Energy Update: Hot Topic

Whether you’re planet-conscious or dollar-conscious, the coming cold season has probably made you more energy-conscious than you’ve been before. Here are a few ways to cut costs

For many, the current cost of oil, gas, electricity — even wood — has elevated energy efficiency from a good idea to a pressing necessity. And increasing fuel prices make many approaches to energy efficiency a lot more economically feasible than they might have previously been.

In the Hudson Valley, about 50 percent of the energy used in a single-family house goes to heating and cooling; another 17 percent for heating water. A good deal of that heat literally falls between the cracks, goes up the chimney and out the window. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that reducing air leaks and bringing insulation up to recommended levels can slash up to 40 percent of your yearly fuel bills.

Auditing Your Energy Use

All the “official” energy efficiency experts stress the value of a professional energy audit to pinpoint areas needing attention in your home. Auditors assess the entire building, including heating systems, and use special equipment like thermal imaging gizmos that detect heat loss. Costs for an audit, which usually takes three to four hours, runs from $200 and up, depending on the size of the home. “Becoming energy efficient is a step-by-step process,” says energy auditor and contractor Todd Pascarella of Catskill Windmill in Fleischmanns. “Getting a full diagnosis of your house allows you to figure out the options.”

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Unfortunately, there are fewer than two dozen accredited energy auditors serving the entire Hudson Valley, and the wait time for an audit is currently upwards of two months. However, the areas where air leaks and heat loss can be expected are well known, and with the help of on-line audit tools, a home-owner can decide how best to approach energy conservation.

Home Energy Saver (http://hes.lbl.gov), sponsored by the DOE, is the most comprehensive web resource for a do-it-yourself energy audit. Users input information about their homes (number of windows, current insulation, heating system, and so on) and the program takes current fuel costs into account to estimate the updates that will generate the greatest savings, as well as calculating the time required to recoup investments. This sophisticated site is a must-visit.

Seal Those Leaks

Especially in older homes, there are myriad cracks where warm air escapes and cold air gets in. Generally, air-sealing should start with the attic, followed by the basement. Then check:

• Around doors and windows. If your windows rattle, or you can see daylight around door or window frames, they need weather stripping.
• Along baseboards, or the edges of flooring.
• At junctures of walls and ceiling.
• Around electrical outlets, switch plates, recessed lighting fixtures, ducts, pipes, and mail slots.
• Along fireplace dampers and chimneys.
• In unfinished spaces, such as the back of cupboards and closets, attic doors or hatches.
• Around air conditioners, and vents for appliances.
• Any spot on the exterior of the house where two types of building materials are joined, (where the foundation meets the wood siding, for example) requires weather stripping or insulation.

Improve Your Insulation

One of the most cost-effective things you can do is improve the insulation in your attic. This is usually simple, although Tim O’Brien of American Insulation Applicators in Rhinecliff recalls a 1948 home he worked on. “It had no attic insulation and no way to get in to add any. So we took off the entire roof, sprayed in foam insulation, then put the roof back on.” Fortunately, most homeowners won’t have to go to that extreme.

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• If you can see the joists on the floor of your attic, you need more insulation (an R-value of 49 is recommended for attics in the Hudson Valley). You can add it right over what’s already there. Fiberglass batts are easiest for dyi-ers, while blown-in insulation typically provides more efficient coverage. Make sure the attic hatch or door is well insulated, and add weatherstripping around the edges.
• Unheated basements should have insulation under living-area floors, and on the walls if possible. If crawl spaces are accessible, consider insulating those.
• Walls need insulation, too, though in older houses it can be tricky to tell what’s in there. Homes built with conventional stud walls usually have fairly large cavities, and blown insulation (often made of polyurethane) can work wonders; you’ll need an expert to install it. “Foam that’s injected costs two to three times more than fiberglass, but you’ll get an energy savings that can be about 40 percent right off the bat,” O’Brien says.

A relatively new water-resistant spray foam called Icynene quickly expands to 100 times its original volume to fill every crack and crevice; it’s considered environmentally preferable because it’s water-based and contains no formaldehyde. Icynene costs roughly $4 per square foot, and requires professional installation.
“Green” insulation, made from recycled denim, newspapers, or other cellulose materials; or soy, cotton or sheep wool batting is also available. Some proponents say denim has higher insulation value than fiberglass and is safer to install. But, warns O’Brien, “Not all these forms of green insulation are proven techniques yet. Be sure to consult an expert.”

Tighten Up Windows and Doors

Drafty windows and entryways can suck 15 percent or more of the heat from a room. If your energy audit suggests replacement windows, look for those with a low “U-rating” factor. You’ll have plenty of options: window glass now comes with low emissive (low-E) coatings that reduce heat transfer, double or triple glazing, and styles with heat-saving argon gas between the panes. Check www.efficientwindows.org to see what savings each type of window will offer.
Storm doors and windows — aluminum, steel, fiberglass or wood — can help exclude drafts as long as they’re tight. They usually don’t provide much insulation unless the glass in them is double or triple-glazed.

Heating Systems

If your heating equipment is more than 10 to 15 years old, consider an upgrade. “Even if it’s still functioning,” says Noah Matalon of Radiant Construction in Garrison. “It might be working at only 80 percent efficiency, when a new system could be working at 97 percent.” Such major upgrades typically pay for themselves in about five years, he notes. Rather than replace a system, many homeowners are looking to boost the performance on existing equipment, or considering supplemental heat sources.

Top New System: Geothermal Heat Pumps

According to the EPA, geothermal heat pumps are the most energy-efficient, environmentally clean, and cost-effective for temperature control. Geothermal systems work by collecting heat from the earth through a loop of underground pipes that carry a warmed fluid to the geothermal pump inside a building, where the heat is concentrated in a compressor and circulated through ductwork. The upside includes energy bills that are 30 to 40 percent lower than with conventional furnaces, and equipment that needs little maintenance.

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“But,” says Matalon, “you need open land to do it, and it can be expensive.” A system for a 2,500 square-foot home requires about 7,500 square feet of land for trenching, and the geothermal unit costs about twice as much as a conventional furnace. It’s possible to dig straight down when yard space is tight or for minimal disruption, but that raises costs significantly.
Air source heat pumps (think central air that provides both hot and cold air) are also energy efficient and relatively pricey to install. In the Hudson Valley’s winters, an air source system would require supplemental heat from a conventional furnace or boiler.

Boosting Performance: Heat Managers

These microprocessor-controlled fuel economizers for residential boilers have been garnering attention in recent years. They save on fuel by automatically adjusting burner firing patterns and boiler water temperature. The most popular is the Beckett HeatManager (www.becketthm.com) which works on most new or existing boiler-type systems, be they gas, oil, or propane. (The company guarantees a 10 to 20 percent heating fuel reduction or your money back.) Professional installation takes about 30-minutes. Check.

 

 
Energy Alternative:
Wood-Fired Gasification Units

These basement furnaces burn wood at very high temperatures to create gases that are, in turn, burned in a combustion chamber, producing maximum heat and relatively little pollution. Gasification units require professional installation, and deliver heat through existing hot-water pipes and radiators. They look like a conventional boiler, and cost about as much to purchase and install.

Supplemental Heat: Stoves

Stoves are a hot item this year. The new EPA-certified models have greatly improved emissions and burning efficiencies. Standard wood stoves burn solid wood, while pellet stoves use compressed sawdust-like pellets (prices for both types start at about $3,500, installed). Pellet units are especially popular because they don’t need a chimney—they vent straight out the wall—and automated components keep the stove fed. Proper placement and sizing of a stove can make it a contender to heat the whole house, but they’re still mostly used for supplemental heat, keeping a room or two toasty and oil or gas costs down. Proper installation is key to safety and efficiency. Many localities require permits to put in a stove.

Fireplace inserts

Despite their cozy looks, typical fireplaces don’t do much to keep a house warm. At best, they burn wood with between 15 to 25 percent efficiency. At worst, they burn up your home’s furnace-heated air, or send it up the chimney, while sucking chill outside air through every nook and cranny. Consider adding a fireplace insert, a unit designed to tuck the 75 percent efficiency of a good woodstove into the existing fireplace opening. For an eye-opening overview of fireplace efficiency, visit www.eere.energy.gov.org.

Water Heaters

Most conventional water heaters have a life expectancy of about 13 years. Since the DOE figures that water heating accounts for 14 to 25 percent of the energy consumed in your home, when it comes time for a replacement you can make significant savings by selecting a heater appropriate to your needs.

• Least Efficient — Conventional oil-fired storage tank heater
• Most Efficient — Electric heat pump water heater
• Good Bet — Gas-fired tankless (on demand) heater

If you’re using oil to heat your water, consider switching to gas (natural or propane), which will likely save you 50 percent over the life of the heater. And if you’re switching, consider a tankless heater that provides hot water only when you turn on the tap. Also known as instantaneous or on-demand heaters, these units cost a bit more but the payback is quick since you don’t incur the costs of keeping that storage tank hot. For more information and ways to calculate your potential savings consult the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy at www.acee.org/consumerguide/waterheating.htm.

Solar Panels

Photovoltaic panels that convert sunshine into electricity are still pricey, but federal and state tax incentives and loans are making them more feasible. According to Hudson Valley Clean Energy (www.hvce.com) our cold Northeast winters don’t nix the practicality of solar panels. Though they can’t presently create enough energy to heat a whole house in our region, they can produce up to 75 percent of a dwelling’s hot-water needs. “Solar arrays on roofs can be a good long-term investment if you have significant exposure to the southern sky,” says Matalon. He points out a nifty new product that’s popular in Sweden and Germany and finding its way to the U.S. — photovoltaic shingles. They look somewhat like regular roof shingles, but each one contains its own mini solar array. â—

Quick Fixes

Tighten up your windows with inexpensive inside storm panels. It’s easy, and with today’s shrink-tight plastic, it’s hard to tell it’s not a “real” storm window. You can buy the plastic in rolls or as part of complete kits that come with adhesive tape or clip-in framing. The DOE estimates that a storm panel added to a single-pane window can reduce winter heat loss by as much as 50 percent.
 

Use programmable thermostats. Turning your thermostat down 10 to 15 percent for 8 hours, when you’re snug in bed or out of the house, can yield as much as a 10 percent reduction on yearly heating and cooling bills.

Save up to 10 percent in water-heating costs just by dialing your water heater back to 120 degrees rather than the standard 140 degrees.

Wrap your water heater and pipes. Pre-cut insulation jackets or blankets cost $10 to $20. Also, consider insulating your hot water pipes with wraparound tape or sleeves.

Put heat where you need it. At current prices for oil and propane, portable electric heaters can be cost effective, letting you keep the thermostat down while staying comfortable in the room where you’re working or relaxing.

Use thermal curtains and draw them tight to reduce heat loss by up to 10 percent. Debra Whelan, who owns Upholstery Unlimited in Hudson, tells of a client whose basement home office was so cold, “we could see our breath,” she recalls. “We used laminated rollup shades with chenille fabric as insulation, and the client was thrilled with the difference.” Thermals come in any style, and panels can be attached to existing draperies. Wide vertical blinds lined with insulating-type material are great for patio doors.

Useful Web sites

The U.S. Department of Energy’s sites include www.eere.energy.gov and www.energystar.gov
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy www.aceee.org
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority offers information on incentives, audits and tuning up your home www.getenergysmart.org
For a chart that lists costs and return on investments for various energy-efficiency upgrades, check www.greenandsave.com

Thanks

to our energy experts, most of whom do audits:
Joseph Malcarne – Malcarne Contracting in Staatsburg – 800-798-5844
Noah Matalon – Radiant Construction in Garrison – 845-788-3615
Tim O’Brien – American Insulation Applicators in Rhinecliff – 845-876-1399
Todd Pascarella in Fleishmanns – Catskill Windmill – 845-254-6599
David Raponi – in Olivebridge – Global Dwelling – 845-657-4193

 

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