Green Upgrades in a Tough Economy

In tough economic times, and even when times are rolling, many homeowners simply cannot justify the installation of solar panels on their rooftops or the drilling required for geothermal heat pumps. Many of us do not live on acre lots with space to set up the infrastructure to efficiently farm wind. There is a general ignorance regarding what sorts of incentives are available in our area and how to get access to them, and, well, we figure, we’re in the same boat as millions of other Americans.

Energy Audit – get to know your home

First things first; you need to determine the effectiveness of your home’s envelope – essentially the barrier between the outside (and thus the rain, the heat, the cold, the wind, the noise, etc…) and the inside (you, your family, your pets, your things, etc…). For that, a trained energy auditor can perform a “blower-door test” to determine the amount of air infiltration, which is the unintentional or accidental introduction of outside air into a building, typically through cracks in the building. Professional energy operators will also typically employ thermal cameras to pinpoint problem areas that are not necessarily infiltrating air but are still losing energy to the environment through conduction (a hint: it’s usually the doors and the windows).

A good place to start looking for professional energy auditors is with your local utility or state energy department. Either of them is likely to provide lists of energy auditors operating in your area. For residents in the Central Texas area, Native, formerly known as Hill Country Ecobuilders, can perform energy audits as well as energy consulting and green renovations. Native will provide a FREE site assessment which you can get by clicking here.

For the ultra, budget-conscious, a very ad hoc assessment can be performed with a stick of burning incense and the building’s exhaust fans turned on (for example the fans in your stovetop hood or in the bathroom). As the fans depressurize the house slightly, you should be able to notice any inwards rush of air from holes and cracks. Keep an eye out for cobwebs as well as they are a sure sign of infiltration – spiders like to build nests where there are breezes.

Insulate – buildings need clothing too

Once you’ve identified the problem areas in your home’s envelope, the next step is to take steps to rectify those weaknesses and plug up the gaps. For one thing that means investing in some thicker clothing for your house in the form of insulation. Get epoxy sealant and caulk and plug up cracks and gaps – pay special attention to window and door frames which are notoriously leaky. In fact, a better option would be to replace old widows entirely with multi-pane glass and weather-resistant aluminum frames with built-in thermal breaks (usually a thin piece of rubber separating metal joints).

In regards to insulation, any type of insulation, whether it is fiberglass batting or foam boards, is better than none at all and will make a world of difference. Many green renovators prefer spray-foam insulation which tends to do a better job of reaching all those small cracks and crevices and filling them up. Also make sure to properly and adequately insulate your ductwork. The Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental organization in Colorado, estimates that most Americans could cut their energy bills by up to half through simple “building envelope improvements,” like sealing air leaks, adding adequate insulation, and upgrading window features. Of course, eco-builders such as Native can do all that for you.

Live Differently – occupant behavior determines ultimate sustainability

Sometimes the best solution, however difficult, is to introduce a little discipline and acclimate yourself to living in a new and different way. For example; make it a routine to set the thermostat to 85 when the house is empty and simply set it back to a more comfortable temperature when the house is occupied. Increasing airflow lowers the perceived ambient temperature – fans are a great solution if you remember to turn them off when you leave. During the winter, wear more clothing. It also helps to make sure that no direct sunlight is hitting the thermostat and that no heat-generating electronics are throwing off the thermostat’s readings.

To summarize the above:

  • Energy audit – get to know your home. If you live in Central Texas, Native provides a FREE site assessment.
  • Insulate like mad – buildings need clothing too.
  • Live differently – the way occupants use the house is just as important as, if not more important than, green features and technologies.

If you do not live in Texas you visit these sites:

What our customers say . . .

Two years ago we saved up enough money to install a cooling system in our old house. We had a slew of professionals come in and give us bids and recommendations, including traditional high-efficiency HVAC and geothermal solutions. Native was the highest quote we got — but we realized that the another geothermal guy specked out a less robust a system with an insufficiently deep hole. Ultimately, we went with Lloyd (Native) because he and his crew were so smart, responsive and honest. Checking their references confirmed the quality of their work — nothing but glowing reviews. Finally, they helped us secure a multitude of rebates to drastically reduce the final cost. Two years later and we’re still very happy with the work Native did. The solar screens and insulation they recommended & subcontracted have held up very well and kept our house much cooler. The geothermal system itself is amazing, and has seen us through a biting winter (2010-11) and a ridiculously hot summer (2011) without any problems. Our bills are much much lower, year-round, than those of our neighbors with similar homes, so we’re confident that the system will pay for itself before too long. Clearly, we recommend Native without reservation, and will definitely go to them when we’re ready for solar! Amy A. – Austin, TX