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Making a home efficient

After you find the most convenient location to live and find the smallest possible dwelling that meets your needs, the next step is to make your home operate as efficiently as possible. 

Usually the most important issues to think about are:

  • Space heating and cooling
  • Water heating
  • Lighting
  • Refrigeration
  • Appliances and electronics
  • Water use
SmartHome Cleveland<br />Workers install SIPs, structurally insulated panels, at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History MuseumTypical home energy use<br />Blowing in cellulose insulation<br />Insulated basement band joist<br />Insulated crawl space knee wall<br />

Two smart strategies to reduce energy from lighting: Focus your lumens on task lighting as opposed to general ambient lighting, and paint rooms light colors to reflect as much light as possible.

Start with a home energy audit

To determine the best ways to start saving energy and money, it’s a good idea to get a home energy audit. An audit will provide an accurate assessment of your home’s performance. The auditor (also called a home energy rater) will scan your walls with an infrared camera and measure the air leakiness of your home with a blower door test. The rater will produce a report with recommendations on the biggest-bang-for-the-buck improvements you can make.

Some local programs like Dominion's GoodCents and Cleveland Energy $avers are currently helping with the costs of insulation and air sealing work through rebates.

Find a certified home energy rater in Northeast Ohio.

Heating and cooling

The energy audit will reveal the best way to reduce your home’s energy use. Since the biggest part of your energy bill—nearly half—is from heating and cooling your living space, you will get the biggest bang for the buck by discovering where to insulate and seal up cracks and gaps.

For most of us, the challenge is tackling an existing house, and making it less leaky. If you own a home built before 1950, there’s a good chance it has no or inadequate sealing and insulation (it turns out the pink fiberglass rolls do very little). You may find—as GCBL’s Web Editor did in his “home energy projects on a tight budget” series—that a relatively small investment in professionally air sealing and insulating the attic and basement of an old house can reduce air leakage by one-third, noticeably improving his family's comfort.

Local courses like EnergYou help homeowners investigate a wide range of issues that influence our everyday energy consumption and exploring ways in which we can reduce our monthly expenses....and our overall footprint.

DIY or no?

If you’re handy, you can save money on a DIY home insulation or air sealing project. The Home Repair Resource Center, a non-profit serving Cuyahoga County homeowners, runs regular, affordable DIY workshops on caulking, weatherization and insulating.

After you have sealed and insulated as much as practical, then you might look at other options, such as a more efficient furnace or better windows and doors.

Water heating

After heating and cooling, water heating consumes the third-most energy in a typical house. The main issues here are:

  • The type of water heater (gas vs. electric, storage tank vs. on-demand or even electric heat pump)
  • The size of tank
  • The temperature at which the heater is set, and
  • How well insulated are the tank and piping 

Here is a guide to the common choices.

Of course, you can also reduce your water heating bills by conserving hot water. Washing clothes in cold water, taking shorter showers and washing dishes in the most water-efficient manner possible (such as a dishwater with a full load) does have a considerable impact.

Lighting

Another way to reduce energy use quickly and economically is lighting. You can reduce lighting power demand up to 75 percent just by swapping your old, incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents (CFLs) or LEDs (which cost more but have an amazingly long lifespan and do not contain mercury like CFLs). Lighting technology is developing rapidly, with important research being done right here in Northeast Ohio by GE Lighting and other companies.

Here is a good guide to lighting options.

Refrigeration

The refrigerator is one of the biggest power draws in a home. It takes a lot of energy to run the compressor motor of a refrigeration unit. Fortunately, refrigerators have become much more efficient in the past 20 years, thanks to government regulations that stimulated innovation. Thus, it often makes good environmental and economic sense to replace an old model (older than 10 years) with a new one.

The key issues to consider are:

  • Efficiency ratings—Look for refrigerators with the yellow Energy Star label. They will be more efficient than minimum requirements, and the label will make it easy to compare the efficiency of various models.
  • Size—Larger models typically use more energy, so get the smallest refrigerator that meets your household needs (ideally, 18 cubic feet or less. On the other hand, don’t get one that’s way too small if it will force you to make more frequent trips by car to the grocery store.
  • Style—Refrigerators with the freezer on the top are more efficient than side-by-side models. Also, automatic ice-makers and through-the-door dispensers increase energy use by 14–20%.

It’s also important how you operate and maintain your refrigerator. Open the door as little as possible, keep the refrigerator full, make sure the doors seal tightly, and keep the coils clean.

Finally, one of the best things you can do for your home energy bill and the environment is avoid the temptation to plug in a second fridge. That old one in the basement or garage is probably very inefficient (there’s a reason why you replaced it, right?)

A guide to Energy Star refrigerators
Should I replace my fridge? Use the Refrigerator Retirement Savings Calculator

Appliances and electronics

Our homes are filling up with all kinds of electric gadgets, increasing the average American’s energy bill 12% since 2005. So the first thing to do is think twice before bringing yet another power-hungry gadget into your life. Do you really need it? Is it the most efficient model that meets your needs?

Many electronic devices consume power—even when you’re not using them. These energy “vampires” suck power in stand-by mode, and by some estimates, can raise your power bills up to 8% a year. A quick and easy solution is to plug your devices into a power strip and shut them off completely.

If you’re not sure what are the big energy hogs and vampires in your house, pick up a Kill A Watt meter. Just plug this $30 device into a regular wall socket, plug in your appliance, and the meter displays power consumption in real time.

And just because something is Energy Star rated doesn’t mean leaving it on will save you money. Good habits like shutting off the TV and lights when you leave the room have a surprisingly large impact.

Estimate your appliance’s energy use

Water use

For people in Northeast Ohio who get their water from the awesome source of Lake Erie, water conservation has not been a big issue (although it might become an issue in the future as the climate changes and industrial water withdrawals increase). But conservation is already an issue for a different reason: the energy impact of purifying and pumping water. It takes a tremendous about of power to treat water and pump it from the lake uphill to customers.

To help reduce water demand, you can install low-flow toilets, faucets and showerheads. Improved engineering in recent years enables these devices to work well with much less water. For example, new products with EPA’s WaterSense label are designed to be 20% more water efficient than previous baselines. The latest toilets even have a dual-flush feature for saving more water.

Start saving water at home.

Finally, landscaping is also a water issue. The Landscaping section of the site offers tips on low-maintenance landscaping that saves water, energy, and time. Also, see Nature Center at Shaker Lakes Laudable Lawn Care site for ideas.

Air seal and save money

Whether you are building a new home or renovating an existing home, air sealing is one of the most effective ways to cut down on energy bills. If homes are not properly sealed, air can leak in and out of the home, creating drafts and making your HVAC work harder to control the temperatures in the home. Hundreds of dollars a year are wasted on home energy bills due to increased air leakage. Over a long period, leakage can become a durability issue, increase the risk of fire, allow for pests and rodents to enter, and affect indoor air quality.  Air sealing is an inexpensive way to cut down on leaks and cut down on home energy bills. It is almost impossible to have a house that is “too tight.” Most houses have points of ventilation built in with mechanical systems or bathroom and kitchen fans. Sealing is a DIY job and all of the materials can be found at a hardware store.

For renovations or new construction you will need:

  • Caulk for gaps ½” or less. Select the grade based on where you will apply the caulk (interior, exterior, high temperatures) 
  • Spray foam for larger gaps. This can often be extremely sticky so wear gloves while applying. This is not recommended near flammable areas such as fireplace flues.
  • Rigid Foam insulation for attic door access. Seal seams with beaded caulk. The attic access is considered the largest leak between unconditioned space (the attic) and conditioned space (living space). Try to achieve the same R-Value (thermal resistance) as the rest of the ceiling. For more information about air sealing in the attic, click here.

Don’t rely on fiberglass insulation.  This is the most common type of insulation in older homes and a tell tale sign of leakage is dirty insulation.  Fiberglass insulation does not STOP air leaks; it just acts as a filter for air leaks.  When choosing insulation for your home renovation, look into dense-packed cellulose and urethane foams.  Typically installed by a contractor, this insulation should have an R-Value of 38.  R-value suggestions are based on the number of heating and cooling days in Northeast Ohio.  Because Northeast Ohio experiences more heating than cooling days, a higher R-Value is necessary for maximum insulation and air flow reduction. 

Important areas to seal:

  • Attic: knee walls, wiring holes, hatch, ceiling
  • Basement rim joists (where foundation meets wood framing)
  • Around plumbing penetrations
  • Rough opening such as doors and windows
  • Gaps at whole house fan or bathroom and kitchen ventilations
  • Exterior penetrations such as porch lights phones etc

What about renewable energy?

Installing renewable energy is usually one of the last things to consider when improving the efficiency of your home—after you have done other, more cost-effective things to reduce energy demand. But, at that point, it is indeed satisfying to add enough renewable power to make your house net-zero energy (meaning it produces enough power to offset demand on an annual basis). Ohio has a net-metering requirement, so you really can make your electric meter run backward and get paid by your utility company.

Green Energy Ohio’s Guide to getting started with a home solar energy project

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