Reduce utility costs through energy efficient design

I haven’t written a post on it before, but we have a second property that is currently rented out, and in the near future (hopefully late 2015) we will sell our current house, pay off the debt on the second property and move into it. Then we will start the renovation/extension…

The property

My wife has always wanted a little old red brick house with period features closer to the centre of our city, and while the idea had its appeal for me, I could never quite bring myself to part with the cash that such properties command. Just so you know, the new house (1036 square foot (96m2) on an 835m2 block) cost $296k, which is more than the $285k value of our current home (renovated 1970s 1481 square foot (137m2) home on a 740m2 block).

But the more I thought about it, living that bit closer would make it very feasible for both of us to walk/ride to work, plus the kids could also walk to school (the primary school and high school are beside each other and are only 900m from the house). That would result in cost savings over time, not to mention that my favourite Aldi supermarket is very close as well as many other features of the city that we are interested in.

So, we found the house that we wanted and bought it back in May 2014. It has been rented out since then, and we are in the process of having our plans drafted up so that we can submit them to the local council. We want to get things submitted and approved well before we actually start the work to avoid any hiccups, which is why we are doing things now.

Anyway, more on that process later, but for now I wanted to touch on the energy-efficiency considerations of the build as they will be important for the ongoing costs of the property.

Energy efficiency

How to design an energy efficiency home: there are so many things you can do to improve the energy efficiency of your home. Image source:

How to design an energy efficiency home: there are so many things you can do to improve the energy efficiency of your home.
Image source:

The property presents some additional challenges to improve its energy-efficiency simply because of its age, but there are always things that you can do to improve your emissions footprint (if protecting the climate is what motivates you) or reduce utility bills (if you are motivated by money). Thankfully the solutions actually address both climate and money so everyone should be happy with them!

Some of the things that we are considering include:

  1. Natural light: Maximising natural sunlight into the property (using north-facing front room as a living room when others may have converted into a bedroom) and fitting skylights into the rear living area along with plenty of windows to bring in more natural light as it will be on the south side of the house.
  2. Hot water supply: The old gravity-fed electric hot water system from 1953 finally packed it in last year, and so we have already replaced it with a tankless instantaneous gas unit that is very efficient. In the process of installing this system they uncovered some pipes that were almost completely blocked with mineral build up, and replacement of these pipes has given much better cold water pressure as well.
  3. Insulation – ceiling and walls: The house originally had some sort of pathetic insulation in the ceiling, which was then upgraded to much better batts in the late 2000s under the government-subsidised program. So insulation is OK, in the front part of the house, although there probably isn’t any in the walls I would say. You can’t really do much about the walls due to access restrictions, but we will look at insulating any internal walls that we move along the way. In the new section we will ensure that we insulate both walls and ceiling using appropriate batts.
  4. Insulation – floors: The original house has floor boards that are suspended about 500mm-600mm from the ground, and I am therefore hoping that I will have room to install Expol under floor insulation panels. I installed them in our current home and found them to be quite effective, which is why I would like to install them in the new house as well.
  5. Gap sealing: Many homes (even newer ones) suffer significant heat loss from draughts caused by the poor sealing of gaps. This is usually around external doors and windows, and if you can see a gap anywhere in these areas then heat will be escaping.
  6. Low energy light fittings: When we first took possession of the house, most of the light fittings didn’t actually work, but once we got them working I went around and fitted basic halogen globes to try to get some brightness into the rooms and attract a tenant. While these are far more energy-efficient than the old globes that were in there, you can still get much better efficiency using LED or compact fluorescent lights (CFL). We will therefore use CFL globes in most light fittings.
    We have also discussed the issue of downlights, which are very popular in modern homes but essentially mean that you have far more lights going than you otherwise would have. Because ours is a period home, we have decided not to go with downlights at all in the house, which will make bring about further savings.
  7. Double-glazing: The original home has the classic double hung sash windows that are one of the great period features of the home, however they are only single glazed. Retrofitting double-glazing to old double-hung timber sash windows and having proper gap-sealing can greatly reduce heat-loss, and modern glass can also reflect more heat in the warmer months. We just need to see how much it costs as anything to do with the old timber sash windows seems to have the potential to cost big bucks!
  8. Removing the old briquette heater from the fireplace: The original fireplace was fitted with a briquette heater, which burns these sort of wooden blocks rather than traditional wood. It also has an electric fan to blow out heat, and unfortunately it blew out a lot of black soot as well judging by how the walls got darker and darker the higher you went. Thankfully we have painted the walls and disconnected the briquette heater already, but it will need to be removed altogether at some stage. Because there is also a gas wall furnace that was fitted in the early 2000s, we will still have a reliable heating source before and after the renovation, and we are considering the idea of fitting a gas log fire in the fire place for an authentic look and feel without the hassle (and smoke) of a real fire.
  9. Ducted gas heating through the floors to improve efficiency: Many homes install this ducted heating through the ceilings, but given that heat rises the idea of pushing the heat down from the ceiling is counter-intuitive. I figure it is far better that it come from below, which is why we hope to install ducted gas heating in the cavity underneath the floorboards in the existing house, which will then be connected to pipework that will come up through the concrete slab and into vents in the floor of the extension as well. Ducted gas heating, if used appropriately, is actually quite cost-effective to install and to run, not to mention being quite efficient if zoned appropriately.
  10. Ducted evaporative cooling through the ceilings: As the climate in our area is not particularly humid, using ducted evaporative cooling (as opposed to the vintage refrigerated wall unit) is very effective in cooling the house, and isn’t hard on the hip pocket either.
  11. Ceiling fans: The house has ceiling fans in two of the existing bedrooms, and we will look to fit these in all bedrooms and living areas when we do the renovation. Ceiling fans are a simple but energy efficient way of cooling a home, and we will try to rely more on ceiling fans in our new home than we ever have. Hopefully we can use them for much of the time rather than resorting to using the air conditioner as often as we currently do.
  12. Window coverings: Supposedly good quality window coverings can have a huge effect on the amount of heat loss in winter and amount of heat admitted in summer.
  13. Solar power: While we won’t include it as part of the initial development, we may look at installing solar panels as a source of power. The problem with these systems is that you can’t actually store the power (unless you then spend quite a bit more), so it essentially means that you must use what you generate. Since we wouldn’t usually be at home during the day to even use the power, this makes it quite hard to justify.
    As part of our planning for the solar panels, I am also planning to design the separate garage in a certain way so as to maximise north-facing roof space that can accommodate the solar panels.
  14. Water tanks: I would like to install one or more water tanks to store water for the gardens so as to avoid using any paid water for this purpose.
  15. Dual-flush toilets: They are an Australian standard now but still worth mentioning: We will be installing dual-flush (4.5L/3.0L) toilets.
  16. Water-saving taps and shower-heads: Again, these are Australian standard, but we will be installing water-saving taps and shower heads.
  17. Energy-efficient appliances: This isn’t really about the design of the house, but any new appliances (like the refrigerator) will be far more energy-efficient than our existing equipment.

Live with the climate like you are supposed to

In addition to the above design features of the house, I have also been experimenting with just living with the climate rather than constantly trying to change it.

This seems like such an odd idea to everyone that I know, but I find that if you have insulated your house and open/close windows and curtains at the right time of day, a house can actually be quite comfortable in summer without the air conditioning on.

And if you seal up draughts, keep the windows closed, wear slightly warmer (but not bulky) clothes and put on an extra blanket, you may not need to have your heating going so much either.

While I couldn’t say that I’m environmental crusader, the more I have thought about this topic the more interested I have become in energy-efficiency. I think that this is something that is becoming more common for everyone, and I would be interested in hearing your energy-saving tips for new/renovated and existing homes.

So what do you suggest to improve energy efficiency? Have I left anything out?


3 thoughts on “Reduce utility costs through energy efficient design

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