Tuesday December 18, 2012

We live in a world of gadgets and stuff. When it comes to saving energy, we look to high-efficiency light bulbs or dishwashers. Or we use the slickest weatherstripping to weatherize our homes or add insulation in our attics. And hopefully we’ll look at fuel-economy ratings when shopping for our next car.

Those are important things to be doing -- and we should continue paying attention with all these purchases. But we should also recognize that behavior is a big part of our overall energy consumption.

The fact is, you can build two identical homes, right next to each other -- with the same insulation levels, the same windows, the same appliances, and the same lighting -- and the energy bills for those homes can differ by a factor of two, because they are operated differently.

Operating houses in a more energy-efficient manner

So how can homeowners modify the energy performance of their homes? There are lots of ways -- many of them so obvious one might be tempted not to even list them. But we sometimes overlook the obvious.

So here’s a starter list -- all of them costing nothing. In the blog version of this article on BuildingGreen.com and GreenBuildingAdvisor.com, I’m hoping readers will comment with their own suggestions of other ways to reduce home energy consumption based on how we operate our homes.

In an upcoming column, we’ll take to the road and look at how decisions we make affect our energy use in getting around.

Turn off the lights

As I write this, I notice that we have two kitchen lights on that aren’t really needed. I’m not without guilt when it comes to failing to carry out this obvious energy-saving strategy. Some of us want to rely on special devices to ensure that we don’t waste lighting energy -- occupancy sensors that turn out lights automatically when people leave a room -- but we don’t need anything new to make this happen. Creating a culture of paying attention is the easiest solution, and it doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t break down.

Close off unused portions
of your home

Reducing the square footage of your home that’s being heated can save a lot of energy. If you have a couple guest rooms that aren’t used on a regular basis, consider closing them off and adjusting your heat distribution system to deliver less heat to those spaces.

If you have forced-air heat, this involves closing the air-supply register (which results in more warm air delivery to other rooms). If you have hydronic heat (baseboard hot water), there’s usually a long metal flap on baseboard convectors that can be closed to block the release of heat from these units (and keep most of the heat in the hot-water pipe to reach the next room). Neither of these adjustments blocks off all of the heat to these unused rooms -- and that’s usually a good thing, as you don’t want to rooms to get too cold -- but they can save a significant amount of energy.

Turn down the heat

How you set your thermostats can have a huge impact on your heating energy use. Set-back and programmable thermostats help with this (and I strongly recommend them), but you can also adjust thermostats manually on a daily basis. A common rule-of-thumb (that may or may not be very accurate) is that for every degree Fahrenheit a thermostat is turned down, savings of 2 percent in total heating energy use is realized.

So for example, if you keep the house at a constant temperature, reducing the setting from 72 degrees Fahrenheit to 67 degrees (five degrees) would reduce your heating bill by 10 percent. Or, a nighttime (8-hour) setback from 72 degrees to 62 degrees would reduce your heating bill by about 7 percent (20 percent divided by three since the setback is only for eight hours).

Advanced programmable thermostats allow multiple temperature settings per day so that the temperature can be lowered during the day when residents are out of the house and again at night when residents are sleeping. These thermostats typically allow a different weekend setting. (Note that with radiant floor heating, setback may not be recommended due to the thermal flywheel effect of the concrete slab; get advice from the installer about operation.)

The same setback argument applies in the summer if you use air conditioning -- though in reverse. You can save a lot of electricity by raising your thermostat setting.

Operate storm
windows properly

If you have storm windows make sure they’re properly installed in the fall. With triple-track models, make sure the glass panels are properly in their tracks and all the way closed. With old-style wooden storm windows, make sure they’re all back on the windows by the time temperatures drop in the fall. To simplify the seasonal adjustments with our wooden storm windows, we only remove the storms in the spring from those windows we use for ventilation. The other storm windows stay up all year.

Take shorter showers

Heating water is often the second-largest energy use in a home, and in a highly insulated home it’s not uncommon for it to be number-one. Our largest use of hot water is often showering, so by taking shorter showers significant savings can be realized. No big surprise there!

Another showering habit that will save energy is to reduce the flow when shampooing or shaving. For this reason I prefer shower valves that have separate controls for both temperature and volume so that the flow can be adjusted without affecting the temperature mix. If you have a single lever that controls only the temperature, you can install a showerhead with a cut-off valve that reduces the flow to a trickle.

Wash clothes with cold water

Another simple and fairly obvious strategy for saving energy is to switch to cold-water washing. We’ve been washing most of our clothes in cold water for several years now, though we still use hot- or warm-water for certain loads. Use a detergent optimized for cold-water washing.

You can also save energy by hanging clothes outside. Some people I know line-dry their laundry, but then put in the dryer for a few minutes to fluff it and remove the stiffness from outdoor drying.

Operate your dishwasher
with full loads

Dishwashers consume energy both by using hot water and from the heated drying cycle. If you use the dishwasher less frequently by only running it when it’s all the way full, you’ll save energy. You can also turn off the electric-heat dry function. With the several dishwashers my wife and I have owned over the past 30 years I don’t think we’ve ever used the electric drying option.

Other no-cost ways
to save energy

I’ve provided here just a few examples of simple ways to save energy in our homes simply by changing the way we do things. There are lots of other examples having to do with cooking, refrigerators, how we dress, and using fans instead of air conditioning. What are your favorite strategies?

Alex Wilson is the founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and the Resilient Design Institute (www.resilientdesign.org), both based in Brattleboro. Send comments or suggestions for future columns to alex@buildinggreen.com.