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How to Save Money by Reducing Your Energy Use at Home

Here are 9 smart steps you can take.

 Photo: OakBridge Timber Framing
We’re all trying to do our part to save our planet’s natural resources, and choosing to build a timber frame home puts you squarely on the conservation path. But did you realize your efforts have an added benefit? They can save money on your monthly energy bills as well.  That’s a win-win.
While we all know how important it is to improve the energy performance of our homes, few actually know how to go about it. It starts with properly constructing and sealing your home. A high-tech, energy-efficient system will have little benefit if your house isn’t built properly. Begin with the basics:

1. Hire the right builder.  

The majority of timber homes use highly energy-efficient structural insulated panels (SIPs) to enclose that beautiful frame, but if they aren’t property installed,  their energy-saving properties are null. Enlisting an experienced builder is one of the most important things you can do to ensure that your house is as air-tight as possible. If you don’t start with a solid build, any other energy-efficient measures you take will be ineffective.

2. Conduct a blower-door test.

Once your timber home is dried-in (meaning the frame is up, the roof is on and all window and doors are installed), hire a certified pro to conduct a blower-door test. This test identifies where the energy failures in the structure may be, so that they can be sealed. Do the test before any interior walls are constructed so you can access trouble spots. In most cases, compromised areas can be fixed easily and inexpensively.

3. Upgrade to spray-foam insulation.

Of course SIPs provide an outstanding level of tightness and energy efficiency to a timber home, and many buyers choose to install them on the roof in addition to the walls. But there may be other areas of your home that require insulation, such as crawl spaces, gable ends or non-SIP roof systems. Though it costs 15 to 20 percent more upfront, spray-foam insulation is worth every extra penny. Spray-foam seals up the house more completely than other insulation products, which can gap. Think of it as the difference between a Yeti cooler and a wicker basket.
Now that we’ve sealed the house tight, what other measures can we take to boost a home’s energy performance? Here are a few ideas:

4. Switch to LED lights.

Lighting can be one of the most aggressive energy vampires in your home, but switching to LEDs can help bring your electric costs down significantly. Years ago, LED bulbs were expensive, and the return on investment had yet to be fully understood. Now, the cost of LED bulbs has dropped dramatically, and their lifespan is typically five times greater than traditional incandescent bulbs or even CFLs (compact fluorescents).  An average LED bulb should last close to 20 years — a major bonus in a 20-plus-foot vaulted ceiling!

5. Opt for on-demand hot water.

It stands to reason that if you have a large hot water heater warming water continuously, you’re wasting energy and money. Over the course of a year, you could be spending close to $200 on heating water that you’re not even using. On-demand hot water systems solve that problem. Most on-demand systems run on gas or propane and have to be vented to the outside, so it’s best to plan for them upfront and install them in areas relatively close to an exterior wall, so you can channel the venting as directly as possible. However, you also want them to be centrally located to the areas that will need hot water, so it won’t have to travel far, wasting the heat and defeating the purpose. Bonus: On-demand systems are smaller and less obtrusive than traditional 50-gallon tanks.

6. Choose the right HVAC system.

The kind of system you need to heat and cool your house depends on where you live and what you’re building. For example, if you’re planning a two-story house in the southeastern part of the country, consider splitting your systems, installing a heat-pump to serve the second floor and a gas unit on the ground level (if gas is available to you). Why? Gas systems heat more efficiently than electric, and since heat rises, you really only need the second-story unit to cool the second level. 
When shopping for a heat pump, look for one with a higher SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) rating. The higher the number, the more efficient the unit, and the more money you can save. But be careful not to buy more than you need! You can get a 22-SEER unit, but it may be unnecessary. The upfront cost is higher without significantly impacting the return on your investment. To get the most bang for your buck, look for a unit between 12 and 18 SEER, but be sure to check with your local building department on code requirements first.
If there are rooms that you don’t use often, such as a guest bedroom or a bonus room over the garage (or your timber home is quite small), mini-split units are an option for those occasional or small-space HVAC needs.

7. Choose quality windows and doors.

Window and door manufacturers are required to meet energy-code guidelines, and products that are ENERGY STAR rated are ideal. In most areas of the country, double-pane windows are required by code. Triple-panes, Low-E coatings and argon-filled cavities offer even more insulating value and could be mandated in areas like the Northeast but may not provide a solid return on your investment in other regions. Consider this: The average house has 26 windows. If you’re spending $200 more per window for triple-panes or argon fills, you’re spending an extra $5,200 but may only be saving a few extra dollars on your monthly heating or cooling bills. Remember: windows are measured by U-value, and, unlike R-value, the lower the “U” the better.

8. Embrace smart-home tech.

There is no shortage of products designed to help you manage your energy use in an easy and affordable way. Programmable thermostats are one of the most basic and effective. Programming the thermostat to coincide with your living patterns and controlling it via an app when you’re away can have a surprisingly significant impact on your monthly bills. Just be sure to keep your temperature swing within 5 degrees, otherwise the energy your HVAC will use to get to your desired temp will negate any savings. Other smart home devices, including programmable blinds and shades, home alert systems and voice/app controlled lighting or motion-sensitive switches can all help save energy and money.

9. Change your lifestyle.

Develop daily habits to conserve energy and water usage. Reducing water consumption by taking a shorter shower, switching off the lights when you leave a room and turning down the heat/air temps on your thermostat when you’re away are small steps you can take to save energy  (and money). It all starts with you.

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