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The Future of Homes Is Smart — and Energy Efficient

In many ways, the modern living experience is defined by waste. So-called “vampire appliances” use power even when switched off, heating and cooling systems account for up to two-thirds of a home’s energy use, and the average household can waste 180 gallons of water a week just through leaks. 

All of these resources are connected, making conservation and efficiency essential.

“Every gallon of hot water you use is not only using the water itself, but it’s using the energy that went into heating that water,” noted Andrew McCallister of the California Energy Commission (CEC). “So saving hot water is actually a two-fer.”

Passive house, smart house

McCallister knows about energy efficiency first-hand, both because of his work with the CEC and in his own home. 

“I’ve always done my best to live my values within my means,” he said. “I just built over the last year and a half a net-positive, all-electric, passive house that has lots of energy-efficient, demand-responsive features.”

A passive house is built with a focus on the walls and roof to make an incredibly tight shell with thick, highly insulated walls and triple-pane windows. This type of construction creates a home that is easier to heat and cool, and much more energy-efficient.

“The beautiful thing about a passive house,” McCallister said, “is it uses half the energy or less than a normal building.”

For those who aren’t ready to build or buy a passive house, McCallister stresses that there are plenty of ways to make your home “smart” and energy-efficient. 

“There’s been a lighting revolution,” he said. “LED lighting is just a no-brainer at this point. It’s a relatively small investment and they use very little energy, last a really long time, and the light quality is better. 

“Smart thermostats are another technology. You can program them, you can turn them off when you’re out of town and automate all that. Those are great opportunities to leverage those technologies to save energy without sacrificing comfort at all.”

Saving water

McCallister’s passive house has water efficiency features as well, which is crucial in a world where 1.2 billion people experience chronic water shortages, a problem that’s predicted to only get worse.

“I put in two water-conserving features in addition to all the ones that are required by code,” he said. “First, a rainwater catchment system. I’ve got a 5,000-gallon rainwater tank in my backyard that is plumbed back into the house, and flushes the toilets and goes to the laundry. I will never have to use city water for that. 

“The other one is a gray water system that takes the water from your tubs, showers, laundry, and sinks, other than the kitchen sink, and that water can go to the landscaping. That’s a huge potential source of water savings — 60 or even 70 percent of people’s municipal water use often goes to landscaping.”

These sorts of systems can be augmented by smart water leak detectors, which can help reduce the 1 trillion gallons of water lost to household leaks each year.

There is almost no downside to introducing these technologies into your home. 

“There’s a persistent belief that saving energy comes with some sacrifice,” McCallister said. “That’s just not the case. These are actually better products. They improve our air quality. They’re easier to operate, they’re more intuitive, they provide comfort and health benefits. They just make your life better across the board, and they’re going to pay for themselves in myriad ways.”

Jeffrey Somers, [email protected]

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