Amarillo may be known for an excellent quality of life, but that’s a recent development. For decades, the Texas Panhandle was a devastatingly difficult place to live. Those early pioneers left behind the comfort of eastern cities for the vast, uncharted landscape of the West. They chased their dreams of wealth and land ownership to Texas. A few found success. They also found discomfort in the form of extreme temperatures, frequent droughts, and gusty winds. (The native inhabitants of the Plains weren’t too thrilled to see them, either.)
Technology has helped us adapt to those natural forces. We’ve learned to manage the cold winters and scorching summers, thanks to central heat and air conditioning. Our brick walls block the winds, and even in seasons of drought we can turn on a faucet and enjoy fresh, cold water. Life in 2016 is far easier than life was in 1915, or 1885. But at what cost?
On a 100-degree July afternoon, maintaining a comfortable 72-degree inside environment isn’t cheap. Our resources are limited, too. The water we use for washing dishes, cleaning clothes, and maintaining the non-native grass in our yards comes from an underground aquifer that has depleted at a frightening rate over the past decade. (Last summer’s torrential rains helped replenish reservoirs and recharge the aquifer, but environmental scientists remain concerned about its long-term viability.)
That’s why more and more new homes in Amarillo are being built with energy-efficient designs and construction techniques. While a few do it out of concern for the environment and green living, most know that, in the long run, a more efficient house will save money. Here’s a look at some of the ways local professionals and homeowners are reducing utility costs by making their homes more efficient.
Brandon Dumas: Silver Lief Homes
Seven years ago, Amarillo builder Brandon Dumas became Amarillo’s first Master Certified Green Professional™, a “green building” designation offered by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). To earn the title, he had to travel around Texas and Oklahoma, taking a series of courses.
“It was just one of those things that interested me,” he says. “I saw the trend coming, and thought it was a good idea.”
According to the NAHB, a green building – also known as high performance building – “promotes lower total ownership costs through utility savings and increased durability as well as an improved indoor living environment.” The organization emphasizes that green building should never be mandatory but remain voluntary, for homeowners hoping to save money in the long run.
Dumas went through the certification process recognizing that not all homeowners in this area viewed “green building” as a virtue, mostly due to the politicization of environmental concerns and a worry about governmental regulations. He describes environmentalism as “a tough sell” still today. But regardless of one’s political persuasion, almost everyone approves of a home designed to be more cost-effective.
“Conserving energy is good for the environment, but it also saves you money every month,” he says. “That’s my main push.”
Dumas grew up in the Amarillo area before joining the U.S. Navy in 1990. He spent several months with the Seabees – the Navy’s construction battalion – and discovered how much he enjoyed building. After an honorable discharge in 1993, Dumas served seven more years as a Seabees builder in the Naval Reserve. He returned to Amarillo in 1996 and founded Brandon Dumas Construction (now known as Silver Lief Homes).
After attaining his certification, Dumas built his first green home in 2010, a four-bedroom house on Cobblestone Street in the Greenways. It featured foam insulation in the walls and attic, eucalyptus-wood flooring and cabinets, countertops made from recycled bottles, and the ability to control lighting, sound, and theater systems from a centralized iPad app. That home was Amarillo’s first Gold Level green home, the highest energy-efficient certification awarded by the NAHB.
While all of the technology was new at the time, certain elements have become much more popular in the years since. Upgraded home construction codes adopted by the city of Amarillo have propelled builders toward more efficient homes. At the same time, Dumas says home-buyers are beginning to recognize the long-term benefits of living more efficiently. “Foam insulation was rare and very expensive back then,” says Dumas. “Now it’s become mainstream and is pretty normal. We’ve come a long way.”
He says an energy-efficient home may cost more up front than a standard-built home – “at least 15 percent higher for a full green-build, to do it right” – but those costs will be recouped in utility savings over the next several years. “Everything in my business comes down to the dollar and how much you’re willing to spend to do it,” he says.
Bamboo or eucalyptus floors The bamboo plant grows to maturity in just a few years, making it a more environmentally friendly choice for elegant flooring. “It’s a highly renewable material,” Dumas says. For the same reason, he also recommends eucalyptus cabinets in the kitchen and bathrooms whenever possible. “Eucalyptus grows three times faster than any hardwood.”
LED lighting Long-lasting LED bulbs consume nearly 90 percent less power than incandescent bulbs, which lose more energy as heat than as light (that’s why incandescent bulbs can be hot to the touch). LEDs cut power costs, and their longer lifespans mean less frequent replacements.
High-velocity, small-duct heating and air Using small, flexible ducts around three inches in diameter, these high performance systems are simple, airtight, and far more efficient than conventional ductwork. “You want to heat up the room as fast as you can or cool it down as fast as you can. The only way to do that is with high velocity,” says Dumas.
New heating and cooling technology divides a home into zones that rely on their own thermometers, allowing the entire house to maintain an average temperature rather than just the temperature around the thermostat. “If your thermostat is in a warm area, it’s not misreading what you’re feeling in the other side of the house,” says Dumas.
Smart-home energy monitoring system Home systems automated and controlled through an iPad or iPhone app are far more efficient, and help residents schedule and better control their home’s real-time electricity use. Pedro Limas, owner/CEO of Sound by Design, has installed a number of energy dashboards for homeowners’ home networks – and uses one himself. “An energy dashboard gives you feedback on energy consumption,” he says. “It allows you to set a monthly budget [of energy use], then sends you a text or email if you’re getting too close.” He says these dashboards can monitor everything from landscape irrigation to a home’s lighting, heating and cooling, security systems, and entertainment.
Strategic positioning The prevailing summer sun heats up a home from the south and west. Dumas advises his clients to minimize windows on that part of the house. “It’s always a tradeoff, but that’s where you’re going to get the worst amount of heat at the hottest part of the summer,” he says. “If we have to have light over there, we make the windows as small as they can be.”
Energy-efficient appliances Look for ENERGY STAR®-qualified refrigerators, dishwashers, ovens, and stovetops, which use 10 to 50 percent less energy than standard appliances. “Most of these are regulated to the point that they’re all fairly efficient these days,” Dumas says. While some may promise even higher efficiency, he says the impact is limited. “There are ways to make a little bit of difference, but a stove that saves you $15 a year but costs you $2,000 more out of the gate – that’s a tough trade-off.”
Vent hoods Dumas says these are among the worst energy wasters in the kitchen, due to the Panhandle’s frequent high winds. “They’re my biggest pet peeves about kitchens,” he says. “They’re very inefficient. There’s not a real good solution without spending a lot of money on a damper system that will physically seal the thing up.”
Tankless water heater A tankless heater is smaller, more compact, and saves energy by flash-heating water as soon as it’s needed. Conventional tank water heaters are less expensive but operate continuously – using much more gas – to keep water hot and ready to go at the turn of a faucet. The location of the water heater matters as well. “Try to make the distance from the water heater source to any one outlet less than 25 feet max, as close as you can,” Dumas says. This means less water lost down the drain while waiting for the hot water to arrive.
Low-flow toilets and shower heads Conserve water with a low-flow showerhead and toilets with lower gallons per flush (gpf). The new ones save so much water, Dumas says, “it almost feels like you didn’t even flush it.” He admits that many homeowners don’t like the lower pressure of low-flow showerheads, and often remove the built-in regulator.
Electric-heated bathroom flooring Heated tile and stone flooring systems make cold bathroom floors a thing of the past. “That’s always the place where you’re going to have the least amount of clothes on,” Dumas says. “It has a dramatic effect on the environment.” The radiant heat from the floor warms up a bathroom without changing temperatures elsewhere in the house. “You don’t have to warm up the entire house just because you’re cold in that one spot.”
Direct vent gas fireplace “A lot of air escapes from traditional fireplaces,” says Dumas. He prefers direct-vent systems, which don’t need a chimney. “You can still get a gas fire and it looks just like a real fire, but you’re not allowing air from the outside to come in or escape.” These feature pilotless electronic ignition rather than a pilot light and can be vented through a wall or the roof.
Stucco exterior plus foam insulation “Brick is obviously what most people do around here, and they’ve done the best they can to make it more efficient. But stucco is more energy efficient by far,” Dumas says. It simplifies the use of spray foam insulation, which creates a protective “envelope” around a house that’s not easily permeated by airflow. “Insulation is key,” Dumas says.
Energy recovery ventilator Spray foam in the walls and attic can be so effective, Dumas says, that it often makes a house too airtight. A ventilator transfers fresh air into the house without wasting energy. “You can get moisture trapped inside your house with no way to get it out, or so dry you can’t get any moisture in there,” he says. The ventilator solves this problem. He recommends a 95 percent efficiency unit.
Radiant barrier sheathing Instead of regular plywood decking beneath the shingles on a roof, Dumas installs sheathing with a thin sheet of aluminum on one side to reflect heat. The reflective material keeps the hot sunlight from being absorbed into the attic. “That’s one of the best things you can do. It doesn’t cost a whole lot more money, but can drop the temperature of your attic 10 to 15 degrees in the summertime,” he says.
Energy-efficient windows Insulated ENERGY STAR®-rated windows should have a low U-factor (this indicates the amount of heat that escapes during cold weather; 0.4 or less is recommended) and a low solar heat gain coefficient, or SHGC (this indicates the amount of solar radiation it allows in; 0.4 or less is recommended). Double-pane windows with argon gas-filled panes offer the ideal amount of energy efficiency and light transmittance.
“We insulate all the walls and attic [around the garage] just as if it was a room in the house,” says Dumas. “An insulated garage door is key. It’s simple to do and won’t cost that much more money.” He recommends using double-insulated glass on garage-door windows as well.
Downspouts Dumas prefers collecting rainwater in a basin, then moving it away from the house using a French drain system (a gravel-filled channel), usually around a drainage pipe. “Instead of throwing it out into the street, we take [the water] to a tree, so that tree gets an extra amount of water,” he says. “We use the storm water to our advantage.” If nothing else, he suggests pointing a downspout toward the yard or a tree rather than the driveway.
Rainwater collection Colby and Jessica Patterson own and operate Patterson Water Systems, which designs and installs above- and below-ground rainwater collection systems. “It helps reduce runoff, erosion and contamination of surface water,” Jessica says. “Fifty-four percent of a homeowner’s water use is for landscaping.” She says rainwater collection can be as simple as putting a covered 50-gallon rain barrel beneath a downspout – using a standard garden hose to distribute water – or installing large cisterns beneath a driveway for water storage. According to the Pattersons, the roof of a 1,000-square-foot home can create 623 gallons of water during a one-inch rainfall. “You can set these up to use the rainwater first, then use city water once it’s emptied,” she says.
Greywater collection Using a similar approach to rainwater collection, a greywater system collects lightly used water from a home’s showers, bathtubs, vanity sinks, dishwashers and washing machines. It stores this water in a basin, then pumps it out to water a lawn through the sprinkler system. Dumas says these systems, while extremely efficient, can have expensive upfront costs just because they differ from standard plumbing. “I wish it was a bigger deal here,” he says. “It takes so much money to keep grass green.”
Shade trees “Placement of trees is vital,” says Jake McWhorter, lead consulting arborist at Arborlogical Inc. “You want the biggest, nicest shade tree to the south, southwest, and west for the most shade value for your house.” Shade trees need to be deciduous rather than evergreen, he says, because “you don’t want to block that winter sun.” He says only a handful of good shade trees work locally, including lacebark elm, cedar elm, red oak, sycamore, pecan, and mulberry trees. “Slow-growing trees are the most drought-tolerant,” adds Warren Reid of Coulter Gardens & Nursery. “Avoid water-lovers like willows, cottonwoods, or maples.”
Windblock trees “I like to put evergreens on the northernmost edge of a big property, to help break the north wind and drifting snow in the winter,” says McWhorter. He lists pines, cedars, and hollies as hardy choices for this area.
Shrubs If a shade tree doesn’t block all the summer sun, individual shrubs can be used strategically. “Use tall shrubs to help out,” McWhorter says. “They can block the last evening sun through a window, or keep the sun from heating up the brick.” He and Reid both list deciduous purple smoke trees as a popular species.
Grass According to Neal Hinders at Canyon’s Edge Plants, the most water-efficient landscaping choice relates to the type of lawn grass. “Don’t use cool-season grasses like fescue or Kentucky bluegrass,” he says. These perform best in the spring or fall, but need too much water in the heat of summer. Hinders recommends warm-season buffalo grass or blue grama grass. “Once established, you hardly need to water it again – maybe just once or twice a month,” he says.
Warren Reid says lawns that don’t need to be watered as often can also benefit Amarillo trees. “We kill trees by watering them too often because of our heavy clay soil,” says Reid. “Lubbock soil is pure sand, but ours holds water great. The biggest problem is root rot. Watering the lawn too often kills trees.”
Landscaping Hinders says Texas-native salvias, flowering quince, Russian sage, forsythia, butterfly bush, and althea are all heat- and drought-tolerant plants that provide good color for gardens. “We’re not short on good xeriscaping plants around here,” he says, referring to the type of landscaping that reduces the need for extra watering. “There’s a huge variety.”
Composting Composting yard clippings, leaves, and kitchen scraps diverts a large percentage of waste out of local landfills while creating nutrient-rich humus for lawns and gardens. “Making your own compost is a wonderful thing,” says Reid. “It loosens the soil, increases microactivity, and promotes drainage. These are all benefits to the heavy clay soil we have.” Because clay naturally lacks organic matter, composting is an essential addition to increase it. Reid recommends filling a new garden with three inches of compost – due to the quantity needed up front, store-bought may be best – then maintaining it with an inch of homemade compost every year. “Composting can be like free fertilizer,” adds Hinders.
What’s it like to live in an energy-efficient home?
More than three years ago, Pedro and Tanya Limas hired Brandon Dumas to build them a custom, energy-efficient home in the Greenways subdivision. Pedro owns Sound by Design in Amarillo – his business installs smart home automation and home theater systems – and he equipped their new 2,700-square-foot home with a Control4 operating system. Linked to a smart phone, the system is scheduled to open the home’s blinds at sunrise every morning and close them at sunset to allow in early spring sunlight. It’s connected to the television, lighting, fireplace, air and heating systems, and more. The app informs them when one of their kids comes home at night and notifies them if they’ve forgotten to shut the garage door.
One of the things the couple loves about the system is its ability to set limits on energy use. “We set our lighting to max out around 85 percent,” Tanya says. “If you turn the lights all the way on, they’re still slightly dimmed.” This extends the life of the bulb, and she says even the home’s incandescent bulbs haven’t burned out since moving in.
The couple expected the additional building expenses of their home would eventually be balanced by lower utility bills – and that has definitely been the case. They save money every month. “If you think about it, it’s just logical,” says Pedro.
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.