Green it like you mean it!: Pointers on making your home more energy efficient

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March 26, 2012
By: Felicity Britton
Felicity Britton

Energy Efficiency — yawn. It’s hard to get excited about weather stripping doors and changing light bulbs. It’s just not as exciting as installing solar panels on your roof or even putting in a new air-conditioning unit. But what’s the point in investing in renewable energy or a more energy efficient appliance if your home is going to continue wasting energy and eroding your return on investment?

Community Energy Squad
The easiest way to increase the energy efficiency of your home is to have someone else do it for you. For just $30 (in some neighborhoods it’s even less) you can have the Community Energy Services (CES) squad spend 90 minutes in your home doing all those niggling little tasks you’ve always wanted to do but never got around to. They’ll replace all your CFLs, weather strip the doors, install a programmable thermostat (and program it for you!), low flow showerheads and faucets; wrap your pipes and make recommendations for larger projects. You’ll start saving energy and money the very day they visit. They won’t try and sell you anything. They don’t have a repair or appliance service. What they do have is a list of contractors that they’ve personally vetted to ensure they’re reputable and good quality. Plus, they know all the latest rebates and incentives from the utilities.

Cheaper than you think
We know that most homes in Minneapolis lack adequate insulation. Have you ever wondered what it would cost to insulate your house? My friend Steve guessed $10,000 and was surprised to find the actual cost was $3,800. After rebates, he and his family are now enjoying a draft free house for just $3,000. Another friend, Celia, didn’t need whole house insulation so got a bid for sealing her attic. The $1,200 price came down to $400 after rebates. Repairing attic air leaks can also save you significant money because they contribute to ice dams which can result in structural repair to your roof.

What gets measured gets managed
Imagine shopping at a grocery store where no prices are displayed. You pick up what you need but you have no idea of the cost of anything until they bill you at the end of the month. What can you do if the bill is sky high? Nothing — you’ve already consumed the products. Of course none of us would shop there, but that’s exactly what we do with energy each month. We have no idea how many kilowatts the microwave or washer use each time we turn them on, and most of us don’t know how much a kilowatt hour costs us. However, some new gadgets are great at telling us what we’re using at what price. While you can borrow a Kill-A-Watt device from Hennepin County libraries to tell you what individual appliances use, I like the whole house energy monitors.

Connected to your power meter, they send a wireless signal to an LCD display which tells you at that moment how much money your house is spending on energy. For example, my house uses about 4 cents worth of electricity per hour with no lights on, just the refrigerator running and TV/DVD/Cable and computer turned off (they still use power in sleep mode). But once I turn the microwave on, the display shoots up to 16 cents/hour, add the washer and dryer and some lights, and the price rises. Going to bed each night, I can glance at the display. If it’s not at 4, then I know someone’s left the lights on in the basement, or that something else is running that could be turned off.

More beer money
Your refrigerator is often the biggest energy-using appliance in your home. If you have a second refrigerator that typically holds just a six pack and a frozen pizza, it’s time to unplug. A typical refrigerator uses more than 1,300 kilowatt-hour a year and costs the average American household $120 a year in electricity. Now you can put those savings toward more beer and pizza! You can help your main fridge function more efficiently by placing jugs of water in any empty space inside (water retains cold better than air does), and by taking some time once every six months to pull the fridge away from the wall and vacuum the dust off the coils. Brushing off the condensers twice a year saves around 392 kwh/year.

Many families could achieve additional savings by washing clothes in cold water (770 kwh/yr); replacing half of their incandescent lighting with compact fluorescents (440kwh/year); letting the dishes in the dishwasher air dry (404kwh/year); placing several major electronics, such as video and stereo systems, on a surge protector that can be switched off (47kwh/year); and enabling the “sleep” function on their computer and printer to go on after five minutes of non-use (259kwh/year).

For details about CES, power meters and more ideas, visit lhpowerandlight.org and look for the “Energy Efficiency” button.

Felicity Britton is executive director of Linden Hills Power and Light, a neighborhood-based organization devoted to promoting sustainable energy, waste reduction and energy conservation.