Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

April 13, 2008

How much energy do you use in your house?

Category: Conservation,Household,Save Electricity,Save Fuel,Save Water,Technology – Tom Harrison – 2:00 pm

My recent windfall from the water company reminded me that I could not possibly have known how much water I was using. I am not so tied in to our heating bill. I am very aware of my electricity bill. I am aware of my vehicle usage. They are all important—why the difference?

When it’s in your face, it’s harder to ignore

I have some proposed solutions that should help get our consumption in our faces.

My electric company only very recently started electronic billing, so I get my bills on paper, in the mail still. It has a graph that includes year-over year usage. This is good (the paper may be more energy efficient than electronic if I actually read it and act to reduce consumption!).

I see how frequently (actually how infrequently) I fill my car with gas. My car has an instant feedback monitor that shows my current mileage. Brilliant!

My heating bill (natural gas) is via email. We get an email saying “click here to view your bill on our website”, after which I need to log in, after which I need to find some other link to the PDF bill.

Our water bill is quarterly, and even though on paper is inscrutable (only last week did I calculate that the units presented on the bill, 1 “HCF” is 748 gallons). Not brilliant :-(

If I am not aware of how much I use, and more important how my changes affect that use, will I really have any motivation to change?

A very good article in the New York Times on the subject of changing behavior noted that a utility company found an effective way to cause behavior change:

…the bill featured a little drawing along with the numbers: a smiling face on a below-average bill or a frowning face on an above-average bill. After that simple nudge, the heavy users made even bigger cuts in consumption, while the light users remained frugal.

For me, there are several thinks that are in the way of having a clear understanding of my consumption:

  • No bills have meaningful comparisons of my usage (electricity bill is best, but still not obvious)
  • Reporting consumption is not always useful; much is cyclical or dependent upon the weather
  • Quarterly water bills are too far away; the longer the period, the harder to compare and the more abstract the information becomes
  • The bills are not consolidated in any way

I need immediate feedback. If I install a water saving shower head I would like to know the next day how much more virtuous I am. When I turn out lights or make other small changes, do I know how important the change is compared to, say, having my fridge running? Nope—it’s all pretty abstract.

Some instant feedback electricity metering devices are available, or for the more intrepid, the Kill-A-Watt can help you measure plug-by-plug.

But it’s still too hard, and too disconnected. Here’s what I think should happen:

  • All energy/water bills should include a unified energy use metric
  • Usage should be compared to prior period
  • Usage should be compared to similar other houses
  • Usage should be normalized for external conditions (e.g. degree days for heating)
  • Energy reports should be available day by day over the Internet
  • E-bills should include the information in the email, not via a link
  • Some sort of competitions, awards, and other incentives should be offered
  • …and many more things to make it simple to know your usage

To get really geeky, I propose a national standard that all utilities need to support. Each should report on these items via an Internet “web service” for the customer. A simple web application could aggregate the data for your house from various sources into a consolidated report. All the data is there, it just needs to be presented in a usable way!


  1. How To Reduce Your Energy Bills / Energy Conservation Begins at Home

    Imagine leaving a window open all winter long — the heat loss, cold drafts and wasted energy! If your home has a folding attic stair, a whole house fan or AC Return, a fireplace or a clothes dryer, that may be just what is occurring in your home every day.

    These often overlooked sources of heat loss and air leakage can cause heat to pour out and the cold outside air to rush in — costing you higher heating bills.

    Air leaks are the largest source of heating and cooling loss in the home. Air leaks occur through the small cracks around doors, windows, pipes, etc. Most homeowners are well aware of the benefits caulk and weatherstripping provide to minimize heat loss and cold drafts.

    But what can you do about the four largest “holes” in your home — the folding attic stair, the whole house fan or AC return, the fireplace, and the clothes dryer? Here are some tips and techniques that can easily, quickly and inexpensively seal and insulate these holes.

    Attic Stairs

    When attic stairs are installed, a large hole (approximately 10 square feet) is created in your ceiling. The ceiling and insulation that were there have to be removed, leaving only a thin, unsealed, sheet of plywood.

    Your attic space is ventilated directly to the outdoors. In the winter, the attic space can be very cold, and in the summer it can be very hot. And what is separating your conditioned house from your unconditioned attic? That thin sheet of plywood.

    Often a gap can be observed around the perimeter of the door. Try this yourself: at night, turn on the attic light and shut the attic stairway door — do you see any light coming through? These are gaps add up to a large opening where your heated/cooled air leaks out 24 hours a day. This is like leaving a window open all year round.

    An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add an attic stair cover. An attic stair cover provides an air seal, reducing the air leaks. Add the desired amount of insulation over the cover to restore the insulation removed from the ceiling.

    Whole House Fans and AC Returns

    Much like attic stairs above, when whole house fans are installed, a large hole (up to 16 square feet or larger) is created in your ceiling. The ceiling and insulation that were there have to be removed, leaving only leaky ceiling shutter between the house and the outdoors.

    An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add a whole house fan cover. Installed from the attic side, the whole house fan cover is invisible. Cover the fan to reduce heating and air-conditioning loss, remove it when use of the fan is desired.

    If attic access is inconvenient, or for AC returns, a ceiling shutter cover is another option for reducing heat loss through the ceiling shutter and AC return. Made from R-8, textured, thin, white flexible insulation, and installed from the house side over the ceiling shutter with Velcro, a whole house fan shutter cover is easily installed and removed.


    Sixty-five percent, or approximately 100 million homes, in North America are constructed with wood or gas burning fireplaces. Unfortunately there are negative side effects that the fireplace brings to a home especially during the winter home-heating season. Fireplaces are energy losers.

    Researchers have studied this to determine the amount of heat loss through a fireplace, and the results are amazing. One research study showed that an open damper on an unused fireplace in a well-insulated house can raise overall heating-energy consumption by 30 percent.

    A recent study showed that for many consumers, their heating bills may be more than $500 higher per winter due to the air leakage and wasted energy caused by fireplaces.

    Why does a home with a fireplace have higher heating bills? Hot air rises. Your heated air leaks out any exit it can find, and when warm heated air is drawn out of your home, cold outside air is drawn in to make up for it. The fireplace is like a giant straw sucking the heated air from your house.

    An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add a fireplace draftstopper. Available from Battic Door, a company known for their energy conservation products, a fireplace draftstopper is an inflatable pillow that seals the damper, eliminating any air leaks. The pillow is removed whenever the fireplace is used, then reinserted after.

    Clothes Dryer Exhaust Ducts

    In many homes, the room with the clothes dryer is the coldest room in the house. Your clothes dryer is connected to an exhaust duct that is open to the outdoors. In the winter, cold air leaks in through the duct, through your dryer and into your house.

    Dryer vents use a sheet-metal flapper to try to reduce this air leakage. This is very primitive technology that does not provide a positive seal to stop the air leakage. Compounding the problem is that over time, lint clogs the flapper valve causing it to stay open.

    An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add a dryer vent seal. This will reduce unwanted air infiltration, and keep out pests, bees and rodents as well. The vent will remain closed unless the dryer is in use. When the dryer is in use, a floating shuttle rises to allow warm air, lint and moisture to escape.

    If your home has a folding attic stair, a whole house fan, an AC return, a fireplace, and/or a clothes dryer, you can easily, quickly and inexpensively seal and insulate these holes.

    Mark D. Tyrol is a Professional Engineer specializing in cause and origin of construction defects. He developed several residential energy conservation products including an attic stair cover, an attic access door, and is the U.S. distributor of the fireplace draftstopper. To learn more visit

    Comment by Mark D. Tyrol — April 14, 2008 @ 6:57 am

  2. Hear hear!

    I have started working on personal reduction, myself. This includes a daily meter reading of gas, electricity and water meters at the same time everyday (right after everyone is ready for work and just before I start my day).

    So, I can measure my usage, but I have only a weak idea of my goals. To start with:

    1. my electricity charge is tiered; the first tier (cheapest) allow 10 KWH per day, at least in the summer. So I set that goal for now. I don’t know if that’s reasonable for two people in a small house (and it’s so far been a hard goal to meet) but we’re getting there. Last year’s bill said we were using 18 KWH/day, and now we’re down to 13-14.

    2. water usage is also tiered with the first tier allowing 5.5 HCF of usage over a two month period (in summer). A couple of days with a calculator says that’s about 65 gallons per day. Once I fixed a leaky toilet valve, we do that most days, so that’s an easy goal to meet. For meter reading purposes, I’m looking for 0.08 HCF per day. At least my meter has two decimal places!

    3. Natural gas. I’m at a loss here. The meter reads in HCF, the bill comes in “therms” with a magic number fudge factor between them. One HCF equates to 31.7 KWH of energy and I used over 2 therms per day last January (and zero last July). What should my goal be here? Should I shoot for 10 KWH/day to match my electric or should I set a sum goal of gas plus electric? If the latter, how many KWH of energy should I shoot for? (last 12 months, gas+electric is nearly 50 KWH/day!)

    I understand that I’m looking for an average and that summer and winter usage will differ. You should understand that I won’t be impressed by responses like “as little as possible” or “you should live off the land, you right wing stooge!” :-) We’re two adults in a small house looking to set up a “reasonable” level of consumption.

    Comment by Chris Osburn — August 13, 2008 @ 4:33 pm

  3. Chris —

    It looks like you’re on exactly the right path. This was pretty much the same goal I had after I started this blog. It turns out not to be a simple equation. But it doesn’t mean that’s not exactly the right place to start.

    Reasonable consumption is completely subjective, in honesty, I think. My neighbors tell me they have to have an SUV to get their kids around. We have kids and our small car works great. I hope we don’t use averages (“Hey, I use less than average so everything’s great!”). So reasonable? You tell me. “As little as possible” is a cop out. But a nuanced answer aligns exactly with your current approach: figure out what you do that uses resources, become aware of your patterns of consumption, then question each element. Make sure you capture all the biggies.

    For example, you haven’t included transportation, food, or how much stuff you buy. How much do you throw out? And on and on. They all use energy too, and while some things can be decoupled, others are surprisingly related. If I wax philosophic, I would tend to say that our US consumption patterns (which we are sharing with the world) are all part of one bigger issue. But I won’t go there :-)

    My first pass at coming up with a unified metric for energy use was simple: how much do you pay? But it’s not very useful, really, since varying prices and other factors are in play. The only thing that has really worked for me is not very satisfying in terms of arriving at a single metric or standard. I have been keeping track as well as I can (you’re doing better than I with your daily readings), and trying to see an overall improvement when I compare my family’s usage with my family’s usage last year.

    Water and non-heating use of electricity are pretty easy. Both have seasonal patterns, especially electricity (darker in the winter). I have a pretty good graph I did of year-over-year usage patterns showing about a 40% reduction in electricity use over four years.

    I have tried to do a similar thing with water, but it turns out our remote meter reader was broken for several years (!), so I only have two measurements: the one from when they last good read was, and the one from this Spring when the fixed the device. I am getting a $2,400 refund from my water company for our success at saving water, however.

    Heating (and cooling, in places where it’s hot), is harder to pin down. The main issue is that it depends on temperature, at the very least. The method used to “normalize” for temperature is “degree days” which is a metric tracked by NOAA (US Weather Agency), but I have not found a reliable source of data — it is a local thing so there’s a lot of data, and it appears to be hard to get at. Let me know if you find a good source. This will allow you to get a little closer to “what’s reasonable” for any given day of heating, but it’s still pretty rough. It’s easy to know when you need none, but so many factors affect how much fuel you need that it’s a real challenge. Big, old, drafty houses with old, inefficient furnaces are a different animal than a small, tight and new burner … even if both houses have their thermostats set low.

    You should see if you can get one of your utility companies to come do an energy audit of your house — many will do it for free. Just seeing their methodology might provide some insight. But it’s kind of a different thing than it sounds like you’re seeking.

    So bottom line, I think, is that the science and metrics are not really available to normal folks. While perhaps architects and builders may have standards, and of course there’s the LEED standard, they tend to be very broad. My answer: become aware.

    I salute your efforts, and please, let me know if you come up with any good answers.


    Comment by Tom Harrison — August 13, 2008 @ 11:00 pm

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