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Why insulate? An introduction to home energy decisions

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/16/16 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Home efficiency

Reducing energy use at home is universally accepted as a top-tier decision acting in defense against climate-disruptive greenhouse gases. It could have the added benefit of making your home more comfortable.

<br />Insulating the PNC Smart Home, a real house that was built by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to display the latest in green building.

Winter’s coming. It’s a safe bet you’ve already switched on the heat. Before the first bill arrives, you may be thinking about how much energy it takes to heat a home. Heating energy can be expensive and, because much of it is sourced from fossil fuels, our homes are a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA reports that residential and commercial buildings generate 12% of all carbon emissions in the U.S. (80% of those 2,300 metric tons of carbon emissions comes from natural gas burned to warm interior spaces). There’s a lot of opportunity to do something positive for the environment by reducing heating energy use—especially in a cold-climate city like Cleveland.

We are often asked, what is the best, first step to greening a home? People are fascinated by the possibility of installing a solar panel on their roof to offset their electricity use. That’s great! But, there may be more effective approaches to consider first. For example, if the walls of a home are cold to the touch and drafty, the recommendation is to start with insulation and air sealing. Builders who have worked on home construction with an eye toward energy efficiency have a saying: “Insulate it tight and then ventilating it right.” Many older homes across Northeast Ohio are leaking so much warm air, that ventilating, or mechanically drawing in fresh air, is not a cause of concern. Cleveland’s own Jim LaRue is considered the godfather of green building practitioners. LaRue’s experience in building and retrofitting existing homes for maximum efficiency could fill volumes - we share one of LaRue's slideshows. It highlights what goes into a home insulation decision.

To give you more of an idea of what we’re talking about, we spoke to green building experts like LaRue for the post, “Help me understand home insulation.” Here you'll find advice on insulation decisions. Also, I personally went through the decision making on whether to insulate and air seal our older home—on a limited budget. In this post, “What goes into a home insulation decision” I compared foam and cellulose insulation on factors like health, safety, and “green” or not.

Still haven’t had enough? GCBL has a whole section on home energy efficiency, from the big picture look at how to reduce home energy use to the details of what to expect from a home energy reduction project.

Green home remodeling resources

Seattle has an excellent web site with accessible, actionable information on sustainable home remodeling and maintenance. Presented by the City Department of Planning and Development, it includes links to an outstanding series of guides covering: Remodel Overview, Bath & Laundry, Kitchen, Painting, Lighting, Landscape Materials, Managing Rainwater, Roofing, Hiring a Pro, Salvage & Reuse, and Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Audit.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has dedicated significant resources to measuring the environmental and economic value of conserving and improving build structures. For an example, see: "Thirteen Things You Should Know About Retrofitting Historic Windows."

The EPA Green Home Guide is a homeowner's guide to restoring and rehabbing wood framed homes that may be 100 years old or older.

The U.S. Department of Energy offers homeowners a nice range of information on home energy savings, from tips on window treatments, evaluations from water heaters and HVAC to plans for a home renewable energy system.

The EnergyStar site provides detailed information on household appliances, building materials, including product specifications, buying guidance and store locations. There is also general information on energy-efficient practices.

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