By Linda Wigington*
The secret to working toward deep energy reductions in all homes: Don’t work without a plan. If necessary, work in stages.
On the road to energy efficiency, the biggest challenge we’ve got is that we’re still working out of a old paradigm, fixing bit-by-bit, when we need to ask: How do we make houses substantially better?
The perspective I originally brought to Affordable Comfort (ACI) back in the 80's was that there was a logical limit to the performance of existing homes. It made sense to insulate attics and wall cavities and fix the flaws that blower doors and infrared cameras reveal. It made sense to upgrade equipment and make sure that the house system was working, that our well-intentioned efforts did not create unexpected consequences.
My expectations then were that we could create pretty good housing, pretty affordable comfort, pretty good energy savings. And that was good enough. For the most part, it wasn’t cost effective to go beyond fixing what was broken or missing. If you addressed everything—from the heating loads, distribution system, hot water use, and appliances—you could reduce energy use by 30 or 40 percent; maybe even 50% in an energy hog of a house. And that would be big.
But I realized that what I had always assumed was good enough fell short. At the same time, I was struck by the notion that there was also an opportunity for a breakthrough here. It was a real a-ha. Not only is doing it the way we're doing not getting us significant enough results for the long-term. It's also harder. Is the house going to need ventilation? Will the chimney still work with all the exhaust appliances on? I doubt we can get to scale with a craftsman-style, customized approach. But the evolution of my thinking didn't happen overnight.
- I realized that every bit of energy I use is producing carbon that is not just going through the system, it’s accumulating. Much of the carbon dioxide I contribute to today will be around for 50 years.
- I had a grandchild born. I don’t want him and his generation to experience anger from the rest of the world because of what I didn't do. Will they look back at us as fools, but as courageous enough to make an investment to help to protect their future?
- I learned about the Factor10 concept; the notion that industrialized countries, on average, need to reduce our use of resources and carbon output by a factor of 10 to come close to a sustainable per capita environmental impact.
What I had always assumed to be the practical limit to retrofitting existing homes would not get us anywhere near a factor of 10 reduction. Only by going deeper can you begin to solve these global problems. Ironically, going deeper can also bring solutions, solutions that simplify getting the work done and offer comprehensive fixes. Eliminating ducts entirely saves the hassle of improving their faulty design. Replacing old furnaces and conventional gas water heaters with direct vent or spillage-resistant appliances simplifies improvements later on. Instead of patching the problem, we need to integrate our whole house solutions to much higher levels of performance. Where we can, we need deep energy reductions that will cut energy use in our homes by 70 to 90 percent.
Mapping the way
How do we stay the course, keep gradual improvements moving ahead, but do it as a bridge to where we need to go? With a road map. When planners build a road system, they don’t just build one block at a time without thinking about their destination. That would be incremental—piece-by-piece and haphazard. They do it by thinking about where they’re going, and the best route for getting there. We have to design and work with the end in mind. That's what I call a staged approach.
If done with just a little more design and clear intent, we have the potential to make home and energy improvements that don’t get in the way of going deep. We need “staged” retrofits. Keep in mind, a solution for one home may not be on the path for another home, or another climate. But on the road to deep reductions, homeowners need to know where they're headed. At every turn and with each home improvement, they should check in with their map. That way, they won't get lost. And they won't create barriers to future improvements down the road. Here are a handful of examples:
Set the boundaries. In a leaky, old house, the half-way spaces between inside and out may not seem like a big deal. If you are going for deep reductions, though, it's important to decide if the basement is in or out of your living space. If you can't create a dry, well insulated basement, move the heating system to a part of the house that is. If you plan to finish the walk-up attic one day, air seal and insulate the roof, instead of the attic floor. That way, you're creating a continuous air barrier to prevent heat loss and avoid messy things like ice dams—while keeping your options open.
Seize every opportunity. Anyone who touches any part of your house could impact its health, safety, durability, comfort and energy use. When the time comes to replace your roof or siding, plan for energy upgrades while the timing is right. If you're having an electrician visit anyway, run the wiring you need for mechanical ventilation to improve air quality then, too.
Plan for updates. When you do insulate your attic, consider future upgrades that impact the attic or roof. If you expect to install solar on it one day, make it solar ready: This could be as simple as installing (and air sealing around) a PVC pipe or two to anticipate plumbing or electricity for solar PV or hot water.
Do it once. Don’t just insulate to what somebody deems cost effective (or up to code). Is it only cost effective to put R-30 in your attic? Estimates of cost effectiveness include assumptions about labor costs, current and future energy costs, and the cost of borrowing money. Let's think ahead. It may be an issue of diminishing returns, but if you double the r-value, you cut your heat loss in half. In a cold climate, more and more people are insulating attics to R-60 and above. Spend the extra $700 or $1,000 to do additional air sealing and insulating to take your attic from R50 to R70—and it's done for good.
Don't scatter improvements. Commonly heard advice would say that in order to maximize the impact of your investment, you should spread your limited budget around. Go for the low-hanging fruit. But if you do that, you may end up with everything done halfway. If you don't have the money to do everything well, and your goal is deep reductions, you should do each piece as well as you possibly can—so you never have to go back. Stage it: This year, you tackle your attic; next year, your basement.
Making small improvements is worthwhile. Doing it without a plan in mind is not.
*Linda Wigington founded the Affordable Comfort Institute (ACI), where she now serves as special projects director. She has served as a technical consultant for residential utility programs nationwide, an advisor for Habitat for Humanity International's Green Team, and a founding board member of the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). She received the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy's 2002 Champion of Energy Efficiency Award. Her current interest is demonstrating the feasibility of achieving deep energy reductions in existing dwellings through the North American Thousand Home Challenge. Linda also serves on the Editorial Board of Home Energy magazine.