The Green Adventure

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Challenge #4 Your Home Energy Audit

Today Little A and I embarked on a Green Adventure to the University of Michigan's Energy Fest! Sounds cool, right?!!! Well, actually it was not quite as impressive as your local middle school science fair. Bummer! But, Little A splashed in every available rain puddle and won a water bottle (using her wit and charm), and I talked solar panels with some interns from the U of M Engineering Department and a post doc from the U of M Center for Sustainable Systems. All in all it wore her out enough for a good afternoon nap, allowing me to write this post. :)

According to the Energy Information Association (the official energy statistics from the US government), Residental energy use accounts for a substantial portion of global energy usage. The Industrial sector uses the most, Transportation is a close second, then Residential, then Commercial bringing up the rear. We have started to make a significant dent in our Transportation energy usage with Challenge #1. So, this challenge will focus on cutting our residential energy usage even further (adding to our gains from Challenge #2.) Remember the less energy you use at home the cheaper your renewable (wind and/or solar) home system will be, and the faster the payback period it will give you. Plus, we will be contributing to Wedge #3 ("Cut electricity use in homes, offices and stores by 25%") from Socolow and Pacala's plan to "Keep Energy in Check" from the September issue of Scientific American that all of you have read for Challenge #3.

Bringing us to Challenge #4: Your Home Energy Audit!

The Challenge is to cut your home energy usage by 25%!! Right off the bat, you will all win by doing so because your monthly energy bills will be at least 25% less. Green in your pocket! In fact, your bills may be substantially lower since usually energy use is cheaper for a baseline amount used each month, then the rate goes up for the energy that you use above the baseline amount allowed by your utility. For example, if your utility company is Austin Energy (as ours will be in our new home) and you use 500kWh of electricity in a month (during the summer) you will be charged 3.55 cents per kWh, but if you use more than 500kWh in a month you will be charged 7.82 cents per kWh. Ouch! That's more than double the rate! (and ends up as hundreds of $$'s per month in charges.) Doesn't it make sense to try to keep your usage to less than 500kWh per month?

OK, so now you're asking, "How do I know how many kWh's (kilowatt hours) per month I'm using?" That's easy... take a look at your electric bill. It will be right there! Take an average of 1 year or several months (consider seasonal changes in heat/ air conditioning use) and let's take some steps to shave off 25%!

Let's get started...

Here's where we currently are spending our home energy:
  • Heating
  • Air Conditioning
  • Lighting
  • Fans
  • Kitchen Appliances: Refrigerator, Microwave, Oven, Dishwasher, Garbage Disposal
  • "Vampire" Appliances: Cell phone/ blackberry chargers, toasters, coffee makers, alarm clocks, radios, iPod chargers and game boy chargers
  • Laundry Rooms: Washer and Dryer
  • Hot Water Heating
  • Computers, Printers, Modems
  • TV's and other audiovisual equipment

In the average home, lighting takes up about 24% of your energy costs. By now most of you have changed to CFL's and dramatically reduced your lighting cost and greenhouse gas emissions. But, also simply remember to turn off lights when you leave rooms, and open blinds to use more natural light (as long as the increased light doesn't add too much heat to a room that you're trying to air condition.)

Water Heating is another significant energy user. To reduce your water heating costs and greenhouse gas emissions, you have two strategies:

1. Use less hot water:

  • Shorter, cooler, less frequent showers (check out this link to see how much water you are using each time you shower)
  • Wash all clothes in cold water (there are good, biodegradable detergents that can make this option work well)
  • Use hot water only when needed to wash faces, hands, dishes, etc. (usually cold will work ust as well.)

2. Get a Solar Hot Water Heater

  • Solar hot water heaters work in every climate, not just sunny ones.
  • Installing one is one of the most cost effective ways to use solar energy. On average, if you install a solar water heater, your water heating bills should drop 50% to80%. That could go a long way towards reaching the goal of this challenge!
  • To find out how they work and how to calculate your home's cost savings check out the consumer guide published by the US Dept of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (Yes, I'm surprised too that we actually have one! :))

3. Control your Heat and AC usage

  • Buy a programmable thermostat and keep it set to 68 degrees in the winter and 80 degrees in the summer.
  • Use fans to help lift the hot air out of your rooms in the summer, and in reverse in the winter to push the warm air into your rooms.
  • Close off the vents and doors in rooms that are not in use to prevent your system from cooling them in the summer and heating them in the winter.
  • Use shade screens in the summer to keep the heat from penetrating your windows.
  • In the winter, open shades on south facing windows and keep them clean to allow the heat to penetrate your home during the day and close them at night to trap the heat.
  • Consider how old your system is. Buy an Energy Star system if yours needs to be replaced. For more information on Energy Star systems, tax advantages and rebates, see their website.

4. Maximize your Appliance Efficiency:

5. Computers

Being a SAHM has tied me to my computer more than ever. So, as thankful as I am that I can "talk" to others 24/7, I'm also very aware that my 5 year old desktop is an energy vulture!Fortunately, Energy Star is just beginning to come up with some guidelines to limit the energy that your computer uses when it is in sleep mode. And, processors are getting more and more efficient (though Intel lags behind AMD.)

So, for now here are our options...

  • Get a laptop.
  • Get an Apple iMac (with an Intel Core Duo processor.)
  • If you must have a desktop, shop for computers that use 50W or less at idle, and 125W or less at full load.
  • Choose an LCD monitor rather than a CRT
  • Plug your computer, monitor and printer into a power strip and turn off the power strip each time you turn off the computer. That way you won't waste energy in "sleep" mode and you won't disrupt the settings of your modem, router and VOIP phone.

(Adapted from Chin, M. "Choose an energy efficient computer" in Home Power: The Hands on Journal of Home-Made Power vol 114, Aug/ Sept 2006.)

Ok, so there is a laundry list of energy saving ideas for your home. Please post other ideas in the comments when you find them.

Don't just stand there... start saving energy! Your wallet and your children will thank you!


  • Jessica: I'm already doing most of this stuff (Baltimore Gas and Electric raised their rates through the ROOF this year and more rate hikes are comin', so we were on the ball already. In fact, this year we replaced every window in the house with energy efficient windows; installed a sunblock blind on an upstairs bedroom window where the morning sun hit it squarely, making it heat up like crazy in the summer; strive (almost always) to run the washer/dryer between 8 p.m. and 10 a.m.; have an energy star refrigerator. We haven't switched to CFL bulbs all over because of the light spectrum issue I told you about, but next trip to Home Depot I'm looking. My husband graphed our energy usage and it has leveled off and even dropped a tiny bit (and I think it will more; the windows are just a few months old). We're gonna sell the minivan, eventually. Probably getting a new oven (ours is a 1960s model) would be a good idea. Here's a question: we have a gas cooktop. Isn't it just as efficient, or maybe even more so, to heat a pan of water on that as opposed to turning on the microwave for two minutes? Just wonderin....tracy

    By Blogger tracy thompson, at 2:12 PM  

  • This is a fantastic, very do-able list, Jess! Thanks! I will definitely be unplugging my everyday appliances immediately.

    Tracy, my husband did a lot of research on CFL and color/intensity variation to find the bulbs that have finally worked in our all-white bedroom. I think it's Phillips that has the good color spectrum. These bulbs look just like incandescent lights and don't make you feel like you are under a grow light. I can get more info for you if you need it (he's in chicago right now). Jess has my email.


    By Blogger floosen, at 10:12 PM  

  • So Jess, have you come across any sort of gadget that is like a power strip that you can plug in to an outlet (and plug in vampire appliances) that is easy to click off? I'd love to have something like that in my kitchen so I can quit unplugging and plugging in everything, but just flip a switch. The problem is that I don't want huge power strips everywhere. Seen anything?



    By Blogger floosen, at 9:31 AM  

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    By Blogger MortgageTop, at 12:35 PM  

  • One way people waste water - and thus energy (if only the energy used by their municipality to treat the water) - is by leaving the water running while they are washing hands (or brushing teeth). Wet your hands - turn of the water then lather up - then turn on the water to rinse. Or even better - use foaming soap! Then you can skip the initial wetting, because you get lather automatically. We've also found that you can refill the softsoap brand foaming soap dispensers - put a little bit of liquid soap (like shower gel) and fill the rest of the way with water. Voila! More foaming soap at very little expense. A couple of places sell refillable soap foamers, but both of the ones we had were fussy and were difficult to keep clean.

    By Blogger T J, at 8:38 PM  

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