Think your house's windows would clear an energy audit? Don't bet your paycheck on it. In fact, nearly every major system in your house (old and new) can disappoint your budget if you don't do the math.
"Energy efficiency innovations have changed the window industry in the past 15 years," says Pam Faerber, co-owner of Faerber's Bee Windows. "Soft-coat low-e glass with argon gas between two, and sometimes three, panes to block heat and cold transfer now represent the ultimate achievement." "But homeowners need to be very aware when salespeople start saying, 'We offer low-e windows,'" she notes. "A hard coat is not a lot more energy efficient than clear glass." For perspective, a triple-pane, soft-coat low-e system can measure an R9 on heat resistant measurement charts, with walls clocking in at R11. Single-pane glass rates R4.
The frame counts, too. Homeowners hear they should purchase wood or vinyl options, but low-grade vinyl expands, contracts and warps over a period of time, inviting air infiltration. Wood frames often feature a fast-grow pine that fails to stand up to the elements as well as the 100-year old trees used in yesterday's construction materials. Although Faerber can't offer a specific test or measurement, do compare thickness between your frame options.
Costs for installed windows range between $600 and $1,000 each, with manufacturers claiming a 30 to 50 percent fuel savings. Faerber's anecdotal experience bears that out. "Just be sure any warranties you purchase with the upgraded windows transfers with the home should you sell your property," she adds.
Savvy homeowners purchase select air-conditioning and heating models that bear the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Star logo. Any appliance carrying that honor rates 30 percent more energy efficient that standard models. But any unit boasts annual fuel utilization (AFU) numbers for gas furnaces and seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) ratings for electric systems to help buyers compare efficiency. According to Herschel Tague, president of Bryant Heating & Air Conditioning Company, the government-mandated minimum SEER today is 10, AFU is 80 percent.
"Younger guys who are a lot more aggressive in sales than I am say the higher the number, the higher the quality. That's not necessarily true," warns Tague. "Essentially, when you buy a higher number, you really buy a lower utility bill. Consider return on investment." "For instance, consumers pay between $200 and $400 for each rating increment on an electric HVAC system, but at many cities' current electric rates, a homeowner won't recoup that money any faster than five years. It costs approximately $800 to jump from an 80 percent to a 90 percent AFU gas rating, which takes between nine and 11 years for payback," says Tague. "Nor do the higher ratings pan out as good investments at resale time," he adds.
Finally, when operating that air conditioning system, shun the temptation to automatically program the thermostat to keep the temperature higher in the day time, then drop it to a comfortable living level an hour before you return from work. "You only waste more energy fighting the radiant heat beating in from the roof that built up in those hours," says energy consultant Mark Underhill. "And those who shut off the air-conditioning to open a window in the spring and fall invite in humidity," he notes. "The furniture absorbs it and your system spends half of the next day's energy pulling it out of the house before it can begin getting the space cool again."
When it comes to insulation, the trick lies in halting airflow between the materials' fibers. The more air movement, the more you reduce that R factor. That's why Underhill recommends home owners replace visible fiberglass insulation with an air-trapping cellulose version (a product typically made from recycled consumer newspapers), which also conforms nicely to tight spaces, adding further protection against air leakage. Obviously, it's not practical for most homeowners to tear our drywall to replace insulation, although new-home buyers should specify cellulose with their builder. The cost per square footage depends heavily on the current prices for recycled newsprint, which often spikes.
Energy efficiency homes reap more than lower bills for their homeowners. According to Underhill, staff engineer at Kyler Bros., "An 82 or higher energy efficiency rating qualifies a home for an Energy Efficient Mortgage loan." Both the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation ("Freddie Mac") and the Federal National Mortgage Association ("Fannie Mae") say an energy-efficiency property may justify higher monthly payments ratios and increased debt-to-income ratios for buyers.
"This angle is available for all mortgage companies to use, although when you call many will say they don't work with it because they don't know much about it and business is good right now," he points out. "They don't need to compete for customers. But when the market tightens, expect more people to understand this filing process."To sweeten the pot, Congress recently mulled over a tax credit dependent on energy efficiencies as well.
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