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Building a house? Save your energy

A few years ago, the Florida Solar Energy Center published a book for home builders on strategies for energy-efficient homes. One section of the book talked about amenities, the extras that are not essential but often can make the house irresistible to buyers.

A number of popular amenities chosen by buyers in hot, humid climates such as Florida's are energy-intensive. Skylights, swimming pools, fireplaces and other extras may make the home more comfortable and enjoyable, but they can also make it a much bigger energy user.

If you're planning to build a home, take the time to talk with your architect and builder about the special features you would like to add and find ways to minimize the energy impact of these features.

For example, one 2- by 4-foot clear skylight can increase the air-conditioning load by about 240 kilowatt-hours per year, adding about $4 to your summer power bills. Put in several skylights, and the numbers add up.

The high angle of the sun puts two to four times as much heat into a home as vertical windows.

So what if you really want skylights? Options include reducing their size, putting glazing with a low shading coefficient over the glass or having interior shades, blinds or panels installed that you can control.

A potential savings of $4 a month isn't going to get you to jump into your car and rush out to buy shades or other sun-controlling products, but if you have four skylights, that's $16 a month.

Shaded skylights are much more effective than unshaded ones in allowing a more uniform source of light into the house and reducing discomfort from the sun's heat. So the benefits go beyond the economic savings.

One good building strategy in a hot climate is to put a skylight on a porch adjacent to a window, instead of putting the skylight over the living space. You'll still get plenty of light but not as much heat.

Another consideration is to think carefully about the benefits of a skylight in specific rooms. Many people like skylights in bathrooms, for example. But if your bathroom is mostly used in the early morning and before bedtime, you won't benefit much from bringing in daylight.

Another popular amenity is a spa or hot tub. Using the electric heater that comes with the unit can cost $10 to $30 a month or more, depending on the setting and the size of the tub. Consider less costly forms of heat than electricity (solar can be an alternative, for example, especially when the tub is used fairly often).

You should also cover the spa and reduce the water temperature when it's not in use. Most of the same strategies that keep swimming pool water comfortable apply to spas and tubs.

Meanwhile, some popular amenities save energy. Covered porches provide a comfortable place to relax and eat, and they shade the house and help block the sun. Built-in microwave ovens are much more efficient than conventional ovens and put far less heat into the kitchen. Outdoor cooking areas with a grill built in, often on a porch, keep heat out of the home's living area. Ceiling fans in every room can do a great job of keeping people cool and allowing you to set the thermostat higher.

Work with the architect and builder on the plans for your home to ensure that you minimize the effects of the amenities that raise energy use while using extras that can save energy.

Saving energy isn't at the top of most people's lists for their next home. Just don't keep energy savings out of the decisionmaking process. Some thinking upfront can save big bucks in the future.