Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

September 24, 2009

I Believed I Was Conserving, Until I Looked at the Facts

Category: Conservation,Energy Audit,Household,Save Fuel – Tom Harrison – 4:12 pm

As I have often mentioned in these pages, we had an energy audit last Spring. The audit was a seminal moment in my understanding of our household energy usage.

Mission Accomplished! (Or Is It?)

I talk to a lot of people about their energy conservation measures. Naturally, not wanting to look uncaring, people talk about how they have changed and are going green. Perhaps a light bulb or two changed to CFL. Perhaps they a jacket on their water heater. Some weatherstripping on their door? A programmable thermostat?

These changes sound fine, and they may actually make a difference. But there are two ways that just making changes alone doesn’t really change things.

Perhaps your two CFL bulbs reduce your electrical use a little, but isn’t it important to know how much? (For example, the oft-repeated water heater jacket is of almost no value if you have a relatively newer one). So it’s possible that your changes haven’t improved anything. And the second way changes alone are bad: you may feel like you have “gone green” … mission accomplished.

So to my great chagrin, I realized recently that I had very little clue what my heating usage was, or for that matter what it should be. I had made lots of great changes. Mission accomplished? Not so fast.

I logged in to the National Grid website, and was able to see my last three years of bills, including how many therms of natural gas we used each month. I added it all up, and realized: I have sinned indeed. My energy use for heating has been basically flat for the last three years. I have made almost no progress.

(Of course, denial kicked in, and when another green blogger friend pointed me to a site where I could see my heating degree days for our zip code. My denial says I will find that there were more degree days each year, meaning even if my consumption was flat, it was because it was colder outside, not because I hadn’t done anything. Hope springs.)

But my darker, more realistic side kicked in. I asked myself the hard question: “Tom, what have you done, really done, to reduce your use of natural gas in the last several years?”

Mission not accomplished.

Ghost of Conservation Past

Oh, sure, we did lots of very good things … years ago. We insulated. We replaced all the old windows with good ones. And we replaced our gas burner with a new, efficient model. These are big changes. And they cost us some big change (by which I mean: a lot of money).

To be honest, our motivation was simply to be able to keep the house warm enough to avoid being raided by the local child-protective service for abuse of our babies — the damned burner could run day and night when the weather was especially cold, and still not put out enough heat to keep the place warm. Global warming had nothing to do with it — this was local warming (or the absence thereof) to the extreme.

We did our first round of conservation well before we realized that our use of energy was about more than comfort, or more than expenses.

Our profligate use of global resources, especially energy, has impacts beyond the our walls, or checkbook. In 2004, I read, The End of Oil, and that’s when we ordered our first Prius, which took 9 months to arrive. We loved it so much, we got another. In 2005, I started writing down all the other changes we made to save energy and started reading my energy bills.

Well, the truth is, I can run, but I cannot hide. Since 2005, I have written down almost everything we have done to save energy. And I have categorized and tagged my posts here, and the answer is, I have talked a lot about how important it is to be able to measure. But I haven’t done much to save on household heating.

There are a couple changes we have made that might have made a difference in heating. We insulated the ceiling of our sun room. We installed storm doors with actual working weather-stripping over our front, and back doors. We added some insulation under the floors of the kitchen and sun-rooms. But (heating degree-day data denial notwithstanding), the numbers show they haven’t made a big difference in how much fuel we use to heat the house.

The Ghost of Conservation Present

Last Spring, my denial hit a speed bump: I had an energy audit.

Fleming Lund, owner of Infrared Diagnostics did our energy audit — he came to my house on a sufficiently cold Spring morning and rendered the awful truth. Well, actually, he was very nice about it and said that our house was relatively tight and reasonably well insulated. But I know now, he was just being nice.

Missed Insulation First Time Around

Missed Insulation First Time Around

A few days later, the pictures arrived. Infrared photography tells no tales: blue is cold air getting in, either through drafts, or through poorly insulated parts of the house. Blue is bad, and there was blue in a lot of places. In some cases, we found blue in the corners that had wind-braces that the insulators we hired a few years back had missed completely. In other cases, we found blue over or under windows — the fancy new double-insulated, low-E windows we had installed a few years after we had moved in were great, but the spaces all around them were leaking like sieves.

We knew we had punted on insulating the whole-house fan, and, well, you could see daylight through the bulkhead door to the basement. And yes, those basement windows were, um, bad. I knew all of this, but how much could it really matter?

Or how much could the poorly caulked windows matter? Or the draft under the kitchen door (even after the storm door was replaced) on winter mornings? Would it really make any difference if we increased the existing insulation in the attic?

And yes, there was cold air leaking in through the light fixtures in the recently remodeled kitchen — why hadn’t they insulated properly when all the walls were down? And on, and on.

We don’t know the answer to all of these questions, but as the winter kicks in, I think we will.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

After the energy audit was delivered, we took action. We have:

  • Hired a contractor to insulate missing areas, seal the basement sill and other air leaks, and top off the attic with insulation ($500, with rebate)
  • Caulked around leaky windows in the house as identified by the infrared photos ($15)
  • Built an insulated cover for our whole house fan ($20)
  • Installed an insulated cover over the attic stairs ($10)
  • Installed insulation over the incredibly leaky bulkhead door ($10)
  • Installed a chimney balloon to prevent leakage of air up the chimney ($56)
  • Caulked the horribly leaky basement windows ($15)
  • Installed pipe-insulation over our hot-water pipes ($12)

Total cost, around $650. This was greatly reduced by an excellent rebate program offered by our gas delivery service, National Grid, who paid for 75% of the expense of the major insulation and weather-sealing update we did. We will also be eligible for a small federal tax rebate on the cost of the actual insulating materials we purchased.

But then, this morning, we re-ran a part of the energy audit test: we closed all the windows and doors, removed the whole house fan cover and turned it on high. This replicated part of the test done during the energy audit: the blower-door test. That test put a specially calibrated, computer-connected fan over the front door of the house and measured carefully how much air was leaking in. Our test this morning used less scientific methods: we put our hands over the (formerly) leaky places and felt for drafts.

And what’s important is: we did find drafts. So once again the caulking gun came out, and we sealed up the spots we had missed in the first round. I ran my hand around the floor, ceiling and openings (windows, doors) of the entire house. And I found a lot of little leaks, still. Probably not anything like the ones we had found before — then again, it’s hard to find little leaks when you still have huge leaks. Having plugged all the huge leaks now, our whole house fan, taking the place of the fancier blower-door, was able to help us quickly find the remaining leaks, and plug them up.

The Ghost of Conservation Future

Given how much air was leaking in this morning, and given how much air leakage and extra insulation we had already installed, I predict that our house will need perhaps 5% or 10% less fuel to maintain the same temperature as last year. If we saved 5% through these actions, we would reduce our annual expense by about $90. However, the energy audit did a calculation saying that if we reduced our air infiltration to the degree possible, we could save $300, given our current gas rates, and other factors. This would reduce our annual bill of around $1,800 to $1,500 — almost 17%.

And what we always must remember: that number is effectively permanent. Every bill, and every year I’ll save that $300 or so.

And the other cool (warm?) thing about money saved is that it’s worth more than the same amount earned. If I got another $300 a year in income, I would pay some percentage of it to federal and state taxes, somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of my “raise” would go to taxes. So making these energy efficiency changes is like getting a $400 a year raise.

And the most important thing has nothing to do with money. By making small, relatively inexpensive changes, I will reduce the amount of CO2 we emit from our household. And if I leave not a dime to my children, this change, as part of a social movement made by many of us to cause significant change, will leave my children with a planet in slightly less peril than the one our current course seems destined to lead them to.

It will pay off. One way or the other.

Can you make some of these changes, too?


  1. Here in Ohio the carbon footprint of a ground-source heat pump (a/k/a geothermal) is the same or higher than that of a high efficiency gas furnace, since our grid from my supplier is 90 percent coal-fired and very inefficient.
    So, geothermal may be better than resistance coil electric heat, but what isn’t? Ditto these new electric water heaters (with great tax rebates right now!) that work via heat pump technology– they cost a ton and won’t save any carbon compared to a gas fired unit. I’m better off with a tankless gas unit or else go straight to solar thermal water heating.
    I’m still back at investing in conservation. 2 energy audits 4 months ago pointed me to some more insulation and air sealing. Plenty of room to improve there as a retrofit, with passivhaus as the example of what is possible with new construction.

    Comment by Dave — March 23, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

  2. Dave — I completely agree; geothermal may have a place, but there were aspects I had never really considered. Recently at the NESEA conference, I attended a workshop which discussed some of the issues with many HVAC systems. A remarkably high percentage the energy going into some systems, including geothermal, is in moving heated air or water around with fans and pumps. In marginal areas, geothermal also needs to run some fairly heavy-duty motors to extra heat out of the ground water.

    No one solution is perfect, and none is always wrong.

    But simple almost always seems to trump the fancy solutions.


    Comment by Tom Harrison — March 23, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

  3. I’m surprised that your insulation etc didn’t do better the first go-round; after we retrofitted our walls last Feb, our bills went down over 10% this year over last (for Jan and Feb, with avg temp slightly lower this year).

    Graphing month over month is a great way to see progress. Microsoft Hohm is a decent way to do this; Xcel also has a customer portal at which will make pretty graphs a well. Sometimes I think half the battle is getting people to look at their usage trends.

    I wrote up what we did to our house, with graphs, in this Quora answer:

    Comment by Eric — February 9, 2011 @ 12:28 am

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