Plant Your Way to Energy Savings: Landscaping for Energy Efficiency

With strategic landscaping, you can save money, increase your property value, and bring lovely trees, shrubs, vines, birds, bees and butterflies.

  • A North Carolina home built in 1880 keeps cool with a large wrap-around porch surrounded by large shade trees.
  • A tree-lined street isn't just nice for aesthetics—deciduous trees help keep summer sunlight out and allow winter sunlight in.
  • A North Carolina home built in 1880 keeps cool with a large wrap-around porch surrounded by large shade trees.
    Photo By David Hoffman
  • A stand of trees acts as an effective windbreak on flat, windswept plains. A good rule of thumb: Find out the mature height of your chosen tree, then plant your windbreak two to five times that distance upwind of your house.
    Photo By Diane Guthrie

Look at an old family farm almost anywhere in this country, and you’ll see how crucial shade trees were before the advent of home air conditioning in the 1950s. In the midst of vast, flat fields of crops, you’ll often see a farmhouse and outbuildings, towered over by the biggest trees around. In summer, those trees shade the home and yards; in winter, they drop their leaves and let the sun’s warmth shine through.

Thoughtfully placed trees, shrubs, vines and groundcovers can play a big role in keeping your house warmer in winter and cooler in summer—before you even start to flip on the furnace or air conditioner. And which would you rather look at: a big shade tree, or an air conditioner’s compressor? Which would you rather listen to: birds singing in the shrubs, or the furnace coming on?

Cool It In Summer 

If you’ve ever walked in the hot summer sun, then relaxed on the cool grass under a broad-leafed tree, you know what a difference shade makes. But is the power of plants enough to lessen our need for power plants? Consider this: Air temperature under shade trees can be as much as 25 degrees cooler than the temperature above nearby blacktop.

What could this mean for your air-conditioning costs? A landscape designed for shading can reduce a previously unshaded home’s summer air-conditioning bill by 15 to 50 percent, depending on climate and other conditions. A study of mobile homes in Pennsylvania reported air-conditioning savings of up to 75 percent for well-landscaped homes over unshaded homes.

But you don’t have to wait for big trees to grow to take advantage of vegetative cooling. You can grow vines up trellises to shade walls and patios, place large shrubs on your home’s east and west sides to block the low morning and afternoon sun, and plant leafy groundcovers to cool the earth around your home and limit the reflected sunlight that hits your house. Just shading the air conditioner itself increases its operating efficiency by up to 10 percent.

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