Energy is a unique commodity. Though it has no material form, we can often see it or feel it. It is something we all use every day, and certainly couldn't live without. Energy appears in many forms: heat, light, electrical, chemical, mechanical, nuclear and solar. How we use it and how much we use affects us greatly.
Although vast amounts of energy are consumed in industry, travel and business, this article is mainly concerned with how it is used in our homes. Often the cost of heating fuel and electricity is as large as our mortgage payment. Heating and cooling is by far the greatest of these costs. Hot water heating is next, followed by the cost of operating lighting, electrical appliances and water pumping. For many years, our country worried little about the cost of home energy. There seemed to be an inexhaustible supply, and it was relatively inexpensive. In the fifties, we were encouraged to buy "all-electric homes" by none other than Ronald Reagan himself, then host of "General Electric Theater." We were assured of "safe, cheap and abundant" supplies of electricity thanks to "the peaceful atom". At our peak of energy use in the seventies, we found that more was not necessarily better, and perhaps using less energy made more sense.
While many consider our high per capita rate of energy use to be necessary to fuel our equally high standard of living, it is interesting to note that in western Europe, where people enjoy a standard of living comparable to ours, they use only half as much energy per person. "Why is this?", you may ask. The answer is simple. Energy costs in Europe have been high for some time, and waste could not be allowed. Sensible House Design
To live an energy-efficient lifestyle does not mean that one must make sacrifices or do without one's comforts. To the contrary, a home that is properly designed for efficient energy use will be more comfortable year-round, with less over-heating, cold-spots and drafts. If a house is properly oriented to allow for maximum winter sun and summer shade, heating and cooling costs will be reduced drastically. Add to that good insulation, low infiltration (of outside air) & proper window placement, and our job becomes even easier.
Starting with a good house design, there are several things that you can do to save even more money on your heating and cooling bill. Here are a few that require no fuel or electricity and very little maintenance:
1) Solar shade screens- These simple screens fit outside your windows in locations where summer sun and heat enter the house, usually on the southern and western exposures and over skylights. Though they look like ordinary screens, these energy-savers block from 70-90% of the sun's radiation and accompanying heat. They also afford additional privacy by providing an opaque appearance from the outside. Many buildings in our area can go without air conditioning entirely with the use of solar shade screens. Needless to say, the screens cost far less than the conventional cooling equipment that they replace, to say nothing of their complete lack of operating or maintenance costs.
2) Insulated window coverings- It is a common fact that a home's greatest winter heat loss as well as largest summer heat gain is through the windows. This is why areas near windows are often less comfortable. This is especially true in the winter, when window areas are often drafty. Many otherwise well-thought-out homes have rooms that often go unused during periods of the year because they are just not comfortable.
Attractive, effective insulated window coverings can quickly solve these problems.
3) Radiant shield- This is a new item on the market, and shows tremendous promise in reducing cooling costs. This aluminum-clad material can be applied to new or existing construction. Stapled to the underside of the roof rafters, the radiant shield reflects the sun's heat and keeps it out of the attic, keeping it considerably cooler, resulting in a much lower temperature in the living space. In many dwellings, use of this product can eliminate the need for air conditioning.
After space heating and cooling, the largest user of home energy is usually the hot water heater. Fortunately this energy drain can easily be reduced with only moderate expense. Some people seem to think that solar hot water was a 70's fad, and faded with the times. Not true! Solar hot water was very popular in the Los Angeles area in the early 1900's, and disappeared only when the hot water heater manufacturers gave people free gas and electric hot water heaters in exchange for their "old-fashioned" solar units, assuring a perpetual market for their supplies of then cheap gas and electricity. Well, it may have made sense back then, but one quick glance at our utility bill tells us that we've been had. A family of four often spends $50 per month or more to operate their electric hot water heater. Solar energy is presently making hot water for thousands of people all over the world, many in climates where sunshine is limited. Solar hot water does not have to be complicated or expensive. A moderate investment can save a typical family many thousands in utility costs over the life of a system.
The only type of systems worth cosidering are of the "passive type." This means that there are no pumps, controllers, temperature sensors, solenoid valves or other moving parts to malfunction. Also, no electricity is required for their operation (pv users take note!) When properly sized and installed, passive solar hot water systems can provide most or all of a family's hot water during a large part of the year.
If you heat with wood, the perfect compliment to any solar hot water system is a hot water heat exchanger for your woodstove. Easily mounted inside your woodstove's firebox, this simple device extracts a small amount of heat from your stove and uses it to make hot water during the winter months. While this heat exchanger can be used without solar hot water, it really does make sense to use both. Making hot water with both solar and wood heat, a family can provide as much as 85% of their yearly hot water without their gas or electric hot water heater ever coming on.
Instantaneous/Tankless Water Heaters
Want a quick & inexpensive way to save up to 1/3 or more off your hot water bill? An instantaneous tankless hot water heater could be the answer. Though they do consume fuel, these units are moderately priced, easily installed, and far more efficient than their conventional counterparts. The key to this model's efficiency lies in its tankless design. The burner only comes on when you are actually using hot water, instead of keeping a large tank of water hot 24 hours a day. As a result, these units can pay for themselves in energy savings in as little as two years.
The Energy-Efficient Home will be much like your own home, but it will have all of the improvements described above. It isn't likely to cost much more than yours, but it will cost much less to own. Keep in mind that at current trends, utility rates are likely to increase at least ten-fold over the next twenty years! The equipment discussed in this article will pay for itself within a few years. After that, it's all savings. The Energy Efficient Home is the home of the future. But the future starts right now.
Jonathan Hill is a mechanical engineer & for the last 9 years has been proprietor of Integral Energy Systems, 105 Argall Way, Nevada City, CA 95959. Tele: 916-265-8441.
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