Home Energy First Things First
The average American family spends nearly $1,800 per year on utility bills. This expense can be reduced by 10–90 percent (depending on how inefficient you are and how aggressive you want to be about getting efficient). Saving energy can be a good way to lessen the strain on family finances and free up money for better uses.
There are hundreds of things you can do to make your home more efficient, ranging from simple, free adjustments to major, long-term investments. Which ones you should do in your home will depend on a number of factors—where you live, the size and style of your house, how efficient it already is, which direction it faces, and so on.
Nevertheless, let one principle be your guide: go for the best buys first. Often it will be the cheapest, easiest projects that make the biggest dents in your utility bills. Then, with the money you're saving each month on energy and water, you can tackle further projects.
Some utilities and state energy offices offer great information and financing programs to encourage their customers to invest in energy efficiency and renewables. Ask yours about rebate programs and energy-saving technologies.
The following tips are excerpted from the RMI book Homemade Money: How to Save Energy and Dollars in Your Home.
Collect your fuel and electric bills for the past 12 months. Divide their total by the square footage of your home—but don't include garages and unheated basements. Most annual bills range from 60 to 90 per square foot. If your bills fall in this range, or are even higher, you have many cost-effective opportunities to dramatically reduce your bills.
- Measure the thickness of insulation in the attic, basement, and walls. Note the age and condition of your home's major heating and cooling equipment, appliances, the type of windows, and if your water heater is wrapped with an insulating jacket. How does your home feel? Is it drafty on windy days? Are you comfortable?
- Call for help. Most state energy offices have useful consumer information booklets, and can refer you to local weatherization agencies and other energy experts who can help you. Many electric utilities offer free or discounted water heater blankets, new showerheads, or compact fluorescent lamps; many also offer financial incentives for the purchase of more efficient appliances or heat pumps.
- You may want to have a comprehensive audit done on your home, in which case the auditor should list, in order of importance, what should be done. Many electric utilities and weatherization agencies will send an auditor to your home, often at no charge to you. Professional audits, including a blower door test, typically cost $50 to $150, but if your home energy bills are high it will most likely be worth it.
Make a plan of action. The following priority lists are a useful place to start. Feel free to substitute your own priorities, since only you, and the professionals who may be helping you, know your situation.
Free—Things That Cost Nothing and Save Cash
- Turn down water heater thermostat to 120F.
- Turn off lights when leaving a room.
- Set thermostats to 68F in winter when you're home, and down to 55F when you go to bed or when you're away. (Programmable thermostats do this automatically—see below).
- Use energy-saving settings on washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers, and refrigerators.
- Don't waste water, hot or cold, inside or outside your home.
- Clean your refrigerator's condenser coils once a year.
- Air-dry your clothes.
- Close heating vents in unused rooms.
- Repair leaky faucets and toilets (5 percent of water "use" is leakage).
- Close drapes (and windows) during sunny summer days and after sunset in the winter.
Simple and Inexpensive—Things That Will Pay for Themselves in Lower Energy Bills in Less Than a Year
- Install a water-saving 1.5 to 2.5-gallon per minute showerhead.
- Install water-efficient faucet heads for your kitchen and bathroom sinks.
- Install a programmable thermostat.
- In the attic and basement, plug the air leaks a cat could crawl through, and replace and reputty broken window panes.
- Clean or change the air filter on your warm-air heating system during winter and on air conditioning units in the summer.
- Install an R-7 or R-11 water heater wrap.
- Insulate the first three feet of hot and inlet cold water pipes.
- Install a compact fluorescent light bulb in the fixture you use the most.
Getting Serious—Measures That Collectively Will Cost Up to $500 and Have Paybacks of One to Three Years
- Get a comprehensive energy audit, including a blower door test, to identify sources of air infiltration.
- Caulk and weatherize all leaks identified by the test. Start with the attic and basement first (especially around plumbing and electrical penetrations, and around the framing that rests on the foundation), then weatherize windows and doors.
- Seal and insulate warm-air heating (or cooling) ducts.
- Have heating and cooling systems tuned up every year.
- Install additional faucet aerators, efficient showerheads, and programmable thermostats.
- Make insulating shades for your windows, or add insulating storm windows (or, in a southern climate, shade sunny windows or add solar gain control films).
- Insulate hot water pipes in unheated basements or crawlspaces.
Going All the Way—Measures That Will Save a Lot of Energy and Money, But Will Take Three to Fifteen Years to Pay for Themselves
- Foundation: insulate inside rim joist and down the foundation wall to below frostline to at least R-19 in cold climates and to R-11 or better in moderate climates. Remember to caulk first.
- Basement: insulate the ceiling above crawlspaces or unheated basements to at least R-19 in cold climates. If your basement is heated, insulate the inside of basement walls instead to R-19 or more above grade and to R-11 or more below grade. Basement or foundation insulation is usually not needed in hot climates.
- Attic: increase attic insulation to R-50 in cold climates, R-38 in milder climates, and R-30 plus a radiant barrier in hot climates.
- Walls: adding wall insulation is more difficult and expensive, but may be cost-effective if your house is uncomfortable.
- Install more compact fluorescent bulbs. Put them in your most frequently used fixtures, including those outdoors.
- Replace exterior incandescent lights with compact fluorescents and put them on a timer or motion sensor if they're on more than a couple of hours a night.
- Install a radiant barrier in your attic if you live in the Sunbelt states.
- Convert to solar water heating, and perhaps also supplementary solar space heating.
- Upgrade your water heater, furnace, boiler, air conditioners, and refrigerator to more efficient models. Newer units are far more efficient. Upgrading is often cost-effective, and definitely so if you need to replace failing units anyway. Also, if you've weatherized and insulated, you'll be able to downsize the heating and cooling system.
- Upgrade to superinsulating or at least low-emissivity windows in cold climates, or low solar transmittance windows in hot climates, if replacement is needed.
- Replace high-flow toilets with modern water-efficient toilets that use 50–80 percent less water.
- Install awnings or build removable trellises over windows that overheat your home in the summer.
- Plant a tree to shade your largest west window in summer. You won't save any money for years, but you'll get an A for long-range vision.
Copyright 2012 Ronald Sauve All Rights Reserved
This page was last modified on April 06, 2012
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