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Real Energy-Saving Tips

Separating the hype from the facts — plus 5 practical steps

By George Watt | May 7, 2012

I was 15 years old when I first heard the term “energy conservation” come floating out of the TV set in our family’s living room in upstate Connecticut. The year was 1977; I was sitting next to my father, watching a newly elected president in a cardigan sweater implore Americans to conserve energy and turn down their thermostats.

Not long after that night I would repeatedly hear my father, who was also fond of cardigan sweaters, call to me to turn off the lights, close the refrigerator door and “grab a blanket if I was too damn cold.”

My father probably didn't realize at the time that his well-meaning badgering would help mold his son into an ardent conservationist, an architect who specializes in implementing resource-conservative ideals and practices into our “built environment,” a term that stands for manmade surroundings, from buildings to energy networks.

I’ve designed quite a few “net-zero energy” buildings, meaning they produce as much energy on-site as they use in a year. It’s my practice to regularly incorporate the most energy-efficient building systems, appliances and fixtures. But ultimately, it’s the people who live and work in these buildings that have the greatest impact on how much energy is used. And this is true for all of our homes, offices, schools, etc. It is you and I who determine what our monthly energy bill will look like and how much money can be saved on that bill.

In the United States today, buildings account for nearly 40 percent of the energy consumption and carbon emissions. So we know intuitively that making improvements, both small and large, in a building’s efficiency will reduce energy use, lower utility bills and decrease carbon emissions.

But what can you do when it comes to your house? What will really save energy — and dollars? There’s a lot of “conventional, energy-saving wisdom” out there, but a lot of it is hype. Here’s a guide to help you separate the facts from the fiction — and give you real-life solutions.

5 Real Energy-Saving Tips

Belief 1: The largest source of air leaks in a house is around windows and doors. Replacing them will save money.

Reality: Only 15 percent of the air leakage in a house built to the building code in the past 20 years or so comes from windows and doors. Replacing them is expensive and disruptive.

Solution: Air-seal your house: Caulking and weather-stripping around those windows and doors, dryer vents, vent pipes—basically any penetration through the building envelope — will produce the greatest energy savings relative to money and effort spent. Finding the leaks is easy: While inside your house, place the back of your hand near where the penetration is and feel for air movement. If you feel it, caulk it.

Belief 2: Turning electronic devices and appliances off saves money because, well, they’re off.

Reality: Yes but … off isn’t really off. Most devices today consume energy to run internal clocks, memory settings and remote controls. These “vampire loads” can add up. Why “vampire”? Because each of those plugs with their two-pointed teeth latches onto your wall sockets and continually sucks power out. For example, that satellite box sitting next to your TV can use up to 130 kilowatt hours a year, which is about one-quarter of the usage of an Energy Star refrigerator. And over the course of a year, your laptop and phone adapter plugs use just as much energy when they're plugged in and detached from your devices as they do when your're charging them up.

Solution: Although it can be as “simple” as unplugging everything, this can be really inconvenient — especially when you go to record your favorite show and the device thinks it’s 1999. (I don’t know why this happens, but sometimes it just does.) There are better alternatives. Plug your devices into a Smart Strip power strip: They turn off accessories, such as the printer, when you shut down your computer. My favorite tool is a new mobile device charger from Brackton that automatically shuts down once the device is fully charged. 

Another way to gain insight into your electronic devices' and appliances' energy usage including vampire loads is to monitor the usage with a plug-in electrical monitor or whole-house monitor. Both will give you invaluable information about the energy use of each device in the house so you can decide which one to keep, upgrade or unplug. 

Belief 3: Replacing my existing air conditioner or furnace with a more energy-efficient system will reduce my utility bill.

Reality: This can be true, but only if the equipment and related systems are sized and installed properly. Systems that aren’t (duct tape, for example, should never actually be used on ducts) can squander any anticipated savings. 

Solution: Perform proper maintenance on your furnace and air conditioner (read the manual). Properly design (size) and install new and replacement equipment along with the ductwork to realize all the possible savings. But the best thing to do to save money on heating and air conditioning is to turn up the thermostat in the summer and down in the winter — and grab that blanket or sweater.

Belief 4: Washing dishes by hand saves energy and water compared with a dishwasher.

Reality: Only if you are really fast at washing dishes. The average Energy Star dishwasher uses four gallons of water for a load (typically eight place settings). You would have about two and a half minutes to do the same job by hand with an EPA-rated Water Sense faucet that runs at 1.5 gallons per minute.

Solution: Use your dishwasher.

Belief 5: Compact fluorescent bulbs are more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs.

Reality: Another “yes, but…” Since incandescents use most of the energy input to generate heat rather than light, their efficiency compared with CFL can be up to 75 percent less. But CFLs have their Achilles heels as well: The bulbs are fragile, the mercury inside the bulb is an environmental hazard, and, because of the mercury, they require recycling. And I’ve found their life spans to be overrated. I have recycled many bulbs before the 8,000 hours are clocked. This may be due to the fact that the rating doesn’t take into account on/off cycling, which greatly reduces CFL lifespan. And because they are very sensitive to high and low temperatures, many CFL bulbs don’t work at temps below zero.

Solution: Although the recently released “energy saving” incandescent bulbs (halogens) can improve efficiencies over the traditional incandescent by about 25 percent, I believe the solution lies in the LED bulb. A 6-watt LED will create the same light output (lumens) as a 60-watt incandescent — and it will last 50,000 hours compared with 1,200 hours for the incandescent. It will also reduce the carbon emissions of operating the bulb tenfold.

When it comes to energy efficiency, knowledge really is power. If you want to get an official, more detailed energy audit performed on your home or building, call your State Energy Conservation Agencies or Google “energy auditors” in your location.

George Watt is the principal in charge of research and design at George Watt Architecture in Boulder, Colo. His award-winning firm focuses on sustainability as the basis for architecture, urban planning and community design. His work can be seen at www.gwattarchitect.com.