Things you need to know before improving your home's energy profile
These days, a smart home is becoming synonymous with a green home, but there’s more to energy efficiency than just the devices that go in it. When considering making your home more energy efficient, there are a number of factors to consider. Some of them you can’t necessarily control (building codes, for instance, which vary by area). Other factors such as more efficient building materials are something you can add on or remove from your house. Learn how each factor affects the overall energy efficiency of your home.
Building Codes & Square Footage
Of course it’s always preferable to use energy efficient materials during the building process, but one of the challenges in making energy efficient homes has to do with building codes.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a national standard in the United States that can be enforced. For instance, in the state of New York, home insulation values1 are allowed to be lower. Homes built there will usually contain cheaper insulation than the Energy Star standard. Floors and foundation walls may also not be insulated, so make sure you check what local codes are in your area before attempting any kind of overhaul. You may wind up with a bigger project than you were anticipating.
It may seem obvious, but square footage is a big component of how much you can scale back on your home’s energy usage. Houses in the Northeast and Midwest have the highest in overall square footage. Depending on when you bought your home, that could also determine the overall square footage. On average, home square footage has risen 27% since 19902. Again, the biggest jump is in the Northeast and Midwest regions, which went from 2400 square feet for the average home in the 1990s to 3000 square feet in the 2000s.
Made the move to the suburbs to escape rising rent costs? Now factor in heating and cooling a larger house, especially when considering your home’s floorplan. For instance, it costs more to heat up a large open floor plan than to heat individual rooms. Also, if that square footage is in an area with warmer temperatures year-round, then you also have to factor in spending more time cooling off that extra square footage.
A big factor that goes into an energy efficient home is building materials. For instance, brick has excellent thermal mass properties3, meaning it has the capacity to store heat and slowly release it.
If your home is made of brick, it’s more likely to maintain a consistent temperature throughout the day, meaning you won’t need to stay bundled inside during the winter. Brick is also a good green choice for building a home from the outset because it's sourced directly from clay and shale, which is abundant in the earth. Looking for coziness as well as energy efficiency? Definitely consider getting into brick.
Building materials are giving a rating on how well they score on their resistance to heat flow, denoted as an R-value. Like brick, wood also has high R-values, but it depends on the type. A traditional wood stud wall scores high, but that idea in your mind of a cozy log cabin? That’s not the most accurate. Logs are highly susceptible to air leakage, so they need to be checked regularly and sealed.
Wood is also not as sustainable as other building materials, so alternatives like plastic composite lumber are becoming more common in the market. Made from waste plastic and wood fiber, it is more durable and less toxic than treated wood. Resistant to mold, it’s also great for humid environments. Checking into this as a replacement option for your traditional wood siding could help you save a bunch, reduce waste, and lower yearly maintenance costs.
The Age-old Problem
Finally, you’ll need to consider your home’s age if you’re looking into improving your home’s energy efficiency.
If you live in the Mid-Atlantic or Northeast, the likelihood that you have a home that was built before 1900 is much higher when compared to the West Coast and Southwest, meaning that a number of big-scale projects are likely on the horizon. Some of those might include:
- Old wiring and pipes that need to be replaced
- Structural integrity issues when undergoing major remodeling projects
- Poor insulation and single-pane windows
Across the country, there are other concerns when it comes to homes that are newer, but are still considered vintage. For instance, in certain cities in California4, craftsman bungalow homes built before the 1930s homes are considered historical landmarks to preserve, and so remodeling projects are severely limited by city councils.
When it comes to heating and cooling specifically, older homes were originally built to heat one room at a time5, which was more economical. In the advent of whole-house heating and cooling units, this can mean lots of wasted energy and higher operation costs during peak hours and times of the year. If your home is an antique itself, consider some low-cost solutions first like heavier curtains and programmable thermostats. As with any major project in an old home, you should plan carefully and execute strategically, because some energy-efficient improvements are just not going to work on an older home.
The more you know about the background of your home, including what materials were used and when it was built, the more prepared you’ll be when trying to improve its energy efficiency and lower overall operational costs.