Spend $1,000 on Your Home to Save Money and be More Energy Efficient

By Vernon Trollinger, July 10, 2013, Energy Efficiency, News

Spend $1,000 on Your Home to Save Money and be More Energy Efficient

Though it often sounds expensive, improving the energy efficiency of your home just a little bit can help you save money on your electricity bills, and over time, those home improvements pay for themselves. To demonstrate on an average home, let’s look at how spending just $1,000 dollars can actually save money on your electricity bills by making the house more energy efficient.

Average Home & Electric Bill.

The average square footage for new US homes in 2010 was 2,300 square feet (compare to 1700 sq.ft. in 1973 and about 900 sq. ft. in 1950). Let’s say our home is a 1980 ranch with 1,500 sq. ft of living space (30 ft x 50 ft), similar to the Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) typical existing US home. It has an attic with soffits and gable venting. For insulation, there’s 3 inches of cellulose (R-10) in the attic and R-13 fiberglass in the walls. There’s 1 1/2 baths and a natural gas stove in the kitchen. In the unfinished basement, there’s a 10 year-old electric tank-style water heater and a newer natural gas furnace and central air system (but we’ll touch crawlspaces, too).

Using 2009 US data for our home, the average electric monthly electric bill is 920 kWh used at ¢11.26/kWh = $103.67. Yearly, that adds up to $1244.04.

Insulation and air sealing make the biggest impact on creating an energy efficient home. The US Department of Energy (DOE) says, “Heating and cooling account for 50 to 70% of the energy used in the average American home.” Adding more insulation and air sealing your home can typically save up to 20% of heating and cooling costs.

For our demo house, that 20% could add up to $14/month or $168 per year. Let’s look into the following home improvement resources to figure out how we can make our house better.

Save Money by Insulating

Insulation is rated by its resistance to heat conduction or “R” rating. The higher the R value, the better: R-30 resists better than R-13. Attic insulation works just like a blanket to stabilize temperatures inside your living space relative to conditions outside. Inside stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Most homes are built under-insulated. DOE reccommends a minimum of R-30 for all attics with R-49 to R-60 recommended in more northern locations.

For our home, to bring R-10 up to R-30, we’ll need to add R-20 (6 inches) of insulation. The two most common attic insulating materials are cellulose or fiberglass. The great thing is that you can put a layer of fiberglass over an existing layer of cellulose and vice-versa. Prices for both cellulose and fiberglass vary from brand to brand and home center.

We’re going to use blown cellulose. By buying it from Lowe’s, we get free use of the blower for 24 hours. Lowe’s calculator recommends 43 bags of cellulose insulation, but we’re going to go with 46 because there’s always something unexpected and a little extra is better than not having enough.

Our price is $276.00.

To compare, 31 R-19 fiberglass rolls (48.96 sq. ft. each), cost $302.56.

As an added bonus, we can deduct 10% of the amount (up to $500) from 2013 federal income taxes.

Save Money by Air Sealing

We’ll tackle house air sealing next (see this air sealing guide here). Drafty air leaks cause up to 40% of your heating and cooling load. Energy.gov recommends this very simple building pressure test:

  • Close all exterior doors, windows, and fireplace flues.
  • Turn off all combustion appliances (gas burning furnaces and water heaters).
  • Turn on all exhaust fans (kitchen and bathrooms) or use a large window fan to blow the air outside.

Air being blown out of your home will draw air more forcefully through draft-making holes, making them easier to feel by wetting the back of your hand or see by watching a smoking stick of incense. Plug air leaks you find with caulk or expanding foam. Weather stripping will solve most problems with doors and windows.

For crawlspaces, crawlspace encapsulation is more energy efficient in reducing humidity and mold growth. Start by putting down 6 to 8 mil plastic sheeting as a vapor barrier on to the ground surface.

Air sealing will cost us $200. We’ll be buying caulk, expandable foam, and some rigid foam insulation.

Save Money by Sealing Ductwork

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and ductwork must be tightly sealed to circulate conditioned air with optimal energy efficiency. When the ventilation system is a tightly closed loop, less energy gets used. Houses lose about 20% of the conditioned air that moves through the duct system due to leaks, holes, and poorly connected ducts. For our house, that’s another 20% of $70/month or $14 lost per month, $168 per year.

Seal ductwork properly with:

  1. Aluminum duct tape. Aluminum duct tape is better suited for connecting duct sections and plugging holes than vinyl duct tape.
  2. Ductwork mastic. This caulk-like material fills and seals seams and can be applied over aluminum duct tape.
  3. Ductwork insulation. Apply to sealed ductwork to keep the air at temperature as it blows through the duct. This saves you money.

While mastic and tape are cheap ($25 total for both), R-6 duct insulation can be expensive. The DOE Home Energy Saver web site estimates ductwork insulation to cost our typical American home duct about $250.

We’ll be spending $275 to seal ductwork.

So far we’ve spent about $751.00 of our $1,000 on insulation and air sealing. We may cut about $300 off our yearly utility bill. There’s still $249.00 in energy efficiency projects left.

Save Money by Ventilation

Summertime temperatures in attics can climb above 120°F. To cool the attic, heated air flows out of the gable vents at either end of the roof while soffit vents under the eaves let in cool air in. Unfortunately, heat gets trapped and raises your air conditioner’s cooling load and your energy costs. Newer homes now use ridge vents that run along the peak of the roof to let hot air escape. Retrofitting ridge vents onto an older home is easy but it does require cutting a long slot through the roof’s peak. For our home, we’ll install five 10 foot long aluminum ridge vents.

Attic ventilation will cost $100 total. We have $149.00 left.

Save Money by Keeping Water Warmer

Heating water accounts for 18% of your home’s energy bill. In our case, that’s up $18.67/month and $224.04/year. Most homes use a storage tank water heater to keep hot water ready even when nobody’s home to use it. Most tank heaters are under-insulated and hot water pipes have little or no insulation on them. Wrap a water heater blanket (or “jacket”) around the tank and place foam pipe insulation on the hot water pipes. A basic water heater blanket and enough 3/4″ foam pipe insulation to cover our home’s hot water pipes are inexpensive and easy to install.

Hot water insulation will cost us $40. We have $109.00 left

Save Money with a Programmable Thermostat

According to EnergySavers.gov, “You can save as much as 10% a year on heating and cooling by simply turning your thermostat back 7°-10° F for 8 hours a day from where you would normally set.” For our demo home, that’s about $7/month or $84/year. While newer programmable thermostats sound expensive with complex wireless internet interfaces, less complicated models are available. The Lux TX9600TS is a do-it-yourself friendly and compatible with many HVAC systems that retails for under $70. It has a friendly, easy-to-use blue touchscreen and no web interface. Estimated utility bill savings (10%) suggest it will pay for itself in a year.

We pay $70 for new programmable thermostat. We’re down to $39.00.

Save Money with LED Bulbs

Home owners tend to light one area almost constantly. In our demo home, we’ve got a three-bulb pendant light over the dining table that’s on for 10 hours a day. It uses three incandescent 60 watt bulbs = 180 watts x 10 hours = 1800 watt hours or 1.8 kWh. With our rate of ¢11.26/kWh that adds up to ¢20.26/day, $6.08/month, and $72.93/year. Incandescent bulbs also give off lots of heat and burn out often, adding more cooling load and replacement costs.

Let compare these with energy efficient light bulbs:

LED bulbs are the most energy-efficient, producing the most light for little energy and hardly any heat. LED bulbs have long lifespans which lowers replacement costs. Three 8 watt LED bulbs =24 watts x 10 hours = 240 watt hours or .24 kWh. The cost is ¢2.7/day, ¢81/month, and $9.72/year. That’s a savings of $63.21 per year versus standard incandescent bulbs.

We’re buying 3 LED bulbs for $30.00 The remaining $9 covers miscellaneous hardware expenses.

There you have it.

You can spend a mere $1,000 to save energy and save money off your energy costs by making your home more energy efficient. Through these simple projects, we have cut about $600 from our yearly utility bill —a reduction of 50%. Plus, there’s are also tax credits available to keep more of your money in your wallet.

Sure, this walkthrough has been hypothetical, but it’s a great collection of home improvement resources regarding energy efficiency improvements you can complete in an average home. All these jobs don’t need to be all-at-once, but the effects do add up. Just performing some energy upgrades to your home bit by bit will continue to lower your monthly utility bills and increase your your energy efficiency savings.

Air Sealing Tips image courtesy of Energy.gov.

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A native of Wyomissing Hills, PA, Vernon Trollinger studied writing and film at the University of Iowa, later earning his MA in writing there as well. Following a decade of digging in CRM archaeology, he now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, DIY projects, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.

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