The Lean Home: Energy Efficiency to Consider

Have you ever heard of the energy pyramid?  Think of it as a mental approach to solving matters of energy use. Like the food pyramid, the bottom is the base and holds up the structure. While renewable energy may be the sexier technology, you can make as big if not a bigger impact on your energy use just by conserving and becoming more efficient. The energy demand layer denotes shifting your electricity use to off-peak periods where there are lower electricity rates thus saving you money. This is more applicable to commericial operations using “time of use” plans. This article will focus more on the bottom two layers where you can make the most improvement for the least cost. In fact, this approach constitutes GS’s primary approach to creating cost-effective energy solutions. After doing the following steps, that solar or wind system will be much more affordable.

Energy Pyramid Courtesy of Danvers

1) Tally Up Your Energy Use

There are two ways to find your energy use. The easiest way is to purchase a Kill A Watt meter that simply plugs between an appliance and the outlet and measures energy use over a period of time. This is useful because for one the label on the appliance does not take into account wear and tear that can change its electricity use. Furthermore, there is always a surge of power when you turn it on that is not accounted for that can be 3-5x its normal operational power. By knowing both the electricity use and schedule (i.e. times of day and days of week used) one can create an accurate picture of your energy use. Keep in mind the energy hogs in your home such as air conditioner and dryer.

Another method is to look at the specifications tag on your appliance. Look for how many watts the device uses (ex: 15W). If this is not available but you have a voltage and current (ex: 120V and 5A), multiply these two together (in this case 120 x 5 = 600W) to get the power in watts. Then multiply this number by how many hours a week you use the appliance to get the energy in Wh. Note that electricity is measured by utilities in kWh which is equal to 1000Wh. By knowing what you use, you can decide where you can make cuts to save money.

2) Energy Efficient Appliances & Lighting

By knowing how much energy you are using, see if you can find EnergyStar or other appliances that uses less power without sacrificing performance. The lighting in your home can be 10-15% of your electric bill. Are you using LED lights? By switching from CFLs to LED lights, you can cut your electricity use in half. CFLs typically use 13-15 watts while LEDs use only 6-8 watts. Comparing LEDs to the old incandescent bulbs, and you can save 90% on your lighting since nearly 90% of electricity is converted to heat in an incandescent bulb. Moral of the story is that these bulbs are more like heaters than lighting. This can affect other devices like your air conditioner causing it to cycle more.

3) Turn It Off

Most people just throw away money at electricity. How? Simply by keeping things plugged in. About 5% of your electric bill goes to devices simply plugged in the wall even if they are not on. These are called phantom loads and occur because the metal on your plug conducts even a little electricity when in the wall. Use smart power strips like this can reduce this by cutting off the power and also providing surge protection.

Simply incorporating better habits can reduce your electric use. Turn off the lights when you leave the room. Either turn off or put electronic devices in hibernation mode. Close the refrigerator when you are done. Turn the water faucet off and try taking shorter showers.

4) Tackling the Energy Hogs

Your dryer can be up to 12% of your electric bill! The easiest solution is to simply use a clothesline, and you can save 12% right away. If you want to keep the dryer, consider getting one with a moisture sensor that turns the dryer off automatically when the clothes are dry. How many times have you opened the dryer early only to notice that the clothes are already dry? Right there you are wasting money. Also make sure the vent is clean for the dryer. If it is blocked, the fan in the dryer will work harder to expel the heat and thus use more energy.

The air conditioner can be coupled with a ceiling fan to distribute the cool air around the room more efficiently. Fans are not only cheaper to operate, but can make you feel cooler through what’s called convection than installing an extra air conditioner. Also make sure you properly size your A/C for your rooms. Couple this with a home energy monitor that turns on the appliance based on need and whether you are home or not.

Your refrigerator is another energy hog. Always make sure the temperature in the fresh food compartment is 35-38 degrees Fahrenheit and 0°F for your freezer. Use a thermometer to confirm this. In addition, make sure the door is airtight by using a dollar bill and see if it easily slips in and out. You may need new seal or a latch replaced. Finally, manually defrost your refrigerator to keep it efficient.

The oven and stove is another major energy using device. Consider switching to smaller appliances like hot plates, toaster ovens, electric skillet, electric skillet, and crock pot like Sarah Smith.

Your water use can be controlled by replacing the dishwasher via. filling up your sink with water to wash and dry them. This also saves you on the electricity the dishwasher uses. Also consider using a spray nozzle at the sink as less water comes out. Furthermore, changing the showerhead to have a lower flow rate in gallons per minute (gpm) can further cut costs.

Also look at your furnace and boiler. Their efficiency is measured with the so-called annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) which measure how efficiently fuel is converted to heat for your air and water. Older systems are 56-70% efficient. The middle efficiency systems have an 80-83% AFUE while the best ones are 90-98.5% efficient. Water heating is 12% of your electric bill so considering this can save you lots of dough.

For your air heating, heat pumps can move heat 1.5-3 times more than the electricity it uses, making it possibly an easy way to save on your heating bill.On a side note, consider replacing your electric heaters as they can easily consume over 1000W of power.

5) Weatherize Your Home

There are many ways to weatherize a home. For one, you can seal air ducts that may be leaking air and combine this with a heat-recovery ventiliation system to keep the warm air in. Consider changing your windows to storm windows or triple-glazed, and you can cut energy even more using more insulated doors to enter your home.

Adding more insulation to your walls, roof, and basement can keep the home’s internal temperature consistent. An infrared imaging system can find the heat leaks in the house. Superinsulated houses were popular in the 70s during the energy crisis but sadly many of those practices have been ignored, so your new home may not be as energy efficient as you think. Consider that, in 1978, the University of Saskatchewan built a superinsulated house that cost $50 a year to heat. This was done by minimizing windows, using airtight construction, and plenty of insulation.

Thermal Imaging of a Home. Image Courtesy of

6) Programmable Thermostats & Home Automation

Smart thermostats like the Nest can both control the internal climate of your home and monitor your energy use. These thermostats can be connected to your phone allowing you to turn off devices when you are not home. They can also learn your general energy habits and adjust accordingly to save you money by turning the heat down when you are at work and turning it up again shortly before you are home. There are also home energy systems that automate your blinds, shades, and curtains to open and close as needed to maintain the required temperature.

Heating and coolling a home is 43% of your energy bill, and by combining this thermostat with the other steps previously mentioned can save you 20-50% on your heating and cooling needs.

7) Passive Solar Design

Your home’s exterior affects the interior. Having windows facing south can give you sun and heat in the winter, and by using an awning in the summer you can mitigate the sunlight heating the rooms along with curtains and blinds. If you are in a southern climate, a metal roof or paint colors such as white can reflect excess heat from the sun. Finally, planting trees in certain places on your property can provide shade for your home before you even need the curtains! Passive solar design is quite comprehensive, and we will cover it more in future articles. In fact, you can even combine your garden greenhouse with your home and have it function as a heat pump!

In conclusion…

As you can see, there are many many, ways to save on energy use at your home. Most of these are much cheaper to do than simply installing a bigger solar array. You can cut your energy use anywhere from 30-70% by following these guidelines which makes a renewable energy system that much more affordable. That is why renewables are at the top of the pyramid. By reducing your energy, you lower your carbon footprint and need less renewable energy to fulfill your energy needs. Sounds like a win-win situation to me, but the truth is that many commercial solar installers just slap panels on your house and leave. They do not provide a complete solution that is more economical for their customers. So I encourage you to start your journey up the pyramid by tackling that energy waste in your home today.

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