Not-quite-so-green homes

We have always taught that “learning by doing” is more effective than simply “learning about.” In the university courses we taught, we encouraged students to take action beyond the course itself. We suggested they apply principles learned in our renewable energy and efficiency course to retrofitting their own homes or church buildings or incorporate them into plans for new homes.

The State of Illinois had produced a helpful booklet, “Energy Savings in the Home,” which helped people analyze their energy bills and estimates of how much they could save by changing wall, ceiling and foundation insulation, windows and doors, heating and cooling systems, lighting and appliances, and air quality and moisture controls.

We recently suggested to a state official that the booklet be produced again. The official rejected the idea indicating that people should use one of the state-trained energy auditors.

Of course, they can come armed with blower doors and infrared cameras to detect leaks hard to detect with the naked eye. However, home energy audits are not difficult. We encourage individuals to do their own.

The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity’s Web site provides a format. By entering numbers for their own home, people can get an estimate of how much energy can be saved in their homes.

Three homes built by students were exceptionally energy efficient and properly ventilated. They were encouraged to use nontoxic building materials in the house and incorporate natural landscaping into the yard. At the time, the green building movement was just beginning to emerge.

The homes all incorporated high levels of insulation such as R 40 for ceilings, R 25 for walls and R16 for foundations. R refers to resistance to heat loss; the higher the number the greater the resistance.

Double-pane energy-efficient windows with e-film within the glass prevented heat loss on north, west and east-facing windows. South facing windows have a special polyester film that maximizes solar heat entry into the house.

One home builder in Cherry Valley toured the Rocky Mountain Institute’s state-of-the-art office and home in Snowmass, Colo., which has no furnace but heats the home using sunlight and well-insulated thermal mass.

We called some of these homeowners to see how their heating bills were after the recent January cold spell. The Cherry Valley home has a new owner, so we used the winter heating bill the previous owner had shared with us. For the first full heating season, the 2000-square foot house had used 431 therms. In today’s natural gas prices, the heating bill would be $293 for the entire heating season.

A second homeowner in Dixon built a double walled house. The outside walls are built with two rows of 2×4’s to allow a substantial space for insulation depending on how much the owner chooses to use. The natural gas bill for January was $57 for a 1900-square foot house.

As a rough comparison, we called a friend in a Mt. Morris and asked how much she had spent on natural gas in January. Her home is 1,100 square feet with R11 wall insulation, R 24 ceiling insulation, no basement insulation and single-paned windows with storm windows. Her natural gas bill was $176, roughly three times higher for a home two-thirds the size of the home in Dixon.

While these are not precise figures they do serve to illustrate that with a little effort, people can make their homes more energy efficient and save energy dollars now and in the future.

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