Thermal Optimization

Posted on September 24, 2013
Posted By: Rick Barnett

Thermal optimization is produced by thoroughly insulating a building's structural shell, to a level at which thermal performance is optimized. This results in the least energy consumption for heating and cooling ("space conditioning"). Space conditioning is the largest part of residential energy use, to a greater extent in homes more than a few years old.
Thermal optimization is achieved with existing technology by installing a continuous layer of rigid insulation over the entire shell, including the roof. Such a "thermal wrap" is distinct from conventional insulating practice, which doesn't insulate between the structure and outside, and leaves an unconditioned attic just inches above the building's interior.
The continuity of a thermal wrap reduces leakage, to produce energy performance significantly higher than a conventionally "weatherized" retrofit. Optimization can be measured with established thermal performance testing methods, which indicate a building's propensity to consume energy for space conditioning. To guide investment, the savings can be projected over the life of a building.
The energy saving potential of thermally optimizing our building stock is significant. But homeowners aren't interested in a 20-year payback, and seldom make this type of investment. As a result, only highly motivated owners engage in "deep energy retrofits". High performance is well tested, but not marketed by contractors.
Thus, thermal optimization remains an untapped energy asset and economic opportunity .

The need to reduce energy consumption has been evident since the 1970's, when the impact of rising carbon and global energy supply became prominent public issues. Buildings are generally considered "responsible for" 38-40% of US energy demand, with space conditioning using the most. The potential savings from optimizing is unmatched and readily available. Why should we continue to unnecessarily waste energy?
Above the energy benefits, optimization adds comfort and resiliency to a home, with the same investment. Homes represent a profound and accessible energy asset.

"Current employment levels are still nearly 9 million lower than they were before the financial crisis hit in 2008. Private sector job growth is still anemic at best - just 88,000 jobs added in March 2013 in an economy needing at least twice that number simply to keep pace with labor force growth." (David Coates, Worrell Professor of Anglo-American Studies, Wake Forest University, Department of Politics, 4/19/13).
The job creating potential of thermal optimization is significant. Deep energy retrofits are labor intensive, requiring local contractors and suppliers: nothing can be outsourced.
With labor as the main expense, using higher quality materials for optimizing does not add significant cost to an energy retrofit. And by doing the best job right away, rather than incrementally, expensive return trips are not necessary.
Optimization is the most practical approach to creating buildings that "do their part" in an emission-constrained future. Picture neighborhoods, in cities across the country, being systematically retrofitted for the 21st century.

The public sector still struggles to create new jobs, and most ARRA jobs were not sustainable. Thermal optimization offers the private sector a unique opportunity to stimulate the economy without tax dollars, legislation, or new regulations.
The utility industry has the type of capital and long term perspective that could bring thermal optimization out of obscurity. Responding to "disruptive challenges", utilities are moving beyond their historical role in energy supply, and making demand-side investments. Thermal optimization could be part of these emerging programs. By eliminating a predictable amount of energy demand, optimization provides value to the utility as well as the customer.

Authored By:
Rick Barnett has a B.A. in psychology (UCSB) and an Interdisciplinary Master’s in Environmental Management (Oregon State University, 1981).  Before becoming a builder, Rick introduced the Oregon waste management industry to recycling in 1976, and over the next few years convinced many to offer recycling as a service.  Oregon has been a national leader in recycling ever since.Rick started Green Builder in 1996, and was recognized in 1998 by Sustainable

Other Posts by: Rick Barnett

Efficiency Gap - March 07, 2016
Energy Asset - January 21, 2016
After Weatherization - September 25, 2015
Energy Customers - April 08, 2015

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