Energy efficiency retrofit discussion

Amanda Witman
By Amanda Witman on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 - 11:28am

What would you do to retrofit your house for energy efficiency?  I live in Vermont and there is currently an initiative to encourage homeowners to do this.

Efficiency Vermont to Launch Statewide Home Energy Challenge

Year-long Effort will aim to Increase the number of Homes Completing Comprehensive Energy Efficiency Improvements

Burlington, VT – Beginning in January 2013, Efficiency Vermont will launch a year-long effort designed to encourage more Vermonters to make their homes more energy efficient. Starting from today through the end of the year, town energy committees and other local groups throughout the state can sign their communities up to participate in the “Vermont Home Energy Challenge.”

Under the Challenge, which is being promoted in partnership with the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network (VECAN) and other organizations throughout the state, towns will set a target of weatherizing 3% of the homes in their community over the course of a year and fostering more public awareness and engagement in energy efficiency efforts. They can then measure their progress toward this goal along with that of other communities in their region and across the state. At the end of the year, towns, regions, and local partners will be recognized for the effectiveness of their efforts to encourage participation in their communities.

“The Home Energy Challenge is designed to build on the focus and enthusiasm of community groups that are engaging with their friends and neighbors around energy issues every day,” said Jim Merriam, Director of Efficiency Vermont. “Over the course of 2013 – and beyond – we will continue to seek innovative ways to support these efforts, and we are hoping that the Challenge will help inspire even more action to increase energy efficiency at the local level.”

I consider myself a "conserver" and am pretty well aware of basic energy-efficiency measures, but I am nowhere near being an energy wonk.  I had a comprehensive home audit done (for free) through this program earlier this week, and I'm eager to hear the auditor's recommendations.  I'm also working with a local consultant who helps people figure out how to do cost-effective (cash-positive) retrofits. Without the auditor's report, we've at least been discussing various types of insulation and the possibility of solar hot water.  He takes his fee as a percentage of the project cost, and if there is no project, there is no fee owed.  So this part of the process is risk-free to me.

One thing I am struggling with – and I would greatly appreciate it if group members would weigh in on this – is that I am not in a position to pay outright for this work.  I will have to borrow money to make it possible.  There is some state money available and there are low-interest, guaranteed loans even for low-income people to use for this purpose, but the idea of going into debt at this point in the economic game gives me pause.  And yet, if the monthly payment fits within what I am currently spending for utilities (due to lower energy use as the result of the retrofit), and with utilities prices undoubtedly on the rise, I find it very compelling to consider taking a loan to do work that will keep my energy use as low as possible going forward. 

As my friend says, this type of work makes the difference between my house being an energy "guzzler" and a "sipper."  Though we are certainly not in "guzzler" range anymore due to deliberately chosen lifestyle changes.  I have the advantage of planning to stay in this house for good, with no anticipated reason to move (ever), so permanent changes here will be a lifetime investment.

I realize all homes are different, but I would be interested in hearing what others here would do – or perhaps are already planning to do – in terms of an energy retrofit for your home.

I'd love it if we could discuss this.  Also, are other states providing incentives and initiatives to get more homeowners moving toward energy-efficiency?


silvervarg's picture
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 28 2010
Posts: 57
Energy efficiency

There is usually lots that you can do to reduce energy consumption, but fom your post I guess that you have done quite a few of the easy things.
Still I hope to give some general guidance on how to think.

Think first of the major energy consumers and how to reduce them.
If you live in cold climates you probably spend 80%+ of your energy on heating. That means you should start to look at how to reduce heating.

The obvious first step is to look for the possibillity to reduce indoor temperature a little.
The second step is to find any major leaks of heats from the building. The old fashion way is to feel everywhere for a small draft with your hands. The more modern way is to use a heat-imaging camera (e.g. FLIR) either from the inside of the house or from the outside aimed towards your house.
If you have access to a heat-image camera you might as well do both things.

Any major leaks should ofcourse be sealed in one way or another. Usually this is really cheap, but might take a little bit of work. E.g. replacing old rubber seals around window edges and doors or put something to seal a minor crack, possibly behind a wooden panel.
Payback time of the material used for this kind of action is usually one winter season or less.

If there is a large area that leaks a bit over the entire area, like several entire windows or a roof then you might consider improving the isolation there. This is usually quite costly and tend to have 10-50 years payback time, possibly less if you can do the work yourself and don't count money for the time spent.
Replacing fairly good windows tend to be 30-80 years payback time, and often not worth the investment.
Putting in an extra layer on windows like a transparent sticker is really cheap, so even if the result is not as good the payback could be 1-2 years.

Depending on your heating system you might consider replacing the entire heating system or put in a complement.Usually this is really expensive, so do lots of calculations before deciding what to do.
It might not just be the energy use, but also the cost of that energy.
E.g. if you can heat with wood it will be cheap, but you might still use lots of energy.


Enough about heating, next thing on the list is heat/cold generating devices (frequently used).

E.g. hot water heater, freezer, refrigirator, oven etc.
The general rule here is don't do anything.
If they are really old and need replacement anyway look for a really energy efficient alternative.
As for the hot water heater you might want to put a special kind of blanket around it to reduce electricity usage. However this depends on the heating of the area the hotwater heater sits in.
If you have direct electricity heating in that room less heat-leakage from the hot water heater just requires  more heat from another heat source, so the gain is zero.


Energy wasting devices:
It is hard for an untrained eye to judge what an applience will use over time. The best way to really know is to measure. Just buy a cheap energy meeter $20-$30? (kill-a-watt is a known brand) And measure all your devices that you are not sure of.
E.g. I had a mini-stereo that used almost as much when turned "off" as when playing music rather loud. The "off" feature mainly turned off the small display that hardly used anything.
If you find such really badly designed devices just get ridd of them or install a switch before the device to really turn it off when not used.

And finally go to small consumers, like light etc and see hat you can do to replace with lower energy options.


GM_Man's picture
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Nov 4 2012
Posts: 74
And my energy use is where?

With the grid down today I took the time to go through my electrical use with particular the freezer, fridge, cellar lights, main LCD TV and DVR, and coop electrical use.  

Why did I do that?  Well, I rely on a battery backup solution that is grid-tied and maintained at this moment in time,  So, knowing what these loads are during a long-term power outage gives me a pretty good idea of what my load would be when I install my solar panels. 

As you would expect the freezer and fridge have the heaviest load.  Both systems drew 30Amps off the 24Volt battery bank.  That equates to 720 watts for less than 60 seconds!  Both appliances leveled off at around 6Amps DC for extended used shortly after that spike.

The chicken coop has two items in play during the Winter: a water heater and a heating lamp.  While both are not required normally their used is almost demanded for the chickens health during windy days and nights.  Those units combined pulled 6 Amps.

The LCD TV/Sat DVR only pulled 2 Amps.  Most of the time those units would be off during a natural disaster for most of the day.  I would put them on during the night to catch up with the latest news.  I would be more likely to have the FM radio on in order to listen to the latest info during a disaster during the day.  

What really surpised me is the 6 Amp load that the cellar lights pulled.  There were only two of the latest Mercury lights on at the time.  Those two lights were pulling just as much as the fridge and freezer when the motors weren't running!  Quite the surprise there.  Luckily, those lights are only on when needed to check on battery condition and the status of the power system.

I do need to get a handle on the FM stereo load.  I missed that today.  Then I need to monitor the load of both the fridge and freezer over time.  I just have a feeling that I am missing a big part of their load on the system.

The good news is that power is not used for the wood stove at this time or the water pump.  The water pump is powered by the grid only and not via the backup systems.  Gravity provides enough pressure to takes showers, clean clothes, wash, etc.

Regarding efficiency, I used to have 6-inch double lined pipe leading from the stove to the chimney.  I removed that 5-foot piece and replaced it with standard steel black single thickness stove pipe.  Before I could only get the temp to approx 65 to 68 deg F, but now I can get the room temperature up to 73 to 75 deg F whenever the outside temp is above 20 deg F.  I need to remove a side door (it faces West and sucks heat out of the house during the Winter) next year. I may just insulate those doors instead...  I also need to adjust the location of the wood stove so the clearances are greater to the back of the stove.  If I can increase the distance at the back of the stove I can remove the heat shield.  That should increase the apparent heat output at the stove and increase room/immediate room temp up another couple of degrees.  These changes will reduce the amount of wood I am burning.  

Previously, I replaced two large windows that were facing South.  The seal between the two panes of glass had leaked and the heat was flowing out during the night.  Now the Master bedroom is cozy warm.  Four windows that were single glazed were also removed but not replaced as they were facing West and only made the house cold.  They weren't retaining heat and simply had to go.

So, I will complete an electrical audit tomorrow on my primary circuits, identified and measured improvements to the wood stove, and replaced or removed a total of six inefficient windows.  By next week I'll evaluate what I can still complete this Winter.

Stay Warm!

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