Building a Screened-In Porch You Can Use Day & Night

Photo: istockphotos

Screened-in porches are a blessing. Having grown up in buggy southern Michigan, I don't know how else to describe them. Mosquitoes, moths, bees, wasps, houseflies and horseflies were all helpless against that finely wired godsend. Screened-in porches allow us to enjoy the outdoors without pesky flying insects. They allow for reading a book in the cool reward of a summer thunderstorm without getting wet. They also protect from the sun while letting cool breezes blow through. Screened-in porches are Porches 2.0.

However, in most cases, screened-in porches are essentially separate from the main house. This can limit their usefulness. While most of us picture a warm, sunny day with glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade – or something to that effect – as our ideal screened-in porch scenario, wouldn't it be nice to enjoy the cool evening after dark? Or to spend a warm July night in a hammock behind the safe confines of a bug-beating screen?

The quick answer is of course. Add a light or lantern, fire up a space heater, whatever. But doing those sort of things without consideration would not be green living at all. If we're building or remodeling a screened-in porch that can be used day and night, then careful considerations must be made. Considerations that can preserve that natural world we're going out of our way to spend comfortable time amongst, as well as preserve our bank accounts over the long run.

Building From the Porch Up

Starting from scratch affords a whole realm of possibilities for building a screened-in porch – one that’s usable not only day and night but year-round as well. And to do it sustainably. A big issue for home builders looking to build green is cost. Sustainable materials can be a lot more expensive than their mass-produced, socially and environmentally unfettered counterparts. These materials are unlikely to cost less per foot, but thankfully, a screen porch builder has a lot less feet to worry about. So buying lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or using recycled or reclaimed materials may fit into budget.

Energy Efficient Screens?

We're looking for 24-hour usefulness, which means something must be done about those wonderful screens. They may keep insects out from dusk 'til dawn, but they won't keep Jack Frost at bay. To clarify, we're not talking about a four-season sunroom here, which would have glass-paned windows as opposed to screens only (which of course is an option when you're starting from scratch). So we're not aiming to put up an airtight barricade against weather. That is, after all, the whole point of a screened-in porch. It's sort of like a skybox seat at a sports stadium; you're both into the game and out of the fray at the same time.

But there are ways to help make nighttime more comfortable in a screened-in porch. For instance, shutters or other window coverings could be useful. Their louvered nature will allow some air and sound to pass through, maintaining that sense of the outdoors while deflecting harsher winds, as well as slowing the outward flow of heat collected during the day.

Other options include operable windows. Sliders may be best to maintain the feel of a screened-in porch, or add 6-mil plastic to the screen panels for insulation against drafts. But note that this is a season-long efficiency measure (excellent for home windows in cold climates), which sort of defeats the purpose of a screened-in porch and is unnecessary during the times of year when we most use it.

Porch Lighting

Okay, so you can't very well use a screened-in porch at night without some light to see with. Lamps or hardwired light fixtures are both possibilities – possibilities that get better when we add energy efficient light bulbs to the equation. Compact fluorescents (CFLs) or light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are your best choices in bulbs. However, given that the porch windows probably get a good deal of exposure to sunlight during the day, the best option may be solar lighting. There are so many solar-powered lighting products these days it's just a matter of picking the design you prefer.

Simply set the lights on the sill, let them charge during the day, and a small built-in batter will power them well into the night. Tabletop and hanging solar lights are available in abundance.

Solar Electricity

Taking the solar energy factor a step further, it would not be so difficult to keep the entire porch electrically separate from the main house and still have power for lighting at night. If the position and solar exposure is right, a single solar panel mounted on the porch roof could supply enough to power lights, radios, computers and whatever other electronic products you'd want to use day or night. It could even power a small electric space heater if you want. The solar panel would simply need to be wired into a battery that could store the solar electricity for use at night.

Other Tactics

So there are two problems with using a typical screened-in porch at night: light and warmth. Lighting is easy. Warmth not so much. The steps I described above will only go so far without converting the screen porch into a fully insulated, finished room addition. However, they should all make it more comfortable, and it's not as if you'll be worried much about the chills on a warm August night.

Still, a few other tactics can be employed to help keep things a bit warmer. If the flooring of the porch is made of deck boards, you can stop some of the air flow through the gaps between the boards by laying down some inexpensive carpet. A remnant or cheap throw is fine.

If you want to take that extra step, there is always the option of insulating and covering the ceiling, preferably using eco-friendly insulation covered with a formaldehyde-free plywood or particle board.

Oh, and it's always a good idea to have your favorite sweater on hand for unpredictable spring and autumn nights.

Dan Harding is a well-versed veteran of solar critique, commentary and reporting.  He has published well over 1,000 articles on a wide variety of solar industry topics, ranging from cutting-edge technology and gadgetry to political satire and powerful editorials. CalFinder is proud to tout Dan as our resident solar expert. He holds a B.A. in English from Michigan State University, and enjoys reading, writing and home construction.