Looking for some good news in the midst of increasing unemployment and talk of a "double dip" recession? Here's something to celebrate. According to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Americans are using less energy overall, and more renewable energy, than ever before. The lab estimated that overall energy use was down by 5 percent from 2008 to 2009 and that renewable energy use increased by 27 percent. Renewables, in general, still make up a fraction of total energy supply, but the increase is encouraging.
Of course, we could always be doing more to reduce our energy consumption. Energy pundits like to say that energy efficiency is the most renewable fuel of all. And a recent study from the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University found that when most people think about ways to save energy, they think about simple steps like turning lights off when they leave a room, line-drying clothing, or driving less, rather than making larger improvements, such as buying more energy-efficient appliances or adding insulation to walls and windows, which energy-efficiency experts believe are more effective in reducing energy consumption.
But both help, says James Brew, principal architect at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit think tank that advocates for more efficient use of natural resources. "I like to think about active people, passive houses," he says. "If you actively engage in the energy operation of your house, you're going to save money, and you learn more about your house's energy balance." So while experts may think a new water heater or investing thousands in new windows is the best way to go, you're not in the wrong if your idea of energy efficiency is line-drying clothes or closing drapes on a hot day.
With cold temperatures quickly approaching, Brew gave three tips for saving energy this fall:
1. Seal up your windows. "Any season of the year is a good season to seal up the house," says Brew. But you may notice leaky windows more in the fall or winter, particularly if drafts blowing in around the frame make you cold. In the past, our Nickel Pincher Jean Nick has suggested ways to turn leaky windows into powerful energy-saving windows by sealing cracks from the outside. Brew has an even easier way to cut down on leaks, and it'll only cost you a few dollars. The best part? You can do it all from the inside. First, take off the trim around your windows and floorboards on inside of the house walls. If you feel comfortable that you won't get electrocuted, take off your outlet covers and pull the outlet out of the wall, as well. Then, using a low-expanding foam sealant, start filling in any cracks or small holes you might see (if you don't see any, Brew suggests using a lit incense stick to detect air leaks). "This is the most effective thing people can do in houses that were built before 2000, which is about 85 percent of the homes out there," he says. While you're doing that, he adds, take out any insulation you see there and spray your low-expanding foam in its place. "Historically, people took bad insulation and just pounded it into place with a screwdriver or the end of a hammer," he says. In most cases, that bad insulation is pretty ineffective at keeping out drafts. "It's literally a weekend project," Brew says, "and you can easily see a 10 to 15 percent—or more—change in your energy bills."
2. Insulate your attic door. While any time of year is a good time to seal windows, fall is the perfect time to attend to your attic. "Why fall? It's a lot cooler up there!" Brew says. "Anytime after the third or fourth week of September, go to the attic and poke around, and look at the attic insulation." While heat loss is generally greater through windows and walls, it's much cheaper and easier to add insulation to your attic, and you'll still save money on your energy bill. An added benefit for people who live in far northern climates that get a lot of snow is that extra attic insulation helps prevent "ice dams," according to the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Ice dams are ridges of ice that form on a rooftop and prevent melting snow from draining; the melted snow then leaks into the home, where it causes serious water damage.
While you're adding insulation, check out your attic door itself. "Your attic door can be responsible for up to 15 percent of your home's heat loss," says Brew. "Many are just a panel of drywall that sits on a lip, and they're usually at the highest point of the house where all the heat and energy are trying to get out." You don't need to seal them permanently shut, he says. Just put some gasketing around them if your attic door is the type that gets pulled down from the ceiling, or add some weather-stripping around the door frame if it's the type that opens and shuts like an ordinary room door. For the latter, you can also make an easy DIY door snake to keep drafts to a minimum.
3. Conduct a few standard inspections. Since your heating bill usually accounts for the largest chunk of your electricity bill—even more than air-conditioning, if you can believe that after our hot, hot summer—fall is a good time to give your HVAC unit a physical. "It's a great time to change filters and have an inspection of your home's heating and cooling systems," he says. Call your unit's manufacturer to find a heating expert who can give it a once-over and, hopefully, a clean bill of health. But don't stop there. "Now is also a great opportunity to log on to your local utility's webpage to see if there are any incentive programs," Brew notes, whether for energy-efficient appliances or for energy audits, comprehensive evaluations of your home conducted by a certified energy rater who can tell you where to make improvements and which of those improvements will reap the greatest savings on your energy bill. The federal "Cash for Caulkers" energy-efficiency program may also provide some funding for these sorts of upgrades. Officially known as the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act, the bill was passed by the House of Representatives in May and is currently up for debate in the Senate. The version passed by the House provides a 50 percent reimbursement, up to $3,000, for homeowners who get energy audits and make changes to their homes that would improve energy use by at least 20 percent.
If you're less interested in major projects, use the change of seasons to conduct a few simple energy-efficiency measures that cost you absolutely nothing:
Clean your refrigerator. Refrigerators use more energy than any other home appliance, but you can make yours more efficient by keeping it maintained. Vacuum the coils on the back, or on the bottom, of your fridge, and check its temperature. Put a standard food thermometer in a small glass of water on the middle shelf; the temperature should register 41°F, which is optimal for food safety but not too cold to waste electricity.
Clean your dryer. Lint can build up in your dryer's hose and in the pipes running to the dryer's external vent, increasing your dryer's energy use by up to 30 percent. That not only creates a fire hazard, but it also prevents moist air from venting outside, which can cause mildew problems, particularly in winter. Vacuum out the lint filter with your vacuum cleaner's hose attachment. Then detach the dryer hose from both the dryer and the wall, and vacuum lint from the back of the machine and from the pipes where the hose attaches to the wall. Finally, head outside to clear any linty obstructions from your dryer's external vent.
Open the drapes. Solar heat is the best kind of heat: free. In the summer, it's best to close the drapes during the day, to prevent heat from coming in, and then open them at night to allow the heat to escape. In the fall and winter, reverse that: Keep them open to let heat in during the day, and then close them at night to prevent it from escaping.