According to the US Environmental Information Administration, buildings account for over 38% of the energy used and over 38% of the associated CO2 emissions. As we watch the price of our home energy bills rise, reducing these costs becomes ever more important.
When it comes to improving energy efficiency, the best investments to make first are those that cost the least and pay back the fastest. What you want is high “return on investment” (also called ROI.)
Understand, ROI in a particular home is influenced by many factors, including location, construction, orientation to the landscape and sun, tax, lifestyle, energy prices, and more. And so, if you want truly accurate projections of ROI for particular improvements, you will probably need to contract a professional energy audit, discussed later. Still, it’s useful to generalize, which is what I do here.
Savings in Any Location
As you’ve likely heard, the best ROI in most homes is to switch out your incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescents. CFLs use 75% less energy than their older cousins, and tend to last twice as long. For lights used regularly, a one-year payback – essentially 100% ROI – is common.
Leaks that allow heated or cooled air to go outside are other big energy wasters. And fixing them tends to be cheap. Ergo: big ROI. Use caulk or expanding spray foam for the bigger cracks. Weather-stripping doors and windows to a tight seal and repairing broken windows that don’t close or latch fully are other big wins.
Don’t, though, ignore big but hidden holes in favor of small but obvious cracks! A common, and one of the largest leaks in the home is often the attic entrance. These openings need insulation and weather-stripping just like an exterior door. Fixing these is easier than ever thanks to prefab covers (like those sold by ESS Energy Products), which help to save energy AND are made primarily from recycled materials.
The next places to look for low-hanging fruit are “phantom loads,” i.e., power drawn by appliances even though “turned off.” Examples: appliances with a clock or lights that are always on, appliances with instant-on capability, chargers for cell phones that continue to draw power even after the phone is fully charged. Studies say that as much as 10% of our national energy use goes toward phantom loads!
Solutions include placing all the appliances on a power strip and turning off the power at the strip. If your memory is as bad as mine, try timers to turn off the power strips during times when you’re typically asleep or at work. A new kind of smart power strip can also sense when the power load drops, indicating that a battery is fully charged, and turns off power to the outlet automatically.
Appliances, particularly refrigerators, also offer substantial energy saving opportunity. Also consider that, when it comes to saving energy by replacing them and other electrical appliances, the government has simplified some of the analysis. Choose Star” appliances; they use 10-50% less energy and water than standard models. Start your search at Energy Star.gov, then turn to local sources, like the Alternative Energy store, a Chester County source for energy efficient appliances.
Special Considerations in SE PA
Southeast Pennsylvania is a heating dominated climate. This means that over the course of a year, we have more total demand for heating than cooling. And so we can expect more “bang for the buck” out of high efficiency heaters than from high efficiency air conditioners. Heating appliance savings, however, are a complex subject. The considerations for swapping out your existing furnace or boiler include fuel type, cost of fuels, and the efficiency limits for each type of appliance.
The amount of insulation recommended varies by region. Insulation levels are measured in R-value. The higher the R-value the more the insulation resists the movement of heat through it. The Department of Energy recommends improving existing attic insulation to R-38 in our area. Check out the Energy Star website for recommended levels for walls, basement and crawlspaces.
Another consideration unique to our area is the heavy use of coal to generate our electricity. Pennsylvania and nearby areas are relatively rich in this material, and so our electricity prices are relatively low. But coal is one of the dirtier fuels and will likely be hit hard by carbon regulations. In short, expect electric prices to go up, and with them, the ongoing cost of operating your electric appliances.
I Don’t Do Windows (Often)
You might wonder why I haven’t mentioned replacing your windows. Almost everyone thinks their windows leak. This is because heat from our warm bodies is drawn to the cool glass surface, making us feel like there’s a breeze on us.
Sure, replacing your windows can lower your energy bills, but with the cost of windows being so high, the savings generally take several years to recoup. The ROI tends to be low. So we don’t typically recommend that people start with windows unless they are defective or otherwise very leaky. Certainly, before replacement, do consider that windows that leak at the closure can be sealed inexpensively with weather-stripping, or if they leak from the cases, caulk can do the trick.
When in Doubt Call the Experts
Which brings us back again to the subject of professional energy auditing and expertise. A key objective of an energy audit is to locate and measure energy losses precisely, thus enabling calculation of ROIs and prioritizing possible improvements. Ultimately, you want to devote time and materials to actual problems rather than suspected ones, and to big ones rather than small ones.
For example, in the case of a “leaking window” described above, a blower-door test, fairly standard in a professional audit, would tell how much your windows are actually leaking and whether they are leaking at places that can be cheaply sealed.
Similarly, an expert can help you draw a line between solving a problem and creating a new one. It’s rare, but you can over-seal a home, trapping in moisture, contaminants, allergens and pollutants that can damage your home and health.
In other words, an audit buys you valid, actionable information; the sort of information you need to make rational investment decisions. The only thing worse than choosing the wrong place to start may be not starting at all. But the only thing better than knowing your improvement options is knowing which ones will payback the soonest.