How Insulation Can Help to Save Energy
(and earn you federal, state and local tax credits)
The off-grid lifestyle isn't just about creating your own electricity supplies, but also about thinking green and saving energy wherever possible. When you move to a remote area and start to make your own power, you could well be amazed to realize just how much of it you are used to wasting. To help change your way of thinking, a good starting-point is to look at our collection of conservation tips. These include using switched power strips to turn off appliances you aren't using, and avoiding any electric sources of heating, as these are a poor and inefficient way of heating an off-grid home.
Losing Precious Heat
Rural areas such as the northern Colorado mountains, where the site staff are based, can be very cold during the long winters, with a lot of snow. This means it is important to keep your home warm, but there is no point in wasting precious heat, which can often be a problem in older properties in particular, as they have more gaps for drafts to blow through. A report by Colorado State University on energy conservation in the home estimates that 38% of an average house's total energy consumption goes into heating. However, the report says it is possible to cut this figure by 40% if you draw up an energy conservation plan for your home. Meanwhile, in the UK, where there are many older buildings with poor energy efficiency, experts at money.co.uk suggest more ways of saving power, such as turning heating thermostats down a degree to avoid overheating homes. They also advise that a step as simple as wrapping up snugly in sweaters can help to keep you cozy without the need to turn your heating up to the max.
Insulating Your Home
As well as turning down thermostats to save energy where possible, another essential move is to insulate homes and stop heat escaping through the roof and walls. If you have ever seen someone use an infrared camera to pinpoint a building's heat loss, the results are quite startling, and show just why action is needed. Start by either getting in a professional to carry out a home energy audit, or doing your own version. Either way, you will need to find any air leaks and stop them up (after first checking that you have adequate ventilation) and make sure areas such as your attic and basement have the currently recommended levels of insulation. Insulating cavity walls is another way to cut heat loss, and blow-in insulation can usually be installed to exterior walls without causing a lot of disruption inside the property.
The most common choice of insulation material in the US is still fiberglass, which has become increasingly controversial in recent years because of fears over possible health concerns. However, the newer types are said to be easier to work with than the older ones and to give greater heat efficiency. A Department of Energy factsheet explains that there are also many other choices available, including a number of different spray foams. If you want to go greener and use recycled insulation, two products to consider are mineral wool, made from 75% recycled industrial materials, or cellulose, which is made from newsprint and has an even higher proportion of reused content. Yet another recycled product is plastic fiber insulation material, manufactured from plastic bottles, which is similar in appearance to fiberglass. Straw bales are seeing a renewal of interest as a means of insulation, while sheep's wool and cotton are other natural choices.
Once you have decided on an insulation project, the next question is whether to do it yourself or call in the professionals. There have been a number of threads about this on the discussion board at Otherpower with members advising one another over how to carry out insulation work, which materials to choose and whether to get in a contractor or go it alone.
Sealing Windows and Doors
Many modern homes are built to be energy-efficient and keep heat in, with double-glazed windows included from the start. This will not be the case in an older home, however, where windows are one of the areas of a property where the greatest amount of heat is likely to be lost. Conversely, during summer, sunlight streaming through windows is a major cause of buildings overheating and so wastes energy through the need for more aircon.
One option is of course to replace your windows with new ones featuring insulating panes and tight-fitting plastic frames which are moisture-resistant. However, if you have an older property, these may not fit in with the look and feel of the building and new windows also involve a major outlay. A cheaper alternative to consider is treating windows with energy-saving film, which is easy to install yourself and can lead to major savings during the winter. Some films also work to prevent heat transfer in the summer. Draft excluders around windows and doors can make a big contribution to saving energy, for instance by applying caulks at the top and bottom. You can also make your own draft excluders out of spare pieces of fabric. Don't forget that even small gaps around switches and outlets can lose energy and need to be insulated.
When insulating your home, remember your ductwork, as lack of insulation here will waste a great deal of energy and money. In particular, ducts leaking heated air into unconditioned areas such as crawlspace need to be addressed as a priority in improving energy efficiency. It should be possible to carry out minor ductwork repairs yourself, but sealing and insulating ducts is a more complicated task where qualified professionals should be brought in for reasons of safety. In carrying out any insulation project, it is vital to remember ventilation and also be aware of considerations such as moisture and radon levels. Installing a carbon monoxide alarm is also advisable, especially if you have equipment such as wood-burners.
Federal, state and local incentives
Lastly, keep in mind that there are a large variety of incentives and tax credits for energy conservation, even simple things like insulation, efficient doors and windows, and caulking. Be sure to check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency to see what you qualify for.
The whole off-grid lifestyle is about fitting into the environment around us. Avoiding energy loss is a big part of that, from turning off appliances which are not in use to ensuring that we only use the heat we need – and don't waste it by letting it seep out through doors, walls and windows.