By Michael Tobias
We all like to save money and the best way to do this at home is to reduce energy use. While simply cutting down on usage is a start, it’s not the solution. Rather, you need to take active steps to improve energy-efficiency in your home.
There are many ways this can be done, depending on budget and expertise. Here are some invaluable tips ranging from DIY projects to strategies that require the input of a professional engineer or company offering mechanical engineering services. In addition to helping you save energy and therefore money, they will also help you make your home more comfortable.
Even renters can make use of at least some of these tips and reduce their utility bills.
Audit How Much Energy Your Home Uses
You can’t really cut down on or improve the energy-efficiency of your home unless you know how much energy your home uses, and how and where this energy is used. A certified professional will evaluate energy usage in your home and provide a report that recommends ways of improving it. However, it is also possible to do your own basic energy audit.
Professional energy auditors use various assessments ranging from a relatively simple Home Energy Score to more detailed assessments that include a variety of diagnostic tests to measure air leakage, evaluate existing insulation, and so on.
The best way to do your own energy audit is to make use of a tool like the U.S. Department of Energy’s Home Energy Saver. This will help you to identify where the house is losing energy and assess what changes will affect comfort, durability, energy efficiency, health, and safety.
Whether you are working with a professional or taking the DIY route, ways you can reduce energy usage include:
- Weatherizing your home by improving insulation and by sealing air leaks.
- Improving the efficiency of heating and cooling systems.
- Taking steps to save electricity and/or using renewable energy instead of relying on the grid.
Of course, if you are planning a new home, there are ways that you can ensure it will be energy efficient, for instance by opting for passive solar home design or incorporating a cool roof.
How to Effectively Weatherize Your Home
Air leaks of various kinds are one of the major sources of energy loss in our homes. Sealing them can save anything from 10% to 20% on heating and cooling costs.
First air leaks will need to be identified, which is relatively easy to do if you know what you are looking for. Areas around doors, windows, points where there is access for plumbing or electrical connections, and recessed lights, as well as fixtures and fittings that lead to the exterior of the house, are common culprits.
Once identified, doors and windows should be weather-stripped, and air leaks should be caulked and sealed. Foam sealant is an effective solution where there are bigger gaps, around baseboards, sill plates, and window-trims for instance. Water and furnaces flues, switches and outlets, and chimney flashing should also be checked and sealed if necessary.
Insulation is essential for a properly sealed thermal envelope that protects the interior of the home from the outside. Effective insulation reduces energy demand and increases indoor comfort levels. This, of course, also saves money.
There are different types of insulation including:
- Blankets, rolls, and batts, that are made from flexible materials like fiberglass and rock wool.
- Rigid foam.
- Foam that is blown into place (see below).
Generally, installing insulation is not a DIY job because ventilation is vital and installers need to wear the right personal protective clothing and work with suitable equipment.
How to Improve the Energy Efficiency of Heating and Cooling Systems
Systems and appliances used for heating and cooling homes generally account for between 35% and 40% of energy use. Improving and upgrading equipment and systems should always consider the whole house to maximize energy savings and ensure the home is both safe and healthy. An HVAC engineer who specializes in heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems will be able to design and/or suggest suitable steps to take in any specific home environment.
Steps that can be taken, all of which will help to save money, include:
- Installing smart thermostats that can be programmed to turn the heat up or down for about eight hours a day, for optimal performance, depending on the season.
- Ensuring air ducts are correctly sized and don’t leak air.
- Installing or replacing heating and cooling systems with equipment that is energy efficient and certified by ENERGY STAR. Heat pumps and solar are excellent options.
- Considering the heat pump option carefully because heat pumps can reduce electricity usage for heating by about 50%.
- Replacing air conditioners with fans and maximizing passive cooling with shading, daylighting good insulation, and the installation of energy-efficient doors and windows.
- Reducing water heating costs to decrease utility costs. In addition to using energy-efficient appliances and installing low-flow faucets and showerheads, there are four primary ways this can be done. By:
- Using less hot water
- Buying more water- and energy-efficient water heaters, for instance, a solar or heat pump model
- Turning the thermostat on the water heater down
- Insulating the pipes and the water heater
Designing New Homes or Refurbishing Old Ones for Energy Efficiency
Passive solar design is one of the most effective ways to reduce heating costs in homes, but it does require knowledge and careful design. It is more efficient for new homes because siting is so important.
The successful passive solar design relies on:
- A thermal mass such as a concrete slab foundation floor or wall that will absorb and store heat.
- Windows that are south-facing in the northern hemisphere and north-facing in the southern hemisphere to take advantage of the natural heat from the sun. They also enable natural daylight to enter the house and ensure the house is comfortable in cooler seasons.
- Ceiling fans, awnings or nearby trees, vents, and possibly also window-fans that are all designed to be part of the heat control system.
- Heat distribution systems that move hot air throughout the home, increasing the comfort factor.
The inclusion of cool roofs that reflect sunlight and are designed to emit heat will also help to cut costs. This design feature can lower roof temperatures by as much as 50 °F which minimizes the need for air conditioning and saves an enormous amount of energy – and therefore money.
Landscaping becomes part of an energy-saving plan rather than just a way to make the yard look beautiful. Properly designed, a landscaped garden will provide shade, create windbreaks, and ultimately reduce heating and cooling costs. Providing plants are chosen carefully, they can also help to conserve water without compromising the landscaping effects.
How to Decrease Reliance on the Grid
Saving electricity and switching to renewable energy are the first steps towards decreasing reliance on the national electricity grid, but you will need help from various professionals and companies offering services in the field of renewables.
Saving electricity isn’t difficult, and we have already looked at some of the ways this can be done. Smart meters, energy-efficient appliances, and lighting are also a good starting point.
Renewable energy systems take a bigger investment, but they will save money long-term. Solar electric systems are a particularly good investment that will enable people to generate their own electricity at home. Small wind systems are another possibility though there are additional challenges in terms of permits and zoning as well as the siting and interconnection of turbines.
There is no doubt that we all have the power to save energy – and money – in our homes. Let’s do it!