Energy efficiency and the environment

 The efs and the ens, they are closely related, you better effen believe it.

Along with the destruction of natural habitat, the wasteful and inefficient use of energy is the biggest threat to our environment today. Most of our cities suffer from periods of dangerous smog from the burning of fuels to power our transportation, to heat our homes, and to produce electrical energy for any number of uses. Carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere are rising and may create dangerous climate change. Huge swathes of land are altered drastically to produce hydro, coal or oil and gas. Huge wind farms are supposed to be part of the answer but they to are scars on the face of the planet and are creating ugly (in my opinion) vistas, possible noise pollution and a danger to migrating birds. In the face of escalating energy costs energy efficiency is a primary consideration when building your house.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not a rabid environmentalist bent on shutting down or stopping development of energy resources or the transportation facilities they require. What I am concerned about is that we are using limited resources at far too fast a rate and that at some point in time we simply will not have enough or it will become too expensive to support our civilization. I also believe that the corporations that extract and deliver these energy sources are too easy a target and that activist efforts to curtail their operations will be counter productive and ineffective in the long run.

What I do believe is that each and every one of us is responsible for the careful stewardship of our environment and our resources. An attitude of getting the most the fastest is fast becoming a morally unacceptable way of life. I am not talking about money as such but rather how it is spent. Conspicuous consumption may be destroying our planet and our civilization.

Now that I have finished my little rant I can get back to what this blog is really about. Building houses. However it is also about building smaller, cheaper and more environmentally friendly. This means energy efficiency is a primary goal.

I read someplace recently that the average size for a new home being built today in North America is over 2000 sq. ft.. This is while the average family size has been trending steadily downward. I was raised in a house of about 700 sq. ft. and that was considered quite comfortable for the time. Most of you over thirty were raised in houses of 900 to 1300 sq. ft.

What is it that makes people believe that their needs are suddenly so much greater than their forebears. I think ego, because why else would someone tie themselves to crippling mortgages, high utility bills, double housework and double maintenance. I suppose it is for the same reason that people tie themselves to large vehicle payments, high fill up costs, higher maintenance costs and difficult parking.

Big homes like big cars use considerably more energy. While homes today can be built to use a lot less energy than in the past it is still true that the larger the roof and wall area the more energy that will be used.

My point is that for the sake of your bank account and the environment you should consider your real needs carefully before building. For some reason when I built my last house I felt that a large jet tub would be soothing for old bones. I think I have used it three times in six years and I am not sure my wife has ever used it. (No, we are not getting real smelly, we use our walk in shower daily.) It is a pretty expensive unit for bathing the dog.

A smaller house is more energy efficient and certain design factors can increase that efficiency. It will also require less material and place less demand on resources, yours and the planets.

Keep your wall and ceiling area down by sticking to simple shapes.

Windows and doors cannot be well insulated so reducing the size and number of them can make sense.

Don’t skimp on insulation, it is cheap, effective and pays back quickly. I suggest R20 for walls and R50 for ceilings as a minimum if you are in any area which has significant cold or hot seasons. Payback reduces quickly as these amounts are exceeded but it depends on your concern for comfort and the environment. Consider structural changes such as raised heels on the trusses to allow for extra insulation in spots normally difficult to insulate . Wide eaves can help by shading windows and walls in the summer.

Comfort very important

I can’t overstress the importance of sealing your house well against uncontrolled air infiltration or exfiltration. This is difficult to do in existing houses but should be done with great care on new construction. The material used is inexpensive and energy savings substantial

There are many technical innovations appearing on the market that can decrease the use of heating fuel or electricity dramatically. Payback may be difficult to figure out but the higher your concern for the environment the less important this becomes.

One of the newest ideas is a learning thermostat which supposedly learns your habits and adjusts accordingly for the most efficient use of cooling and heating. I have no experience with this item but the idea is intriguing

Tankless gas water heaters offer efficiency as high as 98% and in my experience work excellent. A concern is the water quality in your area. High BTU models are needed where incoming water is cold. They can be used in hydronic space heating applications as well but check with the manufacturer for suitability and warranty. They do not require a chimney, do not use much space and are usually direct vent which I feel is safer. High efficiency condensing models do require a drain. Quite expensive but the price has dropped sharply in the last few years.

Forced air gas furnaces and boilers are available with efficiencies of 92% and up. These can also be direct vent without a chimney and require a drain. The payback on these is quit good in cold climates. Direct venting pulls outside air for combustion and vents combustion gases directly outside.

Hydronic radiant heat, usually under or in the floor, can be quite energy efficient since you are comfortable at considerably lower air temperatures which results in less heat loss through walls and ceiling.

Air conditioners (heat pumps) can utilize ground water or the earth itself as an energy source or even without can be good in areas where natural gas is not available. My experience in this area is very limited. In my region well designed and built homes require little or no air conditioning.

There is a limit to how much money you can put into windows and still have a reasonable payback but a low E coating (don,t ask me what that means) is apparently effective at blocking the passage of some radiant heat. It is quite inexpensive.

Electric heat is perfectly efficient but unless your area has low rates or your usage will be low it is likely not cost effective. Though if you can eliminate a gas service it might make a difference.Ventilation is needed in well sealed houses and can be supplied by heat recovery ventilators (HRV) in cold climates which prevent too much warmed air from being exhausted. Since the air is fan forced in both directions they aid in maintaining a neutral air pressure in the home. Ventilators are also used in some hot climates but lack of experience means I cannot elaborate much. A better source of information for warmer climates is a blog called Energy Vanguard. I believe they are in Arizona.

Low flow shower heads and modern front load washing machines conserve both water and the fuel to heat it. Needless to say, large bathtubs use a lot of water and energy. Toilets today use much less water per flush but you can still save water by installing double flush models. These allow the use of a lesser amount of water when flushing only liquids. Conserving water also saves the energy required to purify and get it to you.

Consider the energy use when buying your appliances. Purchase refrigerators or freezers of a size that suit your actual requirements. Allow space for larger units if future requirements should change.

Insulating your hot water pipes seems sensible. A circulating system so you do not have to run water till it is hot may make sense in more ways than one. A waste water heat recovery system can save energy and the reuse of gray water for irrigation might be considered.

The use of fluorescent lighting is becoming more commonplace and can save a little on electricity and reduce the air conditioning load. There is the argument that the waste heat from incandescent lighting can reduce the heating requirements during heating season. I don’t find this valid as electricity is most often more costly than heating fuel.

There are probably other innovations that I have not heard of yet and many that may make little economic sense and having payback times that could exceed their useful life. Some of these will be a matter for your conscience. The energy cost of manufacture should be considered before purchasing some items.

The least costly way to conserve energy is to change some of your habits and in some cases expend a little of your own personal energy. Turn off lights when they are not needed. Wear warmer clothes for comfort and turn down the heat. Don’t drive when you can walk, cycle, or use public transportation. There can be the added benefit of better health. Use a clothes line instead of the dryer when the weather is nice. Take shorter showers and fewer baths. Drive slower, speed greatly increases your use of fuel as well as increasing the likelihood of a deadly crash. The time you gain is usually so minimal as to be almost unnoticeable. To have the least detrimental effect on the environment it is best to use the least possible amount of material or goods of any kind.

Lowering your energy use considerably can make the utilization of your own alternative energy sources, passive or otherwise, much more practical and cost effective.

The use of trees for shade and for wind protection are undervalued in my opinion. They have the added values of reducing ambient temperatures in their proximity and of the long term sequestration (wow, tough word) of carbon in their wood. Oxygen is a by-product of their growth and they may help remove pollutants from the air.

One addition to a house that I am a fan of and that I believe has a positive environmental impact is the attached garage, particularly in cold climates. Consider the idle time required to warm or cool a vehicle, the cost of operating engine heaters and the purchase and installation costs of remote starts, not to mention the extra wear on your vehicle and sun damage to its finishes. It is not necessary to keep a garage as warm as the house and one or two shared walls reduce the heating load of both. Each time you return from a trip the residual heat in the drive train and cabin of your car adds itself to the garage and reduces heating cost. Of course this is off set in really cold weather by the mass of cold metal in the body. I have heated garages at very low cost with the use of in floor radiant heat and building standards similar to that of the house overall. I could have reduced that more by using a high efficiency heat source and will do that next time. It is hard to beat the comfort of getting directly into your car from the house in inclement weather.

I have noticed one disadvantage. A number of times I have found myself downtown still in my bedroom slippers even in very bad weather.

This has been an extra long post that I hope emphasizes the importance I place on the subject of energy efficiency.

Saving money and saving our environment are both very important to me personally. Money because I don’t have much and the earth because I have to live on it. (For a little while yet at least)

You have to live with what you and others make of this world and your own corner of it.

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