In the last 50 years, technology and efficiency have taken our residences to a whole new place in livability and comfort. But what do these technologies really translate into in terms of cost effectiveness and practicality? In a dizzying array of ever changing products for homeowners, what really translates into savings and what complicates a system even further? In this article we will consider the 7 most common modernizations of home improvement and evaluate the benefits and the pitfalls.
- Nest Thermostats
-Nest thermostats have been on the market for the last 10 years and many people particularly in apartment complexes have had experience with them. As of this year however they have now merged with Google, so the Nest is now Google Nest 3rd generation. Although not the only learning thermostat available on the market, it certainly is the most widely recognized. It features a large yet simple display, and offers tiny remote sensors that can adjust heating for trouble spots that are typically cold or draft which prior iterations did not offer.
Some considerations do exist however. Nest (and most other) thermostats require a smart interface, i.e. smart phone or Alexa/Google Home based products to set up and adjust, so for older folks this may not be the best solution. Or if your phone battery dies or the phone is in some way compromised, you could now have two problems, your phone and your heat!
For more tech savvy customers, the simplicity of design could prove to be a point of frustration since it does not allow much in the way of customization and can run into problems playing nice with other automations.
In other situations there can be challenges with wiring into an existing HVAC or power availability. This is especially prevalent in homes with full home dehumidifiers, heat pumps, or other ventilation systems will work only with the higher-end thermostat models.
Additionally the schedule and learning feature can be great, creating intelligent programming with no effort on the part of the user. That said, once established it can be difficult to change if needs change significantly regarding temperature and space use. Other models also offer humidity regulation and motion tracking features that address your movements throughout the home.
- Robots! We have not yet achieved all we were promised in the “Jetsons” cartoon, and Rosey the Robot may still be a few decades away, however AI powered automation has advanced to the point where average home owners can begin to utilize new tech in a more direct manner. Most people are familiar with Alexa and Rhoomba (I have 3 cats and can’t live without that one) but few people are familiar with power tracking. These devices can track both the energy use and carbon footprint of the home from minute to minute to allow homeowners to best manage their energy use. Further, this automation can make suggestions regarding appliances and utilities that may be impacting use in a negative way, thus indicating a replacement may want to be considered to maximize efficiency. This cutting edge tech is constantly being updated with new features and while still in infancy, will likely be more common in the next iterations.
- Space configurations-trends in home layout and floor plans have been moving towards larger more communal space as opposed to traditional defined purpose, smaller rooms. For example, 40 years ago most homes were designed with a dining room or even a sitting room, as well as a separate kitchen and general purpose living room. Part of the reason for this was maximizing heat efficiency, but this layout also reflected the culture of families at the time, which reflected a greater division between adult formal spaces and more relaxed child friendly areas.
Now as families have moved to less formal entertaining and more shared family time, home owners are gravitating to layouts that include an open concept kitchen, living room and dining area, which allows a parent to supervise play or homework while making dinner or addressing other chores in the home. An additional advantage to this layout is that when a family is entertaining there is space for a larger group and moving a few walls might go a long way to achieving this look without breaking the budget.
- Building Tech- has also improved to allow the heating and cooling of these larger spaces. Ceiling fans can be adjusted to create airflow up in the summer to bring heat away from the living space, or down in the winter to keep the rising heat flowing downward. Generally green technology falls into one of two categories, passive and active.
Passive-constructing homes with efficiency as a goal. Did you know that it has been discovered that lighter color roofs make a big impact in regulating your home’s heating? Many New England homes feature darker shingles and tar, however lighter color roofs reflect the sun’s energy, requiring less from the home cooling system in warmer months.
Passive technology also includes modernizing windows, in older homes that are so common in this area it is extremely common to have drafts; just placing your hand within a foot of one of these windows is very telling when it comes to the seals on your windows. Beyond that many of these homes have heat running along these same walls, under the windows. As heat rises it goes right out the window and doesn’t make it to your living space
Active technology represents heating and cooling options. The most common being solar. Most people are familiar with this technology as it has been around since 7th century B.C.! It’s certainly improved along the way; panels first started appearing on residential homes in the 1970s. At that time they were expensive to purchase, complicated to use, and were limited by the home’s orientation/ homes facing south were ideal for solar, north not so much. The cost to generate a watt of electricity in 1975 was $100.
Fast forward to now .50 cents per watt makes a great deal more “cents!” Additionally government programs support the utilization of solar with tax rebates. Tesla and others are on the cutting edge of solar construction, to the point where shingles are now solar generating, no more large panels and strange looks.
Another active technology is geothermal energy for the home. I don’t know about you, but I personally hated dealing with oil heat. That nagging fear of running out, the need to go out and shovel snow around the intake pipe, the servicing, the dirtiness of it all, there has (and is!) something better.
Geothermal energy is an HVAC system that takes advantage of the natural temperature of the earth about 10 ft below the surface which remains a steady 55 degrees regardless of the time of year. This is why even on a hot day your basement stays cooler than the rest of the house.
Geothermal systems utilize this naturally occurring feature to disseminate heat from the home in the summer and gather heat in the winter by circulating water through your home that is either heated or cooled via this underground system, which typically cuts the cost of heating and cooling by 50% for homeowners. Additionally the net carbon footprint of geothermal energy is zero and equitable to removing two cars off the road!
Not only that, geothermal energy is safer because it is eliminating the possibility of carbon monoxide leaks or explosions and is less impacted by fluctuations in fuel costs.
One potential challenge for homeowners is that it’s much MUCH more cost effective to install in a new home than retro installation in an existing home. As described, the system requires installation of an underground loop system which needs to be drilled down to access the depth needed to utilize the sweet spot of 55 degrees. Depending on the composition of the soil your home is built upon, this may be exponentially expensive/ next to impossible to achieve without a full drilling system, which as expected raises the cost considerably.
Another issue is servicing this relatively new technology. Most HVAC companies will not service a unit they did not install, and several of our customers have hit roadblocks with installers going out of business and having few if any options to get support. In considering this upgrade, be sure to select a longstanding brand and installer to avoid this headache.
- COVID 19 and the Dynamic Home
In the last two years every American and probably almost everyone on earth has been impacted by COVID 19 in varying degrees. For many Americans this came in the form of layoffs, children’s education taking place virtually and work for adults taking place remotely as well. As companies scrambled to create infrastructure to support a remote workforce, employees too have had to create solutions for family members to share the living space in ways that were previously unnecessary. Companies particularly involved in tech have begun to phase out the corporate brick and mortar offices in favor of Zoom and home based work, and many 20-30 yr olds do not plan to return to the office at all.
On the South Shore, this can be a huge bonus for employees. Fighting rush hour to and from Boston from even the northern parts of this area still endured an hour commute each way. From an economic perspective not only were there expenses incurred for public transport or wear and tear on a vehicle, plus parking, gas, etc etc.
Furthermore, whether a salaried position or hourly, instead of an 8 hour day the actual time commitment when factoring commute was actually a 10 hour day. Doing the math over the course of a year, for someone making $40,000 a year, the hourly breakdown based on a 40 hour work week is an hourly wage of 19.23 cents, but the same salary factoring in commute time is actually 15.38 BEFORE the costs associated with a vehicle!
Not only do employees make more money simply by eliminating the commute, companies save big on reduction of overhead in office rental, utilities, furniture, IT support, janitorial services, etc etc, based on these considerations employees probably are due a bonus!
But home based work also has some downsides, some connected with home ownership. One is difficulty with devoted space, not everyone has a home office private enough to engage in zoom calls or focused work and attempting to manage this sitting on a couch in the middle of an active family is difficult. Additionally internet services become the employee’s responsibility, and because family members are home all day the cost of heat and electric increase as well.
Modifying the living space to reconfigure a home office away from the hustle and bustle of family life greatly improves work performance and success in this new environment. Upgrading heating and electrical can also address the increased overhead of utilities. If your current home doesn’t have space for a home office, an addition may make sense; one popular configuration is a single or double garage with a large room overhead. Generally a garage is laid out at the end of a home or standing separately on the property, making it an excellent solution for creating a space off the beaten path of family activities while also increasing your home’s value by adding these desirable features.
Another option for addressing this adapting need is building a backyard shed or the equivalent with heat and electric service which is reserved for work use. This is a particularly desirable arrangement in that a distinct line between office and home; too often working from home begins to seep beyond the 40 hours a week and permeate off hours as well. Building a structure for this purpose allows you to close the door on your work day and return to family life with strict boundaries while still being accessible for family emergencies or other such pressing matters. Furthermore a separate smaller structure on the property can be more cost effective than adding onto your existing home and can eliminate the more cumbersome process of pulling permits and plan sets.
- 3D Printing
Just this week the creation of the first 3D printed home was unveiled in Virginia! Though large scale implementation of this technology is still in its infancy over the next decade we can expect to see more utilization in new home construction for the following reasons.
Efficiency-the cost of building materials remains higher than most consumers even realize. At this phase 3D printing works with concrete reducing the price for materials substantially.
Speed-Automation can lead to significant time (and thereby cost) savings. A modest 3D printed home can take 3-6 days to build, something next to impossible using traditional methods.
Elimination of errors-Once the printer is fed the necessary specs it generates exactly as it was programmed, reducing human error and materials variances.
Speaking of tech, while most of this takes place behind the scenes the traditional autocad programs involved in home design and layout have and continue to make great strides in accuracy and accessibility. For the homeowner, 3D rendering and augmented reality will allow walk throughs and detailed visualizations of projects in a way that formerly was impossible to provide in a meaningful way that blueprints and autocad did not.
- 3D Printing
Sustainability-Finally, sustainable building materials is a growing industry. While their availability is sometimes inconsistent depending on the area, sustainable building materials offer less of a carbon footprint in their creation, improve energy efficiency, reduce construction costs and can lead to increased resale value of homes. Some areas even have rebates or tax credits available for folks choosing to build with these products. Examples of these products include cross laminated timber, reclaimed wood (which can be beautiful in some of our older homes) bamboo, recycled rubber, hemp, even concrete reinforced with steel dust.
Long story short, keeping the changing needs of your family and preserving the value of your home are goals for most homeowners. For those who are not on the cutting edge of renovation and construction some of these possibilities are things they are not aware of and can be missed opportunities. Custom Care Inc. is happy to guide our clients through these possibilities and best advise on the utilization of these developments for not just the beautification of your home now, but in the overall sustainability and efficiency in the years to come.