Are you financing an energy war in your house?

by Howard J. Brown on August 20, 2010

Why we need to design on the “whole house” scale

My appliances are engaged in an energy war with each other and I’m financing both sides.

I recently cleaned the coils on my refrigerator after my brother told me the compressor on his died.  When the coils are dusty, they can’t expel the heat being absorbed from the inside of the unit.  Cleaning the coils saves energy and makes the compressor last longer.

When you clean the coils on your refrigerator, you’ll feel the heat.  This is one of the battlegrounds for the energy war.  There are probably several other appliances in your home that release a significant amount of waste heat.

In my house, the refrigerator and dishwasher pump heat into the kitchen.  The dehumidifier and hot water heater release heat in the basement, which rises up into the living space.  There’s so much heat in the clothes dryer exhaust, it has to be pushed directly outdoors.  The television, lights, and other smaller electronics all release small amounts of heat.

Meanwhile, in the hot summer months, the air conditioner is collecting all of this heat and releasing it to the outside.  At the same time, the dryer, dishwasher, and oven are using energy to create heat anew.

We can buy the most efficient appliances and lighting and use the most energy-saving settings (which I do), but that doesn’t really do the trick.  It makes the war more efficient, but it doesn’t change things fundamentally enough to create peace.

The problem arises because we are a society of specialists.  Every appliance in the house was designed and built by specialists who think about each function separately.  Even the house itself was built by skilled tradesmen who are specialists in 19th century construction techniques.  They built a shell around all of this to contain my little war.

We have enormously talented professionals thinking about aesthetics, energy efficiency, and how things operate both inside and outside the house.  But who is responsible for seeing how things can be integrated to optimize overall performance?  Aircraft designers at places like Boeing and AirBus have to think about the total performance of a plane; each separate function is part of an integrated whole.  No one thinks about the whole house as a tool.  That’s how we need to think about it.

Everything starts with considering function.  A house is a tool that provides shelter, protection, privacy, energy performance, water performance, food safety, storage, clothes cleaning, comfort, and much more.  How can we design a living environment that provides these benefits with the least energy, water, waste, labor, maintenance, and the most long-term security?

We’re working around the edges of the problem.  A lot of advances in home design address multiple benefits, like energy conservation  and comfort.  There are innovations in architecture and in appliances.  Now we need to employ the best scientific and design knowledge and continue to move toward crafting a whole system that works together and minimizes resource use and waste.



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