Insulation stands between you and a cold world outside. Look for all of the ways that cold air can infiltrate your home and seal them up. One of the most commonly overlooked areas is your electrical outlets. Seal them up using electric outlet seals that fit under the cover plate and block off those tiny, pervasive, annoying drafts.
The first rule in lowering your heating bill is to prevent cold air from getting into your house. We do this, of course, with insulated walls, ceilings, and floors. What happens, however, when you make a hole in that wall or ceiling or floor for some particular reason?
That's when you install something to fill up that hole like a window or door or vent. All of these are specially designed to prevent air infiltration, of course. Even then, you need to add weatherstripping and caulking to ensure that no cracks remain.
There's another category of holes we make in walls, where these holes don't go all the way through — these holes are for electrical outlets and light switches. The typical exterior wall in a house is made with 2"x4" or 2"x6" studs with sheathing and siding on the outside and sheetrock on the inside. Between the studs should be as much batt insulation as will fit snugly. Electrical outlets are then installed in a plastic box about 3" deep that is either shoved or cut into the insulation. Anyone who has worked with an electrician can tell you that electricians are not worried about insulation. For electrical outlets on exterior walls, there is typically little or even no insulation between the outdoors and the inside of the house.
Let's say that again —
For electrical outlets on exterior walls, there is typically little or even no insulation between the outdoors and the inside of the house.
So what I did last weekend is install outlet seals on all electrical outlets and light switches on exterior walls of our house. It's really easy to do — first you remove the outlet cover:
Then you fit the outlet seal over the outlet itself:
It is a snug fit. Then you reinstall the outlet cover:
The outlet seal is a very small piece of insulation but every bit counts when you trying to keep the cold air outside where it belongs.
Some people add additional wadded-up insulation inside the electrical box itself. This is definitely a good idea but should only be done by competent electricians. I am not saying that you have to hire a professional electrician to do this, but the wires in the box are live and you could get a serious shock or even kill yourself if you don't know what you're doing.
I went to Walmart the other day to get something, happened to walk by the aisle with all the lightbulbs, and noticed something new — an LED lightbulb from Lighting of America. I've heard of them before but I've never seen one, much less in a Walmart of all places. It was only $5 so I bought one and took it home for some tests.
For certain lighting applications, this LED bulb is perfect — and for others, it is awful.
Let's start with the good news:
- It uses 4% of the power of an equivalent incandescent bulb, and 33% of the power of an equivalent CFL bulb.
- It has 30 times the lifespan of an equivalent incandescent bulb, and 3 times the lifespan of an equivalent CFL bulb.
- Unlike an incandescent bulb, it emits no heat.
- Unlike a CFL bulb, it makes no noise and lights up instantly.
- Even though the bulb I tested was listed as the "Warm White Light", the bulb emits a bright white light. These are the same LEDs that are used in flashlights, where brightness is desirable — but not always in a table lamp. LEDs can be tuned to different colors, so I imagine that this issue will be corrected in the near future.
- More critically, the light emitted by LEDs is highly directional — again, one of the reasons they are used for flashlights. The net result is that almost all of the light from the bulb comes out of the top. This makes the LED bulb an excellent candidate for can lights and spot lights and any other application where you need focused light — but completely inappropriate anywhere you need diffused light. I imagine that a variably-reflective coating on the inside of the lightbulb, to reflect some of the light traveling upward to the sides, will help correct this issue in future designs.
- Inside the bulb itself there are 20 separate LED lights. Each LED lights up and contributes to the overall light output. Since there are 20 discrete light sources, the light emitted by this bulb can be slightly grainy, with areas that are more or less bright. For any application where a consistent light level is needed, the LED bulb is a no-go. I imagine that a diffusion coating on the inside of the lightbulb will help correct this issue in future designs.
Also, our friend at Energy Boomer had this to say about LED lightbulbs.
Always think ahead and rearrange the shelves in your oven before you turn it on. Arranging the shelves after the oven has been pre-heated lets a lot of the heat escape. Speaking of pre-heating the oven — don't! Modern ovens heat up much more quickly than older ovens, and need no more than five or at most ten minutes to heat up fully.
I really hate our fireplace.
Let's be honest here. Does anyone really use fireplaces anymore? They are dirty, smelly, inefficient, and wasteful. OK, OK, they can be very picturesque — somewhere else.
I got tired of the cold radiating away from the fireplace a few years ago so I blocked it off. First, I made sure that the damper was closed:
Then I cut a sheet of 1/2" insulation board to fit into the firebox and spray-painted it black:
And then I promptly forgot about it.
A couple of weeks ago the temperature got down into the teens here in Atlanta and my wife mentioned to me that she could feel a draft coming from the fireplace. I got out my digital thermometer and discovered that there was a four degree difference between a spot right in front of the fireplace and another spot four feet away.
The first thing I did was undo everything I had done a few years ago:
After verifying that the damper was still shut, I opened it:
After cleaning up the cascade of soot that fell out, I held my hand up to the hole and could actually feel the warm air from inside our house rushing up the chimney. To discourage any further air leakage, I stuffed a huge wad of insulation into the chimney:
Then I put the black 1/2" insulation board back into place and announced that I had solved the problem.
Except I hadn't.
I wanted to write about the project on Energy Watcher, so I measured the temperature in the same two spots I had measured before. I was hoping to write "Blocking off our fireplace increased the temperature nearby three degrees". You can only imagine my disappointment when I discovered that blocking up the chimney had no effect at all.
After investigation, I discovered that when the gentlemen who built our house installed our fireplace, they didn't put any insulation around it — at all. There's a gap between the top of the fireplace and the cavity in which the fireplace is installed:
It is very difficult to see because it is about 1/2" wide. It is right in the middle of the picture, running along the top of the fireplace proper, just below the fireplace screen. When it is chilly out, we can actually feel a cold breeze coming out of this gap.
What I did is stuff insulation into the gap as well as I could, at least enough to stop the draft — but all that did was reduce the temperature difference by one degree. To really correct this problem would require that we remove the fireplace and re-install it properly — and that is just not cost-effective.
I bet that we spend $20 a month during the winter to make up for the heat loss caused by our fireplace.
I really hate our fireplace.
President Obama just signed into law the biggest spending bill in U.S. history, a total of $787 billion dollars. The stimulus package, aka the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is intended to jump-start the American economy — let's hope it works!
Thanks to our friends at Watthead, we can look at where the energy dollars will be invested:
We here at Energy Watcher eagerly look forward to seeing concrete results from these investments.
Does this mean that Google is competing with Energy Watcher?
There are lots of ways to track your energy costs, but Google is proposing to connect your computer with your power meter so you can see how your power usage spikes when you turn on your oven — and once you know where the power is going, you can make sensible decisions where to invest your home energy saving dollars. This is like a super-sized version of the Kill A Watt that I've been talking about so much.
This announcement was made by Google's philanthropic arm and is for a service that is still in beta testing. Once it becomes available, you will only be able to use it if your house has one of the smart power meters installed. Google hopes that, with help from the Obama administration, 40 million of these meters will be installed in the next three years.
These power meters were actually mandated by the federal government in 2005 but, as usual, no one ever followed through on a great idea. Caveat: I used to work for a company that manufactured smart power meters, which went out of business when it became clear that no one took the federal government's mandate seriously.
With Google backing the smart power meter idea, it may have a chance this time. As Google says:
If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.- Lord Kelvin
If your community provides it, plan ahead and take public transportation wherever possible — and if your community doesn't provide it, encourage your local government to plan ahead for the future.
For this project report I think I need to set the stage first.
We have a walk-in pantry next to the kitchen. It is very convenient and may in fact be the most-visited place in the entire house. As such, the overhead light gets left on — a lot.
My wife, being the energy-saving dynamo that she is, turns the pantry light off — a lot.
And I, being the considerate husband that I am, installed a motion sensor lightswitch in the pantry to automatically turn the light on whenever anyone opens the door, and turn it off again after they leave:
Here's a couple of tips for the DIY people out there:
Happy Valentine's Day, sweetheart.
In our on-going efforts to make visiting Energy Watcher both pleasant and productive, we are pleased to introduce a new section in the sidebar, Tools We Recommend. These are energy-related tools that we have tested, commented on, and highly recommend for everyone who is looking for a tool to help save energy.
As our long-time readers know, we have released quite a few tools on Energy Watcher to help all of us with home energy savings. Each tool is of course announced here on this blog — which may have caused some of you a small problem.
Sometimes, when people ask for the web address for a tool, I have trouble remembering just when it was that we announced it so that I can look up its web address. To avoid making my life difficult, and to make it easier for you all to find these helpful tools, we have just added a new section in the sidebar named Free Downloads.
... sort of.
Obama has once again asked the head of a government agency to do his job — this time, it is the Department of Energy. It's a bit complicated, so I will just quote from the Presidential memo:
Under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 (EPCA), the Department of Energy (DOE) is required to establish by certain dates energy efficiency standards for a broad class of residential and commercial products. These products are appliances and other equipment used in consumers' homes and in commercial establishments. In the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT), the Congress directed the DOE to develop a plan to issue expeditiously efficiency standards for those products with respect to which the Department had not yet met the deadlines specified in the EPCA.
In 2005, 14 States and various other entities brought suit alleging that the DOE had failed to comply with deadlines and other requirements in the EPCA. In November 2006, the DOE entered into a consent decree under which the DOE agreed to publish final rules regarding 22 product categories by specific deadlines, the latest of which is June 30, 2011. The consent decree includes target dates for the rulemaking processes and sets deadlines for issuance of final rules with respect to each product category. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) directed the DOE to establish energy standards for additional product categories.
The DOE remains subject to outstanding deadlines with respect to 15 of the 22 product categories covered by the consent decree, as well as statutory deadlines for a number of additional product categories. These efficiency standards, once implemented, will result in significant energy savings for the American people.
Apparently, back in 1975, the DOE was supposed to set standards for most appliances used in homes and businesses — and didn't. Then in 2005 Congress ordered the DOE to finish the job. The DOE continued to not do its job. Various states and other organizations filed suit to force the DOE to do its job — and the courts agreed. The DOE, reluctantly, agreed to do its job — and apparently still didn't. Given this track record, Obama has politely asked that the DOE actually do what they are supposed to do, and set a deadline of August 2009 for results. I wonder what the DOE will do?
A cursory check of the DOE's press releases on their website shows no sign that the DOE has noticed that there's a new sheriff in town.
You know the data that we publish each month at the bottom of this site — the last 13 months of our utility bills? I keep all of that information in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Well, I was talking to a friend and he asked for a copy of the spreadsheet so he could keep track of his utility bills, too.
One thing led to another — and we are pleased to announce that you, too, can download a copy of this spreadsheet to keep track of your utility bills.
Just click on the image above to download the spreadsheet for yourself.
Obviously, you need to have a copy of Microsoft Excel installed on your computer to use this spreadsheet. If you know how to use Excel, however, using this spreadsheet to keep track of your utility bills is very, very easy.
If you don't have your utility bills for the past year or more, you can probably get copies from the companies that supply your utilities. If all else fails, you can always start with this month's bill. However, the more data you have the better!
First things first, you will want to remove the sample data that the spreadsheet comes with. After that, type in your utility bill data in the fields provided. When you fill up the records available, click on the Total field in the first column, right click, and then insert a new row. As you type in your utility bill data, you should be able to see the totals and averages along the bottom change.
The only really tricky thing about tracking your own utility bill data is that you have to look up your own heating degree day (HDD) and cooling degree day (CDD) values for each month. You can find this information at the National Weather Service. Just click on your state to go to a webpage where you can look up the HDD and CDD for the precious month. It's a little disorganized but very, very important — without this data, you have no reliable way of telling just how hot or cold your weather was for any given month.
With the data in this spreadsheet, you will have the ability to evaluate for yourself whether your energy-saving efforts are effective ...
Always use rechargeable batteries in handheld appliances. This doesn't actually save on your electric bill — it actually costs you a few pennies to recharge these batteries — but does save you really money at the same time it helps keep toxic metals out of our landfills and water supply.
To save on your electric bill, always unplug battery chargers when the batteries are fully charged or the chargers are not in use.
The weather is weird around here. November was colder than normal, December was warmer than normal, and January was colder than normal. (I suppose that expecting the weather to be "normal" is one of the early symptoms of insanity.)
Our definition of "normal" moves over time, as well. The National Weather Service, which is where I get all of my weather data for this site, actually says that last month was warmer than normal for January in Atlanta, with only 645 cooling degree days (CDD) versus a normal 692 CDD.
All I know is that January was cold and my heating bill sucked.
We set a new personal record for our utility bills in January with a bill of $571. This is almost 25% higher than our utility bill for January 2008. Our natural gas consumption went up about 25% as well last month, so that makes a lot of sense. Our cost per unit of energy stayed the same or went down.
The thing that's troubling me is that January 2009 was about 10% warmer than January 2008, with 645 CDD versus 700 CDD. During 2008, we invested in excess of $1,500 in energy-saving DIY projects, as documented on this site. Some of that went to reduce cooling costs, but a big chunk went for insulation and other items intended to reduce heating costs.
So where are my energy savings?
I think I must be missing something — it may be time to look into a home energy audit.
January 2009 Data
Electricity, in kWh
Cost / Unit
Gas, in Therms
Cost / Unit
Water, in CCF
Cost / Unit