Improving energy performance of new homes

Purchasing a newly constructed home is an exciting process and a major milestone. Whether you are building a custom home or buying a spec home, you will be making dozens of important decisions before moving in––from purchasing the perfect kitchen countertops to selecting a home financing package.

The decisions you make about the energy efficiency of your new home will have lasting consequences. These energy-related decisions, such as how you heat, cool, light and insulate your home, are often overlooked.

The first step to maximizing energy efficiency is to select a properly sized home that meets your family’s needs. America is known for its sizeable homes, but after hitting a peak of 2,268 square feet in 2006, the median size of new single-family homes started to trend down.

According to a recent report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “as square footage increases, the burden on heating and cooling equipment rises, lighting requirements increase and the likelihood that the household uses more than one refrigerator increases. Square footage typically stays fixed over the life of a home, and it is a characteristic that is expensive, even impractical to alter to reduce energy consumption.”

According to the Department of Energy, appliances account for about 13 percent of the average household’s energy use. Clothes dryers, refrigerators/freezers, computers, microwaves, dishwashers and washing machines tend to use the most energy in a typical American home. Every appliance you purchase has an operating cost (i.e., the cost of the energy needed to power that appliance). To facilitate more informed shopping, the federal government requires many appliances to include an EnergyGuide label stating the approximate energy consumption and operating cost of the appliance. Appliances with an ENERGY STAR label use 10 to 50 percent less energy than standard appliances.

Many owners of new homes are interested in solar energy. If you are considering solar, make sure your home is as energy efficient as possible. This will enable a smaller, less expensive solar system to provide a substantial portion of your energy needs. Prices for solar panels have dropped considerably over the last decade, and there are many financing models and incentives available to residential customers.

Another efficient option is a residential geothermal system. While they do not generate electricity, geothermal systems save energy by using heat from the earth to replace conventional heating and cooling systems. Throughout the year, the earth remains a constant, moderate temperature (i.e., 50 degrees Fahrenheit) just below the ground. Geothermal heating and cooling systems, also known as ground source systems, make use of this constant underground temperature by circulating water in a loop to exchange heat between your home, the ground source heat pump and the earth––providing highly efficient heating, cooling and hot water.

Installing an easy-to-use programmable thermostat is also a great way to efficiently operate your home. ENERGY STAR estimates a typical household can annually save $180 by properly using a programmable thermostat.

Regardless of the number of energy efficiency features in your home, occupant behavior is still a major factor in how much energy your household consumes. From unplugging appliances you rarely use, like a mostly empty second refrigerator, to making sure you run full loads in the washing machine, dryer and dishwasher, to turning out the lights––it all adds up in energy savings.

Energy savings beyond belief

Avoid Energy Scams

Avoid Energy Scams

A quick search of the Internet reveals many great ways to save energy around your home. Simple things, such as adding insulation or using energy efficient light bulbs, are simple and relatively inexpensive ways to save small amounts of energy. The same search will also reveal “amazing” products that claim to cut up to a third of your energy bill – without you changing anything about your energy use habits. Claims like this sound too good to be true, and there is good reason for that. These claims almost always turn out to be exaggerations or downright lies.

An energy efficiency scam is generally easy for a person who works at an electric co-op to spot and identify. However, it isn’t so easy for most people. Scams generally center around misstatements of science or confusion over utility programs.

A popular scam is a little box that promises to save you energy. The box is a device that supposedly saves energy without the consumer making any changes to behavior, turning anything off or adjusting the thermostat. The people who sell these boxes often claim outrageous energy savings—sometimes as much as 30 percent or more. They often use terms, such as power conditioning, capacitors and power factor, all of which are legitimate industry terms.

The sales pitch usually goes something like this: The device being sold will control alternating current, power factor and reduce the cost of electric bills. It will condition your power and make appliances last longer. The device uses no power and has no moving parts. It will make the motors in your home run better. The sales material often claims that the utility doesn’t want you to know about the device. That last part is actually true – because it is a rip off. Variations of the product have been sold to both residential and commercial customers.

There are several questions that you should ask a salesman (or yourself!) when reading an ad for the next magical cure-all:

  1. Does it violate the laws of science? Some products claim that they are capable of “changing the molecular structure … to release never-before tapped power.” Changing the laws of science is no easy task. If the inventors truly can do this, the product will surely be sold at every store in the nation, and they will become very wealthy. They won’t be mailing out flyers or operating from a poorly designed web site.
  2. Was the product tested by an independent group like a national lab or university? If the performance of the product was not tested and certified by a lab or other entity not connected to the company selling it, then be skeptical. Call the third party group and talk to them. Sometimes scammers lie about the tests.
  3. Is it too good to be true? In today’s economic times, saving money is top of mind. We want something to be true so that we can save money, improve our lives and feed our families. But wanting something to work doesn’t mean it will.

Sometimes energy scammers contact consumers directly, either by calling or stopping by and claiming they represent the local electric co-op. Never give anyone personal or financial information who claims to be an employee of the co-op without confirming their identity. If they call, ask for a call back number, then verify their identity with your co-op. If they stop by, ask the person for a valid employee ID.

The key is to be skeptical and ask questions. Asking tough questions and being skeptical will not offend honest people. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Brian Sloboda is a technical research analyst specializing in energy efficiency and renewable energy for the Business Technology Strategies (BTS), a service of the Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

How to choose efficient appliances

It’s never a good day when you realize you need to replace a large appliance in your home. However, when the unfortunate time comes, be sure to take a moment and consider what you will purchase – especially for appliances that haven’t been replaced in a number of years, as the technology may have changed substantially. Instead of rushing out to buy the same make and model of appliance you had, consider this an opportunity to assess the market and make a smart purchase that will save you money in the long run.

According to the Department of Energy, appliances account for about 13 percent of the average household’s energy use. Clothes dryers, refrigerators/freezers, computers, microwaves, dishwashers and washing machines are the appliances that tend to use the most energy in a typical American home. Every appliance you buy has an operating cost, which is the cost of the energy needed to power the appliance. To facilitate more informed comparison shopping, the federal government requires some appliances to have an Energy Guide label stating the approximate energy consumption and operating cost of the appliance. Appliances with an ENERGY STAR label use 10 to 50 percent less energy than standard appliances and are generally more expensive than their standard counterparts. So, it’s important to compare the lifetime costs of each (up-front cost + operating cost) to ensure that purchasing the efficient appliance is the best choice.

In addition to looking at the efficiency of your new appliance, make sure to consider its size. Purchasing an appliance that is too large for your needs will lead to more energy being used. For example, laptops or small desktops (e.g., the Mac Mini) use only one-quarter of the energy of typical desktop PCs and have sufficient memory and processing speeds for many common applications. This same principle applies to refrigerators, air conditioners and more.

As you begin your search for a new appliance, check with your electric cooperative to see if they offer incentives for energy efficient appliances, and remember to use the ENERGY STAR website as an additional resource.

Dramatic advancements in the efficiency of many electric appliances now can provide the same level of end-user comfort with substantially less electric input. With a little research and forethought up-front, you can save money over the life of your appliance without sacrificing any benefits. Good luck, and happy shopping!

Thomas Kirk is a technical research analyst specializing in energy efficiency and renewable energy for the Cooperative Research Network (CRN), a service of the Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Top five energy users in your home

A starting point for savings

By Anne Prince

While most homeowners would like to be more energy efficient and save money, often it feels overwhelming because many people don’t know where to start. How can the average family use less energy, lower their utility bill and still meet their daily energy needs? To help jumpstart your effort, it is useful to know what the top energy users are in your home. With this knowledge, you can choose a path that works best for your family.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the top five energy users in U.S. homes are:

  1. Space cooling
  2. Space heating
  3. Water heating
  4. Lighting
  5. Refrigeration

Adjust the temperature

Together, home heating and cooling use the most energy and take the biggest bite out of your energy budget. On the bright side, there are ways you can achieve at least 10 percent savings by taking a few simple low-cost or no-cost steps.

  • During cold weather, set your thermostat to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • During warm weather, the recommended indoor temperature is 78 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Cleaning the filters of your HVAC system can cut costs from five to 15 percent.
  • Clean the coils around your electric baseboard heater to maintain maximum efficiency.
  • Caulk and weather-strip around windows and doors to prevent heat from escaping to the outdoors.

No matter what the climate or time of year, proper use of a programmable thermostat can save you 10 percent on your monthly utility bill.

Shine the light on savings

Take a fresh look at the lighting in your home. If you still use incandescent lighting, your light bulbs are operating at only 25 percent energy efficiency. Replacing your home’s five most frequently used bulbs with Energy Star-certified LEDs can save you $75 per year. Another easy way to save is to always turn lights off in rooms that are not being used.

Water heating efficiency

Just as it is energy-wise to insulate your roof, wall or floor, it also pays to wrap your hot water heater with an insulating blanket. This is all the more critical if you have an older unit. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. For additional efficiency and savings, insulate exposed hot water lines and drain one to two gallons of water from the bottom of your tank annually to prevent sediment build-up.

Put cold hard cash back in your wallet

If your refrigerator was purchased before 2001, chances are it uses 40 percent more energy than a new Energy Star model. If you are considering an appliance update, a new Energy Star refrigerator uses at least 15 percent less energy than non-qualified models and 20 percent less energy than required by current federal standards. Regardless of the age of your fridge, there are additional steps you can take to save energy and money. For example, don’t keep your refrigerator too cold. The Department of Energy recommends temperatures of 35 – 38 degrees Fahrenheit for the fresh food compartment and 0 degrees Fahrenheit for separate freezers (used for long-term storage).

By understanding how your home uses energy, you can determine the best ways to modify energy use and keep more money in your wallet. For additional ways to save, visit our energy page or contact your local electric cooperative.

Top Five Energy Users

Top Five Energy Users


Anne Prince writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nations 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.

Residential lighting goes high-tech

Until recently, homes were lit with a single technology—incandescent lamps. This is the bulb that generations of Americans learned by, lived by—and even ate by. But those days are long gone.

Over the past 20 years, electric co-ops have promoted efficient lighting by adding CFLs to the mix. In 2012, about 30 percent of U.S. residential sockets were filled with CFLs, with incandescents making up the remaining 70 percent. Today, LED bulbs and fixtures are increasingly preferred in many residential and commercial applications for their efficiency, quality of light and compatibility with automatic controls.

Changes to federal lighting standards went into effect for incandescent bulbs in 2007, when Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA), which included provisions to reduce the energy use of everyday light bulbs.

At the same time, through industry efforts and government investment, LEDs dramatically improved in performance and dropped in price, making them appealing options for many applications.

In the first quarter of 2015, traditional incandescents accounted for just nine percent of the market share in household lighting. EISA-compliant halogen incandescent replacements made up more than 44 percent of the market, with CFLs at 40 percent. And although the percentage of LED sales has increased dramatically over the last year, they made up just over 6 percent of the market share in the first quarter of 2015.

LEDs offer features beyond energy efficiency. Some LEDs are part of a system that allows the user to turn off lamps – or even change their color – via a smartphone app. This makes the LED lamp more of a consumer electronic than just a light bulb.

LEDs are essentially computer chips, so they are more difficult to produce than incandescent bulbs. This is one product where cheaper versions often produce a life span and color that is not what the consumer wants. Higher quality LEDs from reputable brands—such as GE, Philips, Cree and Sylvania to name a few—have tested well.

However, some fixtures inside the home do not work well with LEDs. Consumers with older dimmer switches often find that they must purchase newer switches to work with the LEDs. Consumers should pick LED lamps that come with a solid warranty in case there is a problem with quality.

What’s next? While LEDs are still on the cusp of becoming our everyday lighting, there are other technologies in development. Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) are similar to LEDs in that they are solid-state devices that produce light when current passes through them. But unlike LEDs, they are made up of multiple, organic semi-conductive layers that produce diffused light. OLEDs are extremely thin and flexible, which has enabled them to be effectively used in displays, like mobile phone screens and TVs. Manufacturers are developing OLED lighting as well—primarily for decorative architectural panels at this point, although some OLED lamps are available today.

It appears that the age of the LED has begun. They are shatter resistant and have a long life. And yes, some even come with their own app.


 

Brian Sloboda is a program manager specializing in energy efficiency for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Laura Moorefield consults for utilities, state and federal governments, and non-profits on energy efficiency, renewables, and program design. Laura founded Moorefield Research & Consulting, LLC in 2013. She currently resides in Durango, CO and is a member of La Plata Electric Association.

Five quick tips to save energy

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Cooking up holiday energy savings

For many of us, the best holidays involve home-cooked meals and wonderful aromas of turkey, dressing and baked goods wafting throughout the house. It means a busy kitchen and a bustling house full of family and friends. If this rings true for you, you still have an opportunity to save energy during the holidays despite the increased kitchen activity.

Cut carbs (carbon) painlessly

In addition to being the “heart of your home,” your kitchen could pump savings back into your wallet.  According to the Department of Energy, cooking accounts for 4.5 percent of total energy use in U.S. homes. This number, combined with the energy use associated with refrigeration, dishwashing and water-heating, means that as much as 15 percent of the energy in the average American home is used in the kitchen. So, saving energy here can have a significant impact on your household budget.

For example, when preparing side dishes, baked goods, soups and such, consider using a small appliance like a slow-cooker, toaster oven, microwave or warming plate instead of your conventional oven or stovetop. These small appliances are smart, energy-saving alternatives, typically using about half the energy of a stove.

Seal in efficiency

When using your oven, don’t peek! Opening the oven door can lower the temperature by as much as 25 degrees and causes your stove to work harder (consuming more energy) to return to the set cooking temperature. If your recipe calls for baking the dish more than an hour, it is not necessary to preheat the oven.  If your oven is electric, you can likely turn the oven off for the last five to 10 minutes of cooking and allow the residual heat to complete the job. Clean burners and reflectors increase efficiency and offer better heating, so don’t neglect this small but important task.

Just as keeping the oven door closed seals in efficiency and enables the stove to operate more economically, the same rules apply to the refrigerator and freezer. Keep the doors closed as much as possible so cold air doesn’t escape. However, leaving the door open for a longer period of time while you load groceries or remove items you need is more efficient than opening and closing it several times.

If you are entertaining a large group, you may be able to give your furnace a brief holiday. When your oven is working hard and you have a house full of guests, the heat from the stove and the guests will keep your house comfortable, enabling you to turn down the thermostat.

Clean up with energy savings

When it’s time to clean up, extend fellowship to the kitchen, and wash and dry dirty dishes by hand. This uses less energy than a dishwasher. However, don’t leave the water running continuously or you will waste energy. If you do use the dishwasher and rinse dishes before loading them, use cold water. Run the dishwasher with full loads only, and, if possible, use the energy-saving cycle. Note that dishwashers that have overnight or air-dry settings can save up to 10 percent of your dishwashing energy costs.

By adapting these efficient practices in your kitchen, energy savings will be one more thing to be thankful for this holiday season.

Anne Prince writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.

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LEDs for the holidays

“LED, LED, LED!’” (Imagine this being chanted the way “USA” is at the Olympics.) While light-emitting diodes won’t necessarily anchor a relay to victory, they are most certainly the current champions when it comes to energy-efficient lighting. So let’s discuss using LEDs for your holiday decorating enjoyment.

When I was a kid, we enjoyed decorating with large painted incandescent bulbs. My dad would hang them around the front door, and we’d deck out the tree with a couple of strings. They were glorious! And hot, posing a real danger when used on a dry tree.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the energy-conservation movement created a demand for more-efficient options. Enter the mini incandescent light strings. These are still widely used today and dramatically reduced the power consumed by their predecessors.

As is true in our technological age, manufacturers didn’t stop looking for even more efficient alternatives. This led to the introduction of LED lights. The first incarnations generated less than appealing garish blues, greens and reds but quickly softened into a more eye-pleasing spectrum. Today, LEDs are the undisputed champs of holiday lighting.

You could literally wrap your home in LED light strings, become visible to the International Space Station and still have a pleasantly manageable power bill at the end of it all. Now there is no reason to let concerns over cost of operation limit your decorating genius.

LEDs are also showing up in other forms and places. They are available in clear tubes that you can wrap around objects for extra interest (the tubes glow), and many yard figures are constructed with these as the main structural element. Imagine the possibilities!

Now if that isn’t enough for your holiday pleasure, how about wearing some holiday LED bling? Yes, the tacky (but ever so popular) holiday tie with tiny lights that illuminate has been around for years. But, combine the advances in LEDs with conductive paints and micro controllers like the Arduino or Raspberry Pi, and you can create some truly memorable fashions for the holidays. Just imagine the sensation you can cause at the office holiday party arriving in a coat of many, many colors. You could even spell out special holiday greetings with the proper display or simply glow all night long. Don’t worry about needing clunky power supplies or treacherous extension cords to keep your fashion style illuminated. These displays sip electricity from batteries like a fine wine. Just be sure to turn yourself off before driving home.

Two of my favorite sources for such goodies are www.sparkfun.com and www.adafruit.com (click the “wearables” link at either).

You have worked hard all year to reduce your energy consumption to save money and slim down your carbon footprint. Now reward yourself with a splendid holiday display that will be the envy of all who see it while you remain miserly with power use.

Tom Tate writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.

Saving energy in the kitchen

The holidays are upon us, which means most of us will be spending a lot of time in the kitchen. Whether you are considering replacing an appliance or simply looking for small ways to be more efficient, here are some tips to help you save energy – and money!

It sits in the kitchen, quietly humming away to keep your food cold. Most people don’t think about their refrigerator that often – as long as it’s working. A refrigerator typically runs for several years without any problems – but that doesn’t mean it’s performing to its optimal capacity. Older refrigerators use more energy. Upgrading this appliance can bring a major return on your investment.

According to Energy Star, if your refrigerator is from the 1980s, replacing it with a new model could cut your electric bill by $100 a year. If you bought your refrigerator in the 1970s, the savings could be as much as $200 a year.

Cooking can also be a big energy expender – in more ways than one! But there are a few ways to save energy while cooking. Placing the lid on a pot of boiling water will trap heat and cause the water to come to a boil faster. And there is no need to preheat the oven when cooking a large piece of meat, like a turkey or ham (you do need to preheat when baking or cooking smaller dishes). And, if you are planning on using the oven for a long period of time – for instance, when you are cooking one of those large pieces of meat – you might be able to turn down your home’s thermostat. The simple act of cooking will add warmth to the home because the heat from the oven can raise the temperature in the kitchen and surrounding rooms. This is especially true if you are hosting a party. Once your home begins to fill with people, the temperature will quickly begin to rise.

Even after the meal is over, there are still ways for you to save energy. The first is to make sure that your dishwasher is full before it’s started. Next, make sure you are using the right setting on your dishwasher. Many newer dishwashers have sensors that detect how clean your dishes are. When these auto cycles are used, they will get dishes clean without wasting energy or water. The sanitize setting should rarely be used since it is energy intensive. It is also a good idea to make sure the filter at the bottom of the wash-tub is cleaned. This will help the washer work at its optimal level.

One of the cheapest and easiest ways to save energy in the kitchen is to replace existing lights with LEDs. Not only do they use less energy – you don’t have to replace them nearly as often. Plus, their costs have come down in recent years, making them far more affordable to install. (Note: if you currently have linear fluorescent lamps, converting to LEDs may be too expensive to justify).

As you can see, there are many different ways to practice efficiency in the kitchen, and who knows – you could even save enough money to treat the family to dinner out a couple of times a year.

Brian Sloboda is a senior program manager specializing in energy efficiency for the Cooperative Research Network, a service of the Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The Cooperative Research Network monitors, evaluates, and applies technologies that help electric cooperatives control costs, increase productivity, and enhance service to their consumers. Additional content provided by ESource.

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Shield your home from energy loss with adequate insulation

By Anne Prince

Walls. Floors. Ceilings. Attic. These are some of the prime areas of a home that need insulation in order for you to maximize energy efficiency. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), adding insulation to your home is a sound investment that is likely to quickly pay for itself in reduced utility bills. In fact, DOE estimates that you can reduce your heating and cooling needs up to 30 percent by properly insulating and weatherizing your home.

If your home is more than 20 years old and was not specifically constructed for energy efficiency, additional insulation can likely reduce your energy bills and increase the comfort level of your home. The actual amount of savings for each home depends upon several factors—the current level of insulation, your climate, efficiency of your heating/cooling system and your utility rates. On average, older homes have less insulation than homes built today, but even adding insulation to a newer home can pay for itself within a few years.

So, where do you start?

You first need to determine how much insulation you already have in your home and where it is located. If you need assistance, many electric cooperatives conduct energy efficiency audits for the home and will check insulation as a routine part of the assessment. For those with the DIY spirit, you can conduct an insulation audit yourself using TVA’s eScore self audit.

Here is what you will should be looking for:

  • Where your home is, isn’t, and/or should be insulated
  • The type of insulation in your home
  • The R-value and the thickness or depth (inches) of the insulation

A prime area that is chronically under-insulated is the attic. Whether you live in a cool or warm climate, attic insulation is essential to help keep warm air inside in the winter and prevent hot attic air from heating your living spaces in the summer. If you have R-19 or less insulation in your attic, consider bringing it up to R-38 in moderate climates and R-49 in cold climates. For flooring in cold climates, if you have R-11 or less insulation, consider bringing it up to R-25.

How does insulation work?

Heat flows naturally from a warmer space to a cooler space. During winter months, this means heat moves directly from heated living spaces to adjacent unheated attics, garages, basements and even outdoors. It can also travel indirectly through interior ceilings, walls and floors—wherever there is a difference in temperature. During summer months, the opposite happens—heat flows from the exterior to the interior of a home. Proper installation of insulation creates resistance to heat flow. Heat flow resistance is measured or rated in terms of its R-value—the higher the R-value, the greater the insulation’s effectiveness. The more heat flow resistance your insulation provides, the lower your heating and cooling costs will be.

Save green by going green

Today, you have choices when it comes to selecting insulation for the home, including an environmentally-friendly option made of recycled materials, such as scrap blue jeans. It looks similar to chopped up blue jeans and is treated for fire safety. With an insulating R-value similar to fiberglass insulation, this blue-jean insulation is a great option.

Get started and get saving

While an older home will never be as efficient as a new home, an insulation upgrade will make a noticeable difference in your energy use and wallet. A well-insulated home is one of the most cost-effective means of saving energy and decreasing heating and cooling bills. For more information, contact your local electric cooperative.

 

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Anne Prince writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.