How to Prepare Your House for a Hotter Future
As heat waves get worse, these fixes will help keep your home cool and energy efficient.
July 2023 will almost certainly be declared the hottest month ever recorded, but it is unlikely to hold that record for long. Climate change is making heat waves more frequent, intense, and longer-lasting across the U.S.
Adapting to this hotter future is often discussed at the scale of a city; measured in early warning systems, green spaces, and cooling centers. But there’s also a lot that individual homeowners can do to help their communities and protect themselves.
While the vast majority of American households — some 88% — use air conditioning for relief, homeowners would be wise to consider a variety of additional, “passive” cooling techniques. These are strategies that can keep your home at a safe temperature during a heat wave if the power goes out, an increasingly likely scenario. They will also save you a bit of money on energy bills. In a sense, adapting your home to extreme heat is just another way of thinking about how to make it more energy efficient.
These retrofits also have wider benefits. Since air conditioners work by transferring heat from inside your house outdoors, these fixes can cool down your neighborhood. They’ll cut carbon emissions and air pollution by lowering demand for electricity. If widely adopted, they’ll also help prevent blackouts and could shrink the amount of renewable energy projects that need to be built to replace fossil fuels, alleviating pressure on conservation.
I spoke with Steve Easley, a building science consultant who specializes in energy efficiency, and Shawn Maurer, technical director of the Smart Energy Design Assistance Center at the University of Illinois, about how homeowners should prioritize their options when it comes to passive cooling.
“I always recommend that people do a home energy audit from a certified HERS rater,” Easley told me, referring to the Home Energy Rating System, a nationally recognized system for inspecting and calculating a home’s energy performance. The auditor will tell you how leaky your house is, and how well your roof insulation, windows, and other parts of your house are working to keep out heat, and help you figure out what to attack first. (Easley also recommends getting at least three quotes for any of these solutions, because different contractors bid this work out very differently.)
Below are five things you can do to improve your home’s resilience to heat. Depending on a number of factors — such as where you live, how your house is constructed, and the condition it's in — the mileage you can get out of each of these measures will vary. The good news is that the federal government and many state governments offer tax credits and rebates for most of these solutions. The Inflation Reduction Act created the Energy Efficient Home Improvement tax credit, which offers homeowners up to $1,200 per year to spend on energy efficiency improvements. As part of that, you can claim $150 simply for getting an energy audit.
1. Air sealing and insulation
Maurer said the very first thing he would do to improve the efficiency of a home is to seal up any cracks where air can get in — for example, along the edges of the floors, around the windows, and in the ceiling around light fixtures. “That carries in moisture, heat, and everything from outdoors into the house. It's going to offset any air conditioned air you got inside the house. So air leakage is usually the place we recommend to start,” he said. “And then from there, it's what your budget can handle as far as adding more insulation to your house.”
Insulation comes in a wide range of materials, such as fiberglass and rock wool, blown cellulose, and rigid foam boards. It can be blown into your walls, installed on the floor of the attic, or underneath your roof deck. It’s a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to energy efficiency, since it keeps heat inside in the winter and blocks it from entering in the summer. That means it’s a great option for those in colder climates that also want to prepare their homes for hotter summers.
A 2021 study by a group of researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab modeled the efficacy of a wide array of passive cooling measures in low-income homes in Fresno, California. It found that roof insulation, along with solar-control window films, which we’ll get to in a moment, were the two most effective ways to keep heat from entering the buildings. However, the authors note that roof insulation is an expensive major retrofit, and recommend that it only be done when the roof needs replacement.
A good first step might be finding out what kind of insulation you already have. The most important metric when it comes to insulation is called “R-value,” and the higher the number, the more effective it is. Older homes may have attic insulation as low as R-13, whereas modern building codes typically require insulation between R-38 and R-60.
The new federal tax credit offers up to 30% of the total cost of a project for air sealing and insulation, maxing out at $1,200 total. (Labor costs are not covered by the credit.)
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2. “Cool” roofs and reflective exterior wall paint
Having a light-colored roof and exterior will most certainly keep your home cooler than darker options, but not all light colors are created equal. “Cool” roofs and walls are made with special materials that reflect solar energy back into space, preventing it from being absorbed by the building. They also have high “thermal emittance,” meaning they release a lot of the heat that they do absorb, rather than sending it indoors.
All kinds of materials have been developed with these properties. For roofs, there are tiles, shingles, membranes, liquid coatings, and products made of slate, wood, and metal.
Cool roofs don’t necessarily have to be white, although the color does work very well. According to a database maintained by the Cool Roof Ratings Council, the most effective products tend to be bright white coatings, but there are also gray, green, blue, brown, and tan products that are rated highly.
For reflective walls, the most effective products similarly come in white and other light-colored paints, which can reflect 60 to 90 percent of sunlight when new. An extensive 2019 study of reflective wall paints by the same group at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab found that cool walls can reduce annual energy use in single-family homes in warmer U.S. climates by 2% to 8.5%.
Easley said it’s worth considering a cool roof if you have a central air conditioning system in your attic. Otherwise, attics in places like Arizona can get upwards of 130 degrees, taxing the equipment and forcing it to work harder. If your attic isn’t home to your AC, it may only make financial sense to do this kind of retrofit if your house is already in need of a new paint job or your roof needs work.
But it’s probably not worth considering a cool roof if you live in a colder climate, like the Northeast and upper Midwest, since cool roofs can actually make it colder inside in the winter.
There’s no federal incentives for cool roofs, but several states and utilities offer rebates.
3. Windows, films, shutters, overhangs, blinds, and curtains
This is a big category, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the options. Starting with those that will likely cost the most to the least, you can:
•Replace your windows altogether.
• Add storm windows to the interior or exterior of your existing glass.
• Purchase films that can be applied to the existing glass to increase its reflectivity.
•Install external shutters or awnings that block the sun.
• Install interior blinds and curtains that block the sun.
Here’s a rundown of each option.
New windows: Replacing your windows can cost tens of thousands of dollars, so unless they are already in need of repair, you may want to hold off on that option. But when the day does come around, you’ll want to look for “Low-E” windows, which stands for low emissivity. The inside of the glass is coated with microscopic layers of silver that reflect heat while still allowing light to pass through.
Within that category, you’ll also want to look for windows that have what’s called a low “solar heat gain coefficient.” This measures how much heat is absorbed by the glass and transferred inside. It’s rated on a scale of 0 to 1. If you live somewhere that’s sunny year round like Arizona, you ideally want one rated 0.25 or lower.
Through 2032, homeowners can claim up to $600 in federal tax credits for purchasing Energy Star rated windows.
Storm windows: Rather than replacing your windows entirely, it’s far cheaper to install storm windows with Low-E glass, which basically involves bolting another window to the outside of your house. Storm windows have an added benefit of improving air sealing, eliminating drafts.
Film: An even lower-cost option is to look into films with low solar heat gain coefficients that can be applied to existing windows. However, Easeley warned that many manufacturers will void your warranty if you add films to your windows.
Shutters, awnings, blinds, and curtains: Exterior shutters and overhangs that block the sun from ever reaching your windows will generally be more effective than interior shades or blinds, but all of these measures can help. “Window blinds and curtains are really dirt cheap ways to control energy,” said Maurer. “It’s not a very good buffer, but it’s something.”
The Berkeley study on passive cooling measures notes that blinds moderately improve how much heat from the sun enters your home, but they can feel more effective by reducing the sensation of sunlight streaming into your house.
If you still have any incandescent lights, they can also be a significant source of heat. They should be replaced with LED lights.
Planting trees, climbing ivy, and other vegetation can also passively cool your house by shading both your house and any surrounding pavement. However, if you have solar panels, or plan to get them in the future, do not plant trees on the south side of your home as it may reduce the solar system’s effectiveness.
One last thing...
Maurer cautioned that if you do a bunch of work in your home to reduce your cooling needs, you’ll want to keep that in mind if you ever have to replace your air conditioner. He advised having a contractor come in to re-measure what size system you need, since doing a like-for-like replacement will probably be overkill and could result in it malfunctioning.
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