Small Changes, Big Impact

An energy-efficient home pays off in the long run



Photo by Tom Decker

Tom Decker’s house uses 52 percent less natural energy than comparable houses in the same neighborhood, but it’s not a new “green” building or fitted with solar power equipment. His Highland Park home was built in 1951, and the furnace has been there since 1979. What makes the difference, Decker says, is that he is mindful of the ways he uses energy and took some simple steps to make his home more efficient. The major addition to the home is the spray foam insulation on the underside of the roof. That installation dramatically reduced heat loss in the winter and dropped the attic temperature in the summer from 200 degrees on the hottest days to just over 100 degrees.

Decker is the owner of Eco Centric (847-987-3626), a Chicago-based firm that provides consulting services to clients looking to increase their energy efficiency. “The average American home loses enough energy every 24 hours to fill two Goodyear blimps,” he says. “In large part, this is due to human behavior and a lack of caring.”

One of the barriers to making a home more energy efficient is cost. Enter Energy Impact Illinois (EI2) (EnergyImpactIllinois.org), a program led by the Chicagoland Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) (CMAP.Illinois.gov), in conjunction with several local agencies and utility companies. They act as a liaison between homeowners, financial institutions and contractors, with the goal of making connections and improving energy efficiency. Last year, E12 received a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) (Energy.gov) to help fund energy efficiency improvement projects in the Chicagoland area.

The grant is being used to provide rebates to people that lower energy use in their homes. For a $99 fee, certified contractors do an energy audit of the whole home, testing leakage and airflow and general efficiency of appliances. “The contractors are all local, and have been certified through the Building Performance Institute to do the audits, so the program creates jobs, in addition to helping the environment,” says EI2 Outreach Coordinator Paige Bonk.

Homeowners are given a detailed report with recommendations based on the findings of the audit. While they are under no obligation, they can qualify for an instant 70 percent rebate if they make insulation and air sealing improvements that reduce energy use by at least 15 percent. They also receive an Illinois Home Performance Certificate from Energy Star that states the house is more energy-efficient, which can improve its resale value.

While the up-front costs of home improvements may seem daunting, Decker stresses that in the long run, homeowners are actually saving a lot of money. For example, if attic holes are sealed and blow-in insulation is installed, a family can expect to save 20 to 50 percent on their energy bills every year.

“Conservation of resources is not beyond anybody’s grasp,” says Decker, “But you have to have a baseline understanding of what the costs are for the family.”

Bonk uses the example of wearing both a sweater (as insulation) and a windbreaker (to protect from leaks) in the winter. “The two are most effective together,” she says, adding that, “Home energy efficiency improvements help save energy, reduce energy bills, preserve the environment and increase the comfort of one’s home.”

Having an energy-efficient home isn’t going to be that appealing if it’s not livable, however. Lenore Weiss (LenoreWeissStudios.com) is a Northbrook-based architect and designer whose work focuses on the need for living space to be functional, inspirational and delightful. Incorporating energy efficiency into the planning is part of what she does.

Weiss explains that designing homes that optimize natural daylight through thoughtful planning accomplishes many goals. Proper window placement not only provides a stimulating environment, but also reduces the need for electrical light during the day. Day lighting solutions with windows have additional solar heat gain considerations, as well.

“South-facing windows will let the sun shine in and add warmth during the day, which is a great benefit in the cold weather season. But they could also make the home very hot in the summer,” says Weiss. “Sun angles at different times of the year should be taken into account, with proper overhangs or awnings placed to help moderate thermal comfort.” Weiss also likes to take advantage of outside resources like trees and foliage to create shade and natural overhangs

Weiss sees a change in her clients’ attitudes about efficiency from a few years ago. “With the recession, people are more budget-conscious, and they are more aware that preventive maintenance can save costs in the long run,” she explains.

Decker has worked with mosques and other communities of faith to implement energy efficiency changes, as well as commercial and rental properties. “Building owners don’t want to have to charge a lot extra for utilities, so they want to keep their own costs down,” he says. New construction is often under scrutiny because there is a demand to get the work done under a deadline. “There are a lot of houses that are being built quickly, but not correctly,” adds Bonk.

Decker points out that because information about a property’s efficiency is now readily available online, it’s fairly simple to do the research ahead of time. He likes the online energy savings calculator MyHomeEq.com to compare energy use to other homes in the area.

Small steps can be taken to decrease energy use every day, many of which don’t cost a thing. The Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MWAlliance.org), an outgrowth of another DOE grant, recommends replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs wherever possible, which could save hundreds of dollars over three years.

Setting timers or motion detectors on lights and unplugging electronics such as TVs, VCRs, DVD players, game consoles and appliances when not in use can make a big difference because these devices consume power even when they’re not being used. When choosing new appliances, look for those that have been certified by Energy Star, a joint program between the DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These appliances are guaranteed to be at least 15 percent more energy efficient than other, non-rated versions, and can save a lot of money in the long run.

Most utility companies, such as Nicor and ComEd, have programs to help clients reduce their energy usage. Bonk suggests talking with the provider directly to see if they have recommendations. There are also services such as refrigerator and computer recycling days offered by municipalities to the community.

Decker recommends doing a little research before taking on any major changes. “Talk to someone you trust, who has experience,” he says. “A contractor shouldn’t necessarily be trying to sell you new equipment, but should focus on improving what you currently have.” Weiss advises that it all comes around to the return on investment. “If you can only spend so much right now, try to make the changes that are going to have the biggest impact in the long run.”


Carrie Jackson is an Evanston-based freelance writer and blogger. Visit her at SpeakingOfCare.blogspot.com.

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