Extreme Makeover: Home Energy Edition

Home energy audits are an excellent way to ensure that homes are saving as much energy as possible. Poor insulation is often a major cause of energy leakage and high energy bills. Photo courtesy of the Better Business Bureau - Flicker.

Home energy audits are an excellent way to ensure that homes are saving as much energy as possible. Poor insulation is often a major cause of energy leakage and high energy bills.
Photo courtesy of the Better Business Bureau – Flicker.

The energy industry is simultaneously one of the most environmentally damaging and economically costly sectors in the United States. That being said, great potential exists to improve the industry by investing properly in efficient technologies while reducing energy demand, which all begins in the home.

Residential activities play a tremendous role in national energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the EPA, the 128 million residential buildings in the United States are responsible for 21 percent of national carbon dioxide emissions. These buildings account for 20 percent of total energy consumption in the nation, as well as nearly 50 percent of total electricity consumption. Americans together spend $230 billion each year on energy in the home; the average household spends at least $2,000 a year on energy bills, over half of which goes to heating and cooling costs.

If the United States hopes to significantly mitigate its electricity and energy usage, thereby decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, a great deal of attention must be paid towards residential homes. As an added incentive, when homeowners choose to increase the energy efficiency of their homes, they not only are they doing something good for the environment, but they are also creating great monetary savings for themselves. A combination of public policy and individual household action is needed to successfully reduce the amount of energy that is currently being inefficiently used by America’s homeowners. 

Individual home improvements such as sealing ducts, proper maintenance of appliances, and improved insulation can slash average home energy useage by about a third. Weatherization, or weatherproofing, is the process of protecting a building and its interior from the elements, and modifying the building to reduce energy consumption and optimize energy efficiency. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, weatherization returns $1.80 in energy savings for every $1.00 invested in the initiative.

Perhaps the most straightforward ways households can improve their energy efficiency and save money on their electric bills is by purchasing or updating large appliances. Standardization information exits which allow consumers to be well informed about the appliances they are purchasing. ENERGY STAR Qualified products are among the most well respected of these rating systems, and rates products based on their relative energy efficiency standards.

The case studies speak for themselves. Owning a dishwasher that was made before 1994 typically cost homeowners an extra $40 a year on their utility bills, and are significantly less water and energy efficient than more modern models. ENERGY STAR certified refrigerators are required to use about 15 percent less energy than non-certified models and typically cut energy costs by more than $200-$1,100 over the lifetime of the appliance. 

Technology to improve home energy efficiency goes beyond large appliances. The Nest Thermostat is one of the world’s first “smart” thermostats. Many people over look the importance of home regulatory thermostats, and as a result are wasting about $175 a year, not to mention countless hours of wasted energy usage. According to Nest, a correctly programmed thermostat can help households save about 20% on their heating and cooling bills. Once installed, Nest activates custom energy-saving features depending on the heating and cooling system already in place.

The attractiveness of Nest is being appreciated by both individuals and corporations alike. Nest was recently purchased by Google for $3.2 billion.

Unfortunately, for many homeowners, the biggest roadblocks they face in improving their home energy efficiency are the high up-front costs. In order to combat this high premium, policies are being developed by local and national governments which make energy efficiency and affordable option for all. 

An innovative energy program currently exists in Babylon, New York, called the Long Island Green Homes Program. This program offers low-interest financing for home energy retrofits. The Town of Babylon, composed of over 74,000 households, has taken this initiative in hopes of helping homeowners make affordable energy efficient improvements. Since October 2008, the program has helped hundreds of residents reduce their monthly utility bills and carbon footprint by 20-40%.

Ria Muriello, a grandmother of five, is a Babylon resident who learned about the program in the local newspaper. After spending $250 on an energy audit, she was approved for $6,298 worth of weatherization, to be paid off over seven years with help from utility company rebates and federal tax credits. In a single day, contractors installed 12 inches of fiberglass into specific areas around her porch and stuffed four inches of dense-pack cellulose insulation into the garage walls. These minor adjustments are now projected to save her $925 a year. Since the installation, Ria has noted that, “I’m not feeling drafts and my bills have gone down…the program works.”

Property Assessed Clean Energy (“PACE”) programs such as this exist all across the country in places such as Boulder, Colorado, and Berkeley, California, with cities such as Los Angeles, New Orleans, and San Francisco in the planning stages. These PACE programs, colloquially called “Cash for Caulkers,” help to break down the traditional barriers towards home energy retrofitting by significantly reducing the high up front costs and offering new and enticing ways for homeowners to experience both energy and monetary savings. According to Emily Gertz of OnEarth magazine, by 2020, implementing such retrofitting programs nationwide could cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 160 million tons annually, while saving homeowners $21 billion in utility bills each year.

In early March 2014, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan energy bill intended to increase energy efficiency in homes and federal agencies by providing incentives to landlords and tenants who work to increase their energy savings. The legislation also promotes energy efficiency in federal agencies. Representative Peter Welch (D-Vermont) said about the bill, “Saving energy creates jobs, saves money, and improves the environment. We have disagreements on the causes of climate change and the best fuel mix to meet America’s energy demands, but we can all agree that using less is more.”

There can be no doubt that energy improvements in homes offer both environmental and economic incentives. As energy efficiency continues to become a more affordable and realistic option for households all across the country, the future is looking bright and clean – so long as people continue to take positive steps towards greening their homes, and in turn greening all of our futures.



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