22 ways to cut energy costs now
At this point in time it’s evident that energy costs are not going down anytime soon. In fact, as gasoline prices continue to remain high, it’s obvious that any energy-related lifestyle improvements we make today will produce big dividends in the months and years ahead. It seems as though every facet of our lives relates to energy use of some type, including the vehicles we drive, the mass transportation we take and, of course, the homes we build and live in.
As you read over the following energy-saving strategies, remember that you should view your home from a holistic perspective, rather than as a collection of separate systems and components. Each strategy I’ve outlined should be considered in relation to how well it will work with or against other strategies to ensure the exponential benefits a whole-building approach can provide.
For instance, if improved air quality is a necessity for your home (as it should be, especially in households with asthmatic or other sensitive individuals), implement strategies with that goal in mind. But remember that by introducing more fresh air into the home or by installing denser filters in your HVAC system, your home will use additional energy, causing your electricity bills to rise.
Your home improvement strategies should be kept in balance. There can be pros and cons to every home improvement strategy implemented, so proceed carefully and cautiously as you identify what’s best for your specific situation.
I’m listing many strategies I have either used personally or seen on other projects. These strategies are presented in no particular order. However, I’m a building-envelope guy, so my advice is to first focus on envelope issues (exterior walls, roofs, windows and doors) to maximize energy efficiency and return on investment.
1. Seal all cracks and crevices from inside your home’s building envelope. Use expandable foam-sealant products around doors and windows and then finish off with the best-quality caulking you can find. Make sure all products are low in volatile organic compound (VOC) content to ensure good indoor air quality.
2. Seal all cracks and crevices from the outside of your building envelope. Using the same expandable foam products, seal around doors, windows and other hard-to-caulk areas. This will provide continuity between indoor and outdoor sealing and will help to improve envelope performance beyond what you may think is possible. Of course, remember to caulk afterward with the highest-quality product possible. Caulking is not a product to skimp on, either quality- or cost-wise, as cost is usually an indicator of quality. Using low-VOC products is not as critical outdoors, but stick with them anyway.
3. Weatherstrip doors and windows.
4. Install additional insulation in the attic. Consider installing insulation in the rafters instead of ceiling joists. If your mechanical equipment is located in the attic, creating this semiconditioned space will greatly improve the energy performance of your home.
I recently became aware of a reflective insulation product called Astro-Foil (www.astrofoilint.com) that I’m very impressed with. The product comes in rolls and is installed on the underside of rafters in the attic. It acts as a radiant barrier as well as an insulator, with a stated R-value of 15 and a U-value of 0.082. (The U-value is a measure of how much heat p.asses through a component, such as a window or radiant barrier; the lower the number, the better.)
Astro-Foil consists of polyethylene air-bubble pockets (bubble wrap) sandwiched between thin layers of aluminum foil. The foil strips are taped together during installation, eliminating any need for adhesives or sprays. The product can be installed almost anywhere you would use traditional insulation, such as around pipes, ductwork, water heaters, on garage doors or around doors and windows. It can also be installed on roofs. This is an ideal product for steel-framed buildings, storage areas, ductwork and retrofits, but I wouldn’t recommend it over integral insulation systems such as insulated concrete forms (ICFs) or structural insulated panels (SIPs).
5. Install ceiling fans to reduce the need for heating and air conditioning.
6. Blinds or window coverings will help keep the sun that hits your windows from penetrating the living space and contributing to solar heat gain.
7. Energy-efficient lighting has become an increasingly important component of high-performance building. Because light fixtures generate heat as well as light, they should be carefully analyzed for the amount of heat produced, which can negatively affect the sizing of the mechanical equipment needed to cool the space. Factors to consider include the amount of energy consumed by each fixture, the types of bulbs used and the style of the fixture to ensure it fits with the overall design criteria.
8. Vacancy sensors automatically turn off the lights when no one is in the room. At about $25 each, you can reduce your energy costs and finally show those kids who’s boss!
9. Compact fluorescent lamps save about 50 percent over standard bulbs in energy usage. Stock up and replace old bulbs as they burn out, or swap out incandescents for CFLs a few at a time, or all at once. Many utility companies offer incentives to replace bulbs with CFLs, so it’s worth a phone call to see what your local utility offers.
10. Install a breather vent in your laundry room. With a breather vent, your dryer will pull in outside air for drying your clothes instead of drawing in air you’ve just paid to heat or cool.
11. Replace appliances with Energy Star-rated units and you will save a lot of money. These appliances can cost a little more, but your payback period will be short.
12. Heating water uses a lot of energy. You can do a number of things to save energy in this area. For example, you can lower the thermostat on your hot water heater, wrap your water heater in an insulating blanket, install a hot-water recirculating pump, upgrade to a tankless water heater, or install a point-of-use water heater in the kitchen (if the kitchen is located far from the water heater).
13. Seal your attic access. You can buy a Styrofoam kit at most hardware stores that will fit neatly over the top of your attic stairs.
14. Reflective roof coatings, shingles or other roofing products can extend the life of roofing and help keep your attic cooler, reducing the air-conditioning load. They can also help reduce the heat-island effect in heavily populated areas.
15. While we’re on the subject of roofs, consider skylights of some type to provide natural daylight to non-perimeter areas of the home. Here’s an integrated design point: Using skylights along with interior lighting controls will ensure that artificial light is used only when needed, reducing energy costs.
16. Utilize landscape elements like deciduous trees and plants for shading. Selecting proper native or adapted vegetation for shading will permit the sun to shine through in the winter, helping to heat the home, yet will shade the home during summer months when unwanted heat may be introduced into the building through windows.
17. Other shading devices like awnings, light shelves and extra-large overhangs will keep the hot summer sun from striking your windows and building envelope, but may be more expensive than other options.
18. Patio covers also will keep the sun from striking your home. In addition, they will provide an outdoor living space to make your home seem larger than it actually is — a great green building concept!
19. To save energy, landscape lighting can be converted to low voltage, some fixtures can be eliminated, or all exterior lighting can be switched to solar fixtures, which have come a long way in the past few years. They are easy to install, low in maintenance and operate without electricity.
20. For those of you who own pools, do you realize that it’s not unusual for your pool pump to use more electricity than all of your other appliances in the home combined? It’s true — your energy-hungry pool-pump motor could possibly be costing you more than $100 a month! At my home, I just installed an energy-efficient pool pump called the IntelliFlo VS-3050, made by Pentair (www.pentairpool.com), which should save more than 90 percent on my pool-filtering costs due to its efficient design in two important areas.
First, the pump uses a permanent magnet motor instead of the more traditional induction-type motor. The difference in the performance of the motor alone should save more than 30 percent on electricity costs.
Second (and hugely important), this new motor includes variable-speed capability that permits the motor to be custom-programmed for the task at hand: filtering, heating, cleaning or operation of water features. The pump can operate at an ultra-low speed that uses about as much energy as a 30-watt light bulb. I can set the pump on this speed during the day, keeping the water almost constantly filtered, which will result in less filtering required during heavy filtering periods, which normally take place at night.
21. Other energy-efficient pool strategies include solar heating, and pool and spa covers.
22. Generating your own electricity is an excellent way to lower your energy costs, but will of course require some capital investment. However, the costs for these systems have come down over the past few years, so if you’re considering an on-site renewable-energy system, make sure you do your research, and contract with a reputable firm with references.
The most common residential renewable-energy systems are solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and wind turbines. A typical residential PV system that provides 2 kilowatts of power will cost anywhere from $16,000 to $22,000, although federal and state rebates can reduce that cost. A wind-generation system can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $22,000, depending on how much of the home’s power you want to supply through renewables.
There are tremendous tax incentives offered in many states, which can greatly reduce installation costs while providing a reliable source of electricity for years to come.
There you go! I’ve just given you 22 green ideas you can use now, whether you’re building a new home or upgrading an existing one. Of course, there are a number of other strategies you can use (see sidebar), depending on your particular energy reduction needs or sustainability goals.
You certainly won’t be able to accomplish everything discussed above all at once, but don’t fret. My advice is to develop an overall energy-savings program. Pick and choose among the strategies to develop an overall checklist. Then you can get aggressive by implementing two or three strategies a month, or just doing what you can, whenever you can.
Start with the strategies that will give you the most bang for your energy-efficiency buck and implement those first. As more money becomes available, consider the other items. In a short time, you will have greatly reduced energy costs, reduced your home’s environmental footprint and improved the value of your home.
Charlie Popeck is the president of Green Ideas Environmental Building Consultants. He can be reached at 877-887-9799 or Charlie@Egreenideas.com. Green Ideas specializes in helping design, construction and facility-management teams understand and implement building science and sustainability into their projects.
11 more energy-saving strategies
1. Install a programmable digital thermostat.
2. Seal interior ductwork with duct mastic.
3. Install window films on all your windows.
4. Close heating/cooling vents in unused rooms.
5. Change your HVAC filters regularly, before they clog.
6. Insulate your home’s hot water pipes.
7. Use solar ovens or outdoor barbecues when cooking to reduce energy costs.
8. Hang clothes out to dry rather than throwing them in the dryer.
9. Open windows for natural ventilation when the weather permits.
10. Use portable fans for localized cooling.
11. Make sure your air conditioner’s Freon is fully charged.