Ask the Expert: Tips to save energy at home

| by Teena Hammond
Ask the Expert: Tips to save energy at home

We asked the experts at ProudGreenHome for their best tips on saving energy at home. A range of ideas were shared, from saving water to reducing vampire energy loads that suck up energy in your home. Read on for ways to significantly save on your utility bills.

 

Melissa Rappaport Schifman, founder and principal of Green Intention LLC

 

Five tips to save energy at home:

  1. Become aware of your energy uses and get a watt meter to better understand it. Space heating and cooling accounts for the largest share of energy, followed closely by water heating, lighting, refrigeration, and electronics. If you want to reduce your energy bills, pay attention to what drives them up -- awareness is the first step.
  2. Change out your light bulbs to LED bulbs. A $9.97 LED bulb from Home Depot can replace a regular incandescent 50-watt bulb; the energy savings alone pay for itself in less than one year; factoring in replacement costs makes it a financial deal almost too good to be true.
  3. Get the Belkin timer and surge protector to reduce all the peripheral electronic draws. It's a very easy plug-in gadget that really can make a difference (they all add up), and it helps save the battery life of phones and laptops.
  4. Add insulation where it is needed most: usually attics and around outlets. Insulation is almost always the biggest bang for the buck, and most homes need more. Getting a subsidized energy audit through your utility can help reduce the cost, and they usually come with recommendations for insulation contractors.
  5. Replace old appliances. If your refrigerator is from the 1980s, it is an energy hog! Check www.dsire.org for state incentives and rebates for these types of things to help lower the upfront cost; but you won't be sorry: the energy savings will pay for the new appliance usually within one-three years.

My blog takes sustainable home living and breaks it down into four manageable chunks. For this first quarter, its focus is weekly tips on energy conservation. Visit www.green-intention.com for more information.

Eric Corey Freed, founding principal of organicARCHITECT

Between the economic meltdown and the push for green buildings, saving energy, water and money in your home is more popular than ever. Fortunately, greening your home doesn't have to be time consuming or expensive.

  1. Change your light bulbs already!
  2. Convince your toilet to use less water
  3. Use less water in the shower
  4. Slay those vampire loads
  5. Install a programmable thermostat
  6. Put a coat on your hot water heater
  7. Weatherize those windows
  8. Never buy bottled water again
  9. Install a solar powered clothes dryer (clothesline)
  10. Compost and recycle

Change your light bulbs already!

How many environmentalists does it take to change a light bulb? There are several answers to this joke (none of them that funny), but the real answer is: "all of them." Everyone should be swapping their burnt out incandescent bulbs with energy efficient compact fluorescent (CFL) ones. Upgrading your bulbs is one of the simplest, but one of the most important, things you can do to save energy in your home.

In your home, lighting accounts for nearly 30 percent of all of your electricity use. By using compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, you can cut lighting costs by 30 to 60 percent, while improving the quality of the light and reducing environmental impact at the same time.

Traditional bulbs give off 90 percent heat and only 10 percent light. A CFL bulb is almost the opposite. If every household replaced the most often used incandescent bulbs with CFLs, electricity use for lighting in the US would be cut in half, saving enough energy to light more than 2.5 million homes for a year and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of nearly 1,200,000 cars.

An 8-pack of typical CFL bulbs can be found online for $10 to $12 compared to half that for traditional incandescent bulbs. Energy Star offers up to $2 rebates through your local power company or go to www.energystar.gov. Even free bulbs are available through promotional giveaways. 

Convince your toilet to use less water

More water is consumed per person in the US than in any other country. One reason is that our homes consume an incredible amount of fresh drinking water, and most of it is used in places it does not need to be so drinkable. More than a quarter of all of the water used inside the home is flushed down the toilet, which is literally a waste. The toilet is the single largest user of clean drinking water inside the home, and it is also the easiest place to conserve water.

Low-flow toilets are required in California, but most states do not yet have these regulations. But before you run out and replace your existing toilets, there are simple and effective things you can do to trick your old toilet to use less water, from flush adapters to flusher adjustments and tank tricks.

And when the time comes to replace your working toilets, make sure you buy a low-flow or dualflush model.

Wash out an empty 2-liter beverage bottle and fill it about halfway with sand, marbles, or small pebbles. Fill it the rest of the way with water and tightly seal the cap.

Go to your toilet and lift the lid on the tank. Slip the bottle into the tank as far from the valve in the bottom as possible. Make sure it can stand up by itself. Replace the tank lid. The bottle takes up volume in the tank, saving half a gallon on every flush and thousands of gallons of drinking water a year.

Rather than replace your entire toilet, a conversion kit can transform your toilet into a dual-flush model. Push one button and the dual-flush uses only 0.8 gal. per flush for liquid waste. For solid waste, push the second button and the full 1.6 gal. is used. Products like the EcoFlush from Brondell (www.brondell.com) cost under $100 and install in minutes.

In addition, a wide array of toilet rebates are available to cover half your cost. Check out http://epa.gov/watersense/pp/find_rebate.htm or www.toiletrebate.com to find programs in your area.

Use less water in the shower

Showers add up to nearly 20 percent of all indoor water usage and are the largest users of hot water. By simply installing a low-flow showerhead, you can save up to 4,000 gallons of water annually, and for every gallon of hot water you can save, that's gas or electricity you don't need to use to heat it.

If your average shower is 10 minutes long, upgrading your old showerheads to a low-flow model will save 25 to 55 gallons of water for every shower you take, and potentially shave 30 percent off utility bills.

Showerheads bearing the WaterSense logo indicate models with the highest standard of water efficiency. The seal was developed by the EPA in 2006 to alert consumers of water-efficient appliances. By switching from the (Federally mandated) 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) showerhead to one with 1.5 gpm, you can reduce shower water usage by 40 percent. You could save 5 percent to 7 percent off your energy bill, which translates into $10 to $20 monthly.

Slay those vampire loads

The appliances and equipment in our homes are overachievers at their jobs. They sit in standby, always ready to come to life at a moment's notice. If something is plugged into the wall, even if it's not on, it draws electricity. We call this demand of energy phantom loads or, more appropriately, vampire loads, since they suck energy. While the amount of power used is relatively small, they can add up to more than 10 percent of your electricity bill.

There are several simple ways to slay vampire loads:

  • Unplug: You could simply unplug any appliance with a standby light. This is not always convenient or easy, especially when things are plugged in behind the sofa.
  • Power strips: A power strip allows you to plug in several items that are controlled by a single switch. This allows you to flip the switch off when not needed. A power strip might be a little easier to reach, but you still have to bend and reach for them.
  • Smart strips: New power strips are available that sense when power is being drawn and shut off automatically. As simple to install as a regular strip, you don't need to worry about vampire loads ever again.

The amount of the vampire load varies depending on the type of appliance. An electric toothbrush charges only an hour a day and will cost around $1 a year in vampire load. A desktop computer might only be used after work, but will still cost $34 per year. While these are relatively small amounts, a widescreen plasma television, however, uses an active standby mode that can cost up to $160 a year to continually warm the plasma and keep the television ready. In the average home, 75 percent of the electricity used to power home electronics such as cable boxes, DVD players, video games, stereos is consumed while the products are turned off. That's money that could stay in your pocket.

Vampire loads consume 5 percent to 7 percent of all residential electricity. If saved, that is enough energy to power more than 10 million homes in the United States. That is equivalent to the output of 36 power stations.

Smart strips cost $15 to $30 and do all the work for you once you install them so you don't have to think about it. A typical house may need three or four strips to cover the computer and TV areas.

Even the largest house should be able to resolve their issues for less than $150 and will be paid back in the first year or so.

Install a programmable thermostat

The old-fashioned thermostat is a fairly dumb device. It switches on a heater when the temperature drops below a set degree and turns the heater off once the temperature rises back above that setting.

So the heat comes on no matter what time of day it is, likely wasting energy while you sleep or when you're not even home.

A programmable thermostat is a smarter version of the original because it operates only during the times you set. For example, a programmable thermostat could lower the heat at 10 p.m. every night, when you're bundled under the covers in bed. It could also be programmed to return the room to a more comfortable temperature 30 minutes before you wake up.

The average household spends more than $2,000 a year on energy bills — nearly half of which goes to heating and cooling. You can save $150 a year just by properly setting a programmable thermostat.

Once set correctly, a programmable thermostat can cut your heating and cooling bills by 20 percent to 30 percent annually.

Be sure to recycle that old, mercury-filled thermostat. The EPA lists recycling sources for mercury by state (www.epa.gov/wastes/hazard/tsd/mercury/collect.htm). Your local HVAC repairman will probably let you drop it off.

Programmable thermostats start at around $30 and can go as high as $150; most homes will only need one or two units. Cities like Charlottesville, Va., will give you up to $100 to cover the cost and installation of a new programmable thermostat, making it virtually free.

Put a coat on your hot water heater

If your home is like most, hot water is produced in a hot water heater. This large tank usually sits in a garage, closet, or basement and slowly heats up a vat of water, and keeps it hot all day and night.

Nearly 20 percent of all of the energy used in the home goes just to the water heater, making it the second largest energy user in homes after heating and cooling.

Insulating a water heater tank reduces the heat losses by 25 percent to 45 percent.

This translates into as much as a 9 percent savings in total energy usage. Plus, a well-insulated water heater means there will be less chance of your running out of hot water during a shower, since the heat remains in the tank.

If everyone in the US insulated their hot water heaters, nearly 11 billion kWh of that energy would be saved — enough to power 11.9 million homes in a year.

While you're at it, turn down the thermostat on your heater to 123 degrees (F).

That's hot enough for your shower and to kill off any bacteria in the tank.

Around $25 should get you a top-of-the-line insulating blanket that you can install by yourself in an hour. A number of cities and states offer rebates of $5 to $10 for blankets. A few water districts occasionally offer free blankets, so it's worth calling your local utility to find out what's available.

That means the blanket pays for itself in a couple of months, and its pure savings after that.

Weatherize those windows

While the walls of your home are insulated, the largest source of energy loss in your home are your windows. Thin sheets of glass are terrible insulators and the edges of the windows typically leak air.

If you add up the area of all of the cracks and leaks around the windows of your home, it would total about the size of an entire window. Installing new windows can solve much of this problem, but that can be a big job. Simply weatherizing — sealing the cracks and leaks around your windows and exterior doors — can have an immediate impact on your energy savings and can be completed in an afternoon.

Improperly sealed windows and doors account for more than 50 percent of the air leaking out of the home. If every home in the United States were sealed, enough energy would be saved to provide heating and cooling to nearly 9 million homes every year. It would eliminate 6.5 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, the equivalent of taking more than a million cars off the road.

Purchase only caulking with low or zero Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). It costs the same as the chemical laden stuff. Figure that six to eight tubes at a total cost of no more than $65 should be enough to seal a 3,000-sq.-ft. house with 15 to 20 windows.

Some cities offer up to $25 in rebates. The federal government has apportioned funds for lower income families to weatherize their homes through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Owners of older homes with no previous weatherization could save as much as 15 percent to 20 percent of their energy bill, or about $30 to $40 on a $200 monthly bill. Newer homes will likely see smaller savings since much of the sealing has already been completed. Either way, your savings will pay for the cost of the project in just a few months.

Never buy bottled water again

We are bottled water addicts. In the US, we consume 6.9 billion gallons of the stuff a year, filling some 30 billion of those little plastic bottles. It takes 1.5 million barrels of oil to produce all of that plastic, enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year.

Ironically, it takes three to four times the amount of water to make the bottle than actually fits into the bottle. Sadly, only around 20 percent of all these billions of plastic water bottles are recycled, leaving the rest to fall into landfills, along the sides of our roads, and into our oceans. Peter Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute, said the true cost of bottled water is "like filling up a quarter of every bottle with oil."

We spent more than $15 billion in 2008 on bottled water, assuming it was cleaner or healthier. But at least a quarter of the bottled water sold is really just filtered tap water. Check out the National Tap Water Database (www.ewg.org/tapwater/yourwater/) if you're still skeptical. You already have an endless, cheap, and clean source of water being delivered directly to your home from your faucet.

A water filter can solve the eco-issues of buying bottled water and remove your concerns over the quality of your tap water. You may already have a small water filter in your home. But we can go one step further—a whole-house filter will purify every drop of water coming into your home.

Filters range in price from $30 to $200. Installing a whole-house filter may require plumbing help, so you might have to spend another $50. A whole-house filter is less than a penny per gallon.

Install a solar powered clothes dryer (clothesline)

In the good old days before mechanical clothes washers, people scrubbed clothing by hand on a washboard. It was backbreaking, tiresome work. Hanging the clothes to dry was the easy part compared with the knuckle-scraping efforts of washing. Today, 80 percent of households have a washer and dryer, but this convenience comes at a price.

Electric clothes dryers eat up 10 percent of a home's energy. Each load of laundry gives off around 5.6 lb. of carbon dioxide per load. That adds up to more than 2,000 pounds of CO2 a year just from drying clothes.

A solar-powered clothes dryer is a smart and highly energy efficient way to dry your clothes. Also known as a clothesline, this idea has been around for centuries and provides an affordable, easy alternative to the high cost of clothes drying convenience.

If your homeowners association bans clotheslines, check out Project Laundry List (www.laundrylist.org), a nonprofit organization fighting for "the right to dry" around the country.

If you decide to keep that old energy hog of a dryer, be sure to clean the lint filter before every use.

Cleaning the filter increases the airflow and energy efficiency of the dryer. A clogged lint filter forces your dryer to use up to 30 percent more energy.

Compost and recycle

The average American produces 4.6 lb. of trash a day, which totals up to 251.3 million tons a year.

Landfills pollute our water, take up enormous amounts of space, and (surprise, surprise) no one wants to live near them. Most people don't realize the biggest problem with landfills is the emissions they generate, namely methane and carbon dioxide gas, which contribute to global warming. By composting and recycling, we can reduce the trash in landfills and do long-lasting good for our environment.

Composting also benefits your lawn and garden. Spread nutrient-rich compost instead of store-bought mulch, and you'll see a change in your plants' appearance within weeks.

Methane and carbon dioxide emissions from landfills are responsible for 3.8 percent of the U.S.'s contribution to global warming. Last year, recycling reduced the country's carbon emissions by 54 million tons, equivalent to taking nearly 9 million cars off the road.

Beyond global warming, recycling and composting save energy. Nearly 10 percent of U.S. oil consumption goes into making plastics. By recycling plastic, we save oil. According to the EPA, for every soda can you recycle, enough energy is saved to power a television for three hours.

Recycling and composting can be done immediately and require nothing except the desire to do it.

Contact your local trash pickup company and request a free recycling bin (you may also be able to get a free compost bin.) While not every town recycles, many do and will have specific rules for how to separate the items.

Summary

All ten of these projects will save you up to 60 percent off your energy bill and thousands of gallons off your water bill. All of them will pay for themselves in under a year. Plus you'll rest easy knowing you are doing your part for our environment. Some cities, like San Francisco, require recycling and composting and provide bins for both.

Luis Imery, principal of the Imery Group

Ways to be more energy efficient at home:

Reduce the home's infiltration rate: Depending on your climate zone it might be possible that 50 percent of your utility bill goes into paying for heating or cooling your home. The most effective way to get most "bang for your buck" is to reduce the amount of air leakage in your homes. To accomplish this you need to:

HVAC duct leakage: Get a bucket of mastic out, and go to the attic and crawlspace and trace down the areas of where the duct is letting air out. I recommend starting at the supply and return plenums and how the attached to the air handler/blower. Then check the take-off from the supply, and inspected the run of duct for disconnected ducts. Pay special attention to long runs where it's possible that two ducts where joint together. Anywhere you feel air coming out, plug it... This way you keep the air where it needs to be, in your house not the attic/crawlspace

Building envelope: Most of the air leakage and heat loss occurs through the ceiling. If your attic is not decked out, you are in luck. From the attic side, start sealing with caulk or foam any penetration through the ceiling suck as HVAC boots, ceiling lights, wires, etc. Also, caulk where the drywall meets the top plate or where you see a joint. Then do this on the exterior walls of your home and caulk all penetrations through that wall such as electrical outlets. Last, get in the crawlspace and do the same thing.

Add insulation: Only when you have air seal your home, I will suggest you add insulation if you think you are below code. Depending on your Energy Code, you will need R-30 or R-38 in your ceiling. Pull the type and measure the thickness of insulation to determine R-value or read the stamp on the fiberglass batt. Supplement as needed.

Lighting: You can bit the bullet and replace all your screw in incandescent light bulbs with CFL, or if you're a feeling good you can go with LED lights. Another strategy is to replace them by areas of maximum usage to less. This will be more sensitive to your budget.

Water heater & HVAC system: Once you have exhausted the other two recommendations, check your mechanical components. If they are out dated you will benefit from replacing the units. If not, leave them alone until you have a good reason for replacement. Today's water heater and HVAC system have a high efficiency rating.

Appliances: Expensive choice but if you are due for an upgrade opt for Energy Star rated.

In summary, use common sense when performing these improvements. However, I strongly recommend that you hire a certified energy rater to perform an energy audit of your home before embarking in any energy improvement activities. These professionals are trained to identify life safety issues that might be present in your house that could be amplified if a home gets tighter.

Tom Smith, director of operations and marketing for Anua


Five ways to conserve water:

  1. Run your washing machine and dishwasher only when they're completely full and you could save 1,000 gallons of potable water each month
  2. Use the garbage disposal sparingly. Compost instead and save gallons of water every time.
  3. Limit showers to five minutes or less.
  4. Consider high-efficiency appliances and low-flow toilets and shower heads.
  5. Fix all leaks in sinks and toilets and save more than 100 gallons of water every week.


Read more about going green at home.


Topics: Going Green, Heating & Cooling, Lighting, Water Heaters, Water Saving Devices, WaterSense



Teena Hammond
Teena Hammond has published more than 2,000 articles in People and W magazines, Women's Wear Daily, and in dozens of newspapers and books. She also wrote a home improvement, remodeling and decor column that ran in Gannett newspapers nationwide. She's interested in all things green and would love to hear from you with your story ideas.

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