Surprise: Not-so-glamorous conservation works best
Efficient appliances and flourescent bulbs are easy upgrades that make a big difference, experts say.
(Page 2 of 2)
Cutting back on electricity used for lighting (9 percent of residential usage nationwide) presents the quickest savings-to-effort ratio. The EPA estimates that changing only 25 percent of your home's bulbs can cut a lighting bill in half. Incandescent bulbs waste 90 percent of their energy as heat, and compact fluorescents, which can be up to five times more efficient, last years longer as well.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Second stop, kitchen appliances, which consume 27 percent of the average US household's electricity. More than half of that goes to your refrigerator. So "any fridge over 10 years old is worth changing," says Henry Gifford, a New York-based mechanical system designer. "And no, don't put it in the basement and plug it in and leave it there." Get rid of it.
For the reasons mentioned above, using electricity for water and space heating, which accounts for 19 percent of home electrical use nationwide, should be avoided. "One of the worst things you can do with electricity is use it to make heat," says Alexander MacFarlane, director of green building technical services at the New York-based Community Environmental Center, a consulting company in energy efficiency.
Ideally, all appliances should be exchanged for those bearing the EPA's Energy Star seal. Plugging electronics into power strips, which can then be turned off, will decrease "phantom loads" and further increase savings. (Transformers inside electrical equipment convert your wall socket's alternating current to the direct current electrical devices use to function. Even in "off" position, they often continue to draw small amounts of electricity.)
The reduction of heating costs, where US residences consume 47 percent of their overall energy, is more complicated and begins with an exercise in visualization. A house should be conceived of as an airtight, insulated box where you manage airflow, humidity, and heat. "Build tight and ventilate right," says Mr. MacFarlane.
Individual thermostats in rooms keep energy from being wasted where it's already warm – on the south side of a house, say. And not only external walls should be sealed and insulated, but also between floors to prevent the "stack effect." Hot air rises through badly sealed buildings the same way it goes up a chimney. The upper floors overheat, leading people there to open windows for relief, Meanwhile, a cold draft is sucked into the lower floors. So people living there then crank the thermostat higher, exacerbating the problem, says Chris Benedict, a New York-based architect who specializes in energy-efficient building.
The extra money spent on caulking, using high quality insulators like blown-in cellulose, and windows with high thermal resistance translate into far less energy spent to control indoor temperatures, she says.
The lower price of the smaller boilers and air-conditioning units needed for well-sealed and insulated buildings also balance this higher cost. Ms. Benedict brings her new buildings' energy needs down to 15 percent of the area mean – and this for the same cost as regular construction. (With gut renovations, she reduces it to 50 percent.)
And now – only now – should you consider solar panels. "Go for the efficiency, then go for the solar," says MacFarlane. "Solar panels are the badge that the building gets to wear when you do everything else right."