Renewable Renaissance: Cutting Down Utility Bills

By   |     |  High-Performance House

It’s never been a better time to go green. Tech advances, coupled with tax incentives and rebates, have put at-home renewable energy solutions in reach of the average homeowner. (And let’s face it: Your utility bills will not be flying south this winter.)

It’s also never been a more confusing time to go green. Piecing together the jigsaw of options to create one snug, working, fossil-free system—or “beautiful package,” as Eric Maskell of Natural Energy Solutions puts it—can seem like assembling a thousand small pieces to make zero. For over a decade, Maskell has been helping homeowners put together net zero home strategies that suite their particular domicile, lifestyle, and pocketbook. 

A consultant with an engineering background, Maskell thinks “a bit outside the box,” when it comes to energy solutions, he admits. In his quest towards total energy independence, he’s experimented with the best ways to heat a tub, the quirks in homeowners’ basements, and even erected a wind turbine in his backyard. (“It’s great,” he says. “But requires a special permit. “) Through a proper energy audit and site-specific sustainable-energy solutions, he’s found most homeowners can liberate themselves from fossil folly.

Check the Easy Boxes First

Maskell emphasizes a comprehensive approach when adopting renewables, and advises clients to not overlook the tried and true. While most people know that proper insulation has an outsized impact on a home’s heating and cooling load, the compound effect over time is so significant it bears repeating. Insulate, insulate, insulate. “Reducing the energy load of your house is the most efficient way to reduce energy consumption,” explains Maskell. “Hands down, the best return on any green energy investment is insulation.” By immediately and permanently reducing a home’s energy load, insulation has a few knock-on effects as well: It reduces the cost of installing any new system and also reduces the costs to run and maintain that system over time. It also allows for more versatility in meeting energy needs. “Say your home needs a five-ton heating or cooling unit,” says Maskell. “Insulation will bring the load down to four tons. That reduction adds up. It also reduces the size of the energy well you’ll need to construct, which will give you more options.”

Upgrading wall and ceiling insulation is a great first step, but Maskell also examines a home’s floors and basements for hidden energy seepage. This includes the corners and around the beams supporting the floors, or rim joists. “Homeowners can get a substantial energy savings by insulating the rim joists,” says Maskell.  “People often miss that part, but it’s easy to fix.” Maskell also advises sealing up unfinished basements, and examining the valves around all existing duct work, which are also often leaky. 

No matter how advanced a window, it will always be a weak spot. If your home doesn’t have eaves (what, no eaves?) consider adding overhangs, a pergola, or other shading to block the summer heat. Maskell even had a client who added exterior curtains to keep his home cool. “The key is retaining every bit of heating or cooling generated by any system you adopt,” he says.

Ditching the Dinosaurs

To get the most bang for your renewable buck, consider a geothermal system. While installing a ground loop to maintain the water temperature and a pump to circulate it through a home requires a large upfront investment of time and money, Maskell still sees it as the most cost-effective solution over the long term. “A geothermal system will reduce a home’s energy consumption by 40 to 50 percent,” he says. “The pump will last 30 years and the ground loop will last 100, so it will last the life of the house. Also, with the current tax rebates the cost is significantly reduced.”

Some geothermal systems can plug into existing duct work, making them an easy swap for last century’s boilers and oil tanks. “The heat is also very comfortable,” says Maskell who installed a pump and ground loop at his own property and hasn’t looked back. And, think geothermal is just for heating and cooling a home? Maskell has MacGuyvered another use, devising a way to grab hot water from a system as well—successfully heating bathtubs, backyard pools, and radiant heat floors. “The system will heat water to 130 degrees, so one system can solve three different problems,” he says.

Although about half as efficient as a geothermal system with half the lifespan, air-source heat pumps are still a viable option for homeowners with limited budgets. The technology is also versatile, and can be utilized as mini-split devices throughout rooms, grouped together over one large area, or plugged into ducts to work with forced-air systems.  Air source pumps, which pull heating and cooling straight out of the air, are also available on a smaller scale, making them useful for individual appliances like water heaters and clothes dryers.

Whichever type of pump a home utilizes, it will still require electricity to run. (Cue the solar array.) “Solar panels can reduce a home’s energy load to near zero,” says Maskell, who has his solar array on a tracker that continually readjusts the position of the panels. Designed like a sunflower to continually face the sun, the tracker optimizes a solar array’s output by 50 percent compared to fixed panels. With the right integrated systems, homeowners will maximize efficiency and reduce leaking resources.

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