I consider myself rather energy conscious around the house.
Nearly every lightbulb in the house is an LED. I close air vents in unused rooms. We keep doors and windows open early in the day to cool the house, then close them as the outside temperature climbs to reduce our air conditioning use.
There’s always more to consider, so I was thrilled when my gas company called to offer a free home energy audit, where an expert would go through my home and look for ways to reduce our energy consumption. Here’s what I learned.
First, the expert — let’s call him Dom — ran through some basic questions about my home and our energy usage.
He asked about the home’s size, what I knew about the insulation in walls and ceilings, what I knew about the furnace and air conditioner (too much, of course), how many loads of laundry we did per week, how many dishwasher cycles, typical shower usage, number of hours the oven is on, etc.
We went over some of the energy efficiency measures I had already implemented, and then Dom walked me through the past year of my gas bill to show how much energy our home had consumed in that time.
Next, Dom went through the entire house with me.
Heat seeks cold. In the winter, the heat inside our homes is seeking the coolness outside them. In the summer, it’s reversed. He was looking for places where heat could enter or escape.
First, he inspected the edges of every exterior door while it was closed, looking for light indicative of an air leak. He used a small mirror held at an angle to inspect the top and bottom seals, which was pretty handy.
There were three things he told me about regarding doors.
First, the garage door had a gap at the bottom. While the garage isn’t an outdoor space, it is an uninsulated space and should be considered the same as an exterior door for this purpose. Most new thresholds have an adjustable piece that allows you to quickly fix this gap just by turning a few screws.
Second, we have a coat rack that goes over the top of the door. Where the metal hooks meet the existing door seal causes a gap. Just putting a small piece of foam insulation on the metal will help take care of that.
Third, one door has gone more out of whack than the others. I typically fix this with a big helping of foam insulation, but Dom told me about a replacement for the regular weatherstripping around the door. It fits in the same channel as that weatherstripping, but it’s almost twice as thick, so it seals up larger gaps. It’s usually available from door shops rather than home improvement stores.
Of course, opening windows when it’s cooler and allowing the outside to cool the inside is a good idea. It’s also good to close up blinds or drapes when the sun is beating through a window.
My home was built in 2006, so it has double-pane vinyl windows but not low-E windows (which are better at blocking the heat from direct sun from passing through the window). Dom said people with aluminum frame or single-pane windows will see a tremendous amount of heat loss or gain depending on the season.
We have several ceiling fans throughout the house. They help circulate the air so that you get an even temperature. The important thing to know is that in the summer, the fans should spin counterclockwise, while in the winter they should spin clockwise. There’s a small switch located on the fan to reverse the motor direction.
Many newer furnaces also have a circulate setting that runs a low fan several times an hour to help circulate air between floors. This helps bring cool air from the basement throughout the house in the summer and warm air from the top floor into the basement or first floor in the winter for less energy. Dom recommended this stay on all the time.
Another area to look at is the attic access hatch. The door or piece of wood or drywall that covers the hole going to the attic should have lots of insulation to prevent air from leaking through there.
If you have a fireplace, make sure the damper is closed when it is not in use. That could lead to huge amounts of hot air going out the chimney!
There is also a hidden source of air that most people don’t think about and can be remedied for very little.
The light switches and electrical outlets can bring a significant amount of air into the home, especially the ones along exterior walls.
Look at it like this: The wall has insulation that creates a barrier between the inside and outside. The electrical box that houses the switch or plug takes up quite a bit of space where insulation would normally be.
Depending on the care used by the builder and electrician, there could be a huge gap in that area that allows a lot of air to travel through the exterior, into the electrical box space, and then right through the plastic switchplate.
You can see which outlets and switches are leaking by closing all doors and windows on a windy day, lighting a candle or stick of incense and putting it close to the plate. If the smoke or flame moves a lot, you’ve got a leak.
This can be fixed with a simple foam insert that goes behind the switchplate and blocks that airflow. (The one below is good because it has cutouts for a variety of uses.)
This is another area we don’t often think about. It takes a lot of energy to heat water. The more hot water you use, the more energy your hot water heater requires to get the tank back to your set temperature.
Think about how often you use hot water. Now consider that your hot water tank (if you have a tankless system you can ignore this) is constantly trying to keep the reservoir of water inside it at whatever temperature you set.
All the while, heat is escaping through the pipes that run throughout your home and through the tank itself. This lowers the inside water temperature, which causes the tank to fire up the burner or heating element and get it back to the set point.
You can save money by lowering the temperature of your water heater. It should be at 120 degrees or so, Dom says. You can also get some inexpensive pipe insulation to put around the exposed pipes coming from the heater. Dom estimates that insulation will pay for itself in about a year.
In larger homes, it’s not uncommon to have a hot water circulation pump. These pumps circulate water through the hot water pipes and back to the tank so you get hot water immediately when you turn on a faucet. Without it, the water in the pipes will have cooled over time and it would take several seconds to around a minute before hot water from the tank would reach the spigot.
Dom said he can usually tell which homes have a circulation pump simply by looking at the bill. The summer gas usage will be three to four times that of a typical home. The pump is bringing hot water from the tank through the home, where some of that heat transfers from the pipes to the air between the walls and floors as it travels. It coems back to the tank coolers, which causes the heater to start up.
Most pumps have a timer, which allows the occupant to have the pump turn on when it would be most likely hot water might be used, such as a regular shower time or in the evening hours after work and before bed.
Alternatively, you could do what I’ve done. I have the pump plugged into a Wi-Fi-enabled outlet (a WeMo switch in my case) that is synced with an Amazon Echo Dot. When I want to turn on the pump, I say “Alexa, turn on the shower” or I press a button on the WeMo app on my phone. I have the WeMo set to automatically turn off after an hour.
Finally, when washing clothes you should consider doing as many loads in cold water as you can. We only use hot water for whites and towels. Everything else gets done in cold. That has the added bonus of keeping colors from bleeding and ruining other clothes.
One of the easiest ways to reduce energy usage is to get a programmable thermostat.
This lets you set the temperature differently when people are home vs. when no one is home. If no one is home from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, there’s no reason to heat or cool your house as if they were during that time.
Programmable thermostats are easy to install and are relatively cheap. You can even get them Wi-Fi compatible so you can control the temperature from your smartphone or computer.
Set the temperature four or five degrees outside what you want it to be when you’re not home and then have it raise or lower the temperature accordingly for when you get back. Some utilities will even give you a rebate for purchasing certain models of thermostat, so look into that before you buy.
The utility room
This is one area I hadn’t even considered. In my basement there is a utility room that has the gas-burning furnace and water heater. There is a combustion air intake vent that brings in outside air to allow those appliances to operate correctly.
Dom pointed out that having that vent means that the door to that room should be treated like an exterior door. I should put foam weatherstripping all around the door, and I should also put a door sweep on the bottom to keep the air from mixing with the rest of the house.
I hadn’t considered that, but he’s absolutely right. I’ll definitely take care of that in the near future.
I was really glad I went through this audit. It allowed me to find a few more things I had not been optimizing for energy efficiency, and I was able to confirm with an expert that the things I have been doing are worthwhile.
Dom compared my usage to that of neighboring houses and of the previous homeowner. While he couldn’t give me that data, he could say that my usage was less than half that of the previous owner and very favorable even compared to smaller homes in the area.
That’s a savings of more than $1,000 a year just in natural gas bills, and I suspect my electrical bill is similarly reduced. Paying attention to energy efficiency really does pay off!