Matthew Steger WIN Elizabethtown

Saving Energy and Lowering Your Utility Costs

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In 2010, electricity rate caps were removed which ended up raising electricity rates and increasing PA consumer's electric bills. Finding ways of reducing your energy usage can be of real benefit. Due to rate limits imposed by the Commonwealth of PA years ago, electric utilities were limited by what electrical rates they could charge consumers. The limits expired which means the same electric utilities can charge more for the same energy usage, than prior to 2010. It is estimated that some PPL customers in Lancaster County have seen an average rate increase of about 30% compared to prior years for the same electricity usage. Some other areas of the state may see well over a 50% increase. Ouch!

Electric utilities charge their customers based upon the number of kilowatt hours of energy usage. A kilowatt hour is 1000 watts used for 1 hour. A watt is a unit of power; a kilowatt is 1000 watts. Run ten 100 watt light bulbs for an hour and you have consumed 1 kilowatt hour (abbreviated 1 kw hr). With the advent of compact florescent light bulbs (CFL), consumers can save about 75% on electricity usage compared to using all incandescent bulbs. So, in comparison a 100 watt incandescent bulb can be replaced with a 100 watt equivalent CFL bulb (same brightness as a 100 watt incandescent bulb) that uses only 25 watts. While some people don’t like the quality of light provided by compact florescent bulbs, replacing all of the incandescent bulbs in a home with compact florescent bulbs can provide some nice savings each month. LED light bulbs are another option to compact florescent light bulbs and are even more efficient.

The government created a program called Energy Star which is a joint venture of the US EPA and US Dept. of Energy. According to the Energy Star website, ‘In 2008, Americans saved approximately $19 billion on their utility bills’ because of the Energy Star program. A wide variety of household products like computers and refrigerators to TVs and water heaters can earn the Energy Star label if their energy usage meets certain standards for each type of appliance.

The Energy Star program works with product manufacturers as well as retailers and builders to help produce products and build homes that use less energy than similar products from just a decade ago.

Energy efficiency is defined as the ratio of the work something does in relation to the energy consumed to do the work. A good example is a modern natural gas fired condensating furnace which is typically rated at 90~92% efficient. That means approximately 90~92 cents of each dollar you spend for natural gas is converted to heat while about 10 cents per dollar goes out the flue as exhaust. Old gas fired furnaces from the 1970s may have been only 60~70% efficient which means that you may waste 40 cents per dollar up the flue. That extra 20~30% energy savings really adds up over time especially when you consider current natural gas prices.

The highest energy usage in most homes is generally home heating and cooling as well as water heaters, electronics, and kitchen and laundry appliances.

You are probably asking yourself, ‘so how do I lower the energy usage in my home’? I’ve created a basic list of things that the average home owner can do to save money each month on their utility bills.

  1. Of course, the first thing would be to purchase and use products that have earned the yellow Energy Star sticker. Even if a product in your home is still functional yet it is near the end of its design life, you may want to consider replacing the product with a newer Energy Star rated model.

  2. Unplug appliances when not in use. While this can also have a safety benefit in some regards, unplugging certain items when you are not using them can help save energy. Unplugging a desk lamp won’t save energy when the lamp is not turned on (since the switch in the OFF position turns off the power to the bulb), however unplugging things like most kitchen counter top appliances will help lower your energy bill since many of these items still consume a little energy when turned off. Even saving a few pennies per day, can really add up over time. For example, plugging a computer system (computer, printer, router, and monitor) into a surge protector and flipping the surge protector off when not in use, can save energy. Unplugging items with a wall or inline transformer (like for a laptop or game unit) can save energy as the transformer still consumes some energy even if the laptop is unplugged from it. Of course, unplugging appliances before a thunderstorm strikes may also help protect the appliance’s user and the appliance itself from lighting damage.

  3. Install a programmable thermostat and use it correctly. Also, change the programmable thermostat's clock when we change between Standard Time and Daylight Saving Time. Simply replacing your old manual thermostat with a modern programmable thermostat may not save very much energy if you don’t program the thermostat properly. The purpose of the programmable thermostat is to allow you to set what temperatures you want in the home at different times of the day without having to manually make these changes. These programmable thermostats can be used on furnaces, boilers, heat pumps, and central air conditioners. Also, do not place objects that give off heat (such as lamps, TVs, refrigerators, etc.) near thermostats as they will trick the thermostat into thinking the house is much warmer than it is, thereby causing the heat to not run very often, but will cause your A/C to run considerably more often. This wastes energy and lowers interior comfort.

For example, I’ll use a typical February workday schedule. You get up at 6:30am, work 8am to 5pm Monday through Friday and go to sleep at 11:30pm. You can program this type of thermostat to automatically warm the house to 72 degrees starting at 6:15am before your feet hit the floor, drop 7 degrees automatically at 7:45am (when you leave the house), warm the house back up to 72 degrees at 5pm so that you walk back into your front door to a warm house that didn’t waste energy all day when no one was home. Then, when you are ready for bed, it automatically drops back to 65 degrees at 11:30pm. Of course, the time and temperature settings are determined by the user. Similarly, you can create settings for cooling in the summer. Remember to reset the thermostat’s clock when we change between standard time and daylight savings time. It is best not to have large temperature swings for heating or air conditioning systems as the energy saved throughout the day may be wasted by having to make up a large difference (more than 10 degrees) when the next time/temp setting is reached. This may produce no savings and may actually cost you more. You can save approximately 1% for each degree reduced, but generally, 4~6 degrees F is the recommended temperature swing between settings.

  1. Ceiling fans versus a central A/C system - Running ceiling fans instead of a central A/C system can lower your utility costs since a central A/C system consumes a large amount of power compared to ceiling fans. Since heat rises, set the switch on the fan to pull warm air upwards. If you don’t want to turn your central A/C system complete off, you can raise the thermostat’s temperature a few degrees when running the ceiling fan and this should lower the number of times per day that your A/C system runs.

  2. Add insulation - After many years of inspecting homes, I find that most homes could use more insulation in their attics. Creating a proper thermal barrier between a very hot (summer) or very cold (winter) attic and living space helps prevent your heating and cooling systems from having to work so hard. This results in lower utility costs. To learn more, read my Attic Insulation article.

Of course, trying to save energy can cost you a good deal of money up front, such as if you are replacing your kitchen and laundry appliances or the home’s heating/cooling equipment with modern Energy Star appliances, yet these items can pay for themselves in time on your utility bills. Most reputable salesmen or contractors can provide cost comparisons, such as the yearly operating costs for your current furnace, water heater, or other appliances compared to the yearly operating costs for new Energy Stay appliances. Some local electricity utilities have programs that will pay you a small rebate for purchasing newer higher efficient appliances, such as refrigerators. Contact your local electric utility to learn more.

Looking for 2 more easy ways to save money that only takes a few minutes and you can do it from your computer, yet can save real money every month?

PA has an Electric Choice program called "PA Power Switch" which allows consumers (residential and commercial) to choose a different electricity suppler than their local utility. This program can save consumers 20% or more off their electricity bill. For more info, check out: http://www.papowerswitch.com

PA also allows natural gas customers to shop around and find a cheaper natural gas supplier. Your natural gas will still be delivered by your local utility using the same gas pipes but the gas will be provided by the supplier that you choose. To learn more, visit: http://www.pagasswitch.com

© 2014 Matthew Steger

Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI) and a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer. He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or msteger@wini.com.

WIN Home Inspection provides a wide array of home inspection services in the Lancaster, PA area. This article was authored by Matthew Steger, ACI - owner of WIN Home Inspection in Lancaster, PA. No article, or portion thereof, may be reproduced or copied without prior written consent of Matthew Steger.