Energy adviser: Efficient homes move beyond Energy Star

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Energy Star homes set the first benchmark for building energy savings into new construction. These certified homes help consumers buy not only more energy efficient homes, but own more comfortable and maintainable homes. Energy Star-certified homes deliver up to 20 percent savings on annual utility bills and, at the same time, help lower carbon emissions.

Established by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1992, Energy Star has focused on reducing excessive energy use to decrease greenhouse gases significantly. Its efforts confront climate change, while also strengthening the economy through energy efficient products and programs.

Over the past decade, homes built to Energy Star specifications are at least 15 percent more energy efficient than those built to existing codes. A certified third party, who works closely with the builder, assures that the homes meet this efficiency standard. Energy Star homes include high-efficiency lighting, windows, appliances, water heaters, insulation, and heating and cooling equipment.

Continually tightening the screws on home energy efficiency means evermore rigorous building standards to achieve net-zero energy homes. And builders in the Pacific Northwest are at the forefront of this trend.

Upping the ante

To up the ante on energy efficiency, Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, along with its utility and building partners, initiated the Next Step Home Pilot. The pilot will help set stricter construction specifications for future homes with a goal of 40 percent or more energy savings over traditional construction. The voluntary pilot focuses on tightening the home envelope, using advanced framing techniques, increasing insulation and building in more efficient windows.

As part of the program, Vancouver-based New Tradition Homes built a pilot home for a growing Portland family that needed the extra space and wanted to save energy and increase comfort.

"We're fortunate in Clark County to have several local builders that understand the value of these higher standards for homes and the benefits to homeowners," said DuWayne Dunham of Clark Public Utilities. "Clark County has led the region in percentage of new homes built to Energy Star standards and above and our customers appreciate both the savings and the comfort of these homes."

Neil Grigsby, who manages NEEA's homes initiative, said NEEA estimates homes built for the Next Step pilot potentially may gain 30 percent or more energy efficiency over those built to existing codes. The pilot homes feature more energy efficient, ductless mini-split heat pumps or similarly efficient systems, heat-recovery ventilators and hydronic solar. Hydronic solar, also called thermal solar, uses water for hot water and home heating.

"Utilities, energy efficiency organizations and NEEA's work for stronger codes in the region will transform the market by achieving a 40 percent energy savings between now and 2030," said Grigsby.

Although, NEEA says photovoltaic solar isn't yet affordable for many consumers, Jon Girod of Quail Homes disagrees and is pursuing the net-zero energy home.

"We're using computer modeling throughout the design and construction phases, improving indoor air quality and incorporating solar and other alternative energy sources into homes we build that exceed Energy Star standards and meet even tighter Earth Advantage standards," Girod said.

Based in Portland, the Earth Advantage Institute, is a green-building incubator. It provides builder training, services and certification to create better buildings by transforming real-world experience into products and services that advance the performance of buildings while lessening their impact on the environment.

Homebuyers in Clark County can look for Energy Smart certification when exploring new construction. Those buying older, existing homes should call a Clark Public Utilities energy counselor at 360-992-3355 for help in prioritizing energy efficient upgrades to cut energy waste, increase comfort and lower electric bills into the future.

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.