Green Building Upgrades
Are Home Performance and Energy Upgrades worth the money?
Home performance is an extension on green building. If you are planning on exceeding code requirements in energy conservation enlisting a home rater will help you accomplish your goals. This applies to remodels more than new construction. Existing homes can be tested before, during and after upgrades are made proving the performance change. New construction can only be tested after the house is complete. Home performance is a whole house approach to energy conservation and will help lower your electric bill. This is a far better model than haphazardly upgrading wherever it is recommended by advertisers, subcontractors or friends. It is pointless to upgrade you HVAC equipment if your ducts leak and adding insulation won’t save money either. Home performance has a testing and evaluation protocol that evaluates the house before work is done. There are several tests done and then recommendations are made. It is up to you as the owner to run a cost benefit analysis to determine which upgrades will be beneficial. Home performance packages can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Many of the less costly upgrades can give you the largest returns. You can do the whole package or any part of it. Many home performance upgrades will also affect comfort as well as efficiency.
Common areas that are addressed are:
- HVAC equipment
- Drafts from windows and building envelope
- Efficiency of appliances and lighting
- Humidity factors & Air quality
- Windows and doors
Many of these upgrades will have tax rebates or credits attached to them. Learn about them before you calculate them as savings. The requirements are often stringent. The current tax credit for replacing windows is costly to implement and gives you a marginal return in energy savings over more common, less expensive units. The tax credit does not cover the cost of the more expensive windows.
Testing is often required to get the rebates offered by utilities or government offices. Testing can take time, cost money and can be inaccurate. A home performance evaluator can do a number of tests and a full evaluation is expensive. The best method for approaching home performance upgrades is to pick the low fruit first.
- Check ductwork first. Leaking ductwork can be the biggest energy loss and is not expensive to repair.
- Seal windows and doors.
- Upgrade insulation.
- HVAV equipment. This is important in extreme climates. A moderate climate will take a long time to recoup this cost.
- Efficiency of lighting and appliances.
- WIndows and doors can be a large cost. Unless they are worn out or you desire a better look or product do this last. There are unexpected costs involved with window and door replacement. Siding, exterior trim, drywall, interior trim and paint are all affected by window and door changes.
The main tests are the blower door test and duct blaster. These tests pressurize the house and duct system. They give good numbers on where the house is performing adequately and where it needs help. An infrared camera will show cold and hot spots. They are good for determining where caulking and insulation are needed.
Efficiency upgrades will save money but a 30,000 investment will take years to recoup and not affect the selling price of the house. It may make it more desirable but will generally not warrant a cost increase. It is all about return on investment. How long will it take you to get your money back.
To do a cost / benefit analysis you need some historical data. Your utility bills for the previous 12 months are a good start. The data is available from your local utility company, often online, if you are like me and throw out the paper copies. The full 12 month time frame is important to get a full year showing all heating and cooling costs. Once you have the bills you will need to determine your baseline usage. The baseline is the cost of running your house without heating and cooling. This number can be found in the spring and fall and will be your lowest bills. Depending on your climate the spring and fall months will require little or no heat or air conditioning. This is your baseline. From this point you can figure your heating and cooling costs separately by subtracting the summer and winter months from this number. If you have propane or natural gas it may be billed from a different company. Add this to the electric for your total utility bill.
You now have enough data to make some decisions. Which is the larger number: heating, cooling or baseline? Rank these 1, 2 & 3. You now have your priorities in addressing home performance. It is not worth changing lightbulbs and replacing appliances when your baseline is low. Pick the low hanging fruit first. Typically the biggest expense is heating. This is true in most geographical areas and may surprise you. Even in warm climates the heat runs more than the AC.
If the heat and AC run through the same system look at the ductwork first. Ductwork should be sealed and insulated. Typically ductwork is run in non insulated spaces like attics and under the subfloor. A duct blaster test can be performed to see if there is significant leakage. Fix the leaks first. Then insulate the lines. Insulation is important for heat loss. If you are running 70 degree air through a duct in an attic that is 110 degrees in the summer and 40 degrees in the winter you have potential for tremendous heat loss.
Check the equipment next. If your heat bill is high, prioritize the furnace before the AC equipment. Anything over 10 years old will benefit from replacement. Units currently manufactured are extremely energy efficient. Manufacturers will supply the costs for running their equipment. Heating and cooling has a SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating). This is standard across the industry and can be used to compare manufacturers. Before buying the most efficient unit out there compare the costs and data for lower priced and efficient units. There is a difference in recouping your investment based on climate. A furnace in a moderate climate like Sacramento, Ca will take a lot longer to pay back than a more extreme climate like Minneapolis, MN.
Insulation and sealing your home can be the biggest return on investment. A blower door test is done to determine how badly the house is leaking. It is not a requirement to test but it will give you a before and after picture. Seal before you insulate. Common spots are pipe penetrations into the attic or subfloor. Often a 2” hole is drilled through the top plates of the wall for a 1/2” pipe. Spray foam all these areas with a non-expanding foam. An infrared camera will show the heat loss around windows, doors and electrical outlets inside the home. It is important to have a temperature difference between the inside and outside when doing this. In cooler months turn the heat on high or the use the AC if it is hot out. A contrast in interior and exterior temperature will better illustrate deficient areas. You can easily see the problem areas in the home and watch the change as they are sealed.
Insulate after all the sealing has been completed. There are many types of insulation now on the market and it may be worth getting a few bids from different subcontractors and doing some research before making a decision. Fiberglass insulation, which you can install yourself, has gotten a bad reputation in recent years. The problem is not the product but the installation. Properly installed fiberglass insulation is just as efficient as spray foam or other options and more cost effective.
I’m not a big fan of replacing light bulbs and appliances to conserve energy. Unless your baseline costs are high there is a large investment for a small return. Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL) are touted as a great cost savings. They do use less energy but cost 4X as much and the light is inferior to a standard incandescent bulb. LED lights look to be the wave of the future. They are extremely energy efficient and they produce a quality light. I would sit out the CFL phase and wait for the LED’s to become cost effective.
Appliances can save energy as well. Washers and dryers carry a large energy cost. If you are running a load a day it can save you money replacing them. For smaller households where you run 1 or 2 loads a week it will take a long time to pay back. Replacing your refrigerator will save substantial money as long as you get rid of the old one. Unfortunately many people put the old unit in the garage and run 2 units which will increase your energy costs.