The Key Factors in Saving Energy

There are critical components in your home that are the big critical factors to consider when you start to think seriously about saving energy. These big critical factors are guideposts for figuring out where our money will give us the greatest return.

Since our intentions are to save energy and save money, it is essential that we base these decisions on real science- on real engineering rather than based on the disinformation shouted in the marketplace.   Some of it is called advertising. Much of it is called news. Much of it is misleading.

We will discuss the factors the most critical first, and then move on to a second tier that matter more about your personal uses of your home. Then we will move on to those which are popular, which people like to do for a variety of reasons, but are not necessarily going to provide a return on investment any time soon. We will cover each of those as a category below

Plus, we always like to harp on the stuff that is pure hype- pure BS but that list is separate 

Critical factors – the key components that dictate the success of your project to save energy

Right after two quick caveats

The true order of importance of the key factors to your home are dictated by the unique defects in your home. All homes are different- from different eras, and touched by structural changes and the behavior of remodelers and builders… and all these factors must jib with the unique qualities of your individual home. This is a key reason behind the first critical factor below.

Second caveat – the energy use characteristics of your personal family are a  big part of your energy bill. These come in two shades.

You have a big family that needs a lot of hot showers and generates lots of laundry and uses appliances more than average or you have a job  that impacts your home energy budget, or you have a hobby, or a heated  swimming pool- that distorts how you use energy and this can create opportunities for you to save energy that are not typical but make sense for you.

Second, you or family members have personal habit or personal values that waste energy. Here are some examples. Maybe you like home extra cool in summer or extra warm in winter, or you have members of the family that fresh air and open windows and let conditioned air out of the house, or hate to close doors behind them… or leave refrigerators door open… .

This is a challenge for you, and the first step is to actually understanding what kinds of behaviors waste power and how much power- how much money is flying out of the family purse in pursuit of these habits. Here is a blog post about how much extra cooling costs. Hint it is not linear.- not just a little more cooling energy for a little lower temperature. energy saving tips are big business. There are companies around that exist to help churches and companies and institutions understand how to use power more productively. Electrical power not wasted is a penny not wasted.

OK, end of caveats,. Let’s get started with energy efficiency  key factors. This list is intended as a reality check. If you are thinking of something else not on this list, or feel something is amiss.-please speak up. The dollars you save will be your own.

The big Factors

Important Factors in energy savings but dependent on how you use them

The glittery factors – stuff we like but are not great investments

The top factor is getting actual hard data. You need a home energy audit

The home energy audit process starts off with a conversation with a home energy rater of your choice. You get a good sense of what you can accomplish with a home audit. You get a good sense of the expert that you can trust. More on selccting the right Home rater later.

A home energy audit includes actual testing and data. A blower door is involved to actually measure air leakage in your home. There is a variety of equipment for testing ducts too. Plus home energy audit includes an analysis of the other key factors outlined on this page. We have links below for more information about the auditing process.

A home energy audit provides a realistic target for energy savings and a game plan for getting there. Each of the factors below are itemized in your audit for opportunities to save energy and that list is prioritized by the best investment first. You can take this audit to the bank, and with a little help, you can get an EEM- an energy efficiency loan without hassle- that will be paid off from your savings each month from your lower utility bills.

An energy audit can cost several hundred dollars, but you might find a subsidy with a local utility or government agency. But even if you don’t and end up having to pay full price for an audit; your money is well spent because you have a blueprint for moving forward. You have a map for action yo  save energy and have a blueprint to get it done.

Beware of “free” audits. Be aware that  you are paying for a free audit. Make sure you look over the notes for what is entailed in a home energy audit. There will be a link below. You can get worthless analysis that helps make a  sale. This sales tool might even be called an energy audit.

When you do an energy saving project with an energy efficiency mortgage,  the audit is blended into the mortgage. But you do pay for it. The home energy audit has real value, takes time and expertise and you need to make sure how those costs are being covered. Make sure you are not buying an energy audit in name only- as we described above.

We talk about picking energy raters here.. LINK They can help you get a whiff of what you can accomplish and then you can proceed from there. The home energy audit gives you the hard information you need to make smart energy saving investments. We discuss the home energy audit in detail here. LINK

You want an experienced rater that is well trained, and certified by either BPI or RESNET. We get into these two certification bodies later. LINK But you even need to be picky about certified raters.

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Air leaks are a big deal

Air leaks impact energy efficiency. Air leaks impact moisture issues. Air leaks impact the health of the air in your home. Air leaks allow humid outdoor summer air into your home where it greatly increases the humidity of your home and provides the moisture that lets biological polutants thrive. These can make you sick. We discuss actual air leaks in your home here.

Humidity is so critical to healthy air and needs to be understood in relation to air leaks.

Air leaks need to be handled by professionals. This is a bit off topic, but it is important to bring it up before one more person starts down this slippery slope. While you will find a variety of texts talking about you getting out your caulk gun to seal air leaks- stray caulking is pretty near worthless and that is a rosey assessment.

The professionals have blower doors for testing- know the layout of construction, know the natural forces which impact air leaks and know where to find the hidden air passage culprits ready and waiting for the right pressure differentials..

The professionals have the right tools and the right repair materials. And if the blower door does not show the expected results, they go back and start looking again.  They missed something.

[stextbox id=”info” caption=”A quick hint on saving money while stopping air leaks…” bwidth=”2″]Make sure you see the notes on lighting in relation to air leaks. The biggest air leaks in your house are in your ceiling and can lights play a big role here- like the FBI most wanted list of air leak criminals. Some lighting redesign can make sealing up the air leaks easier,\ and less expensive and you get to spruce up the look of the house too. Good news. [/stextbox]

Is your home an older home? Has it been remodeled extensively over the years?

It certainly has been if it is a several decades old and you have a new kitchen design and new bathrooms and central HVAC…

Your older home just might have some secret passages or old chases that are open and letting air pass at will. These get discovered. These are the big stuff that make a difference.

A final world of the futility of getting out the caulk gun. Caulking to seal air leaks is a waste of time, unless you are enjoying the exercise and then you need to go find something more interesting to do. More discussion on what might be a great do -it -yourself- project is here. Have fun doing something that can make a difference.

Finally I will finish up with an answer to a question you did not ask.

If caulking is such a bad idea, then why do you see so many sources of information for getting out the caulk gun? Most caulking projects are initiated by retailers and caulking manufacturers that sell caulking and caulk guns. So learn from that.

Also, there are government sites that promote caulking adventures,;and I figure, they are hoping to get you interested, then switch you onto more productive activities to find the leaks.

Oh, same with the videos on how to caulk. Always stop and figure out why something is being offered. Find the dollars.

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Would your energy savings be  improved with more insulation?

A quick caveat on the idea of more insulation now
Do not let anyone sell you insulation in your attic, until you address air leaks in the attic. To do otherwise is a mistake. We explain this below and later, but this is important. All kinds of contractors are ready to help you get some more “insulation with that” Just say no, at least before you are ready and have the air leaks under control and the actual situation with the insulation appraised and in perspective. 

Is your insulation up to snuff?

How much insulation do you have in your attic? Is it smooth and monolithic or is it messed up, stirred up, piled up or wind scrubbed at the roof edges. We talk about the short circuit effect in insulation here. We talk about an adventure into the attic to see what is going on here. 

Do you have insulation in your walls? Does it make sense to add it? It might make sense to add insulation to your walls, but you also need to assess if your walls are getting wet now. Leaks in the siding create even more problems when there is insulation present and more  stuff to soak up water, and create healthy habitat for mold and rot. We discuss water in walls here.

Make sure you talk to your HERS rater and he will offer you the perspective you need to evaluate the existing placement of insulation and how that fits into your best return on investment.. There is a diminishing return to adding more insulation. There  are problems with placement of insulation that is a bigger issue than just more. We talk about the role and issues with insulation  here. 

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Defects with your heating and cooling equipment must be identified and repaired

HVAC issues in homes can be an energy suck and a big part of the problem with humidity. Also, most homes in Texas have their ducts in the attic. It just does not make sense to put thin sections of ducts in attics to transport the coldest air in the house- in the cooling system through what is the hottest environment in the house. So therefore duct leaks and duct issues can be a real problem.

Is your HVAC under stress and need maintenance? When is the last time you changed the filters on your system?
This is a bit off topic here, but we all get busy and we get distracted and the air comes on and goes off and time flies- and unfortunately HVAC systems- while a marvel of manufacturing prowess- they build good equipment these days- the lack of attention puts your equipment on a path to poor performance- on a path of stress on equipment that increased the wear and tear and speeding the day something breaks. Does your system need some attention right now. Does it need a chosen company to be responsible for the care of your HVAC? We discuss the particulars of whether and what kind of maintenance plan makes sense for you here. LINK

We address filtration issues here. LINK

There  are two critical but different potential issues with your HVAC heating and cooling system.

Your system can have inherent defects that are a major contributor to comfort issues in your home- to humidity issues in your home and these need to be dealt with immediately. So many homes have leaky ducts. Serious problem. So many homes have inadequate return air systems. A serious problem. Yet now of these are addressed at all by the type or size or efficiency of your HVAC.  These are the distribution systems and are often ignored. You will be happier, more comfortable, and healthier with a balanced and effective air duct system. We address defects in HVAC systems here.

The second issue with HVAC systems is how well the system is matched to your home, and how well that system is performing for you. Is it too big?  Is it becoming unreliable? All these issues start point to changes in the big components and this process has to take into account the structural defects in your home that relate to energy efficiency.

After all the defects in the structure of the house are dealt with then it is time to consider major changes in the HVAC. But modern HHAC pays much more attention to  sizing the unit to the load- making sure the duct system works properly and is well balanced, and then you have to include better control of humidity… and so all these changes are impacted by the structural defects.

HVAC was put at the bottom of the big factors because serious changes to the HVAC system should not be contemplated until you have the air leaks stopped, until you understand your situation with insulation- specific structural issues with an add-on or bonus room- with any solar heating issues through windows- a discussion of replacing windows is coming up-  don’t think about replacing windows until you consider all the ramifications of that …

Like we say just below homes are a system of interrelated parts that must be considered together. and then after all kinds of issues with air leaks and insulation are addressed then it makes sense to see what size AC is recommended and make fure the ducts are not leaking…

We get into a broad discussion of what you need to consider when thinking about replacing major HVAC components here. LINK

Are you confused by HVAC systems in general and would like to understand them better. They are fascinating and complex pieces of machinery. Knowing them better, helps put a better perspective on the care they need to preform well.

And make sure you see our discussion on maintenance issues and your options here. LINK

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Understanding the perspective of seeing your home as a system

Before we move on to important but not top  tier issues, we need to check our  perspective on your home. It is essential that you- and any service provider you hire-understand your home is a system. All components of your home, roofing, insulation, superstructure, siding, doors and windows, and bathroom and kitchen fans and your mechanical healting and cooling equipment… are all a part of a system where every issue in any one component has an impact on other components. This idea of your home as a system and maintaining a perspective on how changing any one component impacts the rest of the house is essential..

We will or already have seen this effect in this document. Air leaks impact the ability of your insulation to function properly. Air leaks can create humidity problems that impact a HVAC system . Your choice of lighting can impact air leaks. We just talked about how critical HVAC design depends on heating and cooling loads-  and these are affected by the structural components.

All these system are connected. It is essential that everyone keep that in mind as changes are evaluated and considered. Here is more information on the concept of our home as a system  

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Now we go to the second tier of factors in energy savings.

Big changes in Lighting Technology can help save energy costs.

If you have a lot of lighting in your home, then you can save even more money than average, with some critical lighting design and new lighting technology.[stextbox id=”info” caption=”Lighting plays a key role in air leaks and air leak cures.” bwidth=”2″] Most likely the major air leaks in your home are in your ceiling, and most likely many of them relate to holes in the ceiling created around lighting fixtures. Keep in mind that when you get serious about air leaks- that lighting changes can make even more sense, because removing can lights or using new technology can make air sealing less problematical, easier and less expensive. You can get a double return on some really nice lighting designs. [/stextbox]

Remember, the old incandescent bulb? Made light by heating up a tungsten wire in short circuit. Power hungry and wasteful technology. We will go into much greater detail on what you can do with lighting to save energy later. The new technologies work well and are improving all the time.

Who else always felt like they were replacing a burned out incandescent? I was always looking for a bulb, always testing to make sure the electrical circuit had not failed instead of the bulb. No the bulb rattles. The tungsten short circuit shattered and the remnants rattle in the glass bulb. Raise your hand if you miss the old technology.

Incandescents cost us in many other ways too. Texas has a cooling climate which means we spend more energy year by year to cool that we do to heat. All those incandescent bulbs were little heaters as the produced light. If you ever worked under hot lights you know what I am talking about. These all add to your cooling load. Your AC runs more often because the bulbs are heating up the house. Maybe you are overcooling the rest of the house, to keep cool under hot lights. Overcooling is more expensive than you think. New lighting can make a real difference.

Incandescents have been screwing up the air barrier in our ceilings for years. Recessed can lights are placed in the ceiling, but were always so hot that they could not really be sealed over well or they would quicklyu beocme a fire hazard.

These energy losing configuration leave big holes in the ceiling which make for more air leaks. Air leaks are coming up for discussion soon here, but lighting is a great opporutnity to spiff up the house, add some new accents and pay for all these beautiful new things with the money you are not using anymore to provide light.

CFLs – compact fluorescent lighting- are great. LEDs are getting better. There are energy efficient fluorescent tube lighting for light bays in kitchens and for garages.We carry on about lighting in more detail here. LINK

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Energy efficient appliances might be a good fit

How much power you use  with appliances can be broken up into 24 hours use- refrigerators, freezers-  and discretionary use, which- if you have lots of kids in the home, or lots of people staying over, then efficient clothes drying and cooking appliances can make an even bigger difference. Check out the yellow energy guide labels-when you go window shopping. If some of your major appliances —your refrigerator, clothes washer, or dishwasher — are more than a decade old- stop and look at what you can save. It would be helpful for comparison to know what your existing appliances need for power- to compare. You home energy rater can help you get a perspective here.

You might want to avoid a bigger refrigerator. Don’t let anyone talk you into all the food you will save. Just use leftovers regularly. You can lose more stuff in a bigger fridge- ick!- and they do use more power. And every ounce of power used by a fridge inside your dwelling you get to pay for twice during the cooling season. You get to pay for heat given off by the refrigerator heat pump that makes the cold inside. Don’t be tempted to buy a bigger refrigerator; small is good. Pay close attention to the yellow EnergyGuide labels

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Water heating can be an energy saving effort for you.

Water heating is a clear example  where

  • how your family uses water and
  • the layout of your home can and where the hot water pipes run

determines the impact on you r house of this energy using factor.

How much hot water does your family use? This can be tricky. Personal habits matter here. I know people who take showers 2 or 3 times a day. Lots of people in your house? Lots of clothes being washed and dried? Now most washing can be done in cold water, but if you have a penchant for warmer washing water, either relax and wash in cold or figure out a cheaper way to make hot water.

There are systems which make heating water less expensive, you just get to pay more to install those systems. In fact, that is why the amount of water you heat is critical to your personal cost savings.

Make sure you are not sold expensive solutions producing cheaper hot water from statistics that do not match your use, or average uses in the market place. OK,  just have a BS detector for the misinformation being bantered about to make a sale.

It can make good sense to invest in hot water heating savings and you don’t have to wait until the existing system starts leaking to undergo that process. Being under the gun, with no hot water is not the time for making well considered decisions about heating hot water efficiently. . Old water heaters go bad and leak just about the time the guarantee is up. Maybe I am making up my own data, but my experience shows that hot water tank manufacturers know pretty well when the metal is going to corrode and fail and when. So knowing this, and knowing you might save energy, it might make sense to solve such a problem before you wake up to water leaks- you should have a drain pan under that tank… and no hot water for that shower.

Options include:

  • A high-efficiency gas-fired water heater- do you have gas in the house? Gas is good to heat water. No energy heat loss producing electricity which is then used to produce heat. Silly waste of energy.
  • A high-efficiency electric resistance water heater- was I just knocking electricity for heating water? electricity is safe. No potential issues with CO- carbon monoxide, and if you use lots of hot water- you can go to the next choice.
  • A heat-pump water heater – Heat pumbs are much more efficient for heating than just using electricity as a resistance heater. We talk about heat pumps for HVACs here, but the principles are the same. A heat pump is also what keeps the refrigerator cool.
  • An instantaneous gas-fired water heater- instant hot water that requires no storage- a well designed installation can be a good investment, keep you in hot water with no waiting and no wasting of water. The price of water will be going up in North Texas. It alsready has. It you have long hot water runs in your house i.e. a large and/or spread out series of bathrooms, well this might make good sense for you.
  • Any of the above, supplemented by a solar water heater. We have lots of Texas sun- so solar thermal water heating seems like such a good idea, but it is not cost effective unless you are heating a lot of water.

Quick note solar thermal is not a photovoltaic solution. Solaar thermal heating does not us solar panels. This is just a system which absorbs sunlight on a black body filled with circulating fluid which then transfers that energy into the stream of water headed for your hot water heating system. It is basically preheating the water to be heated so that less heat is required to hit the hot water temperature target.

Solar thermal also messes with your roof, and I do not like people messing with roofs that are not qualified roofers. Someone is sure to argue with me here. But look around. There are serious issues toconsider. Get an opiniion from a home inspector you trust or your HERS rater, or even a plumber you trust. Make sure you see the numbers. and mae sure the numbers make sense. It revolves around how much hot water your family uses. Do you use lots of hot water? then investing in more efficient hot water systems makes sense.

Have You ever heard of a drain water heat recovery system?

If you are building new or doing a serious remodel you might get to hear about a heat recovery drainage system. Do you or your family take a lot of showers in a common shower? You might find  some information online from highly reputable people who would encourage you to plan a system which helps you recover heat from the drain lines.

This is not a good idea in North Texas. Maybe some place up where Yankees live, trapped in cloudy environs with the sun barely peeking over the horizon in the winter months. Recovering drain water heat might make sense. There is a lot of energy to recover from drain water, but someone tell me the difference between heat recovered from drain water and energy recovered froma a solar spill.

And the solar spill is pretty regular in North Texas. and the plumbing is easier. Now I don’t even like solar thermal hot water heating very much- I was complaining about it earlier…. you have to make the numbers work, you have to understand the reliability of the system and how long it  will last- do the numbers.

And so if you heat a lot of water, think  about recovering some energy to help heat it. Compare the costs to a heat pump  hot water heating system.  Heat pumps use the carnot cycle rather than just heating resistance in your average hot water tank. We mentioned heat pump hot water tanks above. These work like refrigerators and air conditioners. You might have missed the link to how a heat pump works in an air conditioner.  The principle is the same for the healt pump powered hot water heater.

So does investing in more efficient hot water systems make sense for you? You need an accurate ideas of how much water you heat and how much you can save heating that water. Figuring out how much water you heat is hard, because there are no meters on hot water. All you get are guesstimates by people in the house.   Know the numbers. Make sure you invest in all the steps that promise a higher return first, and then peruse hot water use. Know the numbers. Know when people give you numbers that don’t make sense.

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Now we move on to the vanity energy saving devices.

I really have brass taking on two sacred cows like window replacement and solar panels. What kind of nut am I? A conservative nut. Someone who thinks that your investments should pay off for you. And, so if you have a strong bend to participate in the cultural effort to use solar, please do so, but understand solar power on your roof suffers from intermittency, and if everybody did it, the public utility would be a basket case. I better shut up now and stick to the subject. When I get ahead of all the posts I want to write, I will be happy to pick up energy issues. I have all the answers. 🙂

Are you thinking about Replacing your windows?

All kinds of BS floats about- about how much energy you can save by replacing those windows. It is BS. The particular phraseology covers up the misinformation. Saving 50% on the energy loss through your original window needs to be looked at in the perspective of your total energy losses and the losses through your original window where it is placed on your home.

There are many good reasons to replace windows.

  • you think it will make the house look beautiful,
  • you are remodeling a section and the windows help make the design…
  • all kinds of great reasons;

but unless you home is unique with lots of south or west facing windows, without overhangs for shade, unless your office chair gets early morning sun that overheats you while you are trying to work….  OR… then window replacement for energy purposes- is a myth for you. And there are so many other ways to treat issues with windows rather than replacing them.

Oh and another big deal about windows. Lots of people replace windows who are not qualified. Replacing a window requires you to break into a wall- through the cladding and breaking into the drainage plane- we talk about keeping water out of wall here.

If you don’t replace the windows properly you can get wet walls, and all the problems associated with wet walls- rot and mold growth… so we talk about window replacement- reasons why- reasons maybe why not- alternatives- caveats et. al. here.

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Renewable energy technology will take much longer to pay off than you think.

They will be more aggravating than you figure, and you will only discover later that all the promises made do not cover all the aggravations. You can invest in any of these, I cannot make you act rationally, but please make sure you invest in the stuff that makes sense first- then jump into having fun and being silly with renewables. It makes no economic sense to invest in a expensive renewable energy system until after you have invested in factors that make sense for you as outlined above.

Lets talk a bit about solar panels

Solar panels – there is lots of Texas sun and solar power here fits into the overall power demand curve in Texas. Sun falls throughout the day as the power needed for cooling goes up. There is this critical time though, when the sun goes down and the A/C conditioners stay on. The romance of solar power- I experienced a solar spill today, and it was marvelous… type of thinking does not cover for the fact that it is intermittent and has to be covered by natural gas which has to come up pretty quickly to cover the power lossas the sun dips below critical energy delivery with the solar panels in TX.

Few people understand the hassle of dealing with variable and intermittent power on the grid. It is not a trivial  issue. OK,  stop I am off topic here

So solar power is more a political statement, a statement that you care, like wearing a ribbon for a cause, so invest in it if you like, realizing that if too many Texans do it the utility companies are going to be squawking because they get stuck with the job of keeping the lights on when the sun is down, when the storm clouds hover and people want reliable not intermittent power.

OK, now lets talk about wind power at home

There are places on earth where wind power is steady, where the wind power blends well with the power demand curve and the birds sing in 3 part harmony.

This is not in your back yard. Wind only has as much power as the speed of the wind. At your home, you do not have clear air for steady wind. In North Texas, we do not have the steady wind to make it pay off.

However, all the data for how much the wind blows is overblown in the literature you are provided. The only wind that counts is the wind at your house and how often it blows and in what seasons, and does it do the job for you. This decision requires a pencil, paper,  real data, and an open mind.

Now, if you are wanting to pump water, and you pump as much water as the wind blows or some other transfer of power directly to a use you have, then it might make sense, if you love the romance of wind power and know it will never pay off- invest. Otherwise, BAD IDEA. Wastes your money. Makes yourneighbors think you are a nut.

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In conclusion

Well there are the factors you need to consider for energy efficiency. We covered the big factors  that are always in play, and then the second tier factos- that are as important as  you use them in your  own home.

And then we covered the stuff people love to do, but don’t make much economic sense. Now you might be a bit miffed at my blousy treatment of the sacred cow of energy efficiency – replacement windows,  and my real nastiness saved for the green energy power producing systems. Harsh truths here.

Oh, and I want to reassure you that I am not a diehard fan of fossil fuels. We need to be moving away from these at flank speed.  We just need to look beyond the small players that do not scale, that cannot carry the heavy load of power needed to make our culture flourish. But that story is for another day..

So feel free to add your thought below- no wind power ever, have a good ulterior motive for solar panels.

So tell me how I am wrong. Point out something you think I missed.  Add them below.

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