Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thrift Week Day Three: Conserve Energy Day

I've decided that the third day of Thrift Week is to be Conserve Energy Day, since this is such a perfect example of ecofrugality: you can cut your utility bills and your carbon footprint at the same time. You can visit any site devoted to energy use and see dozens of suggestions for simple, easy ways to conserve energy without a big up-front investment, such as
  • replacing all your incandescent bulbs with CFLs
  • installing a low-flow showerhead to save hot water
  • weather-stripping around doors
  • turning down the heat at night (or installing a programmable thermostat that will turn it down automatically)
  • washing your lightly soiled clothes in cold water only
...and so on. The problem is, since steps like these are clear no-brainers, we've already taken them all. And having gathered all the obvious low-hanging fruit, I was left uncertain as to what to do next to give me the biggest bang, in terms of energy savings, for my buck. Which is why I decided that my birthday present to myself this year was going to be a home energy audit. Up until this point, the high price tag (a few hundred bucks) had deterred me, because I wasn't sure whether the audit itself would identify enough potential savings to pay for itself. But I finally decided that it was worth it to me to know for sure.

So, today I bit the proverbial bullet and called up New Jersey Home Energy Solutions, a vendor that had been passing out coupons at our local "Earth and Health Fair" last spring. I talked to the proprietor, who informed me that yes, my half-price coupon was still good—but then he added that perhaps I might not want to use it. He explained that if I opted for a full-scale home energy audit, he'd be legally obligated to carry out a whole bunch of tests, most of which wouldn't actually tell us anything likely to bear fruit in terms of energy savings. So he suggested that I let him come over first and do a free "walk-through," examining the various parts and systems in the house to see which areas might be most likely to benefit from improvements—and then, based on the results of that, I could choose to have further tests if they were likely to be helpful. (I'm still not sure why he told me this, since it seems like he had nothing to gain by it—in fact, he'd just cost himself 200 bucks—but maybe he just finds the energy audits to be a time-consuming and not very profitable part of his job.)

So, realizing that my energy evaluation might turn out to be an even better bargain than I bargained for, I said sure, come on over. Within ten minutes he showed up and started off the walk-through by asking to see last January's utility bill, to get an idea of what we currently pay for heating. (Not a lot compared to most people in our area, apparently.) Then he proceeded to examine our ancient boiler, inspect the windows, admire the Shepard Fairey print hanging in our downstairs room, praise the job we'd done insulating the attic four years back, and finally offer the following conclusions:
  • If we hadn't already added insulation to the attic, his first suggestion would be to go up there and seal up all the cracks in that area to stop air infiltration before adding more insulation on top. But to do that now, he said, would require removing all the insulation we'd already installed, which wouldn't be cost-effective.
  • Likewise, if the downstairs room weren't finished, we could try to stop air leaks from the bottom rather than the top by sealing up cracks around the ceiling joists. But taking out the ceiling to do that, once again, wouldn't be worth it. The unfinished portion of the basement could benefit from a bit of sealing, but he quite candidly admitted that that was a job we could pretty easily do ourselves with a tube of that foam-in stuff from Home Depot. (Side note: Not Lowe's. We're currently boycotting Lowe's over their decision to cave in to pressure from right-wing groups and pull their ads from a TV show about a Muslim family in America. Other sponsors have also announced that they won't be renewing their ads, but their stated reason was because the show, frankly, isn't very good. That, I have no problem with. But Lowe's admits that the reason they dropped their sponsorship is that the show as a "lightning rod" for anti-Muslim sentiments, and they didn't want to get singed. Well, if they're worried about losing business, they can worry about losing mine.)
  • Although our boiler is ancient—probably original to the house, which we think was built around 1970—we're unlikely to benefit from replacing it because our heating bills are so low as it is. He notes that since it's a gas boiler, not an oil one, as long as it's kept tuned up there's no reason it can't run as efficiently as a basic gas boiler of modern vintage. Newer high-efficiency boilers, which include condensing units to recover lost heat, can do better—but because they're more complex, they're also more repair-prone. So he said there was no reason not to keep this boiler running until it reaches the end of its natural life, by which point (a) some of the bugs in the new high-efficiency models might be worked out, and (b) they might be the only available replacements, due to tightening federal efficiency standards. So actually, the longer we can keep this old boiler running, the better our chances of being able to replace it with a reliable high-efficiency one when it finally dies.
  • As it turns out, we did the right thing when replacing our water heater a couple of years back by going with an old-fashioned, but reasonably efficient, tank heater rather than an on-demand heater. With hard water like we have here, he explained, the on-demand heaters need to be flushed yearly with acid to keep running at peak efficiency—a procedure that costs about $150, which, he pointed out, is more than we probably spend on all the hot water we use in a year right now.
  • There's no good reason to replace our windows, which he said were in good shape and snugly installed. In fact, he noted, replacing windows is almost never cost-effective unless the old windows are totally shot.
  • While we can't block air coming into our house from the bottom or escaping out the top, we can do a bit to keep it from leaking into the living areas by sealing off gaps around the baseboards (for which he recommended a water-based caulk) and insulating our electrical outlets. So those are two fairly cheap fixes that might help a bit with our day-to-day comfort, even if they don't make a big dent in the fuel bill. (He noted that most of the small do-it-yourself projects that home energy auditors recommend, such as weather-stripping around doors, are recommended because they're easy to do and have a low up-front cost—not because they make a big difference in fuel bills. They can make a big difference in comfort, he added, because they stop the drafts that are easy to feel—but the bulk of heat loss is through the multitude of smaller air leaks that are harder to feel and more costly to eliminate.)
So, all in all, I think this free walk-through was a highly informative experience, and more than worth what I paid for it. :-) It's a little disappointing to know that there's not much we can actually do to lower our heating bills any further, but on the flip side, it's comforting to know that we're already doing just about everything right. And it's also nice to see that there are some honest contractors out there who will tell you candidly when you don't need their services. The guy from Home Energy Solutions concluded his visit by advising me to save my money and pass the coupon on to someone else in the area who might have more energy leaks to plug. (Note to readers in the central Jersey area: Anyone want it?)
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