Six low-cost ways to reduce your home energy use
The Rocky Mountain Institute recently compiled energy usage information for the typical American household. We found more than 30 ways that most people can reduce the amount of energy they use at home — without freezing in the dark.
Last week, my colleague shared with you nine no-cost ways to cut your home’s energy consumption, reduce your carbon footprint, and save money.
That’s good news this time of year as home heating costs soar and we start to pay off all our holiday credit card bills.
Here are six more easy ways to reduce your home energy use and pad your pocketbook. For the average homeowner, each of these actions should keep a ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere for less than £20 (about the price of a high-quality carbon credit):
|Cost of saved carbon
|Install a programmable thermostat||1,071||£58.10||£9.34|
|Seal large air leaks in your home||1,489||£80.76||£10.07|
|Insulate your water heater||263||£14.95||£12.66|
|Add insulation in your attic||2,142||£116.20||£15.56|
|Seal and insulate your HVAC ducts||1,512||£81.90||£17.64|
|Install efficient showerheads||370||£21.01||£18.02|
|Total saved per year:||6,847||£372.92|
Remember that these calculations are based on the “average” American home. Since everybody’s home is a little bit different, you may want to consider a more detailed energy audit before undertaking home improvements.
That way you can make sure you’re choosing the steps that will save you the most money and have the deepest impact on your house’s greenhouse gas emissions.
What makes a home energy efficient?
In a recent post, I talked about the Energy Efficient Mortgage, or EEM for short. In order to qualify, a certified energy rater must come to the home and look in specific areas to determine the home’s efficiency.
What exactly are they looking for?
- An energy envelope that is efficient and free of leaks. A building energy envelope is the area surrounding the home or building that affects its energy usage. Typically, this includes the actual frame and construction of the home, the ducts inside the home, windows, doors, insulation, building materials, roof, basement, etc. To determine this, they will most likely do a complete inspection and perhaps take some infrared photos to see invisible energy leaks.
- Efficient hvac operation. The heating and cooling systems should be properly sized, installed correctly, and be able to efficiently heat or cool the living space of the home.
- Efficient building materials and equipment. Windows, doors, furnaces, hot water heaters, air conditioners, etc. Essentially, any building material or appliance that is sold with the home (and thus covered under the EEM) are inspected.
- Site of the home. This includes what direction the home is facing, landscaping, tree placement, etc. I’m going to cover landscaping and its incredible and amazing importance in a future post – so stay tuned!
As mentioned, several tests mimicking those of a professional energy audit are usually performed to make some determinations. For example, a pressurized blower test will most likely be conducted to find air flow issues and energy leaks in rooms. When combined with IR technology, energy problems are often magnified. Also, ducts will be pressurized to find leaks. Insulation levels are definitely checked, as are hot water system tests.
The rater then enters all the data into a program, which comes up with a number up to 100. No home will get a 100, but the closer to 100 the home is, the more efficient it is.
How can I make my home more efficient?
We’ve just outlined what the professionals look for when rating your home. There’s much more to it, of course, but try to mimic what they do. Test what you can and make improvements as necessary. Follow the tips, tests, and articles on this blog, and you’ll improve the efficiency of your home.
Problems paying your bill. There are always budget payments
It’s happened to everyone. A few months out of the year, you either slip up and use too much energy, or need to use more energy out of necessity. Winter months in a cold climate, or the summer months in warmer climates are the classic examples.
Budget payments offered by the utility companies give you the flexibility of paying lower energy bills during these months, but you pay the same amount every month for a fixed term – usually 6-10 months or billing cycles.
Budget payments do no save you money. And they do not save you on energy. The are a way to “fix” your energy price in the short term. In other words, your payment doesn’t change unless your usage goes way up or way down. But that won’t happen if you use smart conservation.
No matter how hard you try, sometimes your energy usage will skyrocket. Depending on the home you’re in, it may skyrocket by quite a bit. Budget payments offset this by averaging out your costs over a set time period and calculating a payment based on your past usage and expected usage. Your payment, remember, may change if usage drastically does. This means potentially you pay the same amount in July for heat that you do in February. The argument, though, is if you know your payment, you can plan a budget more effectively.
Thus, the term budget payments.
There are a few caveats. First, you probably need a live reading, not an estimate, so the energy company can set and adjust the payment. Next, you also most likely need to be up to date with your payments. Most energy companies (surprisingly) won’t let you on a payment schedule unless your bills are paid.
The first one makes sense. In order to calculate your usage and get up to date costs, the energy company needs a current charge. The only way to do this is through a current reading. If your meter is outside and is read by the energy company directly, this isn’t a problem. If not, you may have to phone in a reading, do one online, or schedule an appointment.
The next one doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. If you receive a high energy bill, that’s the time you want to go on budget payments. But when you call the utility company, they tell you that they can put you on a fixed payment after you pay the current charges. That isn’t logical. The reason you are requesting budget payments is because you have a high energy bill that you can’t afford to pay all at once. My local energy company does this, and it drives me absolutely bonkers.
So how can you avoid this?
- Adjust your budget. If you aren’t on a fixed payment, adjust your budget on a seasonal basis, leaving more for energy when (historically) you’ve needed it the most. For most, winter and summer are the crunch times for different energy reasons.
- Energy conservation at home is important. Don’t lose sight of it. The less energy you use, the less you pay for.
- Avoid spikes in energy use. Understandably, most spikes can not be controlled. When the temperature outside drops, your home will use more energy to heat it comfortably. Resist the urge to temporarily raise the temperature even a few degrees.
Once you are on a budget payment, this is not a free pass to use more energy. You always, always pay for what you use. The energy company still monitors your usage, and may raise your payment to compensate for the change. Or, it may just bill you at the end of the period to “catch up” and make your current. So, keep enacting smart energy conservation practices and look for ways to reduce your energy usage. It will pay off, even if you don’t see it in your fixed payment bill.
Saving money on energy in 3 easy steps
With harsh economic times upon us, smart homeowners and even renters are turning to their energy bills as a source of potential savings. Let’s look at 3 dirt simple tips (or steps) that are proven to save money on energy.
- Turn down the thermostat in the winter. Chances are you’ve heard this tip before. Turning down your thermostat to 68 degrees F (or about 20 degrees C) in the cold winter months (or anytime that the furnace is on) will save you money on your energy bills. How much will it save? That depends on your home, the insulation, furnace efficiency, how high the temperature was set at and heat loss. But expect to save between 5 and 15% on your heating bill based on this alone. Remember, these are hypothetical savings – so don’t expect to reduce last month’s bill by 15% and expect that to be your new payment.
- Reduce your energy usage in other areas through smart conservation. All too often, we leave lights on when not needed. We leave the TV on for background noise. We use a space heater when a blanket or sweater is cheaper, portable, and more appropriate. Select appliance usage wisely. There isn’t a need to boil a whole pot of water for a cup of tea.
- Finally, prevent energy loss by actively looking for places where energy is being wasted or lost. This is actually easier in older homes, as energy problems are usually more apparent than in newer models. Take the time to look at your windows, your doors, entryways, outer facing closets, cupboards, and more for drafts. If you find them, see if you can find where the air is coming in or escaping your house. Then, fix the problem!
Honestly, saving real money – 20% or more every month on your energy bills – is easier than you think. Opportunities are waiting for you literally around every corner of your home. All you have to do is spend a little time looking for them. Once you find problems or areas where energy is wasted, take them one at a time and eliminate the problem. Your home will be more comfortable and you will save on your energy bills in the process.
Buying an energy smart house? Here’s what you need to know
Right now, it’s a real buyer’s market out there. Interest rates are very low (if you can get approved) and real estate prices are plummeting. New home construction and remodelling have stopped. And the economy is still trying to shake off the cold, so to speak.
So, ideally, if you are looking for a new home right now you should be looking for features that will save you money on your energy bills. You can’t afford to have high energy bills.
When you look through a house, keep energy efficient thoughts in the front of your mind.
- Ask about the age of the windows. The older the house, the worse condition the windows are generally in. Older homes’ windows may look quaint, but are nowhere near as efficient at insulating than newer windows are.
- Ask about the HVAC system. (That’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). Check the age and efficiency of the furnace, usually this information is located on the energy guide sticker on the unit.
- Likewise, if the home has central air, ask about that unit as well. It’s winter now, but in the summer believe me, this will be in the front of your mind.
- Does the house feel warm? If it does, check the thermostat. There’s a reason for this. Realtors recommend people turn up the heat in the winter to make the house feel comfortable. This can sometimes mask poor insulation. If the heat is turned up too high, someone is trying to cover up a problem.
- This is harder to detect in the summer, since no one will want to turn the A/C on too high. In this instance, its best to “feel” the walls to see if they are exceedingly warm.
- Or, of course, you could also just cut to the chase and ask about insulation!
- Check insulation values in attics or basements – anywhere that drywall may be missing
- Ask how energy bills have been over the last year, on average, of the realtor or the owner. Motivated sellers will probably provide you with this information readily if they want to sell their home.
- Be aware that in older homes, especially the ones where appliances are included in the price, appliances are old, inefficient and will undoubtedly need to be replaced. Make sure you factor this in.
- Check the doors that lead outside and test for insulation gaps. If you can feel cold air around the edges, there is a problem.
- If the home has a fireplace, check to see if it has been properly maintained. One of the biggest problems with fireplaces is the damper. If the damper is broken, not only is the fireplace unusable, it is also dangerous and leaking energy like you wouldn’t believe.
Set the optimal temperature using your thermostat
Finding and setting the optimal temperature may be a science in itself. You have to take into account the heat you use with your comfort level based on your activity.
For example is it necessary to have the heat turned way up at night while you’re asleep in your bed?
Do you need the heat turned off at any time?
You need to find the balance that suits you best.
I suggest playing with it some, but don’t make it too high or low.
In the winter set it no higher than 68 or 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This is of course only a guideline. If you have a personal preference to higher temperatures or live in a particularly nasty climate or perhaps have a medical condition, feel free to adjust accordingly.
If you have a cooling system such as central air, in the summer or warmer months set it no lower than 74 – 78 degrees.
Remember, little adjustments in temperature really do make a difference! For example, just lowering the temperature by one single degree has the potential to save you about 3% on your heating bill! And lowering the temperature from 70 to 64 for 8 hours a day in the winter can potentially save you around 10% on your heating bill!
If you get an adjustable thermostat, you can easily program this in for the hours you are at work. No one is home, so the thermostat doesn’t need to maintain a higher temperature.
And you’ll save a lot of money in the process.
If you go on vacations, make sure to take into account the fact that no one will be around. Don’t shut off the heat (in cold weather), but set it lower so heat isn’t wasted.
Finally, one last closing thought on optimal temperature:
Turning down the thermostat too low can actually make your furnace work harder and increase your costs since the house and furniture in it will need to be reheated as well as the air. Additionally, turning down the temperature too low may actually cause freezing in your pipes.
Effectively cleaning your heat registers
There’s an argument to be made for cleaning your heat registers…actually, there’s several.
First, there’s the energy argument. In theory, especially in forced air systems, air flow is reduced as heat or air registers become clogged and otherwise dirty. Anything that reduces airflow has the potential for jacking up your energy bills because the furnace (or a/c for that matter) has to work harder to attain the desired room temperature.
And for non forced air heating systems (radiant heating for example), if the heating apparatus is dirty, the furnace (or heat source) as to work to warm the outer layer – which will impact how much warmth is given off to the ambient air surrounding the heater. The dust or grime (or whatever might be on the heater) acts as an insulator, which in effect counteracts the heating system. It is like placing insulation on your radiant heater. The amount of heat given off that is useful is greatly reduced.
There’s also a health argument to be made. Aside from the fact that dirty heat registers don’t look nice or fit in with most decors, forced air systems will actively spread the dirt throughout the house. As the furnace blower turns on, it will blow the dirt (or whatever else accumulates in the registers and ducts) throughout the home. For radiant systems of other heaters, the dirt will not be spread by a fan – rather, it may be melted or heated, then absorbed by the air.
The primary function of a furnace filter is to reduce the flow of airborne dust, dirt, and other items through the furnace and out into the house. However, if they are in your ducts or in the registers, you will be exposed to it before the filter can catch it.
So, careful maintenance and cleaning of your heat registers is important.
How do you effectively clean them?
Chances are it’s not possible to clean your heating / cooling ducts effectively yourself. This is more than likely a professional’s job. It involves taking a large overpowered vacuum and basically sucking the air and dirt from your ducts. They may also have special brushes and hoses which are flexible and either trap the dirt and dander or suck it up. There may be consumer products out there that allow you to clean your own ducts – however, I haven’t had any exposure to them and thus cannot in good faith make any recommendations.
Now, cleaning your registers is another story. You can easily and effectively clean your hvac registers. I’d recommend removing them if possible so you can clean both sides. Using a soft brush (like a large toothbrush) you should be able to clean the dirt, dust, pet air, grime, etc from both sides of the registers / grill. You can use a mild soap if you’d like as well. The soft brush and mild soap should not affect the finish or paint on the register while still cleaning the small areas in the grill. You should also be okay to use a soft rag or sponge as well.
Leave the register out to dry completely before replacing it on the wall / floor.
While the register is off, you can vacuum the portion of the duct you see. Take the hose attachment and clean as best you can. This should remove at least some of the debris that accumulates in your duct as a result of daily household activities.
For radiant or other heat systems (such as oil, water, or wallboard “pumped” units), you should be fine to clean it with a sponge or washrag and a mild detergent mixed with warm water.
As a reminder, its best to clean when the furnace / heater is not turned on!
If you find yourself in one room consistently, consider using a small portable space heater
This is kind of a double edge sword.
You can save on heating costs if you spend a lot of time, say, in the living room and you already took steps to plug energy holes you found. Like I said previously, it’s impossible to get every hole or energy shortcoming.
The thing to be wary about is the power consumption. Some can consume as much as 2000 Watts of power!
So, here’s the trade off – more heat from the small electric unit means you might spend less on your gas bill, but it certainly means your electric bill will be higher.
Another item to consider is the ever-popular electric blanket. If you set your heat down while you’re sleeping, you may very well be cold at night. If piling on the covers doesn’t help, you may want to use an electric blanket.
Most use around 300 – 600 Watts of power, which is the equivalent of ten 60-watt bulbs. I’d recommend using the electric blanket in “pre-heat” mode. Set the blanket at a moderate to high temperature about 1/2 hour before you plan on going to sleep. The blanket will heat the bed and the covers. When you get in bed, turn the blanket off.
You now have a warm bed, warm covers, and are saving on both heat and electricity.
Use the oscillate feature on fans
If you have a floor or desktop fan, use the oscillate feature. They circulate the air much better than a fan that’s blowing or moving air in one direction.
Avoid overuse of ventilation fans.
Ventilation fans are different than normal ceiling fans.
Ventilation fans’ job is to remove offending air from the house to the outdoors. It is non-discriminatory. In other words, it doesn’t care if the air on the inside is warmer than outside.
Usually, you’ll find ventilation fans in kitchens on hoods, in bathrooms, utility rooms, or in attics.
If you have a good reason to use these fans, then by all means use them. They are there for a reason. But don’t forget to turn them off when they’ve done their job.
A ventilation fan can suck the heated air from a normal sized house in a little over an hour. Again, in the winter this can be absolutely devastating. Your furnace will be overworked.
It’s the equivalent of leaving a window open for an hour or more !
Edinburgh Central Heating Services offer free estimates and range of skills. A 24-hour emergency plumbing service is also offered. For more information visit www.edinburghcentralheatingservice.com or telephone 0131 5102418