Energy Efficiency: Benefits of a Whole-House Solution

Energy efficiency in a home needs to be thought of as one entity rather than independent products  

October 19, 2015
Building inspector on the jobsite

Although Aristotle wasn’t talking about a home’s energy efficiency when he said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” it would seem to apply nonetheless. A homeowner’s energy budget, health, safety, and comfort can all be positively affected when products such as insulation, windows, air sealing, HVAC, and other systems operate as one smooth-running entity—not simply independent features of a house that supposedly run efficiently on their own.

“We don’t really build our cars in our driveway by buying multiple pieces and trying to put them together,” says Larry Zarker, CEO of the Building Performance Institute (BPI), a residential home-performance credentialing, quality assurance, and standards-setting nonprofit.

With a third of existing homes dating back more than 25 years and another third more than 45 years, there’s plenty of housing stock that’s not even close to meeting modern energy codes. “A lot of the envelope doesn’t have the attention to air infiltration, air leakage control, and insulation levels like you would find in homes built under the most recent IECC [International Energy Conservation Code],” Zarker points out. “Homes leak, and just changing out windows or heating doesn’t solve that problem. … Instead, start with understanding where the problems are, and then going after a whole-house solution.”

Complicating Things

Being up to date on energy-efficiency matters can be a daunting proposition, even for the most experienced remodelers. Energy codes have become complicated and more demanding, says Jay Murdoch, director of government and public affairs at manufacturer Owens Corning. “When I was doing remodeling, the International Residential Code for One- and Two-Dwelling Families was small enough to put in my pickup truck’s glove compartment,” he says. “Today, the IRC is about 2 7/8 inches thick. It’s a phone book.”

The energy code is generally limited to the work that’s being done in a project, Murdoch says. “So if you’re doing an addition to the house, for the most part the energy code is saying, ‘OK, for your envelope, for your windows, insulation, and whatnot, you’ve got to meet the new code,” he says. “It doesn’t have you go back and do a holistic assessment of the existing home. What can happen, unintentionally, is that you can bolt a very energy-efficient box onto an existing older home. That box is performing really well, but the rest of the house is not at its best. You’re probably going to end up with some comfort issues in the home and some callback issues as well.”

Murdoch recommends that a remodeler who lacks the time to become an expert in home energy efficiency find someone who is proficient in whole-home diagnostics.

Owens Corning offers HERS (Home Energy Rating System)—a nationally recognized scoring system for measuring a home’s energy performance—and BPI training and certifications to remodeling contractors so they have a basic understanding of building science and how homes operate. This provides a foundation for remodelers in home assessments and the diagnostics needed to oversee their subcontractors’ work.

Measuring Efficiency

Matt Golden, CEO of Open Energy Efficiency—creator of Open Energy Efficiency Meter, an open-source public tool to measure energy efficiency—maintains that the energy industry needs to move beyond the current model of up-front incentives and rebate coupons. “If we’re going to invest in energy efficiency, it needs to be reliable, and procurement folks whose job it is to keep the lights on have to believe it,” Golden says. “We haven’t given them that evidence. In fact, we’ve habitually been over-projecting our results, for a variety of reasons. … We’re relegated to this world of rebates, where we hand out coupons in the hopes that people will do efficiency, and we don’t even measure our outcomes.”

What’s needed instead is a combination of information, technology, and data gathering, he says. Accurate measurement of the energy used in efficient systems is key to putting that technology on the same playing field as other resources.

What does this mean for remodelers? “Remodelers will have more choices,” Golden says. “Instead of a take-it-or-leave-it rebate program, companies will compete to create better solutions, which will encourage innovation and reduce costs.” Remodelers will also benefit from a system that separates energy costs from other construction costs. “That means,” he says, “contractors won’t get penalized for non-energy components, which are usually the larger part of the package.”

Are We Overthinking It?

Some in the building science world think the governmental requirements for efficiency are exaggerated. “My opinion is that the percentage of people doing remodeling who are focused on energy efficiency is relatively small,” says Michael Luzier, president and CEO of Home Innovations Research Labs, one of the consulting teams working for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Building America program. “In remodeling, a homeowner has a budget.” Asking a customer to extend his or her vision for the home isn’t necessarily on the table for many contractors, he says.

Luzier recalls an instance when Home Innovations was doing some market research for the DOE and the government officials asked: Why don’t we educate remodelers, since they do all this public good? Luzier says, “We told them, ‘They’re not trying to do public good. They run a business. They’re trying to respond to their customers’ needs.’ Governments do public good. Private sectors just try to pay the bills.” 

He further explains that the DOE’s desire to encourage homeowners to upgrade HVAC equipment, insulation, and air sealing may be a risky thing for contractors to bring up when a client hasn’t stated that energy efficiency is a priority. “There’s not a lot of future in telling customers they’re wrong,” he says. “I know they can be educated. But I look at it kind of crassly, like this: The difference between a super well-performing home and one that isn’t super well-performing is not costing people the ability to put food on the table or their kids through college.”

Moving Forward

Still, BPI’s Zarker believes that homeowners will care how energy-efficiency packages can benefit their families’ health more than they care how much money they’re saving. “What we’ve learned is that homeowners are a whole lot more worried about whether their child gets back onto the soccer field after a sinus infection than they are about whether they’re saving enough energy so that they can buy an extra pizza,” he says. “There are consequences of mold and other things that get into the air that can affect asthma, sinusitis, and other respiratory conditions.”

Moreover, many homeowners assume that a “whole-house solution” means doing it all at once from scratch. But during a major remodel, the home is torn up anyway. Adding efficiency at that time can really help. “Ideally, the contractor comes out of comprehensive home assessment and says to the homeowner, ‘Here is a roadmap of what you need to do in priority order. Do the most cost-effective, biggest things first,’” Zarker says. PR

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Joel Sensenig is a Waterville, Ohio-based freelance writer.

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