Anyone who’s lived through this past harsh winter has learned the hard way what it costs to heat a home. At our house in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., we’ve caught a bit of a break. Not because the temperatures haven’t been below freezing – they certainly have, and for many days on end. But we’ve been able to offset high heating bills somewhat because when we built our house in 1985, we designed it intentionally to save as much energy as possible, and to use the sun to supplement our furnace.
Where It All Began
It started with our decision to build a house in the first place. We knew where we wanted to live: in a city called Takoma Park, known for its participatory politics, collegial neighborhoods, and – most importantly to us – easy access to the subway stop that would soon be opening. Both my husband and I were working in downtown D.C., and being able to use mass transit to commute to work was a top priority. Climate change was already an issue we cared a lot about, and we wanted to do our part to reduce our carbon footprint at home too.
Fortunately for us, thirty years ago, land was still not only available, but affordable in the neighborhood where we eventually bought. We acquired a parcel full of trees about a block from the Metro and the design process got underway.
Trees, Trees, Trees!
The next big decision was what to do with all those trees! If we cut them down, we could put solar collectors on the roof and use the sun to heat hot water and generate electricity. But if we left them intact, the leaves would filter our air, shade our home in the hot summer, and still allow us some “solar gain” in winter when the leaves dropped. Plus, we loved a landscape full of trees and all the birds that flew onto their branches. So, rather than install an “active” solar system with photovoltaic cells on our roof, we opted for a “passive” system that would keep the trees and maximize energy efficiency and the amount of sunlight entering our home in the winter.
To take advantage of that sunlight, we sited our home so that it faced south, allowing it to capture solar energy as the sun moved from east to west throughout the day. We then put abundant windows on the house’s south side to let as much sunlight in as possible. We were building in a historic district with a strongly Victorian character, so we couldn’t actually put a greenhouse-type structure on the front, even though that would have captured the most sun. But with two sets of French doors, an atrium, a large picture window, and several smaller windows, we were still able to capture significant amounts of solar energy.
Smart Energy Conservation Moves
No matter how much energy we’d get from the sun, we knew it made sense to use as little energy as possible in the first place. To that end, we insulated the walls, attic and crawlspaces to the maximum “R” Value recommended by the U.S. Department of Energy. We also installed double-pane windows throughout. These days, triple-panes save the most energy. But in 1985, double-panes were the gold standard, and that’s what we went with, covering them with energy-saving double-celled window shades to boot. We insulated exterior wall plugs, and added extra weather stripping to the entryway doors. We also installed storm doors to reduce additional loss of heated (or cooled) air.
While we were at it, we put compact fluorescent light bulbs in pretty much every lighting fixture in the house. During the day, however, we found that we didn’t need to use electric lights at all, given how much daylight all the windows let in!
We also bought highly energy-efficient appliances (which we’ve since updated) and an energy-efficient heat pump and water heater, and signed up for our utility company’s program to let them manage peak energy demand in the summer by cycling our air conditioning system on and off as needed.
After the house was built, we asked our utility company to come out and do an energy audit for us. They determined that, as a result of the energy-conscious steps we took, our house was using about 73% less energy than other houses of about the same size!
Even though that was almost thirty years ago, those efficiencies have held up. Today, no matter how cold it is outside, it never drops below 64 or 65 degrees inside the house during the day, and is regularly a toasty 70 degrees when the sun is shining. When we go to bed at night, even when the thermometer outdoors dips close to zero, I actually turn the heat off. The house cools down but generally never gets below 60 or 62 degrees. It heats back up quickly in the morning when we rise for school and work, and then when we come home at the end of the day.
Our system helps in the summer, too. Our house is usually ten degrees cooler inside than it is outside, thanks to the shady, leafy canopy overhead and the insulation that prevents hot air from getting in and cooled air from getting out.
Some day, I’ll calculate how much money we’ve actually saved on energy bills and how much climate changing carbon dioxide we haven’t emitted thanks to the design and efficiency measures we’ve taken. For now, I’m working with Moms Clean Air Force to spread the word that energy efficiency really makes a difference! Even if you’re not building a new house, you can improve the efficiency of your existing one significantly. Let us know if you do!
Photos: Diane MacEachern, Big Green Purse