Where Your Home Is Losing Money

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Reviewing your summer energy bill can be as brutal as taking a punch from Rocky Balboa. But you don’t have to go into the ring defenseless: there are many large and small adjustments that can lessen the damage and save you hundreds in long-term savings.

Let’s start big. You can reduce your home’s heating and cooling costs by as much as 30 percent through proper insulation and air sealing techniques, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Inadequate insulation and leaks allow temperature-controlled air to escape and outdoor air to come in and fill its place. The first step is getting a home energy audit to identify troublesome areas. This can be done by you or a professional.

In addition to sealing air leaks, caulking can also prevent water damage inside and outside of the home when applied around faucets, ceiling fixtures, water pipes, drains, bathtubs and other plumbing fixtures. Photo: Flickr/ziggy fresh

The DIY home energy audit

Air leaks: First, check for drafts. Using a candle, incense sticks or your damp hand can make it easier to locate leaks. Moving air will cause the smoke of the incense sticks or candle to waver, and any drafts will feel cool to your damp hand.

Check the following areas:

  • Window frames
  • Baseboards
  • Weather stripping around doors
  • Fireplace dampers
  • Electrical outlets
  • Attic hatches
  • Piping
  • Wall- or window-mounted air conditioners

If you are having difficulty locating leaks, you can conduct a basic building pressurization test by closing all exterior doors, windows, and fireplace flues, turning off all combustion appliances, and turning on all exhaust fans.

Moving to the outside: You should inspect all areas where two different building materials meet, including:

  • All exterior corners
  • Where siding and chimneys meet
  • Areas where the foundation and the bottom of exterior brick or siding meet

You should caulk (seal) penetrations for faucets, pipes, electric outlets and wiring, as well as any holes you find. Check the exterior caulking around doors and windows, and see whether exterior storm doors and primary doors seal tightly. The U.S. Department of Energy website has information on the different caulking compounds to help you make the best selection.

Warning: Sealing a home can cause combustion appliance “backdrafts,” or polluted air that is pulled back into the house because it does not have an adequate escape path. If you burn natural gas, fuel oil, propane or wood in your home, check in with a local utility company or energy professional to be sure your home is safe.

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Insulation: Next it’s time to inspect your insulation.  First, make sure your water heater, hot water pipes and furnace ducts are all insulated. For checking wall insulation, there are a couple of methods. One option is to make a small hole in a closet or behind a couch to see what material, if any, is inside the wall cavity. Ideally, it should be completely filled.

You can also check using an outlet. Select an exterior wall and turn off the circuit breaker or unscrew the fuse for any outlets in the wall. Once you are sure your outlets are not getting any electricity (always check by plugging something in), remove the cover plate from one of the outlets and gently probe into the wall with a thin, long stick or screwdriver. If you have insulation, you should encounter slight resistance.

Unfortunately, neither of these methods tell you if the entire wall is insulated, or if the insulation has settled. Only a thermographic inspection (infrared scanning) has this capability, one of the benefits of a professional home energy audit.

Air Conditioner: Heating and cooling account for about 56 percent of the energy use in a typical U.S. home, making it the largest energy expense for most homes, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

Heating and cooling account for about 56 percent of the energy use in a typical U.S. home. Photo: Flickr/EasyPickle

As mentioned above, check and seal any air leaks around the unit. If your system is more than 15 years old, a  newer, energy-efficient unit will greatly reduce your energy consumption.

Additional tips:

  • Clean the filter regularly.
  • Shade the unit (but do not cover it completely).
  • Don’t place lamps or TV sets near your air conditioning thermostat. The thermostat senses heat from these appliances, which can cause the air conditioner to run longer than necessary.
  • Don’t set your thermostat at a colder setting than normal when you turn on your air conditioner. It will not cool your home any faster and could result in excessive cooling.

Lighting: Examine the wattage size of the light bulbs in your house. You may have 100-watt (or larger) bulbs where 60 or 75 watts would do. You should also consider CFL bulbs for areas where lights are on for hours at a time. Your electric utility may offer rebates or other incentives for purchasing energy-efficient lamps.

Hiring a professional

For a detailed analysis, you can hire a professional to conduct an energy audit.  The auditor should do a room-by-room examination of the residence, as well as a thorough examination of past utility bills. In preparation, make a list of any existing problems such as condensation or drafty rooms. Have copies or a summary of the home’s yearly energy bills, which can be obtained at your utility office.

There are several places where you can locate professional energy auditing services. Your state or local government energy office may help you identify a local company or organization that performs audits. Before contracting with a company, get several references and call the Better Business Bureau to check its history. Also, make sure the company uses a calibrated blower door (to check how airtight your home is) and a thermographic inspection (to check the insulation).

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Don’t forget the little guys

In addition to weatherizing your home, small steps can add to big savings in energy expenses. For example, 75 percent of the average home’s electricity used to power home electronics and appliances is consumed while the products are switched off.

These “phantom” loads occur in a variety of electronics, including DVDs, televisions, computers, kitchen appliances, battery and cell phone chargers. Unplugging the appliance or switching off the power strip it is plugged into will completely cut the energy flow. Small savings become big in the long run, saving big money.

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  • http://www.solarflow.com.au/ MIa

    Such a great post Ashley. These are great tips for cutting down your energy bill whihvc is good news for us financially and even better news for the environment and sustainability.

    I guess what really gets people moving on these sorts of things is the promise of financial savings/gain but whatever it takes to get some movement on cutting energy use and hopefully this will inspire people to look into even more sustainable solutions.

  • Dan

    I think that you need to re-check your figure. Phantom electronics, according to http://standby.lbl.gov/ (which is the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), approximately 5-10% of electrical consumption in residences is phantom-based waste. (The variance depends on which of the two major studies are accepted.) Seventy-five percent is an enormously overstated value.

    That’s not to say that I disagree with this article, however. It’s purpose is clear and straightforward, and its cause worthy. I just wanted to point out about the numerical error.

  • http://earth911.com/ Ashley Schiller

    Hi Dan!

    Thanks for pointing out that potential confusion. I also thought it seemed high when I saw it on the U.S. Department of Energy website (http://www.energy.gov/applianceselectronics.htm). From my understanding, rather than referring to total residential energy use (usually 5-10% just like you pointed out), the 75% is referring to how much of the energy just used by electronics is consumed while those electronics are turned off. Does that sound more appropriate? I appreciate you keeping me on my toes! :)

  • Julie

    I think the standby comment is confusing and should be reworded. Plus adding a link could help people to get more facts. http://standby.lbl.gov/

  • http://www.paradisebayresort.net James Post

    Hi Ashley,

    My compliments for a well researched article. There is however one -relatively unknown and hardly documented- option to save big on your electricity bill when using A/C: convert the waste heat to hot water. At my hotel -where guests shower several times a day and use the Jacuzzi- the hot water is always enough. We use standard electrical water heaters but do not use the heating elements -unless guests chose not to use A/C. But amazingly, putting on the A/C to generate hot water (without the purpose to get cold air) is more efficient than using the electrical heating elements.

    On http://www.paradisebayresort.net/html/eco.html there is a link “papers” which describes this and other ECO measures I recommended during a conference of hotel managers. In hotels savings can equal up to 40% of the A/C energy cost. In residences it could well be in the same order as residences are typically more “careful” with A/C use than hotel cost and also use hot water for cleaning, washing.

    For those who are interested in more details Google : a/c heat recovery unit and you will find several companies that can offer these systems, which have a short payback time and…. help green the world.

  • Andy

    Hi Ashley – just for the record, I was not at all confused by your wording of the standby mode power consumption.