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Purchasing a new home will be one of your single biggest investments you will make, and as such, your new home’s energy efficiency should be one of your primary concerns. Now may be a good time to take full advantage of a slow housing market, low interest rates, energy efficient mortgages and homebuilders that are eager to add incentives, allowances and especially, energy efficient upgrades.
Homebuilders today are offering many different types of energy efficient features in their homes, this enables homebuilders to qualify for the EPA’s Energy Star designation. Energy Star ratings are given out by an independent third party and these findings are based on that particular homebuilder’s products, materials, and overall construction methods. New homes with this Energy Star designation should be given careful consideration when you are trying to narrow down your new home selection process. Keep in mind that not all homebuilders construct their homes the same way, so you should begin your inquiries as to the specifics of the homebuilder’s energy efficiency features and compare which will provide you with greatest benefits for your investment.
Framing that Counts
The type of framing is a good beginning, 2×4 or 2×6 exterior construction for example, allows you to determine the R-value or insulation thickness of the walls. Most homebuilders use an R-13 batt insulation for 2×4 walls and R-19 for 2×6. Todays new building codes require that all exterior walls must have an R- 20 value, which is achieved by utilizing a foam sheet under the exterior finish in addition to the batt insulation of the home. You may also want to inquire as to whether the builder’s new homes have any exterior plywood wall sheeting as part of their construction, as it enhances the home structurally and adds to the homes R-value. Exterior finishes such as siding or stucco, for instance, do very little in the way of increasing the home’s energy efficiency. Depending on your home builder, another option you should strongly consider is thermo resistant roof sheathing, this product can greatly reduce the summer heat in your attic (30 degrees cooler on average). With a difference of a few dollars a sheet, (5/8”) this roof sheathing may be provided as a standard with the homebuilder, or offered as an inexpensive upgrade in the construction of your home.
Air Conditioning and Heating that Saves You Money
The air conditioning & heating system is single biggest consumer of electricity and natural gas in a home. That is why the efficiency of the HVAC system is so very important. The air conditioning system is measured by a SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency ratio) rating and is given a coefficient or number, the greater the number the more efficient the unit converts electricity into cool air for your home. For example : new Energy Star homes should have a SEER rating of 13 or 14, which is improved over the standard SEER 12, from years past. There are currently upgraded air conditioners on the market that have a SEER rating of up to 23. These units run at different speeds, which allow them to offer you an even greater efficiency. But remember, no matter what SEER rated air conditioner you have, if your home isn’t adequately insulated and or draft stopped, you won’t be able to take advantage of the air conditioning unit’s full potential.
Energy Efficient Windows makes a Difference
If reducing your heating and cooling costs interest you, then having windows with a good R-value is very important to your home’s overall energy efficiency.
When comparing different windows with other homebuilders, here are a few things to consider; there are two R-values to consider for your windows: one, for the glass itself (usually measured at the center of the window) and one for the whole unit, including the frame. The higher the R-value a window has, the lower the U-value should be. The rate of heat loss is indicated in terms of the U-factor (U-value) of a window’s assembly. The lower the U-factor, the greater a window’s resistance to heat flow and the better it’s insulating properties.
Your windows should have a low Solar Heat Coefficient rating as well, which means the amount of sunlight passing through a window as heat, the lower the number, the more efficient the window. In addition, a builder that has an Energy Star medallion on his model homes should offer windows with LOW e tinting as a standard.
A Well Insulated Home is the Key
Your research should also include the R-value of the duct work and the attic as well. Typical duct work has an R-value between 6 to 8, this is the minimum, R-12 or better is recommended as it helps in decreasing temperature loss in your heating and cooling system . Attic insulation is also an important issue as to your home’s energy efficiency. The standard on new homes is usually R-38, whether it is Batt or blown insulation will depend upon your home builder. Most builders offer an option to upgrade the attic insulation from R-38 (standard) to an R-45.
Special note: Currently, due to the increasing demand for energy efficient homes, many new homebuilders are now providing insulation at the roof deck in lieu of the traditional insulation at the ceiling. Home buyers should give careful consideration of this type of energy efficient construction as it reduces conditioned air loss at the source, the roof. By strapping batt insulation to the roof joist it eliminates the need for attic venting, and creates a conditioned air space in your attic. This type of construction method is a vast improvement over years past and will greatly reduce your heating and cooling costs.
Another type of insulation that is becoming more popular is polyurethane foam. Although it is more expensive than batt insulation, the price has steadily been coming down in recent years and will soon replace batt as the standard. What makes is so special is it provides your home with a total waterproof and air tight barrier against the elements, in another words, creating a bubble around your home.
If your new home is going to be a two story, your homebuilder should offer an option to insulate the downstairs ceiling. You should strongly consider this option, especially if your new home has two or more HVAC systems (up & downstairs). It greatly reduces your downstairs conditioned air from escaping through the ceiling, as well as creating a nice sound barrier from the upstairs.
The garage is one area of the home that is greatly overlooked by many homebuyers and builders alike when it comes to energy efficiency. Although it is rarely occupied, it is still a part of your home and should be protected from the elements, especially if there are bedrooms or a family room above. An upgraded R-60 insulation in the ceiling is highly recommended. Insulating the exterior walls and an insulated garage door can help reduce the temperature variations from the garage and the rest of your home.
Quality You can Feel
Watching your new home being built can be an emotional time. You will find the urge for constant involvement in your home’s construction. Many new home builders understand this urge and give you an opportunity to closely examine the inner workings of your new home, by scheduling what is known as a “frame or option” walk-thru. This is where you will find the walls still exposed, and you will able to clearly see the internal mechanics of your new home (electrical wiring, recessed lighting, rough plumbing, duct work & venting. This is the phase of construction just before the insulation is to be installed. This walk-thru allows you an opportunity to meet with builder’s representatives and evaluate your home’s progress, construction methods, quality, as well as, reviewing the installation of the options you may have purchased, such as: electrical (additional outlets, recessed lighting & placements, ect.) cable, plumbing and additional rooms or conversions (except insulation). This walk-thru is very informal, although for some maybe confusing, so if you would feel more comfortable you may invite a qualified “third party” or friend to join you.
At this point you should closely examine the quality of construction and express any concerns you may have, such as: the condition of the stud walls (twisted or bowed, if any), the sealing of all draft stops and wall fire blocking (8’above bottom plate). Make sure that all the penetrations (water &waste piping, duct work and electrical wiring is thoroughly sealed with polyurethane foam and not batt insulation. You should also inspect the gap between the frame of your windows & exterior doors and the stud wall are properly sealed with non-expansive polyurethane foam as well, this product is water proof and totally seals any gaps, and will greatly reduce heating and cooling loss after drywall is installed.
If your new home is to be a two story, the adjacent walls of the home and the garage should be draft stopped above the ceiling line to the bottom of the second floor. Blocking out this air from ventilating into the living area from the garage is important because, one, it prevents fire from spreading from the garage to first floor ceiling of your home, and two, the garage is usually not air conditioned, therefore the ceiling above is subject to radical changes in temperature and venting this air into the rest of the home is costly to the energy efficiency of your new home. This type of draft stopping could be performed easily by your builder at the time the home is first being framed. But these measures are not required, (unless structural engineered) by many municipal building codes (2006 International Residential Code) throughout the country, therefore it is rarely done by homebuilders.
At this stage in construction you will also find that the exterior vapor barrier or in the “south west”, the stucco lathing should have been installed. You should examine this material carefully, (from the inside), and point out any rips or tears that might have occurred. The bottom of this material, at the sill plate, should also be sealed with foam insulation or caulk, this will prevent outside hot & cold air vapor from penetrating the wall cavity. If these items have not yet been performed, you may want to schedule another walk-thru, preferably after all the “foam prep” and insulation has been installed.
After the drywall has been installed, one of the best ways to prevent against heating and cooling escaping into the walls, is to have your builder caulk the new drywall at the floor, (upstairs & down), as well as, the electrical boxes, recessed lighting and plumbing protrusions around your entire house (every wall). All this should and can be done easily by the builder prior to the baseboard and trim items being installed, by the “prep crew”, just before the“rough” painting of the interior of your home.
With energy conservation becoming more and more prevalent today, purchasing a home that is the most energy efficient as possible is an excellent way of reducing carbon emissions, helping the environment, and above all saving you money in energy costs.