Getting comfortable with home energy efficiency

Melanie wants her home to be comfortable, cheerful, and bright. Winter gusts blowing across the Kansas prairie send her to the thermostat to fight the chill. In the summer, she nudges the temperature down to keep cool, all while avoiding her husband’s detection.

Melanie’s husband, Scott, frowns on tweaking the thermostat. He canvases the home, turning off lights. While his wife finds comfort leaving lights on and turning up (or down) heat, he finds comfort in lower utility bills.

Fortunately, a comfortable middle ground is both affordable and available to homeowners across the nation. Energy-saving products combined with efficient home design trends and building techniques are revolutionizing home energy use.

Regardless of location or type of residence, people like Scott and Melanie are finding that being energy efficient at home not only brings comfort, but also positively impacts both wallets and the world.

“If you’re concerned about the environment, being energy efficient is a priority,” says Brian Sloboda, senior program manager with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). “But efficient energy use is important for other reasons. First, you save money. Second, you save energy, which leads back to saving money.”

It’s easy for us to ignore being wise with our energy consumption. After all, electricity is a good value, especially when compared to other forms of energy. Unlike other sources of energy, however, electricity is very flexible—we can use electricity for everything from helping with cooking and cleaning to powering entertainment devices and even our automobiles. Regardless, it makes sense (and cents) to be more energy efficient in all areas, especially at home.

“Energy efficiency is a pocketbook issue,” explains Alan Shedd, director of residential and commercial energy programs for the NRECA’s Touchstone Energy® Home program. “If you can do things to reduce the cost of energy, you will have more money to spend on other things. Sure, we can’t control all energy costs—gasoline, for example—but we can make a difference in our own home.”

But how do we make that difference? How can Melanie still be comfortable and avoid sending Scott into a frenzy when he opens the monthly power bill? Experts say future home construction and remodeling will focus on energy efficiency. One of the key things to focus on in new construction or remodeling is properly sealing a home.

“The best time to focus on energy savings is at construction,” says Bob Dickey, manager of marketing and economic development for Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative in Paxton, Ill. “We’ve got to do a better job of sealing penetrations and gaps between the conditioned space—areas of the home that we heat and cool—and unconditioned spaces. Find and seal gaps, cracks, and penetrations near plumbing, cables, utilities, furnace runs, fireplace installations and electrical wiring—anything that may let air move from one space to another. When you seal these gaps in a typical home, energy costs can drop between 20 and 40 percent.”


Doing detective work

Home energy audits help consumers identify points of energy loss. Often performed by electric co-op employees or other trained professionals, an energy audit uses special tools to pinpoint potential improvements.

Brian Kumer of Lewiston, Ill.’s Thermal Imaging Services conducts thorough energy audits. After a quick safety check on a home’s gas appliances and furnaces, experts such as Kumer place a blower door on an exterior door. The device pressurizes the home, making air leaks easier to locate.

“The door simulates a 20 mile per hour wind coming at the house from all sides,” he explains. “It creates a negative pressure so we can find out what the biggest problems are when it comes to comfort and energy. When we fix the comfort problem, we save energy, too.”

Kumer pictures the home through an infrared camera to spot “energy leaks.”

“Most of the time, leaks are in the attic,” he says. “Air escapes from places like the flue chase, the chimney chase, plumbing stacks, electrical penetrations and around kitchen and bathroom soffits.”

Trouble spots cannot be fixed by rolling out more insulation. The spaces need to be specifically sealed. “Insulation is not air-sealing,” he says.

Kumer has completed energy audits on houses ranging from new construction to century-old homes, and says many states now require the test on all new construction. States that don’t require an energy audit probably will in the future.

Jimmy Autry, senior vice president of membership and community relations for Flint Energies of Reynolds, Ga. says electric cooperatives are always willing to help members find ways to make their homes more energy efficient.

“We tell our cooperative’s members that we will sell all of the energy that they need, but we don’t want to sell them wasted electricity,” he says. “Finding efficiencies one by one, house by house, is a good thing. We’re able to help people discover where they can get the biggest bang for their buck and make the absolute best decisions for their home and budget.”


Designed to save

Autry says older homes were built to a different standard, when energy was less expensive and efficiency was less important. Energy efficiency is a key concern for new home construction, he adds.

“We are willing to get involved with new home construction,” Autry explains. “It is a one-time decision about insulation, caulking and weather stripping. With a little up-front investment you build in less overall operating costs.”

Dickey’s electric cooperative designed a demonstration tool for consumer energy efficiency education. The 17-foot Energy Efficiency Wall is a popular exhibit at home shows, fairs, and special events, showcasing more than a dozen ways energy can leak through a home’s walls.

“People see everything we’ve been saying and it makes sense. Showing people what to do is different than telling them. This has been a very valuable tool for us,” he explains.


Digging down for deeper savings

Perhaps nothing is as valuable to consumers as savings realized after installing a geothermal heat pump as an alternative to more traditional means of heating or cooling. Using a series of liquid-filled loops buried at least 10 feet underground, this system uses the steady temperature below ground to transfer heat.

Installation costs are high, but geothermal heat pumps deliver a 30 to 70 percent reduction in home heating and cooling costs. Plus, by using a desuperheater, geothermal heat pumps deliver around 60 percent of a family’s hot water heating needs for free. This waste heat recovery system works best in the summer but also provides “free” hot water in the other months.

Because of their connection to the earth, geothermal heat pumps represent an interesting application of renewable energy and receive tax credits.

“There’s a 30 percent tax credit for installing a geothermal unit,” explains Shedd. “That really brings the cost down to a level on par with high-efficiency systems. In new home construction, it’s a no-brainer. Why not do it?”

Jim Dulley, writer of the “Sensible Home” and “Cut Your Utility Bills” nationally syndicated columns, says geothermal heat pumps pay for themselves in just a few years.

“Geothermal is the most efficient system for heating and cooling,” he says. “It’s hard to beat.”


How to justify that new refrigerator

Energy efficiency comes not only from construction methods, but also from a home’s appliances. Like the houses themselves, many appliances and products are designed and manufactured with an emphasis on saving energy. Clothes washers, refrigerators, and other household aids bearing the Energy Star logo are specifically designed for a higher level of efficiency.

“Energy Star is branded by the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency,” Flint Energies’ Autry explains. “It means a cut above—a better value for the long term and shows that the manufacturer has subjected the appliance to testing to prove that it provides significant energy savings over comparable products that do the same thing.”

Autry says consumers should look for Energy Star-branded appliances, and many do.

“More than 75 percent of the public understands that it is very important to look for that Energy Star label,” he adds.

For more than 15 years, Flint Energies operated its own appliance outlet, focusing on providing consumers in its service area with energy efficient appliances and advice.

“We’ve really seen people pay attention to finding energy efficient appliances and they know that just a little more money means savings for a long time to come,” he says.

When electricity first appeared in rural areas in the 1930s and 1940s, many electric cooperatives had appliance showrooms or offered demonstrations. Today, some co-ops sell efficient electric water heaters, offer rebates for efficient upgrades and provide low interest financing for energy efficiency improvements.


The future is now

Dickey says much of the emphasis on energy efficiency is not new. “Some of the things we talk about now, we talked about in the 1940s—sealing gaps and cracks and using enough insulation. All of this was in brochures back then,” he says, with one caveat. “Because energy prices were a lot lower back then, little was done. Today, we realize that literature doesn’t tighten up a building, caulk does.”

Thanks to more stringent building codes, new homes are much more energy efficient than just a few years ago, says Mark Taylor, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Illinois. Taylor works with students to design energy efficient homes for the U.S. Department of Energy’s solar decathlon, a competition among collegiate teams to design and construct solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy efficient and attractive. He says homes can be net-zero energy producers (learn more at

The Gable Home, one of the team’s projects, produces three to four times more power than it needs thanks to solar panels, air tightness, and what Taylor calls “as much insulation as you can get.” Yet the home, like the energy-efficient homes of the future, looks much like current residences.

“The way homes will look in the future won’t matter,” Taylor says. “You can keep a traditional architectural style and integrate modern technology with energy savings.”

He says most of the differences will be on the inside. “Appliances will have a bigger impact; energy-efficient appliances will be prevalent,” he says, adding that the move to LED lighting will quicken the pace and televisions and computers will become more efficient, too.

Homes will also be designed with future energy upgrades in mind.

“We’ll design houses with room for solar opportunities,” he adds. “As we move to electric power for cars, I think we’ll begin seeing more solar panels on garages and carports. I haven’t seen it yet, but it is coming.”

Dickey agrees homes of the future will look much like homes today, at least on the outside. Inside they’ll have smart appliances, energy efficiency controls and monitoring systems.

“From the outside, you won’t see a lot of difference, but what’s on the inside—from construction to appliances—will definitely be different,” he says.

Featured photo (top): Electric co-ops across the country have been preaching and teaching energy efficiency for years. Bob Dickey, manager of marketing and economic development for Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative took his “sermon” to congressional staffers on Capitol Hill using the co-op’s energy wall. The 18 foot-long energy wall uses compressed air flowing through the display to demonstrate potential energy losses that could easily be plugged with proper caulking, insulation and various sealants. Co-op officials gave policymakers an opportunity to experience the same energy-efficiency messages more than 300,000 co-op consumer-members in the nation’s heartland have been able to share. “We know we can reduce the energy costs on the vast majority of homes by 20 to 40 percent,” says Dickey. “Many homes were built decades ago and they leak like sieves.”
Source: Kevin Bernson


Slaying silent energy killers

Brian Sloboda, a vampire slayer, stays on the prowl. He hunts for energy killers that feed on electricity when nobody’s looking.

“We need to kill what I call the energy vampires,” the senior program manager for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) says. “Look around your house for any plug with what we call a ‘wall wart’—those larger black boxes that are actually transformers. Those are energy killers.”

Found on the cords of devices such as cellular telephone chargers and video game systems, these big plugs have quite the appetite. In fact, they eat energy all day and all night long.

“They consume electricity whenever they are plugged in, whether the device is turned on or off,” says Sloboda. “It’s a tiny amount of electricity, but the power’s drained for nothing.”

In some cases, he adds, the consumption is more than just a little.

“With some of the video game systems from before 2010, even when they’re turned off, they use practically as much energy as when they’re turned on,” Sloboda explains, adding that the same is true for some cable boxes and digital video recorder units.

To combat energy vampires, he makes two recommendations: first, look for electronic devices with the Energy Star logo. That means the equipment has been certified as energy-efficient. Second, he suggests using smart power strips.

“These power strips can sense a change of voltage running through them that will stop the flow of energy to that particular item or to other related items,” he says, explaining, for example, that a smart power strip can sense when a computer is turned off or in sleep mode, then automatically stop the flow of power to monitors, printers, and speakers.