Written by: Wisconsin Log Homes
Fifty to seventy percent of the energy used in the average American home is for heating and cooling. The impact a house makes in the environment is massive and the reason that Wisconsin Log Homes decided from the start to build the industry’s most energy-efficient custom wood homes.
In the planning stages of your new home, you will be deciding your future energy bills for years to come. Today’s new homes still range from “leaky” and wasteful to “tight” and efficient. The choices you make now can save you thousands of dollars in future energy costs.
Energy Efficient Mortgages
Building an energy efficient home can help you get more house for your money under the Energy Efficient Mortgage (EEM). A new home can qualify for this mortgage if it is built to meet or exceed the requirements of the Model Energy Code published by the Council of American Building Officials (CABO).
The EEM is a special mortgage that takes into account the monthly cost savings realized by living in an energy efficient home. EEM programs allow current mortgage underwriting guidelines to be adjusted to reflect the economic effect of lower monthly payments for energy. Borrowers can finance energy-saving measures and stretch qualifying ratios to provide larger loans for homeowners.
Be sure to check with your lending institution for details on EEMs and how you can qualify.
Insulation helps maintain a uniform temperature throughout the house. Walls, ceilings and floors will be warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Fewer drafts mean your home will remain comfortable at lower thermostat settings. The insultating ability of the components of a home, whether in the roof, walls, windows or doors, is most often measured in “R-Value.” The higher the number, the better.
Insulation is very inexpensive compared to the savings and comfort it can bring to your new home. This is not the place to skimp on cost. It’s important to make sure that every square inch of the outside of your home is sealed tight and well-insulated. The most common places missed during the installation of insulation include the sill box in the basement, between the top of the basement walls and floor joists, in the attic where rafters sit on top of a wall below, and around openings like electrical plates or where wires and pipes enter the home.
Housewrap and Vapor Barrier
Make certain that an “air infiltration barrier” is wrapped around the entire outside of the house. This helps keep outside air from entering the insulation cavity, thereby protecting the R-Value. It reduces heat loss by as much as 30%. A “vapor barrier” should be applied on the inside of the exterior walls and on the ceilings. It prevents moisture vapor from entering the insulation cavity, where it can destroy the insulating value and cause structural damage.
Proper ventilation can reduce indoor air pollution, save energy, and prevent moisture build-up. Because stale air, moisture and odors occur naturally in a home, it’s important to incorporate natural or mechanical ventilation into your plans.
Moving air naturally is as simple as opening a window. Ideally, rooms should have windows on at least two walls to permit cross ventilation. Having windows open year-round is not an option for most climates. So you’ll need to provide exhaust fans for the kitchen, laundry and bathrooms. Exhaust fans must be vented to the outside. If not, excess moisture from bathing or cooking will actually find its way to colder surfaces and could create condensation, mold and mildew.
Ventilation is critical to preventing rot and mold in your roof and attic. A well-designed roof system will create a natural, continuous flow of air that keeps the roof insulation and framing dry. Continuous ridge, soffit and proper vents along with whatever gable vents are necessary will alleviate moisture problems. A well-designed roof system will also help reduce air conditioning costs by venting out unwanted summer heat.
When planning the windows in your home, keep in mind that even with today’s high-tech units, windows can be a major source of energy loss. Be practical in the number and size of windows used, and place them where you’ll enjoy them the most. In all cases, window quality is not the place to skimp. Quality doesn’t cost, it saves. Experts recommend argon-insulated, Low-E windows that include energy efficient design features and structural integrity.
It used to be that a heavy, solid, old-fashioned wooden door was the home’s best protection from the elements. Not anymore. Today’s best doors are steel or fiberglass wrapped around foam core insulation. The weather-stripping on steel doors is actually a magnetic seal much like your refrigerator door. These energy tight doors have twice the insulating value of a wood door and don’t require a storm door. They even come with a wood texture so they can look like wood while saving you a lot of money over the years.
Contact your local utility or power company to see if they offer rebates or incentives. To lower your up-front investment on high-efficiency appliances, ventilation, heat pumps and other technology, many local utilities offer incentives to help their customers save energy.
Energy efficiency is the most important consideration when buying a furnace. Look for an annual fuel usage efficiency (AFUE) rating in the 90% range. High efficiency furnaces are usually 90% to 97% and mid-efficiency furnaces are normally 78% to 85%. The 90-plus furnaces not only give you more heat for your dollar, they also eliminate the need for a chimney. The efficient use of fuel allows employment of a low cost PVC pipe for venting 90-plus furnaces. Another small PVC pipe is used to bring in the necessary air from outdoors for combustion.
A high-tech efficiency furnace can save you up to 50% on heating costs. Some are even controlled by a computer board mounted in the furnace. Ask your heating dealer to calculate the right size unit for your home.
The Air Conditioner
Central air conditioning can be surprisingly inexpensive to operate when purchased and used wisely. All air conditioners are judged on energy efficiency by SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio). Select a model with a SEER rating of 11.0 or higher. Lower-rated units are available for a cheaper initial investment, but over the life of the unit, you’ll actually save money with a higher efficiency air conditioner. You’ll also save money by placing the unit in a shaded area rather than in the sun. Again, check with your dealer for the best size for your new home.
The Water Heater
In most homes, the water heater is the second largest energy user. Select the size and type of the heater wisely.
Natural gas water heaters are generally considered the most economical. In areas where natural gas is not available, electric water heaters, which cost less initially, can be efficient when homeowners take advantage of a utility’s low-cost, time-of-use electric rates. When comparing efficiency on units, look for the rated “energy factor.” The higher the better.
Although a fireplace can look warm and cozy, it often wastes more heat than it produces. To minimize the waste, insist on tight-sealing glass doors and damper. They will block air flow when the fireplace is not in use.
Why burn household air you’ve already paid to heat? Instead, vent-in some outside air for combustion. Consider a gas-fired “zero-clearance” fireplace which eliminates a chimney by venting right out your side wall. They are very efficient and perhaps the best balance between the cost and comfort of a fireplace.
When siting a house to achieve the best energy efficiency, the most effective strategy you can use is to orient your building with the long side facing south, exposing it to year-round light and warmth. An effective overhang shades the window in the summer from the sun but allows the low-angle rays of the winter sun to reach inside. Conversely, it places the short sides of the building to the east and west to minimize solar gains during the overheated periods of the summer.
To make a southern exposure work harder, locate public living spaces like the living room, dining room and kitchen to the south side of the house, where they will receive light and warmth throughout the year. Locate the private and unoccupied rooms such as bedrooms, utility rooms, garages, etc to the north where they will act as insulating buffers for living spaces.
Try to keep corners of the house to a minimum. Unnecessary corners mean more exterior wall surface is exposed to wind, which increases heating loads on the house. To hold in heat, design your house so that it is relatively compact in shape. So in very cold or very hot areas, houses should be more square than rectangular. In temperate areas, shape is not as critical, but in humid areas a long, narrow house allows for cross ventilation.