If the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was a jolting wake-up call, you may be wondering what else you can do to slow climate change. You’ve voted for people you knew would care about climate change, divested from companies that are making the situation worse, and replaced all your incandescent light bulbs with LEDs a couple of years back.
Today is a great day to get started on a plan to reduce how much energy your home uses and make that energy cleaner. Making a plan will help you decide where to start. If a particular project sounds fun and easy, do it soon. If something feels too expensive or like maybe too much work right now, plan how it would be possible to tackle it by saving up, hiring someone to do the work, or working with friends.
The three biggest energy drains for most houses are heating, air conditioning, and hot water, according to William Healy, PhD, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
“The first thing to do,” he says, “is to build really airtight walls and really insulated walls. Once you do that, put in really efficient equipment, such as water heaters and lights.” Healy, an engineer who is an expert in energy efficient housing, manages the Net-Zero Energy Residential Test Facility at NIST.
NIST’s test facility has shown that a house can generate as much energy as it consumes on an annual basis, in short, “net zero.” Healy says solar panels should typically come last; but solar panels put a home within reach of net zero, as well as superior comfort and vastly reduced utility bills.
Do an energy audit of your home
Begin by doing an energy audit, to find out where your home is losing energy. You can hire someone to do the job, but there’s a lot you can figure out yourself. Check out these tips from the US Department of Energy on how to do your own energy audit. We also have our own guide here.
Consider investing in a thermal camera that attaches to a smartphone—the infrared camera can tell you where your home is losing the most heat. Snap photos from the outside of the building or walk around inside on a cold night. (The photos will be useful later when you are prioritising work.) If you are into gadgets, this one is fun and will pay for itself.
Find all the gaps
Seal any remaining gaps in your building envelope from the inside, around light switches, electrical outlets, light fixtures and plumbing pipes. This is pretty easy. Next tackle weatherstripping doors and windows, which scores of YouTube videos offer to explain. (If you want to go all nerdy on the best weatherstripping, check out Conservation Technology.)
Nobody will blame you if you put this off, but, eventually, seal the building envelope’s floors, plus the rim joists, which hold up the house. Depending on the house, this can be a big project, and contractors have myriad ways of approaching the problem, including spray foam, solid insulation boards plus beads of foam sealant, or masking off the whole underside of the house with thick plastic sheeting.
Upgrade to electric appliances
An essential component of reducing carbon emissions is to use electricity instead of fossil fuels. In principle, electricity can be generated from zero emissions sources like solar and wind, and electricity is getting cleaner all the time. If your appliances are electric, you will eventually be able to run them without fossil fuels. But if they run on gas, you will always be burning fuel. In the long run, that’s more expensive for you and for the planet.
If your gas water heater needs replacing, choose an electric heat pump water heater. Replace a furnace with a system of ductless mini splits. These super efficient appliances run off electricity, can both heat and cool your house, and won’t blow dusty air around the house. A gas cooking stove can be replaced with an electric one. Induction cooktops have the same instant-on/instant-off behaviour as the gas flame that cooks prefer.
And for refrigerators, dishwashers, and washing machines, choose models that are the most energy efficient, as rated by Energy Star. Plug electronics into power bars that can be shut off when not in use. And, yes, replace old light bulbs with LEDs.
Prioritise if you can’t do everything
If you’ve gotten this far, you’ll realise there’s a lot to think about and a lot of pieces to consider. Every house is different and everyone has different finances and considerations. So, before you begin, think about why you want to make your home more energy efficient. Is it to save money and feel more comfortable? Or is it to get to net zero?
For example, a new gas furnace might be cheaper than electric ductless minisplits, depending on your house. In the long run, you’ll save more money and generate less greenhouse gas with the minisplits, but in the short term you save money with the gas furnace. Or maybe a contractor offers to insulate the underside of your house, but your thermal camera tells you are losing far more heat through your windows. If you can’t afford new windows, maybe you can put up thick curtains for not too much money. Curtains are great if that’s the right choice for you.
The main thing is to prioritise what will get you closest to an all-electric future in which you reduce your overall consumption of energy. Amazingly often, that saves you money in the long run and reduces your carbon footprint too.