Managing Your Expectations

Lucas Hamilton

When you are considering remodeling activities and the impact that those activities will have on the energy consumption of the home, a very good place to weigh the benefits of one activity over another is the Federal Energy Management Program.

Under this program there are a variety of things but the one I thought most interesting is the Technology Deployment.  This focuses on market-driven technologies and creating market pull for new and underutilized technologies.

If you look at the Building Envelope section you will see what activities will give you a great impact on reducing your energy consumption.  Activities such as using a cool roof or a green roof, installing window films or replacing older windows with high R value windows are rated so that the end user can identify which remodeling activities will give the biggest bang for the buck. You can also look at the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning and see that commercial ground source heat pumps, for example, have a huge impact.

This in a wonderful way for consumers to get to the bottom line and be able to make smart choices when remodeling in order to reduce energy consumption especially in older homes.

It is also a great way to avoid being disappointed because you were told by some radio advertisement that installing new windows will cut your energy bill in half. You will be smarter than that!

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed

The SAVE Act – Sensible Accounting to Value Energy

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

We are seeing an increase in legislation to drive the energy consumption and retrofit message to homeowners.  One that can make a huge impact is The SAVE Act.  This legislation instructs federal loan agencies to assess a borrower’s expected energy costs when financing a home.  The average U.S. homeowner energy costs in 2008 were $2,278/year.  This exceeds the average property taxes where on average were $1,897.

The basic goals of this Act are to:

  • Enable better mortgage underwriting
  • Reduce utility bills for American homeowners
  • Provide affordable financing for home energy improvements
  • Spark job creation in the housing industry

There are several key supporters of this legislation within the build industry.  These are the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), International Code Council (ICC), Green Builder Coalition (GBC), American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), and The Residential Energy Services Network, Inc (RESNET).

The two major components of the Act are the:

  • Affordability Test which accounts for expected energy costs along with other recurring payments in the debt-to-income qualifying ratio. So lenders would now be evaluating Principle + Interest + Taxes + Insurance + Energy, and
  • Loan to Value Adjustment which will ensure that the underwriting process consistently and accurately captures the added value of energy saving features, allowing homeowners to finance the cost of efficiency improvements as part of their mortgage.

The average home’s energy cost over the life of a 30-year mortgage is $60,000 and homes are responsible for nearly 25 percent of all energy consumed in the U.S.  The majority of our building inventory seriously needs energy upgrades to be current with the building codes.  Making it easier for homeowners to secure the financing to make energy updates is the best way to move the needle which we discussed in a blog last year.

Do you have any thoughts about The SAVE Act?

Cut Energy Bills at Home Act

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

The mobilization of homeowners to make energy efficient updates continues to be a challenge in the drive to reduce energy consumption.

A newly proposed bill to provide tax incentives for home performance upgrades has been introduced by U.S. Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) an Dianne Feinstein (D-California) entitled Cut Energy Bills at Home Act.  

This new tax credit is based on the annual predicted energy cost savings from improvements to heating, cooling, hot water, and permanent lighting in a taxpayer’s primary residence. The value of the credit begins at $2,000 for a 20 percent reduction in the energy consumption of a residential home for heating, cooling, water heating and permanent lighting.  The credit increases by $500 for every additional 5 percentage point increase in energy savings, up to $5,000 and the credit is capped at 30 percent of the cost of the improvements which includes labor, diagnostics and modeling costs.  Improvements would have to be “designed, implemented, and installed” by a contractor accredited by the Building Performance Institute (BPI), Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), or a similar program approved by the Treasure Department.

This requirement is a positive one for building professionals but also insures that the work done will provide the necessary end result to qualify the building for the credit. This bill does go a bit further in scope than the previous tax credit. If there is a move to label homes for energy efficiency in a similar way to the energy rating of appliances (as we have spoke of before), then this program will be an invaluable proving ground for the methods, financing, and human resources needed for the retrofitting of older buildings to bring them up to current codes. With a majority of our building inventory more than 30 years old (say 100 million buildings out loud), we need to focus on bringing these buildings up to current standards if we hope to reach our national energy goals as outlined in the Architecture 2030 Challenge.

This bill may not be perfect but it does provide stimulation to the building community and continues to encourage building owners to reduce energy consumption.

Would People Use the Stairs More if They Were Nicer?

Lucas Hamilton

Think about the stairs in the average building.  They are simply stairwells -very claustrophobic – very unpleasant – very utilitarian.  In general, they are often not attractive spaces.

I recently visited ZGF Architects at the 12 West building in Portland, Oregon which is a LEED Platinum certified high-rise building. One of the really cool features of ZGF’s office space in this tower is the open stairs between floors. If you visit the firm’s web site you can actually see pictures of the stairs under the “interiors” tab.

When you were in these stairs you noticed they were beautiful.  They weren’t wells they were open to the spaces.  The vertical space of the stairs became a connector of the spaces in the building.  They were airy and bright, they also incorporated the environment of the floor in terms of the acoustics and appearance.  You saw people stopping and talking on the stairs.

It made me think ‘If the stairs were more appealing would people be willing to use them?’  The designers of this building thought so and they were right. 

One of the concepts put forward for reducing power consumption in buildings is rethinking how we can incorporate stairs between floors.  Not only does it save energy, it adds to the overall aesthetics in the design.  An unrelated benefit is that it increases the cardiovascular benefits for employees and visitors. As we consider how we might change the ways we think of and incorporate these spaces in our building, we must remain mindful of the science of air flows and how large columns of air behave. There must be an eloquent solution which combines form, function, and efficiency.

Have you seen any examples of the creative uses of stairs in buildings?

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Hybrid Insulation Systems Give Best of Both Worlds in Performance

While making a presentation recently at the Oakland Space and Science Center in California, the topic of fiberglass versus spray foam insulation came up and was quickly followed by questions about hybrid insulation systems. It seems like a lot of people have hybrids on their mind these days.

One of the positives about spray foam is that the insulation itself is air resistant.  The gas or air which does the majority of actual insulating is trapped in bubbles inside the plastic foam matrix and can’t be washed out by air flow.  Now that we recognize the influence of air leakage on a home’s energy consumption, many builders and homeowners are trying to get their houses as “tight” as they can. Installing spray foams where air is leaking through the building envelope can reduce that flow rate. One of the issues people struggle with when considering foams as a solution has been their cost- they can have a significantly higher installed cost than fibrous insulations.

For this reason, in some markets, contractors are turning to hybrid insulation systems often referred to as flash and batt insulation. To fill a 2 x 6 inch empty wall cavity, first add a flash coat of closed cell foam on the exterior wall to a thickness of 1 -2 inches then take a low density batt to fill in the space before the drywall is installed. What you get is the best of both worlds – the inexpensive high R-value of the fiberglass batt combined with a smaller amount of foam which gives you the air tightening effects desired. 

An even more effective option is using loose fill insulation such as OPTIMA® in the hybrid system instead of fiberglass batts.  This is a cost efficient, high R-value, well performing system. A challenge for the hybrid approach lies in very cold climates. Fiberglass is a very efficient insulating material so if too much is used with the foam it will make the foam cold and moisture can form in the wall assembly. That needs to be avoided at all costs. For colder climates there are very specific recommendations for the amount of foam you need to use in the wall constructions before you can eliminate the need for a vapor retarder on the warm-in-winter side of the insulation. We have recommendations for hybrid insulation systems, as does the Blow-in Blanket Contractors Association (BIBCA), designed to create the appropriate foam to fiberglass ratios which will prevent this from occurring. If you choose to install less foam and more fiberglass or if you have any lingering concerns about moisture in these assemblies, I recommend installing a Smart Vapor Retarder such as the MemBrain™ product. As an example, the First LEED Platinum Home in Colorado applied the hybrid system using CertainTeed products.

If you are using a hybrid insulation system in your construction projects I would love to hear your experiences.

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Making Low Income Homes Energy Efficient

Lucas Hamilton

Last weekend, not only did we celebrate Halloween but the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) celebrated National Weatherization Day recognizing the work being done to save money for America’s homeowners by investing in energy efficiency.

The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act weatherization program has assisted over 245,000 low-income families conduct energy audits, upgrade their homes and lower energy consumption by installing insulation in the attic and basement, weather stripping on the doors and roof ventilation.

The weatherization program has also put Americans to work to complete these upgrades.

This video documents the work that DOE is doing and also provides some great tips for DIYers for ways to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.

The Cost of Home Energy as Percent of Income

I was preparing for a presentation for Energy Awareness month and came across a startling statistic from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about the amount of net income that goes toward paying utilities.

The income level percent of net income for utilities is:

  • The U.S. median for working Americans……………… 4 percent
  • Social Security –  elderly………………………………….19 percent
  • Social Security (DE, IL, VT)…………………………….. 25 percent
  • American Families with Dependent Children…………..26 percent

For those of us who are in the fortunate group of wage earners (4%ers) this is reasonable but when you look at fixed and low income homeowners; this is shocking. Keep in mind that energy is the most volatile of utilities and is related to heating, air conditioning, water (don’t forget that cleaning and transporting water takes energy), cooking, and everything you plug into the wall. 

For these reasons, energy efficiency is critical in order to insulate the group of people on fixed incomes from the volatility of market prices.  For the most part these groups understand the need to conserve energy. They are, generally, much more disciplined regarding turning off lights or waiting to turn on the heat or air conditioning. Think about the last time you saw your Grandparents waste energy (other than lighting 80 candles on a birthday cake.)

In a previous blog about Aging in Place, which is the movement among older Americans to remain in their homes as long as possible, we discussed the benefits of low maintenance products for the home.  This energy statistic provides a wake up call for many of us to take advantage now of making energy upgrades in the home in order to minimize energy usage as we approach retirement age. If you are one of the lucky 4%ers, use your income now to get energy efficient while you can still pay for it. If you wait until retirement to get efficient, you may not be able to afford to do so once you get there.


Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Kicking the Energy Issue up a Notch – The Green Power Community Challenge

Lucas Hamilton

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just launched a year-long nationwide campaign called the Green Power Community Challenge to encourage communities throughout the nation to utilize renewable energy as a means of helping address greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

The Green Power Community Challenge aims to double the amount of renewable energy sourced electricity used by participating EPA Green Power Communities collectively. Throughout the year the EPA will track and report the standings of the communities participating on a quarterly basis.  

In order to participate, communities need to join EPA’s Green Power Partnership and buy or produce approved forms of green power (such as solar power) on-site. All the communities currently participating are listed if you want to check the communities in your area.

This program not only focuses on the use of renewable energy but also encourages generating energy on site as a means to cut down on our net annual fuel consumption.  Communities can either reduce as much energy as possible or identify ways to create power to subtract from their total consumption. 

One resource that can help communities and individuals meet the challenge is the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiencies (DSIRE). This site lists all the incentive and rebate programs by state. This is important because the incentives do vary from state to state.  In some cases, the incentives or rebates can help you recoup almost half of the cost to install photovoltaic roofs.

At the conclusion of the Challenge, the community that has the highest green power percentage and the community that uses the most kilowatt-hours (kWh) of green power will receive national recognition and special attention from the EPA.

It is exciting to see this type of involvement in reducing energy consumption on the community level.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

During Energy Awareness Month Take the ENERGY STAR® Pledge

Lucas Hamilton

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ENERGY STAR program has launched a pledge project designed to draw awareness on the part of individuals to change their ways and adopt more energy conscious practices. The pledge asks individuals to commit to replacing items in your office or home ranging from light bulbs to appliances and office equipment that carry the Energy Star label to reduce energy consumption. Retrofitting with added insulation is another improvement to consider.

According to the current statistics 2,655,126 individuals have joined the cause and pledged to take small, individual steps that have led to reducing 8,842,303,899 lbs. of greenhouse gas emissions in the fight against climate change.

I want to applaud my fellow employees for taking the Energy Star pledge and committing to reducing their energy consumption.  The EPA estimated that the value of the pledges received by CertainTeed/Saint-Gobain so far equates to more than $1.5 million in energy savings.

You, too, can get involved as an individual or a company and be a part of this national campaign.  Get your company involved by going to Energy Star’s Join our Movement . To register as an individual go to Take the Pledge

This type of awareness is a good starting point to encourage everyone to look at ways to reduce their energy consumption and become more conscious of how they use energy.  We can all do our part.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Drinking Freely at the Energy Trough

The days of conspicuous consumption on the part of apartment dwellers may soon be over. A recent article in the New York Times regarding utility included rents  highlighted the fact that the energy consumption in apartments or multi tenant buildings where utilities are included is about 20 percent higher than apartments where utilities are not included.  With the record temperatures experienced throughout the country this summer this has a major environmental impact since 40 percent of a building’s energy use is spent on heating and cooling.

Property managers are beginning to audit buildings and have discovered renters with utilities included did not worry about turning on the air conditioner in May and leaving them on until October.  Apartment dwellers admit to leaving the air conditioner running when they go to work and even when they go on vacation because it is not costing them anything.   

In the Times article, Lawrence J. Wright, a New York University professor referred to this type of phenomenon as Homo economicus – man’s economics – if something is free you will imbibe until you are full.

Property owners are considering submeters in buildings to identify how much energy is consumed per apartment.  While this would still generate one bill, the landlords could charge tenants based on consumption.

No one wants the label of ‘conspicuous consumer’. The ability to show a resident how much more energy they consume than their neighbors could help to change the behavior.

This may be the end of an era but one that could help to improve the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation