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Energy-Efficient Homes: 8 Essential Features

June 08, 2023 7-minute read

Author: David Collins

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A house is more than just a structure with flooring, four walls and a roof. It’s actually a collection of complex machines, appliances and systems – all of which require energy to operate. As technology advances and consumers become more conscious of the need to cut energy use – both to reduce bills and to protect the environment – homeowners have more ability to reduce their reliance on grid-supplied energy than ever before. Here are some of the elements that are creating more energy-efficient homes in 2023.

What Is Considered An Energy-Efficient Home?

Simply put, an energy-efficient home is one that provides all the comfort and utility that homeowners desire while consuming the least amount of energy. A modern American home consumes energy chiefly in the following applications:

Heating and cooling: For most U.S. homes, furnaces and air conditioning units are powered by either electricity or natural gas supplied by a local utility company.

Hot water: Perhaps the most underestimated appliance in the house, a hot water heater provides instant heated water for the shower, faucet, dishwasher and washing machine. This system is powered by electricity or natural gas, in most instances.

Appliances: All appliances are not created equally. Different brands and models of refrigerators will consume electricity more or less efficiently; the same applies to other everyday appliances, such as dishwashers, washer and dryers, cooktops and ovens and even smaller appliances, such as microwave ovens, toasters and coffeemakers.

Lighting: The kinds of lightbulbs and light sources in a house effect energy use, as do certain “smart” monitors that control when and how lights are used.

Complex systems: Just as each appliance differs on how efficiently it uses electricity, the home’s entire electrical service can vary in efficiency. Similarly, the house’s furnace, air conditioning unit and ductwork system can also vary significantly in how efficiently it warms and cools the house.

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How To Build An Energy-Efficient Home

The good news for the modern homeowner is that there has never been a better time to cut energy use than today. All current and future homeowners – whether they’re seeking to reduce home energy use on their existing house or maximize energy savings on a new build – can start by making a thorough assessment of their current and future energy needs. Next, to ensure that the home can most efficiently operate in the areas of heating and cooling, hot water service, lighting, appliances and complex systems, consider one or more of the following upgrades.

1. Install Solar Panels

When discussing energy efficiency, much is made of “renewable energy.” This is the use of natural forces, such as the sun’s energy, wind or moving water, to generate electricity without burning fossil fuels. Solar panels gather energy from the sun’s rays and transform it into useful electricity to power some or all of a home’s appliances, lighting and even heat and air conditioning.

Home solar systems are expensive to have installed. In fact, many homeowners take out a solar loan to finance the installation. However, the savings on electricity over time can eventually pay for the whole system. That means all the electricity it supplies from that time forward is eventually free for several years.

2. Use Tankless Water Heaters

Unlike a traditional water heater, which must keep an entire tank of water heated at all times (usually 40 – 50 gallons in most homes), a tankless water heater instantly heats water as it comes from the main water source. Powered by either natural gas or electricity, this device heats water as it passes through a coil of pipes. It uses energy only when hot water is needed, and is therefore more efficient, reducing utility bills. Tankless water heaters can be three to four times more expensive than full tank heaters, but they take up far less space and last about twice as long.

3. Purchase Energy Star Certified Appliances

Home appliances, lighting, hot water heaters, furnaces and air conditioning units can get Energy Star certification from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These products work as well as noncertified products but use significantly less energy to function, saving money and reducing power plant emissions. As demand for Energy Star appliances has grown over the last decade, more appliances carry the certification than not. The result is that these energy-saving appliances are priced about the same as those without Energy Star status.

4. Install LED Lighting

LED light bulbs have brought enormous gains in energy efficiency for home lighting. LED bulbs are 75% more efficient than conventional incandescent bulbs. Lights can also be programmed to turn on and off at specific times or even simply dim or turn off when no motion is detected for a certain stretch of time.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, lighting accounts for around 15% of an average home's electricity use, and the average household saves about $225 in energy costs per year by using LED lighting.  And although LED lights are more expensive than incandescent lightbulbs, they become less expensive in the long run because they last up to 25 times longer.

5. Use Spray-Foam Insulation

Installing good quality insulation in floors, walls, ceilings and attics can increase a house’s heating and cooling efficiency, making it more eco-friendly and less expensive to operate. Insulation blocks the transfer of heat, keeping it in during winter and out in summer.

When building a new home, it’s advisable to use spray foam insulation, as opposed to traditional rolled fiberglass insulation. Because it more efficiently fills small cracks or gaps in construction, spray foam is much more efficient at preventing heat loss in winter or heat penetration in warm months, saving up to 50% on power bills. For older homes, it can be costly to open up interior walls for the purpose of applying spray foam insulation, but it is something to consider during major renovations. Spray foam can also be applied in attic spaces relatively easily.

6. Purchase Smart Home Devices

Smart technology devices can help limit energy use in a house by adjusting automatically to times when energy is or is not needed. A smart thermostat, for example, can warm up the house automatically during peak activity or cool it down during sleep time or when no one is at home. Lights can also be programmed to turn on and off at specific times or even simply dim or turn off when no motion is detected for a certain stretch of time.

7. Water Conservation

Energy savings is usually the first thought when considering resource efficiency in the home, but water is also a vital and often expensive utility. Particularly in parts of the country where the availability of fresh, clean water is a big concern, there are several inexpensive water-saving devices that can conserve this precious resource. Water saving showerheads and faucet aerators alone can cut down hot water usage in a house by 50%. Other products that can reduce water usage for little cost include a shower timer, toilet tank bag and a rainfall shutoff that interrupts the home irrigation schedule when there has already been plenty of rainfall.

8. Update The Landscaping

The typical American suburban home is surrounded by a lush green lawn. Beautiful, yes, and fun for kids to play on, but also very thirsty. Millions of gallons of water each year go into watering these vast grassy spaces. Worse, tons and tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are poured on them to keep weeds down. Home irrigation for lawns compounds the overuse of resources because it operates on electricity.

Natural and sustainable landscaping replaces lawns with native plants that thrive on the amount of rain that normally falls locally. Shade trees help keep a house cooler in summer, but they must be properly pruned to maintain a healthy canopy.

For extra watering, a rain barrel can capture dozens of gallons of water that normally run right off a roof, from even a short shower. A rain barrel fitted with a soaker hose will automatically redistribute all that water throughout the garden.

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Are Energy-Efficient Homes Worth It?

Aside from the satisfaction of knowing they’re living a greener lifestyle, energy-efficient homeowners also realize significant reductions in their electric, natural gas and water bills. Because modern home buyers tend to be both financially literate and eco-conscious, energy efficient homes will also maintain a healthy resale value.

FAQs About Energy-Efficient Homes

How can I make an old home more energy efficient?

The first stage of making an older home more energy efficient is to get contractors to make assessments and offer suggestions. An insulation company, for instance, can look at an attic’s insulation and give an estimate on having spray foam insulation blown in. A window company can see if modern, energy-efficient windows might be worth the investment. As appliances get older, they can be replaced with Energy Star rated counterparts. Not everything has to be done at once, either. Improvements can be made as needs arise and the budget allows.

Are log homes energy efficient?

It depends on the definition of “log home.” A house that has actual logs for walls is very difficult to insulate properly because there are air gaps between the logs. These can be filled with mortar or some other material, but the wall overall cannot match a traditional construction wall that is filled with a high R-value insulation. There are some homes that have a log slab exterior but have an interior wood-frame construction that is fully insulated. These can be made to be as efficient as any other wood-frame or other fully insulated structure.

Do energy-efficient homes sell better?

Studies show that home buyers not only like features that reduce utility bills, they’re more conscious of reducing their carbon footprint as well. Research done by the National Association of Home Builders, for example, showed that home buyers would pay an extra $8,728 on a house that reduced energy bills by $1,000 annually.

How much money will I save by living in an energy-efficient house?

The answer to this question is different for virtually every homeowner, depending on where they live and the extent of measures they have taken to increase energy efficiency. In general terms, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the typical household can save 25% on utility bills with energy efficiency measures, which amounts to over $2,200 annually.

The Bottom Line: Energy-Efficient Homes Could Save You Money In The Long Run

As energy costs continue to rise while energy-efficient solutions become more effective and less costly, it makes sense now more than ever for homeowners to boost home energy efficiency. It’s even possible to finance updates through an energy-efficient mortgage. Whether it’s replacing old appliances with Energy Star rated units, updating lights with LED bulbs, installing energy efficient windows or even investing in a solar panel system, all of these solutions will eventually pay for themselves and reap energy savings for years to come.

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David Collins

David Collins

David Collins is a staff writer for Rocket Auto, Rocket Solar, and Rocket Homes. He has experience in communications for the automotive industry, reference publishing, and food and wine. He has a degree in English from the University of Michigan.