Tamarck House

The Sustainable Village at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is a good example of affordable, efficient construction in Fairbanks. The four homes are well-insulated, well-ventilated and take advantage of solar gain and other local resources. 

FAIRBANKS — The “Ask a Builder” series is dedicated to answering some of the many questions Fairbanks residents have about building, energy and the many other parts of home life. 

Q: What should I look for to purchase an energy-efficient home?

A: Shopping for a home in Fairbanks can be difficult. The extreme climate and high energy prices means buyers must think energy efficiency as well as location, size and design features. With home-buying season coming into full swing, here are some points to consider. If you own a home, think about which features it has and which could be added to your house to reduce energy bills next winter.

Site location

In Fairbanks, south-facing slopes exposed to sunlight will be warmer in the winter and require less heating than comparable homes on north-facing slopes or obscured by dense trees. 

Ideally, homes should be situated lengthwise east to west to take advantage of the sun’s rays. In addition, living at elevation means the house is above the lowest temperatures caused by temperature inversions in the winter.

Deciduous trees, such as birch, are desirable because they provide shade on hot summer days and lose their leaves in winter and allow sunlight to shine through. Trees, shrubs or hills also can provide protection from wind, helping to conserve heat in winter.

Design

Houses that share common walls with other structures, such as town homes or condos, lose less heat than standalone homes. Also, the overall shape of the house will affect its efficiency because of the amount of wall space exposed to the elements. L-shaped, H-shaped or U-shaped homes, for example, will tend to lose more heat than rectangular homes. Round homes are even more efficient.

Windows are less insulated than walls, position them strategically. For instance, south-facing windows collect the most sunlight.

Look for a house with an Arctic entryway, a space that is sealed from the outside and the inside living areas by separate doors. These entryways help retain heat by separating the living space from cold air coming through the front door. 

Plumbing should be run inside heated or indirectly heated areas and consolidated as much as is practical. Sinks, baths and laundry should be close to the water heater to minimize heat loss from water pipes and the amount of cold water that comes from a tap before the hot water arrives. On-demand water heaters are even more efficient.

Insulation

There’s a saying among energy raters in Alaska — “You can’t over-insulate, you can only under-ventilate.” 

When inspecting a house, ask how much and what type of insulation is in the floor, walls and attic. 

Other than airtight construction, no single factor will affect a home’s energy use more than insulation. But insulation without adequate ventilation will invite moisture problems.

Make sure all gaps and cracks in the house are well sealed or caulked. Doors and windows need effective weather-stripping. 

Ask whether the house has had a blower door test done — a pressure test that shows how leaky the house is. If the house is air-tight, make sure it has mechanical ventilation, such as a heat recovery ventilator, bathroom fans and a range hood.

Mechanical systems

The performance of heating appliances such as boilers varies widely. 

It’s not uncommon for heating systems to be oversized for a home’s energy needs, which can waste energy. 

Consider having the heating system professionally inspected to assess its reliability and performance. 

Ask whether the heating system has an outdoor reset or programmable thermostat. Fuel bills from previous can help gauge heating costs, but be aware the presence of a wood stove, pellet stove or other heating appliance affects how much heating oil is consumed.

Look to see whether the house has a heat recovery ventilator (or HRV). All airtight homes should have mechanical ventilation to expel stale air and bring in fresh air. 

In some homes, this ventilation will consist of bathroom fans and a range hood. A heat recovery ventilator, or HRV, is a whole-house ventilation system that recovers some of the heat from outgoing air and transfers it to the cold supply air. An HRV lowers energy bills by recovering this heat and makes the incoming air more comfortable.

Home inspections

Check to see whether the home has had an energy audit, which provides a detailed assessment of the home’s energy performance and will help identify problem areas. 

If energy efficiency is a priority, an energy audit by a state certified energy rater can provide valuable insight into a home’s real world performance, as well as suggestions on how to improve the energy efficiency in the future.

Ask a Builder articles promote home awareness for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC). If you have a question, contact us at info@cchrc.org or 457-3454.