Homes going lean, mean and green
Soaring utility bills are making more homeowners "green" believers.
By Les Christie, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- Many homeowners are scrambling to pay utility bills and trying to find ways to reduce power consumption. For those considering home improvement projects, there's an abundance of new techniques and products that can be used to create a more energy-efficient home.

New home builders too, are incorporating many innovative methods to reduce the amount of power their buildings consume.

The need just grew even more critical this week after a pipeline leak at Prudhoe Bay took 8 percent of the nation's petroleum-production capacity off line, probably for several months.

With impeccable timing, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) released a report recently outlining the proliferation of new "green" building methods that can help homeowners cut down on energy costs.

Many of the products can be used to retro-fit heating or cooling systems in existing homes, including:

Photovoltaic roof shingles that supplement a home's energy supply by converting sunlight to electricity. The shingles replace any number of the regular asphalt shingles and wires from them are strung through the roof and connected to the home's power grid.

Solar water heaters, which substitute solar heat for fossil fuels and can save more than 50 percent off a home's water heating bill. Solar water heaters circulate water through a system where it is exposed to the sun's heat.

Geothermal heat pumps take advantage of the tendency for underground temperatures to remain constant through the year. It involves drilling or digging deep into the earth and using a heat pump to cool the house in summer and warm it in winter.

Tankless water heaters provide hot water on demand rather than heating and storing it, where it gradually loses heat. This can mean as much as a 50 percent savings in energy use.

Homeowners reluctant to jettison a perfectly good hot water tank can use an insulating wrapper that reduces the tanks heat loss.

High Energy Star rated appliances that operate much more efficiently. The government created the Energy Star system to make it easier for consumers to identify and choose more energy-efficient appliances. New front load clothes washers save energy by using less hot water. New, well insulated refrigerators can keep food cool while using little more energy than a 75 watt incandescent bulb.

Speaking of bulbs, there are a new generation of compact fluorescent light bulbs available that give off a more attractive light than old fluorescents, screw in like regular bulbs and use but a quarter the electricity to produce the same amount of light.

Some of what's new is actually old

Some green building techniques have to be incorporated in the original design. And many of these "new" developments are actually refinements of some very old methods.

"A hundred, a hundred fifty years ago, our forefathers used a lot of materials and techniques that are considered green today," said Ray Tonjes, an Austin, Texas green builder. "They oriented their homes toward the prevailing winds, built high ceilings with ventilation, shaded the windows and planted groves of deciduous trees, all to cool houses naturally."

Tonjes says builders abandoned many of these methods when energy was cheap; it was just easier to install central air. With the cost of running those AC systems soaring, builders are starting to pay more attention to the old ways again.

Other worthwhile passive solar features include: large, south facing windows to enable sunlight to penetrate into rooms; using deep roof eaves to shade those same windows during the summer, when the sun is higher in the sky; and, of course, highly efficient and well sealed windows and doors, which can prevent heat or cool from radiating out.

There are also enclosed entryways, which act as air locks, preventing heat or cool from tumbling out of the house whenever anyone enters or leaves. And windbreaks of evergreen trees that block frigid north winds that can chill houses off.

One, more modern, innovation is to insulate foundations, including slab floors, with polystyrene to cut down on heat loss.

An energy audit, which you can do it yourself or hire a professional, help you identify trouble spots that you may not have suspected you had.

There can be huge savings reaped once these are identified and leaks are sealed, insulation added to and appliances tuned up; waste may account for as much as 30 percent or more of your heating or cooling costs.

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