While it would be ideal if we could all immediately switch to renewable energy sources in our homes, for many of us it is simply not realistic at the present time. Solar panels and wind generators remain expensive and bulky, and while new structures can be built to accommodate these power sources, they are often difficult to retrofit into older homes. However, that does not mean that we cannot all be responsible consumers of electricity.
The biggest difference you can make in terms of home energy use is in the area of heating and cooling. The EPA estimates that anywhere between 43% and 60% of the monthly energy bill for inhabited buildings goes toward heating and cooling the air. Your particular energy bill will depend on factors such as climate and building design, but no matter whether you live in a McMansion in North Dakota or a bungalow in Key West, all homes can benefit from improved insulation.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, only about 20% of homes built before 1980 have sufficient insulation. If you have an older home, consider checking the insulation, beginning in the attic, where most conditioned air is lost. The DoE recommends having insulation with an R-value of at between R-30 and R-60, with higher numbers appropriate for colder climates. However, the organization also suggests a minimum of R-30 in any climate.
One note of caution: when checking your insulation, be careful. Many homes built before the 1980s made extensive use of asbestos, particularly in the insulation, since this mineral was most useful for its heat resistance. If you suspect your insulation contains asbestos, leave it alone as long as it is in good condition and considering supplementing it if necessary. When intact, asbestos is not dangerous. However, when it is damaged or torn – as often happens during removal or renovation – it can release tiny fibers into the air that lodge in the lung and other tissues of the body, causing serious health problems. Symptoms of mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lining of the chest and abdomen, are particularly serious, so if the asbestos-containing material does need to be removed, consult a professional abatement team.
Insulating newly-constructed homes offers a few more options. They can be insulated from the inside using traditional blown-in or batting cavity insulation (which is now made with substances such as fiberglass, rock wool, or cellulose rather than asbestos). A contractor may also be able to use insulative sheathing on the outside of the building, which can reduce the amount of heat lost through the wood frame. It is also possible to use structural insulated panels which, as the name suggests, provide both support and insulation to the building.
As you re-evaluate your home insulation needs, keep in mind that the most efficient insulation in the world will be of little use if a significant amount of heated or cooled air is able to escape through cracks or gaps in walls, joints, doors, or windows. Windows are especially leaky culprits, but can be expensive to replace all at once. If you suspect you may have a leak, wait until a windy day and light a stick of incense or other (safe) smoke-producing device. Hold it near the suspected leak, and if the smoke blows horizontally, you’ll know you have something to fix. Often, these gaps can be sealed inexpensively with caulk or weatherstripping.
Ideally, we would all have double-paned windows with high performance glass in every frame and solar panels on every roof, but that’s simply not practical for many people. However, ensuring your home is properly insulated is a step in the right direction that will also help keep your monthly energy bill down. Be smart about your renovations – especially around asbestos, since mesothelioma symptoms can be fatal – but take the time to evaluate your home’s energy efficiency. Small changes can make a big difference in the long run.