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Home audit can help you determine how much energy you use, waste

Leigh Ann Laube • Dec 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Electricity is a purchase, and with Kingsport Power Co.’s 46,000 customers facing about a 24 percent rate increase come January, you should be sure you need all the electricity you’re buying.

“If you only drink one gallon of milk during the week, there’s no need to buy two,” quipped Todd Burns, corporate communications manager for Appalachian Power Co., based in Roanoke, Va.

This rate hike represents the first major increase for Kingsport Power customers in 16 years. Kingsport Power is a subsidiary of American Electric Power Company Inc. (AEP) and buys power from fellow AEP subsidiary Appalachian Power Co. (APCo).

“We have some of the least costly electricity in the country, but our costs are increasing,” Burns said. “A lot of it is due to the environmental improvements that we have to make to our plants. The cost of energy is increasing, so it’s a very good time for people to pay attention to how much electricity they’re using. Our rates have been so low that they really haven’t paid attention before. We’ve probably been very comfortable as a society in using electricity, and we probably need to pay more attention to what we’re buying when it comes to electricity.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, if you live in a typical U.S. home, your appliances and home electronics are responsible for about 20 percent of your energy bills. These appliances and electronics include everything from clothes washers and dryers to computers and water heaters.

It’s recommended that homeowners perform an energy audit to pinpoint the places where their house is losing energy, identify ways to conserve hot water and electricity, and evaluate the efficiency of the home’s appliances, and heating and cooling systems. Consumers can conduct these audits themselves, or, for a more thorough assessment, engage professional auditors with access to more sophisticated tools for finding energy leaks.

Steve Bellamy, owner of Bellamy Inspections and an independent contractor working for local electric companies, said homeowners lose a lot of energy right out their roofs because their attics are poorly insulated. Insulation is measured in R-values. The higher the R value, the better your walls and roof will resist the transfer of heat.

“Check your attic to make sure you have adequate insulation,” he said. “Minimum is R-19, but the [U.S.] Department of Energy recommends 30 to 38 [equivalent to 10 to 16 inches of blown insulation].”

More attic insulation may be needed if the ceiling joists are visible.

It’s recommended that your floor insulation have an R-value rating of at least 19, Bellamy said.

When it comes to checking your windows and doors, Bellamy recommends making sure they’re properly caulked, glazed, weather-stripped and sealed.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, improperly insulated windows can account for 10 to 25 percent of heating and cooling costs. In winter months, a room’s heat is drawn to the cold glass panes and literally goes out the window. In warmer months, the outside heat moves toward and through the windows, forcing cooling systems to work two to three times harder to counter it.

“You can look and see if the caulk is drawing up,” Burns said. “Old caulk will draw up and create a gap. If so, pull it out and buy a new tube [of caulk] for $2. If you eliminate air leaks, you can save as much as 10 percent off your energy costs.”

When inspecting home heat pumps, Bellamy checks to make sure there is a six-inch clearance between the bottom of the unit and the ground, that the unit is located at least 18 inches from the wall of the house, and that there is nothing located directly overhead of the unit. Dryer vents should not be located within four feet of the compressor.

Central air conditioners are rated according to their seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). SEER indicates the relative amount of energy needed to provide a specific cooling output. The Department of Energy recommends looking for Energy Star label for central air conditioners with SEER ratings of 13 or greater, but consider using air conditioning equipment with higher SEER ratings for greater savings

“The higher the number, the cheaper it is to operate,” Bellamy explained.

Heating efficiency for air-source electric heat pumps is indicated by the heating season performance factor (HSPF), and the Department of Energy recommends choosing an air-source electric heat pump with a HSPF of 7 or greater.

Again, Bellamy said, “The higher the number, the cheaper to operate and heat.”

With the purchases of any new appliance, Bellamy said, you should look for the Energy Star label. Energy Star is a government-backed program helping businesses and individuals protect the environment through superior energy efficiency, and Energy Star products usually exceed the minimum federal standards by a substantial amount.

Replacing standard incandescent light bulbs and fixtures with compact fluorescent lamps will also help cut your energy costs.

“Go to fluorescent any time you can,” Bellamy said.

Another simple thing homeowners can do that can give a big return for your investment is to set your thermostat lower.

“We estimate you can drop your thermostat 2 degrees, and it will save 8 percent off your heating bill if you heat with heat pump or electric heat,” Burns said. “We recommend a winter thermostat setting of 68 degrees. If you haven’t changed the filter in your furnace for three years, you’re probably not going to get the 8 percent we’re talking about. You have to maintain the equipment. Sometimes people get lax on that. If you don’t change the filter, you’re trying to force air through a solid substance and causing your heat pump to work extra hard and use more electricity because it doesn’t have the air flow it needs.”

Choosing a thermostat temperature is a lifestyle choice, Burns said.

“Some people will set a winter thermostat at 80 degrees. Other people will be comfortable at 68 degrees with a sweater and a hot cup of tea. It’s your choice,” he said.

The Web site www.wattwhyandhow.com, maintained by AEP offers a number of other energy saving tips.

“It’s common sense, but it’s always good to remind people,” Burns said.

• Have your furnace and ductwork inspected annually by a professional to ensure your equipment is operating safely and at peak efficiency.

• Set your thermostat to 68 degrees F. Consider installing a programmable thermostat that maintains a lower temperature in your home during times when you are away.

• Maintaining consistent temperatures within a few degrees will help save money. Encourage family members to reach for sweaters, hot drinks and sofa throws instead of turning up the heat.

• Unless it is equipped specifically for home heating, use your fireplace sparingly, since warm air escapes through the chimney. Close the damper when the fireplace is not in use.

“You can put insulation on top of it to help with resistance,” Burns said. “Lots of people have fire places they don’t use; it’s good to insulate them.”

• Remove or reposition any furniture or other items that may be blocking floor or return air vents.

“It’s all about air flow in your home,” he said.

• Limit the use of bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans — they can pull warm air from your home quickly.

• Take shorter showers to reduce water-heating costs, and open bathroom doors after showers to allow the moist heat to circulate to other rooms.

• Open draperies and blinds on south-facing windows to allow sunlight to enter in daylight hours to take advantage of the warm sunrays. Close draperies and blinds on these windows at night to maintain heat.

• Set your water heater temperature to between 120 and 140 degrees F., depending on family size.

“It will depend on your personal habits, the type of home you live in, your situation,” Burns said. “There are so many variables and so many variations, but all of these tips apply to all homes.”

According to www.wattwhyandhow.com, VCRs, DVD players, cell-phone chargers, toasters and countless other appliances are all wasting electricity when not in use. Unplug them when you’re not using them and you save money.

Here are other energy-saving tips good for all year long courtesy of AEP and the Environmental Protection Agency:

• Turn lights off when not in use.

• Turn off your computer and monitor when not in use.

• Allow dishes to air dry instead of using your dishwasher’s dry cycle.

• Take showers instead of baths to reduce hot water use.

• Use the microwave to cook small meals. It uses less power than an oven.

• Don't let the water run while shaving or brushing teeth.

• Keep drinking water in the refrigerator instead of letting the faucet run until the water is cool.

• Scrape, rather than rinse, dishes before loading into the dishwasher; wash only full loads.

• If you don’t use a dishwasher, fill the sink with a few gallons of soapy wash water, clean your dishes, and put them aside. Then rinse them all together afterward. Either of these simple practices could save 10 gallons of water.

• Wash only full loads of laundry or use the appropriate water level or load size selection on the washing machine.

• Buy high-efficient plumbing fixtures and appliances.

• Repair all leaks (a leaky toilet can waste 200 gallons a day).

• Water the lawn or garden during the coolest part of the day (early morning is best).

• Set sprinklers to water the lawn or garden only — not the street or sidewalk.

• Use soaker hoses or trickle irrigation systems for trees and shrubs.

• Keep your yard healthy — dethatch, use mulch, etc.

• Sweep outside instead of using a hose.

For more information visit www.appalachianpower.com or www.aep.com.

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