With temperatures hovering in the 30s and lower for the past few weeks, the furnaces have been running. The first big power bills have been arriving.
Do you shudder to think what your next utility bill might reveal? Do you shake your head when you hear neighbors, family and friends report the amounts they are paying? In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the factors that affect utility usage and offer some suggestions and resources to save on energy costs, as well as improve comfort in your home.
First, it is useful to know what your usage is and where your utility dollar goes. If you aren’t aware of how many kwh (electric) and therms (natural gas) you use monthly, then it will be more difficult to measure the effectiveness of your energy saving actions. Check your utility bill(s) to find out more!
For most United States households, space heating, space cooling and water heating are the top three energy users. They usually comprise over half of the typical energy bill. Next, explore common energy-use factors such as home size, style and orientation, primary heat source and number and age of occupants.
Seasonal impacts are another factor that can make a significant difference in energy consumed. Drafts and air leaks can make it nearly impossible to make your home comfortable, and lack of — or poorly installed — insulation, should be addressed any time you consider reducing energy use.
Finally, knowing how you can use less energy will help you develop an action plan. Energy-saving upgrades, changing behaviors, learning about new technologies and utilizing utility rebates to help with costs are great ways to start.
Since it’s nearly winter, let’s discuss water and space heating. Traditional water-heating systems preheat water in a large holding tank until ready for use. Modern water heaters tend to be well insulated, but if you have an older model, or your tank is located in an unconditioned space such as crawl space or garage, install an insulation jacket.
Insulate any exposed water lines to the point where they enter the conditioned space to prevent heat loss. Set the tank temperature to medium (120 degrees). This is hot enough for the majority of users. Check for water leaks. Even a slow drip adds up quickly, not only in energy expense, but also in water use — and is usually an easy and inexpensive fix. Install efficient showerheads. These are also inexpensive (or even free when taking advantage of getting a utility-sponsored energy-saving kit) and easy to install.
When replacing your water heater, consider energy-saving options like a heat pump water heater, or tankless models. On the behavioral side, wash clothing and dishes on the coldest effective setting, take shorter showers and don’t leave water running while not in use.
When it comes to space heating, small improvements can make a big difference. Check window and door weatherstripping and replace missing or damaged sections. Look for air leaks around windows and doors and floor and wall penetrations. Insulate or caulk to eliminate drafts. As a temporary fix for single-pane or double-pane aluminum windows or patio doors, install a window insulation kit.
For vented crawl spaces, close the vents or install Styrofoam blocks to keep cold air out. For older homes, especially if they haven’t been updated, it can be useful to have a professional home energy audit done. The auditor will look at all aspects that affect the home’s performance and provide recommendations for cost effective actions.
The heater itself should also be considered. Periodic maintenance checks can detect issues before they become bigger problems. Changing the filter appropriately prevents the motor from working harder than it should, and keeping vents clear helps properly direct the air.
Thermostats are another great tool to further whittle down energy use. A general rule of thumb is that for every degree you turn your thermostat down, you will save 3 percent off your heating bill. A programmable thermostat allows users to fine tune heat use. Most offer multiple settings for each day of the week, and even the very basic models offer multiple settings for weekdays and weekends.
Setting the temperature lower when you’re not home and at night makes a considerable difference in energy consumption. Smart and learning thermostats take this a step further by utilizing use algorithms, occupancy sensors, remote control, room sensors and more to optimize comfort and savings.
On the behavioral side, things like wearing socks or slippers around the house, putting on a sweater, and using blankets while reading or watching TV allow you to set the thermostat lower.
For issues such as substandard windows, poor insulation, whole house air sealing, failing equipment and leaky or uninsulated ducting, the help of professionals is strongly advised. Through programs, like Blue Mountain Action Council’s Low Income Weatherization program, Sustainable Living Center’s Community Energy Efficiency Program and utility rebates, some or all of the costs can be covered when taking on these measures.
Utilities offer low+income energy assistance and free energy savings kits with showerheads and/or light bulbs. Contact your utility to find out more.
Erendira Cruz is the executive director of the Sustainable Living Center. She has a bachelor’s degree in business management from Montana State University.