A family in Cabell County not only has a new home to call their own, they also are saving hundreds of dollars each month in utility costs—thanks to the local Habitat for Humanity’s plan to make each of its homes energy-efficient.
The latest home, a four-bedroom, two-bath tucked on a hillside in a quiet Barboursville neighborhood, features all Energy Star-rated windows and appliances. Those include the dishwasher, refrigerator and a front-loading, high-efficiency washer and dryer. Every light fixture uses compact fluorescent light bulbs.
“This family of two adults and four children was previously paying approximately $1110 per month in rent, electric, gas and other utilities,” says Dave Michael, executive director for Huntington WV Area Habitat for Humanity. “Now they’ll be paying around a $325 mortgage and less than $100 for electricity.”
Moving families into homes like these was a goal of Huntington WV Area Habitat for Humanity back in 2008. That’s when the group started its foundation in energy efficiency.
“We changed our wall system to go to a 2 x 6 exterior wall, with sheet rock on the inside, except we use R-19 insulation in the wall, 7/16th inch sheeting, half-inch Dow blue board and vinyl siding,” Michael says. “It gave us a larger cavity to put more insulation in the walls. It’s more soundproof and it’s also provided a much tighter envelope. We’re able to put an additional two inches of insulation in the wall.”
Huntington WV Area Habitat’s houses now also have a conditioned crawl space. This doesn’t allow air penetration through the foundation walls, except from the crawl space door, which is tightly sealed.
“If you look at a traditionally constructed house with a foundation like we had before, they all had block vents,” Michael says. “You close those in the winter to keep the cold air out, or at least as much of it as you can. In the spring you open them back up to allow air to flow under the house, and avoid air and mold issues under the house. We’ve done away with block vents and now we put all the ductwork for the HVAC system under the floors. That’s what keeps that space conditioned and heats and cools as the seasons change. It shouldn’t allow for any air penetration under the house at all. And, if the duct work should leak, the space where the leakage occurs allows the house to absorb the heated or cooled air. We have done away with floor insulation as a result of the conditioned crawl space. That was a cost savings for us, and we pass along those savings to our homeowners.”
Another change in Huntington WV Area Habitat houses is the inclusion of a raised heel truss.
“That’s a truss that comes to a peak over the eave of the house,” Michael says. “Houses have a plate added to the trusses that raises them about eight inches. The amount of insulation that is in the center of the house is now what goes across to the exterior walls of the house. The thickness of the insulation is consistent, wall-to-wall. We have R-38 insulation in the ceilings of all our houses. “
New constructions also include more caulking where the ceiling meets the drywall.
“We caulk all the way around the ceiling so it’s airtight. We use a spray foam that’s expandable insulation,” Michael says. “All of our houses are so tight now, we actually have to add a fan in the bathroom to bring fresh air in. If we don’t do that the air quality drops and the air gets stale. That promotes mold, mildew and allergies. It’s a $200 fan. Instead of a $40 vent fan that only operates when it is turned on at the switch, this one runs 24 hours a day at a reduced speed. Flip one of the switches, if someone is taking a shower, and it pulls the moisture out of the air. This allows air to come into the house. In the kitchen, we vent the range hood to the outside. So that’s another change that allows us to bring fresh air into the house. When the family is cooking, they can flip on the fan and it pulls fresh air from outside in the house.”
Huntington WV Area Habitat no longer uses any copper piping in its homes, not only because it deters thieves but also because it’s a lot more user-friendly, according to Michael.
“We use all pex piping in the houses now. You can actually isolate the water lines much like the way you can isolate an electrical circuit in a labeled panel box. Each water line is labeled. If you have the washer hooked up, and the hot water leaks, normally you would have to cut off water to the entire house. But this way you can find the label that says ‘washer hot water’, turn the lever and it isolates that one.”
Attic access that used to be found inside Habitat houses is now on the back porch to allow another air penetration. “That’s not a bad thing,” Michael says. “It’s all in the attic where there is the R-38 insulation. That will be sealed really tight but any air that does seep in forces out the hot air that is between the insulated ceiling and the roof. The result is a house that is easier to cool in the summer.”
Habitat houses will be heated and cooled with units rated at less than a ton. “Normally, Habitat houses have 2.5 ton units, or larger. The smaller, more energy-efficient units cost more to purchase than the larger ones, but you realize a savings in the long run due to paying a lower electric bill.”
The changes are paying off for families who live on a tight budget. A Habitat homeowner in Wayne County has been in her house, with four children and two grandchildren, since the end of June. In those four months, her electric bill has not been higher than $90.
“The house is 1,296 square feet with two full baths and four bedrooms. It’s all electric, and she keeps her house between 70 and 72 degrees 24 hours a day. She runs the dishwasher at least once a day and does laundry at least every other day. We were a little surprised the bill is that low. We expected it to be a little over $100. For her electric bill to be under $90 is great,” Michael says.
More moves toward energy-efficiency may be in Habitat’s future.
“We’re looking into the possibility of adding solar panels to our houses, but it’s one of those things where we have to look at how many changes we can make and still keep the houses affordable for our homeowners,” Michael says. “When you start looking at the cost of adding solar panels to a house, it adds about $14,000. In West Virginia the break-even point is about 21 years. That’s a substantial investment and cost addition to our Habitat Partner Family Mortgages.”