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How to Improve Energy Efficiency at Home

Improving your home's energy efficiency should be your first step before purchasing a renewable energy system. Every $1 spent on efficiency improvements can save you $3 - $5 on your system.

Using renewable energy to produce electricity and reduce your electric bill can be a sound long-term investment. Depending on the type and size of your renewable energy system, you can expect a full return on your investment within 3-18 years – but with solar rebates and renewable energy incentives from your utility company or state and national government, the payback period on your investment can be cut in half.

However, the very first step in pursuing any renewable energy system must be considering how to make your home or business more energy efficient. The general rule of thumb is that for every $1 you spend on making energy efficiency improvements, you’ll save $3 – $5 on the cost of the renewable energy system. Let’s go over some basic ways you can make your home more energy efficient.

Improve Energy Efficiency with LED Lighting

One of the easiest things you can do to reduce your electrical consumption and improve energy efficiency at home is to replace your regular incandescent light bulbs with LED bulbs. LED bulbs use only about 25% as much energy as an incandescent light bulb that produces the same amount of light, and they last about 25 times longer. By replacing a traditional 60-Watt incandescent light bulb with a 12-Watt LED bulb, you will save over $85 in electricity costs over the lifetime of that bulb. Now imagine how much you would save if you changed out all of your light bulbs to LED bulbs! Even compared to CFLs – the standard “energy efficient” light bulb technology of the early 2000s – LEDs are a big step forward in energy efficiency.

an energy efficient LED bulb

A standard household LED bulb.

LED technology and manufacturing processes have both quickly evolved and improved in the last few years, and the cost has come down dramatically. You’ll find that there are LED bulbs for almost every residential and commercial lighting application – including dimmable bulbs. Head out to your local hardware store and buy LED bulbs for as many of your light fixtures as possible, but note that if you want to replace an incandescent bulb with an LED bulb that produces the same kind of light, you’ll need to buy LED bulbs that match your old incandescents’ brightness (measured in lumens, not Watts) and color (measured in degrees Kelvin, for example 3000K).

Maximize Natural Light

Another way to improve energy efficiency at home is to replace electrical lighting with tubular skylights. Tubular skylights look a little like shiny stove pipes that start with a transparent dome on top of the roof and come down into a room in your house for free daytime lighting. We frequently see customers using tubular skylights to bring daylight into hallways and closets. The light is, of course, entirely natural and in some installations can provide as much illumination as a 100-Watt incandescent light bulb.

Improve the Energy Efficiency of Home Appliances

the ENERGY STAR logoMany appliances throughout your home will have a newer and significantly more energy efficient version available. Here is a short list of appliances you should consider replacing with higher-efficiency versions: refrigerators (see below), water heating tanks, air conditioners, dehumidifiers, dishwashers, ceiling fans, laundry machines, and copiers. To see which brands and models have ENERGY STAR certification and to figure which ones of those are the most efficient, visit the ENERGY STAR website. To find out how much your appliances are really consuming, invest in an inexpensive power meter like a Kill-A-Watt meter.

Refrigerators – ENERGY STAR or Bust

One of the biggest consumers of electricity in most households is the refrigerator. In most households, refrigeration is the number one electricity consumer after any electricity-based heating or cooling systems. If your refrigerator is over 10 years old, chances are it’s electrically very inefficient. Consider replacing your current refrigerator with one that has a high ENERGY STAR rating. Remember that just because a refrigerator may have earned the ENERGY STAR label doesn’t mean it’s the most efficient model available – it only means that its efficiency exceeds the federally mandated efficiency standard by at least 15%. You can do much of your investigation online at the ENERGY STAR website’s refrigerator comparison page. There you can search for the brand, type and size of refrigerator you want and sort by energy efficiency. When you shop in stores, consult the yellow EnergyGuide tags that are attached to all new refrigerators (and many other appliances) that offer information about annual energy consumption and show you where each model lands in a comparison with similar models. For maximum energy savings, select the model that’s a leader in efficiency in its class.

Phantom Loads and Standby Power

Phantom loads are the sneaky electrical loads drawn by devices that aren’t actively in use. Though small, the accumulation of multiple phantom loads drawing power 24 hours a day can add up to over a megawatt-hour of electricity in a year – in other words, enough electricity to power an entire energy-efficient house for two to three months!

What kinds of devices produce these mysterious phantom loads? Some of the most common offenders are voice-activated devices that listen for your voice commands at all times, and the “power brick” adapters, or power supplies, that charge or operate cell phones, laptop computers, cordless drill batteries, radios, printers, and many other household devices (these adapters are actually small transformers, turning AC electricity from the wall outlet into DC electricity for use by the device). Even when you’re not charging your cell phone or the battery for your cordless drill, that AC adapter may continue to consume power just because it’s plugged into the wall.

a modern TV, phone charger, and home voice command device

Examples of phantom loads commonly found in a home.

The other major category of phantom loads is devices which – instead of truly shutting down when you “turn it off” – go into a standby mode, allowing them to boot up faster when you go to use them. Computer monitors, TVs, cable TV boxes, and video game consoles are common examples of standby power phantom loads.

a power strip with and on-off switchHow can you decrease the consumption of energy by these parasitic loads? One of the simplest solutions is to simply plug these devices into a power strip with an off/on switch. After you’re done using the devices and shut them off normally, just hit the off switch on the power strip. Many people make it part of their nightly routine to shut off these power strips just before they go to bed. For AC power adapters that you use at night, like for charging a cell phone, put those on a separate power strip that you turn off during the day when you take your phone with you. Simple solutions like these could reduce your phantom electric loads by as much as 80%. In real-dollars terms, this means saving upwards of $120 per year in electricity costs, depending on your local electric utility rates and how dedicated you are to reducing your phantom loads.

A note on phantom power for people planning to live off-grid

If you’re planning to use an off-grid solar, wind, or hydro system and plan to have a 12V or 24V battery bank, you will often be able to find devices and appliances that work directly with these DC voltages. The benefit to using these devices is that they will not need an AC power adapter that needlessly consumes electricity whether or not the device is in use. After all, what an AC adapter plug does is convert normal AC household electricity to DC type of electricity to power the device, and it rarely does that conversion efficiently.

Energy Efficient Cooling

During the summer (and in warmer climates) air conditioning is frequently the largest consumer of electricity. An inexpensive way to reduce the demand on your air conditioner is to keep your attic cooler with a solar attic fan. Powered by the sun, solar attic fans turn on when your attic warms up during the day. By venting the hot air out of your attic all day long, the floors below stay cooler and as a result, your air conditioner runs significantly less.

Solar attic fans can be installed by good do-it-yourselfers or carpenters. They require no wiring. A hole needs to be cut in the roof, then the attic fan is slipped in and the edges are sealed up well with roof caulking. Like full-size solar panels, The solar electric panel built into the fan unit is designed to last at least 25 years. A solar attic fan is another wise investment that pays for itself very quickly.

For people who live in zones that are relatively dry but hot, evaporative coolers (also known as swamp coolers) are a cost-effective and energy-efficient alternative to traditional air conditioners. Evaporative coolers use about 25% of the energy an air conditioner would need, and are simple appliances with few moving parts and low maintenance/repair costs. The southwestern U.S. (including Colorado, Utah, and Nevada) is an ideal climate for evaporative coolers, but for people living in areas with even a moderate amount of humidity, evaporative coolers won’t work effectively.

Another simple and green method for reducing your home’s air conditioning costs is to plant deciduous trees whose leaves will shade your home in the summertime and shed its leaves for more sunlight in the winter time. By shading your home, it heats up less – and therefore requires less cooling by an air conditioner. Planting a tree in this scenario has double the environmental impact – you’re reducing greenhouse gases by both using less electricity and because the tree itself absorbs carbon dioxide.

a drawing of a house with trees planted around it to maximize heating and cooling efficiency

Courtesy: National Arbor Day Foundation

Deciduous shade trees planted to the east and west of your home can cut cooling costs by 15-30%. Planting trees as a wind break can lower your heating bills by 10-20%. Planting shade trees over sidewalks and concrete areas help cool the entire neighborhood!

Heating Efficiency

For many households, the biggest bill is the heating bill. Probably the quickest, least expensive, and easiest way to reduce your heating bill is to buy a programmable thermostat. You can set these thermostats to turn off the heat automatically when you’re not home and turn it on just before you arrive. You will easily recoup your small investment in the new thermostat within one winter by running your heating system less. See your local hardware store or HVAC company for pricing and availability of different models.

Another basic step to reducing your home heating bill is sealing air leaks and adding insulation. According to ENERGY STAR, sealing air leaks and adding insulation can reduce your heating bill by as much as 10%. For homes with attics, one of the easiest and most effective places to put down insulation is in the attic. Visit your local home improvement store to find out how much insulation in different areas of the home is recommended for your region.

a diagram of a home with air leak points labeled

These are the areas that should be insulated and sealed. Courtesy: ENERGY STAR

Solar air heating systems are another efficient home heating option. Mounted on an exterior, southern-facing wall or on the roof, solar air heating collectors can reduce a home’s or business’ annual heating costs by as much as 30%. Costing far less than a new conventional heating system, solar air heating systems usually pay for themselves in 3-6 years. They’ll typically last for 18-35 years and require minimal maintenance. Working in conjunction with your existing heating system, the solar air heating system simply reduces your heating demand whenever you have even partial sunlight.

There are two basic flavors of solar air heating systems. There are ones that heat up fresh outdoor air and blow it into your home or business. Then there are ones that take the air from inside your building, boost the temperature by another 50-90° Fahrenheit, and blow it back in (these are known as recirculating air solar heating systems). Newer homes and buildings which tend to be tightly sealed and have stale winter air will benefit doubly from the fresh air solar heaters. Older homes tend to be inherently draftier and experience full air exchanges with the outdoors a few times a day. These homes will benefit more from the solar air heating systems that recirculate the indoor air and boost it up in temperature. Typically, one 4×8 foot solar air collector is recommended per 750-1000 square feet of home space.

Water Heating Efficiency

More efficient models of domestic hot water heaters have become available in the last several years. If you have an old hot water heater, chances are it was not designed with efficiency in mind. Again, check out ENERGY STAR’s page for water heaters to find out which boilers are the most efficient.

A better alternative to traditional water heating tanks are tankless water heaters. These devices heat water “on demand” and instantaneously as it’s being used. Traditional water heating systems used in much of North America maintain a large tank of hot water to be used only a few times a day. To keep the water hot and ready at a moment’s notice, these water heating tanks consume energy throughout the entire day, whether you need it or not. Tankless water heaters only consume energy the moment you need hot water, saving the typical household 30-50% of the cost of water heating. You can find tankless water heaters that use natural gas, propane, and electricity from a variety of manufacturers. For larger families and homes where multiple hot water demands tend to happen simultaneously (for example a shower, dishwasher, and washing machine running at the same time), more than one tankless water heater may be required to provide all the instantaneous hot water needed.

Solar Water Heating Provides You the Best Return on Your Investment

a building roof with solar water collectors installed on it

Solar water heating systems can reduce a home’s hot water heating demand by 60-90%. Designed to last at least 30 years, they typically pay for themselves in just 3-7 years.

The energy (natural gas, propane, electricity, etc.) needed for water heating can be reduced by 60% to 90% by using a solar water heating system to preheat water before it enters your existing traditional water heater. Remarkably effective and efficient – even in northern climates – solar water heating technologies have matured significantly in the past 30 years. Designed to easily last 30 years or more with minimum maintenance, typically a solar water heating system will pay for itself in its first 3-7 years of use. Solar water heating systems heat your home’s water with collectors that are usually placed on the roof of the home. The hot water produced is stored in an insulated tank until your home is ready to use it. Your traditional hot water will only kick on to heat up the water when the water temperature is not quite high enough. Solar water heating systems can be installed by advanced do-it-yourselfers, but it is recommended that a licensed plumber or installer review or do the more complicated plumbing.

Improving Energy Efficiency is Your First Step Toward Renewable Energy and Energy Independence

The first step before purchasing a solar electric or wind power system to meet your electricity needs is to intelligently reduce those needs. Most homes can inexpensively reduce their electricity demands by 20-30% without ever having to make any adjustments in the lifestyles of the occupants. To sum up the best ways to improve energy efficiency at home, we recommend that you:

  • Replace incandescent light bulbs with LED bulbs
  • Replace your older appliances with ENERGY STAR ones that have a very low annual energy consumption rating
  • Minimize the phantom loads in your home and using power strips to fully shut down appliances in standby mode
  • Insulate your home well for colder seasons
  • Creatively use vegetation to keep your home cool in the summer and maximize sunshine entering the house in the winter
  • Use solar heating technologies (not to be confused with solar electric technologies) to cost effectively reduce how much your traditional air or water heating systems have to work

There are literally hundreds of other little tricks and smart tweaks you can make to your home that will further reduce your electrical demands. Consider picking up a copy of the Solar Living Sourcebook to learn more about conserving energy, improving efficiency, planning renewable energy systems, and much more.