Energy-efficient appliances, materials kind to the environment – and your wallet

Tom Corbett

New Contruction Corner

Developers and buyers in the market for new homes have started to realize the benefits of energy-efficient appliances and materials during the past two to three years. About 60 percent of the new condos, lofts, townhomes and single-family homes that I inspect in Chicago include at least some “green” appliances or building materials.

Energy-efficient appliances are sometimes a little more expensive than the outdated machinery that they replace, but developers frequently can offset costs by purchasing in bulk. Buyers of these appliances have the comfort of knowing that their homes expel fewer greenhouse gases into the environment and if that’s not incentive enough, remember that lower energy consumption means lower utility bills.

The U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‘s “ENERGY STAR” rating system recognizes appliances that are significantly more energy efficient than minimum government standards. The Web site offers tips for finding energy-efficient appliances, building materials and other products.

If you’re in the market for a new home, I urge you to quiz the developer about your prospective home’s “green” credentials and keep an eye out for appliances bearing the distinctive blue ENERGY STAR label. If necessary, consider upgrading to energy-efficient appliances and finishes in the three key areas listed below.

Kitchen appliances. Refrigerators, microwaves and trash compactors are just a few of the energy-efficient kitchen appliances available. Some are ENERGY STAR-approved and others simply have lower wattages than older appliances.

When homeowners ask me if appliances with lower wattage perform as well as the dinosaurs they replace, I tell them about the “popcorn test.” When my wife and I remodeled our kitchen, we replaced our 1,100-watt microwave with a 500-watt model. The new microwave cooks popcorn slightly faster than the old model and consumes about half as much energy.

Windows. Most residential windows are energy efficient to some degree, but make sure the windows of your prospective home also will withstand Chicago’s bitter winters. Generally, windows in the Windy City need a protective film that reduces heat transfer, and wooden frames, which conduct less heat than aluminum frames. Windows with casing (exposed framework or molding that covers the space between the window frame and the wall) shut out the cold air most effectively. The Web site Efficient Windows, which was established by a group of window manufacturers and is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, can help you determine which energy-efficient windows are most suitable for your new home.

Heating and cooling systems. In Chicago and other cities that experience protracted and often severe winters, heating expenses account for around two-thirds of the average household’s energy bill, according to the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Inefficient old furnaces sometimes convert more than half of their available energy into exhaust rather than heat and needlessly pollute the soil and waterways with hydrochloric and sulfuric acid.

ENERGY STAR-rated furnaces emit 10 percent or less of the available energy as exhaust, reducing the amount of fuel needed to warm your home. Cleaning and replacing air filters regularly is key to maintaining a high level of efficiency in a new furnace.

Residential central air conditioners manufactured after Jan. 23, 2006 must comply with U.S. Department of Energy standards mandating a “seasonal energy efficiency ratio” of 13 or more (the higher the SEER number, the more economical the appliance). By law, homeowners and builders can still buy and install existing central air conditioning systems that are less efficient, but why commit to higher utility bills?

When it comes to room air conditioners, look for features designed to maximize their effectiveness, such as timers, directional vents and fan motors that operate at several speeds.

Finally, before you decide to buy that new condo or house stocked with energy-efficient appliances, ask a professional to check that the appliances were correctly installed. Even the most energy-efficient products won’t do the job if wiring is loose or they are poorly installed.

Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc., (312-475-0835), a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work. E-mail your construction questions to Tom at

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