Advancements in Energy Efficiency

In this article we are going to talk about advancements in energy efficiency. Clean energy technology for the home has advanced enormously in recent years, and prices have come down as well.

Alternative Energy for the Home

Alternative energy sources include the heat of the Earth (geothermal), the sun (solar), flowing water (microhydro), and air movement (wind)—all are potential ways to create energy to turn into electricity. Though the equipment used to harness it isn’t free, the Earth’s energy resources are.

Depending on where you live and how much energy you use, one form of alternative energy, or a combination of systems, might be right for you.

Even if you’re not able to go completely off-grid (meaning that your home is not connected to traditional electricity lines), you may be able to supplement your electricity with alternative energy to cut costs and reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Solar Energy

Solar Energy

One popular renewable resource is solar energy. By harnessing the sun’s rays and converting them into solar energy, you can power and heat your home and its water supply. Solar energy is abundant and free, and the price of installing solar heating systems for the home has declined drastically. In areas that receive a lot of sun for most of the year, solar energy is an ideal alternative resource.

Photovoltaic Panels

Photovoltaic (PV) panels, also called solar panels, consist of glass-and-metal, -plastic, or -fiberglass modules that mount on your house’s roof and use silicon semiconductors to collect energy from the sun and convert it into electricity.

PV panels have come a long way in recent years—they’ve become less expensive, smaller, and more efficient at turning solar energy into electricity. Panels are sold in one-watt increments; five or six panels can cover about half of the average home’s energy needs.

Solar panels also increase you home’s value, as they can last up to 30 years and require almost no maintenance.

Active Solar System

A home with an active solar system uses mechanical and electrical mechanisms, such as pumps and fans, to collect solar energy and convert it into heat or use it to cool or ventilate the home. It can be either of the following types:

  • Air-based: In this type of system, a collector heats and circulates air.
  • Liquid-based: In this type of system, a collector heats and circulates water or an antifreeze liquid.

Active solar design can reduce you heating and cooling costs and reduce the amount of harmful emissions that your home produces.

Passive Solar Design

A home with a passive solar design does not use any pumps, fans, or other mechanical or electrical mechanisms to utilize solar energy.

Instead, it uses the windows, walls, and floors to naturally convert the sun’s rays into heat in the cold weather, block the sun’s warmth in the warm weather, and provide home ventilation.

Because this type of design relies on the location of windows, use of insulation, air sealing, and other design strategies, it works best with new construction—though it is possible to retrofit passive solar design elements into your existing home.

One particularly useful application of passive solar technology is the passive solar water heater, which is less expensive and easier to install than active solar water-heating systems.

Wind Power

Wind Power - Wind Turbines

You can convert the wind around your home into electricity using small-scale wind turbines (anywhere from 8–50 feet across).

They can be placed in the backyard or on another part of your property that receives regular wind, as long as they’re at least 30 feet above all obstacles that lie within 300 feet of the structure on which they’re installed.

Wind turbines are more expensive than solar panels or microhydro systems (see below) but can be ideal if you’re living in a place with limited water and sun exposure.


If you have a stream or river on your property, microhydro (small, water-generated power) systems are a very cost- effective method of producing electricity.

The turbines are inexpensive and easy to install, though there are some limitations: you’ll need to know how much head (the vertical distance the water falls) and flow (volume of water) your water source produces to determine whether it can support a microhydro system.

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy can be applied just about anywhere in the United States. Geothermal heat pumps in particular are among the most cost-effective alternative energy sources.

These pumps take advantage of the Earth’s regular temperature by running water pipes underground. During the winter, the pump draws heat from the Earth into your home; during the summer, it draws heat from your house and allows it to dissipate in the ground.

Green Power Through Your Utility Company

If you can’t afford to install an alternative energy system, call your local utility and ask about programs they might have to purchase power from solar, wind, or biofuel sources.

Many utility companies offer such programs: you’ll receive power the same way you do now and be charged through your current utility company.

Energy Efficiency and New Construction

Building a new structure means you’ll get to take advantage of the latest and most energy-saving options available.

Energy-Efficient Building

There are numerous energy-efficiency alternatives, from materials to design, to consider when building a new home. Consider your local environment and the kinds of materials and architecture that work there.

For instance, an adobe-walled house is a less-expensive, energy-saving alternative in the hot, dry Southwest. Does it make sense for you to have a second story, or would digging a level underground save on heating and cooling? Which is more important where you live: keeping cool in the heat, or keeping warm in the cold? When considering water-saving devices, think about how much rain your area tends to get.

Also consider using recycled materials for new construction—this will cut initial costs, freeing up money to use for efficiency upgrades.

Ask Your Contractor About Energy-Efficient Options

Which Energy-Efficient Tactics Are Worth the Money?

To decide among efficiency measures for your new home or addition, do a cost-benefit analysis. Take into consideration the initial cost of the improvement.

Then estimate how much more that would cost than an inefficient method. Using the difference in price between those two options, work out the average costs per year to heat or light your home, for instance, and how much you would save over time with the more efficient system.

Only you can make the ultimate decision about what will work for you in your local environment.

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