Homeowner hip these days revolves around words like energy conservation, insulation, thermal windows, passive solar, solar hot water, new burners on the furnace and energy tax credits. That is the jargon of neighborhood cocktail parties, but what those words are really all about is cold hard cash.
Good design is great, but saving money on heating and cooling bills may become more important. The 1980s will be the decade in which homeowners worry less about what their homes look like than how much gas, oil and electricity they gobble. And a few home-builders are beginning to get the message. Not the message that R-19 insulation in the walls and R-30 in the ceiling is wonderful, but the message that R-30 in the walls and R-50 or 60 in the ceiling is where we're all headed. A lot of people with energy-wasteful houses they bought 10 or 15 years ago now pay more for gas, oil and electricity than they pay for their mortgage. And a lot of other people buying homes these days don't want to see that happen to them 10 years from now. They are beginning to discover builders like Harry Hart.
Hart began building energy-efficient homes in the Springfield area about four years ago. He doesn't mess with mazes of piping and collectors on the roofs of his homes. He simply uses common sense and spends a little extra where it counts. His homes are sited so they face south; there are few windows on the east and west sides of the homes, and he uses insulation as a blanket in which he wraps his customers.
Hart uses more than twice the insulation found in the average house and claims it costs him no more to construct his homes that way.
"There is a leeway of about 10 percent in the construction of any new home for making choices about materials," Hart says. "I just spend about 1.5 to 3 percent of that on insulation instead of fancy bathrooms or cedar shake roofs."
He also spends money on 26-inch roof overhangs which prevent the high summer sun from penetrating rooms. The lower-in-the-sky winter sun filters nicely into the same rooms under the overhangs. To keep cold and hot air from flowing directly into the house, Hart always builds what he calls an air lock -- a vestibule that traps cold air. When the front door is opened, the house is still closed by a second door at the other end of the vestibule.
Because of our prevailing northwest winds, Hart insulates north and west walls with two layers of insulation that equal about an R-30 rating -- the R factor measures a material's resistance to heat loss. On the east and south walls, Hart insulates to R-22. And, in the ceiling, he installs 3 1/2-inch fiberglass bats plus 13 inches of additional loose material, giving the attice an R-52 value.
Hallet Johnson, who lives in one of Hart's Springfield houses, spent about $195 on fuel oil last year from February through December, that for 1,500 square feet.
After building some 27 superinsulated homes, Hart is the first to admit that "people live in their houses in strange ways -- you can't really predict how much energy they'll consume. You can only hope that it will be less than if you had built it the old way."
Everyone is hopping on the energy bandwagon, with varying degrees of success. Area builders are increasigly more conscious of the need to insulate carefully and construct homes with as few leaks as possible. Beginning in August, a new federlly mandated, but voluntary, program will be initiated. Dubbed Building Energy Performance Standards, and developed by the Department of Energy, high standards have been set for new construction. Eventually the voluntary program will be replaced by standards builders will have to follow.
However, after touring the country for almost six months last year, University of Maryland architecture professor William Boechhofer has seen a broad range of passive and active solar installations and has concluded that performance standards for these types of systems just don't make sense.
"No one knows enough about passive solar systems," says Boechhofer. "For example, it would be almost impossible to come up with performance standards because each installation presents so many different variables." As for active solar systems, other than hot water, Boechhofer finds them too complicated for residential applications. "They need so much fine-tuning and break down so often that right now they seem to work only in large buildings where you have an engineer on duty all the time to keep them going."
If you already own an inefficient house and are looking to get something back on your investment to upgrade, local real estate agents report that buyers of new and existing homes are most interested in storm or thermal windows, good insulation, gas instead of oil heat or new burners in oil furnaces.
Joe Donnelly, of the appraisal firm of Lee J. Donnelly, says house prices haven't yet reflected expenditures by sellers for energy conserving improvements. But Joanne Pernick, an agent with Begg, Inc., says buyers are less likely to quibble over price, "if you can produce actual bills for recent improvements like insulation or storm windows."
You can get help upgrading the energy efficiency of your house. This spring, local utilities will participate in a federally mandated Residential Energy Conservation Service Program that will provide low-cost (no more than $15) energy audits of individual houses. And the federal government now offers its much-touted but often confusing system of tax credits.
"What you have to understand about the energy tax credit," says an IRS spokesman, "is that the government is not giving you a credit for conserving energy, it is giving you a credit for those things which Congress has decided are energy-conserving."
To get the maximum 40 percent credit on the first $10,000 spent for energy conservation, you have to install renewable energy systems -- solar systems, wind or geothermal equipment. If you just want to add some insulation in the attic, the most Uncle Sam will give you as a credit is 15 percent of the first $2,000 expended.
If you're thinking about a solar greenhouse, or a wood stove, don't expect a tax credit -- they don't qualify.
If you need cash to install solar energy systems or other energy-conserving systems, Uncle Sam is developing a new program that will provide subsidies to lenders for providing funds to homeowners. The new Solar Energy and Energy Conservation Bank, operated out of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has $125 million appropriated by Congress for its first year of operation, and once the dust of a new administration settles -- perhaps by summer -- homeowners and even renters may be able to get breaks on loans for reduced rates. Those who use the new loans won't be able to qualify for energy tax credits.
If that doesn't seem confusing enough, you need only order IRS publication 903 to discover: If any one component in your passive solar system serves a dual function, then the whole system is disqualified from any credit. In short, you can't call your skylights a passive solar system because even if the room they illuminate or the rug on that floor absorbs the heat brought in by them, the room would have to have a different storage mass and a means of distributing and regulating the heat.
Regulations specifically disqualify materials and components that serve "a significant structural function," or are structural components such as extra-thick walls, windows, skylights, greenhouses and roof overhangs.
Although the homeowner market is flooded with good, bad and ineffective products to keep the warmth in and the cold air out, many don't qualify for energy tax credits. Quilted shades, for example, don't qualify unless they are used with a passive solar house on collectors. Insulating blinds or drapes don't qualify if they also serve as a shade. And insulated siding doesn't qualify because it has a dual function. You can replace the burner on your furnace with a more efficient one (although there are no standards as to how much more efficient the replacement should be or who should say it is more efficient), but if you replace your furnace with a more efficient system, you can't get a credit. If the siding of your house is loose and you nail it in place and caulk the leaks, you can only get a credit for the caulk.
And, when you're all finished, you can't take a credit that is more than your tax liability after credits, but you can carry over the excess from year to year until 1986. In any case, once you've hit the maximum credit allowance, it's your nickel until you move and start all over again.