by Vicki Thomas
Even though we’ve been lucky to have a cool and wet spring and summer so far, last year was a much different story with multiple record-breaking heat domes and severe fires all over the West. Extreme weather events are becoming the norm even here in the historically mild Pacific Northwest. It’s clear that the planet is getting hotter and that fires are a bigger threat.
It’s also clear that we need to find ways to stay comfortable using less energy with longer-lasting, better-performing and safer materials. As the grid becomes more stressed, it’s also wise to consider how we can stay cool enough or warm enough if the grid is down.
While home renovations can be distinctly un-eco-friendly, there are a number of improvements that you can make that will help fight climate change and make your home safer and more comfortable. While there are dozens of things you could do, in this article we will explore three climate-change-fighting home improvements that are already available that you may not have considered. While there are many options other than those presented, these stand out as being particularly appropriate to our region.
If you need a new roof, metal roofs are a great option. They come in two basic varieties, steel and aluminum — although you could go for copper, stainless steel or zinc, which are less often used. The steel standing-seam variety is what you typically see on commercial buildings, and, more recently, on homes. Aluminum roofs may not be so easy to detect because they tend to look like traditional shingle roofs.
• Metal roofs reflect heat back into the atmosphere and away from your house, keeping your house cooler during the hot summer months. They can reduce cooling needs 20-25 percent.
• They outlast traditional shingle roofs by decades, lasting 30-plus years for steel and 50-plus years for aluminum.
• Require very little maintenance.
• If installed properly, will protect your house from rain, wind, moss, critters, snow accumulation and, significantly, fire. Metal roofs have been shown to save homes in areas where there have been major fires.
• Many metal roofs are already recycled and are recyclable again once they have reached their end of life, unlike standard shingle roofing.
Metal roofs are great, but pricey. If a total metal roof isn’t in your budget, there are options. You can put a metal roof over sections of your house, like an addition, a porch or even a shed. Every little bit of heat reflected back into the atmosphere helps. If metal isn’t in your budget at all, choose the lightest color composite shingles that you can stand to help reduce the heat gain. If you aren’t looking to replace your roof, you can paint it white or a very light color to reflect more heat. This isn’t for everyone, but it works well on flat roofs or those that are not easily visible from the street level.
Look for “low-e” windows
Everyone knows that double or triple pane glass is more energy efficient than single pane glass. To gain even more energy and comfort, it’s important to look for low-e windows. “Low-e” stands for low emissivity. Low-e windows have a coating to block heat and uv rays from sunlight. Protection levels vary based on two factors, the u factor and shgc. The u factor tells you how much the glass will retain the inside temperature. The ratings go from .25 to 1.25. The lower the number, the better the energy efficiency. The shgc is the solar gain factor, which ranges between 0 and 1. This can get complicated fast, depending on which way your windows are facing, so it’s important to deal with a professional to get the best fit for your space.
Low-e windows keep your house at a more even temperature, reduce energy costs up to 15 percent, and keep furniture and flooring from fading at much as 75 percent over standard windows.
Choose Fiberglass over Vinyl
Many windows sold today are vinyl. Vinyl is just another name for pvc (polyvinylchloride) or plastic. While vinyl windows are the least expensive, they are not the best option. Though it takes a bit more research and firmness with your window sales person, fiberglass is better for you and the environment. (A note about vinyl. It is the most poisonous of the plastics. It is a fossil fuel product and creates great environmental harm and has the most severe, life-altering health effects on you and your family and pets. During manufacture, during normal use and when burned, either as a method of disposal or in a house fire, it releases dioxin.
Dioxin exposure is associated with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, infertility, miscarriage, developmental issues in children, immune system damage and hormonal issues. “Dioxin is known as one of the most toxic chemicals ever produced. In its ongoing study of dioxin, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that there is no safe level of dioxin exposure. Thus, any dose, no matter how low, can result in severe health damage. The EPA has also concluded that the levels of dioxin currently found in most adults and children are already high enough to present significant health threats to the American public.” (1)
Fiberglass Window Benefits:
• Are typically made from recycled glass, so less glass goes into landfills and less new glass needs to be made
• Do not release harmful chemicals into the environment during manufacture or use
• Fiberglass frames are considered to be a fireproof material (2) and will not release harmful chemicals in case of a home fire as vinyl windows will
• They are up to 15 percent more energy efficient than vinyl windows
• They are also good at insulating against sound
• They resist warping, cracking and discoloring
• Can stand up to extreme temperatures and weather events
• Have thinner frames, so more of the view is exposed
• Come in a wide variety of colors and can be painted as well
• Can be made with wood interiors and fiberglass exteriors if desired
• They last up to 50-plus years as opposed to even a good quality vinyl product that will last up to 30 years
A total home window redo may not be for you, but replacing any of your windows will help. If window replacement is not needed or outside the budget, or if you have tons of windows to do, there are a number of things you can still do to stop heat gain through your windows:
• Window film coatings are available for DIY or professional install. Some of them darken the windows, but there are new ones that do not. They are very effective at reducing heat gain. Some of them have extra benefits, like privacy screening or extra security to prevent glass breakage. Some even help reduce heat loss in winter. For more information, do an internet search for “sun control window film” or just “window film.”
• Exterior window blinds — to keep the sun from ever hitting your windows, putting up external shades or blinds on your porch or directly over your windows/glass doors is an option. There are fancy motorized or crank products that require professional installation, but inexpensive bamboo or matchstick shades can do a good job as well. You will just need to take them down in the wet/colder months. In a pinch, such as when a heat dome is headed your way, the super affordable paper blinds sold by the big box stores or online can be used both inside and outside. These are very temporary, but can be cut to size and have a removable strip to stick them to your window frame. For more information, do an internet search for “exterior solar shades.”
For great insulation, don’t think pink, think sheep. Pure natural sheep’s wool insulation has a lot going for it. It’s important to do your research to make sure that your wool insulation is not treated with boric acid or harmful chemicals, but has been processed to repel moths and insects. You may have to be firm with your contractor or supplier so they don’t try to sell you rock wool or another alternative, but the benefits of real wool insulation are impressive:
• It’s fire resistant. It doesn’t support a flame below 1,100-1,200 degrees Fahrenheit or release toxins or drip to spread flames if it does catch fire
• It cleans the home’s air by absorbing and breaking down dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as formaldehyde, which is present in plastics, many building materials and furnishings, sulfur dioxide (SO2), which comes from the burning of fossil fuels, and nitrous oxides (NOx) — which come from combustion engines and are a main component of air pollution
• Regulates humidity and doesn’t support mold or mildew
• It’s hypoallergenic — great for people with allergies
• Provides sound insulation as well as temperature regulation
• No protective gear or equipment is needed to handle it
• It comes in batts and blow-in formats
• Is long lasting, renewable and sustainable
• Is compostable at disposal, so it doesn’t add to landfill
The materials we choose to surround ourselves with matter. According to the International Energy Agency IEA, we must reduce carbon emissions from the built environment by 6-7 percent a year between 2020 and 2030 if we are to meet net-zero carbon goals for the built environment by 2050. (3) There are materials and solutions available today that help us do that. The good news is that these materials make life more comfortable and safer for us as they help the planet. There are many things we can do. We can’t all do everything, but it’s important that we all do something when we have the choice.
Vicki Thomas has a degree in political science from George Washington University. She retired as the chief operating officer of a small California e-commerce company and moved to Bellingham in 2015. Vicki was a team-lead volunteer for the Community Research Project, a county outreach project sponsored by the Whatcom County Climate Impact Advisory Committee. She is a currently cochair of the League of Women Voters Climate Committee.