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Buying Your 1st House: Energy Efficiency

Updated on July 3, 2013
Good for the planet; good for your wallet?
Good for the planet; good for your wallet? | Source

Some of the significant expenses of your first home will be its annual energy costs. And, for both the planet’s sake and for that of your bank account, you may wish that your first home be as energy efficient as possible. So, what must you look for?

If you are buying a house with a previous owner, you should first seek information on all energy expenses and utility costs: natural gas, heating oil, propane gas, coal, wood, electricity, water and sewer. Be sure to also inquire about the previous owner’s typical usage patterns. After all, a retired empty-nester couple that seldom ventures out, closes off unused rooms, sets the thermostat down a few notches, and walks about in cardigans all winter will undoubtedly use less energy than a growing family of six, laden with all the latest appliances and media, and with active teenagers and friends occupying all rooms at all times.

Trees can aid in energy savings.
Trees can aid in energy savings. | Source

But there are many other elements of the home you can examine as well. First, check the homesite for the locations and types of trees and landscaping. Properly placed, evergreen trees and shrubs near the house can block and buffer the effects of fierce winter winds. The leafy mass of deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves) can provide shading from the most intense and direct summer sun and heat, while allowing warming winter sun and light through.

High energy performance: well-insulated brick, vinyl siding or hard plank siding.
High energy performance: well-insulated brick, vinyl siding or hard plank siding. | Source

Second, a brick exterior, properly constructed and with sufficient insulation and vapor protection, can be very energy efficient. Other highly efficient exteriors include both well-insulated vinyl siding and well-insulated hard plank finishes (usually a form of precast fiber-reinforced cement). 

Look for full, continuous insulation.
Look for full, continuous insulation. | Source
Housewrap thwarts penetrating air and moisture.
Housewrap thwarts penetrating air and moisture. | Source

Third, check insulation levels throughout the house. Today, most homes being built throughout the Midwest and northern portions of the U. S. are being provided with insulation levels of around R-19 for walls and ceilings/roofs. (The higher the R-value the better.) Inquire whether an older home has had any upgrade in insulation (often via shredded insulation being blown into wall or ceiling cavities). Insulation should be as continuous as possible, and openings around all penetrations in the exterior building shell (for doors, windows, vents, etc.) should all be properly caulked and inspected regularly.

Fourth, ask if the structure has any incorporated ‘housewrap’ — a membrane that can provide both air-tightness and a vapor barrier, improving the overall energy efficiency of the home. The housewrap, too, should be continuous and uninterrupted.

Good windows: well worth their cost.
Good windows: well worth their cost. | Source

Fifth, check the home’s windows. Multiple-glazed windows are best (either double- or triple-glazed), and the best windows have sealed insulating glass units, are low-e, and have frames that incorporate a thermal break that prevents or reduces transmission of heat through the frame.

Two furnaces can be cheaper than one.
Two furnaces can be cheaper than one. | Source

Sixth, if your first house is large, or logically differentiated by patterns of occupancy and use (2nd floor bedrooms used only at night, 1st floor living spaces used only by day), it might benefit from a split heating and air-conditioning system. With a separate furnace serving each floor, each may be able to operate with much higher energy-efficiency.

Porches: a traditional mark of stately elegance and comfort.
Porches: a traditional mark of stately elegance and comfort. | Source

Finally, in addition to conveying charm and traditional architectural styling, porches can add to the overall environmental quality of your home, by shading the house, reducing the impact of wind, snow and rain, capturing prevailing breezes, and offering casual outdoor living space. In a similar manner, high ceilinged rooms with fans or fan-light fixtures can offer more dramatic living spaces with the added comfort and flexibility of cooling and ventilation. 

High ceilings + ceiling fan-light = drama + comfort.
High ceilings + ceiling fan-light = drama + comfort. | Source

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