Home energy use gets a 'smackdown' on reality TV
Even an 'überenvironmentalist' family found it could save a lot more when a competition was at stake.
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Because a winner would be determined by which family could reduce their footprint the most, "We thought we'd be losers right off the bat, because we were already at our limit of what we can do," says Steve Lanou, Mieke's husband.Skip to next paragraph
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To improve their prospects, Team van der Nou decided to make a list of potential small changes, combining their own ideas and the suggestions of an energy auditor from their energy provider (a service most utilities provide free of charge – ask your local utility company).
"One thing that the auditor pointed out that was a real 'Aha!' moment for us was the fireplace," Mieke says. They typically left the fireplace flue open, which they learned was like leaving a window open.
Their energy company also donated a power-cost monitor (price: about $150), a small device that is wirelessly connected to their electric meter. It's so simple to use that even their young daughter Anneke can demonstrate it.
"Here it shows how much energy we're using," Anneke says, pointing to the digital display of 0.4 kilowatts per hour, the lowest reading. Then she clicks on the price-conversion button and says, "And here is how much that costs." The lowest meter reading is only 0.4 kilowatts an hour, and the energy auditor told them that now they are actually below that baseline.
"Whenever we see it's above 0.4, we walk around the house to see if we left a light on or see what's going on," Steve says. This diligence has helped the family cut their electricity use in half from the corresponding month the previous year.
In contrast, the energy auditor who visited Team Moot-Roosa said the family had their work cut out for them when it came to decreasing their energy footprint given their 1910, drafty, 4,000-square-foot home and minivan-dependent lifestyle. Both parents work in neighboring towns, while the two children are dropped off at independent schools.
"He rolled his eyes and said 'Hoo, boy' a lot," says Nancy Roosa of the auditor's visit. "We went into the show a little bit reluctantly, because we felt like we were energy sinners!"
Instead of undertaking the most daunting – and expensive – remedies, they opted for a few smaller changes: composting, installing compact fluorescent lights, using power strips to combat "phantom" energy use, changing to cloth napkins, and carpooling.
In the Cluggish household, the first thing to go was a family heirloom of sorts: a 30-year-old upright freezer in the basement that had belonged to Sarah's grandmother. The family had thought about replacing it for a while, but just never got around to it until the energy auditor informed them it represented almost 30 percent of the household's electricity use. (Upright freezers are generally less efficient than chest-type freezers because upright models let more cold air escape every time they're opened. In addition, any older fridge or freezer is typically much less efficient than their newer counterparts.)
Another major renovation was installing insulation, an important energy-saver that is inadequate or lacking in perhaps 40 percent of New England homes, according to the Massachusetts Division of Resources. Insulation was a change the Cluggishes had thought about before, but they figured it would cost too much until the energy auditor told them of a rebate program from their utility. Instead of a $14,000 insulation bill, the cost was only $2,000 after the rebate.
Each family also made lifestyle changes, although Team van der Nou took things the farthest. At the start of the competition in March, the family turned down the heat in their home to 58 degrees F., placing cozy blankets on couches and chairs in certain areas of the house when it got chilly.