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Products such as the Battic Door help minimize air leakage through ceiling openings.
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Stopping air infiltration
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Ceiling fan savings
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Setting your programmable thermostat
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Air sealing your ductwork
You probably know all the good reasons to make your house more energy efficient: Lower your bills. Reduce the demand for new power plants. Save the planet.
What you may not know is where to begin, what you can afford and which energy-efficiency improvements will make the biggest difference. With the help of two South Carolina energy experts, we’ve come up with eight affordable projects that will help you lower power bills and make your home more comfortable.
Michael Smith is manager of energy programs for Central Electric Power Cooperative, which provides the electricity distributed by your local co-op. An electrical engineer, he’s been monitoring the data from cooperative-backed energy-efficiency projects like Help My House to uncover the improvements that offer the most bang for the buck here in South Carolina.
Jay Bell is program manager for the Energy Conservation Corps, a project of The Sustainability Institute. The Energy Conservation Corps provides energy-efficiency improvements for low-income housing. The typical budget for the whole house is $1,000. The Sustainability Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Charleston, also teaches energy-efficiency workshops for do-it-yourself (DIY) homeowners across the state.
We asked Smith and Bell to evaluate the savings potential of these budget-friendly projects and rate the DIY potential.
1. CONDUCT A COMPREHENSIVE ENERGY AUDIT
DIY potential: None. Homeowners can discover obvious problems, but lack the equipment to make a wholehouse assessment.
Though a comprehensive, professional energy audit can cost as much as $350, both experts recommended this as your first and best step if you’re considering any major efficiency improvements. “You don’t want to indiscriminately start replacing things,” Smith says. “When you start with an audit, the money you spend after that is right on target.”
Auditors have special training and use tools such as blower doors, duct blasters, infrared cameras and gas detectors that reveal problems you can’t see. Blower door tests are commonplace in energy audits because they measure how much air leaks from your home. Duct blasters test the air tightness of forced-air systems, and infrared scanning, which is usually done in the winter, allows an auditor to literally see where and how much heat is leaking out of your home.
Auditors also have the expertise to help homeowners set priorities, make budgets and sort through improvement options. Smith recommends that you look for an auditor with either Building Performance Institute (BPI) or Home Energy Rating System (HERS) certificates, and be aware of any affiliations the auditor may have. For example, an energy auditor associated with an insulation contractor might be more inclined to recommend adding insulation.
To enhance the DIY potential of any upgrades recommended by the audit, Smith suggests you follow the auditor as he or she inspects your house. “The auditor can give you a pretty good idea of whether you can handle the improvements yourself.”
Learn more: Download a list of auditors compiled by the S.C. Energy Office.
2. CAULK WINDOWS AND FILL GAPS
DIY potential: Easy.
Though Bell and Smith say It’s best to use a professional energy audit to find all of the air leaks in your home, they agree that any obvious Holes and cracks scream for immediate attention. “Look for dark areas around cracks because that’s a sign of air Flow,” Smith says.
Stopping Air Infiltration
He also points out that caulking and filling gaps should come before adding insulation or other, High-priced improvements. “People know they need to add more insulation in attics, but they don’t fix air leaks. It’s easier to fix the leaks first, because the insulation gets in the way.” Or as Bell tells homeowners, “Let’s stop the bleeding first. For the money, you can do a lot more with a tube of caulk than you can with high-end applications.”
To fix leaks, apply caulk or spray foam according to the label directions. Spray foam should be used on large openings, but be careful: the foam expands and could damage weak wood or lose brick. When purchasing caulk, pay careful attention to whether it is rated for interior or exterior use and whether you can paint over it.
See the video "Stop air infiltration" above.
3. REPLACE TRADITIONAL LIGHTBULBS WITH CFLs
Cost: About $2 per bulb
DIY potential: About as DIY-friendly as it gets!
Perhaps you’ve already replaced a burned-out incandescent with a squiggly compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL), but both Smith and Bell say don’t wait. If you go ahead and replace all your high-use bulbs with CFLs now, you’ll be making a smart investment.
The operative words are “high-use.” Bell points out that you won’t see much of a return if you replace a bulb in a fixture you rarely use, the light in a closet for example. But Smith says the savings in high-use areas make it worth ditching incandescents for compact fluorescents this weekend. “A 100-watt bulb burning five hours each day costs about $18 a year to operate,” Smith says. “The CFL equivalent would cost about $4.50.”
Despite the savings potential of compact fluorescent lightbulbs, many people are slow to install them. Common complaints include:
Quality of light: CFLs are improving and many can provide light on par with incandescent bulbs. The key to finding the light quality you want is the Kelvin (K) rating, a number that indicates the warmth of light. A low number means the light appears more yellow. A higher number means a bluer or whiter light. CFLs with a 2,700–3,000K rating produce a soft, white light on par with incandescent bulbs. CFLs with 3,500–4,100K will produce a whiter, brighter light, and CFLs in the 5,000–6,500K range will produce a light quality similar to outdoor light. For more information on finding the right CFL for different lighting applications, see the free buyer’s guide to CFLs online at energystar.gov.
Concerns about mercury: CFLs are made of glass tubing containing about 4 milligrams of mercury. Although this isn’t much—classic thermometers contain 500 milligrams— the Environmental Protection Agency recommends that consumers take precautions if a CFL breaks, since mercury vapors may pose health risks (see below).
The agency also recommends that consumers always recycle CFLs by depositing intact bulbs in the appropriate recycling bins provided by many home improvement centers.
Learn more: Get more information on the EPA’s most recent guidelines for the safe handling and recycling of CFLs.
4. INSULATE YOUR ATTIC DOOR
DIY potential: Fairly easy to add a pre-made attic tent. You’ll need tools and some skills for make-your-own versions.
Homeowners frequently insulate the attic but overlook one of the largest openings in their ceiling—the attic door. Ready-to-install attic tents can be put in place by most homeowners with little effort. For those who are handy and want to save money, it’s possible to insulate the door with a few tools and basic supplies.
Learn more: Download DIY instructions for sealing an attic door.
5. INSTALL REVERSIBLE CEILING FANS
Cost: $100 and up
DIY potential: Easy to challenging depending on circumstances and your skills. You may be better off hiring a pro.
Reversible ceiling fans are inexpensive to operate and can make your home more comfortable year-round. In summer, moving air feels cooler on your skin, so you can put off using your air conditioner or be comfortable with a slightly higher thermostat setting. In winter, ceiling fans can pull warm air down from the ceiling helping to distribute it evenly throughout the room. Easy to challenging depending on circumstances and your skills. You may be better off hiring a pro. Reversible ceiling fans are inexpensive to operate and can make your home more comfortable year-round. In summer, moving air feels cooler on your skin, so you can put off using your air conditioner or be comfortable with a slightly higher thermostat setting. In winter, ceiling fans can pull warm air down from the ceiling helping to distribute it evenly throughout the room.
The catch? Ceiling fans are only a good investment if you use them, Bell says. “With a lot of improvements, behavioral changes are a big part of it. You can invest in ceiling fans, but if you don’t use them properly, you don’t see the return.”
Here’s how to properly use ceiling fans year-round: In summer, run fans on medium, blowing air down. In winter, run fans on low, blowing the air up. And remember the fan is there to make you feel more comfortable. Turn it off when you leave the room, or you’re just wasting electricity.
The the video "Ceiling fan savings" above.
6. ADD WEATHER STRIPPING TO YOUR DOORS
Cost: $10 per door
DIY potential: Fairly easy, with common materials found at home improvement or hardware stores.
“I always ask, ‘Can you see light around your door?’ If you can, then you need to do something,” Smith says. He recommends you check for gaps around all edges of the door and inspect the rubber seal on the threshold. Decide what you need, measure, then go to your local store for options to fill the gaps. Many types of weather stripping are peel-and-stick and can be cut to size with everyday scissors.
If weather stripping doesn’t solve the problem, it may be necessary to adjust or replace the door hardware to ensure a proper seal. Strike plates, hinges and threshold plates all wear over time and affect how well the door closes against the sealing surfaces. Many newer thresholds are adjustable—look for three or four screws which allow you to move the section immediately under the door up or down to improve the fit.
Learn more: "Energy Q&A: Make your doors energy efficient"
7. INSTALL A PROGRAMMABLE THERMOSTAT
Cost: $100 plus installation
DIY potential: Experienced DIY homeowners may be able to handle this, but proper installation is vital. Consider hiring a pro.
This is another case in which behavior is as important as the equipment you add. Programmable thermostats enhance your home’s energy efficiency only when set and used properly, and as with most things in life, timing is everything. The idea is to run heating and cooling systems more conservatively when you’re not home, but to have them heat or cool the house to a comfortable level by the time you walk in the door.
To realize significant energy savings you’ll need the flexibility to dial the system back by 10 to 15 degrees at least eight hours a day—when you’re at work, for example, or while you’re sleeping. Smith
recommends installation by an HVAC professional who can help you understand how the thermostat will work with your home’s heating and cooling unit. Programmable thermostats may not be the best choice for heat pumps, for example, which work most efficiently at moderate settings, especially in winter. You probably won’t see any savings if an improperly installed or programmed thermostat causes the emergency heat strips to come on at the wrong time, he says.
For maximum efficiency, your thermostat should be situated on an interior wall, about 5 feet above the floor and away from heating and cooling vents and other drafty places, such as doors and windows. Also keep it away from skylights, direct sunlight or lamps. If your thermostat is not properly situated, consider having an electrician move it to a better location.
See the video "Setting your programmable thermostat" above.
8. SEAL DUCTWORK
Cost: Varies by home and project, but significant improvements can be made for $500 or less.
DIY potential: Easy to challenging.
One of the quickest ways to improve the efficiency of any central heating and cooling system is to seal the ductwork. As much as 20 percent of the air you paid good money to heat or cool can be lost to leaks, and the simple act of closing those leaks can save you up to $177 a year.
Smith recommends twice-a-year maintenance on heating and air systems, including inspection of the ductwork, and says he’s rarely seen a home where the ducts couldn’t use some TLC. “This is mostly labor to fix, and the returns can be pretty amazing,” he says.
Any HVAC contractor can repair or replace ductwork in short order, but if you’re the DIY sort, check any exposed seams and look for insulation that is dirty or discolored, indicating that leaking air has been moving through it. Apply a proper duct sealant—a paint-on resin like Mastic is the best choice, though foil tape or aerosol sealant may do in a pinch. Ironically, this is one project where you cannot count on the famously versatile duct tape to do the job.
See the video "Air sealing your ductwork" above.
Resources for Saving
The Sustainability Institute: Contact them to request an energy efficiency workshop in your community and to learn more about Energy Conservation Corps grants to improve home weatherization. sustainabilityinstitutesc.org
S.C. Energy Office: Provides information on finding a certified energy auditor, news about tax incentives and rebates and tips for saving energy. energy.sc.gov
U.S. Department of Energy - Efficiency & Renewable Energy: A great resource for homeowners seeking tools and information, including a do-it-yourself home energy audit and tips for hiring a pro. eere.energy.gov
The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina: Offers “101 Ways to Save,” a free guide to energy-saving changes you can make for little or no money. Download a copy