- The Washington Times - Friday, November 27, 2009

As cold nights and crisp mornings creep into the Washington area, homeowners may wonder if they have done enough to increase the energy efficiency - and comfort - of their homes. Green building and remodeling involves much more than just energy efficiency, but consumers can feel the difference in their homes with better insulation, new windows or a quality heating and air conditioning system.

Homeowners can take advantage of federal tax credits up to $1,500 to make energy-efficient improvements to their homes in 2009 and 2010. For complete information on these tax credits and for a database of all state and local tax credits that can be used to finance green remodeling, visit the Web site of the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (www.DSIREUSA.org).

Energy-efficient windows

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says a typical home loses more than 25 percent of its heat through the windows. Low-maintenance vinyl windows offer the look of traditional wood windows, but often provide better insulating value.

Consumers can find more detailed information on the benefits of energy-efficient windows targeted to specific states and their energy needs at the Web site of the Efficient Windows Collaborative (www. efficientwindows.org).

In addition to replacing old windows, improving a home with Energy Star products can cut energy bills by up to 30 percent. Energy-efficient improvements help homeowners save money on current utility bills and add value to a home when it comes time to sell.

Energy audits

Homeowners interested in taking a broader approach to energy efficiency rather than simply focusing on the windows, can request a home-energy audit from their local utility company, or they can try a do-it-yourself version online (https://hes.lbl.gov).

The online audit starts with the property ZIP code and then walks the homeowners through an estimate of a home’s energy use based on the number of windows, the direction the front of the home faces, the types of appliances, the heating and air conditioning systems, and other factors (such as the number and age of the residents).

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Web site includes a downloadable software program to walk homeowners through the steps toward saving energy, including local information on utility costs. By entering information on potential home improvements, the program can estimate savings in costs, energy and reduction in pollutants. The software is available at www.epa.gov/ seahome/energy.html.

The DOE’s Energy Savers Web site (www.energysavers.gov) provides another version of a do-it-yourself energy audit with a room-by-room list of systems and appliances to evaluate. In addition, the site helps consumers find professional energy auditors.

E-Scale

The DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy division developed the EnergySmart Home Scale, known as the “E-Scale,” to help buyers and homeowners understand the energy efficiency of a home they are considering buying, renting or remodeling. The E-Scale includes an estimate of annual energy use (including both gas and electricity), the average energy performance of typical existing homes in that area and a verified performance estimate for the home.

The E-Scale also includes a threshold number for a home to meet the criteria outlined in the Builders Challenge program. Builders participating in this program are committed to constructing homes that earn a 70 or less on the E-Scale. A score of 70 means that the home is about 30 percent more energy efficient than a typical new home built to code. A score of 60 means that the home is 40 percent more energy efficient. The ultimate goal is to build a home with an E-Scale score of 0, which would be a Net-Zero Energy Home.

The E-Scale form and the E-Scale scoring system is meant to replicate the miles-per-gallon system used by car buyers to evaluate performance, so that homebuyers can easily compare the potential energy performance of homes. The E-Scale is based on the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) developed by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET). Builders will have their E-Scale rating conducted by RESNET-certified energy raters.

Green homes

For buyers looking for a new home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in Delaware, Insight Homes is building single-family homes that are energy-efficient, offer superior health benefits and are built with environmentally friendly techniques.

The Elaine Contemporary IV model, priced from $224,000, is a one-level home with about 2,256 square feet. It features a study, a formal dining room and a living room with vaulted ceilings. The kitchen has both a center island and a breakfast bar. The master suite includes a deep walk-in closet and a luxury bath with a soaking tub and separate shower. Two more bedrooms share a hall bath. This home also has a two-car garage, a laundry room and a half bath. Buyers may add a family room with an additional 285 square feet of living space and a deck.

Insight Homes has multiple single-family home models available for building on private lots, priced from $139,000 to $279,000 for 1,346 to 3,381 finished square feet. In addition, the company is building homes (priced with lots) from the $190,000s to the mid-$200,000s at several Delaware communities. Visit www.itsjustabetterhouse.com for details.

All the Insight Homes are built to be among the top 1 percent of energy-efficient homes in the country, with a HERS score of 56 or better, Energy Star certification and NAHB Green Certification on the Gold Level.

Standard green features include energy-efficient windows, an energy-efficient air conditioning system, a 97 percent energy-efficient gas furnace, a tankless water heater, Energy Star appliances, extra insulation, ceiling fans, low VOC paints, green fiber carpet and a fresh air system. The homes have central vacuum systems, a whole-house dehumidification system, hardwood floors, a programmable thermostat and a two-car garage.

Homeowners interested in finding a contractor to make eco-friendly improvements, such as replacing the windows, can search the listings at the National Association of Home Builders Web site for certified green remodelers (www.NAHB Green.org). Consumers can find local remodelers on this site, along with an abundance of information about the benefits of green remodeling.

Whether choosing a new eco-friendly home or making changes to an existing home, consumers can find plenty of information on how to improve energy efficiency from government and private sources. Taking small steps may be the most affordable way for homeowners to increase their energy efficiency, but perhaps the savings they achieve will pave the way for larger changes in the future.

To save energy now, consumers should:

Turn down the temperature of the water heater to the warm setting (120 degrees) and add an insulating blanket.

Check the age and condition of major appliances, especially the refrigerator, and consider replacing them with energy-efficient models.

Clean or replace furnace, air-conditioner and heat pump filters regularly.

Assess the heating and cooling systems to determine if they should be replaced or retrofitted to improve efficiency.

Inspect the attic or crawl space to determine if more insulation is needed.

Insulate hot water pipes and ducts wherever they run through unheated areas.

Seal up the largest air leaks in the house. The biggest culprits are typically gaps around chimneys and recessed lights, unfinished spaces behind cabinets and utility cut-throughs for pipes.

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