE ENERGY EFFICIENCY
Need help finding funds to add insulation, seal ducts, and upgrade heating and cooling? Low-income households can apply for free weatherization assistance through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program.
Also read about the Houseboat to Energy Efficient Residences prototype project to build modular homes, designed by University of Kentucky students and faculty, at a houseboat manufacturing facility in Monticello. Each home’s total energy usage is about $1.95 a day!
To learn more, go online to affordable energy.