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Homes without furnaces

David Beach  |  04/17/09 @ 12:30pm

Home weatherization programs have been around for years and have provided important, if modest, energy savings for thousands of households in Northeast Ohio. Now a local group is calling for a much more aggressive approach - "deep energy retrofits" that reduce energy costs by 90 percent or more and allow homes to stay warm without furnaces.

The Affordable Green Housing Center of Environmental Health Watch (EHW) says this additional approach to retrofitting existing homes is needed if we are to make housing more affordable and secure in an era of rising energy costs. And it is absolutely essential if we are to reduce carbon emissions from buildings enough to mitigate climate change. While it's great to promote the construction of new energy-efficient buildings, about two thirds of the homes in Northeast Ohio were built before 1970.

Existing homes can achieve radically improved energy performance if they are retrofitted with super-insulation (such as R-50 walls, R-60 roof, R-20 foundation), sealed to prevent air leaks, and equipped with superior windows and a heat-exchange ventilation system. The heating load can be reduced so much that such homes can be warmed with the equivalent of a hair dryer (or two dogs running around, as some advocates joke).

"It's a myth that you need to have a furnace," says EHW's Matt Berges, who is doing a deep energy retrofit of his own home as a demonstration.

EHW also is hoping to work with the Cuyahoga County Department of Development on several deep energy reduction demonstrations. Depending on the allocation of Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds, EHW will work with developers to select properties, create a plan to achieve deep energy reductions, and monitor the progress of the rehabilitation. Successful demonstrations will receive national recognition as part of Affordable Comfort, Inc.'s Thousand Home Challenge.

Vacant houses, which are abundant in cities like Cleveland, are good candidates for deep energy retrofits, since they may be ready for a new roof, siding, and windows. One objective of the demonstrations is to determine when it's cost-effective to replace major systems like roofs with super-insulated improvements - that is, where are the opportunity points on the path to deep energy reductions.

"The goal is to think differently about houses," says Mark Hoberecht of HarvestBuild Associates, a local builder specializing in energy-efficient construction using natural materials such as straw bales. "You just need to increase insulation, install better windows, and make the house airtight. Just do those three things. It's simple."

Hoberecht has been influenced by the Passive House movement in Europe, where thousands of homes have been built that require virtually no external energy. He is building two such passive homes now in the Akron area.

"Once you get to the point where you can eliminate the furnace, you can get big cost savings," he says.

For a presentation on deep energy retrofits and how they differ from other strategies to reduce home energy consumption, go here.

For more energy-saving tips for your home, go here.


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