Energy Efficiency One Step at a Time

Whether a customer is looking for a kitchen remodel, family room addition or rehab down to the studs, there is always an opportunity to build green into the project. In my experience, even small measures, like air sealing and additional insulation, can result in energy savings up to 37 percent, although EPA estimates may be lower.* With federal and state incentives, the price of green technology is almost always offset in a few years by energy savings.

The first step to building green into projects is a comprehensive home energy assessment. This review looks at each home’s energy use and safety as an integrated system. Based on the assessment, I create a multistep energy plan to share with customers.

In my state, New York, an energy assessment is routinely available at no charge to customers who work with contractors participating in the Home Performance with Energy Star program. To qualify as a home-performance contractor in New York, companies must be accredited by the Malta, N.Y.-based Building Performance Institute. You can learn about your state’s incentive programs at


Energy Efficiency Step 1: Seal the Gaps, Cracks and Holes

The objective of air sealing is to reduce air exfiltration—heated or cooled inside air that is leaving the house. This simple step is our first priority because it is incredibly effective. Homeowners can save an average of 12 percent on their heating and cooling costs through air sealing alone.


Energy Efficiency Step 2: Improve the Insulation

After air sealing, we turn our attention to insulation. We stay away from fiberglass batt insulation because it is easy to install incorrectly. It’s usually fastened to the inside of studs, creating a space in the cavity that forms a convective loop in cold weather.

We avoid this convective loop using cellulose insulation or open-cell foam, which is very effective and, in the case of cellulose, environmentally friendly. The challenge is cellulose or open-cell foam can cost two to three times more than fiberglass insulation. On the flip side, studies show cellulose-insulated buildings may use significantly less energy than structures with fiberglass, even if the R-value of the insulation in the walls and ceilings is identical. By adding insulation to the savings we can achieve through air sealing, we can provide a significant reduction in energy costs for the life of the home while making the home more comfortable.

I tell homeowners not only can they significantly reduce their home energy costs through relatively simple measures, but the payback is five to 10 years for an investment that may have a 100-year lifespan.


Energy Efficiency Step 3: Go for Green Technology

Once we have an efficient building envelope—and not before—we can move on to energy-saving technologies. Never skip the initial steps of making the home as energy efficient as possible.

Here’s my analogy: You’re in a boat and it’s taking on water. You’re bailing as fast as you can, but what can you do to help the situation? Get a bigger bucket? Or look for ways to seal the holes? The answer is obvious. Dollar for dollar, you’ll want to do everything possible to stop the losses. Then it’s time to find ways to make the homeowner’s energy costs even lower.

Once the building is in its best possible condition, you can recommend green technologies to save even more energy. Replacing old equipment with new, high-efficiency models is a good start. This applies to HVAC, appliances and lighting. Here are some green technologies that I recommend to my customers:


Solar Thermal Systems

Solar thermal is the first green option to consider for domestic hot-water heating. The sun’s heat can offset the cost of domestic hot water by as much as 65 percent. To show homeowners how much they can expect to save, I estimate the energy costs for hot water by doubling the energy costs from the home’s nonheating months (usually May through September in the Northeast). Then, I use 65 percent as the rule of thumb to determine the amount of energy that can be offset annually by solar thermal.


Photovoltaic Systems

Photovoltaic systems, which use the sun’s energy to generate electricity, are another option. PV systems qualify for federal and state incentives that reduce the homeowner’s out-of-pocket cost. For New York state residents, the Albany-based New York State Energy Research and Development Authority offers an incentive credit of $1.75 per DC watt. Considering all the available credits, rebates and incentives, a system costing $24,000 could cost a homeowner as little as $8,925.



Geothermal is another option that is a good green energy source and can be very effective, but I don’t typically recommend it for homeowners unless the home is being built specifically for it or retrofitted to incorporate the technology. I advise homeowners to seek out an experienced and qualified contractor to design and install a geothermal system.

There are many opportunities for a remodeler to build green into each remodeling project, starting with an efficient building envelope and adding technologies that will save even more energy. When the remodeler enlightens homeowners about the options open to them, both will benefit. |


Joseph Malcarne is a general contractor who is a Residential Energy Services Network Home Energy Rating System rater and holds LEED and Building Performance Institute accreditations. He opened Rhinebeck, N.Y.-based Malcarne Contracting in 1996. Today it is one of the largest construction companies in New York’s Hudson Valley. To contact him, visit