|Energy Star doors replaced a single-glazed window and wood door for a vast improvement in daylighting, energy efficiency and ambiance.|
Late last year, my wife and I contracted with a full-service home improvement company to redo the small, dark kitchen in our 1950s-era Maryland rambler. Having worked as a designer and consultant in residential and commercial energy efficiency for many years, efficiency was a priority.
The 130-square-foot kitchen still had its original exterior door and single-glazed, aluminum frame window. We planned to expand the kitchen by removing the wall separating it from a 120-square-foot bedroom, building an island and converting the bedroom closet into a small pantry.
Three months later, when the last cabinet door was adjusted, I realized remodelers who build to code-prescribed efficiency standards are missing golden opportunities — and leaving money on the (kitchen) table.
The five ingredients
Probably more than any other room, kitchens have evolved dramatically over recent decades. Beyond accommodating contemporary trends and tastes, kitchen remodeling also looks to available technologies to help combat rising energy and water costs.
Here are the five ingredients of an energy- and water-efficient kitchen, no matter its layout, size or amenities. They are all easy to find and install.
- Add insulation
Because we were replacing all the cabinets and counters along the outside wall, the remodeler recommended replacing the drywall rather than patching and repairing it after demolishing the cabinets. Code did not require us to upgrade the insulation, but I knew that as long as the studs were exposed we should re-insulate, both for comfort and to reduce heating costs.
After tearing out the existing, poorly installed R-3 batts, the contractors filled the 2×4 stud cavities with R-13 fiberglass batt insulation. As in most 1950s homes, the original insulation had been installed with gaps and compressed portions, and the vapor barrier was not flush with the wallboard. With this single step, our outside wall was now better insulated by a factor of four.
- Install more efficient lighting
Our goals for lighting were to improve the overall lighting level and quality, install high-efficiency lighting and increase natural daylighting. We met all three with stock products.
For general lighting, we installed a high-efficiency Energy Star-qualified ceiling fan and light. We took care of task lighting with three different fixtures. We used directional three-fixture track lighting to light the main counter and provide warm, atmospheric lighting. With directional four-fixture dimmable track lighting, we lit the new island space. Finally, we lit the sink with a T-5 fluorescent tube mounted under the cabinet. The T-5 provides excellent light and uses less electricity than standard T-12 fluorescent tubes and even less than the newer T-8s. Though T-5s are often avoided because the light tube causes glare, in its out-of-sight location, it directs ample light toward the work area without the glare.
We increased general overhead lighting efficiency fourfold while maintaining the same lighting level by replacing the incandescent bulbs in the central ceiling fixture with Energy Star-qualified compact fluorescent light bulbs. The new CFLs provide much more natural-looking lighting than the CFLs of just a few years ago, and they last five to 10 times longer than conventional incandescent bulbs.
Removing the dividing wall opened up the room. Better insulation and high-performance windows and doors allowed most of the baseboard heating to be eliminated.
Bring the outdoors in
Increasing the daylighting meant increasing the window area. Besides replacing the existing window with an Energy Star-qualified unit, we swapped out the original solid wood door with a low-E, solid glass door. In the former bedroom, we replaced the existing single-glazed, aluminum window with a low-E, solid-glass French double door with sidelights on both sides.
Although these energy-efficient doors cost 10 to 20 percent more than standard doors, we controlled the price by sizing the new door to fit it into the same wall space as the old window. That way, we could use the original header and avoid the cost of structural work.
The total glazed area in the converted bedroom and kitchen increased from 29 to 75 square feet.
- Use Energy Star appliances
Our original kitchen didn't have room for a dishwasher, so we installed a new Energy Star-qualified model, which uses less water and energy than hand washing, according to research from Ohio State University and the University of Bonn. We kept our 5-year-old Energy Star-qualified refrigerator because it still works well. When we bought it to replace our 15-year-old model, our electrical bill dropped almost $10 a month. Standards are more stringent now, so a new Energy Star model would save another few dollars per year, but this one was good enough for a few more years.
Energy Star does not qualify microwaves, but we bought one of the more efficient over-the-stove models with a vent fan, which we vented outdoors. This was a space- and money-saving alternative to buying a microwave and a separate ventilation hood. An Energy Star hood would save a few dollars a year in electrical costs and probably be a little quieter, but it would have cost almost $100 more and would have taken away cabinet space.
The only problem with choosing a microwave unit that doubles as a vent fan is that it is difficult finding published noise levels. I recommend having clients listen to the fans in a store before purchasing a microwave. Remember to vent the fan outdoors. It does no good to return humid, smoky air to the kitchen.
- Install intelligent heating
Here is where the importance of some simple Manual J calculations became clear.
Tearing out an interior wall to expand the kitchen and most of an outside wall to install the French doors required removing that portion of the baseboard heating. We didn't have much wall space left on which to relocate the baseboard heat.
Manual J calculations based on the new and improved kitchen showed that we could replace the original 17 lineal feet of baseboard heating with about 6 lineal feet and still have adequate heating. A remaining kitchen wall had plenty of space for that.
We also made our domestic hot water system a little more efficient by adding a small tankless water heater under the new kitchen sink. Our existing hot water heater is very close to all the other plumbing fixtures — in the basement almost directly below both bathrooms — but about as far as it can get from the kitchen sink. Any time we wanted hot water in the kitchen we turned on the tap and waited ... and waited. With this local tankless heater, hooked up to a separate fixture, we get hot water immediately — saving water, time and energy — and we can brew a cup of tea without having to heat a pot on the stove. It's a great addition.
Now our once dark, cramped kitchen is open and well-lit. Our electricity bill is down slightly, even though we added a dishwasher, a microwave, a tankless hot water heater, two light fixtures and a ceiling fan with a light. Our fuel oil use is down despite the greatly increased window area.
We do not measure our well-water consumption, but it's probably reduced because of the dishwasher and the instant hot water heater.
The remodeler saw his sales increase, thanks to the additional cost of the energy-saving products. And we were so thrilled with the results that we asked him to come back to do more work in other parts of the house.
Did we convert our remodeler? Probably not. The team was fine with all our efficiency suggestions and we had a great relationship, but having been in business for 75 years, they're pretty much set in their ways.
All the more opportunity for you to blaze a new trail.
The Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH, www.pathnet.org), is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.