Insulate My Home

It requires the twisted neural pathways of the human brain to overcome natural instincts, making us sometimes dumber than our primal ancestors. You don’t need instructions to turn toward the sun for warmth or to put on a coat when it’s cold outside. And yet millions of homes are built without regard for solar orientation, and insulation still doesn’t merit much importance with both homeowners and builders across the country.

I’ve always thought these kinds of oversights were born of builder greed and confusion among homeowners. Builders and developers assume they can’t make as much money if energy efficiency had to be the first priority, and homeowners assume that building codes are protecting them from buying bad buildings, which is hardly the case. Somehow, this kind of anthropomorphic avarice and ignorance have disconnected us from the common sense born even to a mouse.

But surely, somewhere buried in our deep memory, people must innately know better. Wouldn’t people intuitively make the right decisions if making an energy efficient shelter wasn’t a choice but a life-preserving necessity?

Maybe not, if the implications of a recent study are accurate.

Researchers at Columbia University, Ohio State University and Carnegie Mellon University recently published a report called “Public Perceptions of Energy Consumption and Savings” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The idea of the study was to see if people understand the most effective things they can do to conserve energy.

The study’s 505 survey respondents basically got it backwards. They didn’t understand that efficiency improvements are far more effective than curtailment efforts. Therefore, turning out lights was the most cited way to save energy, rating far above using more efficient light bulbs. In reality, turning off lights is insignificant compared to replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs or LEDs. Similarly, respondents thought shutting off appliances when not in use was more effective than having energy efficient appliances. The opposite is true in that case too.

Here’s the summary table from the PNAS study:

Energy efficiency misunderstandings

This apparent lack of public understanding led Kirsten Korosec of the Bnet website (CBS affiliate) to write a column titled Energy Efficiency Industry Dragged Down by Our Stupid Selves. Korosec seems as concerned about industry market implications as she is about the energy problems that need attention:

In short, Americans don’t know the first thing about how to save energy. Their misconceptions, if changed, could have a very real impact on bottom lines of appliance companies like GE, energy-efficient automakers and retrofit specialists.
The unfortunate theme for appliance and light bulb manufacturers, car makers and contractors is that Americans — at least based on this survey — equate savings with changing their behavior, such as turning off the lights, and not investing in new products. Which means companies like GE have to work harder to make their advertising and marketing into educational campaigns.

I agree with Korosec, but this isn’t the part of the study jumped out at me. I have sympathy for the survey participants who didn’t know that the most energy efficient lights and appliances are THAT effective. You’d have to see the math that compares less use with less energy consumption. The facts are convincing, to be sure, but they clearly are not as obvious as we wish. There’s education to do here.

What startled me is that “insulate my home” was basically dead last in possible energy efficiency actions. It was the lowest scoring action item, falling just above “there’s no way/don’t know.” By far the most effective category on the survey list almost didn’t make the list. As a builder of high performance homes, this caught me by surprise.

“Insulate my home” even fell below “sleep more/relax more,” suggesting that the respondents thought going into a catatonic state might be a more useful solution. I was briefly inclined to say something more irreverent about this one, but I do respect the notion that slowing down in our frenetic world may be a pretty useful way to save energy. Still, if we were less superficially active, most likely we’d be spending more time in our poorly insulated homes, which would only further raise the importance of the “insulate my home” category.

The facts are simple. Buildings consume more energy than any other sector, as shown on this Architecture 2030 graph:

Energy consumption chart

And in homes, as in most buildings, heating and cooling is where the lion’s share of the energy goes:

Home energy use

There’s no doubt that we need to reduce every slice of the energy pie. Not only should we be replacing incandescent lights with CFLs and LEDs, we should be turning them off more too. We can double-down on more efficient appliances by unplugging power to them when not in use. And there’s nothing more efficient than a uber-efficient car that isn’t going anywhere. So the survey’s participants were at least partially right on these issues, but on the biggest piece of the energy pie, respondents got it all wrong and stuck it between not doing anything and giving up.

Since the late 1970’s, we’ve been building homes that are so well insulated that they won’t freeze, even in sub-zero weather and no auxiliary heat source. This is called “passive survivability” and it’s really not that hard to achieve. It requires only better insulating and sealing details and careful, knowledgeable work. This level of insulation should have been the American standard for the past 30 years. The energy savings accrued over the years would have been the equivalent of discovering a vast new oil reserve beneath all of us, one that requires no drilling and yet constantly delivers security and comfort.

In fact, in the last ten years we have come to the realization that we now have the capability to cut the “heating and cooling” half of the household energy usage completely off. We can make a different pie. If we commit ourselves to the task, we can make the heating and cooling loads of our homes so small that renewable energy sources can make up the difference.

The mantra for the future of American homebuilders should therefore be “Reduce the load. Reduce the load. Reduce the load.” Not very sexy, but it’s the key to our energy independent future. No good solutions are possible until all our homes are “low-load” because of extremely good insulation. When the energy requirements are tiny, a whole new world of really cool technologies can come into play and can make every home its own power plant.

However, that probably won’t happen until American homeowners across the land are heard to be chanting: “Insulate my home. Insulate my home. Insulate my home.”

One thought on “Insulate My Home

  1. It put a smile on my face to discover this blog and reconnect (in cyberspace, anyway) with an old friend. Since leaving Fine Homebuilding, where we built the first timber-framing article together over 25 years ago, I’ve spent the last two years writing about improving home energy efficiency. I’ve written a lot of the content for Dr. Energy Saver, a new nationwide network of home energy specialists, and you can check out my blogs from the DES home page. Keep up the dialog, Tedd. It’s enjoyable and we need it.

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