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Improving energy performance of new homes

Purchasing a newly constructed home is an exciting process and a major milestone. Whether you are building a custom home or buying a spec home, you will be making dozens of important decisions before moving in––from purchasing the perfect kitchen countertops to selecting a home financing package.

The decisions you make about the energy efficiency of your new home will have lasting consequences. These energy-related decisions, such as how you heat, cool, light and insulate your home, are often overlooked.

The first step to maximizing energy efficiency is to select a properly sized home that meets your family’s needs. America is known for its sizeable homes, but after hitting a peak of 2,268 square feet in 2006, the median size of new single-family homes started to trend down.

According to a recent report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “as square footage increases, the burden on heating and cooling equipment rises, lighting requirements increase and the likelihood that the household uses more than one refrigerator increases. Square footage typically stays fixed over the life of a home, and it is a characteristic that is expensive, even impractical to alter to reduce energy consumption.”

According to the Department of Energy, appliances account for about 13 percent of the average household’s energy use. Clothes dryers, refrigerators/freezers, computers, microwaves, dishwashers and washing machines tend to use the most energy in a typical American home. Every appliance you purchase has an operating cost (i.e., the cost of the energy needed to power that appliance). To facilitate more informed shopping, the federal government requires many appliances to include an EnergyGuide label stating the approximate energy consumption and operating cost of the appliance. Appliances with an ENERGY STAR label use 10 to 50 percent less energy than standard appliances.

Many owners of new homes are interested in solar energy. If you are considering solar, make sure your home is as energy efficient as possible. This will enable a smaller, less expensive solar system to provide a substantial portion of your energy needs. Prices for solar panels have dropped considerably over the last decade, and there are many financing models and incentives available to residential customers.

Another efficient option is a residential geothermal system. While they do not generate electricity, geothermal systems save energy by using heat from the earth to replace conventional heating and cooling systems. Throughout the year, the earth remains a constant, moderate temperature (i.e., 50 degrees Fahrenheit) just below the ground. Geothermal heating and cooling systems, also known as ground source systems, make use of this constant underground temperature by circulating water in a loop to exchange heat between your home, the ground source heat pump and the earth––providing highly efficient heating, cooling and hot water.

Installing an easy-to-use programmable thermostat is also a great way to efficiently operate your home. ENERGY STAR estimates a typical household can annually save $180 by properly using a programmable thermostat.

Regardless of the number of energy efficiency features in your home, occupant behavior is still a major factor in how much energy your household consumes. From unplugging appliances you rarely use, like a mostly empty second refrigerator, to making sure you run full loads in the washing machine, dryer and dishwasher, to turning out the lights––it all adds up in energy savings.