We spend a lot of time thinking about ways we can make our homes more beautiful, more inviting, more relaxing. But improvements to the way our houses perform from an efficiency standpoint are just as worthy of attention, as these changes can have a significant impact on the feel and functionality of our living spaces. For advice on how to make our homes more energy-efficient, we turned to two experts in the field, Jeff Bogard, president and LEED Green Associate of Saint Louis, Missouri-based R.E.A. Homes, and Fitz Eisenbrandt, president of Baltimore, Maryland-based Eisenbrandt Companies. Even though the most efficient homes will be built from the ground up, incorporating advances developed in recent decades, those with older abodes can take heart: there are still a variety of ways to upgrade. “While there’s no way to make older homes as efficient as the newer ones, there are things you can do to improve the comfort, quality and performance of your home,” says Bogard. Here’s how.
Assess your insulation. Bogard and Eisenbrandt both agree that an important step in making your home more eco-friendly is to turn your focus to what’s behind your drywall. This means assessing your insulation—especially if you live in an older home. “It’s not usually a pretty process,” Bogard says. “But getting behind those walls is key to improve indoor air quality, energy efficiency, and comfort.” The ultimate goal is to minimize thermal and air movement, ensuring that the heat stays outside in the summer and inside during the winter. “When your home is properly insulated, it allows the air you condition to stay inside your home longer, which is a big money saver and a return on your investment,” Eisenbrandt says. To make your home airtight, the experts recommend starting with a layer of foam placed strategically in the areas where there’s the most air flow, followed by blow-in insulation.
Add a smart thermostat. Unlike some of the other recommendations listed here, this is an easy (and inexpensive) fix. “Units like Nest, which come in just under $200, enable you to control the temperature in your house even if you’re not there,” Eisenbrandt says. New home tech—and there’s a lot out there—is a great way to control and track your energy consumption.
Consider geothermal. One of the greatest ways you can reduce your carbon footprint is by switching your heating and cooling to a geothermal system. “In a nutshell, geothermal systems utilize the earth’s constant temperature of 57 degrees to decrease the amount of energy needed to achieve a comfortable climate in your home,” Eisenbrandt explains. Loops are placed in the ground—vertically, horizontally, or in a pond—that capture the earth’s temperature and pump that back into your home, like a heat pump. Many states have great incentives and continuous rebates for switching over to these systems, so explore what your area offers to ensure the initial expense makes sense for you financially.
Stop blaming your windows. Often, we place culpability on energy-inefficiency and our home’s comfort on our windows, when in reality, that’s rarely the problem. Bogard points out that even if you go with top-of-the-line new windows, it’s still going to be the weakest point in your energy-efficiency plan. “Think about it,” Eisenbrandt notes. “Hot air rises, it doesn’t go sideways. So you’re not losing air that way.” If you have improper caulking around the windows and that’s causing an uncomfortable draft, then he advises you replace them for comfort’s sake. But don’t expect to see a big change reflected in your energy bills.
Turn your attention to your HVAC. “If you have a 20-plus-year-old system, it’s time to look for a replacement,” Bogard says. There are now super high-efficiency systems on the market that are far superior to older models, and while they will cost more upfront, the payback over a handful of years in utility costs and comfort is well-worth the investment. Most systems don’t come with a dehumidifier (for summer) or humidifier (for winter), but Bogard believes these are beneficial, as both will greatly add to the efficiency of your unit and the ultimate comfort of your home. There are also a variety of filtration systems that will remove particulates from the air, as well as bacteria and viruses—all of which will improve your indoor air quality and lead to a healthier home.
Choose proper-sized equipment. According to Bogard, the key to a more comfortable indoor environment is longer run times on your system, and that comes down to proper sizing of your unit. When you lower the humidity in the environment, you can raise the temperature and it feels as good, if not better. When an AC runs longer, it naturally removes the humidity. And when you size correctly, you get longer run times. If your system is too big, it runs for 10 minutes and then shuts off. “It seems counter-intuitive, but you want a system that has to work a little harder and run longer every hour to cool,” Bogard explains. “Your home will be more comfortable if it’s 76 degrees and 40% humidity, versus 72 degrees and 50%+ humidity.”
Reclaim materials. When remodeling or building a new home, seek to use materials reclaimed from older homes, or even wood from your own property. “We had a client who cut down a coffee tree on their estate and used it as a mantel in their own home,” Eisenbrandt says. Using older or natural materials instead of buying new has a positive environmental impact, adds charm, and brings truly unique elements into your home.
Featured image is of a project by Eisenbrandt Companies, photographed by Julie Andersen. TSG Tip 310 from Jeff Bogard of R.E.A. Homes in Saint Louis, Missouri, and Fritz Eisenbrandt of Eisenbrandt Companies in Baltimore, Maryland. R.E.A. Homes is featured in The Scout Guide Saint Louis and Eisenbrandt Companies is featured in The Scout Guide Baltimore & Annapolis.