Improving an existing house can be relatively easy and inexpensive or it can be quite involved. Deciding where to invest to get the best value is sometimes confusing so in order of impact and cost, here are some ideas:
- Use CFL or LED Lighting - the single highest user of electricity that you can control is lighting. Plan to use Compact Florescent Light Bulbs or better yet LED light bulbs in all fixtures. You will be saving electricity, maintenance costs replacing bulbs and reducing the load on your air conditioning from waste heat. CFL bulbs cost under $1 each and save 75% or more than $40 over the bulb's lifetime. You can check out how much you can save by using the Light Bulb Savings Calculator on the Energy Star site. LED Lighting is more expensive with bulbs costing anywhere from $9 to $50 but the savings are twice as much as CFL bulbs. Learn about LED Lights from the Energy Star site.
- Use Energy Star appliances - selecting energy star appliances for your home can reduce energy bills by half or more. Target appliances that run all the time like refrigerators and freezers first then go after the appliances you don't use everyday. Manufacturers have been required to improve the efficiency of refrigeration by 200% in all models built after 1993 (save $67 to $100 per year.) If your refrigerator or freezer was built before 1980 you will save over 400% ($177 - $225 per year.) Saving an old refrigerator or freezer because it is not doing anything or is already paid for can actually cost you more money than it would cost to buy a new one. You can often pay for a new appliance in 6 months to 3 years with the energy savings from replacing it. Detroit Edison has a program that will remove your old refrigerator, dispose of it and pay you $40 for getting rid of it. Always ask for Energy Star rated appliances when you shop for new appliances and electrical devices including TV's, and computers.
- Pay close attention to 'Energy Ghosts' Those plug-in chargers for your iPad, phone and electric toothbrush use power while they are just sitting. Unplug them if they are not in use and save the energy.
- Invest in an energy audit There are often rebates from your energy supplier to offset the cost of a whole house audit. A good audit will give you a list of things you can do to reduce your energy bill and make your house more comfortable. The audit will often suggest which items to tackle first based on the energy savings you can expect and the amount of investment you make to get those energy savings. Audit companies typically perform an infrared assessment of your house coupled with a blower door test which will tell you where your house is loosing heat.
Calk leaks on your house exterior Your house moves with the changes in outside temperature and the joints around windows, doors and openings for plumbing and wires are the points that need to be periodically sealed against the weather. Your furnace and air conditioner have to make up air that leaks in or out of your house (gaps at windows and doors) as well as maintain the air temperature as your house radiates heat in or out of it through the walls, ceiling, doors and windows (wall insulation, window and door R values.)
- Use low flow plumbing fixtures including shower heads, faucet aerators, and toilets to reduce both the amount of water used and with shower heads and faucets, the amount of energy used to heat water.
- Use native plants and grasses to match the amount of water needed to the type of plantings you use. Consider using rain barrels to store the rain water from your roof to water plants and your lawn.
Building a net zero house is relatively easy if you have unlimited funds, but most of us don't so here in order of importance and impact on your utility bills are the things you should consider when building a new house:
- Make the house face the sun - the best way to reduce utility costs and make it comfortable to live in is to site the house to face the living areas (living room, family room, dining room, and kitchen on the south side of the house. Rooms you will use during the day should have large windows with overhangs that shade the windows during the summer months when the sun is higher in the sky. Bedrooms and bathrooms should have smaller windows that face the east, west or north. Use deciduous trees on the to shade the south side of the house and evergreens to shield from the wind on the north side of the house.
- Invest in insulation - money invested in insulation during construction of a house is money well spent. Make sure both infiltration through holes and gaps between wood building members and insulation in wall and roof cavities are considered with the most attention paid to areas that cannot be added to later. One way to accomplish this is to consider using a staggered stud wall construction and advanced wall framing techniques: http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy01osti/26449.pdf. By removing studs that connect the inside wall to the outside wall you can eliminate heat lost through transmission through the studs which are poor insulators. Make sure the complete perimeter of the living areas of the house is insulated including the rim joist and the attic areas.
- Consider using high efficiency heat and cooling - One of the most efficient methods of heating, cooling and providing hot water is to use a ground water coupled heat pump. You can pay for the additional expense of installation in less than 7 years with lower energy costs and reap the benefits for many more years to come. Next to ground coupled heat pumps, air coupled heat pumps are the most efficient method of heat and A/C.
- Use CFL or LED Lighting - the single highest user of electricity that you can control is lighting. Plan to use Compact Florescent Light Bulbs or better yet LED light bulbs in all fixtures. You will be saving electricity, maintenance costs replacing bulbs and reducing the load on your air conditioning from waste heat.
- Use Energy Star appliances specifying energy star appliances can reduce energy bills by half or more.
- Consider adding solar panels to make hot water or Photo Voltaic (PV) electric generation. Payback on this investment is about 10 years and is falling at the rate of 50% EVERY 5-7 years. Solar hot water will pay back the soonest unless you are using a Geothermal system then investing in PV is the most efficient investment. One thing to remember is for every $1 spent on replacing incandescent bulbs with CFL bulbs or LED's you have reduce the load on your solar system by $30-40 worth of installed panels so spend your solar dollars on conservation measures first.
- Invest in good windows and Doors - Windows and doors that not only have a low R value but also are effective at reducing drafts are important to the low carbon footprint house. Pay attention to sealing the areas around the windows and doors using the new sealing tapes available for this use.
- Use low flow toilets and fixtures in bathrooms and kitchens. Design your water system to group water using rooms together to reduce the distance hot water has to travel to get to the user. Consider using a pump designed to recirculate hot water to reduce the amount of water wasted getting to the faucet. Use the smallest diameter and shortest pipe to reac
ch hot water faucets to get the hot water to the fixture faster.
- Design your landscaping to include native plants that thrive in the climate your house is in so that they don't require additional water and fertilizer to grow. Use rain barrels or storage to reduce the amount of water used for landscaping.
- Actively review the operation of your house - use readily available energy audit companies to review your house after it is completed to find areas that may have been missed. These companies will pressurize the house using a blower door and check for leaks from the outside. Using infrared cameras they can pinpoint places with leaking chalk, settled insulation and air infiltration.
Improve your Transportation Carbon Footprint
- Walk to places near your home like stores, restaurants and events.
- Bike to where you need to go, you will see more and maybe get to meet the neighbors.
- Use public transportation when possible and share rides or combine trips to reduce extra unneeded miles.
- Consider buying a hybrid or electric vehicle. Owning an electric drive vehicle may seem expensive based on the new vehicle prices for models just introduced, but the reduced cost of fuel to operate them (1/4 the cost of a typical 30 mpg vehicle) will make your life cycle cost less after the 4th to 6th year of ownership. Most people will save $140 per month based on 12,000 miles per year. You will also be helping our country reduce the trade deficit by purchasing locally generated electricity instead of foreign oil. The best solution for most families is to have an electric car for their 'first car (the one they use first for most errands and their work commute) and a their second car is a hybrid to use when you want to go out of town or on vacation.
Links and Resources
The links and listings are provided for information purposes only. The following lists are not exhaustive or fully comprehensive, but we have tried to include a representative list of resources for each category. Saline's Environmental Commission makes no representations as to the workmanship, creditworthiness, or any other attributes of the companies listed or of their products or services.
The Washtenaw County Conservation District can help you manage and put conservation on your land.
Here you'll find information and references on a wide range of conservation topics, and practical information and advice on conservation and natural resource management. Many of these resources are on our site, or links to other helpful web sites are provided.