Straight Talk Articles
Where Can You Find the Largest Home Energy Savings?
Dear Pat and Brad:
Our energy bills seem higher than they should be. But I’m not sure where to start looking for opportunities to save energy. Do you have any suggestions? -- Les
Your question is a good one for our last Straight Talk column. We’ve been answering energy questions every month now for six years. That’s over 70 columns, and many of them help answer your question.
It’s not an easy question, because there are so many products and services that proclaim great energy savings. Fortunately, all you have to do is look at your energy bills to determine where the biggest savings opportunities are.
For the vast majority of homes, the months that require the most energy use are in the winter or summer. Just total up your average energy usage for the months when you use the most energy and subtract the average amount you use in “shoulder months” when you’re pretty sure you don’t have any electric space heating or AC going on. The most likely reason for the difference is heating and cooling. If someone says switching to a new heating or cooling system could save you 20%, they probably mean you can save 20% on heating or cooling costs, which are just a portion of your overall energy costs.
Every home is different, and there is a small percentage that have an unusual energy use such as a well pump, a swimming pool or a home business that uses more energy than heating or cooling. But typically, heating and cooling your home is, by far, the largest energy use(1). Which is why we’ve written way more monthly columns about heating and cooling related energy opportunities than anything else. You can find those columns on our website (www.collaborativeefficiency.com/energytips).
Sealing air leaks is often the least expensive measure that delivers the biggest bang for the buck(2). The second most cost-effective way to cut heating and AC costs depends on your situation. If you have an older propane or oil furnace, replacing it with an efficient heat pump might be your best investment. If you already have a relatively efficient furnace or AC unit, insulating your attic could be the next most cost-effective measure, followed by insulating the exterior walls or the crawl space or basement walls. Replacing windows is a high priority for many homeowners, and new windows definitely add value to your home, but the cost of this project is often so high that it’s hard to justify based on the energy savings.
After you’ve found ways to reduce heating and cooling energy use, where else should you look? Your next largest energy use is likely water heating. A few low-cost measures such as fixing leaky faucets and insulating the first six to ten feet of hot water line coming out of the water heater could deliver significant savings. Efficient showerheads can save water and energy and there is a wide variety to choose from. The best comparison of showerheads I’ve found is on the Consumer Reports website(3). For less than $15 you can purchase a flow control device that is installed just upstream of the showerhead, which allows you to reduce the flow to a trickle while you lather up.
If your water heater is more than ten years old it’s time to consider how and when to replace it. You can just buy a traditional water heater that uses the same fuel you’re using now. But there are several other options, including heat pump water heaters, tankless water heaters and even solar water heaters(5).
Appliances and lighting energy use makes up a smaller, but still meaningful, portion of your energy costs. As you replace older appliances and lighting, look for equipment that has an Energy Star label. It’s easy to go a level deeper on appliances by looking at the EnergyGuide label(6). Light bulbs must have a label on the package(7) that shows the brightness in lumens and the estimated annual energy use.
We hope that this column, and the 71 previous columns we’ve written, will help you make the energy saving improvements you desire.
This is the last column co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency. Pat is retiring from energy consulting after 40 years in the energy efficiency business, but may do an occasional speaking engagement. Brad will continue to provide writing and communications through his company, flipjacket. For more information on saving energy and to see our previous columns, please visit: www.collaborativeefficiency.com/energytips.
A single ductless heat pump can serve up to four rooms through blowers installed in each room. Photo Credit: NW Energy Efficiency Alliance.