Does Your Home Burn Money for Fuel?


In the push for energy conservation and alternative fuels, the gas-guzzling SUV has become an emblem of conspicuous consumption -- with good reason. But the fact is that buildings, including homes and commercial businesses, consume more annually than the vast market for personal transportation, according to U.S. Energy Dept. Under Secretary David K. Garman.

The news from the home front isn't that encouraging, however. There's no question that dwellings today, both new and retrofitted, are better insulated than they were before the 1970s. The systems used to heat and cool homes are much more efficient, too.

But houses and apartments are bigger than ever, and they're loaded with more energy-consuming devices. (Think computers, espresso machines, and panini makers.) As a result, "our net energy use per household has stayed relatively constant," says Bruce Harley, technology director at nonprofit Conservation Services Group in Westborough, Mass.

POSSIBLE IMPROVEMENTS. With soaring oil and natural gas costs, people will be under mounting pressure to make buildings more energy-efficient, especially as the weather turns colder and higher home heating bills arrive. Natural gas prices alone could rise 40% or more later this year, says Gordon Shearer, CEO of liquefied natural gas company Weavers Cove Energy, a joint venture of Poten & Partners and Amerada Hess (AHC).

The discouraging news is that the typical American home still wastes about half of the energy that it consumes, according to Harley, even after the energy crises of the 1973-74 and 1979-80. If the average family spends $3,000 a year to heat, cool, and power a home, about half of that outlay is wasted.

The good news is that significant improvement is possible, even in older homes. While Harley lives in a solar-powered home in Southern Vermont, he says such measures aren't practical or necessary for the average person. Harley's house is on a rural road that's off the electrical grid, so installing a solar system was cheaper than having the local power company extend the grid to his place.

GOING MAINSTREAM. Does solar energy for your home make sense? It depends. Even a modest system for heating water can cost up to $10,000, and require six or seven years to reach the break-even point, Harley cautions.

A system that would meet the heating needs of a family of four in a 2,000- to 3,000-square-foot house would cost as much as $30,000 in colder areas such as the Midwest and Northeast. But another expert, Mike Litchfield, who relocated from Vermont to Berkeley, Calif., thinks solar systems are close to becoming mainstream energy providers on the West Coast.

Litchfield, former editor of Fine Homebuilding and author of the book Renovation 3rd Edition (Taunton Press), says the region's ample sunlight makes smaller and cheaper systems a realistic option for home owners.

Folks with photovoltaic solar panels are still connected to the power grid, but they're producers as well as consumers, storing solar-generated electricity in batteries and selling it to the power company during periods of low usage.

EVERY ROOF IS SOLAR? In time, the price of solar energy should start to fall as it competes head-on with rising costs for other heating fuels, like oil and natural gas. Solar energy -- once a prohibitive $2.50 per kilowatt hour to produce -- has dropped to 25 cents per kilowatt hour, according to Energy's Garman. That's still too high for the mass market, where energy is available for 8 or 9 cents a kilowatt hour. But Garman thinks the price will drop below 20 cents over the next 15 years.

"Eventually...you won't think of building a new house without photovoltaic panels on the roof," he predicts. At that point homes will begin to approach the idea of zero net energy consumption, producing enough power to meet their own needs.

Until then, relatively small incremental steps can help cut costs and save energy. Harley believes that people can reduce their energy consumption at home as much as 15% just by tightening up the house.

FINDING THE LEAKS. Such results can be achieved with an investment of $3,000 to $10,000, recovered in a period of about six years. But he says the investment can save cash right away, as long as the monthly energy savings exceed the investment's finance costs.

The first step is to figure out where the leaks are located. The best way to answer that question is to hire a contractor to test the home using a device called a blower-door. It's basically a big fan that fits snugly into an external door and blows air to change the pressure inside.

By releasing chemical smoke into the air, the contractor can literally see where the air leaks are located. The test typically costs a few hundred dollars.

AGAINST THE WIND. People can check their houses for leaks without using specialized equipment, however. Holding a wet finger in the air is a good way to test rooms for air leaks. A burning stick of incense can work too, according to Litchfield. Just follow the trail of smoke to find where the draft is headed.

Attics, basements, crawl spaces, and exposed areas around recessed lights and chimneys should all be checked. Ducts should be checked for leaks as well. Nearly half of the heat produced in a furnace can be wasted, as hot air escapes through holes in duct work, according to Harley. Since most ducts are concealed in walls, it might make sense to have a contractor inspect them.

Once the leaks are identified, they need to be filled with insulation and covered with a wind barrier. Heating a home is like preparing to go outside in the winter. If you venture out into the cold with just a sweater, you'll still catch a chill because it won't stop the wind.

ENERGY STARS. When your home is airtight and well insulated, it's time to pay attention to the appliances and systems that are used to run it. The federal government has awarded its "Energy Star" designation to the 20% or so most efficient products in a number of areas. Energy Star ratings are available for dishwashers, clothes washers, and air conditioning systems.

But Harley says the ratings aren't available for a whole range of heat-producing appliances, such as kitchen ranges and hot-water heaters with tanks. You can save energy if you're willing to buy a tank-less hot water heater, which heats water only as it's used. But they can cost about $1,200, or three times the price of a conventional hot-water heater.

When it comes to air-conditioning systems, Harley warns that bigger isn't better. Oversize systems waste energy and do a poor job of removing humidity. That can lead to mold. At their worst, overly powerful air conditioners and kitchen exhaust hoods used in very tight homes can actually create a partial vacuum inside the house and pull harmful fumes back down the chimney, Litchfield says.

STILL A DREAM. It's important that homes are well ventilated to remain dry. Tightly sealed homes tend to promote mold and mildew, which can lead to the proliferation of toxins and allergens.

One solution is to spend a few hundred dollars on a fan that pumps fresh air into the home. Harley says it might seem strange to pump air in after you've sealed it out. But a good ventilation system will pump in only as much air that is needed, making it much easier to control heating and cooling costs.

It will be a long time before the dream of zero-energy homes, which produce enough energy to meet their own needs, is realized on a mass basis. But until then, a few incremental steps will go a long way toward conserving energy and cutting costs. In the war on waste, it makes sense to keep the home fires from burning too brightly.

By Steve Rosenbush in New York


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