GREEN PAGES — Don’t Let Money Fly Out the Window

Circa 2009
Green pages

If you’re anything like me, when you feel a draft in your house, your first inclination is to shut a door or window. But if the doors and windows are already closed, then you may chalk the breeze up to your imagination. If there’s one draft after another, however, it’s probably time for an energy audit.

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Although IRS audits are dreaded and can cost you money, a home energy audit may help you save money by determining how much energy you currently use, and what steps you can to avoid squandering it. Drafts may indicate areas of your home that allow heat to escape in winter, and air conditioned cool to leach out in summer. An energy audit helps you locate these areas, so that you can save precious resources as well as money.

Possible sources of drafts or air leaks include baseboard edges, wall junctures, ceilings, electrical outlets, mail slots, wall or window mounted air conditioners, and areas around pipes or wires. Energy experts indicate that potential savings from reducing drafts can range from 5 percent to 30 percent a year. So it will pay to locate the source of the draft, and then adequately caulk, weather strip or insulate the energy drain. In the long run, it might even be worth it to invest in upgraded windows and doors.

There are three systematic ways to perform an energy audit: do it yourself with the use of various checklists and simple household tools. Hire a professional energy auditor who uses more sophisticated tools. (Or ask your local/state gas or electric utility company to either provide you with a free audit, or to help you locate a qualified professional to do it.) Thirdly, take an online survey that may be available at state or local government energy offices or their utility websites.

Surveys can’t substitute for eyes, ears and measurements, but they will help you estimate energy usage and provide helpful hints on how to make cost effective changes. In fact, online survey results could indicate the need for a more thorough energy audit, or affirm that your home already uses energy efficiently.

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Online surveys typically ask for information on energy use factors such as the number of people in your household, the size of your house, your thermostat settings during different seasons, lights, and washer/dryer and other appliance demands to determine if your power usage is way out of the norm.

I recently took an online energy/water efficiency survey through the Southern California Edison website for my home in Orange County, CA. (You have to be a customer to take it.) Upon completion, I received a report showing how my family uses energy and water, and how much our various appliances cost to operate.

The report indicated that lighting and the refrigerator account for more than 50 percent of my power costs. Roughly 60 percent of my annual gas bill results from heating water, while 63 percent of my water goes to showers and landscaping. The report even compares how my household compares with the regional averages for electricity, gas and water usage.

I’m happy to report that we use less than the average in all three categories. Nevertheless, there are still ways that we can be even more efficient.

On one survey question, we were asked if we use an insulating blanket on the water heater. I neglected to replace the blanket when I installed a new water heater a couple of years ago. Fortunately, this item is readily available for around $22 at Home Depot, and will immediately help us save gas and money.

The report also indicated that we could save an additional $70 per year by lowering the water heater setting by five degrees. Additional savings can be had by installing low-flow shower heads and aerators for the faucets. Some credit for how well we are doing must go to our Energy Star rated appliances and to our lighting choices.

Backed by the government, the Energy Star program helps individuals and businesses protect the environment through superior energy efficiency. It’s a rating system that helps consumers choose more energy efficient products. In order to merit this rating, products must meet strict energy efficiency guidelines. If you see this rating on a product, you know it will save you energy and money.

I chose the online survey both because I’m not the handiest guy in the world, and because I am perfectly happy with an online survey report. However, estimates won’t help identify the exact location of air leaks and drafts. It takes eyes and ears to do this accurately. With a simple but diligent walk-through, you can spot many problems yourself. If you’ve got even a little Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor in you, take heed:

Window and doors are prime candidates for drafts and air leaks. If you can rattle them or see daylight around the edges, then you probably have leaks. You can seal these by caulking or weather-stripping them. You may also wish to consider replacing your old window and doors with newer, high performance models, such as double paned windows.

Double paned windows consist of two facing glass panels set in a frame, separated by a tiny amount of space.

The void might be filled with air or nontoxic gas such as argon, which can improve insulation.

Double paned windows have advantages over standard windows. They are better insulated, reduce noise, and are easier to clean. Double paned windows can also protect items in the house from sun damage.

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Three very common energy efficient materials for doors are wood, steel and fiberglass. Wood itself is an excellent insulator. Steel and fiberglass doors have insulating foam sandwiched inside to make them energy efficient. Once you’ve got the right energy efficient door for your home, it’s important to have it installed properly. You’ll want to have a tight seal so air doesn’t come in or out. Good door sweeps are another feature of energy efficient doors. Sweeps seal the gap between the door and the threshold or doorsill. Attached to the bottom of the door, they offer increased energy efficiency by preventing air from passing through. They also keep out debris and insects.

The outside of your home should be inspected for possible leaks as well. Pay special attention to corners and places where siding and chimney meet, or where the foundation and brick or siding meet.

Heat loss through the ceiling and walls in your home could be significant if the insulation levels are less than the recommended minimum. The insulation level might be inadequate, especially if you have an older home. The type and thickness of your insulation is readily visible in the attic.

Heating and cooling equipment should also be inspected annually, or as recommended by the manufacturer. Check filters and replace them as needed. If your heating or cooling system is older than 15 years old, consider replacing it with newer, more energy efficient units to reduce energy consumption.

Energy for lighting accounts for about 10 percent of your electric bill, or in my case more than 30 percent. Lower watt bulbs may be more than adequate for some rooms. Of course, CFL bulbs consume less power and last longer than incandescent bulbs. Your electric utility may even have programs such as financial incentives for purchasing energy efficient bulbs.

by Renne Gardner

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