Analog Electronics Learning Life Renewable Energy

Buying a House and Making It More Efficient

So usually I don’t like to write about my personal life on here too much, but I had an offer accepted on a house yesterday and I think it’s relevant to topics discussed on this site. Yes, I realize that the housing market is down and that it will likely only get worse. And yes, I realize I’m young and a house is a big responsibility. And yes, I know home ownership can be a daunting experience from upkeep to sales to everything else bad that can happen. But there are some great things about houses too, namely tax advantages and being able to do whatever I want with it (within reason). Plus, I feel that every home can take advantage of advances in conservation and renewable technology, even if they are already in good shape and the energy bills are low.

  1. Insulation — A no brainer, this is a great way to reduce the amount of energy leaving your home. A friend and I were talking about older houses and he made a good point that houses built in the 50s didn’t always worry about insulation. It was decently inexpensive to just crank up the heat. Now with gas prices rising (don’t worry, this temporary lull won’t last), it becomes a necessity to conserve the energy we burn. My friend also mentioned a possible tax break that exists; if not, I would hope the next administration includes something in their renewable energy plan. Remember, conservation is the cheapest method of energy savings right now.
  2. Windows — One of the most frustrating things in cold weather is walking up to a poorly insulated single pane window; it rattles, it frosts and it let’s chilling temperatures through. Windows are one of the best ways to lose heat and waste energy in the winter, especially in the great north. It feels like it literally is sucking the heat from your house. Sure, double pane and triple pane vinyl windows are a good start and will stop 90% of your heat loss. However, A great story on NPR about legacy technology from the 70s tells about how a simple coating can stop heat loss in the winter and block heat from coming in during the summer. The low emissivity (or “low e”)coating basically just blocks out infrared radiation from getting through (think of those waves you see rising from blacktop on a hot summer day). Windows were already proficient at blocking convective heat flow (think warm air), but the radiative piece was missing. Look for the low e rating when purchasing your windows and you could see some significant energy savings.
  3. Efficient Devices — Every time the compressor kicks on for my current refrigerator, I can’t help thinking about how much electricity is being wasted to keep my food cool. While it isn’t great to throw out the old clunker fridge just to buy a new shiny energy STAR certified fridge, it might be better in the long run to get something that will save energy (even at the cost of greater consumption). If you’re really crafty, you can always turn that old fridge into a meat smoker (think ribs), a bookshelf or even a planter. Remember, don’t just throw the old fridge in the basement and keep running it for frozen goods. If it’s truly an energy vampire, unplug it from the wall and find a different use for it.
  4. DC Power Outlets — Instead of plugging in cell chargers that are burning power no matter if you are charging something or not, why not have a few lines in your house that are set to a specific voltage, say 6V (most devices are running 3.3V these days). Then when the 6V comes to the wall, you could have a “tuner” based on a buck converter that would dial down that voltage to the one you need. Delivering power from a central source could be controlled remotely, so you could close a relay at the source and no power would be delivered to the converter unless “asked for”, and there would be very low losses in the system.
  5. Solar panels — I wrote last time about GreenField Solar and their new solar concentrator, which is very reasonably priced and could pay itself off in less than ten years if it works as advertised (1500 W output). However, in northern climates, it’s often better to get more total exposure by having a larger array of panels collecting the most light possible, even if at lower efficiency. This requires more space of course, but you might be able to get lower cost panels if they are older and assumed to be less efficient. A friend and and I are talking about trying this in the backyard (which is sizable) and doing some measurements on the power we could harvest even in the Cleveland winters. The eventual goal would be enough to power a shed or outhouse for a small music studio, but that will take some work. Wind might be a better candidate, but that would require more infrastructure (AC-DC conversion) and the turbines are still quite expensive (if not beautiful and artistic in some cases).
  6. Do an energy audit — Sometimes the places where you waste the most energy are the least expected. Have an electric water heater? You might be paying out the nose for your showers and washing dishes. Air conditioning unit more than 10 years old? Maybe that’s pulling hardest at your electricity usage. Do you own a programmable thermostat (the kind that shut off heat when you’re not usually home or asleep)? This simple device will save you hundreds in electricity and natural gas savings. Energy audits are usually offered for free by your energy companies. Look them up and take advantage.

So part of me is terrified at the prospect of owning a home but the other part is pretty excited about what I can do with it. I think using it as an example for simple home fixes and ways that analog electronics projects can help to save money and carbon emissions will be good for my conscience and for this site. If you have any ideas on home projects, please leave them or a link to them in the comments.