Infrared thermal camera pointed at house

More than 100 million leaky American homes need insulation and air-tight sealing measures to improve energy efficiency. While the Biden Administration and international coalitions have set goals to cut energy emissions by about 45 percent by 2030, green builder and contractor Rick Barnett states those rates are dependent on utility and building company participation. Although hurdles to those aspirations are many, one corrigible obstacle is thermal leakage in buildings.

About 600 utility efficiency programs emphasize high-efficiency products such as ENERGY STAR appliances rather than targeting thermal leakage. But thermal efficiency is the only option for pulling excessive demand into balance with a clean energy supply. Fortunately, there is something we can do about it.

Building owners benefit from optimizing thermal performance in new or existing buildings with strategic planning toward their investment. For instance, applying a continuous thermal air-tight seal cuts a building’s annual demand by at least 17 million BTUs. Increasing thermal performance results in high energy-efficient buildings, adds home comfort and increases both value and return on investment for the property.

Insulation plays a critical role within the thermal barrier; it reduces how fast heat is lost during winter and gained during the summer. Slowing heat convection and conduction throughout the building increases energy performance, so investing in high-quality insulation materials like radiant barriers and spray-foam should be considered.

Air sealing a building’s envelope penetrations and framing gaps throughout the wall cavities forms a continuous thermal boundary and optimizes thermal performance. Air leaks within conditioned spaces cause more than 15% of heating and cooling costs and up to 11% more of total energy costs. Owners should consider conducting regular inspections and identifying the proper R-values in walls, crawlspaces, and attics and determine if insulation or sealing is needed.

Once performance deficiencies have been identified, working with high-quality contractors is vital. According to the California Energy Commission, almost 25% of heat is lost through the roof of a poorly insulated home, which causes spikes in energy bills. Because various materials and applications are available, working with reputable builders and contractors is much needed for optimization. Energy consumption can differ considerably from one building to another depending on building practices subsequently affecting the building’s energy performance.

Furthermore, heating and cooling systems are critical components in optimizing thermal comfort and energy performance. Upgrading to high-efficiency heating and cooling systems can significantly reduce energy consumption and improve returns. For example, a central air conditioner will save about 7% more on electricity costs for every one SEER. This averages more than $2,000 on energy costs and extends the air conditioning’s lifespan. Installing smart thermostats also reduces energy costs by efficiently adjusting the temperature settings, which are based on occupancy and time of day.

Maintaining system maintenance requirements and ensuring the building performs accordingly with the design intent is important as well. Operating costs can increase during a building’s lifecycle and result in costly repairs. Implementing proper maintenance and inspecting building’s systems periodically helps prevent system failures and associated costs.

Lastly, investing in energy-efficient technologies such as LED lighting, smart building systems and on-site renewable energy sources can significantly reduce grid energy consumption and carbon footprint. Opting for sustainable building practices such as water conservation, waste reduction, and green or cool roofs enhances efficiency and reduces environmental impacts. Reducing consumption by 20% to 30% on existing buildings can save 6-9% of total annual costs. As new technologies develop, buildings pursuing green building certifications and/or designing with sustainability in mind will lower both emissions and operating costs and increase occupancy rates.

Overall, optimizing thermal performance in buildings is a strategic investment. Properly installing insulating materials, air-tight sealing measures, high-efficiency HVAC systems, and new technologies are essential components in achieving optimal thermal performance. The importance and value green buildings bring to an owner are insurmountable and will increase your net operating income over the duration of your fixed asset.

VCA Green strives to provide the best green building pathway for your sustainability goals while allocating more green to your pockets. Contact a principal today for your certification, modeling, or field testing needs.

Moe Fakih, Principal

Robyn Vettraino, Principal

Contributing Writer: Sam Vallejo, HERS Energy Rater