The US currently uses about a third of the planet’s annual energy production, and only contains 6% of the world’s population. It is time to make a change. As stated in my previous article (see Upgrade Energy Efficiency with Government Money), there are plenty of tax credits and incentives out there right now to make improving the energy efficiency of your home a worthwhile investment, but where should the downtown condo owner start? With no giant roof to replace or huge attics to insulate, often condo owners have a difficult time deciding where to start on the path of energy efficiency upgrades; I can help.
As with a home energy upgrade, a condo energy upgrade should still begin with an energy audit. A qualified home energy auditor will use high output blowers, thermal imaging cameras and a variety of other specialized tools to determine where and when heat and energy loss is occurring in your condo. The best advice I can give you is to go with a company that strictly focuses on energy audits, not a company that also does energy improvements, as they may be tempted to sell you upgrades based on their profit incentive.
From my experience and research, the top three areas of energy loss for condominium owners, and thus, the focus for environmentally friendly upgrades, should be:
- Building envelope
- Water heating
- Heating and cooling system
When most people think of building envelope, the first thing that pops into their head is windows. They are the most visible and most frequently talked about energy upgrade. Additionally, they are a very sellable upgrade and are profitable for contractors to replace, but they don’t always need to be replaced! Take a look around your condo and estimate what percentage of the wall surface area is windows; I’m guessing it’s less than 20%. The other 80% of the area is where I recommend starting your energy upgrades. With today’s blown-in insulation technology, entire wall cavities can be insulated with cellulose though very small holes drilled in the wall. A better-insulated exterior wall can work wonders on the comfort of your condo. Better air quality, lower noise levels and less room for unwanted critters to sneak in are all great side effects. Keep in mind that new windows can and do increase energy savings, they just don’t always give you the best return on investment.
The next area of upgrade is your water heating system. If you live in a condo complex where hot water is included in your HOA fee you may need to petition other homeowners to have the system upgraded, if not, the process is pretty straightforward. Water heating bills typically account for 15%-25% of your monthly energy costs. The options available for hot water heating today are much more efficient and affordable than systems available even a few years ago. I recommend going with an on demand or tankless hot water system. These systems only fire up when hot water is needed and avoid the unnecessary expense of storing hot water. A great side benefit is the extra storage space you will gain when you rid yourself of that huge hot water tank!
Lastly, and typically the most daunting area of energy upgrades, is the heating and cooling system. Your heating and cooling expense typically accounts for the largest part of your energy bills, however they are also typically the most expensive to upgrade. As with the hot water system, if this is a building wide system you will have to get the association involved to make any changes. Most heating and cooling systems over 10 years old are inefficient and worth replacing. Today there are many options to choose from, both gas and electric and many different configurations based on the type of heat delivery mechanisms present in your condo. If you have a boiler configuration, the most impressive systems I have seen are the gas hydronic condensing systems. These boiler systems are extremely efficient, in the neighborhood of 95%, and can even be used as your source for hot water, killing two birds with one stone is always a plus. There are even hydronic systems such as the Honda FreeWatt that can also produce useable electricity for your condo, while providing heat and hot water; that’s about as eco-friendly as you can get. HVAC systems have also come a long way and today’s energy star rated units are highly efficient. If you do have an HVAC system, be sure that before you replace the unit, you have your ducts cleaned and inspected for leaks, as this can often be a major part of energy loss. The least you can do for your heating and cooling system is to invest in a programmable thermostat. This upgrade alone can save you hundreds of dollars per year in energy costs.
After undergoing upgrades in these sections of your condo, I wouldn’t be surprised to see your monthly energy bills cut in half!