The Big Picture: An 8-step energy savings strategy

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Making your home more energy efficient without a game plan is like taking a trip without a road map You’ll eventually reach your destination, but it will take you longer, be more of a hassle and cost you more.

Having the big picture in mind is important. It will help you prioritize what to do first based on which projects have the biggest impact and quickest payback. Having a game plan will not only help you lower your utility bills faster but also help you maximize your comfort level, increase the safety of your home and leave more cash in your checkbook at the end of the day.

This first section will help you set your priorities based on the condition and location of your home, your budget and your skill level. Those with a $100 budget will have a different approach to saving energy than those with a $10 000 budget Those living in Miami will be more interested in energy efficient cooling strategies than those living in blustery Minneapolis and those who are do-it yourselfers will look at things a little differently than those who are more comfortable with “point and pay.”

Whoever you are and wherever your house is, make sure to pay close attention to the section on carbon monoxide poisoning. Sealing up your home changes the way it breathes. You want a house that’s not only energy efficient but safe as well.

An 8-step energy savings strategy

If you wince every time a gas or electric bill arrives in your mailbox, take heart. You can easily reduce energy use in your home. and we don’t mean by wearing three sweaters, taking cold showers and shuttering the windows. Energy efficiency and a pleasant indoor environment work hand in hand.

You’ll not only reduce the drain on your bank account but also find your home more comfortable.

Here, we’ll give you the BIG picture on how to evaluate your home’s energy performance, determine where the biggest savings lie and maintain a healthy indoor environment. Other articles in this guide deal with the specific simple steps you can take to save energy and money.

We’ll tell you right off that big energy savings aren’t as easy to get today as they were 30 years ago. During the energy crunch of the 1970s, many homeowners added insulation and caulked around windows and doors to capture the biggest savings. and since then, new homes have been built to higher energy-efficiency standards.

Still, if you follow these simple steps, you’ll find plenty of savings out there.

___ A: How energy is lost

The biggest culprits are air Leaks (infiltration) and poor-performing windows. But every home is unique. An energy auditor will tell you where the biggest savings lie in your home.

Hire an energy auditor

It’s worth hiring a pro to evaluate your home and help you sort out the many possible energy-saving strategies. Call your local utility company to find energy auditors. It may supply this service for free or recommend an auditor.

An energy audit typically costs $250 to $400, but sometimes community programs subsidize the bill. The energy auditor will inspect your home and rate its current performance in terms of insulation levels, air leakage, condition of heating or cooling equipment and other criteria. (You can also conduct a somewhat crude energy audit yourself by going to The Home Energy Saver Calculator.)

The auditor can then tell you which upgrades are cost-effective and estimate your energy savings. Cost-effectiveness is the key. You can spend thousands of dollars for upgrades that won’t save you much, and a good auditor will steer you away from those. For an improvement to be worthwhile, the estimated savings should cover the cost of the improvement in about seven years. For example adding $200 of insulation to your attic will be worth it if the estimated savings are about $30 per year ($210 after seven years). But installing a new efficient window for $200 won’t be worth the cost if you save only $10 per year ($70 after seven years). The auditor’s report should clearly specify the estimated savings, Keep in mind that as energy costs go up, more retrofit ideas become cost-effective.

Reduce air leakage

Think of the warm air leaking out through gaps, cracks and holes in your home’s walls and ceilings as your energy dollars floating away (___ A). Sealing these openings is one of the most cost-effective ways to save energy.

Stopping air leaks in the attic is usually enough. You don’t have to work your way through every room caulking every crack, inside and out. Just get the largest and worst offenders, which are almost always in the attic.

You’ll notice that your house feels more comfortable too, because you’ll have fewer drafts. The less warm air that leaks out, the less cold air that leaks in to replace it.

* Sealing air leaks is one of the most effective ways to save energy and money.

Conserve energy

There are hundreds of energy-saving steps that cost little or nothing. Some ideas involve a small investment of time and money—for example, installing a programmable thermostat or caulking around windows. Others involve a small investment of energy—yours. These simple steps include lowering the temperature setting on your water heater and closing the curtains.


  • Schedule a time when you can walk through your home with the auditor. Ask lots of questions. You can learn a ton about your home and how it works.
  • Have the inspector / auditor tell you which improvements you can do yourself. That eliminates the labor cost and makes many more upgrades cost effective.
  • SAVE BIG BY WASHING COLD. When you use your washing machine, 90 percent of the total amount of energy used goes into heating the water and only 10 percent into operating the actual appliance. Use cold water and cold-water detergents whenever you can.

Buy high-efficiency windows (when it’s time to replace them)

Windows are the weakest link in your home’s outer defenses against heat loss, accounting for about 18 percent of the heat loss in the typical home. But windows are also expensive, so it isn’t cost effective to replace them just to save energy If they’re worn out however it’s cost effective in all but the southernmost regions to upgrade to double-pane windows with low-E coatings. Your window specialist will help you choose the type of coating that works best, depending on whether you mostly need to slow heat loss or reduce solar gain.

Again: Windows are the weakest link in your home’s outer defenses against heat loss.

Add insulation

Add 6 in. of insulation to an uninsulated attic and you’ll reap substantial energy savings. Add 6 in. more and you’ll get additional energy savings, but to a lesser degree. To find the point of diminishing returns, consult the Department of Energy charts at or The recommended values are based on climate, fuel costs and other factors. Adding more than the suggested amounts will result in a longer payback period for your investment.

___ B: Where energy goes About hatf of the energy consumed in the average home goes to space heating and /or air-conditioning. But all areas are targets for energy improvements as energy costs rise.

Quick Tip

WHAT’S U-VALUE? The National Fenestration Rating Council tests all new windows and assigns each a “U-Value.” The lower the U-Value, the more energy efficient the window.

Shade your home

Shading is the best way you can save energy dollars in the summertime with your own sweat equity. Shading saves energy because it blocks out direct sun-light, which is responsible for about 50 percent of the heat gain in your home. Most of it strikes the roof and works its way through the attic down through the ceiling; the rest comes in mainly through windows. If you up grade your attic insulation to at least 12 in. thick (about R-36) and make sure to buy light-colored roofing next time you reroof, you’ll stop most of that roof heat. and steps like planting trees, attaching awnings and extending roof overhangs will shade the most vulnerable south-facing windows as well as those facing east and west. Most of these are low-cost, do- it-yourself strategies.

Stop air conditioner duct leakage

Studies have shown that an average duct system loses 10 to 40 percent of the cool air through gaps in the duct joints. This cooling is wasted when the ducts run outside the interior conditioned space, in an attic or a crawlspace. While sealing ducts is a common practice now, few air-conditioned homes have had this done. Sealing ducts is difficult. You’ll have to rely on professional services (see “Air-Conditioning” in your yellow pages) to test the ducts for leakage and to retest to show the effectiveness of their work.

Quick tip: LIGHT-COLORED SHINGLES SAVE ENERGY. Installing white shingles (which reflect heat back into the sky) instead of dark shingles (which absorb heat) can reduce the cooling load in a home by up to 20 percent.

Protect your health and the health of your home

Energy-efficiency improvements can increase the risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. This can occur in homes with devices that burn gas, oil or wood and in homes with attached garages. At a minimum, install a CO alarm.

Watch your windows for excessive condensation. Most energy-saving measures reduce air leakage, allowing excessive moisture to build up inside. This moisture can cause mold and rot and an unhealthy indoor environment. Condensation on windows is common at the beginning of the heating season but should largely disappear except during cold snaps. Usually the best prevention strategy is to find the moisture sources (some of the worst culprits are improperly vented dryers, bath fans and the rooms they’re in) and eliminate them or improve ventilation.

Next: Save Money with an energy audit

Prev: Introduction

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