A Home Energy Primer:
Conservation, Efficiency, and Solar

By Walter Simpson, UB Energy Officer

Strategies for reducing energy waste, improving energy efficiency, and cutting your home energy bills by 50% or more. Plus some ideas on how to increase your use of clean renewable energy.

Saving Energy on Lighting

Turn off lights when not in use. Use switches or occupancy sensors to turn off lights. Occupancy sensors might be a particularly good option for controlling outdoor lights that were previously left on all night for security purposes.

Walter Simpson's Rule of Lighting: "At any given time, it is generally possible to walk around your house and turn off half the lights without anyone even noticing."

Rely on daylight whenever you can. Keep blinds open during the day to let sunlight in. Switch off electric lighting.

Use more efficient lamps and fixtures. Incandescent light bulbs are little electric heaters. 95% of the energy they consume is coverted directly to heat. Only 5% becomes light. Fluorescent lamps are four to five times as efficient as incandescent light bulbs.

Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps. Compact fluorescent lamps now come in all shapes, sizes and configurations, and prices have dropped considerably. Replace incandescent bulbs in table lamps, ceiling fixtures, and even chandeliers. The best incandescent lamps to replace first are those that are generally used every day for the longest amounts of time. Compact fluorescent lamps last 10 times as long as incandescent light bulbs, so compacts no longer cost more. Over their 10,000 hour lifetime, each compact lamp you install can save you $50 in energy costs. Outdoor lighting can also be changed to compact fluorescent lamps. Be sure to get the kind made for exterior use so they will start in cold weather.

Replace incandescent bulbs with linear fluorescent tubes and fixtures where appropriate. These might make sense in your basement or in your kitchen or office, perhaps hidden behind a cove. Note that fixtures with small cell parabolic diffusers are the least efficient.

Use linear fluorescent fixtures with T-8 lamps and electronic ballasts. These use 25% less energy than old fashion T-12 fluorescent lamps and electromagnetic ballasts.

Disconnect and remove unneeded lamps and fixtures. Sometimes a lighting circuit just has too many lights on it. Disconnect some to save energy every time the circuit is switched on.

Install appropriate light switching. Sometimes one switch turns light fixtures on in a very large area (eg. one switch controlling all lights in a large basement). You can save energy by re-circuiting the fixtures and installing additional switches so it is possible to turn the lights on only where you need them.


Saving Energy on Heating

Weatherize your house or apartment. You can reduce or eliminate cold drafts by weather-stripping, caulking, using foam sealants, installing storm windows, etc.

You can learn how tight your house is with a Blower Door Test that can be administered by an Energy Star certified contractor. The blower door mounts in your front door and pressurizes your home so its overall "leakiness" can be determined and individual air leaks can be found and fixed. A house that performs at about 0.33 air changes per hour is highly energy efficient, but not so tight that indoor air quality becomes a problem. If your house is tighter than that, you may want to consider an outside air ventilating unit with a heat exchanger to preheat incoming air.

Increase insulation levels. This is most easily done by adding insulation in the attic and blowing insulation into exterior walls. Many houses have insulation gaps where there is no insulation. These can be at the eves, basement walls or sill plate. Some insulating is easily done by the homeowners. Home energy performance contractors specialize in insulating almost any type of home. Proper vapor barrier and venting techniques should be followed to avoid mositure build-up problems. Different types of insulation are available - some have higher R-value or insulating value than others, some are more suited to certain applications than others. Super-insulating techniques exist, which involve reconstruction of walls and ceiling to permit extraordinary levels of additional insulation.

Upgrade windows. Purchase at least Energy Star rated windows. These generally are double glass with a low emissivity coating and filled with argon gas. They have an R-value in the 3.0 range (higher R is better). Consider installing high performance windows with R-values in the 5 to 7 range to maximize energy benefits. For windows used to passive solar gain, be sure to specify high performance windows with a high Solar Heat Gain Coefficient. These windows will prevent heat loss while allowing as much sunlight through as possible.

Be careful with skylights. Most skylight glass is thermally inefficient and thus the skylight represents a thermal hole in your ceiling or roof (compared to the much higher R-value of attic or ceiling insulation). A sun tube might be a slightly better option. Skylights may also introduce direct sunlight into your house in the summer, overheating your house and/or adding to the cooling load if you use air-conditioning.

If you have a fireplace, make sure its flue damper is closed when the fireplace is not in use. Fireplaces tend to be energy wasteful. Even when blazing away, they tend to cool a house by pulling cold air into it to make up for the combustion air leaving the chimney.

Try setting your thermostat to a cooler temperature during the day. The cooler your house is, the slower it loses heat to the outside and thus the less heating your furnace must do. A one-degree reduction in temperature setting will reduce heating energy consumption by 3%. A cooler temperature may be comfortable with a sweater.

Program your thermostat for temperature setback at night. When you are out of the house and at night, set it back to 55 degrees or colder.

Switch to an energy efficient furnace that has a seasonal efficiency of over 90%. Generally, the extra money you pay for a high efficiency furnace is quickly paid back through energy savings. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) provides rebates for high efficiency furnaces and other energy improvements made by a certified Energy Star home heating or home improvement contractor. Learn more!

Properly size a new furnace. If you significantly weatherize and improve the insulation levels in your house, your old furnace may be too big and thus cycle on and off too much during the heating season. This cycling wastes energy. Your furnace should be big enough to heat your house on the coldest day and heat your house up in the morning (from its setback temperature) in a reasonable amount of time. If it is bigger than that, frequent cycling will reduce seasonal efficiency. Learn more!

Seal and insulate your home's heating ducts. Keeping the heat in the ducts will deliver more of the heat your furnace produces to your living space.

Use caution with radiant floor heating. If you are considering radiant floor heating, remember that this type of heating system is unlikely to save energy unless, as a result of having a radiant floor, you operate your house at a significantly lower air temperature. If this is not done, a radiant floor heating system may actually use more energy because its thermal mass makes it incompatible with night setback.


Saving Energy on Appliances and Electronics

Don't buy appliances you don't need! (Apologies for the double negative!)

When buying an appliance, look for the Energy Star label. Always buy the most energy efficient. Your energy dollar savings will easily exceed any extra costs. Learn more!

Turn off your computer when not using it. Leaving your computer on coninuously is wasteful, shortens its life, and will cost you $150 a year or more in extra electricity costs.

Enable computer power management features - for your computer, monitor, and printer. These features will put your computer equipment in a low power "sleep mode" when not actively in use. Savings of up to 90% are possible.

When buying a new computer, buy a low energy flat screen monitor. These use about a third of the energy of a conventional CRT monitor. A flat screen monitor is also better on your eyes, being much clearer and easier to view.

Only operate one refrigerator. Avoid having and running a second fridge or freezer. These units use a lot of electricity and are typically entirely unnecessary.

Periodically dust and vacuum the condenser coils under or behind your refrigerator.

When operating your dishwasher, use "water miser" and "no heat dry" settings. Also, do not excessively pre-rinse your dishes (let your dishwasher do the cleaning!). If you wash dishes manually, don't let the hot water run continuously while you wash.

Chose natural gas over electricity for your stove, oven, clothes dryer and water heater. Even with higher natural gas prices, natural gas is cheaper than electricity.

Use a horizontal clothes washer. These use a lot less water including hot water. They also spin dry clothes more effectively, so less energy is required to dry them.

Wash clothes in warm or cold water instead of hot; and rinse cold. Modern clothes washers and detergents are designed to do a good job on these settings.

Try using a clothesline instead of your clothes dryer and let the sun dry your clothes for free. Note that a clothesline will also work in the basement, making the use of your gas or electric clothes dryer unnecessary.

If you use a basement dehumidifier, operate it efficiently. Operate only in summer and keep basement door and windows closed. Also, set humidistat on the dehumidifier to as high a humidity level as possible, consistent with the suppression of mold growth (eg. 70% RH).

Eliminate "phantom watts." Some appliances and electronic equipment use energy even when they are off. These include TV, VCRs/DVD players, stereos, microwave ovens, computer anti-surge power strips, etc. Worst offenders may be cable or satellite dish receiver boxes. Save energy by plugging these devices into a conventional power strip and turn them off completely when not in use. Note that TVs may lose station programming if this is done. Energy Star electronic products are designed to minimize phantom watt losses.


Saving Energy on Hot Water

Reduce hot water consumption. Use low flow showerheads, take shorter showers, utilize dishwasher water miser settings, and use the cold water wash settings for laundry, etc.

Produce hot water efficiently. Purchase a high efficiency natural gas hot water tank or an instantaneous water heater. The latter does not have a storage tank and therefore saves energy by not having any stand-by losses. A well-insulated water tank, however, may have minimal stand-by losses.

Put an insulating blanket on your hot water tank.

Lower the temperature on your hot water heater.

During the heating season, let bath water cool in the tub before draining. That way the heat in it will help warm your house and not be lost down the drain.

Consider solar hot water heating.


Saving Energy on Cooling

Don't use air conditioning systems. In Buffalo, summer weather is moderately warm and air conditioning may not be necessary.

If you do need air conditioning, purchase Energy Star rated equipment with the highest Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER). The condenser fan unit should be installed in the shade and on a side of the house other than the west side.

Stay cool without air conditioning. Try opening windows and relying on cross ventilation, using floor and ceiling fans, keeping unwanted sunlight out with blinds, shades and awnings, adding insulation to your attic, and using white shingles on your roof.

On really hot days, take refuge in your cool basement.


Meeting Heating Needs with Passive Solar

Passive solar works best in the design of new homes - though some of these strategies may be appropriate for renovations of or additions to existing homes.

Maximize south-facing windows to take advantage of sunlight for heating. Use windows with as high a Solar Heat Gain Coefficient as possible to maximize solar gain.

Reduce and minimize windows and glazed area on other orientations.

Make sure solar access is unobstructed. The sun's arc is low in the sky in the south during the winter months. Unobstructed access means that direct sunlight will not be blocked by trees, other buildings, or other objects. Even deciduous trees that shed leaves in the winter may significantly block sun.

Provide an overhang or shading to block high summer sun from entering the south-facing windows.

Utilize an open floor plan. This will allow warm air produced by solar gain to migrate through the house without the use of fans.

Incorporate thermal mass to moderate temperature swings and store energy.

Super-insulate to significantly reduce home heating needs. When heating requirements are reduced, the amount of energy derived from sunlight can be a significant fraction of the overall amount of heat required.


Meeting Electrical Needs with Renewable Energy

Reduce electrical needs through conservation and efficiency. Employing conservation and efficiency first will reduce the amount of solar electricity that needs to be generated or purchased.

Consider installation of solar electric photovoltaic panels. These can be "net-metered" or "grid-connected" so batteries are not required. When the PV system generates more electricity than is being used on site, the electric meter runs backwards and, in effect, the surplus electricity is sold to the grid at the full retail rate. When the PV output is less than what is being used on-site, the difference is made up by electrical power from the grid. With incentives from NYSERDA, a PV system capable of meeting all the electrical needs of the average household might cost $10,000 or more. Prices are steadily coming down just as the efficiency of PV cells is increasing. New PV products are also being developed (eg. PV shingles). Learn more!

Buy green power. As a reult of electrical deregulation, residential and commercial customers of Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation and New York State Electric and Gas can elect to purchase electricity from clean renewable sources such as wind, hydro and biomass. Wind energy is generally regarded as the cleanest of these renewable energy sources and the one most likely to be further developed in New York if purchased by consumers. A premium price of one to two cents per kilowatt hour is charged for green power. It might add $5 to $10 to your monthly bill to kick the fossil fuel and nuclear power habit. See our Green Power Buyers Guide.


Saving Energy on Transportation

Walk, bicycle, carpool, and use public transportation whenever possible.

Think before you drive and reduce driving miles. Do you need to make this trip? Do you need to go that far? Can you consolidate trips to reduce overall driving time and miles?

Drive an energy efficient vehicle. Avoid "gas guzzlers" (which tend to be SUVs and other so-called light trucks that are not required by law to be as energy efficient as cars). Look for a family size car that gets 30 miles per gallon or more. Some compact cars can get 40 miles per gallon or more. Consider getting a hybrid gas-electric vehicle. These can have fuel economy in the 50 to 60 miles per gallon range.


Saving Energy through Other Lifestyle Measures

Simplify your lifestyle and reduce your consumption generally. All products require energy to make, use, or dispose of. A more simple lifestyle may also have other benefits.

Look for products made of recycled materials. For example, paper products.

Recycle and compost. Both of these acts save energy and resources over landfilling useful materials.

Consider "eating lower on the food chain." Generally speaking, eating less meat is good for the environment. Livestock production involves feeding animals large quantities of grain. Producing all this grain means greater use of energy, water, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The livestock industry also produces substantial amounts of air and water pollution.