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The Energy-Efficient Home - How One System Supports the Others

You will have greater success in your efforts to improve your home's energy efficiency if you view your entire property as a single energy system, with smaller components that all work together to make the whole system run well. If one element in the system is not working as efficiently as it should, then the other parts have to work harder to make up the difference. An understanding of how the pieces all work together will help you build a more energy-efficient home, or to improve the efficiency of your existing house.

Benefits of an Efficient Home

Increasing your home's energy efficiency is a worthwhile goal, both from the standpoint of environmental responsibility and from the standpoint of reducing your monthly energy bills. Your family gets another bonus: An energy-efficient home is easier to keep comfortable than a drafty inefficient home. Many energy experts recommend taking a whole-house approach to energy use and efficiency, but it might help you to envision more of a whole-property approach, since your energy use is impacted not only by your home's structure and energy-consuming equipment, but also by its nearby outdoor environment.

Your heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you consider ways to make your house more energy-efficient. It is true that these systems, along with your water heater, lighting, kitchen appliances and laundry machines, actually consume energy and require monthly payments to operate, but the other parts of your whole-property energy system can have a big impact on those costs.

Your objective in analyzing your whole-property energy system and finding ways to make it more efficient is to decrease the amount of money you have to pay every month to keep the active energy-consuming equipment running while also keeping your house comfortable for your family and friends. If you think of your property and house as being a passive solar system that requires supplemental energy input from your heating and cooling equipment, you can visualize the best ways to increase your efficiency.

You want to take advantage of the natural environment and your house's structure to minimize summer heat gains and winter heat losses. This will minimize the size of HVAC equipment that you need to keep your house comfortable. Smaller equipment means smaller up-front investments as well as lower ongoing costs of operating your energy-efficient home.

Fortunately, many of the things you can do to reduce your home's heating and cooling loads are either free or relatively inexpensive. Some of the tasks are things you can do yourself, while others will probably require professionals to do the jobs right. The inexpensive projects will have a big impact on reducing the required size of the more expensive parts of your energy system, so the more attention you pay to the little things, the bigger the payoff you will receive in the end.

Following is a brief discussion of each of the main parts of your whole-property energy system, how they work together to keep your home comfortable and things you can do with them to reach your goal of having an energy-efficient home.


Carefully planned landscaping can reduce your home's energy requirements by a significant amount while creating a beautiful outdoor space for you and your family to enjoy. You should plan for your house to receive as much sunlight as possible in the winter months while being shaded as much as possible during the summer. Since our Chicago winters are not known for extensive sunshine, focusing on winter windbreaks and summer shading makes sense.

Consider planting evergreen trees or growing evergreen hedges on the north side of your house. Evergreen trees will lessen the impact of the cold north wind and a dense hedge with a foot of space between it and your walls will create a dead air space which will minimize winter heat losses.

Plant deciduous trees on the east, south and west sides of your house to provide shade during the summer and to provide natural cooling from transpiration. Since they lose their leaves in winter, deciduous trees also let sunlight stream through their branches during the cold months of the year, letting the sun warm your roof and exposed walls.

Your House's Exterior

Your home's exterior shell should be well sealed and insulated. Keeping heated air inside in winter and cooled air inside in summer will reduce the heating and cooling loads that your HVAC equipment will need to be designed to handle.

Openings around doors, windows and utility entry points should be weatherstripped and caulked to keep air from leaking into and out of the house. Storm windows will block heat losses in  the cold winter months and screened windows that can be opened for natural ventilation during pleasant warmer months will let you save money on air conditioning.

Your outdoor air conditioning unit should be kept free of debris and should be shaded from direct sunlight. Ideally, walls will be well insulated, but retrofitting walls with insulation may not make economic sense unless you are planning to replace your siding anyway. When it is time to replace the shingles on your roof, consider using light-colored materials that will reflect intense summer sunlight.

Attic Insulation

You can spend extra money getting the most efficient furnace or boiler on the market, but you will not achieve the most benefit possible from it if your attic is not adequately insulated. Adequate insulation will block heat losses during the winter and will also minimize radiant heat entering your home on hot summer days.

Adding attic insulation is relatively inexpensive and can reduce the size of heating and cooling equipment you need, so money on insulation will pay you a greater return than money spent for slightly more efficient HVAC equipment that is bigger than it needs to be.


Poorly designed and installed or badly maintained ductwork can be a significant source of energy losses in your home. Your HVAC equipment cannot deliver conditioned air to every room in your house unless your ducts are sized right, sealed and insulated. Each area of your home should have adequate air supply and return ducts to keep airflow properly balanced. Duct joints and seams should be mechanically fastened and sealed with mastic duct sealant. Any ducts that run through unconditioned spaces such as your attic or crawlspace should be well insulated to prevent conductive energy losses before the conditioned air reaches its destination.

HVAC Equipment

After you have planned your home's landscaping, exterior structure, insulation and duct system to allow smart use of natural solar energy and to reduce unwanted movement of heat from outside to inside in the summer and from inside to outside in the winter, you can choose the best heating and cooling equipment for your home. Your HVAC equipment can be sized smaller for your energy-efficient home since the heating and cooling loads it will have to handle are reduced. With smaller equipment, you may be able to afford the most efficient models available so that your monthly utility bills will be as low as possible.

Other Appliances

You can reduce your overall energy use and reduce your summer air conditioning load even further by installing energy efficient appliances and lighting. Lighting with compact fluorescent or LED bulbs will reduce your monthly electric bill and also reduce the radiant heat from your light fixtures. An efficient water heater will reduce your fuel bills and lose less heat into your home than your older less efficient model. Look for the Energy Star label as a guide to the most efficient appliances when you are shopping for everything from HVAC equipment to laptop computers. Little reductions in waste and improvements in efficiency will have a big impact on your ability to run an energy-efficient home.

Contact us at for help designing your energy-efficient home or for making efficiency improvements to your existing house. Our energy experts design and install efficient HVAC systems in homes throughout Southwest Michigan, Northwest Indiana and the Chicago area. We provide design, installation and maintenance services for every kind of residential and commercial heating and cooling system.

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