Energy savings before the granite countertops”
By Wyldon King Fishman, FASES, President and Founder, New York Solar Energy Society
Did you choose the granite countertops before inspecting the energy savings embedded in a new or remodeled home? A professional home audit like the kind needed to evaluate a home for sale tackles the heating system, the water heater, the condition of the roof, signs of leaks, vent stacks, wiring, plumbing and more. An energy audit includes a blower door test and infrared evaluation of air leaks. This test helps measure all your insulation and pinpoints drafts going around the insulation. It’s a great way to spot whether or not you’ll experience ice dams, frozen pipes, cold rooms, leaky ducts and the aggravation of constant fuel deliveries. How much does it tell you about the potential for renewable energy generation?
At the New York Solar Energy Society we focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy, for entertainment and education is our game. It’s important to educate New Yorkers about the huge responsibility a buyer takes on when undertaking to own a power generation system. We are all so accustomed to “flipping the switch” so we need to reprogram to take on the luxury of not having the grid always at our beck and call. If you stay attached to the grid you’ll pay a price. Utilities can set new rates charging the solar electric system buyers up to $100 per month. Are batteries better than the grid? Think about it. Get a bigger battery back-up and spend less for the solar panels. Rearrange your circuit board load to handle only small loads during a black out. Wean those bad habits with common sense, a little learning curve and logical thinking. Maybe math class could be useful, something good for the planet and a way to save lots of money.
Back to basics: saving energy 101
A blower door test kit contains a covering for the door opening. The professional starts by assuring every window, outside door and fireplace flue is closed. If it’s a two- or three-story home, additional sampling tests may be needed. The auditor opens the main door and covers the door opening with a flexible piece of plastic, attaches wire to collect data to a computer and then turns on a very small, quiet fan. The fan pulls the air out of the house and reveals the exact amount of air coming into the house from all the leaky spots. Ideally there must be a 20 F-degree difference between the inside air and the outside air. The colder air coming in through the little leaks will light up an infrared camera. Point the camera to all the corners, around the windows, pipes, stoves, and air conditioners. In minutes, the camera has revealed all the cold spots. The computer gives the home a RESNET HERS score (under 50 is really good). Getting to zero marks the home as a Zero Net Energy rated home. Better buildings make more energy than they can use—the new goal in today’s market. Welcome to the world of building science!
Two rules can help you get started: site orientation and weatherization. What are they and how can they return hard earned cash to your pocket?
To gather free heat from the sun, every building north of the equator needs a south facing exposure with no shade. The ideal site is flat or slopes south or southwest. Building new or renovating a half-decent house with great southern exposure guarantees the primary rule for success. A perfect free heat generation building starts with the old real estate rule: location, location, location. In the winter, the wind howls and sunlight is low in the winter sky. Capture the sun. Guide it into a living space. With enough insulation, heat from the sun will lock into the well-insulated building space—the cave effect above ground.
There’s gold to be mined from clear southern exposure. To save money, take out windows from the north, east and west and reinstall them on the south side. Windows on the east and west let in very hot summer sun and, therefore, should be minimalized and fitted with awnings. Following this primary rule guarantees you’ll be shocked at the comfort attained.
Weatherization is made up of two key factors: insulation and air tightness. An air-tight building can be so airtight that it needs make up air. First step: caulk. Inexpensive caulk loaded into a caulking gun is going to change the comfort of a building immediately. A drafty old home may take a week or two to caulk. The game is to find the drafts, starting with the baseboards, the window and door casings, the pipes behind every sink, all round the basement, loose floorboards, and staircases. On a windy day check your work with a lit stick of incense or a smoke stick from the hardware store. Every tube of caulk applied to a drafty building reduces the yearly energy budget permanently.
Around the Capital Region, winter consumes most of our fuel budget. It’s possible to have the right amount of insulation and still feel cold and hear the heat banging up every half hour. Leaks, drafts, daylight around pipes sticking through the walls, foundation shifts, cracks in the walls, and air conditioners hanging out of windows all let the wind steal the heat from a house. Get a lot of caulk and a caulking gun and go to town. The wind didn’t blow through all the skins on a teepee, a Micmac, a wigwam or a long house. Why should we let the wind steal the heat from our homes?
Insulation, the second part of weatherization, needs to breathe with the house. Insulation requires a thoughtful plan. Different kinds fit different specific applications, so take the time to use the best insulation for the right spot. For instance, to insulate the back side of an attic staircase, consider rock wool later covered with sheetrock, if necessary. In the basement around floor joists on the outer wall, the spray on closed cell foam works well. On basement walls, the blue foam board with silver backing gives excellent results. In walls and attics including screened in porches, blown in cellulose insulation can also serve as a fire retardant. It’s possible to “lift the shingles” and do this work from the outside. Attics dominate the all important top layer where the goal is quite high compared with the walls (R 60 vs. R 22). A flat roof takes serious consideration, including the new roofing material “EPDM” for excellent summer results. Insulation blocks sound as well and will change the livability of an older house in many ways, making it far more comfortable, quiet and less costly to operate.
Next steps: what’s new
Heat exchangers are now cold weather maximized. In the past few years, the industry has moved the needle to 15 degrees below zero with efficiency. Heat exchangers grab heat molecules from the outside air (“ambient air temperature”) and move them into the house. Heat pumps perform dual duty as they the best AC ever. In seconds, the humidity disappears and the cooling effect kicks in.
Ground Source Heat Transfer (GSHP or “Geothermal”) is another heat pump or heat exchange mechanism. Instead of pulling molecules from the air, it pulls heat from the ground, from a pond or, as they know in Europe, from sanitary sewers! Fifty-two degrees is pretty warm in winter and nice and cool in summer. Exchangers bring the cooling and heating potential of the ground into the house. But a well sealed, well insulated house needs less heat.
Thermostats in every room suddenly become significantly important. Rooms with aging family members require warmer temperatures than those with active children. A room on the sunny south side heats up easily on a winter’s day. Balancing the heat around the building will reap savings.
Another newer heat pump application is for water heaters. Where should it go? Up here in the north, a warmer basement is important and a heat pump water heater will take the warm air from the basement and dump it into the water heater,” leaving you with a cold basement. Get it for the house in Florida.
It’s okay to experience an “ah hah moment “here. Before the fancy solar system with battery back-up, order the energy audit. Start eliminating the wasted energy first. In some states the whole house energy audit is mandatory before the purchase of a solar electric system.
Lastly, if you are looking for financing, your utility may have On Bill Financing (OBF), which works really well. New York State passed a bill five years ago to help the utilities design their software but publicity is sadly nonexistent. Another source is town financing called Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE). Banks might loan you the money but examine the interest rate you’re earning on savings versus paying the cost directly from savings. It’s another “ah hah moment.”