How to Reduce Your Energy Consumption

Tips for conserving electricity and cutting your energy costs


Don't forget the basics. This simple stuff will save energy -- and money -- right now.

  1. Unplug

  2. Set Computers to Sleep and Hibernate

  3. Take Control of Temperature

  4. Use Appliances Efficiently

  5. Turn Out the Lights

Water Conservation Tips

Improving water conservation in your home can help you save not just on water bills, but also on expenses for heating water. Below are some ideas you can try to boost your water conservation efforts.

Insulate Pipes

What does pipe insulation do? It keeps heat inside the pipes where it belongs, rather than radiating out into the air. The result is that hot water reaches distant bathrooms faster than it would otherwise, reducing the volume of water that has to flow down the pipe for hot water to effectively arrive. And once hot water fills the pipe, it stays there for a long time. So if you use a hot water tap again shortly after the first usage, it's likely that the water will still be sufficiently hot.

In addition, pipe insulation helps reduce "standby" heat losses at the water heater. Standby heat losses occur while the water heater is just sitting there doing nothing at all. Over a period of time, heat radiating from the water heater's tank and the pipes entering and exiting the top of the unit reduce the temperature of the water inside the tank. Eventually, the thermostat is activated and the burner fires or the electric elements switch on. The water heats up again, only to cool down gradually through the cooling effects of the tank and pipes. It's an endless cycle, exacerbated by the heat loss through the pipes at the top of the water heater. So, although the hot water pipes are the logical ones to insulate, insulating the first five feet or so of the cold water pipe at the water heater is a good idea, too. That helps reduce the loss of heat that migrates up the pipe from the water heater tank.

Although insulating the pipes at the water heater might eliminate only one burner firing or element activation a day, at today's gas and electric prices, that can add up to substantial savings over the course of a year.

It may also be worthwhile to insulate another cold water pipe in your house -- the water service entry pipe from a municipal supply or well -- though not for energy-efficiency reasons. Throughout the winter and into the spring, water coming into the house through that pipe is cold. If the air is humid enough, condensation can form on the outside of the pipe and drip down onto carpets, suspended ceiling tiles, and anything else along its path. Covering the exposed pipe with foam insulation isolates the pipe from the humid air, preventing condensation from forming.

Insulating water pipes used to involve a large roll of itchy fiberglass insulation, a lot of time, and a lot of cutting and fitting the wrapping around obstructions. And even after all that work, the insulation was so thin that it didn't do much good. Insulating the water pipes in your home these days is simpler, quicker, and more effective.

The closed cell foam pipe insulation available at plumbing supply houses and home centers not only insulates far better than the old fiberglass material, but it's also easy to install. Each piece is slit along its length, allowing the insulation to simply snap over the pipe. The foam is so soft that it can be cut with a kitchen knife or a pair of heavy scissors.

Add a Blanket to the Water Heater

New water heaters are being built with better insulation these days, so if you have an old unit, don't be shy about adding an extra layer of insulation. There are water heater "blankets" available at home centers and hardware stores that wrap the exterior of the unit with an additional layer of insulation.

Electric water heaters can be covered top to bottom with insulation. Gas water heaters, however, must not be covered on top or along the bottom. The top contains the flue, and that can get hot enough to ignite flammable materials. The bottom must be left open so air can enter the burner assembly for proper combustion of the natural gas, propane, or oil.

The end of the pressure and temperature relief valve extension pipe (usually running down the side of the unit) on any type of water heater must be left open and exposed as well. This pipe has to be free of obstructions in case the valve activates and releases hot water or steam. Any blockage could interfere with the free release of the pressure within the tank, and that could be dangerous.

Other than that, the more insulation you can wrap around a water heater, the fewer "standby" losses will occur, the less the burner or elements will come on, and the more efficient it will be overall. This is a relatively easy and inexpensive task that pays off every hour of every day from the moment you put the blanket on. Like most jobs involving insulation, it's not glamorous, but it works.

Install Reduced-Flow Showerheads

Nearly half of all water used in a home is used for bathing. Almost all of that water needs to be heated. Therefore, the bathroom is an ideal place to practice energy and water conservation. Since January 1995, showerheads in new homes have been required to dispense no more than 2.5 gallons per minute. If you have a showerhead older than that in your home, it takes but a few minutes to replace it with a showerhead that meets the modern flow rate standards.

Showerheads aren't expensive. Ten to twenty-five dollars will purchase a new one that meets the 2.5-gallon limit. If you have an older showerhead that allows up to 6 gallons a minute and subsequently install a low-flow showerhead, you'll reduce your shower water use by more than three gallons per minute.

Water entering a home in northern states in the winter can be as cold as 38 degrees. Heating water that cold to the 120 degrees or so needed to produce a reasonably hot shower demands quite a bit of energy. So it's easy to understand why taking advantage of 2.5-gallon showerhood technology can save a lot on your utility bill.

A caveat though: Putting a low-flow showerhead into use is not an excuse to spend more time in the shower. In some cases, the length of time a person spends in a shower is exactly equivalent to how long the hot water in the water heater's tank lasts. Once the hot water runs out, the shower is over. If it took, say, ten minutes to exhaust your water heater's capacity with a six gallon per minute showerhead, does that mean you can now stay under the running water for 20 minutes with a reduced-flow showerhead in place? Technically, yes. But that would result in no energy or water savings. If you confine your shower activities to simply washing, rinsing, and then getting out, keeping the shower's length the same as it was before the introduction of the new showerhead, you'll decrease your use of energy and water.

Use Faucet Aerators

Older-style bathroom and kitchen sink faucets can deliver as much at 3.5 to 5 gallons of water per minute. Much of that water is wasted; typical washing tasks can usually be accomplished using less.

Faucet aerators, either supplied on new faucets or as inexpensive retrofit add-ons to older faucets, reduce the flow rate to 0.5 to 1.0 gallon per minute in bathrooms, and 1.0 to 2.0 gallons per minute at the kitchen sink. Because air is added to the water stream at the faucet's tip, the flow seems full although the actual volume of water is substantially reduced. This allows you to do more with less hot water.

Eliminating Ice Dams

If you have ice dams forming on your roof during the winter, it means that heat is escaping the house and leaking into your attic. Ice dams are the manifestation of energy inefficiency in a home. They are the result of poor air sealing, a lack of insulation, and inadequate ventilation in an attic.

Warm air travels upward because of its natural buoyancy. As it reaches the ceiling in the top floor, it seeks ways to rise even higher through cracks and gaps in the ceiling and walls. Some of those pathways are obvious; many others are not. As discussed in earlier chapters, openings around and through recessed canister lights, whole-house fan installations, attic-access hatchways and pull-down stairs, and electrical boxes in the ceiling and walls all provide conduits from the house into the attic. Additionally, heat is conducted upward through the top-floor ceiling through inadequate attic floor insulation. The result of the air leaks and conducted heat is an accumulation of warm air in the attic.

When snow falls on top of a roof, it acts as insulation, protecting the roof surface from the outside cold air. The combination of heat from below and snow on top creates conditions that warm the roof sheathing and shingles.

The warm shingles melt the snow that covers them, and that water runs down the roof, under the snowpack that lies on top of the roof. As the water reaches the roof edge, there is no longer any heat from below to warm the shingles and sustain the melting process. The water freezes along the overhangs and starts to build into ice dams.

As the ice dams build up higher over the course of the winter due to the constantly melting snow on the roof, water starts to form ponds behind the dams. Eventually, if the water level gets high enough and if the roof is inadequately protected from water intrusion, it starts to seep in underneath the shingles. In the worst cases the water can penetrate into the soffit areas, get behind the siding, and even enter the house through the interior ceilings and walls. Ice dams can be very destructive and result in millions of dollars in insurance claims every year.

The root cause of ice dams is excess heat in the attic. Undertaking the air sealing and insulating measures described earlier in this book will help reduce the heat leakage problem. The idea is to make the attic as cold as possible -- as cold as the outside air -- to reduce or eliminate the snow melting that starts the ice dam formation process. Additional ventilation in the attic also exhausts any heat that does manage to make it up there.

The ideal ventilation scheme involves several components: soffit vents that introduce air into the attic under the eave edges; air channels; chutes that hold insulation back from the underside of the roof sheathing and direct the air upward from the soffits into the attic; and high roof or ridge vents that convey the air to the outdoors. The chutes are important because insulation lying against the underside of the roof sheathing forms a thermal bridge that allows heat from the house below to travel through the insulation directly to the sheathing. It is essential to break that thermal bridge to eliminate the direct conveyance of the heat to the sheathing and to promote the free flow of air into the rest of the attic from the soffit vents.

Attic ventilation is also needed to reduce moisture concentration in the attic environment. Air that travels into the attic from the house below carries water vapor. Unless that moisture is vented away, it can condense on the cold insulation, framing, and sheathing. If allowed to continue, the wet surroundings can create conditions conducive to mildew and mold growth, and can even rot.

Adequate attic ventilation also pays off in the summer. Air flowing through the soffit vents and up through the ridge or high roof vents exhausts heat. Venting the attic means less heat is transferred downward through the attic floor insulation and into the house below. Therefore, the A/C doesn't have to run as often, which conserves your energy dollars.

Comprehensive air sealing, insulation, and ventilation can reduce or eliminate the formation of ice dams on your house roof in the winter while paying dividends in the summer. Plus, this type of energy-saving upgrading is a onetime event in the life of the house. Add vents and insulation and perform air sealing, and you'll never have to worry about it again.

Simple tasks such as cleaning refrigerator coils, installing reduced-flow showerheads, and properly insulating the attic area can help your home become more energy efficient. Follow the guidelines in this article and let the little tasks add up to big savings.

Publications International, Ltd.

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