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Debunking Myths About Your Home’s Carbon Footprint: The Basics of Insulation, Home Performance, and Sustainability

March 27th, 2020 BY First American Roofing

Table of Contents

Sustainability is all the rage these days. But, while food brands and clothing companies are often credited as being some of the leading innovators in this area, another industry is also embracing the idea of eco-friendly, sustainable products and services—the home industry!

But, there are some important things to know when it comes to improving your home’s performance while reducing its carbon footprint.

Dive into this home performance guide, where we’ll debunk some common sustainable home myths, why insulating your home properly is so important, and some actionable tips you can do to create a healthier, cleaner, more eco-friendly home for you and your family.

 

Ch. 1 The Problem:
Homes Today Are Not Efficient or Eco-Friendly

It’s important to preface this chapter by going over what exactly it means to be sustainable—as we’ll be discussing this term throughout this guide. While many people associate sustainability with being environmentally-friendly, it’s much more than that.

In general, sustainability refers to the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level. But today, the definition has expanded to include three main “types” of sustainability—known as the three pillars of sustainability. While this framework is often applied to businesses and organizations, it relates to homes quite well too.

First, there is the environmental pillar, which is all about reducing the carbon footprint. A home that would receive high marks for this pillar would be one that is very energy efficient and doesn’t take a lot of electricity and power to keep the home up and running.

The second pillar is social, which revolves around ensuring that every one that is affected by a certain action or business operation supports or approves of the decision. This one is a little trickier to define in terms of what it means for a home, but you can relate it to ensuring that the products and materials are sourced ethically and that the contractors who constructed the home were paid fairly.

The third and final pillar is the economic pillar. For organizations, this means that you need to be profitable in order to be sustainable (a business that is losing money will not be around for long). In homes terms, this pillar is all about how sustainable features in your home can save you money (we’ll be talking about some of those later on in this guide).

The Rise of Sustainability-Focused Products and Services

Consumers are looking to be more sustainable and eco-friendly now more than ever. According to a recent survey of over 1,000 consumers in both the U.S. and U.K., 88% of them answered “yes” when asked if they would like brands to help them be more environmentally-friendly and ethical in their daily life.

As a result of this growing appreciation for sustainable brands, we’re seeing A LOT more of them. In fact, 50% of consumer packaged goods growth from 2013 to 2018 was from sustainability-marketed products.

But how does this translate to the home industry? Are we seeing this same rise in prioritizing eco-friendly, efficient products and services in the home industry as well?

The answer: Yes! But it still might not be good enough, and here’s why.

Statistica reported that the number of LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) projects in the United States rose from 296 certifications in 2006 up to over 67,200 in 2018. That is an extremely impressive increase and one that has led many calling the green building market one of the fastest-growing industries worldwide.

So, what’s the issue? It sounds like we’re just a few years away from living in a world where every new home built has integrated sustainability in some shape or form.

As you may have guessed, the problem is that there are still millions of homes throughout the U.S. that were built before this movement began. In other words, if your home was built before the push for sustainable construction came about, then there is a very, very good chance your home is lacking in the energy efficiency department and sustainability overall.

According to this Harvard Business Review article, old buildings located throughout the United States are the biggest sustainability challenge we are currently facing. So what’s the solution?

Greg Hanscom, a senior editor at Grist, a publication dedicated to raising awareness for the need for sustainability, wrote a piece in 2012 on how fixing up old homes is greener than building new ones, with a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation backing up his claims.

The study illustrated that in nearly every instance, remodeling an old building is greener than building a new green home. In addition, reusing old buildings provides immediate results in terms of being environmentally-friendly, while relatively energy-efficient new buildings won’t pay dividends in that area for decades.

Why You Should Want to Reduce Your Home’s Carbon Footprint

First and foremost, there is a necessity for everyone to contribute to helping combat the harm of what we’ve been doing to this planet for quite some time. While it seemed as though we were making progress in terms of raising awareness for issues around sustainability, recent reports have shown otherwise.

According to the United Nations, the world has backed itself into a corner when it comes to the global greenhouse gas emissions we are emitting each and every year. While it is up to governments to step up around the world to fight this, we can also do our part, which starts with the clothes we wear, the food we buy, and the homes we live in.

Taking a more granular approach, creating a more eco-friendly, sustainable home will allow you to save money. While many home performance initiatives are an investment initially, they will pay huge dividends in terms of lowering your utilities, as well as dramatically increase your home’s resale value and improving your home’s indoor air quality. 

By crafting a more sustainable home and improving our home’s performance, you can also create a cleaner, safer environment for your family.

By now, you’re probably wondering, how can I find out what my home performance rating is?

Here are a few ways to do just that.

 

Ch. 2 How Efficient is Your House:
5 Steps For Self-Diagnosing Your Home

When it comes to finding out how efficient your home is, there are numerous ways to so—even on your own. Here are 5 ways to self-diagnose your home’s performance.

#1 – Check For Areas Where Air Leaks May Occur

Reducing drafts in your home can save you a ton of money, which means that if you do have a lot of air leaks in your home, it may be costing you a pretty penny. According to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, of the $2,000 the average American spends paying for energy each year, $200-$400 could be going to waste from drafts and air leaks around openings.

If you find any air leaks—such as near your windows or doors—make sure to plug or caulk the holes to help reduce wasted energy.

#2 – Inspect Heating and Cooling Equipment

One of the biggest mistakes homeowners make when it comes to their home efficiency is not regularly checking out their heating and cooling equipment. This should be done at least once a year, or as often as recommended by the manufacturer of the equipment.

If your home uses a forced-air furnace, the filters need to be changed at least every two months, and even more often during periods of high usage. With older units that are very outdated (15+ years), you should strongly consider replacing the system with a newer, more energy-efficient unit.

#3 – Make Sure You’re Using Energy Efficient Lighting

It wasn’t long ago that energy-saving light bulbs were all the rage. However, there are still plenty of homes that could use a refresh in terms of the lights that homeowners are using.

While there are many different types of energy-efficient light bulbs, here are three of the most popular:

Halogen Incandescents – Inside these bulbs is a capsule that holds gas around a filament, which increases the bulb’s efficiency.

Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) – Because CFL bulbs use much less electricity than traditional incandescents, they usually pay for themselves in less than a year.

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) – Once upon a time, LEDs were only found in traffic lights. But today, they are one of the most energy-efficient and growing technologies available for homeowners today.

#4 – Inspect Your Appliances and Electronics

Sometimes it’s the little things that can add up. This is especially true for your home’s performance. First, see if you have any appliances or electronics throughout your home that may be outdated and are guzzling up too much energy. Replacing those items and investing in newer, more efficient products can help save you money on your utilities.

Energy.gov has an awesome tool that you can use to quickly estimate your appliance and home electronic energy use. If your energy use is too high, then consider unplugging items that are not in use to prevent what is known as “phantom loads.”

#5 – Take a Look at Your Windows

A lot of these tips involve inspecting the features of your home and making sure that they aren’t too outdated, and this last tip is the same. According to EnergyStar.gov, replacing windows can result in large cost savings. If your windows haven’t been replaced in quite some time, then it may be time to swap them out for new ones.

There are some great window suppliers out there who are transforming the way we think about window performance. One of those companies is H Window, whose windows offer superior performance.

While these are 5 relatively quick and easy solutions for self-diagnosing your home’s performance and improving it, many homeowners are making mistakes when it comes to reducing their carbon footprint.

 

Ch. 3 Debunking the Myths:
What Homeowners Are Getting Wrong About Reducing Their Carbon Footprint

When it comes to reducing the carbon footprint of a home, more and more homeowners are turning to fairly drastic measures.

For example, the number of homes that are installing solar panels on their roofs is growing. Even Elon Musk’s Tesla has gotten in on the solar panel craze, as they offer solar paneling that can be added to an existing roof—similar to other products in that market. Tesla also recently unveiled its solar-roofs and announced they’d be selling them for about $35,000 (pretty spendy, but they look pretty cool!)

With all that being said, even regular solar panels can cost a lot (owners of an average-sized may need to pay as much as a car for panels on their roof). While many homeowners think they can just slap on solar panels on their roof and watch the savings come their way, this isn’t the case.

The amount of solar energy your home needs depends on how much you use. So, if you have 5 people in your home, you’re going to need more solar panels than a home that only has 2 people in because you use more energy (more showers, more lights on, more dishwasher use, etc). That’s simple enough.

But, where people who integrate solar panels into their home make a mistake is by not trying to improve their home efficiency before buying all those panels. Large scale projects like solar panels on your roof should almost be considered a “cherry on top” when it comes to improving your home’s performance.

In fact, you may find that by doing these 10 things that will increase your home’s performance and reduce your carbon footprint, you may not need to invest in solar panels at all.

 

Ch. 4 Taking Action:
10 Things You Should Actually Be Doing to Increase Your Home’s Performance + Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Instead of shelling out tons of money for solar panels, here are 10 things you should actually be doing if you want to reduce your carbon footprint while increasing your home’s performance.

Have a Professional Conduct a Home Energy Audit

First and foremost, it is imperative to have a professional contractor come in who is able to conduct a complete and accurate home energy audit. During this audit, several areas will be covered and inspected for the potential to increase performance, reduce energy waste, and improve indoor air quality.

Here are the areas that will likely be looked over:

The Outside of Your Home – While we tend to place a lot of emphasis on the inside of our homes when it comes to our home’s performance, the outside is just as important. An energy auditor should look for issues on the exterior of your house, such as cracks in your windows, walls, and eaves that could be causing leaks into your home.

Your Attic – If you do, in fact, have an attic, the auditor will likely scope that section of your home as well. In particular, they’ll be looking to make sure your insulation is correctly installed and has been applied evenly between your walls. They’ll also look at your electrical lines and the holes they run through to see if they are properly sealed.

Your Furnace– The auditor will take a look at your furnace and may recommend that you upgrade if they are on the older end. They’ll also take a peek at your filters if you haven’t done that yet.

The Lighting in Your Home – While we mentioned that you could easily diagnose your lighting efficiency on your own, the energy auditor will also take a look at your light bulbs too. They’ll have some recommendations for alternatives if your bulbs are wasting energy.

Conduct a Blower Door Test

Most professional audits will also involve a blower door test. For those who aren’t familiar with what these tests are—or if you need a refresher—they help to identify where you may have leaks in your home.

Using a blow door device, a professional will make sure all windows and doors are closed before the device depressurizes your home. The tester will then use an infrared camera to see where the air is potentially leaking into your home.

Properly Insulate and Seal Your Home Based on the Audit and Blower Door Test

Obviously, conducting these tests and having a contractor or auditor take a look at your home is only half the battle. You also need to act on their recommendations and make sure that your home is properly insulated and sealed throughout.

But what is the best way to seal your home? Which materials are most effective?

For the answer, let’s turn to a study done by a university way back in 1989, that is still very much relevant today.

From December 1989 to January 1990, the University of Colorado at Denver School of Architecture and Planning decided to put two popular insulation materials to the test. To do this, they studied the conservation efficiency of two buildings.

The first building, or building “A,” was insulated with 5.5 inches of sprayed-in cellulose into the walls and R-30 of loose-fill cellulose in the ceiling.

Building “B” was insulated with R-30 kraft-faced batts in the ceiling and R-19 unfaced fiberglass batts in the walls.

During the course of the two months, several tests were conducted, and measurements were performed in an effort to figure out which option was best for insulating homes.

Here are a few of their key findings:

The university released a statement of their findings, noting that results suggest cellulose performs nearly 40% better than fiberglass.

Plant Shrubs and Trees Around Your Home 

Planting foliage like shrubs and trees around your home can have multiple benefits to both your home’s performance and in the reduction of your carbon footprint.

In terms of reducing your footprint on this earth, trees and shrubs absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow, which reduces greenhouse gases. In addition, trees will provide a habitat for wildlife and will give you the opportunity to add some nature to your surroundings.

As for your home performance levels, planting trees and shrubs close to the exterior of your home can help with your home’s insulation—especially for older homes.

Planting deciduous trees at the right distance from your home can provide shade, which aids in cooling your home during those hot summer months.

Install a Smart Thermostat

Smart thermostats are fairly popular today, but unfortunately, many homeowners are investing in them but not using them to their fullest. In other words, they are wasting a golden opportunity to dramatically increase their home’s performance.

For those who aren’t familiar with what these thermostats are, they allow homeowners to create automatic and programmable temperature settings based on their daily lives and schedule, heating and cooling needs, and weather conditions.

For example, let’s say that you and your family are out the door pretty early and gone for most of the day during the week. You can program your thermostat to automatically change the temperature of your home after you leave. Then, you can program it to change again during the time that you and your family come home. So, if it’s a hot, humid summer, your smart thermostat will reduce the A/C in the home while you’re gone, but it can turn back on a few minutes before you come home to get your interior cool and comfortable again.

According to Nest, a smart thermostat provider, you can save 15 percent on cooling costs and 10-12 percent on heating costs by using their smart thermostat. Ecobee, another smart thermostat brand, claims that customers can save a combined 23 percent on heating and cooling costs with their product.

But, you have to be willing to program your smart thermostat to actually take advantage of these potential cost savings!

Update Your Water Heater to a More Efficient One

During your energy audit, the auditor may look at your water heater, and for good reason, as upgrading to a new water heater is one of the best ways to attain greater heating efficiency.

Most water heaters are given what is known as an Energy Factor rating, where the higher the number is, the more efficient they are. Gas water heaters score around the .5 to .7 mark, whereas electric models are more efficient at .75 to .95.

During the audit, the auditor may advise you to swap out your current water heater for a newer one. Or, they may tell you that the water heater you currently have installed will suffice for a few more years.

Plant Your Own Personal Garden

In addition to absorbing carbon dioxides like trees and shrubs, the plants in a personal garden can do the same—once again working towards reducing your carbon footprint.

But, there is a shift to expand on the traditional garden. Many homeowners are working towards crafting a personal garden that not only allows them to harvest home-grown vegetables, but that is also bee-friendly. There are many ways you can make your garden more accommodating of bees, including choosing plants that attract bees, grouping the same plants together, and providing a fresh source of water.

Balcony gardens are great for urban dwellings too. By contributing to the growing need for plants, trees, and grass in city environments—as cities tend to be much hotter than rural areas because of all the human activity, pavements, and concrete buildings—you can help be a part of cooling off your city.

Ditch the Dryer and Line-Dry Your Clothes Like in the Old Days

Okay, yes, it may be hard to give up the convenience that a dryer affords you. But, maybe this will convince you—at the very least—to occasionally opt for the line-dry method.

First, did you know that one dryer load uses up to 5 times more electricity than your washing machine? And that by turning to the line-drying method, you can potentially reduce your carbon footprint by nearly ⅓? Some reports have even shown that running a clothes dryer is equivalent to turning on 225 light bulbs for a whole hour.

Perhaps it’s finally time we take after our friends across the pond. Many Europeans don’t even own washing machines; according to the Huffington Post, 95 percent of Italians don’t even own a dryer.

In addition to reducing the amount of electricity you use, switching to line-drying means you’ll no longer run into the dreaded, “oh no, my favorite shirt just shrunk in the dryer” fiasco that we’ve all been through.

Start a Compost Pile

A composite pile is an easy way to reduce your carbon footprint, and you don’t need a ton of space to get started on one either. Taking the organic waste from your fruits and vegetables and putting them in a container or pile to decompose over time will help reduce the amount of trash you produce each day. This waste can also be valuable fertilizer for your lawn or garden!

Install Low-Flow Showerheads

Did you know that most conventional showerheads use 5 gallons of water per minute? Sounds pretty high, right?

Well, it’ll sound even higher once you find out that low-flow showerheads have a flow rate of fewer than 2.5 gallons per minute! Making the switch to low-flow is a quick and relatively inexpensive way to cut back on your carbon footprint and water bill.

 

Ch. 5 Eco-Friendly and Money Savvy:
How to Make Your Home More Sustainable While Being Money-Conscious

While many people tend to think that investing in sustainable home features is too big of an investment to take on, this isn’t necessarily the case.

If you’re considering a home performance project, there is a solid amount of rebates, incentives, and financing services for projects of that nature. Depending on what you’re local utility or state agency offers for rebates and incentives, you may be able to add other measures to your project to make your home even more sustainable.

Energy Star has a list of some great resources you can use to find some incentives in your area:

Energy Star also recommends you contact your utility and ask if they offer free or inexpensive energy audits or rebates for energy efficiency upgrades.

We touched on this earlier, but it’s important to understand how undertaking home performance and sustainable projects on your home will greatly benefit you in the long run by helping you reduce your utilities, as well as dramatically improve your home’s resale value.

When it comes to deciding whether or not to improve the performance of your home, choosing yes provides so many benefits in the long-run.

 

Ch. 6 The Home of the Future:
What It’ll Look Like

So, taking all of this into consideration… what will the home of the future look like?

While it’s difficult to predict the future, there are definitely certain details and features that will continue to be more and more commonplace in homes as the years go on.

First, there will no doubt be a continuation in the push to create more new homes where suitability and performance are implemented during the design phase. We can point to the rise in LEED-certified new builds over the past decade as evidence of this.

As more and more home builders and contractors start to work sustainable features into their services—as propelled by the demand for such homes—the rise in eco-friendly builds will continue.

We’ll also see a lot of homes with gadgets; or smart homes. These smart homes will have tools and technologies within them that will allow for more transparency when it comes to monitoring our energy consumption. This will allow us to find areas of improvement where we can reduce our energy use, ultimately resulting in reducing our carbon footprint and utilities.

We already mentioned solar panels and their role in home performance, and they will no doubt continue to become more and more popular as the years go on. But, as of now, there is a shortage of suppliers who are creating solar panels that don’t look, well, unsightly.

However, there is a growing number of solar panel suppliers who are starting to prioritize not just the functionality of their panels, but how they look as well. In the future, we’ll see many, many roofs will solar panels that are not as obvious and have a lower-profile while being better-looking as well.

Some folks believe that there is a high possibility that pre-fabricated homes will continue to grow in popularity. Pre-fabricated homes are made in a factory setting on a conveyor belt system. While that may sound like a cheap option for a home, they are actually quite the opposite, and most pre-fabricated homes can be completed within 6 months.

As more and more homeowners are emphasizing the ‘design’ aspect of their new homes, pre-fabricated homes allow for modern architecture and design to be more financially accessible.

For an inside look into these homes, check out this awesome video series courtesy of The Verge, titled “Home of the Future.”

Last, we’ll see a lot more homes that are green. Not just in terms of being sustainable, but actually green. Whether it’s green roofs, more gardens in the yard, or more plants inside, look for more and more homeowners to continue the trend of integrating nature into their homes.

Parting Thoughts

We created this guide to offer some insight into the world of sustainable homes and home performance. We highly encourage you to take some of the information you’ve learned here and apply it to your home.

Not just for the sake of reducing your monthly bills, but for the sake of the environment around you and the need for all of us to take a step back and figure out what we can do to help our planet out.

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