Once you go solar, you never look back...or you do, and realize that a lot of that free energy is going to waste in your home. A plethora of inefficient appliances, aging windows and doors, and low-rated heating and cooling equipment can gobble down that free solar energy fast, forcing you to rely on a costly or fuel-heavy generator instead.
For many homeowners, the dollar-to-kilowatt cost to run their households becomes a lot more real when they switch to solar power. And that sets off a chain reaction of industriousness. Homeowners rush to make replacements and repairs, such as installing a higher efficiency AC unit, or replacing leaky windows with models outfitted with high performance glazing and insulation. Take a tip from the solar homeowners that have already done it and begin improving your home's overall energy profile from the ground up while you investigate solar. This will give you a more accurate (and smaller) estimate of how big - and therefore how expensive - a solar panel system you need.
Repair Seals Around Windows and Doors
Over time, weatherproofing agents like caulk lose their elasticity and crack, and these gaps cause conditioned air to seep out of the home (or allow hot or cold air to seep in from outdoors). As an off-the-grid household, you can't afford to lose energy on heating or air conditioning, especially since - at about 48% of a home's energy consumption - HVAC certainly eats up a lot of fuel whether it's from solar energy or not. But you can conserve heating and cooling and prevent losses by re-caulking around window seals and window panes. Adding EPDM weatherstripping around door openings helps as well. Remember: If a gap is big enough to stick a fingernail in, it's enough to lose energy from air leaks. Round it all off with door sweeps installed at the bottom of the door and foam tape between window joints for well-sealed windows that keep your heating and AC right where it belongs - inside.
Get New High-Performance Windows
The seals around your windows aren't the only place that affects your home's heating and cooling performance. Heat gains and losses can occur through the glass itself, especially if the window isn't properly glazed and appropriately insulated to protect against your area's weather. Because of this, sometimes it's worth it to scrap old windows and have them totally replaced with new models. New windows are an investment, but advanced technology like gas-filled insulation, thermal spacers, and high-performance glazing often makes the added comfort worth the price. That's particularly true if you live in a region with higher heating demands, or a region where you experience summer heat gains from the sun (most evident on your south- and west-facing windows). For these homes, a triple-pane window (for cold climates) or one with lower SHGC, low-E glazing (for hot climates) makes all the difference. For the cost-conscious, however, some savings can be achieved by applying insulating cling film (or simply kitchen cling wrap and duct tape) over the windows in winter, or by installing thermal or blackout curtains over the windows. That should give you the time you need to save up for better windows.
Improve Your Home Cooling Efficiency
Our friends at GroomAndStyle.com have written extensively about saving money while keeping your house cool.
Re-Shingle Your Roof with "Cool Roof" Products
Where regionally appropriate, so-called "cool roof" systems offer huge cuts in home cooling demands, by reducing heat gain through the roof into the attic. Regardless of how well you insulate your ceilings, usually some summer heat seeps through from above. This, in turn, forces you to crank up the AC. Cool roof products, covered with reflective coatings or granules, bounce sunlight back into the atmosphere, which in turn keeps your roof cooler (about 50°F cooler in some cases). Here again, the building industry has caught on to homeowners' desire for greener products, and are now manufacturing a variety of cool roof materials, from asphalt shingles covered with reflective granules to light-colored metal roofing that has been coated with a reflective finish. Installing these means re-roofing your home, of course, which may be worth it if yours is damaged or nearing the end of its life. If a new roof is just not in the cards right now, you can retrofit yours with a reflective coating, as long as the product you choose is approved by area building codes.
Block Solar Heat with Overhangs, Awnings, or Arbors
This technique is right out of the passive design playbook (discussed in detail in chapter 2 of the Solar Living Sourcebook). Overhangs extend past the point where your siding meets the roof, and well-constructed overhangs essentially block the worst solar heat on hot days, which can have a significant effect on your home's cooling demand. Retrofitting overhangs is difficult, but not impossible. A large overhang (one that extends over two feet past the home) may require the advice of a structural engineer in order to ensure it's properly supported. But if you're designing an overhang for passive cooling benefits, you may want to meet with one regardless of the size to make sure you have the length and angle necessary to properly block the sun. Structural engineer consultations start at about $100 an hour. If that's more than your budget allows, you can still reap the benefits of passive design by installing polycarbonate awnings over your windows - particularly those that face south and west. A last option is to build a large arbor over the south side of your home; you'd be surprised what a difference a little bit of shade can make!
Switch to High-Efficiency Appliances
Real Goods offers a range of high-efficiency, DC, propane, and non-electric appliances that can greatly reduce your home's energy use. But how to decide which appliances to upgrade? The most effective way is to use a Kill-a-Watt Electricity Usage Monitor to find out which appliances in your home draw the most energy, and which are already quite efficient.
Erin Vaughan is a blogger, gardener and aspiring homeowner. She currently resides in Austin, TX where she writes full time as window installation cost expert at Modernize, with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.