Ways to be Fuel Smart: Buying a Fuel-Smart Home

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The average U. S. family moves from one home to another every 5 years. Considering that some people settle down for much longer periods, it works out that many of us move even more often than that.

It’s worthwhile, then, to examine some of the factors you should consider when you’re looking for your next house. Maybe you’ll be building from scratch; maybe you’ll be shop ping for a house someone else built — either way, you can look for advantages that wouldn’t be practical to build into your present home.

You’ll probably get closest to the ideal if you’re building from the ground up, so much of this section assumes that you will. Even if you’re going to move to an older home, you can look for the house you would build if you could.

Often, successful living is the art of compromise. You’ll be weighing one set of criteria against another and deciding where compromises must be made. In general, remember that investments in energy conservation result in decreased operating costs. Therefore, even if an energy-efficient house costs more to build or to buy, the total amount you pay each month in mort gage payments and utility bills may be the same or lower. and you will be a lot more comfortable in an energy-efficient home.

And when looking for a new home, you can assess the feasibility of modifying and adapting a house to make daily living more economical. Moving the structure to another position on the land may be impossible. Insulating the walls or attic is easy and inexpensive in many situations. Let’s assume your search is in an area where the seasons include some cold winter months.

Study the Setting

If you’re looking at home sites in a hilly area, the best location is on a southeast slope. A little rise to the west will tend to cut the force of the prevailing winds in winter, and the southern exposure will take maximum advantage of the sun for winter heating and will give the best prospects for gardening in the summer.

Having picked an ideal location, you will be best off if the principal windows face south and the structure is positioned on an east-west axis to provide a south-facing roof. Deep overhanging eaves on the south side will let you take maxi mum advantage of the winter sunlight while shading you from the direct heat of the summer sun.

Broad-leafed trees on the south side of your house will make a cooling shade in the summer, then conveniently drop their leaves and let the warmth of the winter sun through, just when you want it.

A solid windbreak of hardy evergreens to the west of your house, and more on the north side, will be a welcome shield from the winter winds and will shade the house from the sun and the heat of the late afternoon in summer.

A light-colored roof will reflect heat; a dark-colored roof will absorb heat. With a truss roof and extra space above the ceiling, the roof color won’t make a lot of difference. If there is usable space under the roof and adequate ventilation avail able, the dark-roof option will save money during the winter months.

Small windows on the north side will provide summer cross-ventilation and minimum exposure to winter cold. Be sure those north windows are double-glazed or covered with storm windows. Low-e glass or argon-filled windows will reduce the heat that is lost through your windows even more.

A Close Look at the House

If the location and grounds satisfy you, it’s time to study the house itself — closely.

The two-story design is far more economical than the extended single-floor plan. The principal heat loss in a house is through the walls and roof, so the less surface area you have, the less you’ll spend on heat.

Selecting someone to build your home may be the most significant decision you make. Try to find a builder who is informed about the latest developments in energy-efficient new home construction. Your discussions should include how the house will be framed; how much insulation will be installed in the walls, attic, foundation, and basement ceiling; the type of windows that will be installed; the choice of heating systems; and airtight construction. The more you know, the better your house will turn out.

If you are building your own home, use 2 x 6s instead of 2 x 4s in framing outside walls. This will permit use of a heavier layer of insulation. A bonus is an interesting window option; you can set your windows flush with the outer wall and give yourself deep windowsills indoors, or you can do the opposite for an unusual deep-set window effect from the outside.

Building an airtight home is easier than trying to seal up an existing home. A state-of-the-art home, from the energy perspective, will have extremely low infiltration rates. The builder will use special techniques to install a continuous vapor barrier on the interior walls and ceilings. It will be important for the electrician and plumber to understand the importance of sealing the holes they make. The builder will use a blower door to make sure the house is sealed tightly. At this point you may want or need to install mechanical ventilation. This will ensure adequate ventilation in every room. Moisture from the kitchen and bathrooms will be vented to the outdoors.

One of the major decisions you may need to make in building your home is what kind of heating system to install. Because your heating system should last about 30 years, this is a good opportunity to invest in energy conservation. Make sure you compare the installation and operating costs for each system. For example, electric heat is relatively inexpensive to install but more expensive to operate than oil or gas. Select an energy efficient heating system. There are many recent improvements in this technology. For example, new oil- and gas-fired systems vent directly to the outdoors and no longer need chimneys.

Numerous features will affect the home’s overall energy consumption. A house that is planned for energy saving will have an unheated garage, woodshed, or toolshed shielding a west or north wall. The buffer space of those unheated rooms is excellent insulation.

Many contemporary designs locate closets and other storage spaces in the house interior in order to leave more room for windows on the outer walls. The center of the house, though, will be the warmest place in winter and not the most sensible place for storage. Try for a design that puts closets and storage spaces on north and west outer walls, where they can serve as insulators.

Functions that require plumbing — the kitchen, bath, and laundry — should be clustered as close to each other as possible. This is easier in a two-story design. The water and drain lines will be short, which will save money when you’re installing them and make them easier to secure in a winter time heating emergency. Also, short hot-water lines keep the water warmer between heater and faucet.

Rooms that may be unused in winter should not have water lines running through them. Given the absence of water lines, extra rooms with separate thermostats can be shut off when they are not in use. There’s a money-saver.

Consider getting along without general, full-room illumination. The wall switches at the room entry can be wired to turn on outlets where individual lamps are plugged in.

Where full-room illumination is needed as, perhaps, in the kitchen or playroom, get acquainted with the varieties of fluorescent fixtures. The cool tubes use just one-fourth the power of incandescent light bulbs and are available in warm color tones that are much easier on the eyes than they used to be.

Give a thought to chimney placement. The central chimney will radiate warmth whenever the heating unit is in use. If you are planning to use one or more woodstoves, be sure your house design allows for easy chimney placement.

A final consideration:

Think about the sun when you buy or build. You may not be able to build or buy a solar home now, but will the design or orientation of the house you are thinking about adapt to solar installation at a later date? If the principal roof area is facing south, you’re on the way to solar hot water, space heating, or electricity.

Year-Round Comfort

The wing we built on the former schoolhouse we live in is half below grade and con three bedrooms. Their windows are smaller and higher up the wall than they might other wise be, but since bedrooms are used primarily at night, the size and placement of windows isn’t critical. The downstairs bedrooms are easy to heat in winter, and stay cool for summer sleeping.

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