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Almost 20 years ago, I moved into an apartment with electric heat. The landlord said that he would cut the rent during the winter months because it would be so expensive to keep the place going. When the electric bill arrived, I looked at all the fine print on it and noticed on the back of the bill a phone number offering help with energy efficiency. It turns out, it was for a program that did energy audits on houses and other buildings. The program was paid for out of a portion of the bill set aside for efficiency upgrades. The energy audit was free. My landlord agreed to have them come look at the house, signed some paperwork (in triplicate), and the fun began.

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[Photo from Jayvirdy on Flickr]

The energy auditor came with a blower door. This was an adjustable canvas cover that fit over the door opening. It had a fan on it and some pressure gauges. We closed the windows and he turned it on. This device sucked the air out of the house, and we then went around feeling for drafts. Any moving air would be the result of a gap. The largest gap we found was about six feet long, where the header over the closet door had not been finished properly with sheet rock. He discovered lots of other ways to improve the efficiency of that apartment, and discovered that it was eligible for loads more energy savings upgrades.

A few weeks later, a crew came and blew insulation into the walls and attic. They drilled a whole bunch of holes after removing siding, and made some more in the knee walls and sloped ceilings. That house, an antique cape, was built by a blind veteran after the Civil War. It had no insulation, which was an important part of the reason why our electric bill was so incredibly high.

When the project was done, I had spent no money, nor had the landlord, but the apartment was much more comfortable and cost less to run. By increasing the energy efficiency of the house, it was a better place to live and was more gentle on the electrical grid. Eventually, the landlord lost the place to the bank in the economic downturn of the early 1990s, and we had to move on. The building was better for our having lived there because of the free energy audit. I have since had energy audits on each of the places I’ve lived in since. I wouldn’t think of living in a place that I didn’t know the energy status of. If audits are not available for free where you live, you can certainly do a DIY audit.

Upon moving into the next place, also an apartment, I promptly called for an energy audit, even though I didn’t get the heat or electric bill. It seemed like a good thing to do, and it was free anyway. No problems for that landlord, who had his business downstairs and would benefit from our tighter apartment. The incentives were not as good for that project as the previous one. We did get some flow restrictors for the faucets, a couple of compact fluorescent light bulbs and a programmable thermostat for the heater.

The programmable thermostat is great, because it allows the house to turn itself up and down based on the rules I program into the timer. Basically, the house should be cool when we are away or asleep, and warm when we are home and awake. This makes the house more comfy when we want it that way and stingy with energy when we don’t need the heat. Since we don’t have central air, when the heating season is over, I just set the temperatures so that it doesn’t go on for the summer months.

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[Photo from Connors934 on Flickr]

These energy audits are great. They can cost nothing to the consumer. They help make our houses and apartments more comfortable by keeping the heat in during the winter and the heat out during the summer. A house that is not tight feels drafty. When you are heating the place, cold air works its way in and the furnace is, in part, heating the great outdoors. They can help give you a project list for how to make the house a more efficient consumer of energy of all forms, electric, natural gas, oil, wood heat, solar, or wind power.

In fact, having an energy audit is one of the most cost-effective things you can do to your home. The audit will turn up a lot of the ways that energy, and money, are leaking out of your house. If you are considering getting into an alternative energy system like solar or wind, or even your own basement electrolysis unit and fuel cell, then one of the most important first steps you can make is to decrease your energy usage. A lot of the steps are mind numbingly simple, like turning off the lights, or putting your devices on power strips so you can make sure they’re really inert and not drawing trickles of juice when they appear to be off.

There are a lot of things that we can do to increase our energy efficiency. See more ideas after the jump…


Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of posts sponsored by GE. GE had nothing to do with the content of the article and no control over Make: Online editorial. -Gareth

GE imagination at work


You might want to check out the database of state initiatives. The US Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) has a bunch of good resources. Check out their Save Energy Now section.

Save Energy Now is a national initiative of the Industrial Technologies Program (ITP) to drive a 25% reduction in industrial energy intensity in 10 years. Companies nationwide can participate in no-cost energy assessments and utilize ITP resources to reduce energy use while increasing profits.

So what are some other ways that people are looking to for increasing energy efficiency? Below are a number of resources explaining projects and initiatives worldwide that tie into decreasing the amount of wasted energy.

Indian Country Today has an interesting take on the challenge:

Also, the “smart grid” (integration of computerized information technology with electric power distribution) will make it easier to integrate distributed renewables into the power grid. Energy efficiency and renewables are more labor-intensive than fossil fuel energy and are less susceptible to out-sourcing, and the renewable resources are here in North America. Finally, there is the climate crisis, which is mostly caused by burning fossil fuels.

Smart lighting in Germany with Organic Light Emitting Diodes. Old school light bulbs or incandescents generate a lot of heat compared to the amount of light they give off. Keep in mind that any time you feel something warm or hot, and it isn’t a heater, you’re feeling wasted energy. Apparently, the US is set to phase out incandescents by 2014, following Australia’s lead of a ban. This will have environmental and financial benefits for many people.

A lot of people talk about how we will need more energy capacity in our system. Others talk about how we can smooth out the peaks of demand and match them with greater energy productivity The Rocky Mountain Institute has an interactive map that illustrates where we can look to improve the ways we we use our generating capacity:

Efficiency is the simple concept that we can do more with less energy if we incorporate more intelligent designs.

ERT research specialists explore the opportunities for increased efficiency with existing and new technologies.

Whereas individual technologies offer incremental energy improvements, ERT uses Whole-Systems design to combine existing technologies and achieve energy savings of 80 to 90 percent.

Applying radical efficiency measures can even improve the quality of end-use services.

Energy efficiency is the fundamental means for controlling total energy demand, however it is very different than energy conservation.

By making our buildings, appliances, and systems more efficient we are able to use less energy without sacrificing the luxuries of energy services, like hot showers and cold beer.

Salon ran a good article last year about energy efficiency

America is the Saudi Arabia of energy waste. A 2007 report from the international consulting firm McKinsey and Co. found that improving energy efficiency in buildings, appliances and factories could offset almost all of the projected demand for electricity in 2030 and largely negate the need for new coal-fired power plants. McKinsey estimates that one-third of the U.S. greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 could come from electricity efficiency and be achieved at negative marginal costs. In short, the cost of the efficient equipment would quickly pay for itself in energy savings.

In considering the costs associated with conservation, they see it as more effective to just use less energy as opposed to increasing the capacity of the grid.

The cost of efficiency programs has averaged 2 to 3 cents per avoided kilowatt hour, which is about one-fifth the cost of electricity generated from new nuclear, coal and natural gas-fired plants. And, of course, energy efficiency does not require new power lines and does not generate greenhouse-gas emissions or long-lived radioactive waste. While California is far more efficient than the rest of the country, the state still thinks that with an even more aggressive effort, it can achieve as much additional electricity savings by 2020 as it has in the past three decades.

California is an example of how to manage electricity waste:

Many of the strategies are obvious: better insulation, energy-efficient lighting, heating and cooling. But some of the strategies were unexpected. The state found that the average residential air duct leaked 20 to 30 percent of the heated and cooled air it carried. It then required leakage rates below 6 percent, and every seventh new house is inspected. The state found that in outdoor lighting for parking lots and streets, about 15 percent of the light was directed up, illuminating nothing but the sky. The state required new outdoor lighting to cut that to below 6 percent. Flat roofs on commercial buildings must be white, which reflects the sunlight and keeps the buildings cooler, reducing air-conditioning energy demands. The state subsidized high-efficiency LED traffic lights for cities that lacked the money, ultimately converting the entire state.

GreenBiz suggests that the US could save as much as 30% on energy just by employing conservation measures.

If the rest of the country achieved the normalized electric productivity of the top performing states, with 100 percent adoption the country would save a total of ~1.2 million gigawatt-hours annually.

As far as auditing energy efficiency, one of the best guides I’ve found is to use your hands. During the heating season, pay attention to where you feel cold air. Any time of year, if you feel heat from anything plugged in, that’s a place where there’s energy being wasted. If you can find a way to turn it off, by unplugging it or by controlling it remotely to really turn it off, you’ll be saving energy and reducing the load on the electrical grid.

Chris Connors

Making things is the best way to learn about our world.


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