October 2017
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Energy Efficiency – Pick the Low Hanging Fruit First

It was a very hot summer in Georgia, dominated by high temperatures in the 90’s. Running an air conditioner all the time can lead to some pretty high electric bills. As much as I dream of things like a passive solar home, it is difficult to get by without AC in Georgia. We are fortunate enough to have a solar array which dramatically reduces our electric bills. I heard stories of coworkers with electric bills over $500 in July, but ours was $88. The investment we made a few years back is paying off now. But long before we made the decision to install the solar panels, we formulated a plan.

You see I didn’t only view solar panels as a way to help the environment. I viewed them as part of my retirement plan. We might be experiencing a period of abundant energy at the present time, but I don’t believe that is going to last. I expect energy costs to rise dramatically in the next few years. I also expect to have to live on less income at some point when I retire from my day job. Reducing our utility bills is a way to prepare for whatever the future brings.

During the day, I work at a factory. When we evaluate an energy-related project, we look at the return on investment. We ask how long it will take for the savings to pay back the initial investment. Generally we consider anything that pays back in 5 years or less to be a good investment. The projects that pay back the fastest should be done first. Those are often the ones that are the easiest to do. That’s called going after the low hanging fruit. We should take the same approach at home. So when we decided we needed to reduce our utility bills, we went after the low hanging fruit first.

Light bulbs
Light bulbs are one of the easiest things to change to reduce electricity consumption. Incandescent bulbs are terribly inefficient, plus they give off a lot of waste heat which makes your air conditioner work even harder. We went through the compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) phase. We read a lot of articles about the pros and cons. The bulbs have mercury in them and need special handling for disposal. Some argue that more mercury is put into the environment from burning coal, so reducing your usage keeps as much mercury out of the environment as is in the bulbs. It was not clear whether or not CFLs were the right way to go. At the time, LED bulbs were still very expensive. With a focus on overall energy reduction, we went ahead and replaced incandescent bulbs with CFLs. The reduction in usage was significant. If your budget doesn’t allow replacing everything, go after the ones you use the most. Outdoor lights are a good one because they are often on 50% of the time. Then roll the savings into buying more bulbs. Eventually you’ll get them all. That’s how we did it. I was a bit disappointed in the lifespan of the CFL bulbs. I’m happy to say that LEDs have since come way down in price and we have replaced all the CFLs with LEDs. Costco has been a good source of reasonably priced LED bulbs. They typically come with a 3-year warranty. Typically we don’t think about the warranty on something like a light bulb, but you should not overlook it when the bulb costs $7-10 or more. I have had a couple LED bulbs fail prematurely. Both times I called the toll-free number written on the bulb and was pleasantly surprised to find the company will ship a replacement bulb at no cost, with no documentation but what is stamped on the bulb, and with no need to send the bad one back. It was a very quick and painless process. One suggestion I would make is to write the date of purchase on the base of the bulb with a marker so you’ll know when you bought it.

Look for the hidden users of electricity
Another way to reduce your electrical consumption is to find out what devices in your home are secretly consuming power. There is a very cool device called a Kill-A-Watt energy usage monitor that will measure power consumption of household devices. I got mine from Amazon for about $20. Here’s a link to the P3 Kill-A-Watt monitor on Amazon. I used the meter to measure everything I could get access to in our house. I found devices that consumed power even when turned off. Those get unplugged now. We used to have cable TV. I learned that the cable boxes used 35 watts when on and 34 watts when off! That was a major factor in our decision to finally get rid of cable TV completely. When I saw how much power my computer used, I learned how to set it to go to sleep on inactivity. On the other hand, the Kill-A-Watt meter proved that certain devices don’t use any power when turned off. It’s always better to base your decisions on facts rather than assumptions. Knowledge is power – and having the knowledge of how much electricity things are using can save you a lot of power!

Change the thermostat setting
Your thermostat setting can make a huge difference. I know people who set their thermostat at 70 degrees in the summer and wonder why their electric bills are so high. That is nothing short of extravagant. The human body is very good at regulating temperature. We experiment with our thermostat, setting it as high as we can stand it in the summer then backing off 1 degree. Depending on the humidity, for us the setting ended up between 78-80 degrees. Ceiling fans make a big difference too. A breeze will make you feel cooler, allowing you to set the thermostat a little higher. Just make sure to turn off fans when you aren’t in a room. They don’t cool the room, only the person. In fact they will warm the room slightly due to heat from the motor. In winter, we set our thermostat on 68 during the day and 62 at night. If it gets a little cool, I wear a sweat shirt. I highly recommend a programmable thermostat to automate the setting changes, especially if no one is home during the day. My wife works from home and her office is in a room on the outer edge of our house. She has a window AC unit and a space heater to keep only that one room comfortable. We set the thermostat back during the day so we’re not heating or cooling the entire house.

Insulation can save you a bundle. Look for gaps in doors or windows and install weather stripping. This is especially important in colder climates. Increase the R-factor of insulation in your attic. When we moved in, our attic had about 8” of blown-in insulation. I added a 2nd layer of plastic wrapped batts to double the R-factor. I used the batts because they are fairly easy to move out of place temporarily if I need to do some work in the attic. Getting the heat that builds up during the day out of your attic helps too. I installed a couple of solar powered attic ventilators. One of them has auxiliary AC power so it can continue exhausting the heat after dark. That cools the attic much quicker than passive attic vents.

When we moved in, our house still had original single-pane windows. We could feel the heat loss in the winter by how cold the windows got. We invested in insulated windows. We shopped around and were surprised to find out how reasonably priced this can be. Here’s a good tip. Find a supply house where you can buy the windows yourself. Ask them for recommendations for installers. We found a great guy this way. Our total cost for labor and materials was about half of most of the other bids we got from contractors. We also installed wooden shutters on the inside of the windows. Heavy blinds or curtains can help too. Anything to block the direct sun will reduce the load on your air conditioning system.

Rebates and tax credits
Many of the items I’ve mentioned qualify for tax credits. Insulation, energy efficient windows, and solar attic fans may qualify for the federal energy tax credit. Your local utility might offer rebates for items like programmable thermostats and LED lighting. Check the internet for rebates in your area.

Your savings will snowball
If you can’t do it all at once, start with the easiest things first. Change the light bulbs you use the most. Turn off or eliminate energy-wasting devices. Once you’ve realized some savings, use it to change more light bulbs. Small changes can add up over time like a snowball. Eventually you will save enough to pay for insulation, new windows, or even solar panels.

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