As our day to day lives become more dependent and more reliant on the forces of technology, there are many ways we can use those powers for good, or at the very least, to help us remember to turn the lights off when we leave. Although we may still be a step or two away from flying cars, the eco-friendly homes of the future are closer than we think.
With a number of movements surrounding the need for things like less waste and more energy efficiency, many homeowners are looking for ways that they can be more pro-planet.
From replacing old appliances and renovating entire houses to recycling cardboard and unplugging your television when you’re on vacation, there are countless ways — big and small — that you can contribute to making your living space a bit more energy efficient.
So, let’s say you’ve been living in your house for a while, and you’ve got no intention of starting any major projects. Luckily, there are still a number of ways, some of which cost absolutely nothing, to integrate energy-saving products and routine behaviors into your home life.
Mitch Ross, energy efficiency manager at Arkansas Electric Cooperative, says that a good first step is contacting your utility company and asking about a low cost or free audit. This consists of a trained individual coming to look for issues and helping identify what steps would be best for your particular home.
“In almost every case, unless it’s a home that doesn’t have any issues … a wise investment would maybe be looking at the attic insulation, looking at the duct system, replacing old refrigerators or freezers, replacing — if it’s very dated — heating and cooling equipment. ” Ross says. “Those are all investments that are going to pay for themselves quicker, on average, than something like solar panels, a new water heater or new windows. Those are all things that, while they are an energy-efficient upgrade, [take] longer for them to pay for themselves, but eventually they will.”
Keeping an eye on your heating and cooling equipment can make a big difference. According to statistics from First Electric Cooperative, one of 17 electric distribution cooperatives that make up Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, thermostats should be set at 78 degrees or higher during the cooling season and 72 degrees or lower during the heating season. Using ceiling fans while you’re at home can make higher temperature settings feel 4 or more degrees cooler, and even a 1-degree change in the thermostat setting can cost you an additional 3 percent in energy costs. The ducts are of no less importance. Those same statistics say that leaking ductwork can be the source of up to 25 percent of heating and cooling costs.
However, an alternative option would be introducing new technology that does the energy saving for you.
Certain smart devices, like the ones installed in First Electric Cooperative’s model “Smart Energy Home of the Future” in Jacksonville, might not contribute to energy saving alone, but can still help. Your Google Home or Amazon Alexa voice command feature may just be on its way to becoming the reminder you needed to hit the lights when you leave a room.
“A lot of utilities are working on integrating voice command so you can ask your smart home device how much your energy bill is going to be this month and some of them integrate with their utility company and will tell you your bill for this month,” Ross says.
Ozarks Electric Cooperative has also helped build an energy-efficient home for the Parade of Homes in Northwest Arkansas with similar technology — notably, the Nest thermostat.
“Our [focus] is around thermostats. Because thermostats, such as the Nest, monitor the home when no one is in the home, they automatically lower the thermostat settings until the homeowner arrives back,” says Kris Williams, director of energy services at Ozarks Electric Cooperative. “That type of thing, to us, is smart home technology.”
While sometimes the two overlap, a smart home is not always synonymous with an energy-efficient one. In fact, building a “smart” home has a totally different meaning to Richard Harp of Richard Harp Homes. Harp approaches creating a smart home by smartly constructing an eco-friendly residence before the physical construction ever begins.
The National Association of Homebuilders offers an educational designation called the Master Certified Green Professional for builders with “long-standing commitment to and experience with sustainable building and remodeling.” Harp is one of only a few in Arkansas who is certified.
With the advantage of being able to start with the foundation of the home, Harp can follow the National Green Building standards — such as properly engineering heat and air systems or installing a specific type of window — that help him determine ways to build a house that will ultimately become a high-performance, energy-efficient home. It’s a way to quantify energy efficiency and intelligent building practices to achieve a sort of “miles per gallon” rating for your home.
“This is not to be confused with a ‘smart home,’” Harp says. “What [technology companies] are doing is introducing the electronics, the automation, the controls and [artificial intelligence] into the living of a home so that home can replicate and duplicate things that you like happening on a regular basis, like turning on the lights when I enter a room or setting the air to a certain temperature through a programmable thermostat. That’s a smart home. [My houses] are being built ‘smartly,’ regarding the selection and installation of technologically advanced building materials and processes, whereas the smart home we hear about in the media is typically consumer accessible technology added to a home.”
Harp says that the building standards for these types of homes, if followed correctly, could produce a house that lasts over 100 years with minimal effort and expense.
“Over the life of that home, you’re spending less to heat and cool it, and less to maintain it because it’s thoughtfully and intelligently constructed,” says Harp.
Even if you aren’t in the market for a home to satisfy your green desires, these houses are, for many people, simply more comfortable and durable.
“The intrinsic value is there. We’re working on getting the appraisers to understand that intrinsic value,” Harp says. “Even at the base of all that, the happiness and the comfort of a family in that home could be worth it.”
Whether you’re in the market for an entirely new home, you’re passionate about the zero-waste movement or you just want a few tips for how to get your utility bills down, the earth-friendly alternatives have arrived and are spreading fast. ”