How to Make Your Home Energy Efficient & Healthy

By Michael Tobias
It doesn’t matter whether you own your home or rent it, there are many ways that you can make your living environment more energy efficient and considerably healthier than it is.
There are many remarkably simple solutions that will help to reduce both heating and cooling costs, save energy, and improve the quality of air inside so that those living in the home benefit from improved health and comfort levels.
To help consumers make these changes as effortlessly as possible, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of Policy Development and Research developed an invaluable online Consumer’s Guide to Energy-Efficient and Healthy Homes that summarizes how homeowners and people renting can make their homes energy-efficient and healthy.
The information can be applied to renovations as well as new buildings but not to large buildings that house multiple families. It includes a range of energy-efficiency home improvements that are key to a better home. Even though those renting may be reluctant to undertake the more expensive projects, the information supplied could help to persuade landlords to make the improvements to increase their return on investment (ROI).
Consumers could also discuss the concept with a professional who offers mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) engineering designs in Chicago, New York, or whichever city the rented house is located.
Ingredients for an Energy-Efficient, Healthy House
The key elements for a healthy, energy efficient house are:
·       Insulation and air sealing
·       Indoor air quality
·       Energy-efficient fixtures, systems and appliances
But, of course, there are many factors that will effect how these can be achieved in ways that will impact positively on a house, making it more energy efficient and healthy. For instance, the age of the home, its location, the type of building, and the method of construction used will all affect energy use.
1.     Age of Home
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, homes built before 2000 are about 30% smaller than newer homes which only consume about 2% more energy. This indicates that newer homes have better building shells, and the energy efficiency of newer heating and cooling systems as well as electronics and appliances is considerably better.
2.     Location
This doesn’t mean which city or suburb the house is in, but rather the climatic conditions of the location. There are five main climatic zones in the U.S., and the Department of Energy (DOE) has prepared a series of guides for each region that provides information on how to improve the energy performance of homes. For example, in hot climates, whether they are humid or dry, houses benefit from reflective insulation and light-colored roofs.
3.     Building Type
This relates to various factors including the size of the home and the size of the family. For example, according to official government surveys, average single-family detached homes use double the amount of energy an average multifamily unit uses. This is because the units in multifamily buildings generally use less heating and cooling because they are smaller and they share walls with other units that are also heated and cooled.
4.     Method of Construction
The design, construction, and even the operation and maintenance of houses will affect energy use and the health and comfort of those living there. In fact, this is where it all starts! So, for instance, if a house is designed to be energy efficient (or improved to make it more energy efficient), the use of eco-friendly, so-called “green” building materials that have low embodied energy will reduce environmental impacts.
One of the largest sources of energy consumption in our homes is space heating followed by water heating and then space cooling. The statistics available from the DOE in 2010 were 45% for space heating and 18% for water heating. So between them they make up considerably more than half of energy consumption, which makes it sensible to discuss heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) issues with a qualified HVAC engineer.
Anyone wanting to improve the energy performance and air quality of their home needs to assess where changes are needed. It’s possible to undertake a DIY energy audit, but home owners may prefer to bring in a professional home energy auditor who will use specialized equipment and techniques to determine what areas need improvement.
Strategies to Improve the Energy Performance of Homes
Even without an energy audit there are proven ways that consumers can improve the energy performance and indoor air quality of their homes.
Air sealing and insulation are undoubtedly the most effective strategies to make a home more energy efficient, although ventilation is also vital to minimize pollutants that find their way inside. The control of moisture which commonly leads to the growth of mold is also very important for maintaining the quality of air inside the house – and therefore its health.
Additionally, energy-efficient heating and air conditioning systems as well as new fixtures and certified appliances will improve energy-efficiency.
1.     Insulation & Air Sealing
The U.S. environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that we can save around 20% of our heating and cooling costs and as much as 10% of out total energy costs by insulating our homes correctly and taking steps to ensure that all air leaks are plugged.
·       Insulation is probably the most effective way to save energy and reduce both heating and cooling costs in your home. Insulation also improves comfort levels and generally makes the interior of your home more healthy. However, the exact type of insulation material used will depend on the factors discussed above.
·       Air sealing involves getting rid of gaps and openings and literally sealing the building envelope. This is also a great way to reduce heating cooling costs and save energy.
2.     Indoor Air Quality
There is absolutely no doubt that indoor air quality is critical to our health and comfort, particularly inside our homes. Most of the air quality problems that are found in homes unfortunately do tend to cause health problems, especially when ventilation isn’t adequate or there are high temperatures or high humidity levels. For this reason, you  need to be aware of what the most common indoor air pollutants are and what can be done to improve air quality.
·       The most common sources of indoor air pollution come from building materials and home furnishings that are not eco-friendly and various fuel-burning appliances including gas stoves, furnaces, and space heaters. Household maintenance and cleaning products are also to blame.
·       Strategies to improve air quality largely hinge on good ventilation as well as eco-friendly air cleaners.
3.     Energy-Efficient Fixtures, Systems & Appliances
Our energy bills relate directly to fixtures, systems, and appliances in our homes. These include:
·       Windows, skylights, and doors
·       Heating and cooling systems
·       Water heating systems
·       Water efficiency fixtures
·       Appliances
·       Electronics
·       Lighting
This is a huge topic, but one of the failsafe strategies is to always use products that are certified by ENERGY STAR because they fit the very strict guidelines for energy-efficiency that have been set down by the EPA and DOE. ENERGY STAR products do cost more than most other conventional types, but because they are guaranteed to be energy efficient you’re going to save money in the long run.
Financial Incentives for Energy-Efficient Home Improvements
Because it can be expensive to make your home energy efficient and healthy, there are a variety of financial incentives available ranging from tax credits and energy efficient mortgages to special offers from ENERGY STAR.
So, whether you are a home owner or you are renting, make it your business to find out whether you or your landlord can benefit from any (or all) of the financial incentives that are offered for energy-efficient home improvements. Apart from anything else you can be sure that whatever they finance will go a long way to making your own more energy efficient and healthy.

 Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of both Nearby Engineers and New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in NewYork City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.