Sharon and James Fischer’s new home east of Columbia uses 50 percent as much energy as similar-sized homes. The couple built its home with energy conservation in mind, adopting the recommendations of the federal government’s ENERGY STAR program.
Sharon and James Fischer’s new home east of Columbia is a thing of beauty. The floor plan is open and spacious. The kitchen looks like something out of a magazine. But the most beautiful thing about this 4,000-square-foot home is not the countertops, the wall coverings or the carpet. It’s the energy bill. The bill is low — about 50 percent less than that of similar homes in the same neighborhood.
“They’re estimating that we’re saving right at $1,300 a year,” says James, who travels the country, teaching others the importance of wise energy use. “When you look at frame-constructed homes, this is one of the most energy-efficient homes in Missouri.”
The Fischer’s energy-frugal home is no accident. When the couple relocated to Columbia in 2007, they determined to build their next home with energy efficiency in mind.
“It didn’t make sense to me to pour money into energy when I could start from scratch and build economically,” Fischer says.
An engineer, James spent many years in academics — including a stint at the University of Missouri in Columbia — developing sound energy-use practices for farmers. In 2000, he was named to the board of the federal government’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Program. When he retired from the U.S. Department of Energy, James and Sharon moved back to Missouri to launch an energy-consulting firm. It was only natural that they would put their money where their mouths were and build a home that would earn the ENERGY STAR label.
Many consumers are familiar with the ENERGY STAR concept. At home centers nationwide, certain appliances display a decal bearing a small star logo. These products exceed federal energy guidelines by a significant margin — 10 percent for room air conditioners, 20 percent for refrigerators, 40 percent for dishwashers.
Many homebuyers don’t realize the program, jointly administered by the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, also includes national standards for home energy. Houses that exceed this standard by 25 percent or more may qualify for the ENERGY STAR rating.
Chris Rohlfing, manager of member services for Boone Electric Cooperative, which serves the Fischer’s home, supports adopting a national standard to bring uniformity to the building industry. Much like everyone agrees on safety codes, he says ENERGY STAR will allow builders, real estate agents and utilities to agree on what it means to build an energy-efficient home.
“You find out what the industry has recognized as a standard, something that has been proven to be effective, and you piggyback on that standard,” Rohlfing says. “Much the same way that for safety we go to the National Electrical Code, we’re going to go to ENERGY STAR in order to end up having credibility when we talk about energy.”
To earn the ENERGY STAR label, a home must adhere to federal guidelines in five basic areas: effective insulation, high-performance windows, tight construction and ductwork, efficient heating and cooling equipment and the use of ENERGY STAR appliances. Some elements, such as insulation where the foundation meets the slab, are required. Other upgrades, including energy-efficient lighting or the installation of a high-efficiency heat pump, contribute to the home’s overall score.
“It’s a system. You’ve got to consider the windows, the walls, the ducts, the lighting, the appliances,” Fischer says. “A lot of builders say, ‘We’ll put in a geothermal heat pump and we’ll have an energy-efficient home.’ No, that’s not right. It’s the system.”
How much that system actually reduces energy consumption determines whether a home qualifies. Before the ENERGY STAR label (and the accompanying plaque) is awarded, the home must pass a series of inspections by an independent examiner. Because those inspections cost money — as much as $1,000 — not every homebuilder will choose to pursue the certification. Still, the ENERGY STAR model serves as a guide for anyone building a new home.
Gary Kerns Homebuilders of St. Joseph incorporates many improvements to its homes to increase energy efficiency, including slab-edge insulation and tight construction methods.
Whether adhering to the EPA/DOE standards or some other measure of energy efficiency, nearly every expert agrees the primary goal is to seal the home so that conditioned air stays inside and that Mother Nature’s extremes are kept at bay.
“Air infiltration is the most important thing,” says Rohlfing, a member of a statewide committee developing energy-efficiency incentives for co-ops in the Associated Electric Cooperative system. “What type of insulation, and where you put it, is critical.”
While opinions vary about which type of insulation is best (most co-ops recommend blown cellulose), there is no disagreement that insulation must be installed so there are no gaps, voids or compressed areas. Also, any place where air can enter or exit a home must be sealed. Look under the skin of an energy-efficient home and you’ll see foam insulation filling holes where wires and pipes pass through walls. You’ll see the seams of house wrap material taped. You’ll see the liberal application of caulk along every possible air entry point.
“ENERGY STAR has as much to do with keeping air out as it does insulating,” says Gary Kerns, who builds custom homes in a rapidly growing suburban area north of Kansas City served by Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative.
“If you notice all the wrapping around our windows, virtually no air can get in around that window. That’s the key,” says Kerns, who recently built his first home designed specifically to the ENERGY STAR standard. “It makes no sense to put R-50 (insulation) in the attic and not stop the air.”
Old notions about making a house too tight no longer apply. The modern home designed for energy efficiency includes automated air exchangers to circulate fresh air in the home. “The whole idea is you want to control the air exchange of the home. You don’t want nature to control it,” Fischer says.
The seams of the house wrap materials are being taped to prevent air infiltration.
Many of the measures that make up an energy-efficient home — taping Tyvek seams and careful caulking, for example — are already found in homes built by conscientious builders. One area where the ENERGY STAR standard exceeds common construction techniques is insulation around foundations. Many builders simply fill dirt in next to the house. To earn certification, builders must install foam board insulation along the edge of the slab and foundation.
“It’s critical that basement walls be insulated,” Rohlfing says. “Any exposed concrete on a full basement has no more insulating value than a single pane of glass.”
Like so many things that go into an energy-efficient home, slab-edge insulation must be installed before the home is completed. To upgrade foundation insulation later is not practical. Likewise, the time to choose high-efficiency heating and cooling equipment is during the planning stage of construction. Spending more for a good air-to-air or ground-source heat pump will pay great dividends over time.
Another critical component is the proper installation of ductwork. Ideally, ducts should be routed in conditioned areas of the home. Ductwork in attics and basements must be insulated. No matter where ducts run, seams should be well sealed. The ENERGY STAR standards call for the use of duct mastic and not just tape.
“Duct sealing is an easy thing to do during construction and wouldn’t cost that much more. To do it afterwards, would be a lot more work and a lot more expensive,” says Dave Christensen, an energy specialist at Platte-Clay Electric, who conducts free energy audits for co-op members and recently became certified to perform the inspections necessary for the ENERGY STAR home rating.
Overall, the extra steps that go into building an efficient home add to the price of construction — about $1,000 per 1,000 square feet of floor space, builders estimate. While some upgrades, such as the installation of a ground-source heat pump can increase costs even more, the improvements will pay for themselves over time in reduced utility bills.
Attention to detail includes sealing wiring holes with foam insulation.
The decision to build an energy-efficient home was an easy one for the Fischers, who value low energy bills at least as much as the decorative features of their home.
“We didn’t want to build a home we couldn’t afford. We wanted to be comfortable in that home, and we wanted the energy efficiency,” Sharon Fischer says, recalling their priorities in designing a new home. “One folds into the other. Because we’re energy efficient, it’s more affordable. Because we’re energy efficient, it is comfortable.”
Finally, the Fischers are convinced their home will bring more at resale due to its ENERGY STAR rating.
Fortunately, builders are beginning to see energy efficiency as a way to separate themselves from the competition. “I think there’s definitely going to be a market for it,” says Ryan McCullem, the 27-year-old contractor who built the Fischer home. “Maybe not this year, as much, but here in a couple of years, I think there’s going to be a lot more ENERGY STAR homes in this area.”
Ironically, while homeowners and builders are finally seeing the value in building for efficiency, it’s a message that electric co-ops have been preaching for years. Many co-ops offer rebates for energy-efficient appliances, water heaters and heat pumps. Others provide free energy audits to members who want to improve the efficiency of their existing homes. Platte-Clay Electric even conducts seminars on energy-efficient homes for members, builders and real estate agents.
“We’ve been doing things like that for quite a while,” says CEO Mike Torres. “We sell electric service and we believe that part of providing that service is to have the members use it in a smart way, not to waste it.”
Surprisingly, co-ops often have struggled to get members to take advantage of these programs.
“The obstacle in the past has always been that people were more interested in what grade of carpet they have in their house than what kind of insulation they put in, because energy was relatively cheap,” says Rohlfing. “That day has come and gone.”
For more information about the ENERGY STAR program, log onto www.energystar.gov; phone 888-782-7937; or write to U.S. EPA; ENERGY STAR Hotline (6202J); 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.; Washington, DC 20460. For information about energy efficiency in general, contact your local electric cooperative.