My husband once cynically pointed out that the more we learn to conserve energy, the more the energy we do use costs. His point was made this summer when I received our first electric bill. We were already enduring a 20 percent rate increase that began in January but in June an additional “summer rate” was added. Now we live in a small 1970s cottage and while we were warned about the new “summer rates” it wasn’t until I received our first summer bill in June that I realized the new summer rates would increase our bill another 40 percent. Livid doesn’t begin to describe how furious I was at that bill, and that’s when I decided something had to be done about our home.
Our home resides in Texas, and while most of the nation worries about cold, our biggest bills come in the summer along with 100+ degree weather. Unfortunately, one of our biggest drawbacks in conserving energy is our all-electric home. We didn’t have a significant budget (less than $1,000) to weatherize our home, so I wanted to use the most effective methods for our money. Since converting our home to gas was outside of our budget, we needed to find other ways to conserve electricity. With a little online research and a few lucky tips from friends and family, we found several ways to do just that.
Radiant barrier. I had never heard of radiant barrier until a friend of mine complained that the radiant barrier in a home she was considering buying was installed incorrectly. I looked into it and found out that it reduces the attic temperature significantly, so we headed to our local Lowe’s store for the only foil type radiant barrier we could find. Gratefully, we installed the radiant barrier over most of the house in the spring before the summer rates began.
Water heater. One morning after complaining about the rate increase to my in-laws, my brother in-law suggested turning off our hot water heater except for a four hour window in the evening when we needed it. He had used this method to slash the ranch house (a small 1930s bungalow) electric bill by 80 percent. Unfortunately our water heater doesn’t have an on/off switch, but we did take steps to reduce energy consumption from our hot water heater. We wrapped the hot water heater in a 4″ thick fiberglass blanket and insulated the pipes leading into and out of the unit.
Attic insulation: With 6″-9″ of insulation in the attic, I thought we had plenty, but it turns out that 10″-14″ is the new recommendation. We invested in R30 insulation, and laid it on top of the existing insulation and the air conditioning ducts. We also sealed the hatch to our attic with foam lining and installed a better latch.
Clothes washer: This summer our 15 year old washer quit working mid cycle. We decided to replace it with a top loading high efficiency unit. It’s been an interesting experience. The clothes take twice as long to wash and a third the amount of time to dry. The soap required is more expensive and we are being careful to clean the machine frequently as sludge reportedly builds due to low water usage.
Windows: For the moment, we have insulating foam board in our windows. We did it not so much for energy efficiency, although it does work well, but because we got tired of waking up at the first sign of light with our children, especially during the summer. However, this isn’t a long-term solution. We hope to eventually install wood shutters or blinds and plant some trees. Another option we are considering is adding high reflectivity window film. Solar screens are considered the last resort as my husband feels they create black holes of death in houses. We decided against ripping out all our windows and replacing them with an energy efficient version because it would take too long to recoup our investment.
Energy efficient habits. We had already adopted several energy efficient habits before we began our home energy efficiency project. We use compact fluorescent bulbs, wash the clothes in cold water, have a programmable thermometer, run the dishwasher after midnight, and kept the house at a balmy 78 degrees during the summer when we were at home. However, we decided to adopt a few more in light of our expensive electric bill. Focusing on our hot water usage, we began to reduce the frequency we use hot water. No more washing our hands or rinsing the dishes in hot water. Our showers were reduced to cool and shortened to ten minutes. We cut the number of times we use our oven to once per week and my husband put up a clothesline. We keep the door to the laundry room closed when the washer or dryer are in use and I’ve been much more vigilant about reminding the kids to turn off the lights and shut the doors.
By now you are probably wondering what the results of our efforts were. We are too. Unfortunately, most of the work was done after the cut off for our July bill, although we did save $3 over June’s bill and used 10 percent less energy than July 2012 with a water heater blanket and radiant barrier over two-thirds of the house. The rest of our work–completion of the radiant barrier installation, additional attic insulation/sealed attic hatch, new washer, and pipe insulation–should show up in August’s bill. While I’m giddy with anticipation, my husband, a preservationist who specializes in restoring old buildings, is a little more sober. Today, we just have to wait and see.