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Caulking and weather-stripping begins at construction and continues throughout the life of the home. Done properly, it can be extremely effective and economical.
I was thinking about this recently when I visited a friend who was complaining about his high electricity bills. His kitchen was illuminated with a half-dozen recessed lights powered with 85-watt floods. Roughly 90 percent of the energy used by an incandescent bulb is converted to heat, and while I'm not great at math, I could quickly see my friend was firing up a small heater every time he flipped the light switch. Why does he do that? Sometimes, says Rozanne Weissman, communications director at the Alliance to Save Energy, in Washington, making a change takes work, and people are busy with other things. But the biggest reason, Weissman suggests, is that many people just aren't aware of how much energy they are wasting and the steps they could take to reduce that waste. That's too bad, because it's never been easier or cheaper to make your home more energy efficient, no matter where you live. At my house, I've instituted many of these measures over the years.
Beyond saving money, I've made my house more comfortable. Many of the measures I've taken are outlined in a free booklet and checklist published by Weissman's group, called Power$mart (available at 888-878-3256 or www.ase.org/powersmart). Among the tips are low-cost ideas that quickly pay for themselves. The ASE also has an interactive section of its website that will help you calculate various energy upgrades. It's under a section called Home Energy Checkup. Other websites have similar calculators, including www.energyguide.com and www.simplyinsulate.org. More than keeping money in your wallet, burning fewer fossil fuels reduces air pollution and cuts the emissions that contribute to global warming. And if we're talking about oil, these simple steps contribute to our nation's energy security at a time when it really matters.
It's hard to put a price on that. My 23-year-old house is in southern Maine, where winters are cold and staying warm is a priority. But electricity prices are high as well, so energy bills are a year-round concern. Thinking Thermostats I like to sleep in a cool bedroom. And in winter, I also want to turn down the heat in the rest of the house. But I sure don't want to wake and shiver in a cold bathroom and kitchen. The answer is a programmable thermostat. This is where you can save big money and really boost your home's comfort level. For each degree you lower your thermostat in winter, you can save roughly 3 percent on your heating bill, according to the ASE.
This figure is based on thermostat setbacks of 24 hours, and setbacks of a shorter duration save proportionally less. Also, homes have thermal time constraints (they don't cool down or heat up immediately) so the actual real-world savings is more likely between 1 and 2 percent. My thermostat automatically lowers to 60° at night and during the day when we're at work. It warms the house to 70° before I come home, then cuts back to 60° at bedtime. A programmable thermostat is one of the best energy investments you can make, if you have central heating and/or cooling. Prices range from $30 to $100, depending on the features. Some thermostats give you more flexibility, allowing for different settings on weekends, for instance. And they're easy to override if you come home early one day, for instance, so don't worry about being locked into a schedule. If you're at all handy, switching the old thermostat for a programmable one is something you can probably do yourself. With summer approaching, don't overlook the savings to be had by programming your central air conditioner.
Keep your house warm during the day while you're gone, and program the thermostat to start cooling the place down an hour before you get home. You only have a window air conditioner? No problem. Use a plug-in timer to accomplish the same thing. Just don't forget to buy a heavy-duty timer that will handle your unit's amperage and accept a three-prong plug. Lighten Your Electricity Load Speaking of plugs, lighting accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the average home's electricity costs.
Maybe more at my friend's house. This is an area where I save plenty of money in my home, without sitting around in the dark. My strategy was to convert every incandescent bulb that typically burns more than a few hours a day to a compact fluorescent lamp (CFL). They use 25 percent as much power and last up to 10 times longer than incandescents. A 23-watt CFL provides the same amount of light - lumens - as a 100-watt incandescent. So when you compare lighting, make sure you're comparing lumens, instead of watts.
I put a CFL in the fixture over the kitchen sink, a hanging lamp at the dining room table, at my desk and in lamps in the living room and bedroom. One in the living room is plugged into an appliance timer, which is set to go on at dusk and shut off after bedtime. A few years ago, CFLs were expensive, and the quality of light they produced was harsh. That's no longer true. I saw a three-pack of spiral-style, 14-watt CFLs at a big-box home-improvement store recently for $6.49. Other designs are meant to replace floodlights, globes and decorative fixtures. Some can be used with dimmers. It's worth a trip to a well-stocked discount or home-improvement store to study the range of CFL options, and see how they could apply to your home. Pay special attention to claims of lumens and color output, and make sure the ones you pick will fit in your selected fixtures, as there are various shapes and sizes. Also recognize that some CFLs take several seconds (or even minutes, if they are in a particularly cold environment) to reach their full light output after you switch them on. The ASE makes an interesting argument for doing this conversion at your home with a challenge it calls "4 for the Planet."
If you replace four, 100-watt incandescents that burn four or more hours a day with four 23-watt CFLs, the group says, you'd get as much light output, use 1,356 fewer kilowatt hours and save $108 over three years. And Weissman acknowledges those figures are conservative, because the price of CFLs is falling fast. If you shop around or see a sale, your savings will be much higher. Here's the big picture: If every household did 4 for the Planet, the ASE estimates, the savings would equal the energy output of 7 million cars in one year. That could translate into a real reduction in air pollution and the emissions that contribute to global climate change. Don't overlook the potential of energy-efficient lighting outside, either. On each corner of my house, the former owner installed four fixtures with photoelectric cells that turn on at dark and off at sunrise. Inside each is a 14-watt CFL. This system lights the yard all night and uses less energy than a single 60-watt bulb. I've supplemented the fluorescents with a basic, wall-mounted, $25 motion detector and two floodlights that come on for five minutes whenever a car or person comes up the driveway. A brass porch light with a built-in motion detector does the same thing in the back yard.
This simple system was inexpensive and provides outdoor lighting security for pennies a day. In Hot Water Heating water also can take a bite out of your home energy bill, especially if you have an electric water heater, as I do. It takes a lot of power to keep a 50-gallon tank of water hot 24/7. No matter how you heat water, you can take some simple steps to save money. First, every faucet should have a modern showerhead or sink aerator that uses a maximum of 2.5 gallons per minute. You can probably see the number printed right on the metal or plastic. Several years ago, so-called low-flow showerheads gave conservation a bad name, because they restricted the water into a cool, stingy spray. That shouldn't be a problem with newer versions, but save the packaging and receipt, in case you don't like the spray pattern. At my house, I've taken additional steps and insulated all exposed hot-water pipes with foam pipe sleeves. They are easy to install and reduce heat loss between the heater and the faucet. I've also insulated my water heater, which is in the basement.
The winter temperature drops to 40° in our basement, and the heater's tank isn't well insulated. Basically, it's as if you were spending the winter outside wearing a light sweatshirt. So I gave the tank a heavy coat, wrapping it with a fiberglass insulation kit. These vinyl-covered blankets are available at home-improvement stores. I've also done the job in another home with 3.5-inch paper-faced fiberglass batts. I kept in mind a few cautions, though. First, I was working with an irritating fiber, so I wore a dust mask, gloves and old clothes. Second, I turned off the power to the heater at the circuit breaker. I didn't block the pressure-relief valve, and I made a flap where the insulation covered the access panel or panels for the thermostats.
Speaking of thermostats, my first step was to remove the covers before wrapping and check to see how high the temperature was set. Most experts recommend at least 120°. You don't need higher temperatures for your dishwasher, because most modern models have booster heaters. (For more information, see the Home Safety column, A Guide to Safe Water Within the Home, March/April 2003.) Any guide to home energy savings will mention caulking and weather stripping.
The ASE's Power$mart booklet notes that some homes have enough air leaks around their windows and doors to equal a hole that measures 3 feet by 3 feet, when you add up all the surface area. That should get everyone's attention. But the truth is, caulking and weather-stripping a home isn't a one-shot deal, like changing a light bulb.
It's a process that takes time and attention. At my house, the exterior doors and windows were fairly tight and draft-free when we moved in. But when I placed the back of my hand around the door leading to the cellar, I could feel cold air. Weather stripping and a bottom sweep fixed the problem. One winter day, I was standing near the fireplace and felt a cool breeze where the brick meets the drywall. I used a clear silicone caulking to fill those gaps. In the kitchen, air was flowing through the electrical outlets on the exterior walls, a legacy of lower insulating standards during the 1970s. Now every exterior outlet and switch in the house has foam draft sealers under the faceplates, and plastic, childproof plugs in every unused socket. Because building materials move and settle, caulking and weather-stripping is an ongoing process. You need to do a little detective work to find the leaks. You need to decide what's the right material to plug them. And you need to keep at it. Not worth the trouble? How many 3-by-3-foot holes are in your house? Most people don't think of a closed and weather-stripped window as being a hole, but thermally, it can be.
Unless you have new, energy-efficient windows, your home will lose a surprising amount of heat through its windows in winter. In summer, sun streaming through windows can make your home uncomfortably warm. That's why most of my home's windows are covered with shades or curtains.
In other homes, I've used high-tech thermal shades, such as Window Quilts. They're very good but expensive. In this home, I've compromised with stock window coverings. Most windows are fitted with cellular shades, which feature honeycomb-like air spaces. The patio door has a thick curtain, as does the bay window. In the winter, I close these shades and curtains at night. They definitely keep the house warmer and reduce heat loss. I can tell on the coldest nights - there's ice formed on the windowpane. On a hot summer day, I draw the patio curtain to keep the sun out on the southeast side. Most people don't do this, I've noticed. My wife and I were driving home one night last winter, passing through our suburban neighborhood, and she commented that a lot of people were home watching television. Privacy aside, what I noticed were a lot of BTUs flying into the night sky. My friend, meanwhile, had a professional energy auditor come to his house and highlight the biggest energy problems. One of the recommendations was to convert the kitchen lighting to CFLs. Me? I discovered a draft last winter around the trim by the door into our kitchen, where we had some renovation work done. I plugged that gap with little discussion because, as they say, caulk is cheap. Tux Turkel is a freelance writer based in Portland, Maine.