Why bother adding wall insulation to your home?

My colleague gave me a long dubious look in the office one day.

I’m sure you’ve had someone give you that look at one time or another. You’ve said crazy things in the past.

You know the look. Arched brows to give the impression of concern regarding the things you said. Squinted eyes to make sure you are for real. Lips pressed and curled wondering if you are out of your mind.

why botherWhat crime did I commit?

He caught me in the middle of designing a super-insulated envelope for a personal house project I was working on.

You see my colleague J designed around 70 houses in his career. All were from the ground up. He’s done brick, stucco, and siding houses. He’s done small and big houses. So he’s an expert at making them.

Yet I can’t help but say that all of his houses were typical.

Typical, not in the sense that they looked like all the other houses in the neighborhood. But, typical in the way they were built – the old fashioned way – with R-16 2×6 walls, foundation and roof built to code. Millions of houses were done this way, he reasoned. It was enough to meet code and get by.

But I didn’t want to just do a typical house. I wanted an airtight house that can reach net zero energy potential. I wanted to be able to reduce air leakage by a factor of 5 in my design.

And I believe it is well within our grasp to do so.

“Why bother?” J asked.

Well, about 39% of U.S. primary energy is consumed by buildings. That is more than either the transportation or industrial sectors. Of that consumption, 21% is used by residential buildings – slightly more than half.

Primary energy is the energy consumed in the process of delivering energy to your house. It includes extraction, processing, conversion, transmission and distribution of energy on its way to you, the end user.

21% is a big target for us to aim for. When I say us, I don’t mean architects. I mean folks like you at home who are looking for ways to make a difference and don’t know how.

With a key to your home, you can make all the difference in the world.

You can make your home more comfortable. By doing an energy retrofit, your home can be warmer in the cold winter and cooler in the hot summer.

You can save money. You can save $150 per month by air sealing, improving your home’s insulation and doing other energy upgrades for the winter. Your natural gas bills can be cut in half.

You can save energy. You can replace old appliances with new energy efficient ones.

You can reduce your site energy consumption dramatically by using energy more efficiently. Site energy is what you use in your home. Your meter measures it.

You can save your family hundreds of dollars a year on electrical bills… and that’s just with appliances.

You can increase your energy independence by producing site energy. You can make your own energy from renewable resources like the sun or wind.

You can reduce your family’s carbon dioxide emissions. And do so in such a way as to remove one car from the highway every year.

When we talk about climate change, we must consider all the energy that is consumed and not just the energy being used by you, the end user. Both primary and site energy, or all of the energy consumed produces emissions.

Let’s start with 100 units of primary energy for electricity.

The current fossil fuel mix of coal, oil and natural gas makes electricity. After their extraction, processing and transportation losses, we end up with 88 units left when it gets to the power plant.

The power plant itself is the biggest loss due to inefficiency. With conversion losses to electricity, we are down to 29 units of energy.

By the time we get to you, the end user, we end up with 27 of the 100 original primary energy units through distribution losses.

This process is incredibly wasteful. That is a huge bother!

To this day, J gives me the same look when I tell him I’m working on a double stud wall detail. He asks the question again, “Why bother?” He continues, “Nobody builds a house like that. They’re going to look at you funny.”

If you don’t believe in climate change, if you don’t believe in creating a cleaner and sustainable world, then at least believe in living comfortably.

Or believe in slashing fuel bills.

Or saving money.

By doing that, you can free up money for other important activities – such as putting some in your savings bucket, financing a college education, funding family vacations, and building on your retirement accounts.

Saving energy can save you and your family lots of money. Not just hundreds of dollars. Not just tens of thousands of dollars. I’m talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime. And if you keep your home for generations to come, think of what that will do for your family’s wealth.

Remember, energy costs are going to continue to climb for a very long time. And as you just read, a big part of the costs is lost in the conversion for the end user. That’s just a waste.

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