Monday, July 11, 2016

Improving Energy Efficiency in Your Current Home: Heating and Cooling

Our July feature of greener choices around the home kicked off with a special guest post on improving the energy efficiency of an existing home with small changes and targeted renovations/enhancements.  This week, we're going to take a closer look at the energy efficiency of home heating and cooling. Perfect timing, since it's chilly mid-winter here and sizzling summer for those of you up north.  What are your top tips for improving home heating and cooling efficiency?  What have you tried and loved?  Tried and hated?  Want to try in the future?  What would you install in your dream green home if you could?  We'd love to hear from you!

Using more efficient heating systems (e.g. opting for a more efficient form of heating or upgrading to a new system with a higher energy rating ) is an "easy" way to reduce consumption without changing habits, but requires substantial replacement investment. Using your existing heating/cooling smarter is something that you can start doing today with minimal cost and effort.   Routine maintenance, such as keeping filters clean or scheduled servicing, can help it operate at peak efficiency and last longer before major repairs or replacement.   Using a timer or programmable thermostat can save you energy and money if you use it wisely.  Having control over different zones (e.g. living areas vs. sleeping areas) helps and individual room controls are great. Turning down (or up if you're air conditioning in summertime) the temperature settings by a few degrees can make a huge difference.  Health authorities currently recommend a daytime minimum of 18C (20C for vulnerable persons) and 16C for sleeping. Bundle up and invest in a few cosy blankets. I'm a big fan of winter woolies and having a giant nest of blankets.  That said, our current home has gas hot water radiant central heating (existing when we bought it) and, although it isn't a green energy source, it does work surprisingly well and is quite efficient.  I particularly like the combination of thermostat control with the ability to manual adjust or isolate individual heaters.  

Rather than just throwing more effort and expense into heating and cooling, looking to the house itself is a great starting point for improvements.  If a building retains heat (or vice versa), it will naturally require less effort and energy to regulate the temperature. Draughts, leaks, and cracks are a good starting point and offer opportunities for quick wins and inexpensive fixes, whether temporary or permanent. Having grown up in a far colder climate, I was shocked when I first moved to Australia (which does get chilly in winter and bakes all summer) as how incredibly "leaky" our relatively modern first home was, and there have been plenty of quick fixes in every house of all ages/types we've lived in since, both there and in other countries.  As a plus, you can make gains if you can't alter the property itself - even a simple stuffed draughtstopper at the door helps (and might also deter a spider or two...eek!)

Full or partial insulation (or replacement insulation) can be a worthwhile investment, but not always practical for existing homes. There are many different types of insulation for different purposes and locations, so research hat might work for your location and style of home (and budget).  Older homes, like ours, often lack access to the wall cavities unless claddings are removed which is prohibitive unless doing other major works. I am consistently awed at the emptiness inside the walls in houses here, although I have to say that the big old native timber boards inside our current walls were AMAZING. On the plus side, they often have ready access to attics and under the floors.  Small adjustments, like rugs and carpets, can also help to buffer chilly floors from above and feel great underfoot even if your house is snug. I am a big fan of hard floors, but I do love a gorgeous rug! It can really make a space, can't it?

Windows are another huge thermal transfer area that can benefit from draught-stopping and insulation.   Upgrading windows can be seriously expensive - especially if you have an older or heritage property.  Our old house still has many of its original sash windows, which are part of its charm as well, but also it's inherent inefficiency.  Surprisingly, single pane glass is also still common here, even in newer properties (!!!).  Adhesive window films are an inexpensive DIY option to improve existing windows.  We've used both thermal film (bonus: great for reducing UV fading too!) and frosted films in different homes for different applications. The frosted film is great for locations where you want added privacy, such as bathrooms or windows directly facing a neighbor. Using full heavy curtains (or snugly fitted thermal blinds) can help trap heat in winter and block hot summer sun. Our curtains and blinds definitely get a workout! I chase the sun in winter and hide from it in summer.  In some of our windows, we've also fitted net curtains or double-layer blinds which give the option of a lighter window barrier and filtering sunlight (or adding privacy) without going totally dark.   In a previous home (different style in a different climate), we had exterior shutters installed. Not only did they let us lock-up like a fortress, they made an enormous difference in the summertime by blocking heat, filtering sun, and allowing us to maintain both airflow and security.

Our current home is not air-conditioned, and we rely completely on airflow (augmented with fans when needed) and our window coverings to manage temperature.  Using airflow and cross-ventilation during summer really helps, especially if there is a nice breeze.  Deciduous shade trees can help shield your home from hot summer sun (and look great while they consume carbon); however, be conscious of root spread relative to foundations and underground services.  Consider neighbours if properties are close together, and don't forget about the autumn clean-up factor and remember to keep your gutters clear.

Our July feature topic is greener choices around the home. This month's Monday features explore home energy efficiency, with a focus on "doable" changes for real life improvements in your existing home and budget. 

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