When looking to buy a new home, most of us look for a convenient location regarding proximity to work, schools, friends, and family. We also look for how it feels to us, visual attractiveness inside and out.

If you are ready to go a step further, you can gain insights as to how comfortable and how large or small the impact is on the environment of your future home. The best way to begin is to determine if the house has had an energy rating, i.e., the HERS index or an energy audit done during the time of construction or in the last 12 months. Energy ratings are encouraged by many building code departments across Colorado and the U.S. They are also chosen to be done by many builders who want to demonstrate compliance with an above code building certification standards such [AC1] as ENERGY STAR, Zero Energy Ready or LEED .

Energy audits are offered at discounted rates (in some cases for free) by many electric and natural gas utility companies across Colorado and the U.S. These energy ratings, and energy audits can be thought of as having a “home doctor” giving a physical exam in determining if a building has a good bill of health or if it’s a sick home that needs improvements.

If the home you are interested in buying has not had an energy rating or an energy audit, you can still pay to have one done or request the seller to pay to have one done before buying the home. There are dozens of energy rating companies and energy audit in companies in Colorado and hundreds of them across the U.S. Remember to get a “home doctor” before buying your next home.

What A home doctor should be looking for in your new home.

The details that make a home comfortable, energy-efficient with outstanding indoor air quality are really the same regardless of the type of home you buy or rent. First, how airtight is this home?

  • Air leakage is the dominant reason for high energy bills and discomfort in housing across North America. The tighter a home is, the more comfortable you will be, and when it becomes “too tight, “installing mechanical ventilation will optimize air exchange and indoor air quality.

Next, how much insulation is in the home?

  • Always key for comfort and lower energy bills in the winter and the summer. The insulation levels will depend on where you live; do you have snowy cold winters such as in the mountains in Colorado, and do you have dry, hot summers? As a rule-of-thumb, you want to have at least an R-40 in your attic or ceiling, which is about one foot of insulation. You want to have more than R-20 wall insulation and preferably an R-30 wall insulation. Also, your foundation walls should be insulated to an R-20. And you’re doing really great if you can see insulation underneath your basement or crawl space slab.

Next your windows and doors:

  • At a minimum, you should have double-pane windows with a Low- E coding on the glazing, so they perform at an R-3 (i.e., U-0.33) level of performance. Your exterior doors should always be foam-filled insulated doors, not just wood doors.

Then how is the home heated and cooled, including your water heating:

  • When it comes to the heating, the equipment you want will have a 92% efficient or higher natural gas furnaces or boiler. If this prospective new home has solar P.V. to power some/all of your home, look for systems that heat using electricity. In the last 5 to 10 years, we have seen air-source and ground-source heat pumps become much more efficient and perform at least three times more efficiently than standard electric resistance heating. For example, see our Heart of a Building episode on the L’Avenir project in Ft. Collins for more information about the savings from ground source heat pump’s in comparison to high-efficiency furnace’s
  • When it comes to cooling, if there is an air-source or ground source heat pump, you already have high-efficiency cooling. Suppose you have a furnace or a boiler and the home has air-conditioning. In that case, you will have high-efficiency cooling so long as it at least 14 SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) (click here for more information), but the higher the SEER “usually,” the better. Why “usually” the better? Well, it depends on if the “sizing of the A.C. unit matches well with the cooling loads of the home. This is where having a “House Doctor” energy rater or energy auditor can be very helpful. If you have “evaporative cooling,” which uses very little energy but does use some amount of water, which during the droughts we’ve been having needs to understood and considered. Learn more here.
  • Finally, there are just as many options for domestic water heating.
    • 1) if the house your considering natural gas water heater with a tank (i.e., 40 or 50 gallons) be sure it at least has “power venting” a fan to push exhaust gases safely out of the house. This will also mean it has an “energy factor” in the 0.60 or higher range.
  • 2) If the house has electrically heated domestic water heating unless it is an “air-source heat pump” water heater (which are relatively new to the marketplace), it will cost A LOT to heat your water. If you love the house and it has a non-air-source heat pump (i.e., electric resistance tank water heater with 40, 50 gallons etc.), negotiate to have at least ~$2,000 reduced on the price of the home so you can install an air-source heat pump” water heater.

Once you know you have great airtightness, fantastic insulation, and quality heating/cooling/water heating equipment, you are then truly ready for solar P.V. on your home. Again, check our episode on L’Avenir to learn more about solar.

So, with the correct information, particularly with the help of a “house doctor,” you can find a much more comfortable, highly energy-efficient, excellent indoor air quality, possibly with solar P.V. electricity-generating home in harmony with nature home for your next home!

Finally, if you rent a home instead of buying ask the property owner or the renting agency if this house has had an energy audit in the last 12 months or an energy reading when it was built. Also, if the building or home has solar P.V. on it, has no natural gas service to it, a.k.a. heated and cooled by electricity, and they are paying for the utility bills, you will almost assuredly find an incredibly comfortable and environmentally friendly place to be living 🙂