By: Susan Kraemer
Energy efficient housing. It's not the fun part of greentech. It's not some astounding new and innovative technology. It's not going to win any Da Vinci awards for creativity.
But the Obama administration is betting its new Home Star “Cash for Caulkers” program that it's the one with the greenest bang for the buck. They’ll pay you up to half the cost to retrofit that gas-guzzling house of yours for up to $4,000 and in the process put a quarter of a million unemployed construction workers back to work lowering your energy costs and carbon footprint. The $23 billion dollar program should retrofit at least 6 million houses, and put a dent in the 17% unemployment rate in the construction industry.
Unlike smaller and postponed tax credits for efficiency, the Home Star program would offer immediate upfront money, making investment into energy efficiency feasible, even in these economic times. In the long term it greatly reduces costs for energy which is literally like blowing dollars out the windows. It will pay up to half for better insulated windows, attics, crawlspaces, more efficient hot water and home heating, white roofing for cooling, etc.
Whatever you choose: if it can lower your energy use 20% you’d get half off - because if there is only one thing that you can do to lower your carbon footprint - retrofitting your house to be energy efficient is that one thing.
The first step is finding where your house is leaking heat.
Getting an energy audit to see where heat is escaping is worth doing. Redoing insulation in existing structures takes time, trouble and money, but the payback is pretty prompt. In fact, upgrading insulation pays off so quickly that it's worth doing even if you don't care about the carbon footprint. The bottom-line improvement is even better than it first appears, because insulation helps keep the summer heat out as well as the winter heat in.
Conventional fiberglass insulation helps, and it is not hard to install. Even more effective in most circumstances is blown-in foam, which is well-suited for retrofits. Best to get a heat test to see where heat is escaping from your house (with your dollars) from an organization like Sustainable Spaces.
Keep the heat in with better windows
There have been huge advances in energy efficient building materials that now make it possible to create houses that need virtually no heating, because they are so well insulated. The PassiveHaus idea in Europe uses these concepts to get houses to net zero energy, and triple-glazed windows are a basic requirement in Sweden’s building code.
Why does Sweden’s building code matter? Sweden grew its economy 44% while reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 9% below its Kyoto targets. California’s building code is pretty stringent too, as I discovered when we built from scratch 15 years ago. Our house takes about half the energy to heat of other houses its size, partly from the passive solar design, but a big part was California’s Title 22 window codes. Upgrading to efficient windows pays off even faster in colder regions, and many parts of the nation have little or no building code requirements for energy efficiency.
Serious Materials in the US makes windows with up to an R11 rating, that can be used in retrofits like this 1934 house that is now net zero. The typical window is R2; the typical brick wall is about R13 - R25.
Image: Flikr user r costa