March 13, 2013

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It Isn't Easy Being Green

Deconstructing Utah's Green Homes

Dan Sorensen

March 13, 2013

Whether it is out of concern for the environment or their pocketbooks, more Utahns are going green than ever before. Many are commuting via TRAX, others are driving alternative fuel vehicles, and some are going a step further by purchasing or remodeling their homes to be green.

Several Utah companies specialize in building green homes for energy-minded families. Other builders provide energy audits that can identify opportunities to make older homes more efficient. Either way, reducing energy consumption in the home has never been easier.

But what really goes into making a home energy efficient? Most people have seen the billboards about $5 power bills, but the path to an energy efficient home comes down to viewing the home as an entire, holistic unit.

  • Low-flow Features: While many hate them, low flow faucets, showerheads and toilets save gallons of water each year. In addition, they can reduce homeowners’ gas bills, as they require less hot water to do the same job.
  • Air Sealing: A blower door test quantifies how tight a house’s envelope actually is. By hooking up a large fan and calculating air pressure, this test determines how much air leaks out of a home. “During a home energy audit, one of the more common things we do is perform air sealing, where we find places air is leaking out of the house,” says Bill Wilson, principal at DwellTek. “A lot of the common places are along baseboards and windows, where we do caulking. Recessed can lighting, outlets and plumbing penetration are also notorious for leaking air.” Problematic areas are identified using infrared cameras and then sealed and insulated using foam, caulk or gaskets.
  • Bathroom Vents: Have you ever been in the bathroom of an old home and felt a chilly breeze pass through? Oftentimes, cold or warm air enters the house through bathroom vents. To keep this from happening, ducts can be looped to keep air out.
  • Smart Home Technology: Many of Utah’s high-end homes are beginning to add smart home technology that turns lights on and off as you enter and leave the room, among a variety of other automated features all controlled from a smart phone. While this technology will surely make your friends jealous, it actually does little to save energy—unless you have a bad habit of leaving on the lights.
  • Insulation: Without a doubt, the experts all agree that insulation is key to keeping a tight envelope—a term used to describe how much air inside the house is allowed to escape. Not only is insulation affordable, it can easily be added to the attic. However, adding insulation to walls can be somewhat difficult.
  • Windows: Windows are often one of the major places homes lose their cool and warm air. Double- or triple-pane windows are essential to keeping a home’s envelope sealed tight. In addition, the area where the window joins the wall is one of the locations traditional homes commonly leak air.
  • Appliances: Today, most appliances come with a big yellow Energy Guide sticker on the front. These stickers explain how much energy the appliance uses, including an estimated amount of how much it will cost to run. ENERGY STAR labels are another way to identify energy friendly products.
  • External Walls: The external walls go far beyond insulation. While everyone agrees that outside walls should be at least six inches thick, the distance between studs can help as well. Some builders space beams 24 inches apart on many external walls, as opposed to the traditional 16 inches. This provides more room for insulation while relying on new techniques to deliver the necessary support for your roof. 
  • Lights: Energy efficient lighting is an easy way to reduce energy consumption and is being incorporated by builders of all calibers. Incandescent lighting is on its way out, being rapidly replaced by CFL and LED bulbs.
  • Water Heater: In the average house, water heaters account for 15 percent of a home’s energy usage. Efficient water heaters use up to 50 percent less energy than standard models. There are various technologies being used by Utah builders to reduce overall energy spend, including tankless and solar water heaters. Choosing the right system depends on the amount of hot water a family needs.
  • Solar Technology: Solar panels are one of the most obvious methods of incorporating green technology into Utah homes. “Now is a unique time to consider solar technology because there are incentives from the state and federal government, and utility companies,” says Bryson Garbett, president at Garbett Homes. “The payback on solar can be anywhere from three to seven years with all of those tax credits and incentives.”

These incentives are bigger than ever. The federal government provides a tax credit for 30 percent of the cost of installing a solar system. On top of that, the state of Utah will pay 25 percent, up to $2,000—meaning an $8,000 system would ultimately cost $3,600.

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