One home on an average street in Springfield, Va., burned up 1,000 gallons of heating oil last winter. At a price near $1 a gallon, that was a lot of money up the flue.
But, right next door, another home (similar size and construction) only burned 230 gallons of oil. The owners were able to realize an enormous saving because their home was specially built and specially insulated -- super-insulated.
Super-insulated homes are beginning to show up around the country because of the high cost of heating and air conditioning. A "super" energy-saving home is one that is built in such a way that most window exposure faces south.
This is called "solar orientation" and it can save lots of money. Because the sun stays longest in the southern part of the sky, the home is warmed naturally.
Besides being sited in the right direction, a super-insulated home has extra insulation everywhere -- floors, ceilings, walls. Heavy insulation traps warm air and keeps it from leaking out in winter. In summer, the reverse is true. The warm air is locked outside.
All windows are triple glazed (three panes with insulating air spaces in between). Exterior walls are doubled to create air pockets which act as natural insulators.
During construction, air infiltration barriers are made with six-millimeter polyethylene sheets fastened to framing lumber. This prevents heat leakage and keeps condensation from reducing the effectiveness of the insulation.
Super-insulated homes also have specially designed entrance hallways to trap cold air before it can enter the home in winter (when the door's open) and trap it inside so it can't escape in summer.
While the super-insulated home can save hundreds of dollars a year on energy bills, the extra cost during construction is minimal -- one to 3 percent above the price of a traditionally built home.
The trouble is, to get these super-insulation savings you have to build the home from scratch. It's almost impossible to achieve the big savings by retro-fitting an existing home.
But, you can save a fair amount of money working on the home you've got. There's really nothing new, just a lot of little things that add up.
Test all windows, walls and doors for signs of cold-air leaks. Caulk the leaks and put storm windows and doors over existing openings. When it comes time to get new windows, get double- or triple-glazed fixtures.
Shut down rooms that are not being used, and watch out for fireplaces. If you don't have a glass-enclosed fireplace with special air ducts, you can lose a lot of home heat up the chimney. Keep fireplace dampers tightly shut when not in use. You've got to plug the air leaks -- and hope for the best.