An Introduction

What Is It and How Does It Work?

If you are considering ways to make your home more energy-efficient, the most effective strategy is a Whole House Approach that considers all of the various ways that your home's performance can be improved. If you are building a new home, all of the components of a building that can contribute to energy-efficiency should be considered as a unit. If you are conducting a renovation of your existing home, you should be aware of which components already contribute to energy savings, and which need to be improved. The decisions that you make in order to improve your home's energy-efficiency are all interrelated, even if they seem like very different and disconnected components. For example, you may be able to save some money if you replace an old and inefficient HVAC system with a new, high-performance, ENERGY STAR qualified model. However, if you have poorly insulated walls, leaky door frames, and single-paned windows, you will still waste energy and money with an inefficient home.

The whole house approach is about more than just buying new products and marking off improvements on a checklist. Instead, this approach addresses improvements to your home in the broader context of your climate, building site, and your own comfort. An integrated design approach takes all of these contexts into consideration while holistically addressing goals of energy-efficiency, cost savings, occupant productivity, and beauty. This broad range of goals is best achieved through an integrated team process in which everyone involved in the planning, design, construction – and long-term occupation – of the home is a part of the process from start to finish. Instead of the homeowner, architect, engineers, contractor, and subcontractors working on their own phases of the project in isolation and at odds with each other, all of these stakeholders must be working towards the same goals throughout the process.

The components of a whole house approach include the energy-efficiency of your appliances and electronic devices, effectiveness of insulation and air sealing, integration of daylighting and energy-efficient electrical lighting, appropriately sized and efficient heating and cooling systems, energy-saving water heating, high-performance windows, and well sealed windows, doors and skylights.

Why Should I Consider It?

If you address your home as a system that includes many interrelated parts that contribute to energy-efficiency, you can maximize your energy and cost savings.

What Are the Options?

Energy Audit

There are so many different ways to improve your home's energy-efficiency, it can be difficult to know where to start. The best way to figure that out is by doing a home Energy Audit to determine where your home leaks, what equipment needs maintenance, whether you should replace your HVAC system, whether you need better insulation, or how much money you can save by replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. You can get very reliable guidance and data-based answers to these questions and more with a professional home Energy Audit, but you can also get a good idea for where the trouble-areas are by doing an energy assessment of your own.

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There are many different types of Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems that you can choose from for your home. Heating and cooling account for about 50% of energy used on average in a U.S. home, so choosing the right kind of HVAC system can mean big cost and energy savings. It is especially important to view your HVAC system comprehensively – It is more than just the mechanical equipment that you have installed outside, but also includes ductwork, thermostats, supply and return registers, and more. All of these components need to be maintained in order to capitalize on the efficiency of a new heating and cooling system. Ducts must be properly insulated and sealed, thermostats should be set at appropriate temperatures, and other components regularly monitored and serviced. 

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Insulation and Air Sealing

Nearly a third of wasted energy is lost through walls, floors, and ceilings. Putting insulation in these spaces keeps your house cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. This keeps your HVAC system from overworking and using more energy. Proper insulation also makes your home more comfortable because it promotes a consistent temperature throughout your home, and floors and walls are warmer to the touch in winter.

The amount of insulation in your home was determined by the state and local building codes in force at the time your home was constructed, but energy-efficient homes exceed the code minimums. Only 20 percent of homes built before 1980 are well-insulated, according to the Department of Energy. Spending a little more money up front to upgrade the amount of insulation used in a new home, or to increase the amount in an existing home, is worth it, because the cost will be recouped through savings on heating and cooling bills.

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Windows are a great source of daylight and views year-round, but can also lead to unwanted heat gain during the summer and heat loss during the winter. Energy efficient windows have a series of upgrades over traditional single-pane or double-pane windows with clear glass that help conserve energy and save money. While you can expect to pay more for high performance windows, the cost difference between windows with clear glass versus windows with multiple panes, selective coatings, inert gas, and other technological upgrades, can be made up in a relatively short period of time through energy savings.

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The roof of your home is potentially the most important barrier against extreme heat and cold. If your roof is poorly insulated, you will lose too much heat during the winter, wasting energy on heating and raising your utility bills. If you have a dark, heat absorbing roof, you will experience too much heat gain in the summer, straining your cooling system and, again, costing more on utilities. There are a few strategies that you should consider in order to prevent excess heat gain and heat loss through your roof, including cool roofing strategies, a green roof, and energy-efficient materials decisions.

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Renewable Energy

There are several ways to use renewable energy in order to produce your own electricity on-site using natural resources. Even partially fulfilling your energy requirements with on-site renewable sources will diminish your dependence on off-site, fossil-fuel based energy sources. On-site renewable energy sources include passive solar, active solar, photovoltaic panels, wind power, and geothermal.

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Appliances and Electronics

In a typical U.S. Home, 20% of the energy is used by appliances and home electronics such as washers and dryers, computers, dishwashers, refrigerators, audio equipment, air conditioners, TVs, and water heaters. There are many options in each of these product categories to reduce energy use and save money. In addition, many ENERGY STAR products can earn you tax rebates that help to offset the added cost of installing energy-efficient appliances and electronics.

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Where Can I Get More Information?

U.S. Department of Energy
Whole Building Design Guide