The Hive

A Solar Victory

Your favorite idea for improving home energy efficiency. Plus, the four other great ideas I will try at my home.

In February, with your help, I embarked upon an effort to see whether I could reduce my home energy use by 10 percent. Over the past two months, Slate readers offered more than 1,000 suggestions, comments, and nuggets of advice. Thank you for all the e-mails and debate in the comments thread. Readers and a panel of experts also chose and voted on the most useful ideas for living a more energy efficient life. After two rounds of voting, the most popular idea of the more than 500 submitted is the proposal by “jgrass” for an X-prize to create a low-cost solar shingle, followed by tax incentives for people to install it. Congratulations, jgrass! A close runner-up in the voting was the exhortation from “Icemilkcoffee” that Americans get rid of their lawns and replace them with plants that require less water and fertilizer. Not to sound too cheesy, but this has been a voyage of discovery for me. What I discovered, aside from my own ignorance, was a great deal about how energy is used in the home, about the opportunities for efficiency and conservation, and about the substantial barriers that remain. So, can someone like me reduce home energy use by 10 percent without spending a large amount of money or substantially altering my life? Yes, I can.

But here’s what else I learned. Going into this project, I assumed that technology would be the salvation. But I was wrong. Behavior matters much more. Programmable thermostats don’t program themselves. The low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency is in consciousness raising. Simply going through the audits and becoming more aware of how energy is used in the house pushed me to be more efficient—without making any investments. I’m making a point of not heating, cooling, or illuminating spaces that don’t need to be heated, cooled, or illuminated when nobody is in them, and generally turning switches off. That may sound obvious, but it’s not, even to pros. One of the building performance experts who visited my house confessed that in his house computers are left on 24/7, which is tantamount to burning money. Now that I understand how much energy my computer and its peripheral devices use even when the PC is turned off, I unplug it when I go out of town for a few days.

In my house, behavior matters more than software, but hardware matters more than both. That’s what I learned from the sobering blower test and the visit from the insulation guys. The construction of houses—the way homes and the stuff in them are designed, built, updated, and maintained—is a much larger liability than I expected. The gains you reap from installing a smart meter and turning down the heat can be more than offset by poor insulation. Policy matters, too. As I mentioned, Connecticut has a policy through which electricity customers kick in to a fund that subsidizes home energy assessments. I paid only $75 for the services of Val and Vitaly Siretsanou. But the work they did—installing compact fluorescents, putting weather strips on doors, generally tightening the thermal envelope of my house—could be worth thousands of dollars over time.

I’m committing to a series of actions and investments based on what I’ve learned. My criteria: to maintain the maximum household comfort and productivity while investing a relatively small sum of money. Given that, some of the most popular proposals from Slate readers don’t make much sense for me. Line-drying, which got a lot of votes, doesn’t really work in the winters in Connecticut, and I don’t think the loss of productivity would compensate for the saved energy. Nor am I going to follow another popular idea and move into a city to save energy: The financial and emotional costs associated with such a move would surely outweigh the energy savings.

But I will take four of the most popular ideas very seriously. I’m definitely going to add and/or replace insulation, a no-brainer considering the generous rebates and tax credits associated with it. I’ll commit to looking into a waste-water heat exchanger, a water heater timer, and a whole-house fan for cooling. And I’ll also continue to experiment with many of the practices and products readers have suggested, such as the TrickleStar strips that power down PCs and television. As the grid gets smarter and as the energy-efficiency industry grows and gains scale, there will be many more apps, software programs, and devices that aim to boost home energy efficiency.

Thanks for your patience and help. Simply going through this exercise has already yielded significant gains. In March-April 2010, my daily electricity consumption is down 8.8 percent from the comparable period a year ago. It’s more difficult to draw conclusions on heating oil, but it appears I’m on track to use less heating oil this season than last. I’ve cut my energy use so far with help from readers and professionals—and without making big investments. My out-of-pocket costs have been only about $400. As I move into the next phase of making some more substantial investments in efficiency, I’m increasing my goal: I will try to reduce my home energy use by 15 percent from its 2009 level, with a stretch goal of 20 percent. Watch this space for updates.

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