Blair Stephens  @  ChelseaGreen

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My Adventure in Renewable Energy: Part 2, Home Energy Efficiency

Posted on Monday, November 24th, 2008 at 4:56 pm by Blair Stephens

Making Our Home More Energy Efficient

At the close of the summer, my husband and I decided we had to commit to some home renovations – mainly to that leaky sunroom. We figured we could improve our quality of life, the value of our home and we could make the house more efficient to boot. The only issue was financing – big surprise! We decided we wanted to handle all the renovations with cash. To that end, we decided to vault the ceilings, re-insulate and replace the longest wall of windows – which also happen to be on the windward side of the house.

When we took down half the ceiling to really get the lay of the land, we realized how justified we had been in making the decision. The first thing we noticed was the old insulation.


The R value of insulation measures its resistance to heat flow. The higher the R value, the better the insulation factor. Being in the Northeast, we wanted an insulation with an R30 or better for maximum effectiveness and we found R19 insulation on the floor of the attic (just above the poorly executed drop ceiling the in sun room). Therefore we saw a lot of opportunity for making the room more energy efficient just in improving the insulation.

The first thing we did was to deepen the joists of the roof – allowing for the deeper R38 insulation. We lost some height in the room – maybe 5 inches with this process, but that was of little importance when considering the potential increase in efficiency of the room. Essentially, we deepened the space that would hold the insulation from about 4 inches deep, to 8-10 inches deep. I had no idea that it was critical not to compress insulation in order for it to yield maximum benefit – but this would be one of the many things I would learn while going through this process.

During the deconstruction process, we also pulled the old wood paneling off the walls of the room and this showed us yet another problem. Not only was there only R9.6 insulation in the walls – the insulation had been smooshed into place – meaning that it was not even operating at maximum efficiency. We pulled out the old stuff and replaced all of it with R13 and fastidiously placed it for maximum dead air space protection.

We were also super careful to save all extra insulation so every piece possible was used. Ultimately, the two walls we reinsulated – at the front and back of the house will be re-done when we replace those windows, but we knew the extra insulation in the short term would be well worth it and we place to re-use as much as possible in the next phase of the renovation project.

We then did our research into the insulation itself. Although my husband and I were loathe to put in fiberglass, because we were putting this in ourselves and because we were going to be insulating over our heads rather than on a floor, we decided to go with the standard fiberglass. Our hope is that the environmental impact we make by needing less heating oil will make up for using a less than green insulation. We spent the most money of the project on the insulation, and we knew it would probably be that way going in – but we also knew it was the smartest place to put the money!

We also designed the vaulted ceiling to accommodate a ceiling fan to circulate warm air in the winter and cool air in the summer. We did consider implementing skylights to bring in natural light to the room, but we ultimately chose not to so we would be assured of the insulation and so we could stay within our seriously meager budget.

The other huge obstacle to energy efficiency was the jalousie windows. They offer so much lovely light and breeze in the summer – but those benefits become their downfall in the winter months. We wanted to find a way to preserve the light, airy feel of the room while using more efficient windows that would also not break our budget.

We considered and got the prices of new windows. Consider though, that our old jalousie windows were approximately five feet high and about 16 inches wide and we had, oh, eight or so that needed replacing. That’s a lot of space. We knew we also wanted to get rid of the leaky and strangely placed door in the sunroom as well – which was more potential window space. We also knew we couldn’t just get giant picture windows because we needed air flow. The replacement windows would have run anywhere from $800.00 to $1500.00 and that would have been for one half of the wall only – and not including the labor to actually put them in.

We did some research on efficient window ratings so we’d be prepared if we came upon a good deal. Here’s what we learned!

Window efficiency is primarily rated in three ways:

  • U-Factor - U-Factor measures how much heat a window will allow to escape. This means, the lower the U-Factor, the better!
  • Solar Heat Gain - Solar Heat Gain measures how well the window blocks solar heat from coming in via sunlight. A lower Solar Heat Gain ratings means less heat gain. (Thanks Captain Obvious!)
  • Visible Transmittance - Visible transmittance measures how much light comes though the glass. The heavier the tint on a window, the lower the visible transmittance and conversely the less tint, the higher the visible transmittance.

Once we were armed with information, we started to consider our options.

First we started with a couple of websites

Crazy? Maybe – but one of the best ways to go green is to recycle existing materials. The important thing for us was to find windows for that whole wall with good efficiency ratings. Did they have to be fancy and new? Not on our budget.

We didn't end up finding out solution through any of these venues - but we did see some interesting options and supplies and it was definitely worth the time to research!

We also put the word out among our friends. Now, we’re in a small town and my husband is the king of Craig’s List and Ebay because of his hobbies – so his friends around town always have their ear the ground for good deals on antiques and everything else.

One of our friends had been poking around in an antique coop a couple of towns over and had stumbled into their warehouse area – which was full of new or replacement windows, doors, cabinets and more! He told us about it and we drove down there – assuming we couldn’t really find what we needed.

In an amazing stroke of luck, we were able to secure four 50×50 energy star rated windows for a fraction of the typical cost. Two picture windows and two sliders would allow for light we wanted, allowed us to keep our view of our two gorgeous flowering trees and because of the cost savings, we were able to replace all the windows and remove the door on our breeziest wall. Also, they were well rated in the mid to upper class of efficient windows, so we knew we were getting more than a reasonable bargain.

Just to put the windows into perspective according to our ratings above:

  • U Factor: .33
  • Solar Heat Gain: .36.

Since most windows have a U Factor between .20 and 1.20, we could see that the U Factor of these windows was above average.

The Solar Heat Gain of most windows ranges from 0 to 1.0, so again, we could see the SHG rating was above average. Although the brand name wasn’t the greatest, the proof was in the ratings – and these were energy star rated and ridiculously prices at $70.00 per window. You couldn’t even get the glass for that much money!

So now we had the windows, we had the insulation and we were ready to begin the real renovation. While Mark got to work on the dirty jobs – I started the next phase of research – how else could we make our home more efficient and what kind of renewable energy could we incorporate as soon as possible within our budget!

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