Looking for a way to reduce your energy costs? If you consult your local energy company, you will likely receive a brochure explaining how to wrap your pipes, put a blanket around your hot water heater, plugging cracks and holes through which drafts can flow, and adding reflective coatings to your windows. No harm in any of that, and it’s a good start. But for homeowners, there is a better place to start – start at the top, with your roof.
Why start with the roof? For the same reason that your mother tells you to wear a hat outside in snowy weather – just as most of your body heat is lost through your head, most of your home’s heat is lost through the roof. Heat rises.
Likewise, your roof is the part of your home that is most exposed to the sun, so the question of whether your home will absorb the sun’s heat or reflect it back into the atmosphere is decided right there – on the roof.
Homeowners don’t like to mess with their roofs, and for good reason – roof work can be expensive. But there are a range of options, and if you are considering an ecofriendly option such as installing solar panels, you may qualify for state or federal tax subsidies that will help to defray the cost. (To find out what subsidies exist in your area, check the Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, DSIRE, or try this calculator).
If you are considering making your roof a part of your home’s energy efficiency plan, you will need to begin by answering the following questions:
What material do you want to use for your roof?
What color should your roof be?
Do you want to add solar panels or solar shingles to your roof in order to capture solar energy for electricity or to provide heat for water?
These days, homeowners have many roofing materials to choose from. Most Americans (about 75 percent) go for cheap asphalt shingles – but cheap is the best that can be said of asphalt as a roofing material. It doesn’t insulate well, it is generally not recyclable at the end of its life, and its life is not long.
On the other end of the economic spectrum, affluent homeowners will often choose wood shingles, such as cedar shakes, or slate. These options are all natural, insulate well, and are expensive. But cedar often comes from old-growth forests and slate is a non-renewable resource. Moreover, wood shingles will swell and shrink over time, producing cracks and resulting in moisture damage. Clay tiles are more durable and are made from a renewable, sustainable material, but they are so expensive that most homeowners can only manage to use them as accent materials along the edges of roofs.
Somewhere in the middle, you have metal roofs. Metal roofs insulate well, they have high solar reflectance (meaning they stay cooler in the summer), they last a long time, and they are frequently made from recycled metals (and can be recycled themselves at the end of their lives). But they can be somewhat expensive.
Nowadays, there is another option: recycled roofing materials. Believe it or not, you can now make your roof from recycled plastic, carpet, or tires. You can also opt for reclaimed or sustainably grown wood.
If you want to generate electric power on your roof, or at least collect enough heat to warm up water, you may want to start with a basic metal roof. A standing-seam metal roof can work well as a base for thin-film photovoltaic panels. You’ll be following in reputable footsteps – President Barack Obama is adding solar panels to the White House roof this year, as is Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Solar panels can be expensive – most solar panel systems cost at least $2,000 to $3,000 to install, and many cost more, depending on the system and the particular circumstances at your home. Solar panel systems pay for themselves within a few years, but that doesn’t help when you are trying to scrape together the money for the installation.
There is also another solar roofing option – solar shingles. Solar shingles may be an ideal solution if by chance you have a roof that is already shingled, but is losing shingles in (preferably) a south-facing location where you can free up 300 to 400 feet of roof space. If you need to replace shingles anyway, you may as well replace the old shingles with matching solar shingles (they are designed to blend in with the asphalt shingles that most American homes use). Like solar panels, solar shingles can be connected to your local energy grid, so that if you produce excess electricity, it can go back into the system and your electric company can reimburse you for it. By absorbing heat from the sun, solar shingles can also reduce the amount of heat that your home absorbs, so you may find that you do not need to run an air conditioner as much in the summer. Don’t expect to go entirely off-grid with solar shingles – shingles do not store solar energy (unless you have also added batteries to hold stored energy, but adding batteries can add as much as $10,000 to your shingle installation costs), so you will need your regular electric grid at night. Homeowners who choose this option find that the solar shingles pay for themselves in about 8 to 10 years, while they last for 20-40 years (depending on climate and maintenance).
Solar panels and shingles not only pay for themselves over time by allowing you to sell power back to your electric company, but they add to the value of your home. According to a recent study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 72,000 California homeowners who added solar panels to their roofs saw their home values rise by an average of $17,000 when they put their homes on the market. Consequently, you may be able to roll the cost of installation over into your mortgage.
Unless you are a roofing contractor yourself or have equivalent experience, don’t try to install your own roof. Find a contractor who is experienced in the kind of roof that you plan to put in place. If you are adding solar panels or solar shingles, you will also need an electrician. Be aware, as well, that if you are replacing a roof that was originally installed between 1940 and 1975, you may need to hire someone to do asbestos remediation. Finally, don’t forget to check your local building codes (or better yet, work with a contractor who is intimately familiar with them). Be sure, as well, to check with your homeowner’s insurance company to find out if the change in roofing materials will affect your insurance premiums.