4 Upgrades to Make Your Home More Energy Efficient

February 17, 2021, by Isabelle Nagel-Brice

In an ideal world we would all be building and living in homes built with healthy materials that increase the longevity, comfort, and integrity of the building. However, we are not all so fortunate to live in an energy efficient house, and this focus on high performance building is still relatively new to the U.S. 

The median home in Portland OR is 58 years old which is 18 years older than the rest of the country’s median home age. This means that most likely your home was built without insulation or with poor performing insulation. The building envelope probably did not address the potential for thermal bridging, was not airtight, and the windows are either single pane or are not very insulative with a higher U-factor. 

As a high performance building company we focus on the carbon footprints of the materials we include in our builds. We try to source locally and choose materials with components that have lower to no VOCs or pollutants, and that are made with quality in mind. Thankfully, there are increasingly more products available in the U.S. that meet our ethical and environmental criteria as well as our performance needs.

We also address comfort levels of the inhabitants and utility usage, which is where deep energy retrofits on older homes combine passive house building principles and design elements with mechanical systems and component upgrades. These retrofits are often more environmentally conscious than taking down and rebuilding a new home, and give us the ability to increase the energy performance of older homes. An energy retrofit also converts the home into a more comfortable space with less temperature fluctuations and moisture issues. 

When addressing an energy retrofit, there are many aspects of the design to take into account. We have a whole systems approach because a building works synergistically and each component plays off of another. Here are four major changes that should be considered when addressing upgrading the efficiency of your home:

Insulation

Insulation is a relatively easy first step. Adding insulation where there wasn’t any before such as in an attic or basement will increase the building’s capacity to maintain a more constant interior temperature. If possible, adding insulation in the wall cavities or exterior insulation when siding is to be replaced will increase the overall R-value of the wall system. Reducing heating and cooling needs will decrease your energy expenditure and lower utility costs.

Air Sealing

Air sealing the home is a more extensive process that will have a significant impact on efficiency. Reducing air infiltration in the building envelope will decrease the stack effect - where cold air is pulled into the home through holes and cracks in the basement due to pressure differences inside and outside of the building. Reducing drafts that shift the interior temperature, bring in moisture, and can contribute to indoor air quality issues will increase the durability of the home and mechanical systems, as well as the health of the inhabitants.

Windows & Doors

Often sitting by an old window in the winter is extremely chilly and feels drafty. It may not be that the frame itself is leaking, but rather that the air inside the home is cooling near the glass. Replacing windows and doors in an older home will make the entire wall system more insulative and bring down temperature fluctuations throughout the seasons. This will also allow your heating and cooling unit to run more smoothly and use less energy to condition the home. Not all doors and windows are created equal, so finding a low U-value window and with frames that limit thermal bridging is key. 

Mechanical Systems

New mechanical systems that integrate energy saving technologies can significantly reduce utility bills. Sealing existing ductwork so that it doesn’t leak, replacing furnaces and hot water heaters to a more efficient option will create immediate savings each month. 

Converting outdated gas furnaces and hot water heaters with electric heat pump systems will increase the home’s efficiency, while also moving away from natural gas. Going all electric is not only more energy conscious, but using renewable energy sources will reduce our carbon footprints further. 

These 4 modifications could also make your home a viable candidate for incorporating renewable energy onsite. They reduce the energy demand, moving us closer to Zero Energy where the renewable energy from solar panels can power the entire home. This is a significant way to combat climate change as more than half of residential energy use is from heating and cooling. We believe that energy retrofits are necessary for keeping our existing homes in place and operation while also addressing our carbon footprints and the built environment as a whole.

*Photos from Lolich and Okies projects. 

 
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