It’s a significant milestone, and one unheard of as little as 15 years ago, but the news that one million American homes are now Energy-Star certified is like a breath of fresh air in a landscape dominated by reports of fudged oil production numbers, future energy uncertainty and an overabundance of aging, fossil-fuel generation plants.
This may not seem like a milestone when one considers that there are 126 million single-family homes in the U.S. (excluding seasonal dwellings). However, when considered in the context of a July report by the EPA showing that almost 17 percent of all single family homes built in the United States in 2008 qualified for the Energy Star label – an increase of 5 percent over 2007 and more than 15 percent over the previous year -- we begin to see that home energy efficiency is rising exponentially in spite of the real estate market imploding.
Energy Star homes meet four specific guidelines regarding insulation, windows and doors, air-tight building envelopes, and energy-efficient heating and cooling systems that produce more thermal conversion with fewer Btu’s.
The standards for Energy Star certification are set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which also certifies appliances. Under EPA specifications, in order to qualify for Energy Star certification, a home must be 15 percent more energy efficient than homes built to the 2004 IRC (International Residential Code) standard, though many homes built today actually exceed that standard by a full 30 percent as a result of incorporating Energy Star appliances, whole-house ventilation fans, on-demand water heating, or the use of compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) in place of incandescent bulbs.
Not that there isn’t a ways to go. In fact, a recent report from Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies estimates that, if the roughly 120 million U.S. homes built before 2000 were made as efficient as those built since then, domestic energy use would fall by 22.5 percent.
Tacked onto that estimate is the fact that, of the 101.5 quadrillion Btu’s the nation burned through in 2007 (or the lower 99.2 quadrillion Btu’s in 2008, because of the recession), homes accounted for 22 percent, or more than one-fifth, of U.S. energy consumption, with autos coming in second at 17 percent. And the recent economic downturn may have reduced energy consumption, but the biggest cutbacks are in manufacturing, not home heating, air-conditioning and electricity use.
The government is lending a helping hand through ARRA – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – by offering energy efficiency incentives of up to 30 percent of the cost of such projects, up to $1,500 for projects finished from 2009 to 2010.
Unfortunately, the federal helping hand doesn’t include installation costs on the best energy improvements like insulation, sealing air leaks, windows, doors, and roofs, but only materials costs. And even where this incentive is applicable, the payback is deferred until April of the year after the improvement is completed. Most cash-strapped homeowners can’t afford to wait.
Some American cities are attempting to change that energy-use profile. Take Jacksonville, Florida, where almost 500 Energy Star homes have been built just in the last two years.
This paradigm shift by builders, from amenities that look good (like marble counters) to amenities that feel good, in terms of air conditioning and electricity bills, is an expression of rising electricity rates. Homeowners, according to Jackson Electric Association’s conservation coordinator David Reed, are shifting slower, but the move toward energy efficient homes versus merely expensive-looking ones is beginning to make its footprint on local real estate markets as well, with canny buyers looking for R-values before decks, pools and hot tubs.
The energy factor, in Jacksonville and elsewhere, wasn’t as important in the first part of this century, because utility rates remained low in comparison to wages. Since 2004 in Jacksonville, and about the same date across the nation, residents are finding themselves facing greater and greater costs for electricity, and sometimes overwhelming costs for heating.
In Jacksonville, increases of 60 percent aren’t uncommon. In Oklahoma [pdf], heating costs are expected to rise between $45 and $90 per month. In Michigan, increases of $60 are expected, and even in California, Pacific Gas & Electric projects a 23 percent increase. This is in spite of lower natural gas prices forced by a lengthening recession.
Surprisingly, building a house to Energy Star standards adds a mere one to three percent to a builder’s upfront costs – a line item that is easily recaptured during sale, with more and more homebuyers understanding how bleak the energy future of the nation may become with cap-and-trade or other carbon regulations.
When considering energy efficiency improvements to existing homes, the most effective measure per dollar spent is on the heating (and cooling) system. This is because heating on average accounts for more than 30 percent of energy costs, and the average heat loss from a forced-air heating system is 30 percent, with air leakage from the building’s envelope tripling when the blower is on.
The second largest area of energy use in homes is appliances and lighting. You can check your appliance’s energy use with a volt meter, compare it to the Energy Star standards published on the appliance page, and decide if it’s time to upgrade.
If you can’t afford an upgrade, turn your water heater to 120 degrees, turn your refrigerator down to its second-lowest setting and tape a notice to the door that says, “Open Only in Emergency”, use your dishwasher once a day or less, wash clothes in cold water, defrost in the refrigerator, buy (or Freecycle) a bunch of sweaters and sweatpants, bundle up inside as well as out, and mandate three-minute showers. Lastly, replace all incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, one by one (except for desk lamps or lights that are closer than 6 inches, due toUV radiation), and fine residents for leaving lights on by restricting TV or computer time.
The Energy Star program has already reduced energy bills by $1.2 billion, and greenhouse gas emissions by 22 billion pounds, but we can help the EPA by doing our part. If you’re looking to buy a new home, check out Energy Star’s certified builder map. Buy only Energy Star-labeled appliances, and consider energy-saving measures you can take in your own home, from insulation to window film, to improve its energy footprint.
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