RESIDENTIAL CONSTRUCTION – Effective efficiency – Consumers need best information about ‘green’ energy products

Posted on May 1, 2012 :: Industries
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

How much of a carbon footprint will New North homes of the future leave? Not much of one, if energy-efficient housing features continue to catch on. But area builders say the key is having the right information before building or remodeling. So who can customers trust? How do they know if their building materials will work together efficiently?

Sometimes people looking to conserve energy will purchase green supplies that sometimes have the opposite effect on their utility bills, says Steve Romme, partner of Lifetime Structures LLC in Hortonville. That is why he strongly suggests that consumers hire an independent energy consultant to make educated decisions on how to save the most money and energy.

“People will come in and tell you, ‘These are the greatest windows and they’ll save you 20 percent on your heating bill,’ but I don’t think anybody can come into a building and tell you these windows will save 20 percent unless they know everything else about the building,” Romme says.

With help from consultants, companies like Lifetime Structures can sort through false claims, which Romme says makes the value of these consultants incredible to his business.

Joe Nagan, owner of consulting firm Home Building Technology Services of Kaukauna, works as an energy rater with Lifetime Structures.

Nagan, who has been in the residential building performance business for 26 years, uses computer software called REM/Rate that models and evaluates how a home would function with all the energy-efficient options selected by customers, who then make the final economic decision before the structure is built.

“If you don’t do your own analysis up front to weigh the advantages of all the technology that’s available to you when you’re building a new home, then you may come away with results that weren’t what you were expecting,” Nagan says.

According to Romme, builders should be able to tell a customer how much their home will cost and how much energy they will save.

“If they can’t [tell you] then that’s a sign that they don’t know how to build energy-efficient homes,” Romme says. “We tell every one of our customers that we run a computer model of their plans and we tell them how much it’s going to cost to heat, cool and power their house over the course of a year before we ever touch it.”

Romme says that after the first year, a Lifetime Structures energy-free home will have a zero utility bill.

This is possible through a combination of several techniques. The first is solar electric, which converts the sun’s energy into electricity. Second is solar thermal, which utilizes the sun’s energy to heat hot water. And third is geothermal energy, which uses the earth’s interior temperature to heat or cool a home. These technologies combined with an airtight, well-ventilated and insulated structure, and a homeowner dedicated to energy-efficiency, make up an energy-free home.

Though there’s interest in remodeling “green,” not many clients are building these new homes that are fully green to begin with.

Ed Schmidt, president of Schmidt Bros. Custom Homes Inc. of Appleton, says that in the last five years, only six customers have asked for geothermal energy and only one customer for solar energy. Similarly, Romme says only about 20 percent of customers are asking for energy-free homes. He says energy-efficiency is growing now as it becomes more cost effective, but it’s still a minority of customers who are going fully green.

Building materials and building techniques can be expensive, but they can also pay for themselves in the long-term with an energy-free home, Romme says.

“I think the majority of people we talk to are asking, ‘What are the miles per gallon of your house? How are you going to verify? Can you tell me that’s what it’s going to be?’” Romme says.

“Green” homes are not necessarily more expensive than building a traditional home. If an energy-free home is built next to a traditional home – both of the same size – the energy-free home’s mortgage payment would equal the amount of a traditional home’s mortgage payment plus its utility bills. For example, if the mortgage of a traditional home was $1,000 and the utility bill was $200, an energy-free home of the same size would have a mortgage of $1,200 and a utility bill of zero.

While the payback for building a green home can take about 10 years, a person can save hundreds of thousands of dollars that would have been lost to utility companies over a 40-year period, Romme says.

“We kind of look at it as taking money you’re throwing at the utility bill that’s gone forever and putting it in your house, which is a super great investment in the future,” he says.