Do a Spring Cleaning on Your Energy Bills
As you clean for spring, clearing out garages and organizing attics, devote some energy to improving energy efficiency. Indeed, as energy expenses continue to escalate, simple steps -- many of which cost little to nothing -- can save you money on energy bills.
Consider this week's heat wave on the East Coast. When temperatures were mild last Thursday, April 11, the price of energy on the East Coast was $26.92 per megawatt hour, according to the Dow Jones Mirant Power index, a demand-weighted average of next-day power prices. But when temperatures jumped to record levels on Tuesday, April 16, the price of power nearly doubled, hitting $50.31 -- a level not seen since August.
"When you look at the yearly average for prices, they don't increase all that much. But they'll increase a lot when there's a strain on the system," says Gavin Donohue, executive director for the Independent Power Producers of New York.
If demand outpaces supply, as it did in California during 2000, rolling blackouts and rampaging prices could result. In reaction, California crusaded against wasteful energy practices in 2001 and reduced energy use by 6.7%, according to the California Energy Commission. "Energy efficiency works. You insulate yourself from price spikes down the road, be it from OPEC cutting supply, rising demand or political events, and it helps to even out your bills," says Rich Dooley, an environmental analyst with the National Association of Home Builders Research Center.The average electricity bill was $1,500 last year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And though a top-to-bottom home efficiency effort could cost thousands, it doesn't cost much to reduce that bill. "Energy efficiency spending has an incredible rate of return between 30% and 70%," says Sam Rashkin, national director of the EPA's Energy Star program.
Condition That Air ConditionerMore than half of your home's utility bill goes toward heating and cooling costs, according to the NAHB. But homeowners often waste their money by improperly maintaining and overusing air conditioning units. By cleaning the air filter each month or when dirty, an air conditioner will run colder and more efficiently and last longer, says Mike Kuhn, a home inspector for HouseMaster. "If you don't change your filter, you will crash your system. That $3,000 air conditioning system will fail because you didn't change a one-dollar filter." But there are other problems that homeowners could miss, such as low coolant levels, which will make air conditioners pump warmer-than-normal air. To make sure a system is operating at peak potential, Kuhn recommends that people seek a professional tuneup, which costs between $50 and $75. To control overuse, install a programmable thermostat, which costs between $100 and $125 and automatically turns off the unit when people aren't in the home.
Fight Mother NatureMother Nature also spoils energy efficiency by heating homes with sunlight and outside air. Thirty percent of the average house's energy load is wasted by air leakage, according to the NAHB. "Outdoor leakage is one of the primary drivers of poor energy efficiency," Dooley says. Start by examining windows and doors for air leaks. Dooley recommends using low-cost weather stripping to seal gaps. If you're replacing windows, use ones with double-paned glass with a layer of argon ["low E" windows], which are twice as efficient as standard models because they conduct less heat. Windows can run between $150 and $700 each depending on the size and model, but you'll recoup this expense when you sell. "The average vinyl window replacement had a 69% return on investment," says Jim Cora, senior editor at Remodeling magazine. "And that doesn't include the [energy cost] savings you have from having the windows in there." Move up to the attic, which can reach roasting temperatures in summer and, as a result, heat up homes. Check the insulation to make sure it's properly installed because what traps heat in winter seals it out during summer. Finally, make sure gable vents in the walls and ridge vents along the roof are open and unblocked to allow air circulation upstairs. Further efficiency increases can be obtained by installing a thermostatically controlled exhaust fan, which automatically vents the attic once temperatures rise to a certain degree. Kuhn says such units cost about $150. Last, examine ductwork to make sure it's airtight, using mastic or UL-listed foil-backed duct tape to seal crevasses. For those who want a perfect seal in hard-to-reach places, EPA's Rashkin recommends a brand-new product called Aeroseal, which seals ducts from the inside out, just as the sprays used for flat tires do. "You can do a 2,500-square-foot home for between $600 and $1,000," he says. To block the sun, consider updating those window coverings. New products, such as Roc-lon's TLC (Total Light Control), are made from high-quality insulating materials, cost $20 to $90 each, and can reduce energy costs 20%. "Before it gets hot, close your drapes. Most houses will retain their coolness for a long time during the day," says Dennis Church, owner of EcoIQ.com, an environmental Web site. If you don't like drapes, consider planting deciduous trees and bushes to provide natural cover. "Plant in the west and south sides of the home," NAHB's Dooley says.
The Little ThingsOf course, there are some more obvious solutions, such as turning off unused lights. Setting your water heater to between 115 and 120 degrees can save between 7% and 11% of water heating costs, according to the California Energy Commission. Wrapping the water heater in jacket insulation can save another 10%. Those seeking a complete energy efficiency makeover should call their local utility company and request an energy efficiency audit. An inspector will check for air leaks, examine heating and cooling systems, and leave recommendations for changes. "Most utilities will do it for you for free," says HouseMaster's Kuhn.
|Money for Nothing
Easy ways you can increase energy efficiency without spending a dime
|Adjust your thermostat||For every degree you change your thermostat, you'll save up to 5% on heating costs. Turning off the thermostat while away from home or asleep can save between 5% and 20% of your heating costs.|
|Don't waste energy||Turn off unused lights. Unplug that refrigerator in the garage, which adds between 10% and 25% to your electric bill.|
|Fix your hot water heater||By setting the hot water temperature between 115 and 120 degrees, you can save between 7% and 11% on water heating costs.|
|Cut your shower in half||Showers account for two-thirds of all water heating costs. If a family of four halved shower times, they'd reduce water heating costs by 33%.|
|Fill up those appliances||Only do full loads when filling up dishwashers and washing machines. And use cold water for washing clothes, which can reduce your machine's energy use by 75%. Clean lint traps, too.|
|Drive a stake through energy suckers||Many appliances, such as microwaves, computers, battery chargers, TVs and VCRs, are constantly drawing power to run clocks and sensors -- more than 50 watts in a typical home. When possible, unplug devices that are used only occasionally.|
|Source: California Energy Commission|
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