You may know that the gold standard in environmentally responsible homes is known as passive housing—but what exactly does that mean? And is it possible to make your current home more passive? To find out, we talked to Katrin Klingenberg, executive director and co-founder of Passive House Institute US (Phius), a nonprofit dedicated to making passive housing the market standard.
What is passive housing?
Passive housing is basically synonymous with energy efficiency. Passive homes use insulation, air-tight seals, solar energy, and more to reduce the amount of energy required to heat or cool your home. They also provide superior air quality, noise reduction, and overall structural resilience. Who wouldn’t want that?
The only problem: Most passive homes are built from the ground up. A conversion of a single-family home can get complicated and costly, Klingenberg explains. That said, there are steps you can take to get your house closer to passive status.
Conduct a home energy audit (and seal up your leaks).
The very first thing you should do isn’t switch to electric. Instead, Klingenberg suggests an energy audit to help you find heating and cooling leaks and figure out ways (new windows, more insulation) to get closer to the ideal “sealed envelope” of a passive home.
Your best bet, according to Klingenberg, is a certified auditor. “Residential Energy Service Network trains energy raters to do energy audits and testing, maintaining a roster of raters in good standing,” she says. “The cost can vary based on the size of the home, starting [at] about $300.”
If you want to do it yourself, some utility companies provide a basic checklist for little to no cost. Of course, these DIY audits won’t be as thorough as one performed by a professional, but they can be a good starting point.
Once your home is air-tight (or nearly), you’re going to need to add some kind of ventilation to exchange fresh air and exhaust—and recover energy from the exhaust. You can choose between an energy recovery ventilator (ERV), which transfers heat and moisture and is generally a better choice for a larger home, or a heat recovery ventilator (HRV), which transfers just heat and is suited to a smaller home. Expect to pay between $600 and $1,200 for the unit itself, plus another couple hundred (or more) in installation costs. Note: When your home is truly airtight, these are not optional. “[Ventilation] will be necessary for health and life at those levels of airtightness and is also required by code,” says Klingenberg.
Switch to electric.
At this point, you’re ready to update your appliances and water and heating systems to electric. This can get complicated quickly, and it’s a good idea to enlist the help of a contractor or architect who has experience working on passive house projects. These professionals will be able to guide you on important questions such as product and vendor selection and the proper sequence of installation.
Consider installing solar panels.
If you’re ready to take your energy efficiency even further, you can harness the power of the sun by installing solar panels on your roof. Klingenberg says her solar panels produce enough electricity for her home with enough surplus energy to power her electric car.
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