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How Much Can you REALLY Save with Energy Efficiency Improvements?

Great article from energy.gov by Allison Casey
Replace your home's five most frequently used light fixtures or bulbs with ENERGY STAR models to save $75 per year.| Photo courtesy of Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar DecathlonReplace your home’s five most frequently used light fixtures or bulbs with ENERGY STAR models to save $75 per year.| Photo courtesy of Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Save up to 10% each year on heating and cooling bills by turning back the thermostat 7°-10°F for 8 hours a day.| Photo courtesy of Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar DecathlonSave up to 10% each year on heating and cooling bills by turning back the thermostat 7°-10°F for 8 hours a day.| Photo courtesy of Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Fix leaky faucets to save $35 and 1,661 gallons of water. | Photo courtesy of Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar DecathlonFix leaky faucets to save $35 and 1,661 gallons of water. | Photo courtesy of Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Colorful leaves, cooler weather, cozy sweaters, pumpkin spice everywhere—it’s definitely fall! While you’re snuggling in and sipping a warm drink, we hope you’ll join us this October and take action to save energy—and money—at home.

October is Energy Action Month, so it’s the perfect time to get serious about energy savings. Not only is the weather perfect for taking on home improvement projects, but the timing is just right given that colder weather is coming soon. Taking steps now will mean greater comfort and savings by the time pumpkin spice gives way to peppermint.

To get you started, we’ve put together a list of specific actions you can take to save energy and water in your home, along with the potential annual savings for all of them. Be sure to check out the ideas below the table as well to really maximize your savings.

RECOMMENDED ACTION POTENTIAL SAVINGS (AS A PERCENTAGE OF UTILITY BILLS) AVERAGE ANNUAL SAVINGS IN $ (BASED ON EIA AVERAGE END-USE EXPENDITURES*; ACTUAL SAVINGS WILL VARY)
Install exterior low-e storm windows 12%-33% annually on heating and cooling bills $100-$274
Seal uncontrolled air leaks 10%-20% on annual heating and cooling bills $83-$166
Plant shade trees 15%-50% of annual air conditioning costs $35-$119
Use a power strip for electronic equipment and turn it off when not in use Up to 12% of electric bill per year $100
Replace an older toilet that uses 6 gallons per flush with a WaterSense model $100
Turn back your thermostat 7°-10°F for 8 hours a day Up to 10% annually on heating and cooling bills $83
Weatherstrip double-hung windows 5%-10% annually on heating and cooling bills $42-$83
Replace your home’s five most frequently used light fixtures or bulbs with models that have earned the ENERGY STAR 9% on electricity bill annually $75
Lower water heating temperature Save 4%-22% annually on your water heating bill $12-$60
Insulate water heater tank Save 7%-16% annually on water heating bill $20-$45
Fix leaky faucets; one drip per second wastes 1,661 gallons of water $35
Use sleep mode and power-management featureson your computer Up to 4% of annual electric bill $30
Insulate hot water pipes Save 3%-4% annually on water heating bill $8-$12
**TOTAL POTENTIAL SAVINGS $723-$1,182

*Average annual energy expenditures per household in the U.S. are as follows: space heating: $593; water heating: $280; air conditioning: $237; refrigerators: $153; other (lighting and electricity): $827
**All actual savings will vary depending on home, climate, products, and use.

The above list is just a sampling of the potential savings you could see by making smart energy choices in your home. Not all of these improvements will be possible for everyone, and savings will vary.

If you want to understand how to get the biggest bang for your buck, we recommend a professional home energy audit, which can help you pinpoint areas where your home is losing energy and which improvements will save you the most money. Making upgrades recommended in a home energy audit—and many of the items above would likely be included in your recommendations—could save you 5%-30% on your annual utility bills (an average of $105-$627, depending on home, climate, products and use).

Furthermore, actions like proper heating and cooling equipment maintenance; turning off lightsreducing electricity use throughout your home; reducing hot water use; ensuring your home is adequately insulated; and smart use of home design elements, such as landscaping and window coverings will save you even more.

Wondering how much you could save each year with a more efficient appliance? Check out the ENERGY STAR website, which showcases products that exceed the federal minimum standards for efficiency. You can also take a look at our appliance energy use calculator to compare your current product with a more efficient one.

Also be sure to check if you are eligible for federal tax credits for energy efficiency or renewable energy. Some expire at the end of 2016, so plan your improvements now!

Finally, do you need someone to help you make this happen or just to figure out how much you would save at your home? Contact an Energy Expert like ASK Efficiency. Happy Energy Action Month, and happy saving!

Keeping the Outdoors Out

 

What happens when the space between your floors is connected to an attic space or directly to the outdoors? Condensation and lots of it. In the picture above you see the floor joists being sealed from an attic space behind. The client called because the insulation on the ducts was saturated and dripping down on to the ceiling tiles. The ceiling tiles were falling from the weight.

The problem was warm moist air was allowed to contact the ducts, and even the R-3 installed was not enough insulation to prevent condensation from the metal duct in an attic-like space. The solution was to seal the ducts, apply new insulation on ducts per code and create an air barrier between the indoors and outdoors.

We used a perforated foam board aligned with the exterior of the wall, R-13 fiberglass then solid foam board aligned with the interior of the wall. After this photo we used a foam sealant around the perimeter of each piece of foam board to make it air tight. Within an hour of putting in the first layer of foam board to seal the walls the duct work dried up.

This home had an obvious issue that was bad enough to expose itself to the home owner. But, often these conditions exist and are creating moisture, energy and comfort issues in the walls and floors without being detected. An Energy Auditor can help you find these weaknesses in your home. You can also look for them yourself in areas where the exterior wall does not align with the next level exterior wall or if there is a porch or overhang outside. For this home it had both; on one side the ceiling joists extended outside for a porch and on the other side of the 2nd floor was cantilevered out about three feet.

In this next photo the home has brick on the bottom two levels and siding on the top. The framers cantilevered the floor joists out 5 inches so the brick and siding would align. But this left a 1/4″ to 3/4″ gap all the way around the home. This meant outdoor air was between the floor joists. You can tell air was flowing thru because the spiders had built webs to capture bugs traveling with the air flow. We addressed this one from the outside, pulling the bottom piece of siding and air sealing.

Both of these were older homes, but sadly homes are still being built today with these kinds of issues. If you want to ensure your home is being built to current energy code hire a 3rd party inspector such as a HERS Rater.

Utility Bills have a hold of your Wallet?

Have you been wondering how much is too much for your utility bills? We’ll explore good to bad utility bills in this article as well as what makes up your utility bills. For a rough score estimation of your bills, you’ll need your annual total bills for gas and electric, and the square footage of your home.

Divide your total annual gas and electric bills by your square footage.electric-bill-clipart-1

Great = less than 0.40 $/ft²
Good = less than 0.80 $/ft²
Average = less than 1.20 $/ft²
Poor = less than 1.60 $/ft²
Awful = more than 1.60 $/ft²

Example:
Monthly power bill = $225
Monthly gas bill = $65
Home size = 3,850 ft²
$225+$65 = $290 Utility bills per month
$290 * 12 = $3,840 Utility bills per year
$3,480 / 3,850 ft² = 0.90 $/ft²

This example home would be considered average.

What do these numbers usually indicate?

Great has small energy savings still possible. Typically newer buildings with tight, well-insulated building shells. Energy-efficient mechanical systems and appliances, most likely all Energy Star rated. Careful occupants that understand how they consume energy and how best to conserve. These homes are a candidate to consider solar or other sophisticated energy saving or producing ideas. These homes typically have year round excellent temperature and humidity comfort.

Good homes will have notable air leakage, insulation or space conditioning efficiency problems. These will have average appliance and water heating usage and fairly careful occupants. The occupants are likely to have addressed basic usage costs like lighting or a programmable thermostat. Major mechanical equipment or appliances are well maintained. These homes typically are mostly comfortable year round and throughout the home with few uncomfortable spots or days.

Average homes have major problems with air leakage, insulation or space-conditioning efficiency problems. High hot water usage and inefficient appliances and/or high electricity use by occupants. Typically energy efficiency and cost has not been considered when buying appliances and mechanical equipment for home. The owners may turn off light switches, but little else to save energy. These homes often have poor comfort spots in the home and struggle to maintain proper humidity as the seasons change.

Poor and Awful scored homes will have little or no insulation, plentiful air leakage and inefficient space-conditioning systems. Often these homes will have Swimming pools or hot tubs with old style fixed speed high energy pumps. Occupants have little regard to their utility consumption. These homes have numerous hot or cold spots through the home and humidity tracks the seasons. The occupants typically complain of dryness during the Winter months and too humid in the Spring and Fall.

What makes up your bill?

In the Birmingham, Alabama area we are primarily served by Alabama Power for electricity and ALAGASCO for natural gas. Both utilities charge a monthly flat fee plus an energy fee that can fluctuate by season, quarter or year. The flat fees are currently $14.50 per month for Alabama Power and $8.00 per month for ALAGASCO. Alabama Power’s rate is roughly from 8.5¢ to 10¢ per kWh depending on your usage, and time of year. This is subject to change annually. This past year it increased nearly 10%. ALAGASCOs rate is per 100 cubic feet (CCF) of gas and will change every quarter based on market prices. We pay about 2 to 3 times the Natural Gas hub prices to cover transportation, expenses, profit, etc..

For the typically home served by both, your spending $22.50 just to be connected. These fixed fees are high compared to national averages. Most states are driving towards even lower or NO fixed fees as they want the customers to reduce usage. If too much of your bill is tied to fixed fees then you can’t lower that part of your bill by being more efficient.

Want to better understand your bills?

An Energy Auditor can review your bills and look at the actual usage, we review the electric kWh and natural gas CCF to determine your actual energy usage. In addition to determining the physical changes necessary to improve the home they will also discuss behavioral changes to reduce energy consumption.

A Home Rater, either HERS  or HES, will develop a model showing how much energy your home should consume considering its major components. This can show the difference between the occupants behavior and expected behavior. It often shows us that as major mechanical equipment and appliances age, their efficiency can drop quickly if not properly maintained.

Calculation disclaimer; these are based on national averages. So first, in Birmingham we have relatively low overall energy rates. This means a Birmingham area home should score better than it actually is. And second, this calculation is based on a 2,500 ft² home. If your home is much larger than this you should once again score a little better. The relationship is not linear after ~ 3,500 ft², but I’m not going to make you do that math!

Time for a Switch?

Are your switches and outlets looking dingy? Do they no longer match your decor?

Make this an opportunity to improve your home for appeal, safety and efficiency!

Here are a list of things you should be thinking about if you want to change your switches and outlets:

  • Change out dimmers to LED compatible dimmers. The future is LEDs, this will make your switch to lower bills smoother.
  • Use Tamper Proof outlets, this means the child-proofing is built-in. This also helps energy efficiency, most of the air leakage at an outlet comes thru the plug.
  • Use outlets with USB plugs built-in in the kitchen and bedrooms.
  • Use motion sensor switches in laundry rooms, garages, pantry’s and closets. Think about places you normal enter or exit with your hands full.
  • Use humidity sensor switches for bathroom or laundry room exhaust fans. This way they turn on when you need them most and most have internal timers as well.
  • Consider smart switches in key areas like the front door, foyer, flood lights, kitchen and living room.
  • Consider programmable switches for outdoor lighting, if the all out “Smart Devices” aren’t for you.

This job is not for the novice and there are some important items to consider (local codes could require different practices, this is just as a best practice):

  • Inspect wires for cuts or abrasions or spots of overheating. These need to be resolved, not just repaired.
  • Note if your switches have neutral wires in the box. This will impact your options as you buy your future switches.
  • Inspect for Aluminum wiring, if you find Aluminum wiring you need a lot more instruction and help than I’ll provide in this blog. (sorry)
  • Make sure wires extend at least 3 inches past box and at least 6 inches total.
  • When putting the new switch or outlet in, don’t force the wires. Neatly fold the wires to minimize stress.
  • Wrap outlets and switches with electrical tape to cover conductors (not required by code in most places, just a good practice)
  • If it has a ground lug, use it! That means switches, outlets, metal electrical boxes, etc.
  • Make sure you have the right gauge wire for the outlet or switch and that they all match with the breaker as well.

As for making your home more comfortable and efficient:

  • Caulk or foam seal between the drywall and electrical box.
  • Seal all of the holes in the electrical box – only if you can do it without changing the free volume of the electrical box.
  • Use foam insulators under the covers, especially for exterior walls. These have marginal benefit, but it is justified if no additional labor is involved.

Need to replace your outlets and switches but still not sure? Just ask, ASK Efficiency, LLC can help you make it happen. 205.678.1275 or info@askefficiency.com

 

 

Got Foam Skills?

Foam cans can be your best friend when sealing air leaks around your home. But, they can be your worst enemy as well as the foam can make a heck of a mess if your not careful.

Using spray foam requires a plan, especially if you are using single use cans. Make a list of all the places you want to seal and have all of them prepped and ready before you start the first one. What is prepped? Vacuum areas that have lots of dust, particularly drywall dust. Foam sticks to just about everything, but if it is stuck to a layer of dust that means it is not stuck to what it is supposed to be…and not air sealing.

Make sure you are using the right kind of foam, there are a few primary ones to pick from. The most common single use product is a gap filler that is usually yellow in color, this has some expansion and works well for most applications. Window and Door foam is usually more white than yellow, it has low expansion qualities so it doesn’t squeeze the window you just set. It’s also a good product to use around duct penetrations to keep from collapsing the duct. Big gap filler is just as the name says, a lot comes out and it expands a lot to fill large voids but can be tough to use in normal applications. Pest control versions of foam have additives that are unpleasant for pests, these are the same additives used in many building materials like wire sheathing. Then we have fire rated that is orange in color to make it obvious for inspectors.

Now that you have the areas prepped and you know what kind of foam to use, you need to figure out how to apply. Single use cans are fine for small projects, but anything more than a couple cans you are going to wish you had a foam gun. Professionals will use foam guns; no drips, controlled amount, higher yield, longer nozzle and the can will last a month without drying out. The downside with a gun; you have to keep it clean, it costs money and the cans are expensive.

With your work area clean and areas around protected (including you) use a spray bottle with water and lightly mist area. Apply spray foam, put less than you think you need, then lightly mist again. You’ll be impressed how much the product will expand and fill all those voids.

Spray foam - water spray
Photo Courtesy of Green Building Advisor 

Use foam to seal between the indoors and outdoors, but only from the indoors. Even though foam will seal, it is not the right product for moisture sealing. A few cans applied in the right places can make an immediate impact to comfort and utility bills.

Common areas to seal are any drywall penetrations; outlets, switches, plumbing, fixtures, HVAC registers, etc… (around the electrical fixtures, not inside). Some less common areas are in the attic or basement at wire or plumbing penetrations or at the joint of drywall and the top plate.

foam sealed attic ceiling plane

If your thinking this would be a lot easier as the house is being built, your RIGHT! Having an Energy Auditor / Rater involved in your build will save you plenty on bills as well as future heartache.

Have questions on where the right places are to seal, or just want someone else to do the dirty work? Just ASK, at ASK Efficiency we provide the Energy Audits to determine where to air seal and offer the services to air seal as well.

Would You consider an Energy Efficient Upgrade to Your Home?

The most common reason for an Energy Efficient Upgrade to a Home is “To Save Money.” But, the bigger question is why aren’t you doing an Energy Efficient Upgrade? Think it is too much money up front? Would rather spend money on something for aesthetics, like a new kitchen or bath?

From American Council on Energy-Efficient Economy:

Why Do Households Invest in Energy Efficiency?

Households have multiple reasons for making efficiency investments. When asked to rank the top three reasons to “participate in energy conservation activities or buy an energy-efficient product/make home improvements,” saving money was most important, followed by comfort and health:

To save money 61%
To make my home more comfortable 35%
To make my home healthier 27%
To be responsible and not waste 26%
To get more control over personal energy consumption 25%
To protect our environment 23%
To make my home more valuable for resale 20%
To have a high-quality home 19%
To have a higher-performance home 17%
To preserve the quality of life for future generations 15%
To be a good citizen 11%
To protect our nation’s economy and reduce our dependence on other countries 9%
To be a good example 9%
To keep up with my neighbors 4%

Financial concerns are both a benefit of and barrier to upgrading. Energy Efficient upgrades typically do cost money, and they are not always as cool as a new iPhone, but Energy Efficient Upgrades help you save money and provide many other benefits. Even if you would rather spend your home upgrades on more aesthetic items, think energy efficiency to create value in those upgrades:

  • Refresh of house > how about LED lights
  • Paint a room > caulk around doors, windows, and electrical boxes to air seal
  • Kitchen Update > Energy Star appliances, install proper venting
  • Bathroom Update > WaterSense fixtures, upgrade exhaust fans
  • Landscaping > trees to provide shade, plants away from A/C Condensers
  • Building a House > hire a 3rd party compliance inspector, like a HERS Rater

Need more ways to make your Home Updates, Energy Efficient Updates? Call for an Energy Audit, ASK Efficiency, 205-678-1275.

 

WaterSense…making sense of it!

What do you think about when you see your water bill…Niagara Falls?

There is a tool from the EPA to help you make better choices when upgrading your plumbing fixtures. It works a lot like the Energy Star program, it’s called WaterSense. WaterSense products use at least 20% less water then the current federal standards AND meet certifications that it performs as well or better then fixtures that meet the minimum federal standards.

watersense.png

What this means for your home:

  • Toilets only need 1.28 gallons per flush versus current standard of 1.6 gallons per flush
  • Bathroom Faucets use 1.5 gallons per minute versus the standard of 2.2 gallons per minute
  • Showers use 2.0 gallons per minute versus the standard of 2.5 gallons per minute
  • Irrigation systems use local weather and property conditions to water only when needed versus the traditional daily/weekly scheduled units

Will you save water? Will your bills be less? Yes and Yes, but not enough to go out and buy all new fixtures. But, if you are planning a remodel, update, etc.. the cost difference between a WaterSense fixture and a traditional is often little to none. Plus, you will save on your hot water bill as well, sense most hot water gets used in the bathroom.

This is where it pays off to be an informed home owner. Most likely that plumbing fixture will be in style for twenty more years and over those twenty years the water savings and bills will add up.

Fan of the Fan!

Are you a fan of fans? Fans are a great way to feel cooler in the Summer. Do you have good functioning fans in the areas of your home that you spend most of your time? A few things to think about when buying or using fans.

When buying fans, you should consider fans that move at least 85 cfm/watt on high speed. That is they move 85 cubic feet of air for every watt they consume. Most fan makers now post their Energy Information on the box.

Also, make sure you are buying the right size fan for your room. The slower you can run your fan the more efficient it operates. In other words a large fan running slow will use less power then a small fan running fast assuming all other variables the same. Typically a fan runs twice as efficient on low than it runs on high. Just like in your car; the higher the speed, the worse the mileage.

Picking a fan that is Energy Star rated is good too, Energy Star requires at least 75 cfm/watt on high. But, only relying on Energy Star ratings may limit your selections as many fan makers still ship fans with incandescent bulbs.

Ceiling fans save money because they are very efficient at moving air. Air moving across our skin allows for evaporation of the moisture on our skin causing a cooling effect. Though they are very efficient at moving air, it costs you money if you are not in the same room as the fan. Make sure you turn off fans when you are not in the same room as them.

New ceiling fans can be much more efficient than older models, but I wouldn’t recommend changing them just for the efficiency. If the old one is failing, making noises, or just plain ugly its a great time to replace and enjoy the benefits of improved comfort and lower bills.

When you install (or have installed), make sure you have proper junction box support for safety, a fully sealed junction box and make sure to use LEDs in light fixtures.  Be a fan of the Fan!

Solar in Alabama? The Sun certainly shines here!

Are you ready for solar at your home or business? Have you started looking at the installed costs and savings? Alabama actually ranks in the better half of the country for the intensity and time that the sun is available to be harnessed.

solar power potential.jpg

Solar array installed prices also keep dropping at an incredible rate.  You can currently estimate a residential job nationally at $3.50 per installed watt. So a 5 kW array would cost around $17,500 before any tax credits, rebates, etc…

solar installed trend residential source Bloomberg

So what is the first step to solar? Believe it or not, an Energy Audit. Due to a number of conditions in our state, solar generation usually doesn’t make financial sense at this time. Though solar generation can be very important to individuals that want independence from utilities, a sustainable household or be on the cutting edge of technology. So why an Energy Audit? As you research solar you’ll find the initial investment can be quite daunting. The best way to reduce that initial investment is to reduce the size of your solar array.

A good rule of thumb is your home should have a HERS score of 50 or less before considering solar. The standard reference home would have a score of 100, so this means you’d be twice as efficient as the standard. This also means your solar array would be half the size and nearly half the price. This will typically require a well designed and sealed home, LED lights, good insulation, Energy Star appliances, and efficient mechanicals. Also, if you want to benefit most from solar you need to be an expert (or at least know an expert…Energy Auditor) in your energy consumption – where, what, when and how much. Other than the obvious smaller solar array, why do an Energy Audit and lower your load first? Three simple reasons; first an Energy Audit and the following fixes are usually much cheaper than solar, second the sun doesn’t always shine and third the direction and size of your roof may not support your needs otherwise.

Another consideration to lower your investment cost and system size is Alabama isn’t really the most solar favorable state around. There are a number of items that make our installs more difficult and less financially beneficial. (image below from solarpowerrocks.com).

2017-Solar-Power-Rocks-State-Rankings-no-title-1400

Contact an Energy Auditor to learn more about your home’s energy potential. There are a number of easy tools out there, to get a rough idea, I like Google’s Project Sunroof. There are also a number of ways to design and implement your system to enhance efficiency by avoiding inverters or the grid. Some of the major equipment suppliers are offering systems that can provide DC power as well as AC power. Think charging batteries (maybe an EV) without the energy loss of inverters or use DC fans (HVAC) or pumps (pools) that get power straight from the sun.

Feel Like there is Big Hole in Your Ceiling?

Summer heat getting to you? Power Bills climbing? Feel like there must be a hole in your house letting in all that Hot Air? Most likely there is, and many homes have more than one. Those pesky pull down attic stairs, hatches or doors. These small access points can have a huge impact on your comfort and bills.

Attic hatch thermograph
Thermal Image of an attic access, the brighter colors show the higher temperatures.

Let’s assume you have a well insulated attic per our local codes at R-30. We’ll ignore framing, HVAC equipment, and storage areas for now and just say the whole attic is R-30. The problem is heat flows thru the path of least resistance (by the way that’s what the ‘R’ in ‘R-value’ stands for). Heat in your attic is like water in an aquarium, drill a small hole in the aquarium and the water WILL drain out even though 99% of the glass is in good condition. Have a spot with little to no insulation and heat will flow thru.

Bear with me for this section of math. Let’s say your attic is 1,000 ft² and your pull down attic stairs are 5 ft by 2 ft for 10 ft². In this example the attic stairs are 1% of the area, 10 ÷ 1,000 = 0.01 or 1%. To calculate the average R-value of the attic we have to use the U value of each section, which is the inverse of the R-values.

1/30=0.0333 = U value of insulated area of attic
1/1=1.0 (assuming the attic stairs has an R-value of 1, actually much less)
0.03333 × 99% + 1.0 × 1% = 0.04297 = Total attic U value
1 ÷ 0.04297 = 23.27 = Total attic R-Value

This means for that one attic door you’ve lost 23% of your attic R-Value, from R-30 to R-23. Then if you combine that with the poor air seals typically found on these doors you are effectively putting as much heat in the house in that one spot as you are across your whole attic.

There are plenty of solutions out there, below are some pictures of some.

But there are some key elements you want to consider:

  • R-Value at least a third of the attic R-value, R-10 for an R-30 Attic. In this example you’d raise your attic R-value to R-29 from R-23.
  • Provides a good air seal between attic and home.
  • Provides method to support adjacent insulation, especially if it is blown in insulation.
  • Provides access to attic.
  • Substantial enough not to degrade after multiple uses.

Use an Energy Auditor to determine the impact of your attic openings and they can help you find the right solution or provide the service and products themselves.