Thursday, February 21, 2008

Retrofitting an older house for energy efficiency

When replacing the HVAC and hot water systems in our house this past summer, we were faced with a 44 year-old brick home, supplied by natural gas. Research indicated that a geo-thermal system would be too disruptive and expensive, while installing a standard high-efficiency natural gas forced air system would not provide the fuel efficiency that we were after. A solar hot water system or gas tankless system for water would have been workable, but, since we had to replace the furnace, AC, and hot water heater at the same time, the best choice was for an integrated hydronic system, which involved a natural-gas fired ultra-high efficiency boiler. This provided heat for the furnace (no more "dry" heat), still utilizing the forced-air ductwork, while providing virtually "free" hot water all winter as a residual benefit of the HVAC's boiler system. This system met the federal standard for energy credits, while costing only about 10% more than the installation costs of a new standard high-efficiency system. It is working flawlessly. Energy conservation and sustainable living are among my major concerns, and I have made a study of many of the techniques, materials, and systems that are being developed to "green" our world. I am delighted to share this information with any neighbor, customer, or client who is also interested in this exciting and promising area. Reducing your energy usage, living "greener," and, in general, being more sensitive to our impact on the environment is a huge area of study. Among the topics are
  1. Modifications that can be made to an older home to conserve energy (such as adding insulation, plugging up gaps around windows and exterior outlets, replacing windows, doors, and old appliances with Energy Star items, installing solar or wind systems)
  2. Materials that can be used in construction that are sustainable and renewable
  3. Lifestyle changes to reduce waste (such as choosing products with less packaging, choosing items that are local, changing lights to compact fluorescents, and composting)
  4. Choosing transportation & workplace options that reduce the use of the automobile

A note about compact fluorescent light bulbs. We tried many of them, and find that, if you search for the bulbs that are rated 2700-2800k (kelvin), you will have a bulb that most closely replicates the light quality and color of an incandescent bulb. The lower the kelvin rating, the "yellower" the light; the higher the rating, the "bluer" the light. We found the higher k bulbs to be very harsh. You cannot use the standard compact flourescent bulbs on circuits with dimmer switches; there are special compact bulbs for that purpose. We are using them everywhere we can, and find virtually no difference at all. They also last many, many times longer that the comparable incandescent bulbs. Just be sure to take the "spent" bulbs to the Shady Grove transfer center (not in your recycling bin) so that they can be disposed of properly; there are trace amounts of mercury inside the tubes.

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