Energy Department Pushes For Better Building Envelope

As we head into the teeth of another wild-weather winter, it’s time to start finding ways to heat more buildings with less fuel and patch the leaky building envelopes in the nation’s infrastructure. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is doing its part by announcing investments totaling $9.5 million in new heat pump and building material technologies to ensure that homes and offices perform more efficiently.

The DOE money will be spread to six projects in six states across the country — four involving developments in heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, totaling $6.5 million, and two more focusing on more efficient building envelopes, totaling about $3 million.

The Department of Energy is investing in energy-saving technologies, such as air-source heat pumps. Image via Vaillant.

The Department of Energy is investing in energy-saving technologies, such as air-source heat pumps. Image via Vaillant.

In one of the larger projects, St. Louis-based Unico will receive $2 million to develop a cold-climate heat pump with a variable speed compressor that can maintain efficiency even at very low temperatures. Another DOE-funded project at Stone Mountain Technologies in Unicoi, Tenn., involves the development of a low-cost, gas-fired absorption air-source heat pump that can reduce heating costs by 30 to 45 percent compared to conventional gas furnace and boiler technologies.

On the building envelope side of the equation, the University of Idaho researchers in Moscow, Idaho, will use their $1.5 million DOE grant to design a roof sandwich panel that uses foam material to increase thermal efficiency and reduce construction costs by up to 25 percent.

In a typical residential or commercial building, about 42 percent of energy is lost through the building envelope, DOE says. In the winter months, heat loss through windows can account for 10 to 25 percent of a home’s utility bill through heat loss. To help reduce this problem, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., will use their $1.5 million in DOE funding to test highly insulated, easy-to-install windows that use an automated shading system to absorb or reflect heat, depending on the season.

Caulking Leaky Windows

Image via Shutterstock

“A typical American family spends nearly $2,000 per year on their home energy bills, and much of that money is wasted on air leaks and drafts in our homes’ roofs, attics and walls,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a recent DOE statement. “By bringing new, affordable energy efficient products to the market, we can help families save money by saving energy, while strengthening U.S. manufacturing leadership in technologies that are increasingly in demand worldwide.”

The latest statistics from DOE show that investments like these will likely pay dividends in lower energy bills for businesses in homeowners. After remaining relatively steady from 1990 to 2007, per capita energy use nationwide has decreased in the last five years, DOE says, mostly through the application of more efficient building materials and HVAC systems.

Today, DOE says, nearly 60 percent of homes feature energy-efficient, multi-pane windows, compared with just 36 percent in 1993. About 40 million households have now caulked or weather-stripped leaky windows and door frames, the agency said, and 26 million have added insulation to their walls. As a result, DOE’s Energy Information Administration predicts that per capita energy use in the U.S. will drop by an additional 15 percent through 2040.

To find out more details about these projects, go to the DOE’s project description page. Also, visit the DOE’s EnergySaver.gov and Buildings Technologies Program pages for additional information on to save energy at homes and in businesses.

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.