Money from Trees — Save on Utility Bills and Heal the Atmosphere
By Diane Porter
Wouldn’t you just love to pick your house up, turn it this way and that way on the lot, and figure out where it really makes the most sense? The spot where it catches the prevailing breeze, has shade in the summer, sun in the winter, and energy savings year-round?
That’s how houses were placed before air-conditioning, when a family’s comfort inside depended on how well the house functioned. But today, we live in tidy rows on uniform blocks that line up in a way that makes more sense for real estate than anything else. The decision as to which way our doors and windows face was most likely made by a developer putting down dozens of homes at once; the placement of our driveways and patios followed suit.
And if the sun bakes us in the summer, or if our living room is freezing in the winter, we tend to focus on things we can do inside the house to mitigate the problem. We turn the thermostat up or down; we dig out the blankets in winter or the fans in summer.
And we pay for all of it, in comfort and utility bills.
What to do?
Tackle the problem from the outside as well. Plant trees.
Deciduous trees – those that lose their leaves in the fall – will shade a home in the summer and let the sun through in the winter, reducing both cooling and heating costs. Evergreen trees will block a cold wind or shade an air-conditioner year-round.
“Planting trees to save energy costs makes sense,” said Misha Sarkovich, Program Manager of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s Shade Tree Program. In addition, “you improve the air quality, improve the property values and beautify the community,” he said.
The Town of Addison takes pride in being a leader in greening of its urban areas. The Town endeavors to pursue the “Urban Forest” concept of increasing the number of trees planted in our community through coordinated urban beautification. The Town recognizes the economic, aesthetic, and environmental importance of street trees.
And the trees do more than provide shade. In essence, each tree creates its own micro climate – in photosynthesis, water vapor escapes through the leaves, creating a minuscule mist – and can reduce the temperature surrounding it by several degrees.
The Addison Arbor Foundation has two main goals. One is to increase the number of trees within the Town of Addison, and create a tree canopy that will become the Town’s trademark in the D-FW Metroplex. The other goal is to plant 50 trees each year for the next 20 years, along street medians, parks and greenbelts.
Addison is one of 70 Texas cities recognized as a Tree City USA, a program sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation. With the USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters, the program supports and recognizes communities that are improving their own “urban forests.” To qualify, a city must have a tree board or department, a tree care ordinance, a community forestry program that spends at least $2 per capita, and an Arbor Day observance.
Don’t Be A Sap, Plant Correctly
So now that you’ve decided to add trees to your property, how do you go about choosing and siting your trees? How can you be sure that the trees you plant will grow where they’ll be most helpful?
There are a few guidelines that will help almost everyone:
- Deciduous trees are best-placed on the side of the house that receives the most sun exposure, especially the west and southwest.
- Evergreen trees are best-placed where you need a windbreak or where you want shade all year around.
- Take into consideration which windows in the house bring in the most solar heating. Those are the windows you want to shade, especially during the hours of 3-7 p.m. in the summer.
- Plan for when the tree is mature: Where will its canopy throw its circle of shade? Are you planting close enough to the house to take advantage of this, without being so close that the mature tree would affect walls, sidewalks, patios or driveways? Ideally, the canopy of the tree will shade part of the roof in 5 to 10 years.
- If you can, plant a tree (or tall shrubbery) to shade your air-conditioning unit, which will keep it from having to work so hard.
- Know your hardiness zone. A Hardiness Zone map shows the lowest temperature that can be expected each year in each zone. Nursery catalogs and online nurseries tell you the zones that each tree will withstand.
- Choose trees that are well-adapted to this region. Native trees will be more resistant to local pests and diseases, and will thrive where others might not. The Texas Forest Service offers this helpful guide.
- If you’re planting multiple trees, be sure to leave enough room between them for the future, when their canopies grow to maturity
- Be sure to avoid planting directly beneath power lines and above buried cables.
Estimates differ regarding how money you can save by planting well-placed trees. The California Energy Commission’s Consumer Energy Center says the right type of tree can reduce your summer cooling costs by 20 to 40 percent. The United States Department of Energy says that shading an air-conditioning unit can save as much as 10% of the costs of running it. And the many variables – type of tree, where you plant it, the climate and humidity where you live, and the efficiency of your home’s heating and air-conditioning units – all affect the bottom line.
To figure out just how much power your trees can help save, check this Tree Benefit Estimator, an online tool that allows a home or business owner to input details and calculate savings.
To use the estimator, a property owner needs to know their average summer and winter KWH cost in dollars (it will be a decimal-point number, such as 0.105 to represent 10½ cents), the type and number of trees they plan to plant, the tree’s age or diameter, what side of the house it will be planted on, and so on.
As an example, using 0.105 as our KWH cost, and specifying that we live in Addison and plan to plant three Valley Oak trees on the west side of the house within 15 feet of the house, the calculator tells us that when the trees are 5 years old we can expect $388 worth of benefits in the annual cooling of the house. The estimator also tells how many KWH we saved (in this case, 3,474) and, in both kilograms and pounds, how much carbon dioxide has been reduced.
To illustrate the power of orientation, if we change the estimator and plant those trees on the southeast side of the house, the summer cooling benefits fall to $234. Change them again, to the northeast side, for instance, and the benefit falls to $105. Make it one tree and the benefits can fall to $25.
(A note: In the calculations chart, there is also a column for “Total Winter Heating Penalty.” This represents the extra dollars you will have to pay in the winter if you plant new trees, because even after the leaves fall, a mature trunk and branches do create some shade. For instance, in the above examples, the winter heating penalties ranged from $3 to $9. You must subtract this number from the summer cooling benefit to arrive at a final total.)
The savings also represents how much less electricity your utility company has to provide. It’s easy to see why, over time, the trees pay off in a big way. Even a savings of $25 a year adds up when you multiply it by thousands of trees.
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