Shady Characters: Climate-Control Your Home

Well-placed trees and plants can go a long way toward reducing your energy bills.

| March/April 2002


Studies have shown that well-placed trees, bushes, and other plants can slash a home’s air conditioning needs by 40 percent and reduce energy used for heating by a third.

Photography by Jim Hauser

The traditional farmhouse, with its copse of shade trees out front and its bank of north- or west-facing evergreens, is one of rural America’s most idyllic sights. But to Philadelphia landscape architect Larry Weaner, that time- honored arrangement of home and flora makes for more than just a pretty picture. It’s one very smart strategy for saving energy. “When the farmer builds his house, the first thing he does is plant trees to shield it from the summer sun and the winter winds,” he says. “Those trees go a long way toward moderating the temperature of his home.”

Indeed, when it comes to saving energy on the homefront, trees are a natural for any house, anywhere. Studies have shown that well-placed trees, bushes, and other plants can slash a home’s air-conditioning needs by a whopping 40 percent and trim its demand for heating by a third. Those big reductions translate into equally big savings on energy bills, and they’re a boon for the environment. Trees curb global warming by consuming the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, purify the air as they exude oxygen, and provide a habitat for increasingly embattled wildlife.

They even cut the local utility a break. Customers using trees to cut down on energy needs may enable a utility running at full tilt to keep up with demand (and stave off the kind of blackouts that hit California last year); they may also eliminate the need for expensive utility expansions. For that reason, scores of utilities across the country offer their customers free shade trees or rebates to those who already have them in the ground.

Sun and wind

The principles underlying the farmer’s elegant—and inexpensive—approach to energy efficiency are as basic and unbending as the cycle of seasons itself. In the summer, the leafy canopies of strategically placed deciduous trees naturally shade a house from the sun’s hot beams and keep indoor temperatures down. Conversely, in winter when their leaves are down, those same trees allow the sun to pour into a home when its warming rays are needed most.

Trees and shrubs can control the winds that affect a home’s temperature, too. A row of evergreens blocks the intrusion of heat-sapping arctic blasts, while other plants can be positioned to direct summer’s welcome cool breezes right through your front windows. And where plants are in short supply, nonliving landforms such as hills, berms, walls, and fences can stand in for them.

elderberry, echinacea, bee hive


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