Spring and summer are the perfect time of year for homeowners to boost their home’s energy efficiency. Common outdoor allergens from pollen in early spring to ragweed in late summer affect many, but indoor pollutants like mold also play a role in your overall health. Additionally, higher temperatures lead to higher energy bills, so improvements to residential energy efficiency can drastically improve indoor environmental conditions and, thus, create a healthier home when you need it most.
However, there are many misconceptions about home energy efficiency. Many residents make costly home upgrades that don’t make financial sense or lead to increased energy efficiency.
Below are a few residential energy efficiency “myths.” While this list is not exhaustive, it highlights some of the common misperceptions homeowners have regarding their home’s energy performance:
Fact: Windows are complicated systems. While they are critical features, windows also contribute greatly to the energy usage of the home. Windows are among the most expensive products on a home, so when considering whether or not to replace them, it is important to consider a few key factors. While the age of a window plays a large role in overall energy efficiency (older, single-pane windows are less efficient than newer double-pane and low-emissivity systems), other important considerations that impact energy efficiency are window orientation and exterior shading. However, it’s important to remember that windows, no matter how efficient, are always a path for heat transfer. When planning for your home’s efficiency upgrades, move window replacement to the bottom of your priority list.
What You Can Do: If your home is older, you’ll find a bigger benefit by improving your windows’ air tightness and attic and floor insulation levels. As a general rule, if an existing window is in good condition, it is best to keep it. Instead, investing in storm windows (windows that are mounted exterior to the main window of the house) can improve your window performance for a fraction of the cost to replace them.
Fact: Increasing insulation in places like the attic and floors can certainly lead to improved home energy efficiency, especially because heat loss through ceilings can be a major source of overall energy inefficiency. However, investing in more insulation may not always get at a more crucial component to reducing heat loss: air transfer. Most insulation products, particularly common fiberglass and cellulose materials, are not designed to stop air movement. Ultimately, adding more insulation will not solve for comfort and efficiency concerns that are related to air leakage. Most houses have gaps and crevices around areas like plumbing fixtures, electrical outlets, and exterior openings that allow conditioned air to escape outdoors.
What You Can Do: Rather than installing more insulation, invest in air sealing that can minimize heat loss and drafting, ensuring an increase in overall energy efficiency. The best place to start with air sealing is in your attic, followed by the floors (above a foundation space and/or unconditioned basement), and finally, exterior walls.
Fact: The Southeastern climate is hot and humid, which means we are constantly combatting issues of excessive moisture and mold accumulation. With this in mind, installing a system that is designed to add humidity to a home is not a good idea. It may seem obvious, but humidifiers can dramatically increase a home’s relative humidity levels. Too much humidity can cause mold, which can lead to respiratory illnesses for residents. Often, homeowners justify the presence of humidifiers because of dry air in the home. However, dry indoor air is a sign of a “leaky” house, where humid outdoor air is allowed to enter a home through areas in attics, floors, and exterior door or window frames. Solving for underlying air leakage issues can lead to improved overall energy efficiency (such as sealing up a leaky home), and can minimize the likelihood of moisture buildup during summer months and dry indoor conditions during winter months.
What You Can Do: Minimize the use of products that add humidity to your home. Essential oil diffusers have been very popular in residential applications, but keep in mind that any time you add steam (emitted from diffusers), you increase humidity levels.
Fact: Interior paints, finishes, and cleaning products are some of the leading culprits contributing to poor indoor air quality. They can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into indoor living environments. VOCs are emitted from solids or liquids, and are chemical compounds that can have adverse health effects when exposed to residents. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), concentrations of these toxic chemicals can be ten times more concentrated indoors compared to outdoor air. However, homeowners and residential occupants can take steps to minimize exposure to VOCs by purchasing products like interior paints that market themselves as “low/no VOCs.”
What You Can Do: When considering new carpet or floor finishes, look for products that are listed as having no urea-formaldehyde, another material that is linked to respiratory and skin irritants for building occupants.
Indoor air quality and a home’s energy efficiency go hand in hand; sacrificing one will negatively impact the other. Fortunately, homeowners can take preventative measures to promote healthier indoor living spaces that can lead to energy savings down the road without breaking the bank. As warmer weather approaches, the aforementioned steps can help make your home healthier, more energy efficient, and cooler in the hot summer months in the Southeast. Southface’s Fundamentals of Building Science course on Thursday, April 19 is a great opportunity to learn more about the “house as a system” model for assessing and improving building performance, as well as the fundamentals of heat, air, and moisture flow as it relates to buildings.