Your house is a system. You save money and improve performance when you take cost-effective measures that reduce building loads, and then install systems and appliances that are the right size to meet the reduced loads. In general, over-sizing worsens performance and increases costs.
The most effective strategy for improving household energy efficiency is to first target your home’s envelope—walls, attic, windows, and doors. Then improve the energy efficiency of systems, such as heating, cooling, lighting, and appliances. Finally, consider clean energy generation (solar, geothermal, and so on).
1. Make sure your walls and attic are well insulated. Effective insulation slows the rate that heat flows out of the house in winter or into the house in summer, so less energy is required to heat or cool the house. If your house has no wall insulation, and it has more-or-less continuous wall cavities (such as conventional stud walls), blown-in insulation can greatly improve your comfort and save enough energy to be very cost-effective. (It rarely pays to blow additional insulation into already insulated walls.) If your attic is unfinished, it often pays to upgrade its insulation.
Your contractor’s expertise is more important than the insulation material you choose. Properly installed fiberglass, cellulose, and most foam insulation materials can all reduce the heat conduction of the completed wall system. The key is “properly installed.” Ideally, the contractor will use an infrared camera during or after installation to look for voids.
2. Upgrade or replace windows. If your windows are old and leaky, it may be time to replace them with energy-efficient models or boost their efficiency with weatherstripping and storm windows. It is almost never cost-effective to replace windows just to save energy. According to EnergyStar.gov, replacing windows will save 7 to 24 percent of your heating and air-conditioning bills, but the larger savings would be associated with replacing single-glazed windows. However, if you are replacing windows for other reasons anyway, in many areas the additional cost of Energy Star–rated replacement windows is very modest, perhaps $15 per window. This upgrade would be cost-effective—and increase your comfort to boot.
3. Plant shade trees and shrubs around your house. If your house is older, with relatively poor insulation and windows, good landscaping (particularly deciduous trees) can save energy, especially if planted on the house’s west side. In summer, the foliage blocks infrared radiation that would warm the house, while in winter the bare branches let this radiation come through. Of course, if your house has very good insulation and Energy Star or better windows, the effect is much, much smaller because the building shell itself is already blocking almost all the heat gain.
4. Replace an older furnace with a high-efficiency system. If your furnace was built before 1992 and has a standing pilot, it probably wastes 35 percent of the fuel it uses, and it is probably near the end of its service life. In this case, in all but the warmest climates, ACEEE recommends early replacement with a condensing furnace with annual efficiency of at least 90 percent. This type of furnace wastes no more than 10 percent of the natural gas you buy, and may save you as much as 27 percent on your heating bill.
If your furnace was installed after 1991, it probably has an annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) rating of 80 percent, so the savings from replacement is smaller, but would be at least 11 percent if the unit is working perfectly. Your heating service technician or energy auditor may be able to help you determine the AFUE of your present system.
For houses with boilers and hot-water heat distribution (radiators, baseboard), the savings from a modern condensing boiler with outdoor reset or equivalent feedback controls can be substantially larger, since the condensing boilers allow reducing the circulating loop temperature almost all the time.
5. Improve the efficiency of your hot water system. First, turn down the temperature of your water heater to the warm setting (120°F). Second, insulate your hot water lines so they don’t cool off as quickly between uses. Third, use low-flow fixtures for showers and baths. While storage water heater standards were raised in 2001, it was probably not enough to justify throwing out an existing water heater that is working well.
Savvy consumers are now installing hot water recirculation valves, which provide instant hot water (so water is not wasted down the drain waiting for water to run hot at your faucet or shower). This simple DIY installation can save an average household up to 17,000 gallons per year. While providing faster hat water to all you fixtures, it also saves energy costs and can prevent pipe freezing.
6. Replace incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs).
CFLs can save three-quarters of the electricity used by incandescents. Most people don’t think about the fact that the electricity to run a lightbulb costs much more than the bulb itself. One of the new CFLs costs about two or three dollars, but it lasts 10,000 hours and uses only about 27 watts to generate as much light as a 100-watt incandescent bulb. During its life, it uses about $22 in electricity, so the total cost is about $25. A 100-watt incandescent bulb costs 50 cents, but lasts 1,000 hours so you need 10 of them ($5 to buy) to last 10,000 hours. In those 10,000 hours you will use 1,000 kilowatts of electricity, which will cost more than $80 at a national average price. So the lighting cost of the CFL is less than one-third of the cost for the incandescent. The best targets for replacement are 60- to 100-watt bulbs used several hours a day, because usage affects how long it takes to recover the investment.
7. If you buy a new refrigerator, don’t leave the old one plugged in. Avoid the temptation to use the old fridge as a backup for party supplies and liquid refreshment. The extra storage space will cost you: figure an extra $50–150 per year in electricity to keep that older fridge running. In contrast, the new fridge, particularly if Energy Star rated, may cost only $30–60 per year to run because refrigerator efficiency has improved so much in the past three decades. Under these circumstances, think about how much refrigeration you really need. The best rule is to have only one refrigerator, and to size it to meet your real needs. That allows the luxury of ice-makers and similar conveniences with a clear conscience.
Also consider configuration. A similarly sized refrigerator with a top-mount freezer will use 20 to 25 percent less energy than a side-by-side model and often offers more usable refrigerator and freezer space.
8. Take advantage of new tax incentives to improve your home. Federal tax incentives are available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Energy efficiency incentives for upgrades to existing homes have been extended, and are now available for 2009 and 2010. These incentives now cover up to $1,500 (from $500), based on 30 percent of the cost of the improvement. Improvements can include building-envelope improvements (windows, insulation) and heating/air-conditioning upgrades. There are also 30-percent credits, without a cap, for on-site renewables (solar photovoltaic and solar hot-water systems, small wind systems, and geothermal heat pumps).
9. Schedule an energy audit for more expert advice on your home as a whole.
Energy auditors and raters use specialized tools and skills to evaluate your home and recommend the most cost-effective measures to improve its comfort and efficiency, as well as the best sequence for doing them to take advantage of interactions. The rater can also provide independent verification of contractors’ work quality. Look for raters who are RESNET Accredited. In some regions, there are Home Performance with Energy Star programs, too. Most of these programs include low-cost home assessment and strong quality assurance practices and/or inspections.
10. Install a temperature controlled hot water recirculation valve, which provides instant hot water (so water is not wasted down the drain waiting for water to run hot at your faucet or shower). This simple DIY installation can save an average household up to 17,000 gallons per year. It also saves energy costs.