Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home

Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Efficient Homes
by Rik DeGunther
Efficient Homes
Efficient Homes
by Rik DeGunther
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies®
Published by
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About the Author
Rik DeGunther attended the University of Illinois as an undergraduate and
Stanford University as a graduate student, studying both applied physics and
engineering economics (some of this education actually stuck). He holds several
United States Patents and has designed a wide range of technical equipment
including solar energy platforms, military grade radar jammers, weather
measurement equipment, high-powered radar vacuum tubes, computerized
production hardware, golf practice devices, digital and analog electronic
circuits, unmanned aerial vehicles, guitars and amplifiers, microwave filters
and mixers, automatic cabinet openers, strobe light communications systems,
explosive devices (strictly on accident), cloud height sensors, fog sensors,
furniture, houses, barns, rocket ships, dart throwers, flame throwers, eavesdropping devices, escape routes, and you name it. He’s one of those nerdy
guys who likes to take things apart to see how they work and then put them
back together and try to figure out what the left over parts are for.
Rik is CEO of Efficient Homes, an energy efficiency auditing firm in Northern
California. He is actively engaged in designing and developing new solar equipment, including off-grid lighting systems and off-grid swimming pool heaters. He
writes weekly op-ed columns for the Mountain Democrat, California’s oldest and
most venerable newspaper. He has also written a highly acclaimed golf book (on
putting) and spends most of his free time attempting to improve his relatively
impressive but objectively droll golf handicap, usually to no avail. Sometimes the
urge strikes him to play a very loud guitar, of which he owns a collection with far
more intrinsic quality than the playing they receive. His hearing has been faltering the last few years, so he rebuilt his amplifier to go up to eleven.
Of course this book is dedicated to Katie, Erik, and Ally. Without them, the
world would wobble inefficiently on its axis, and this work of art wouldn’t exist.
Author’s Acknowledgments
Many thanks to all those who have contributed to the material in this book, whether wittingly
or not. Dick and Betty DeGunther, Professor Mitchell Weissbluth, Professor AJ Fedro, John
Lennon, Paul McCartney, Leland Stanford, Mike Pearcy, Jordan Cobb, Eric Micko, Vikki
Berenz, Connie Cowan, Betsy Sanders, Jim DeGunther, Sarah Nephew, Freddie Mercury, Dave
and Perla DeGunther, Brad, Melinda, Samantha and Emily Schauer, Chuck Albertson, Tilly and
Evonne Baldwin, Joe and Marcia Schauer, Kim and Gary Romano of Sierra Valley Farms.
Thanks to Dr. Keith Kennedy and Watkins-Johnson Company for showing restraint above and
beyond the call of duty. Thanks to John Steinbeck for making me understand what’s important and what’s not, and in the same vein, Derek Madsen.
Thanks to the excellent crew at Wiley: Mike Baker, Tracy Barr, and Christy Pingleton, as well
as the Technical Reviewer, Greg Raffio. Readers of this book will be amazed at how well it’s
written; it’s not really my fault — I have the editors to thank for that. And thanks to Stephany
Evans at FinePrint Agency for getting all the ducks in a row.
Thanks to all the For Dummies fans out there who have made the series what it is today.
Publisher’s Acknowledgments
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Contents at a Glance
Introduction ................................................................ 1
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems
from Your Front Porch .................................................. 7
Chapter 1: Defining Efficiency .......................................................................................... 9
Chapter 2: Energy Sources and Sinks ............................................................................ 17
Chapter 3: Eliminating the Guesswork with Home Energy Audits ............................ 29
Chapter 4: Financing Efficiency Improvements ........................................................... 51
Chapter 5: Making Tradeoffs That Work for You......................................................... 62
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies
throughout Your Home ............................................... 73
Chapter 6: Keeping Your Home Free from Contaminants .......................................... 75
Chapter 7: Sealing and Insulating Your Home.............................................................. 89
Chapter 8: Getting the Most Out of Your Heating and Air-Conditioning System ...... 107
Chapter 9: Lighting Your Home More Efficiently ....................................................... 123
Chapter 10: Watering Down Your Water Consumption ............................................ 137
Chapter 11: Pigging Out on Power with Appliances .................................................. 155
Chapter 12: Controlling Solar Exposures in Your Home........................................... 177
Chapter 13: Breathing Homes: Ventilation, Fans, and Air Filters ............................ 193
Chapter 14: Reusing and Recycling: Play It Again, Sam ............................................ 213
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy
Sources to Work for You ........................................... 223
Chapter 15: Burning Desires: Wood and Gas Stoves ................................................. 225
Chapter 16: Shining a Light on Solar Power for Your Home .................................... 243
Chapter 17: Radiant Heating Systems ......................................................................... 263
Chapter 18: Heating with Biomass Stoves .................................................................. 271
Chapter 19: Geothermal Energy: Straight from Mother Nature ............................... 279
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You
Buy, Build, or Sell a Home ....................................... 289
Chapter 20: Looking at Community Solutions to Energy Efficiency ....................... 291
Chapter 21: Building an Energy-Efficient Home from the Ground Up ..................... 301
Chapter 22: Buying and Selling an Energy-Efficient Home ....................................... 313
Part V: The Part of Tens ........................................... 323
Chapter 23: Ten Best Energy-Efficient Investments .................................................. 325
Chapter 24: Ten Ridiculously Easy Energy-Saving Tips ............................................ 331
Chapter 25: Ten Best Solar Investments ..................................................................... 335
Index ...................................................................... 341
Table of Contents
Introduction ................................................................. 1
About This Book .............................................................................................. 1
Conventions Used in This Book ..................................................................... 2
What You’re Not to Read ................................................................................ 3
Foolish Assumptions ....................................................................................... 3
How This Book Is Organized .......................................................................... 4
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch .......... 4
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home ................... 4
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You .......... 5
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build,
or Sell a Home ..................................................................................... 5
Part V: The Part of Tens ........................................................................ 5
Icons Used in This Book ................................................................................. 5
Where to Go from Here ................................................................................... 6
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems
from Your Front Porch ................................................... 7
Chapter 1: Defining Efficiency . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .9
Examining the Four Main Spokes of the Efficiency Wheel ......................... 9
Energy efficiency .................................................................................. 10
Financial efficiency .............................................................................. 11
Pollution efficiency .............................................................................. 11
Labor efficiency.................................................................................... 12
Analyzing efficiencies .......................................................................... 12
Opening Your Eyes to Inefficiency .............................................................. 13
Electrical grid inefficiencies ............................................................... 13
Transportation inefficiencies ............................................................. 14
Becoming More Efficient............................................................................... 15
Getting greater efficiency from your current systems .................... 15
Supplementing or replacing existing systems ................................. 15
Chapter 2: Energy Sources and Sinks. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .17
Energizing North America ............................................................................ 18
Looking at Energy Costs: Raw and Otherwise ........................................... 21
Recognizing raw energy costs ............................................................ 21
Looking at actual energy costs .......................................................... 22
Using It Up: Where Energy Goes .................................................................. 23
Turning Your Eye to Improved Energy Efficiency ..................................... 25
The big Kahuna: Electrical energy ..................................................... 25
Renewable and sustainable energy sources .................................... 27
Invested energy and recycling ........................................................... 27
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies___________________________________
Chapter 3: Eliminating the Guesswork with Home Energy Audits . . .29
Getting a Handle on Your Energy Usage ..................................................... 29
Energy use in a typical North American home ................................ 30
Focusing on your own home-sweet-home ........................................ 31
Other things to think about ................................................................ 33
Paying Up: The Various Rate Structures .................................................... 33
Simple rate structure........................................................................... 34
Tiered structure ................................................................................... 34
Time of use (TOU) structure .............................................................. 35
Combination structures ...................................................................... 35
Figuring Out What You Spend...................................................................... 35
Collecting the data ............................................................................... 36
Plotting the details, month by month ............................................... 37
Keeping Up With the Joneses: A Real-Life Scenario .................................. 39
Looking at Bill’s resource costs ......................................................... 39
Calculating Your Own Carbon Footprint .................................................... 43
Auditing Your Home to Find Areas for Improvement ............................... 45
Grunting it out: The inspection .......................................................... 46
Hiring professional auditors ............................................................... 49
Chapter 4: Financing Efficiency Improvements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .51
Understanding the Different Types of Assistance ..................................... 51
Rebates .................................................................................................. 52
Tax credits ............................................................................................ 53
Protection from property tax increases ........................................... 53
Home-operated business advantages ............................................... 53
Net metering ......................................................................................... 54
Manufacturers’ rebates ....................................................................... 54
Tax-deductible home-equity loans .................................................... 55
Researching Your Subsidy Options ............................................................ 55
Financing through Loans .............................................................................. 56
Consumer loans ................................................................................... 56
Supplier loans ....................................................................................... 57
Equity loans .......................................................................................... 57
Government-subsidized, energy-efficiency loans ............................ 57
Other sources of subsidized financing.............................................. 59
Leasing Energy-Efficient Equipment............................................................ 59
Working with Banks: Their Way or the Highway ....................................... 60
Chapter 5: Making Tradeoffs That Work for You . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .61
Setting Efficiency Investment Goals ............................................................ 61
Analyzing Investments .................................................................................. 62
Considering the costs, financial and otherwise ............................... 63
Estimating gains ................................................................................... 65
Setting a baseline for comparison: Bank
accounts and stock market yields ................................................. 66
Table of Contents
Looking at Real-World Investment Scenarios ............................................ 68
Supplementing an existing water heater with a solar system........ 68
Replacing broken equipment ............................................................. 70
Blowing hot air: A whole-house fan ................................................... 71
Investing in a full-scale solar PV system ........................................... 71
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies
throughout Your Home ................................................ 73
Chapter 6: Keeping Your Home Free from Contaminants . . . . . . . . . . .75
Getting Started with General Guidelines .................................................... 75
Avoiding Some of the Worst Offenders ...................................................... 76
Fighting off formaldehyde ................................................................... 77
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)................................................ 78
Asbestos ................................................................................................ 81
Cigarette smoke ................................................................................... 83
Burning Up with Combustion Products ...................................................... 83
Natural Hazards ............................................................................................. 84
Slipping through the cracks: Radon .................................................. 84
Operating in secret: Biological agents .............................................. 85
Final Decluttering Tips .................................................................................. 87
Chapter 7: Sealing and Insulating Your Home . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .89
Finding Leaks ................................................................................................. 89
Looking for cracks in your home ....................................................... 90
Performing a pressure test to find air leaks ..................................... 92
Finding attic air leaks .......................................................................... 93
Fixing the Leaks You Find ............................................................................. 94
Weatherstripping ................................................................................. 95
Expandable foam sealant .................................................................... 95
Caulking your way to Nirvana ............................................................ 96
Inspecting and Repairing HVAC Ducts........................................................ 98
Insulating Your Home (Not Insulting It) ..................................................... 99
Types of insulation .............................................................................. 99
Checking and fixing your home’s insulation .................................. 101
Tips for applying insulation.............................................................. 103
Working with Windows ............................................................................... 104
Simple, inexpensive solutions for problem windows.................... 104
Replacing windows ............................................................................ 105
Chapter 8: Getting the Most Out of Your Heating
and Air-Conditioning System . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .107
Understanding Human Comfort ................................................................. 108
Getting air moving ............................................................................. 108
Helping or hindering: Humidity ....................................................... 108
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies___________________________________
Capitalizing on the chimney effect .................................................. 110
Going for the greenhouse effect ....................................................... 111
Making more small changes for even bigger benefits ................... 111
Solving Some of the Most Common Inefficiency Problems .................... 113
Restoring air flow ............................................................................... 114
Repositioning the thermostat .......................................................... 115
When Your HVAC’s on the Blink................................................................ 115
What to check before you call a repairman ................................... 115
Symptoms that call for a pro ............................................................ 116
Buying a New System or Supplementing the One You Have.................. 118
Hiring an HVAC Contractor ........................................................................ 119
Getting bids ........................................................................................ 120
Comparing bids .................................................................................. 120
Interviewing a contractor ................................................................. 121
Sealing the deal .................................................................................. 121
Working with a contractor once the job begins ............................ 121
Chapter 9: Lighting Your Home More Efficiently . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .123
Picking the Right Light: Your Options ...................................................... 124
Natural light ........................................................................................ 124
Old-fashioned incandescent bulbs .................................................. 125
Halogen bulbs ..................................................................................... 126
Flickering fluorescent bulbs ............................................................. 127
Light-emitting diodes......................................................................... 128
Going for Efficiency without Sacrificing Aesthetics ................................ 129
Calculating How Much You Can Save ....................................................... 131
Using Clever Switches to Reduce Your Bill .............................................. 133
Motion detectors ............................................................................... 133
Dimmer switches ............................................................................... 134
Whole-house lighting controllers .................................................... 135
Chapter 10: Watering Down Your Water Consumption. . . . . . . . . . . .137
Drinking to Your Health .............................................................................. 138
Wading through a flood of choices: Tap, well, bottled,
and purified ..................................................................................... 138
Getting the goods on suspicious water........................................... 140
Purifying your drinking water .......................................................... 141
Directing the Flow of Traffic with Faucets ............................................... 145
Leaks: Money and energy down the drain ...................................... 145
A few more tips for using water wisely ........................................... 147
Savings in Showers and Baths ................................................................... 147
Wasting Water in the Toilet........................................................................ 149
Parts is parts ...................................................................................... 149
Easy ways to cut down on water usage .......................................... 150
What to do when your toilet runs.................................................... 150
Updated toilet designs ...................................................................... 151
Table of Contents
Watering Your Landscaping ....................................................................... 152
Considering lawn alternatives .......................................................... 152
Picking the right sprinkler and watering at the right time ........... 153
Chapter 11: Pigging Out on Power with Appliances . . . . . . . . . . . . . .155
Looking at Typical Appliance Consumption Numbers ........................... 155
Analyzing Appliance Consumption in Your Home .................................. 157
Keeping Water Heaters in Check ............................................................... 158
Paying attention to pipes .................................................................. 159
Staying on top of maintenance ......................................................... 160
Finding more ways to save ............................................................... 161
Considering a solar or tankless water heater ................................ 162
Making the Most of Pools and Spas........................................................... 162
Making your pool energy-efficient ................................................... 163
Getting into hot water with a spa .................................................... 165
Washing and Drying without the Crying................................................... 166
Running hot or cold: Changing water temperature ....................... 166
Adjusting load size, water level, and cycle ..................................... 166
Saving drying costs ............................................................................ 167
Keeping Your Cool with Refrigerators ...................................................... 169
It’s what’s on the inside that counts ............................................... 169
Close the door! ................................................................................... 170
One or two?......................................................................................... 170
Lessening the Load on Your Dishwasher ................................................. 170
Using less hot water .......................................................................... 170
Changing the way you rinse and load ............................................. 171
Eating Up Power with Stoves and Microwaves........................................ 172
Checking out efficient ovens ............................................................ 172
Altering your cooking techniques ................................................... 172
Enjoying the Fine Life with TVs and Computers ..................................... 173
Buying New Appliances .............................................................................. 174
Chapter 12: Controlling Solar Exposures in Your Home . . . . . . . . . . .177
Lighting Your Home with Sunshine ........................................................... 177
Planting a tree .................................................................................... 178
Making natural light more effective ................................................. 178
Decorating to make the most of natural light ................................ 179
Installing skylights and solar tubes ................................................. 180
Heating Your Home with Sunlight — or Not ............................................ 182
Installing blinds and sunscreens ..................................................... 183
Covering your windows with exterior awnings ............................. 186
Installing outdoor window blinds .................................................... 188
Putting up radiant barriers ............................................................... 188
Cutting out summertime sunlight with overhangs ........................ 189
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies___________________________________
Garnering Sunlight with Greenhouses and Sunrooms ............................ 190
Deciding between the different types of solar rooms ................... 190
Building a solar room yourself ......................................................... 191
Chapter 13: Breathing Homes: Ventilation, Fans, and Air Filters . . .193
Taking Advantage of Natural Air Movement ............................................ 193
Which way is the wind blowing? ...................................................... 194
Up, up, and away: Chimney effect.................................................... 196
Getting Mother Nature on your side ............................................... 199
Getting the Air Moving with Fans .............................................................. 199
Fan efficiency and operation ............................................................ 200
Choosing the right kind of fan .......................................................... 202
I Need to Vent! Moving Air in Your Attic .................................................. 205
Adding attic vents for greater comfort ........................................... 205
Using attic vent fans .......................................................................... 205
Strategizing Your Ventilation Plan ............................................................ 207
Making the plan .................................................................................. 208
Accommodating seasonal variations .............................................. 209
Improving the Quality of Your Home’s Air ............................................... 210
Air filters ............................................................................................. 210
Natural ways to improve air quality ................................................ 212
Chapter 14: Reusing and Recycling: Play It Again, Sam . . . . . . . . . . .213
Keeping a Record of What You Throw Away ........................................... 213
Using Less of Everything ............................................................................ 214
Avoiding over-packaged products ................................................... 215
Eliminating junk mail ......................................................................... 215
Trimming the paper mountain ......................................................... 216
Reusing Saves More Energy than Recycling ............................................ 217
Making use of old stuff ...................................................................... 217
Buying used ........................................................................................ 219
Avoiding disposable products ......................................................... 219
Donating to others ............................................................................. 220
Fixing rather than throwing away .................................................... 220
Recycling the Right Way Saves Everybody Energy ................................. 221
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy
Sources to Work for You ............................................ 223
Chapter 15: Burning Desires: Wood and Gas Stoves. . . . . . . . . . . . . .225
Open Fireplaces: The Granddaddy of Them All ...................................... 225
Surveying General Categories of Stoves ................................................... 227
Comparing open- and closed-vent systems .................................... 228
Looking at free-standing stoves and inserts................................... 229
Table of Contents
Using a Wood-Burning Stove ...................................................................... 230
Types of wood stoves........................................................................ 231
Burning the right wood ..................................................................... 233
Burning the wood right ..................................................................... 234
Maintaining your wood stove ........................................................... 235
Heating with a Gas Stove ............................................................................ 236
Looking at Electric Fireplaces .................................................................... 237
Deciding Which Stove Is Right for You ..................................................... 238
How does the stove burn and heat? ................................................ 238
How much area does the stove cover? ........................................... 239
Smoking out vents and chimneys .................................................... 240
Abiding by Safety Guidelines ..................................................................... 241
Chapter 16: Shining a Light on Solar Power for Your Home. . . . . . . .243
Supplementing Your Domestic Hot Water Heater with Solar Energy ... 243
An ICS batch system .......................................................................... 244
A drainback system ........................................................................... 246
A closed-loop anti-freeze system ..................................................... 247
Solar PV Systems: King of the Energy-Efficiency Hill .............................. 249
Seeing the advantages of a PV system ............................................ 249
Understanding the basic parts of every solar PV system............. 251
Getting the PV system installed ....................................................... 253
Powering Pumps and Motors Directly ...................................................... 255
Supplying water with a solar pump ................................................. 255
Considering a solar pool pump ........................................................ 256
Using Wind and Water for Solar Power .................................................... 256
Blowing with the wind ....................................................................... 257
Using water for your power needs .................................................. 258
Heating Your Swimming Pool with a Solar System ................................. 259
Getting started with a simple setup ................................................ 259
Going the whole nine yards: A complete system........................... 261
Chapter 17: Radiant Heating Systems. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .263
Radiating Heat with Radiant Heat Systems .............................................. 263
Old-Style Radiators ...................................................................................... 264
Radiant Heat Floor Systems ....................................................................... 265
Types of radiant floor heaters: Electric or hydronic .................... 265
Installation tips .................................................................................. 266
Heating Up the Joint with Masonry Heaters ............................................ 267
Like a conventional wood stove — but not .................................... 268
Installing masonry heaters ............................................................... 269
Chapter 18: Heating with Biomass Stoves. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .271
Using Biomass for Fuel................................................................................ 271
Getting the Lowdown on Biomass Stoves ................................................ 273
Burning Up with Pellet Stoves.................................................................... 274
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies___________________________________
Burning, Not Popping, Corn ....................................................................... 276
The bright side of burning corn ....................................................... 276
The downside of burning corn ......................................................... 277
Other Biomass Uses You Probably Aren’t
Interested In (For Good Reason)............................................................ 277
Chapter 19: Geothermal Energy: Straight from Mother Nature . . . . .279
The (Very) Basics of Geothermal Heating and Cooling .......................... 279
Seeing how geothermal energy works ............................................ 280
Looking at heat pumps ...................................................................... 281
Considering cost and payback ......................................................... 282
Deciding Whether an Air-Source Heat Pump Is Right for You ............... 283
Deciding Whether a Ground-Source Heat Pump Is Right for You ......... 284
Choosing a design .............................................................................. 287
Hiring a qualified installer ................................................................ 287
Getting a rundown of pros and cons ............................................... 288
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When
You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home.................................. 289
Chapter 20: Looking at Community
Solutions to Energy Efficiency. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .291
Checking Out the Characteristics of Green Communities...................... 291
Air quality ........................................................................................... 292
Public transportation ........................................................................ 293
Utility structures ................................................................................ 294
Recycling programs ........................................................................... 294
Water supply ...................................................................................... 295
Housing designs ................................................................................. 295
Miscellaneous factors........................................................................ 296
Roughing It by Going Off-Grid .................................................................... 297
Understanding your off-grid options ............................................... 297
Realizing the ramifications of going off-grid ................................... 298
Chapter 21: Building an Energy-Efficient
Home from the Ground Up. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .301
Picking a Spot for Your New Home ........................................................... 301
Evaluating local building codes and regulations ........................... 302
Measuring the energy-efficiency potential of a lot ........................ 303
Designing Your Home ................................................................................. 305
Size matters: The littler, the better ................................................. 305
Orienting the house on the lot ......................................................... 305
Figuring out a floor plan .................................................................... 306
Incorporating energy-efficient technology ..................................... 307
Table of Contents
Choosing Your Materials ............................................................................ 308
Construction materials ..................................................................... 308
Energy-efficient systems and appliances ........................................ 310
A word about installing PV systems ................................................ 311
Pounding Nails: What to Know When Construction Begins ................... 312
Chapter 22: Buying and Selling an Energy-Efficient Home . . . . . . . .313
Buying an Existing Efficient Home ............................................................. 314
Evaluating just how energy efficient a home is (or isn’t) ............. 314
Anticipating changes and repairs .................................................... 317
Determining the value of an existing efficient home ..................... 318
Buying an Existing Home to Upgrade........................................................ 319
Selling Your Efficient Home for Big Bucks ................................................ 321
Part V: The Part of Tens ............................................ 323
Chapter 23: Ten Best Energy-Efficient Investments. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .325
Installing a Programmable Thermostat .................................................... 325
Sealing Your Home’s Envelope .................................................................. 326
Sealing the Ducts in Your HVAC System .................................................. 326
Installing a Flow Constrictor Shower Head .............................................. 327
Insulating Your Water Heater .................................................................... 328
Plugging In Fluorescents ............................................................................. 328
Installing Motion Sensors ........................................................................... 329
Putting Insulating Sleeves on Hot Water Pipes ........................................ 329
Changing HVAC Filters on a Routine Basis............................................... 329
Tuning Up Your HVAC System Regularly ................................................. 330
Chapter 24: Ten Ridiculously Easy Energy-Saving Tips . . . . . . . . . . .331
Turn Down the Thermostat........................................................................ 331
Close Doors and Dampers .......................................................................... 331
Lower the Temp on Your Water Heater ................................................... 332
Use Your Microwave ................................................................................... 332
Clear Kids’ Toys Out of Radiator Vents .................................................... 332
Use Warm or Cold Water instead of Hot .................................................. 332
Lock Closed Windows ................................................................................. 333
Do All Your Laundry at Once ..................................................................... 333
Skip the Dishwasher Drying Cycle............................................................. 334
Plant a Tree Where It Counts ..................................................................... 334
Chapter 25: Ten Best Solar Investments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .335
PV Systems ................................................................................................... 335
Solar Swimming Pool Heaters .................................................................... 336
Solar Water Heaters .................................................................................... 336
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies___________________________________
Solar Yard Lights ......................................................................................... 337
Window Blinds ............................................................................................. 337
Overhangs .................................................................................................... 338
Sunrooms ...................................................................................................... 338
Swimming Pool Covers ............................................................................... 339
Solar Attic Vent Fans ................................................................................... 339
Landscaping ................................................................................................. 340
Index ....................................................................... 341
well-maintained home is integral to a comfortable, secure lifestyle. As
long as you maintain your home’s integrity and promote its efficiency
and harmony, it will nurture and comfort you in return.
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies can help you make changes in your
household lifestyle to save money and energy and reduce pollution. Every
single home can use this book. It doesn’t matter what kind of dwelling you live
in (apartment, house, condo, geodesic dome, tent, you name it); nor does it
matter whether you’re a renter or an owner. It doesn’t matter where you live
or what your climate is. Everybody can benefit from seeking better efficiency.
Regardless of whether you want to make small, incremental improvements, or
grandiose, world-shaking changes, this book points you in the right direction.
You don’t need to sacrifice your quality of life. Many of the tips and projects
I show you in this book are easy and inexpensive. Many projects even make
your lifestyle more comfortable and enjoyable.
A theme you see running through this book is the idea of payback — how
long it takes for an efficiency investment to begin saving you money. Well,
here’s good news about the payback of this book: You can easily save ten
times more money in your annual operating costs than the price you paid
for this book (unless you stole it, which is about as efficient as you can get,
although not recommended by either me or law enforcement).
About This Book
A number of energy-efficiency books are on the market, as you undoubtedly
know already. So a lot of information is available: some of it scientific, some
anecdotal, and some of it just plain wrong. In this book, I offer my years of
experience in the subject of energy efficiency, but perhaps even more important,
I condense all the myriad ideas, beliefs, and notions about energy efficiency
into that which is the best and most helpful. You can find a lot more ways to
make your home energy-efficient than what’s in this book, but in keeping with
the For Dummies modus operandi, I give you the best ones.
This book provides you with ample knowledge of energy- and cost-efficiency
concepts to turn your home into a marvel of efficiency. You can do most of
the projects and improvements I describe yourself. And when you need to
hire a contractor, I tell you how best to go about the process.
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies
People have their own fundamental reasons for wanting to achieve efficiency.
Some people simply want to lower their operating costs, particularly with
regard to energy consumption. Some people want to minimize their pollution
footprint on the environment and will pay extra money to do so. Others just
want to simplify their complicated lifestyles. In this book, I present you with
the tradeoffs. I make no judgments about how you should order your priorities.
I simply tell you how best to proceed, given the various alternatives. In other
words, in this book I present the pros and cons of every issue and let you
decide what’s best for you. I leave the nagging to somebody else.
In this book, you find information like
What efficiency means and how you can put together your own efficiency plan
What a home energy audit reveals about your household energy use and
how you can perform an audit yourself
How to seal your home against the weather, get better performance
from your heating and air-conditioning systems for less cost, and other
helpful suggestions and advice
How to take advantage of Mother Nature and a few key tricks to maintain
comfortable temperatures in your home
How to reduce your waste by reusing and recycling
The advantages and disadvantages of different energy alternatives —
such as wood stoves, gas stoves, solar power, geothermal systems, and
so on — which are becoming more common as the price of energy rises
Your options for financing efficiency improvements
Some readers look at the table of contents and skip straight to a particular
section that addresses an immediate need. Others start in Chapter 1 and
work their way diligently to Chapter 25. And either approach is just fine and
dandy because all For Dummies books are structured so that you can jump in
and out or read them straight through to get the information you need.
Conventions Used in This Book
For simplicity’s sake, this book follows a few conventions:
Italicized terms are immediately followed by definitions.
Bold indicates the action parts in numbered steps. It also emphasizes
the keywords in a bulleted list.
Web site addresses show up in monofont.
When this book was printed, some Web addresses may have needed to
break across two lines of text. Rest assured that I haven’t put in any extra
characters (such as hyphens) to indicate the break. Just type in exactly
what you see in this book, pretending as though the line break didn’t exist.
What You’re Not to Read
I don’t flatter myself into thinking that you are interested in reading this
entire book, although I do have to admit that it’s excellent reading, full of wit
and humor which nicely complements the robust, energy-saving information.
In the name of efficiency — in this regard, saving you time — let me tell you
what you can safely skip:
Material in sidebars: Sure, these are interesting. Some are fun. I like to
think that all are helpful. But they contain info that you don’t absolutely,
positively, without-a-doubt need to have to become more energy-efficient.
Paragraphs marked with the Technical Stuff icon: Some people like details:
the nuts and bolts of why or how things work; the statistics that back up a
point; the nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty esoterica that every topic — especially
one like this — has. If you’re not one of these people, you can safely skip
these paragraphs without missing any need-to-know info.
Foolish Assumptions
In writing this book, I made a few assumptions about you:
You want to make your home more efficient, in a number of different
ways. You have already decided to move forward, but aren’t sure which
direction is the right one, or what speed to move at. You want to make
the best decisions, and understand that those decisions are entirely
yours to make.
You have some handiwork skills. You can handle a screwdriver and perhaps a power drill, although this isn’t strictly necessary. You know a few
basics about how to get things done, and you understand that with every
project there are safety rules (I’ll help you out here, when appropriate).
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies
You want to get to the end product as sensibly and efficiently as
possible. (Note I didn’t say quickly, because that inevitably leads to
errors in both judgment and facilitation.) You don’t have an engineering
degree, and you don’t want to know every technical detail concerning
the various technologies. You simply want to get the job done, once
you’ve made up your mind which job you want to do.
You need working knowledge of a project so that you can hire
professionals and discuss matters with them. You don’t plan on
handling a major project yourself, but you want enough information
to make informed decisions sensibly and efficiently.
How This Book Is Organized
This book is divided into parts, each one dealing with a particular topic related
to energy efficiency. Each part contains chapters relating to the part topic. The
following sections give you an overview of the content within each part.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems
from Your Front Porch
The place to start when you want to become more energy efficient is to
understand the very basics about energy — namely, where it comes from and
where and how it’s used. The next step is to take a look at your own energy
consumption so that you can decide where best to invest your time and
efforts to improve the efficiency of your home. In addition to covering this
information, Part I also reviews some financial options to make your investments more affordable and provides practical information on how to make
the decisions that are best for you from a financial point of view.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies
throughout Your Home
You’ll probably find this part one of the most productive because it deals
with the biggest energy consumers in your home. Here you can find details
on how to change your consumption habits as well as how to invest in new
equipment to achieve better efficiency. If you’re interested only in getting
moving, right now, go to this part first.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy
Sources to Work for You
As energy costs rise, the need for alternatives to the standard oil/utility energy
sources grows. You can cut yourself loose from the utilities by employing
stoves or geothermal, solar, and other alternative sources in your home. This
part lists the alternative energy options that are available and tells you about
both their advantages and disadvantages.
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When
You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
If you’re in the market for a house or selling one, you can make energy efficiency one of the key features to look for or promote. If you’re a buyer, what
do you look for? And if you’re a seller, what do you emphasize? This part has
the answers. And because many folks have their homes built, this part also
explains how to build your own energy-efficient home from the ground up.
Finally, because your environment dictates your options to a large degree, I
tell you what to keep in mind as you pick a community to live in.
Part V: The Part of Tens
Like every For Dummies book, this part includes quick resources that provide
plenty of information and sage advice compacted into few words. Want a list
of the best efficiency investments? How about efficiency projects you can do
in an hour or less? This part offers this information and more.
Icons Used in This Book
This book uses several icons that make it easy for you to identify particular
types of information:
This icon highlights important information to store in your brain for quick
recall at a later time.
This icon indicates a nifty little shortcut or time-saver.
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies
Look out! Quicksand is afoot. You don’t want to skip over the warnings. They point
out dangers to your health and well-being, your property, or your bank account.
The Technical Stuff icon lets you know that some particularly nerdy information is coming up so that you can skip it if you want. (On the other hand, you
may want to read it, and you don’t actually have to be a nerd. You only have
to be able to read.)
Where to Go from Here
On your mark, get set, GO! “Where?” you ask. Any where you want. If you’re
not sure where to begin, I suggest starting in Chapter 1 or glancing through
the Table of Contents for a topic that interests you. Or you can go to the
index to find a specific topic that you want to know more about.
After that, get your tools out, tear open the boxes of stuff you delightedly
bought, don your coveralls and safety glasses, and get to work. And have fun
while you’re at it.
Attitude is the one and only thing you have complete control over in your life.
Projects rarely, if ever, go the way you envisioned as you were drawing up the
plans. As a lifelong practitioner of projects big and small, I have learned to be
patient and enjoy the road every bit as much as the destination. When you run
into problems — which you will — smile, take a step back, and come up with a
witty joke. The one thing I have learned over and over again (I always have to
learn things more than once before they sink in) is that the harder a project is,
the more rewarding it will be when it’s finished. I can pretty much guarantee
that you’re going to find out precisely what I’m talking about. Above all else,
remember this: Measure twice, cut once.
Part I
Solving the
World’s Problems
from Your
Front Porch
In this part . . .
nergy usage is becoming an increasingly important
aspect of our personal lives. Energy costs are rising,
a trend that will surely continue. Because of the political
ramifications of obtaining the energy we need, we all can
help mitigate the huge problems that our energy consumption creates. The easiest, and often the cheapest, way for
each and every one of us to reduce energy consumption is
by being more efficient with the energy that we use.
In this part I explain general concepts about energy so
that you can make the decisions that let you reach your
own energy efficiency goals. I show you how to accurately
assess and measure how you use energy in your home so
that you can decide how to invest your own personal
energy and time in making improvements. I also give you
a simple way to analyze financial investments so that you
can get the most bang for your hard earned bucks.
Chapter 1
Defining Efficiency
In This Chapter
Looking at four types of efficiencies
Recognizing inefficiencies
Finding ways to increase efficiency
fficiency is the production of a desired effect with a minimum amount of
effort or waste. That’s the official definition, but you probably already
have an intuitive sense of what energy efficiency means. Maybe to you it means
using less. Maybe it means saving more. Believe it or not, those two goals don’t
always mean the same thing. That’s because there are different kinds of efficiencies — energy, financial, pollution, and labor. (Yes, I know that the title of
this book is Energy Efficiency Homes For Dummies, and that angle takes front
and center, but it’s not the whole picture. I think it’s important to understand
some of the tradeoffs that are inherent in most of your decisions.)
To set and achieve your own efficiency goals, you need to be familiar with
the different kinds of efficiencies, understand how these can be at cross-purposes, and get an idea of how you can begin to pursue your energy-efficiency
goals. This chapter gives you the lowdown.
Examining the Four Main Spokes
of the Efficiency Wheel
There are four different aspects of efficiency:
Energy efficiency: Getting the most useful output from energy sources
Financial efficiency: Getting the most for the least amount of money
Pollution efficiency: Polluting as little as possible
Labor efficiency: Spending the most time relaxing on the couch
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
To find the right balance among these different types of efficiencies, you need
to ask yourself what you value the most. If you’re only interested in lowering
your costs, financial efficiency is your sole criterion. If you’re interested in
going green, living an efficient, energy-conserving lifestyle, you want to consider pollution and energy efficiency. An ultra-green lifestyle implies pollution
efficiency more than energy efficiency or financial efficiency. And going green
also requires more labor than a conventional lifestyle. But perhaps your only
goal in life is to maximize the amount of time you spend at leisure (believe me,
I’m empathetic). In this case, labor efficiency is your most important goal.
In this section, I present some detailed examples of these different types of
efficiencies, and in the process, set up the basic premise of this book: Making
investment decisions for efficiency improvements in your home always
involves tradeoffs. To determine where the energy inefficiencies are in your
home, head to Chapter 3. Chapter 5 gives you advice on how to decide which
tradeoffs are best for you.
Energy efficiency
The energy efficiency of a device is a comparison, or ratio, of the useful
energy output to the total energy input. This ratio is always related to the
particular situation (the season, timing, desired end result, and so on).
For example, we want a light bulb to produce light. But we all know that a
light bulb also produces heat — sometimes a great deal. In the summertime
we don’t want the heat, so the process is inefficient. A typical incandescent
bulb converts only 10 percent of input electrical energy into light energy; the
rest goes into heat. Therefore, the efficiency is 10 percent, or very poor. If
enough light bulbs are turned on at the same time, the air conditioner may
have to be turned on, which means even more inefficiency.
However, in the wintertime you can readily use that “inefficient” heat
because it essentially decreases the load on your heating system. In this
case, the efficiency may be close to 100 percent. You don’t have to turn on
your inefficient heating system nearly as much, so using incandescent light
bulbs in the winter is a highly energy-efficient process.
Of course, outdoor incandescent light bulbs are just as inefficient in the winter
as in the summer. And light bulbs in an unoccupied room are inefficient as well.
As you evaluate where inefficiencies exist in your own home, consider all the
factors that the come into play: the season, the desired outcome, and so on.
Chapter 1: Defining Efficiency
Conservation versus efficiency
Conserving energy simply means using less.
Turning all the lights off in your house is conservation. Efficiency, on the other hand, is using
less energy to achieve the same result. Plugging
in fluorescents is practicing energy efficiency.
Turning off the light and stumbling around in the
dark is conservation. The meanings overlap, but
the distinction is useful. For instance, if you use
a programmable thermostat to turn your heater
off during the day while you’re at work and then
turn it back on right before you get home, you’re
achieving better efficiency by conserving.
Financial efficiency
The financial efficiency of an appliance is the comparison, or ratio, of cost
savings to the cost of the appliance (which includes the original equipment
cost plus installation costs and maintenance costs, including energy). The
better the ratio of cost savings to price, the more financially efficient an
investment is. Another term for “financially efficient” is “cost effective.” I use
these terms interchangeably.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, for example, are capable of saving costs on
a power bill, and they have a well-defined initial price. Similarly, the cost of
a new, more efficient appliance can, over a relatively short time period, be
earned back by the energy savings.
Pollution efficiency
The pollution efficiency of an appliance is a comparison, or ratio, of the
useful output work (the job that is being done) to the amount of pollution that
is generated in the process. Solar PV panels create impressive output power
while generating essentially zero pollution. Coal stoves create a lot of output
power but also generate a lot of pollution. In evaluating pollution efficiency,
you need to consider more than just how much pollution the appliance or
system outputs. Solar panels, for example, create no pollution while they are
operating, but pollution is created in the process of manufacturing a solar
As you weigh the costs and benefits of pollution efficiency, keep in mind that
there are usually no easy answers because the values being compared aren’t
always mathematically measurable. How much value, for example, do you
attribute to helping the environment? Acceptable costs differ depending on
your viewpoint. Some people, for example, want only to go green, in which
case they will accept poor financial efficiency in favor of good pollution
efficiency. Others try to balance financial and pollution efficiencies.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Labor efficiency
Labor efficiency is a comparison, or ratio, of how much work an appliance
does to the amount of personal labor required to run and maintain it. A wood
stove, for example, is labor inefficient because you have to stack wood, haul
it inside, set it in the burn chamber, watch and stoke the fire as necessary,
and then clean ashes. A gas stove, on the other hand, is very labor efficient
— you only need to turn it off and on. Labor also includes pre-buy research,
purchase hassles (like financing or delivery truck rental), installation
(including cost of tools and hourly labor), and the maintenance and
operational burdens over time.
Analyzing efficiencies
When analyzing efficiencies, be sure to consider the life expectancy of a particular
investment. Answer these questions for every option you’re considering:
How long will an appliance last?
How does the pollution output vary over time?
Will the energy efficiency decrease over time (the answer is almost
always yes because parts wear out, friction increases, and so on) and if
so how by how much?
How much maintenance will be required over time, and will you be able
to do the labor and maintenance, in years hence?
How long is the warranty, and how much will unwarranted repairs cost?
Who will be doing the service and where do parts come from?
How will the future costs of energy affect the financial efficiencies?
What are the financing costs and are there tax advantages now? Will
there be tax advantages in the future that aren’t available now?
To find out how to determine the payback of energy-efficient improvements
you’re thinking about, go to Chapter 5.
Chapter 1: Defining Efficiency
Looking at energy storage and efficiency
Some forms of energy are easy to store.
Gasoline is a liquid that pours easily and can be
transported readily. It can sit in a sealed container for years. Wood pellets can be stored
for years with little loss in potential. Corn, on
the other hand, attracts rodents and can very
quickly go from being fuel in your storage bin
to “food” that attracts large, furry assaults in
the middle of the night. The heat from a fire
can be stored in the materials in a room, but it
doesn’t last very long after the fire goes out. It’s
beneficial to consider energy not as a go/no-go
proposition, but as a continuum.
Solar energy, on the other hand, can’t be stored,
so it must be converted into a different form in
order to be stored. Solar power can be stored
as heat, which is how a solar domestic hot
water heater works. Or it can be converted into
electricity and fed into a battery, which then
converts the electrical energy into chemical
energy. When the energy is to be used, later that
night or the next morning, the chemical energy
is then converted back into electrical energy,
which is fed into an appliance. This whole chain
process is extremely inefficient because each
step in the process is inefficient and the inefficiencies only multiply.
Opening Your Eyes to Inefficiency
Most people don’t understand just how inefficient energy-consuming
processes are. If you’re only interested in cost effectiveness, you don’t really
need to know how inefficient processes are because, for you, saving money is
the bottom line. But if you’re interested in energy efficiency, and particularly
pollution efficiency, you should understand just how utterly inefficient most
energy consuming processes are. It would be impossible to define all the
ways energy consumption processes are inefficient in a single book, much
less a short introductory chapter, but it is important that you get a feel for
the scope of the problem. The following sections offer two examples to
Electrical grid inefficiencies
Most household appliances are powered by electricity, which is the least
efficient method of consuming energy (more on this in Chapter 2). In many
cases, it’s also the most polluting alternative, because a majority of electrical
energy comes from coal-fired furnaces. In addition, electrical energy is transmitted via the power grid, which uses power lines and transformers to deliver
the AC voltages to your home. There are line losses (lines heat up and lose
energy in the process) in the power wires, sometimes as much as 50 percent if
the distances are great. Every transformer and substation is inefficient as well.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
As a general rule, electrical systems are only around 30 percent efficient. This
means that the electricity that comes into your home is mostly wasted before
you use it. And when you use it — even if you use it wisely — you’re wasting
a good deal of it as well.
Consider a vacuum cleaner. How much energy does it take to move a small
pile of dust from your floor to the vacuum bag? Very little. But by the time
you get done plugging your vacuum cleaner into the wall socket and turning on a big, noisy electrical motor and swishing the wand across the floor,
you’ve used hordes of energy. So vacuuming is maybe around 5 percent
efficient. Compound this with the electrical inefficiencies from the utility grid
and you come up with a net efficiency of less than 2 percent! This means that
you’ve used 50 times more energy than you really needed to clean that dust
up off your floor. At the same time, you’ve released 50 times more carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere. An alternative? Get out the broom and dustpan.
Transportation inefficiencies
Autos take a lot of energy to produce. Factories consume copious amounts
of electrical power, and most factories have their own power substations
with transformers and high-voltage lines. So before you even drive your new
car off the lot, you’ve consumed nearly as much energy as your car will consume to transport you the first 30,000 miles. This is true for even the most
fuel-efficient autos and trucks. And it’s certainly true for a hybrid auto, which
consumes even more energy to produce than a conventional auto.
Your car weighs around 30 times more than you, so the vast majority of
energy it expends to transport you to work and back is actually dedicated to
transporting itself back and forth. You represent just a small fraction of the
total work expended. Now that’s inefficient!
The big oil companies burn around two gallons of gasoline to get you a gallon
at the pump. Energy is required for drilling the crude from the ground, and
then transporting the raw crude to a refinery some distance away. The
process of cracking (breaking down raw components so as to output refined
products such as gasoline, heating oil, and so on) requires a great deal
of energy. Then the refined products need to be transported, first to the
regional hubs and from there to the local gas stations. Gas stations consume
energy and resources so that they can operate and sell you the gas.
All in all, your auto represents about 1 percent efficiency compared to a
Chapter 1: Defining Efficiency
Becoming More Efficient
Efficiency is the cheapest and easiest way to save the world from the runaway effects of human consumption. A wide number of new technologies
are coming onto the market with the express goal of reducing the amount of
energy it takes to perform a particular task. A myriad of new devices purport
to reduce pollution while doing the same essential work. But it’s a simple fact
that the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to reduce pollution and energy
usage is simply by using less energy with the equipment you already have.
When you recycle, you are saving resources, energy, and landfill space. Go
to Chapter 14 to find out how simply using less, reusing more, and recycling
what’s left over can yield big efficiency benefits.
Getting greater efficiency from
your current systems
You don’t need to invest in new equipment to achieve impressive results. For
example, when you drive less, you use less gas. Two people in a large SUV
use less gas per person than two people each in their own separate hybrids,
so carpooling is much more effective than fuel-efficient autos.
Similarly, when you turn your thermostat down in the winter and put on a
sweater, you are immediately using less energy, and this is just one simple
There are myriad other ways to reduce inefficiencies in nearly every aspect
of your home: sealing leaks and beefing up your insulation, taking advantage
of natural air movement, using your appliance more efficiently, and so on.
Head to Part II for system-by-system solutions.
Supplementing or replacing
existing systems
Sometimes the way to greater efficiency is to replace or supplement your
existing systems with more-energy-efficient systems. When you replace an
open fireplace with a high-efficiency wood or gas stove, for example, you
not only eliminate the unbelievable amount of energy waste associated with
open hearths, but you supplement your existing HVAC system, meaning you
can use it less. Part III explains how these alternative energy sources and
others — solar power, radiant heat, geothermal heating systems and so on —
can enhance efficiency.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Every contribution you make adds up. There are no “little” contributions. The
U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that if everybody were to pitch in,
energy consumption could be reduced by up to 20 percent. That’s a major
and immediate change in not only our dependence on foreign oil, but our
contribution to greenhouse gases. If everybody were willing to pitch in not
only by being more energy-efficient, but also by investing a few hundred
dollars for improvements, energy consumption could be reduced by up to 30
percent. This would drop the cost of energy because demand would decrease,
and the net effect would be more like a 40 percent reduction in cost for all of us.
Chapter 2
Energy Sources and Sinks
In This Chapter
Understanding where energy comes from
Looking into where energy goes in a typical household
Sustaining the environment through wise choices
ichard Feynman, one of the most famous physics lecturers of all time,
began his courses on energy by stating that nobody really understands
what energy is. That being said, we all have an intuitive idea of what energy
does, namely perform work. It takes energy to make something happen. This
book is interested in making do with less energy consumption. If you are
interested in jumping right in and saving energy, you may want to skip this
chapter. But if you truly want to do the best you can, you need to understand
a few basic ideas. When it comes to energy, it’s important to know the currency as much as how to spend it.
In this chapter, I present data on where energy comes from, and how and
where it’s used on both a national and household level. Understanding the
course that energy follows puts you in a better position to make good decisions on how to increase your own efficiencies. I present data on the typical
household energy use in North America so that you can compare your own
usage to see how it stacks up. (In Chapter 3, I get into a lot of detail on this
subject, but I give you a rough idea here). I also discuss a number of ways
that your own energy usage varies depending on where you live and what
kind of home you occupy.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Energizing North America
A variety of energy sources are used in North America. You’ve probably
already heard of many of them; others may be unfamiliar. The most common
energy sources are
Petroleum products: Petroleum products, which account for 39 percent
of all the energy used in North America, are gasoline, propane and heating oil.
Natural gas: Natural gas is drilled from beneath the surface of the earth,
just like petroleum, but it comes in gaseous form instead of liquid or
solid, and it makes up 24 percent of total energy consumption. It burns
cleaner than petroleum products and coal, and is generally favored by
environmentalists. Transport is problematic; so is storage.
Coal: Coal is mined from the ground and comes in a solid, blackish, oily
form that’s easy to burn but very difficult to burn cleanly. Coal is the
most common form of energy in North America because there’s so much
of it, and compared to petroleum, it’s easy to extract from the ground.
Around 23 percent of residential and commercial energy consumption is
provided by coal.
Nuclear: The same atom-splitting physics that provides us those wonderful nuclear weapons is used to heat water, which is then used to turn
large electrical generating turbines. Nuclear energy is controversial, as
the waste products are very difficult to deal with. But nuclear is coming
back into favor because it doesn’t generate the carbon pollution blamed
for global warming and other problems. Nuclear only comprises 8 percent of North American energy consumption. Look for this percentage to
increase dramatically in the next couple decades.
Hydropower (dams): Tremendous water pressure is built up at the
bottom of large dams built on riverways, and this pressure is harnessed
to turn turbines that generate electricity. The power is very clean, but
the problem is that the river’s ecosystem is affected. Salmon runs are
obliterated, and the natural beauty of the river is permanently altered,
almost always for the worst (unless you like to water ski). Hydropower
accounts for 3 percent of North American energy consumption, particularly in the American Pacific Northwest.
Biomass (firewood and other stuff): Leaves falling from the trees in
autumn are biomass, so are cow manure, horse manure, hay, weeds,
corn husks, and so on. Firewood is the most common form of biomass
used for energy. Total biomass energy production accounts for only 3
percent of North American energy usage. Because of its wide availability, biomass is seen as an excellent sustainable energy source.
Chapter 2: Energy Sources and Sinks
Geothermal: The air you breathe and the ground beneath your feet
provide the source for geothermal energy. The physics is complicated,
but suffice to say that you can generate heating and cooling by using
heat exchange mechanisms that move temperature differences from one
place to another. If you want heat in your home, you take some from
the air or the ground. Geothermal energy provides 0.3 percent of North
American energy needs.
Wind: Traditionally windmills have been used to pump water from the
ground (you see them on old western movies at nearly every ranch and
nearly every poster from Holland), but modern embodiments produce
electrical power as well. Wind power is a form of solar power because
wind is caused by thermal temperature differences between regions of
the globe. Wind power only provides 0.11 percent of energy needs, but
this is changing fast since wind is a very clean source. The problems are
that windmills are unsightly, and they make noise. They also may kill
wildlife, particularly birds.
Import electricity: Our electrical grid is an extensive matrix of interconnected power wires that span borders. North America imports from
nearby countries around 0.1 percent of its energy needs.
Solar: The sun radiates a tremendous amount of energy — 37,000
times as much energy as humans use — onto the surface of the earth,
pollution free. Unfortunately, tapping into this energy isn’t simple.
Nevertheless, people have figured out ways to use solar energy to
heat water and to produce electricity. There is a tremendous push
to increase solar production, and many governments are subsidizing
solar equipment in both residential and commercial settings. Right now
solar power accounts for only 0.06 percent of energy production (if you
don’t include all the natural light and heat the sun produces), but that’s
changing fast.
A word about global warming
I don’t take a position on global warming one
way or another in this book. My opinion is that
it’s not really relevant in encouraging people
to conserve and practice efficiency. The fact
is, we use too many resources, and in the process we end up altering the planet in material
ways that will affect future generations in one
manner or another. Global warming is just one
way that we might be affecting the planet, and
in my view the overwhelming attention placed
on this one aspect of our environmental defamation does a disservice to the other aspects,
and the overall balance and harmony that we
should be striving for. What if it turns out that
there is no global warming? Should we then go
right back to the old days of unlimited exploitation of resources? Of course not.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
The majority of our energy sources produce power through combustion
processes (burning) that require a burning chamber, oxygen, and exhaustion capacities. From time immemorial, humans have burned wood for fires,
and the process was simple; pile some wood, light it, hang around close to it.
Modern combustion processes are engineered to be more efficient (modern
wood burning stoves are around 100 times more efficient than open fires, for
example), but the combustion processes, regardless of how efficient they are,
are notorious pollution sources.
Non-combustion processes, such as solar power and nuclear, don’t exhaust
pollutants the same way that combustion processes do, but they have their
own problems. For instance, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels require a lot of
energy to manufacture, and most of this energy comes from electrical power
which itself often comes from coal and combustion. So while solar is pollution free in its implementation, it entails a lot of pollution in its manufacture.
The point is there is no such thing as a free lunch. Every energy source
has pros and cons, and trying to decide how best to provide the power an
economy needs is a complex problem. Many believe that the current energy
predicament will be solved when we wean ourselves away from petroleum
consumption, but even as people develop new alternative sources, the problems don’t go away; they simply change in nature.
Energy use around the world
To put the energy consumption of the United
States in perspective, take a look at how much
energy is used (per capita) in different countries
around the world:
Btu per person
per year
United States
Western Europe
Canada is cold, so its citizens require a lot of
heat. But their high consumption also reflects
the fact that energy is relatively inexpensive
in Canada. When this is the case, regardless
of where in the world it may be, there is little
incentive to conserve or practice efficiency.
What’s more interesting is to compare American
consumption with that of Western Europe. It
would be very difficult to argue, as one can do
when comparing the United States to China,
that the large difference reflects quality of lifestyle. Western Europeans, in many ways, enjoy
better lifestyles than Americans. So why is
their per capita consumption so low? Because
they’ve been inculcated by high energy prices
for so long that energy conservation and efficiency are ingrained into the very fabric of their
Chapter 2: Energy Sources and Sinks
Looking at Energy Costs: Raw and Otherwise
Not all energy costs the same. Some types of energy are more expensive than
others. How costly an energy source is depends on what it takes to deliver
the energy to your home (raw energy costs) and what it takes to convert the
raw energy into fuel you can use (conversion costs). By understanding where
a particular energy source falls on the cheap-to-dear scale in both of these
areas, you can gain a better understanding of how you can plan and control
your energy usage to attain better efficiency.
Recognizing raw energy costs
Taking a look at the relative costs of different types of raw energy is illuminating. (By raw, I mean the cost at delivery to your home; this doesn’t take
into account how you may actually use the energy within your home, or
how much the equipment costs to convert the raw energy into usable form).
Relatively speaking, electricity is the most costly, nuclear energy is the
cheapest, and a bunch of other types of energy fall somewhere in between
(see Table 2-1).
Table 2-1
Comparing Raw Energy Costs
Type of Energy
Cost (in $) per Million Btu
$ 29.3
Liquid propane gas
$ 18.54
$ 15.19
$ 11.11
Heating oil
$ 10.82
Natural gas
$ 10.00
Uranium (nuclear)
Btu stands for British thermal unit, a standard unit of energy equal to 754
kWh, or kilowatt hours (one thousand watt hours). To put this into perspective, a typical incandescent light bulb consumes around 75 watts, and so in
a ten-hour evening consumes 750 Wh. Typically, large appliances like heaters and air-conditioners are rated in Btu, while smaller devices are rated in
watts. No technical abracadabra here, just tradition.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
As Table 2-1 shows, electricity is by far the costliest energy source. This is
because the power transmission grid, the huge matrix of power wires and
transformers used to get the power from the utility generators to your home,
is so big and unwieldy. Think of it this way: When you generate solar power
on your roof, it’s created and used within a space of a hundred feet, maybe
less. But when you use electricity from the grid, the production chain begins
in a coal mine, then the coal must be transported to a power plant, and then
power is generated in huge, expensive machines. This electrical power gets
transmitted over long lengths of wire until it finally reaches your home.
Several companies are involved — a coal mining company, a transport company, and a utility company with linesmen, managers, secretaries, lobbyists,
and lawyers — not to mention that a whole host of governmental regulations
have to be met, and taxes and tariffs need to be paid.
Even though electricity is the most expensive, it’s used almost exclusively
in a majority of homes. Why? Because it’s the most convenient way to use
power. All you have to do is plug in to a wall socket and voilà! You don’t
need a storage tank (like you do with propane or fuel oil), and you don’t have
to worry about the danger of explosions or flames (although you can get a
shock without even trying too hard). You don’t need to go into the woods
with a chainsaw and cut it down, and you don’t need to stack it on the side of
your house and keep the spiders out of it. Best of all, the utility company is
responsible for maintaining a continual flow into your home.
Looking at actual energy costs
Raw energy cost, explained in the preceding section, is only part of the picture. Most energy sources need to be burned or combusted on-site in order
to extract their potential energy. Some conversion methods are more efficient
than others. The list in Table 2-2 shows the same fuels as those listed in Table
2-1, but this time with all the various production factors that come into play.
The link between coal and electricity
Due to its high carbon and sulfur content, burning coal is extremely dirty. Coal byproducts are
the leading contributor to global warming (nearly
1 billion tons of carbon dioxide are produced
each year in the United States alone; China has
surpassed this). Mercury is another byproduct;
it pollutes air, land, and water. Because about
90 percent of the coal produced in this country is used to produce over 50 percent of our
electricity, electrical power is generally a very
polluting source of energy. Reducing electrical usage is always a good idea, especially if
you’re concerned about pollution and global
Chapter 2: Energy Sources and Sinks
Table 2-2
Comparing Actual Energy Costs
Type of Energy
Cost (in $) per Million Btu
Liquid propane
Heating oil
Natural gas
Uranium (nuclear)
Using It Up: Where Energy Goes
Different sources of energy may be used to provide different functions within
a single home — for example, natural gas may be used for heating, electricity provides energy for lighting and the appliances, and fireplace wood provides supplemental heating. So how does a typical North American home use
energy? The following table shows you. (Note: These percentages are averaged over the course of a year; month-to-month breakdowns vary quite a bit.)
Percentage of total energy used
Space heating
Water heating
Space cooling
Clothes washing/drying
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Of course this breakdown varies widely from home to home and region to
region. For a clearer picture of how your own home uses energy, you can
adapt these percentages to your specific scenario. Here are some things to
If you’re in a hot climate, you spend a lot more on cooling than heating.
If you’re in a cold climate, you spend a lot more on heating than cooling. In Chapter 3, I show you ways to calculate your heating and cooling
costs in detail, and I give you some pointers on how to do something
about those costs in Chapter 8.
The most productive way to improve household efficiency usually is to
consider your heating and cooling systems first and foremost. If heating
is your greatest expense, you can save the most money by reducing your
heating bill. Then you want to take a look at how you use hot water, and
so on down the line. Another factor to consider is how much equipment
costs. In a home, HVAC equipment is usually the most expensive, closely
followed by major appliances like washers, dryers, and refrigerators. In
making decisions on how to become more efficient, both the cost of the
energy being consumed and the cost of the equipment come into play.
Head to the section “Turning Your Eye to Improved Energy Efficiency”
for advice on how to approach this topic.
If you’re in a moderate climate, you may not spend anywhere near as
much on heating or cooling as somebody in Illinois, where the weather
tends to all extremes. Your month-to-month fluctuations also vary less.
If you have a well for water, you need to include that category in the
list and figure the percentage based on how much water you use. Small
working ranches with electrically pumped wells may spend up to 20 percent of their utility bill on pumping.
If you use a wood stove and chop the wood yourself, your energy use
percentages may be close to those in the preceding chart, but your
costs will be skewed because you’re not paying for your heat at all.
If you’re in an apartment, with common walls, your heating and cooling
percentages will be lower because there will be less loss. If your neighbors set their thermostat high and you set yours low, you’re essentially
using their heat because it migrates into your apartment.
If you don’t have an air-conditioner, your cooling costs will be zero, or
minimal if you use fans.
If you take a lot of hot showers, your water heating percentage will be
higher; take fewer (or cold) showers, and it will be lower.
Chapter 2: Energy Sources and Sinks
If you use energy to charge a golf cart, power a motor home sitting in
your driveway, or power a workshop with heavy-duty tools, adjust your
figures accordingly. These types of things take a lot of energy and may
overshadow even the heating component.
If you never open a single window in your home and your HVAC is on all
the time, even when the weather is nice, heating and cooling will comprise a larger percentage of the total.
If you rarely use your HVAC at all, instead favoring thick sweaters in the
winter and a lot of sweating in the summer, your heating and cooling will
comprise a smaller percentage of the total.
Turning Your Eye to Improved Energy
The preceding sections are devoted to background information, but this
book is about achieving tangible results. In this section, I present some generalities that you should keep in mind — like how to reduce the amount of
electricity you use, how to maximize your sustainable energy sources, and
more — regardless of the details of your energy efficiency program.
The big Kahuna: Electrical energy
As stated earlier, a typical household uses more than one energy source. Of
all the energy sources folks use in their homes, however, electrical energy is
the most widely used, as well as the most convenient. And that’s why it’s the
most important to think about when you think about energy efficiency.
Electrical energy holds the most potential for efficiency improvements
because the methods of making improvements are the most easily accessible
and understood.
Where electricity comes from
Ben Franklin and his kite experiment aside, electrical energy doesn’t just
drop from the sky. It’s generated through processes powered by other
energy sources. For instance, coal is burned and water is boiled and the pressure is used to turn huge turbines that generate electrical power. In North
America, electrical energy comes from these sources:
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Approximate Percentage of Total Electricity Production
Natural gas
Other renewables
Other gas
The problems with electrical energy
Although electricity is typically considered clean and environmentally
friendly, it is often generated through processes that rely on “dirty” energy
sources. Even those processes that use renewable energy sources have their
own problems. Bottom line: Electrical energy is subject to many common
inefficiencies and problems. Here are some of the biggest ones:
Electrical energy, while clean once it reaches your home, has most likely
been generated by a combustion process, so don’t kid yourself into
thinking that electricity is environmentally benign. Many people believe
that electrical cars that you charge up at home are the key to a green
future, but if you consider just how inefficient the electrical system is,
and how most electricity is generated by coal-fired plants, you come to a
different conclusion.
In the process of generating and using electricity, a lot of hot water is
discharged — first into the river system and then into the ocean. This
affects the ecosystem. For instance, some biological lifeforms require
very specific water temperatures for breeding purposes; by warming the
average river temperature, these species die out.
Wind generators cover open hillsides with noisy, ugly windmills. Birds
and bats get killed, sometimes in large numbers. Compared to the alternatives, though, windmills are practically pristine.
Hydroelectric generators dam up rivers and affect such diverse phenomena as salmon runs and the plants and animals that live along the riverside. Dams also create a lot of underwater decay in the upper reservoirs
that doesn’t exist when water runs naturally; this decay releases carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere, and we all know what that means (global
Geothermal wells release arsenic into the environment.
Power lines emit radiation, heat the air, buzz, and catch birds and
planes. Their potential for danger is even greater when they’re downed.
Nuclear power plants produce horrendous wastes, and people have yet
to figure out a good way to get rid of these byproducts.
Chapter 2: Energy Sources and Sinks
Renewable and sustainable energy sources
The words renewable and sustainable are being knocked around quite a bit.
Both are inherently associated with energy conservation:
Renewable forms of energy constantly replenish themselves with little
or no human effort. Solar energy is just one example — no matter how
much you use, the supply will never end (okay, it may end after billions of years, but your using solar power won’t make the sun burn out
any faster). Other examples of renewables include firewood, water (via
hydroelectric dams), and wind power.
The term renewable does not necessarily imply good environmentalism.
Firewood, a renewable energy source, is notoriously polluting, and it
has another potentially severe drawback: People go out into forests and
cut down trees, often without much thought to the overall health of the
forest (a good example of not seeing the forest for the trees).
Sustainable forms of energy are not only renewable, but they also have
the ability to keep the Earth’s ecosystem up and running in perpetuity. The
basic notion behind sustainable energy sources is that by their use, society
is not compromising future generations’ health and well-being, or their ability to use their own sustainable resources to the same extent that we do
now. Who can argue with this very fundamental version of the Golden Rule?
To make sure that resources last, humans need to focus on renewable and
sustainable energy sources. Energy sources that fail to meet these criteria
could eventually be depleted and thus cease to exist.
Invested energy and recycling
Invested energy is the energy that’s used to manufacture a product (in the literature, you may see this referred to as embodied energy, but it means essentially the same thing). Take solar panels, for example. When solar energy was
first conceived back in the 1960s as part of the space program, a solar panel
took over three times more energy to produce than it would ever generate
in its lifetime. Bad economics, but satellites need energy sources, and solar
panels are the only practical source. Nowadays panels are far better, and the
disparity between the energy invested to make solar panels and the energy
that the solar panels generate no longer exists.
If you’re truly interested in reducing your energy consumption, you need to
consider invested energy when choosing products. Unfortunately, because
the concept of invested energy has just begun to take root, the information
is not widely available (although an entire industry is dedicated to meeting
the burgeoning demand of “green” customers who want this information). In
the future it will be more and more common for products to list their total
invested energies alongside the current energy efficiency information.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
If you’re intent on finding out invested energy levels, contact manufacturers
and be prepared to exhibit robust patience. In many cases, manufacturers
haven’t even considered invested energy and won’t even know how to answer
your query. The best bet is to patronize manufacturers that publish their numbers, for these will most likely be the ones trying to minimize those numbers.
The point is, everything takes energy to manufacture, and when considering
how much energy is used in your household, you need to consider invested
energy as well as the energy you gobble up in your home.
In fact, invested energy is a big force in favor of recycling. From an economic
standpoint, recycling may not seem like such a great idea. It takes time on
your part and requires you to set up systems and stick with them. But you’re
not just saving money when you recycle; you’re saving invested energy, and
all the pollution and environmental costs that go with it.
Green homes are becoming more common, and one of the more important
aspects of choosing materials is invested energy. Although recycled products are popular, new materials that may cost a little more but use far less
energy to produce and bring to the building site are also a good choice.
Musing over manpower
Some people have asked me about connecting
a turbine to their exercise equipment so that
they can turn their efforts into usable household
energy. It’s not worth it — not by a long shot. If
you’re watching a TV while you’re working out,
the TV is probably consuming more power than
you’re generating.
A male human being, in good condition, can
generate only 200 watts of power. One horsepower is equal to 746 watts, so it would take
around four strong men to equal the power of
a single horse. It would take one physically fit
man five hours on a treadmill to generate 1 kilowatt-hour, which is the same amount of energy
the sun radiates onto a one square meter area
in only one hour.
Humans may not be able to generate enough
power to produce the amount of energy that
U.S. society is accustomed to, but that’s not to
say that man is powerless to make a difference.
Here’s some food for thought: Think of how
much more energy the average American uses
than do those in countries where electricity is
common and people make do without it. Our
lives here in North America are surely much
easier. But is the difference in the quality of our
lives equal to the difference in the amount of
energy we consume? Personally, I think not.
In fact, one could make a compelling argument
in the other direction. Complexity is inefficient,
and not just physically. Complexity inhibits aesthetic harmony, which may be the real reason
for living. How many of you would like to trade
in your hyper-driven lifestyles for something
simpler? In this book, I help you simplify.
Chapter 3
Eliminating the Guesswork with
Home Energy Audits
In This Chapter
Weighing in on what determines your energy usage
Understanding how energy companies structure their fees
Looking into the details of your energy consumption
Considering your carbon contribution
Performing energy audits in your home
f you want to improve the energy efficiency of your home in an efficient
manner, you need to first understand the economics of your overall consumption. When you make investments in either time or money, they should
be focused and deliberate in order to ensure good payback (I get into payback in Chapter 5). Unfortunately, most people don’t have a good handle on
the specifics of how and where they’re using energy and other resources in
their homes. As the saying goes, “The devil is in the details.” In this chapter,
I present a detailed system for analyzing your resource use (I leave the devil
out of it, however).
Getting a Handle on Your Energy Usage
The ultimate goal is to deduce how much you’re paying for different sources
of energy and then tackle those costs based on what your main objective
is. For example, your primary goal may be cost reduction as you strive for
efficiencies, or your main objective may be pollution mitigation or energy
conservation. In any case, you need to first consider the total resource consumption in your home.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Energy use in a typical North
American home
Looking at nationwide statistics gives you a baseline to which you can compare your energy usage. Does your own usage make sense, or can you make
easy changes? Do you need to simply change your habits, or are you going to
have to invest time and money in equipment improvements? Table 3-1 shows
how a typical North American home uses energy (averaged over the course
of a year). For the purposes of this data, a typical home has 1,600 square feet,
two baths, three bedrooms, and 2.3 occupants in a region with moderate
weather patterns.
Table 3-1
Yearly Energy Use for a Typical Home
Purpose or Use
Percentage of Total Energy Used
Space heating
Water heating
Space cooling
Clothes washing/drying
These values represent total energy used, not how much that energy costs.
The cost of different energy sources varies widely. For instance, if you heat
your home by chopping wood yourself and burning it in a wood stove, your
heating costs may be near zero, but that obviously doesn’t mean you are consuming zero energy to heat your home. If you have a solar water heater on
your roof, your water heating cost may be zero, but 21 percent of your energy
consumption can still be attributed to heating water. The cost of equipment
also factors into the equation. For instance, you had to buy that solar heater,
and that’s not cheap. Refer to Chapter 2 for details on the costs associated
with different types of energy.
Chapter 3: Eliminating the Guesswork with Home Energy Audits
Focusing on your own home-sweet-home
Obviously, if you don’t fit the typical profile described in the preceding section,
your energy consumption will be different. To a large degree, personal lifestyle
dictates energy consumption. If you’re gone all day and the home is empty, for
example, you can lower your thermostat and save. If you’re diligent about turning off unused lights, your lighting component will be less. If you tolerate heat
and cold better than most, you can save on heating and cooling. And so on.
As you evaluate how your home varies from the typical energy consumption
numbers, spend some time going around your house, looking at all the
different ways you consume energy and resources. Just by paying more
attention, you can learn a lot.
Where you live and the type of house you live in
Where you live has a big impact on how much energy you use. Folks sweating
through summers in the sunny Southwest don’t have the same heating and
cooling needs as those shivering through winters in the Upper Peninsula of
Michigan. If you’re in a hot climate, you may need very little heat, but your
cooling bill is higher. If you’re in Alaska, your heating bill is much higher.
Different home styles — whether you live in an apartment, a house, or a
condo, for example — also make a difference. Apartments and many condos
have common walls, and the heat and cooling losses are less. Homes with a
lot of windows have poorer insulation, while those that are surrounded by
trees and natural windbreaks suffer less heat loss. And so on.
The type of HVAC you have
HVAC stands for heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Most homes have
forced air systems, which means ducts and fans push air through the home.
Some homes have radiant heat, and many homes have wood stoves or other
combustion appliances. Heating is the biggest single component of the utility
budget in most homes, and it’s subject to the most variation in energy
consumption. Thus, it pays to know as much as you can about your home’s
heating resources. Ask yourself these questions:
What kind of heating source(s) do you use? A wood-burning stove, gas
fireplace, electric heat pump, baseboard heater, free-standing heater, radiator, and so on? Figure out how much you spend on each source of heat.
How old is your system, and what’s its expected lifetime? In general, the
older the system, the less efficient it is — not because old technology is
inferior, but because back in the day, people didn’t worry about energy
efficiency as much as we do now, and paying more for an efficient system
just wasn’t worth it.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Do you have a central air conditioner or window units? Do you use
fans, an evaporative cooler, dehumidifiers, and so on? Include them in
your assessment of your energy consumption.
As you think about your own energy consumption, look at your neighbors and
see how their consumption differs from yours. What is the most popular HVAC
system in your area, for example, and what are new homes in your area being
equipped with? The answers to these types of questions can give you valuable
information about the kind of technologies that work best in your region. Heat
pumps, for example, work well in moderate climates but not in extremely cold
climates. If nobody in your area uses a heat pump, there’s probably a good
reason. And if everybody is burning wood in a stove, it’s probably because the
availability and cost of wood is advantageous.
The people who live in your home
Heating and cooling don’t depend on how large your family is, but on the ways
that people in your family use energy. You may have to turn the thermostat
lower in the summer and higher in the winter because of personal preference
and potential health issues. If a member of your family has special needs, such
as air filtration for asthma, you should factor that in. If your family is very sensitive to exposure to contaminants, you’re probably paying more for filters and
cleaning services.
Your water usage
Where do you get your water from and how much do you use? If a well
supplies your water, your electric bill will be larger, but your water bill will
be nonexistent. If you take long, hot showers or if your family is large, your
water heating component will be higher. If you have a solar water heater, this
component may be costing you next to nothing on a monthly basis. And if
you have kids, as any parent can tell you, you probably wash a lot of clothes.
The type of amenities you have
Be sure not to leave life’s little extras off your radar as you scope out things
that consume energy around your home. For example, do you have a
swimming pool or spa? Pool pumps consume a lot of electricity, especially
in the summer. Spas consume a lot of power, especially in the winter. What
about a massive home entertainment center? These can easily consume
more energy than an old refrigerator, which is about the most inefficient
appliance ever made. And if you’re charging a golf cart or powering a motor
home in your driveway, keep in mind that they take a lot of power, too.
Room full of aquariums? Giant gym? You get the point.
Special situations
If you’re running a business in your home, your lighting, heating, and cooling costs will be higher. Your power bill may also be higher if you’re running
heavy equipment.
Chapter 3: Eliminating the Guesswork with Home Energy Audits
Other things to think about
Many people who want to become more energy efficient do it for two
reasons: to save money and to save the planet. If you’re one of the many
people interested in polluting less, add the following to your list of possible
areas for improvement:
What kind of garbage service do you have? Are there alternatives?
Does your trash collection agency offer recycling, for example, and if so,
what kind of recycling? You can call the customer service number for
Do you have sewer service or are you using a septic tank? If you’re
using a septic tank, how old is it and how long has it been since it was
serviced? If you don’t stay on top of your septic system, you may incur
extra costs when problems arise.
How much carbon and other pollutions are you producing in the
process of consuming energy in your home? If you have a cheap wood
stove, your cost may be very low (if you cut your own wood), but your
carbon footprint astronomical. Is this important to you? (See the
section “Calculating Your Own Carbon Footprint,” later in this chapter,
for details on how to do this.)
Do you have equipment that you know is going to need replacement? Are you
paying a lot of repair bills for a particular piece of equipment? Would you like
to invest in improvement? Check to see whether government agencies in your
area are offering subsidies for certain types of equipment. Your utility may
offer subsidies, too. See Chapter 4 for more details.
Paying Up: The Various Rate Structures
To figure out what you spend on energy consumption, you need to know not
only how much energy you use, but how you pay. Find out the answers to
these questions:
What, if any, utilities are bundled together? Are you charged separately
for your sewer and the water you use, for example, or is your sewage bill
part of your water bill?
Do you pay flat rates for your utilities or are they metered? Municipalities
that don’t use meters have very high rates of consumption, and some are
experiencing political pressure to change to meters. If you’re on a flat rate
for water or electricity, is your municipality one that’s considering the
change to meters? If so, try to anticipate how such a change may affect
what you pay. If you’re frugal (which you probably are because you’re
reading this book), you could end up paying less with a meter.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
When do you pay each of your utility bills? Most likely you write a
monthly check, but you may be on a different program. If you use
propane or oil, do you pay each time the tank is filled? How often is this,
and what are the annual and seasonal totals? Most trash bills are fixed
monthly, but you may have another structure.
Have unit costs changed over the last few years for each of your
resources? What’s the trend? (Natural gas fluctuates a lot in price,
whereas solar never varies.) Ask yourself what you expect prices to do in
the future, and evaluate how this would affect your household economy.
This type of information is important because you can find ways to save
money by simply changing a habit or two. For instance, if you’re on a TOU
(time of use) rate structure, you can take showers in the morning or evening
instead of the afternoon, when rates are at their peak.
Utilities charge you in a wide range of ways, particularly for electric service.
You should study your utility bills and determine which structures you’re
operating under. The answer makes a big difference in terms of how you can
best invest your money and time to make your home more efficient. The
following sections outline the main rate structure options.
Averaging, or amortizing, is common on power bills and sometimes on water
bills. It’s a way the utility company allows you to even out the severe ups and
downs in your bill. Some utilities average by simply reading your meter every
three or four months and then charging you proportionally for those months.
Another way is to average over an entire year, say the previous year’s
consumption, and charge you the same amount for all 12 months. At the end
of the year, you’re charged for any net surplus or shortage, and that amount
gets amortized into the next year’s billing.
Simple rate structure
Under a simple rate structure, the same rate applies to every unit of energy
you use, regardless of the amount of energy you use, when you use it, or any
other factor. This type of rate structure is rare because it doesn’t discourage
overconsumption. If your bill simply lists a single price for electricity, this is
the type of structure you are on.
Tiered structure
A tiered structure is the most common. For example, an electric utility may
charge 15 cents each for the first 300 kWh of electric energy you use in a
given month. The next 300 kWh may cost 30 cents each. The next 300 kWh
cost 45 cents each, and so on. By its progressively penal nature, this
structure encourages efficiency and conservation.
Chapter 3: Eliminating the Guesswork with Home Energy Audits
Time of use (TOU) structure
A time of use (TOU) structure charges depending on what time of day you use
power (it requires a special meter with a clock function). The most difficult time
for a utility to provide its customers with all the power they need is in the afternoon, when businesses are using the greatest amount of power. Utilities often
have to buy power from other utilities in order to meet this peak demand, and
this costs the utilities quite a bit more than the power they generate themselves.
So they charge you more for it — usually a lot more. Generally, prices are at their
highest between noon and 6 p.m. (referred to as peak time), although the hours
may vary. This is a difficult rate schedule to work with if you need a lot of air
conditioning in the summer, because it’s during this peak time that you want
your air conditioner on.
You probably won’t be able to ascertain whether you’re on this schedule by
looking at a single power bill because seasonal variations in pricing are very
common. You need to look at a power bill from the winter and compare it to
one from the summer (summer is almost always more expensive, because of
air-conditioning issues). Summer rates generally start in May and go through
September or October.
Combination structures
Combination structures are the most common. In Northern California where
I live, we have tiered, TOU, seasonal rate structures. Very difficult to understand, and it doesn’t help that most utility bills are virtually indecipherable.
Your best bet is to take it one piece at a time. Understand the tiered nature
on its own merits, then tackle the TOU structure, and so on. You can also call
the customer service number and talk to a representative; in my experience,
these people are very good, and patient, in explaining the details.
Figuring Out What You Spend
The best way to figure out what you spend — and where you potentially can
cut back — is to dissect your utility bills. By doing this, you get good data on
specifically where to look for the most rewarding investments in efficiency.
This is basically a three-step process: Gather all your data, plot it month by
month, and then analyze your results. The following sections give you the
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Collecting the data
The first thing you need to do is collect a stack of utility bills. If you don’t
already have them, call your utility companies (customer-service numbers
are always listed on the bills) and have them send you copies of your bills for
the past few years. Most utilities don’t charge for this service, and some even
do data analysis for you (they graph the data, which is much nicer than a
load of raw numbers; ask when you call). They may even offer other services,
like a free home energy audit.
In addition to your utility bills (water, electric, gas, trash, and sewer), you
need to compile a list of all the expenses associated with the resources you
use. Here’s a sampling of what you need, but you may have other items not
on this list:
Trash runs to the dump: If you take trash to the dump yourself, estimate
the cost by including everything: gasoline for your truck, other transport
expenses, costs at the landfill, and so on.
Manufactured logs: If you use manufactured logs, you don’t need to
come up with receipts; just estimate how many you use and how much
they cost. Transport and storage may also be significant.
Power generator: If you bought one, how much did it cost? If you rent
one, include the rental cost. Also include the cost of the gasoline you
use to run it.
Firewood: If you use firewood, include costs for the chainsaw, saw
blades, transportation for firewood, and rental (or purchase price) of a
wood splitter. And if you broke your arm while cutting firewood, include
the associated medical expenses, too.
Wood pellets and bio-energy products of any kind: Include all costs
associated with these.
Propane or natural gas: If you use either of these, include not only the
cost of the product, but also rental agreements, maintenance, and so on.
A lot of people pay a yearly rental for their propane tank.
Barbecue grill: Calculate how much you spend for charcoal, the propane, and the tanks. How much did the grill itself cost?
Lawn tools: Include any gasoline you buy for them, as well as the gas
canister if you bought one. If you buy gas (and/or a gas canister) for a
generator, include those costs, too.
Kerosene: If you use kerosene for lanterns, cooking, or heating, include
those costs.
Space heaters, portable air conditioners, dehumidifiers, swamp coolers,
and so on: If you bought any of these, include how much they cost and
estimate how much they cost to run. Check their labels for power
consumption; then estimate how much time they’re on, and when.
Chapter 3: Eliminating the Guesswork with Home Energy Audits
Candles and light bulbs: If you use them, add them to your list.
Batteries and chargers: Batteries can be very expensive, and most
people don’t consider them a part of their power consumption, but they
definitely are.
Maintenance and repair costs: These apply to energy equipment, such
as a woodstove, HVAC filters, appliances, and so on.
New equipment: If you bought a new water heater, new HVAC, or
anything else along these lines, add the replacement costs to your list,
as well as any delivery and installation charges.
Insulation: If you insulated your pipes, the cost is directly related to
your energy consumption.
Loans to buy energy-creating equipment: If you took out a loan to buy
something like a generator or woodstove, be sure to include the interest
on the loan as you calculate your energy costs.
Permits, fees, and taxes: Some additions require permits; some up your
taxes. You may have to obtain a county permit for installing a wood or
gas stove, for example. Or you may pay higher property taxes because
of a sunroom addition.
Bottled water: If you drink it, estimate how much and the cost.
As you compile your list, you’re likely to find that you’re spending a lot more
for resources than you thought, and you may be surprised by some of the
details. You’re already moving forward!
Plotting the details, month by month
Ultimately, you need to do some month-by-month estimations. The power
company bill is the easiest, along with water and trash. Here are some rules
for allocating other resource costs by month:
If you have a propane tank that’s filled periodically by the propane
company, you’ll have a tough time figuring out the monthly usage. Just
get the yearly total and divide that up on a monthly basis. If you only
use the propane for heat, allocate the cost to those months when you
use heat. If you use some for hot water and some for heat, divvy it up as
best you can. Make sure the total is right.
Ditto with firewood and all the associated expenses. Most people buy a
big stack once a year. How much did you use each month? Divvy up the
costs as best you can and make sure the total is right.
Servicing for equipment should be allocated according to the use of
that equipment. If you serviced a heater, allocate the cost only to those
months when you use heat.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Even if your water bill is fixed, estimate how much water you used on
a monthly basis. If possible, you should try to divide your water usage
according to the various functions for which you use it, such as sewer,
laundry, dishwasher, and so on. Landscaping may be the biggest water
consumer in your household, and this is important to know.
To determine monthly costs of a piece of equipment, follow these steps:
1. Determine what you paid.
Example: A gas fireplace costs $4,000 plus tax, plus another $200 for
permits and inspection. The total is $4,480.
2. Estimate how much that equipment increased the value of your home.
A gas fireplace may increase the value by $2,500.
3. Subtract how much the equipment increased the value of your home
from its total cost to get the net cost.
Subtract $2,500 from $4,480. The net cost of the fireplace is $1,980.
4. Estimate the lifetime of the equipment, in months.
The fireplace should be usable for ten years, or 120 months.
5. Calculate the monthly depreciation (loss of value) by dividing the net
value by the number of months in the equipment’s lifetime.
Divide $1,980 by 120. The fireplace costs $16.50 per month.
You can get fancy, if you want. Say the cost of the fireplace in the preceding
example is better allocated to only the winter months. The cost would then
be $33 over the six months from October through March.
You may want to plot several years’ worth of graphs to get a comprehensive
idea of your energy consumption. Individual years may be subject to strange
weather patterns or one-time-only events, like a big wedding or a lot of
relatives visiting at Christmas. You also want to watch out for isolated events
on your bills. If, for instance, one of your monthly statements includes a
one-time deduction as a result of your electric company settling a lawsuit with
energy providers who charged too much, you need to factor this sort of thing
out because it has no bearing on your habits.
Chapter 3: Eliminating the Guesswork with Home Energy Audits
Big reasons for high energy bills
Do you have a really high bill? One that sticks
out like a sore thumb? Here are the most likely
The addition of occupants in your home
The addition of appliances, like a freezer in
the garage
Faulty appliances
High rates of outdoor air infiltration into
your home (You may have a faulty weather
seal on a door that needs fixing, or you may
have a bad attic trap door.)
The use of too much electrical resistance
Hot water leaks
Use of appliances with large motors (pumps,
compressors, air conditioners)
Seasonal appliances — electric blankets,
a dehumidifier, lots of shop lighting, power
An estimated bill or one that reflects a
higher time period
A wedding or a big party
Uncle Bill’s motor home parked in the driveway
Keeping Up With the Joneses:
A Real-Life Scenario
The best way to illustrate how to put all your data together is to use Bill
Toomuch as an example. Bill and his small family live on a five-acre ranch in
California in a 2,700-square-foot house. With the exception of a small gas
fireplace in their great room, all their energy comes from the electric
company. They have an above-ground swimming pool and a hot tub. Water
is supplied by a well. Analyzing Bill’s energy consumption demonstrates by
example how to go about systematically analyzing your own situation.
Looking at Bill’s resource costs
Bill lists his resource costs as follows:
Bill called PG&E and got four years’ worth of history, broken down by
month. Figure 3-1 shows one of Bill’s typical electric utility bills. The bill is
for the period from 1/12/2007 to 2/12/2007. The total for the bill is $403.30.
Because they have a well, Bill doesn’t have a water bill, but the cost of
his water supply shows up on his electric bill because the well is
powered by an electric pump.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
The household fills a 64-gallon trash container every week. They also fill
a 64-gallon container for recyclables every other week. Paper,
cardboard, bottles, cans, and plastics are all placed into a single
recycling bin. The cost is $32 per month.
Bill uses three gallons of gasoline a month in lawn mowers, leaf blowers,
and so on. That’s around $8 per month.
Bill spends $15 per month in propane for a barbecue.
The HVAC system broke down and cost $267 to fix, for a monthly total of
In the colder months, Bill burns liquid propane in the gas fireplace in the
great room. His costs by month are
December (Christmas cheer!)
Bill’s wife loves candles; they cost around $28 per month.
Bill spends $23 per month in batteries for remotes, flashlights, sprinkler
controllers, and so forth.
The house is on a septic tank, so there is no sewer. Every three years
the tank must be pumped out (yuck. . . ) at a cost of $300, which is $100
per year, or $8 per month. Last year a repair was made (double yuck!) at
a cost of $480, which is amortized over ten years at $48 per year.
Bill Toomuch has a tiered, seasonal rate structure. The baseline usage rate
for the first 1,033 kWh is $0.11430. (I didn’t even know a thousandth of a
penny existed.) For 101 to 130 percent of that baseline, the rate goes up to
$0.12989, not much of an increase. For 131 to 200 percent of the baseline,
usage costs $0.22944, and for 201 to 300 percent, the cost is $0.32146. This
latter rate is nearly three times the base rate — quite a penalty! From a
conservation standpoint, this means that if Bill can reduce his energy
consumption by a few kWh, he’ll save 32 cents per kWh because the upper
tiers will be erased from the bill first.
Chapter 3: Eliminating the Guesswork with Home Energy Audits
Telephone Assistance
Assistance is available by
telephone 24 hours per day,
7 days per week.
Local Office Address
Energy Commission Tax
Account Number
February 2007
Service Dates
01/12/2007 To 02/12/2007
Previous Balance
01/23 Payment - Thank You
560.58 -
DUE DATE - 03/05/2007
Rate Schedule : E1 SH Residential Service
Billing Days :
32 days
Outage Blk
Meter #
Meter Read
Meter Read
2,311 kWh
01/12/2007 - 02/12/2007
Electric Charges
Baseline Quantity
Balance Usage
101-130% of Baseline
131-200% of Baseline
201-300% of Baseline
Net Charges
1,033.60000 kWh
1,033.60000 kWh
310.08000 kWh
723.52000 kWh
843.80000 kWh
The net charges shown above include the following component(s).
Please see definitions on Page 2 of the bill.
Public Purpose Programs
Nuclear Decommissioning
Trust Transfer Amount (TTA)
DWR Bond Charge
Ongoing CTC
Energy Cost Recovery Amount
Energy Commission Tax
Figure 3-1:
electric utility bill.
Usage Comparison
Days Billed
kWh Billed
kWh per Day
This Year
Last Year
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
To get some meaning out of all this gobbledygook, Bill simply divides the
total of his bill by the number of kWh used. The result: 17.5 cents per kWh.
(Comparing this to some other parts of the country is instructive. In
central Florida, the overall rate is around 11.6 cents per kWh. In Milwaukee
it’s around 10.4 cents. As usual, California is leading the way into the future,
which in this case is higher energy prices.)
Plotting Bill’s energy expenditures
Table 3-2 shows an example of annual energy expenditures plotted by month.
Table 3-2
Monthly Energy Expenditures, Plotted by Month
kWh used
Total Utility
Do a little calculation, and you see that Bill uses, on average, 1,970 kWh
a month. For all his energe needs, he spends about $604 a month, $361 of
which is for electric only.
Analyzing Bill’s energy costs
If you take a close look at Bill’s data, you’ll notice a few interesting — and
enlightening — details:
The heater is on a lot in the winter, and the air-conditioner is on a lot
in the summer. The rates are higher in the summer than they are in the
winter. Your data should look similar, unless you have unusual climate
conditions. If you’re in a cold climate, the magnitudes of the data may be
different, but the overall shape will be similar.
Chapter 3: Eliminating the Guesswork with Home Energy Audits
You can establish your baseline usage by looking at the months in which
no heating or air-conditioning is used at all. April and October are the
usual candidates. In the example, Bill’s approximate baseline electric
usage is around 1,600 kWh. By subtracting each month’s total from the
baseline, it’s possible to determine approximately how much Bill is
spending on heating and air-conditioning:
The average American consumes around 20 kWh per day. Bill uses over
three times that amount. His house is bigger, with a lot of extra goodies,
but there still seems to be room for a lot of improvement.
You can see how the kWh charge is higher in the summer on the seasonal rate structure.
Calculating Your Own Carbon Footprint
In addition to auditing your personal costs, taking a look at how much
pollution you’re generating in your home is worthwhile, particularly if your
main goal is pollution efficiency. A very common term these days is carbon
footprint, which just means how much carbon you’re emitting into the atmosphere through your various energy consuming activities. Carbon (or more
precisely, carbon dioxide) is important because it’s the main cause of global
Here’s a fact of physics: When you consume energy, it doesn’t simply go away;
rather, it changes into some other form. Burning gasoline creates carbon
dioxide and a thousand other pollutants. The chemical and atomic bonds
between the molecules and atoms in the gasoline are broken down, and heat
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Greenhouse effect and global warming
The best way to understand the phenomenon
of global warming is to consider your own car
sitting in the hot sun. Window glass transmits
sunlight so that it enters the interior of your
car. The sunlight then hits the seats, the floor,
and so on and is converted into heat. The heat
begins to build up inside the car because the
same window glass that let the sunlight into the
car resists letting the heat back out. Windows
are excellent transmitters of light, but very poor
transmitters of heat (good insulators, in other
The earth’s atmosphere operates like a window.
It lets in sunlight very nicely, but it also has
insulation properties. When increased carbon
dioxide is trapped in the atmosphere, sunlight
transmission is basically unaffected, but the
insulation properties are increased, so more
heat is trapped. Hence, our planet is getting
warmer for the same reason that your car gets
warmer when it’s sitting in the sun. The phenomenon is called the greenhouse effect; it explains
why greenhouses work so well in the wintertime (and may get too hot in the summer).
is released in the process. To put things into perspective, consider that a
gallon of gasoline weighs only 6 pounds, but in the process of burning it in
your auto engine, 20 pounds of carbon dioxide is released. This is a higher
weight than the original fuel because oxygen from the air is combined with
the liquid gasoline in the auto’s carburetor. So the pollution that comes from
burning gasoline weighs more than the original gasoline, and valuable oxygen
is taken from the air and replaced with polluting CO2.
Table 3-3 lists how much carbon pollution is released into the atmosphere
due to the consumption of common energy sources.
Table 3-3
Carbon Pollution of Common Energy Sources
Energy Source
Pounds CO2 / Unit
Natural gas
12.1/British thermal unit
Liquid propane
1.75/kilowatt hour
Chapter 3: Eliminating the Guesswork with Home Energy Audits
As you digest the info from Table 3-3, keep these points in mind:
The amount of carbon pollution generated by the production of
electricity varies quite a bit depending on the type of generators
being used. States with nuclear power can generate as little as 0.03
lb/kWh, while regions with coal plants may produce as much as
2.24. The national average is 1.75.
Wood that is left on the forest floor emits the same amount of CO2 as it
rots away as it does when it’s burned, so whether burning wood is really
polluting the atmosphere is an interesting question. The same cannot
be said for the other combustion sources, because if they’re left alone,
there is no pollution at all. (Of course, it should also be mentioned that if
you’re out in the woods working your tail off, you’re a lot healthier than
the average couch potato, and that has its advantages.)
Did you know that your home is probably emitting more CO2 than your car?
Just because you can’t see it with your naked eye doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Consider these tidbits:
A typical midsized automobile that travels 12,000 miles annually emits
around 13,000 pounds of CO2 per year.
A typical home that uses 600 gallons of home heating oil emits around
13,500 pounds of CO2 per year.
A typical North American home consumes around 700 kWh per month in
electricity, for an emission of 14,700 pounds of CO2 per year.
If you burn a cord of firewood for heat, you’re emitting around 3,814
pounds of CO2.
Auditing Your Home to Find
Areas for Improvement
Once you’ve finished crunching the numbers, you’re ready for the next phase
of your home audit. Now you need to go around and carefully inspect both
the interior and exterior of your home and identify areas where you can make
improvements. Most people find that a majority of improvements are simple
and can be done by a do-it-yourselfer for less than a hundred dollars. Some
projects, however, are big, and in Part II, I help you determine how to handle
An audit of your home helps you accomplish five key objectives, listed here
in order of importance:
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Ensuring safety. Safety is the most important aspect of any home. If
your home is not safe and free of contaminants, it doesn’t matter how
efficient it is in other regards.
Maximizing your house’s longevity and durability. The biggest
detriment to a home’s lifetime is moisture problems, which only get
worse when ignored.
Enhancing your home’s livability. Air leaks affect both the livability of a
home and the amount of energy it takes to heat and cool a home.
Analyzing the costs and benefits of making improvements. The more
you know, the better the decisions you make.
Creating a game plan that enables you to make your home more
efficient. Having a plan can save time and money and help you target
the most important areas.
If you have gas-burning equipment and, like most people, are not well-versed
in the technology, hiring a professional auditor to inspect it is usually best. I
do not give you instructions in this book on how to inspect or adjust gas-fired
machinery because there are too many different kinds, and they’re too
dangerous to be messing around with.
Grunting it out: The inspection
In this section, I explain how to systematically inspect your home. I get into a
lot of detail in the bulk of this book on how to address problems when you find
them. In this section, I just tell you where to look for problems. If you find one,
look at the chapter that addresses that specific issue. For instance, if you find
moisture under your washing machine, go to Chapter 11 on appliances. If you
find an air leak, go to Chapter 7, which tells you how to seal your home.
So put on your grungiest clothes, because you’re going to be climbing around
in your basement and attic. First up: Go around your home and carefully look
at everything. You’ve probably glanced around before, but now you’re going
to sharpen your focus. The following sections take you through the various
areas of your home and explain what to pay attention to.
Foundation and structural elements
The place to begin your inspection is outside and beneath your home.
Although you live inside, what happens outside is of critical importance:
Look up into all your eaves. Are there vents? Are they dirty? Are there
bug nests? Moisture damage (look for spots and mildew)? Is wood
rotting anywhere? How’s the paint job?
Chapter 3: Eliminating the Guesswork with Home Energy Audits
Inspect the foundation. Are there openings or gaps? Why? Are the gaps
sealed where pipes feed through? Are there vents? Are they dirty? Are
there cracks in concrete or masonry walls? Are pads secure and dry?
Underneath your house, look for moisture issues. Where is the water
coming from? Why? Does it stink?
If you have a basement, go down there and look for water leaks and air
leaks. Check to see if the pipes are insulated. Check for signs of pesky
little rodents.
Check out your roof (be very careful; falling off the roof is more common
than you may think). Is it leaking anywhere that you know of? What’s the
condition? At what point are you going to have to get a new roof?
On the outside of your house, inspect wherever two different types of building materials come together. Are these joints sealed? Is there leakage?
Checking for water leaks is your first order of business in the attic. Finding
evidence of these may be difficult. If you do find evidence of a leak, you may
have trouble tracing it up to the roof where it’s coming in, but it pays to try.
You also want to pay attention to the insulation in your attic. Are there
gaps in it? Are there voids around ceiling light fixtures? Is there evidence of
rodents or pests? Do you see a lot of spider webs? Are there vents to the outside world? Are they dirty so that air has a difficult time passing through?
Also check out your attic vent system (see Chapter 13 for more details).
If you can, make a sketch of your plumbing system, including both hot and
cold water pipes. Where do they go? Where are the feed-throughs? After you
complete this schematic, look at the following things:
Are there any leaks? Are the hot water pipes covered with insulation?
Are the pipes adequately tacked down, or are they flopping around? Is
the system old? Rusty?
Are there any dripping faucets? Check both inside and out. Do the
faucets work the way they should?
Check for clogged drains (especially in a basement floor; these are
incredible sources of microbes).
Are you aware of any plumbing problems? Toilets that don’t work the
way they should? Shower drains that are too slow? Unpleasant odors in
bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, garages?
Check under all your sinks for leaks. They’ll usually stink, and the particleboard will be moldering and warped. Where’s the leak coming from? Maybe
the disposal is leaking. You may have to turn the water on to find out.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Heating and cooling
Since heating and cooling costs are the biggest factor in most home’s energy
use, it pays to check out heating and cooling systems on a periodic basis.
Do certain parts of your house always seem too warm or too cold? Find out
why; if you poke around, you may be able to unearth the cause. Is there a
draft somewhere? If you have a difficult time, consult an HVAC professional.
Is one heater vent always too hot compared to the others? Too cold? Check
out the ductwork to find potential problems. In my experience, a majority
of homes have gaps in the ductwork and don’t know it. These are easy and
inexpensive to fix. (See Chapter 7 for instructions and suggestions.)
To find leaks in a forced-air HVAC’s ductwork, turn your HVAC system
on and get access to the ducts (this may be a real hassle in your attic or
basement, requiring you to twist into odd pretzel shapes, but forge on for
the good of humanity!). Dip your hand into a bowl of water (a wet hand
makes air movement much easier to feel) and move your hand around
the ducts, particularly where the joints are, and check for air leaks. Check
where the ducts join up to the registers leading into your home.
Can you find out what kind of insulation is in the walls and ceilings? How
thick is it? You don’t need a numerical measurement, but you want to try to
see whether it fills the voids. If you’re in an old house, you probably don’t
have very good insulation. Also find out whether there’s insulation beneath
your floors, particularly below the area where you spend the greatest amount
of time (probably the family room).
Are your windows single-pane or double-pane? Do you have storm windows?
Do you use them? Do you have blinds? Do you use them? How about solar
screens for the summertime?
If you have a window that gets condensation between the two panes of glass,
you have a leak in the seal. It won’t affect the window’s net insulation very
much, but the windows will sooner or later become permanently obscured.
Check out all the filters in your home. Furnace filters are located at the
input vent; you should replace these regularly. If you don’t, they’ll become
extremely dirty. Exhaust fans sometimes have filters that you may not even
know about. Look up inside; take off the cover cowling if you need to. Dryers
have lint filters. Faucets have filters that regularly collect crud. If your faucet
is squirting around erratically, change the filter.
Chapter 3: Eliminating the Guesswork with Home Energy Audits
Other places to investigate
In addition to the obvious places to look, here are some more candidates.
Check out your fireplace. Is the damper working properly? (It should
move so that it opens and closes easily.) Have you been operating it
properly? Are any seals old and frayed?
Check out your fuse box. Do you have problems with blown fuses for
which you can’t seem to identify a reason? Are wires frayed? Is the box
covered well? Trace some wires and try to get the gist of the overall
layout of your home’s electrical system.
Check under all appliances and sinks for moisture. Where is it coming
Go through your home and check out the wattage of each light bulb.
Note what type of bulb each is. You can probably get by with a lot less
wattage, and in a lot of spots you could change to a fluorescent (see
Chapter 9 for more details).
Look for air leaks. In Chapter 7, I describe a method for finding air leaks
in your home.
Hiring professional auditors
If you’re not up to the challenge of auditing your own home, simply don’t
want to, or have gas-burning equipment, you may decide to go with a
professional. Several sources are available.
You can call your power company, which will probably do an audit for you.
It may be a mail-in type of deal, in which case you may as well just struggle
through it yourself because by the time you’re done compiling enough
information to make the mail-in audit worthwhile, you basically will have
done the job yourself. The same applies to Internet audits. Plus, online
resources that offer energy audits will probably try to sell you something you
don’t need.
Professional audit companies will impress you with all their cool stuff. They
have fancy gizmos that use invisible infrared light to measure the temperature of your interior surfaces, and they use them to pinpoint leaks. They’ll
check out your furnace, which is worthwhile. They’ll inspect your ductwork
and look for cracks in your foundation. They can tell you in precise mathematical terms just how leaky your house is.
But the fact is, the biggest inefficiencies are usually easy to detect, especially
if you’ve never even tried before. I can tell you from experience doing audits
that most houses have glaring problems that can usually be fixed for less
than a few hundred dollars. The biggest culprit? Loose joints in the ductwork,
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
which result in untold hundreds of dollars of wasted energy costs per year.
And you can fix them up with aluminum or duct tape for less than $10.
If you do decide to hire an auditor, look here:
Consult NAESCO (National Association of Energy Service Companies) at
202-822-0950 or www.
In the phone book, look under “energy conservation services and
products.” Locate utility companies under “electric service,” “utility
providers,” or “gas utility companies.”
Check out for a free home energy audit and carbon
footprint estimates.
For a sample of an energy audit, look at
As you check out different auditors, consider the following:
Do you want to make a change or improvement in your home? Ask how
this would fit in with the results of your audit and ask for some advice.
Auditors have tons of experience, and they’re usually proud to expound.
Ask about financing programs the company has for improvements the
auditor suggests.
Ask about guarantees for their work. If they tell you that you can achieve
a certain cost reduction, how accurate do they warrant that claim to be?
Tell the auditors before they come out to your home that you want them to
tell you which jobs you can do yourself. If they balk, find somebody else.
After you hire a professional auditor, you still need to do a bit of work yourself, which essentially requires amassing some info:
Assemble all your electric and utility bills. Go back two or three years.
Make a list of occupants’ habits regarding energy usage. Are you home
all day every day (is anyone?), or are you home mainly during the evenings, for example?
Note the thermostat setting in your house. Do you change it depending
on the season or other factors?
Make a list of questions you have. If something seems wrong with your
house, write that down, too.
Chapter 4
Financing Efficiency Improvements
In This Chapter
Looking into the various incentives and assistance programs available
Using loans to finance your energy-efficiency projects
Working with banks and financial institutions
lot of government programs are geared toward helping consumers
make efficiency improvements. These range from solar subsidies to
Department of Energy programs designed to help you decide which appliances
are the most energy-efficient. Not only can you get information, but you can
also get free money in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, and rebates. I’d rather
have free money, so I focus more on that aspect in this chapter.
Utility companies also offer a range of programs, including free information as
well as free money. The programs available are too numerous for me to list in
detail, and they’re constantly changing, so I tell you how to research the benefits they offer on your own.
Last but not least, you may want to consider financing your energy-efficiency
improvements via a loan. I tell you the best way to go about doing so, and I give
you some tips on how to work with banks.
Understanding the Different
Types of Assistance
Many different types of government assistance are available, and it pays to
understand exactly how the various programs differ from each other.
For those skeptics out there who are howling, “There’s no such thing as a free
lunch,” I’m with you 100 percent. But if you take into account how much money
you pay in taxes and utility bills, all you’re really doing here is getting some of it
back, and that’s hardly a free lunch. It’s more like paying for somebody else’s lunch
for three days in a row, and then having them pay for part of yours one day.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Rebates are money that’s given back to a customer after a purchase is made.
You’re probably familiar with rebates for consumer goods like appliances,
and energy-efficiency rebates operate basically the same way. But being born
of government, the latter are laden with details generally incomprehensible
to the average layperson.
The way solar rebates work in California serves as an example of the
complexity involved. For a PV system, you can get up to 25 percent of the
system’s cost in rebates, but the actual amount depends on the system’s
productivity. (PV stands for photovoltaic, which is a solar electrical generating apparatus.) The state has a very specific computer program that predicts system performance. Inputs are
Your geographical location: Data banks have been created with the
statistical weather patterns in your area.
The size and orientation of your solar collectors: The greatest solar
exposure comes from a specific roof angle (depending on your latitude)
and a specific azimuth angle — namely, true south.
Whether your solar collectors are in full sunshine or not: If a tree or
building shades your solar collectors, they collect less sunlight energy,
which is a form of inefficiency.
The efficiency of your system: This is also related to a system’s
For a perfect solar location, the state will rebate 25 percent of the cost of
your solar system. Most rebates come in at around 20 to 24 percent. When
they come in much lower than that, your solar investment quickly loses
allure and cost effectiveness declines.
The rebate is paid directly to the professional solar contractor, so the customer
does not need to finance the entire investment and then wait to get the rebate
back. This is a good facet because it means you don’t have to front the money.
A buy-down caveat complicates the matter even further. As time progresses,
the rebates are scheduled to decrease, which encourages solar customers to
buy now rather than later. Ideally, as the rebates diminish, prices will come
down due to market forces so the net cost of a system won’t change over
time. (Well, okay. But when do government programs ever work the way
they’re supposed to? On the other hand, just be glad you don’t get all the
government that you pay for.)
As you can see, free government money comes with some complexity and
many strings attached, and it pays to understand the details. But it’s free
money, so what’s the beef?
Chapter 4: Financing Efficiency Improvements
Tax credits
Tax credits are an increasingly common form of subsidy. You must buy
a certain type of system to qualify, and the credit is taken on either your
state or federal tax return. This means you must carry the cost until your
return is filed, and any refund comes back to you. This can take over a
year, depending on when you buy a system. Still, a tax credit is far better
than a tax deduction, and here’s why: A tax deduction is subtracted from
your income so that your tax burden is less. If you’re paying a marginal tax
rate of 28 percent and you get a deduction for $1,000, you save $280. A tax
credit, on the other hand, is subtracted from your taxes. A $1,000 tax credit
saves you $1,000! Yee-ha!
For example, the federal government allows a 30 percent tax credit for both
hydro turbine systems and solar water-heating systems, up to a maximum of
$2,000 per year. If your solar water-heater costs $6,000 to install, you get $2,000
off the price. If your hydro turbine costs $30,000, you only get $2,000 off the
price. This encourages smaller investments because you save a greater
percentage. The way to game this strategy is to spread your investments out
over time. Install a solar water heater this year, and a hydro turbine next. And
if possible, install two small systems instead of one big one.
By understanding the precise details, you can achieve more benefit from the
Protection from property tax increases
Many states have laws that prevent your property taxes from rising due to
the increase in value of your home from an efficiency investment. So if you
install a $40,000 solar PV system, your county cannot reassess your property
and charge you extra taxes for having a home that’s worth $40,000 more.
Home-operated business advantages
If you have a home business or office, you may qualify for the higher tax
credits and rebates that are offered as incentives for businesses to become
more energy efficient. Businesses can also take advantage of accelerated
depreciation schedules for most energy-efficiency equipment.
Why do businesses get bigger tax breaks and rebates? One reason is that
businesses use most of their energy in the middle of the afternoon when the
greatest burden is being shouldered by the utilities. Another is that the green
spirit that motivates many energy-efficiency investments does not exist for
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Taking advantage of these incentives can get complex; ask your tax preparer
for the details.
Net metering
Net metering means that you can sell your solar generated power to the
utilities by hooking up special equipment to your household electrical system.
Utilities are not particularly enthusiastic about offering rebates, nor do they
really want residential customers to hook solar equipment up to the grid (not
because they’re grouchy, but because it diminishes their business base).
Recognizing this, the 1978 federal Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA)
mandates local utilities to pay “avoided” or wholesale costs to entities that
wish to sell it. In other words, the utilities must pay you exactly what it costs
them to produce the power they would be providing; they can’t profit from
your being hooked up to the grid. They may not pay you exactly what they sell
you the power for, but they have to pay you exactly what it costs them.
This is the basis for net metering, which makes solar PV investment viable (see
Chapter 16 for details of the whys and wherefores). Without net metering, solar
PV would be no more than a rare novelty (like good pop music).
States often have even more stringent net metering rules. In California, the
utilities must pay you the same rate that they charge for power (rather than
the “avoided cost”). For instance, if you’re on a time of use (TOU) rate
schedule, the utility must pay you the same rates it charges customers at
different times of the day. This is a very strong incentive for installing solar
systems because the highest power rates are always in the middle of the
afternoon, which is also the time when solar PV systems are outputting at
the maximum rate. So if you have a PV intertie system (intertie means you’re
hooked up to the power grid), you can game your power consumption to
leverage the exchange of energy (see Chapter 16 for the technical details).
Manufacturers’ rebates
Manufacturers’ rebates work the same for energy-efficiency improvements as
they do for other products. You buy a system or component, and the manufacturer either gives you an instant rebate or one that you send away for by
mailing in proof of your purchase. These rebates are very common these days,
especially for products that feature the Energy Star label (see Chapter 11
for more details on Energy Star).
Chapter 4: Financing Efficiency Improvements
Tax-deductible home-equity loans
Although they may not be a direct subsidy of energy-efficiency improvements,
tax-deductible home-equity loans are akin to government subsidies because
you can write off the interest on such loans (writing it off means subtracting it
from your taxable income, resulting in a smaller net tax burden).
If you take out a second mortgage to pay for your energy-efficiency equipment,
the government lets you deduct the interest on that loan. So if you’re making
a monthly payment of, say, $300 for a second mortgage, your net cost may be
only $200. It works exactly like a subsidy.
Researching Your Subsidy Options
Things are changing so fast, keeping up with all the different government
programs is impossible. I can only point you in the right direction and give
you a nudge. It’s up to you to poke around and get all the details for yourself.
Here’s how to research the subject further:
Talk to your tax preparer. This person should be well-versed in the
details of tax credits and deductions. If not, he’ll be able to access the
information sources that will be needed to process your rebates and tax
credits. Many of these programs are relatively new; give your preparer a
break if he doesn’t know the details upfront, but keep at him to find out.
Expect to pay more for your tax preparation because more forms will be
required (indecipherable to the average layperson, so if you’re thinking
about preparing your own, be forewarned).
Talk to energy-efficiency contractors. These people know all the
subsidies because this knowledge helps them sell systems. PV
contractors are experts at tax credits and rebates, and they will usually
help you process them as well. Most stove stores know the ins and outs
of local ordinances and whether utility rebates are available.
Ask your utility company. Utilities don’t necessarily want to give you
information, but they have to. So if you push a little, you can get all
kinds of information, and it’s almost always free. Call the customer
service number on your utility bill and go from there. Ask too many
questions, even if they don’t seem appropriate. You’ll be surprised at
how much you can find out this way. And be very nice; they’re not used
to that, being what they are. If you’re nice, they may even go out of their
way to be nice right back. Just don’t expect it.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Look online. The Internet is a great source of information. Use a search
engine to look up key words like “solar energy tax incentives,” “energy
efficiency rebates,” and so on. Here are some Web sites to consult for
more details:
When doing research, keep in mind that subsidies may be available for all
kinds of systems. For instance, if you install an energy-efficient front door, you
may qualify for a 10-percent tax credit. Gas fireplaces may get you a credit. Be
expansive in your search, and you can find all sorts of little goodies.
Financing through Loans
Many energy-efficiency investments are large enough that you may need to
take out a loan to implement them. There are several different types of loans
you can pursue. This section gives you the lowdown. (For advice on securing
your loan from a bank, see the section “Working with Banks: Their Way or the
Highway” later in this chapter.)
Consumer loans
Consumer loans don’t require any collateral, so the risk is high. You can get
a credit card with a $30,000 credit limit far easier than should ever be possible. The reason it’s so easy? The interest rate is sky high; the bank expects
a number of defaults, and lets the customers who don’t default cover the
losses from the ones who do. Plus, you don’t get any sort of tax deduction
on the interest, so the net result is that these loans are even costlier. These
creditors are the modern version of loan sharks, although they no longer
break your fingers when you default. If you’re a good credit risk, avoid consumer loans like the plague and get a loan that’s more beneficial to you.
Chapter 4: Financing Efficiency Improvements
Supplier loans
Supplier loans are available from manufacturers and suppliers who provide
energy-efficiency equipment. They use the equipment itself as collateral.
These loans are somewhat akin to automobile loans that are offered by car
dealers to buyers who purchase a vehicle. The car is collateral, so if you
don’t make your loan payment, they come to your house late at night and
take back the car — perfectly legal. If you default on one of these loans for
your solar equipment, they may come in the middle of the night and grab the
collectors off your roof. You probably won’t mistake them for Santa Claus.
Equity loans
Equity loans are the most common option, and they’re also the best. In those
parts of the country where real estate values are rising, homeowners enjoy
equity, which is the difference between what is owed in mortgages on the
home and the home’s market value (or appraised value, which should be the
same but rarely is).
You can use your equity to get a loan at a much lower interest rate because
the bank’s risk is greatly reduced by using real estate as collateral. They don’t
need to come after the equipment you have financed (they generally don’t
care what you do with the money, so they may not even know about your new
energy-efficiency equipment) because they can go after the house itself. They
know that homeowners are going to pay off their debts long before they let a
bank take their home away.
Furthermore, home-equity loans are generally tax deductible (consult your
tax preparer blah, blah, blah). If your combined state and federal marginal
tax rate is 35 percent, $100 per month in interest payments only costs you
energy-efficiency loans
The government is interested in promoting energy efficiency, so it makes a
wide range of loan subsidies available. In essence, the government accepts part
of the risk of the loan, and a bank therefore can offer you a lower interest rate.
Looking into the various government programs is worth your while because
you can often get a loan for better terms.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Home energy ratings
A number of financing programs are available for energy-efficiency
improvements (solar, in particular) to homes that qualify. In order to
qualify, you need to have your home audited and rated by a licensed
expert, who writes a report estimating annual energy use and costs.
You can also expect some recommendations for improvements that may
have to be implemented as a condition of loan approval. To get the best
loan terms, you have to convince the financing institution that the
improvements you intend to fund with the loan make sense in the grand
scheme of things. That’s reasonable.
If things look good, you can take advantage of special energy-efficient financing
programs that offer lower interest rates than conventional loans. Keep in mind,
however, that with these loans you’re required to pay for the energy audit and
interface with government agencies.
Energy Efficient Mortgages (EEMs)
There are two types of Energy Efficient Mortgages (EEMs): one for existing
homes and another for new ones. Here’s a quick breakdown of who’s providing
what, but keep in mind that we’re talking about the government here, so terms
and programs are subject to change at the whim of a congressperson from the
Fannie Mae, the Federal National Mortgage Association, encourages
lenders to provide EEMs by establishing guidelines and certain types of
incentives. Check out what’s available at
Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Mortgage Loan Corporation, is basically
the same as Fannie Mae, but is generally more interested in long-term
loans. Check it out at
Farmer Mac (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) is for those of
you who are down on the farm. Go to
Here are some other potentially useful government agencies (I said potentially):
Department of Energy (DOE):
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): www.hud.
State agencies: Often providers of subsidized loans in addition
to federal agencies. Check out the prospects at
(National Association of State Energy Officials).
Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET): A network of mortgage
bankers, builders, and so forth. Check them out at
Chapter 4: Financing Efficiency Improvements
Other sources of subsidized financing
Utilities may provide subsidized financing as well. Not because they want
to, but because they’re required to by law. You can find a customerservice number on your utility bill, and there may even be a particular
branch dedicated to subsidized loans.
Equipment vendors sometimes provide loans, just like car dealers.
However, they generally sign up with an equity loan broker and simply act
as a sales outlet for that broker’s loans. You could probably find slightly
better interest rates by going directly to a bank, but the convenience may
offset the cost. Or, a vendor may actually offer better terms because they
have a strong incentive to close the sale, and making inexpensive financing
available helps considerably.
Leasing Energy-Efficient Equipment
Here’s a new financing idea that’s taking hold: Companies install solar
equipment on your roof, but they retain ownership of the equipment. You
basically lease it from them for either a fixed monthly cost or a percentage of
the system’s production. This works nicely if you save more on your power
bill than the monthly cost of the lease. You don’t have to maintain the
equipment because it’s not yours.
Alternatively, you can use these programs to lock in the cost of your energy
so that when it rises, you are securely hedged. You don’t have to have any
cash up front, and this is a very popular way to finance a big purchase,
as evidenced by how many autos are leased on the same basic principle.
Ultimately, financing the equipment yourself — actually purchasing it rather
than leasing it — is almost always a better investment from a return standpoint.
But many people simply don’t have the cash, prefer to spend their money on
something else, or don’t want to sign up for a loan because it will appear on a
credit application.
Be aware that, just as with cars, there is a residual value at the end of the
lease, and if your equipment has decreased in value for some reason, you may
have to pay a big chunk to get out of the lease.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Working with Banks: Their
Way or the Highway
In my view, banks rank (and rank they are) right up there with governmental
institutions for charm and affability. Regardless of which financial institution
or bank you decide to work with, you’re better prepared if you know how
banks work and what rules you need to (or should) follow.
The reason people get so frustrated at bankers is that they have hordes of
rules and regulations that come from above. This may seem onerous to you,
the consumer, but it makes perfect sense from the bank’s standpoint because
mistakes cost a lot of money and need to be avoided. When you approach a
bank for a loan, keep these things in mind:
Banks have very rigid rules and procedures. The people you will be
talking to have absolutely no power to alter these. If you don’t package
your programs, proposals, and ideas in the bank’s format, you’re wasting
your time.
You, the borrower, are not the bank’s customer. A bank’s customers are
the people who give them money, not the people who borrow it. Banks
make profits (capitalism’s central objective) by lending you money at
higher rates than they have to pay their customers for their money.
Banks are concerned with risk. They constantly strive to make loans
at the lowest risk possible. When somebody defaults on a mortgage,
especially a second one, it’s very costly for the bank. If you want to do
business with a bank, your goal should be to present yourself as a
low-risk proposition.
Chapter 5
Making Tradeoffs That
Work for You
In This Chapter
Choosing investments wisely
Using a system for analyzing the options
Real-life scenarios you can compare with your own investment decisions
ot all investments in efficiency improvement take cash. You can do
many things around your home that involve simply changing your
consumption habits or changing the way you set your thermostat. But
almost all investments require you to choose from among several alternatives. Having only a single choice on your hands is rare. Choosing wisely
requires a system of balancing energy efficiency, financial efficiency, pollution efficiency, and labor efficiency, and everybody prioritizes these criteria
in their own way. In this chapter, I show you how to account for the various
factors that come into play in your decision-making process.
Setting Efficiency Investment Goals
When you make investments — in time, money, or just sheer effort — to
become more energy-efficient, the trick is to put together a strategy that
works for you and helps you meet your own goals. Whereas one person’s
goal may be solely to become more “green,” another person’s goal may be
to reduce consumptions simply to save money. And quite a few people, no
doubt, want to make gains in both areas: saving money and doing more to
help the environment.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Think of investments in energy efficiency as you would financial investments.
There are more similarities than you may realize:
Choosing options that work for you. Financial investment pros help
their clients assemble a portfolio, or mixture, of investments from the
many options available. You also have myriad options in investments for
energy efficiency. One option is not to invest in energy efficiency at all.
You can just leave your house the way it is. When something breaks, you
don’t have to replace it with a new, improved version; you can just put
the same thing back in.
Alternatively, you can make small investments that garner small, but
real, rewards. Examples include replacing incandescent light bulbs with
energy-efficient bulbs, caulking around your window frames to keep
the draft out, or wrapping your furnace ducts in insulation to keep the
warmth in. Maybe you’re into big changes: replacing the old doublefurnace in your basement with a brand new energy-efficient model, or
scrapping traditional heating systems altogether and going solar. The
point is that you can take big steps or little steps, but all steps lead you
in the right direction.
Dealing with risk. An important factor to consider in building a financial
portfolio is the risk profile. Some investments entail more risk than
others and need to offer more of a chance for gain to offset the
increased risk. The same is true with energy-efficiency investments: To
justify the expense of a big-ticket item, you need to see a big return —
whether in cost savings, energy efficiency, or feel-good factor.
Shielding yourself from future price fluctuations. Hedging, paying a
certain amount now to lock in prices in the future, reduces financial risk.
If you invest in energy efficiency, you shield your utility bill from energy
price fluctuations because when rates rise, you don’t feel the pinch
nearly as much. If you put a solar system on your roof that reduces your
energy bills to zero, that’s exactly where they will stay, even if the cost
of energy quadruples. That’s a powerful form of hedging.
Analyzing Investments
In this section I present a system for analyzing investments. The goal is to
compare different options and choose the best one. The idea is to compare
costs to gains, with risk and other non-numerical factors moderating the
Basically, you need to look at two things:
Chapter 5: Making Tradeoffs That Work for You
How long it’ll take to earn back the money invested, or payback. In
the case of most energy-efficiency improvements, you have to invest
cash before you see a single dime of savings. Payback is measured
in months, or even years. Here’s an example. You invest $2,000 in an
on-demand water heater, which saves $30 a month in electric costs.
Dividing 2,000 by 30 equals 67 months, or about 51⁄2 years.
As you think about payback, remember that good decisions aren’t just
predicated on dollars and cents. You also need to consider the intangibles,
like aesthetic beauty and pollution mitigation, among others.
How energy-efficiency investments compare to other investments.
This is a key issue for those who see the money savings as the key
reason for becoming more energy efficient.
Considering the costs, financial
and otherwise
So how much is any particular energy-efficiency investment going to cost
you? You need to know before you can determine whether you can afford
to implement it or, for that matter, given the potential savings that such an
investment can bring, whether you can afford not to. When you think about
any energy-efficiency investment, consider these potential costs:
Equipment: How much will equipment cost, and when will you pay for
it? Sometimes equipment costs are spread out over time. You need to
specify the time line. For instance, if you are purchasing a new HVAC
system on a credit card, the payments will be monthly until the balance
is paid off. Chapter 3 tells you how to determine the annual costs
associated with a big purchase.
Installation costs: If you’re hiring a pro, how much will it cost and when
are these funds due? If you’re going to do it yourself, figure in the cost of
any tools or other equipment you need to buy.
Refuse cost: Will you pay to have project trash hauled away?
Lifetime and warranty: What is the likelihood that you will have to pay
for servicing? How often? How much will it cost? Warranties are very
important for big ticket items because they usually have big ticket costs
associated with repairs. And some manufacturers are better at taking
care of warranty issues than others.
Taxes, permits, and fees: How much are they and when are they due?
Will your property taxes go up as a result of an efficiency investment?
This is rare, but you should find out whether it applies to you.
Interest: Will you finance your equipment? If so, the interest is a cost.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Maintenance: The type of energy-efficiency equipment that’s designed
to handle big jobs tends to be pretty complex. You need to understand
how it works and perform periodic maintenance tasks to keep it working up
to snuff. You won’t usually know when something’s gong to need fixing
or how much it’s going to cost.
Safety: When you install complex technical equipment, you’re introducing dangers into your home. Electrical shocks. Scalding water. Falling
off a roof. Discovering stepladder malfunctions. Smoke and ventilation
issues. You get the point.
Inexperience: If you design and install a system yourself, it may not
perform as well as you thought it would. The experts know all the little
tricks that you don’t. Savings can suffer, and you may have to pay an
expert to come in and set things straight.
Of course, financial costs aren’t the only ones you should consider. Most
changes require readjustments. As you count costs, determine which of the
following apply to the change you want to make and how willing you are to
either accept them or make the necessary accommodations:
Changing habits: With some energy-efficiency equipment, you have to
change your consumption habits to take best advantage of the potential.
For instance, if you install a solar hot water heater, taking showers in the
late afternoon is better than taking them early in the morning. How willing
are you to make the changes? Furthermore, with some energy-efficiency
investments, the only requirement is to change habits; no cash is
invested at all. An example of this is taking shorter showers.
Inconvenience: Is your system going to require more work on your
part? Wood stoves take a lot of maintenance and cleaning. Are you going
to do it? How much is your time worth? Are some jobs more or less
repulsive than others?
The clutter factor: Do you sometimes feel as though your life is spinning
out of control? There’s too much of this, too much of that, and too much
clutter (not just physical, but emotional as well). Do you want to bite off
even more?
The how-it-looks factor: Sometimes equipment can be ugly. Do the pipes
running up the side of your house look industrial? Do PV panels make
your house look unearthly? Conversely, many projects make your home
look much nicer. Given two projects with equal numbers, you’re more
apt to choose the one that offers aesthetic beauty or pride in ownership.
In fact, you may favor these types of projects enough to choose them
even when the payback isn’t all that terrific.
The how-it-smells factor: Yes, some energy-efficiency devices tend to
stink, like biomass generators or compost toilets.
Chapter 5: Making Tradeoffs That Work for You
Estimating gains
After you think about all the costs — financial, aesthetic, and otherwise — of
your potential efficiency investment, you need to think about the ways the
investment pays you back. So how can you make money from your investments?
Let me count the ways.
Lower monthly utility bills
With most energy-efficiency investments, saving money is the ultimate goal.
You need to take a look at how much you’re paying now versus how much
you’ll be paying after the investment. This may be very difficult to estimate,
but it’s worth a try.
When estimating cost reductions, always use the rate structures that apply
both before and after you finish the project. For instance, when you install
a solar PV system, you’ll likely be getting a new power meter and a new rate
structure. You may be going from a tiered structure to a time-of-day structure,
in which case you should estimate the new cost savings by the time-of-day
structure. (See Chapter 3 for more details on rate structures.)
Sometimes you can save money by doing nothing more than changing rate
structures. For instance, if you’re away from home all afternoon and you
change your electric rate structure from simple (which just charges you the
same rate regardless of when you use the power) to TOU (time of use, which
charges different rates at different times of day, you will probably save money
without doing anything else. Talk to your utility company to see whether this
is an option for you.
The value of your home goes up when you make most improvements. The
amount of the appreciation depends on the following factors:
How much it would cost a buyer to put in new equipment himself.
Don’t expect to get much more than that. But if the cost of new equipment increases, the value of your equipment can also go up. For the
most part, your home only increases in value by a percentage of what
you put into investments. A kitchen remodel, for instance, nominally
increases the value of your home by about 70 percent of what you
spend (if you contract out the entire job). Installing a gas fireplace insert
returns around 65 percent.
How much documentation you can provide to verify the energy savings
that are achieved with the equipment. If you can show (with
documentation) that you’ve saved a certain amount of money, you’re in
a stronger position to recoup your investment when you sell your home.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
How much the cost of energy goes up. The more energy costs rise, the
more your equipment is worth. This should be intuitive. The higher energy
costs are, the more money you save from your efficiency investments. Plus,
people get warier about future increases and will pay more to hedge against
How trendy the improvement is in your neck of the woods. Some
things sell because they’re a fad. This is very true of green products
these days (the term for hyped environmental products is greenwashing),
and in some parts of the country, an energy-efficient home is worth a lot
more than the same model with conventional energy. Look for this trend
to expand, especially if energy costs spike upward.
Other plusses
Appreciation and cheaper utility bills aren’t the only ways to recoup the cost
of your investment. Following are other ways that efficiency changes can
bolster your bottom line and/or your feel-good factor:
Deductions: If you’re installing equipment for your business or office,
you may be able to depreciate certain items and gain some tax
Rebates and subsidies: These come from utilities, state and federal
governments, manufacturers, and so on. See Chapter 4 for details.
Aesthetics: If you invest in a maple tree, you’ll get shade performance,
but the greater pleasure is having a nice tree near your house. When you
invest in window coverings, you enjoy better insulation, but the greater
gain is probably in the increased enjoyment you get from the improved
appearance of your home.
Footprints: When you invest in efficiency improvements, you’re saving
a lot of carbon dioxide. In Chapter 3, I give a brief outline for calculating
how much this might be.
Money made from salvage: You may be able to sell some of the old
equipment you will be taking out.
Setting a baseline for comparison: Bank
accounts and stock market yields
You can always put your hard-earned cash into a bank account and draw
simple interest. It’s the safest bet, one the Federal Government guarantees.
Whenever you consider an investment, the proper starting point is always to
consider how it compares to a bank account, so this is where I begin.
Chapter 5: Making Tradeoffs That Work for You
Value today versus value tomorrow
Strictly speaking, when doing payback calculations, changes in the value of money over time
must be taken into account, which basically
means that you should discount the value today
of a dollar you expect to receive in the future.
In calculating payback, it works the other way
around. For example, if you’re going to save
$100 a year from today, at 6 percent interest that
$100 is worth only $94 right now. Saving $100 in
ten years is worth only $54 today.
Suppose you have a choice between two
alternatives: $1 today or $1 a year from now.
You take the $1 today, of course. But how
much would you take today for a dollar in the
future? To determine its future worth, you need
to factor in the current interest rate or, even
more precisely, what the interest rate is going
to be over the course of the next year. Say the
interest rate is 6 percent. You would then be
trading $1.06 a year from now for $1 today.
For the most part, I ignore this effect in the
calculations, and there will be technical
purists out there who cry out in indignation. But
I’m trying to keep things simple. A good way to
factor in the value of money over time without
getting into weird math is simply to be liberally
conservative (not conservatively liberal) in your
estimates. The net effect will be the same.
Say you put $1,000 in a savings account that earns 6 percent compounded
interest. Twelve years after you make your original investment, you’ll have
$1,000 in interest, so this is the payback period. At any point in time you can
pull your money out of the bank with zero risk. So you’ve done nothing but
make money, right? Not exactly.
You pay income tax on interest income, so your net gain is going to be less
than 6 percent. If you make $100 in interest and you’re paying a 35 percent
marginal tax rate (combined state and fed), you’ll only net $65.
When you save money by investing in energy efficiency, you rarely, if ever,
will be called upon to pay taxes on the money you save. This could make a
significant difference in your investment decision, so you must always take
taxes into account.
If you invest your money in the stock market and get a return of 12 percent,
the payback period is only six years. Sounds good, but once again, you’ll
probably be paying income taxes on the gains. In addition, depending on the
type of stocks you buy, the value of your stock could go down rather than up,
maybe all the way to zero.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Looking at Real-World
Investment Scenarios
The following examples give you a good idea of how to analyze your own
investments. In some cases, you can just substitute your own numbers for
the ones given. Other times, you may have to adjust the model to fit your
exact situation. But the approach to each situation should be the same
because the ultimate goal is to compare different investment scenarios; in
order to do this, you have to analyze them under the same rules.
Supplementing an existing water
heater with a solar system
Suppose you use 1,000 kWh of electricity per month. At 15 cents per kWh,
your monthly cost is $150. An energy audit determines that water heating
comprises 18 percent of your total electric bill, at a cost of $27 per month.
Interested in saving money and reducing your carbon footprint, you look into
a solar water heating system (one that works with your existing equipment).
You do your research and discover that the solar water heating system costs
$2,000, including parts and installation. A federal government tax credit of
30 percent is available, for a total of $600, making the net cost of the system
$1,400. The system comes with a five-year warranty.
Is this a good investment? The following sections take you through various
scenarios that are tied to different goals so you can see how to determine the
value of the investment in each instance.
Goal: To lower your utility payment and save money
In considering the solar water heating system, you do the calculations and
realize that, using the data presented in the earlier example, it will take 52
months (the $1,400 net cost of the system divided by $27 in monthly savings)
to recover your initial investment. The 60-month warranty ensures no
maintenance costs in this time frame. However, say you live in the north,
where there isn’t as much sunshine and the winters are colder. You might find
that your cost savings in this case would be $13.50 per month, or half as much
as those of your counterpart in the sunnier, warmer region, and the payback
period would be twice as long — 104 months. This isn’t much different than
what you’d get if you invested the money with a bank, where the risk would be
nil. If you were making your decision solely on cost effectiveness, you’d decide
this is a bad investment, and you’d look elsewhere (like maybe at a new gas
Chapter 5: Making Tradeoffs That Work for You
Goal: To reduce your carbon footprint
How much is reducing pollution worth to you? Ten dollars a month? Twenty?
How much would you pay to completely eliminate your carbon footprint
altogether? $1,000 a year? This is difficult to estimate, but it gets to the very
core of the issue. It’s a fact that reducing pollution is going to cost everybody
money; who will pay for it is subject to politics, and beyond the scope of this
book. But in making everyday decisions, you must answer the question for
Here’s how to proceed. The typical carbon footprint (for a 3-bedroom, 2-bath
home with 2.3 occupants — and don’t ask me how you get 2.3 occupants) is
around 40,000 pounds per year. The typical footprint from a water heater is
3,000 pounds per year, or 7.5 percent of the total footprint. If you are willing to
spend $1,000 a year on erasing your carbon footprint, you’ll spend 7.5 percent
of this on heating water. That’s $75 per year, or $6.25 per month. Add this to
the savings column in the calculations and instead of only $13.50 per month,
you’re really saving $19.75. This makes the payback 70 months, which is a
better proposition. If you’re willing to spend $2,000 a year eliminating pollution, your total cost savings will be $26 per month, which leaves you with a
payback of 53 months, almost identical to that in the original example. Now
this is a good investment.
Note that if you’re willing to spend $2,000 per year mitigating pollution, you
don’t actually end up spending this amount when you put the solar water
heater in. You only spend 7.5 percent of it. But the rationale remains useful in
comparing alternatives, some of which will save more pollution than others.
Goal: To offset the higher charges in a tiered rate billing system
In a tiered rate structure, not all watts are created equal. Your energy usage
in kWh is structured into tiers (not unlike income tax brackets), and the rate
charged per kWh increases from one tier to the next. So the more energy you
use, the more you pay. Energy efficiency savings come from the highest tier
first, and therefore offer the greatest cost savings. Some tiered rate structures
are very punitive, with the highest rates three or four times the base rate.
This strongly encourages efficiency investments.
If your energy utility uses a tiered rate structure and you put in the solar
water heater, your cost savings can easily be twice as much. Payback is
therefore half as long. The solar water heater example offsets 18 percent of
the household energy use, but in a typical tiered rate system, this accounts
for closer to 35 percent of the total dollar cost in the utility bill.
In a tiered rate structure, small- and medium-sized energy efficiency investments
are more worthwhile — that’s the entire point. As the size of your investment
grows, the payback gets worse because you get less and less return on your
investment. You may still want to make a large investment, if your main goal is
pollution mitigation.
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Goal: To hedge against rising energy costs
Suppose that energy costs rise 12 percent per year instead of staying flat. If
you put in the solar water heater, each year your savings grow. If you save
$26 per month the first year, as in the earlier example, the next year your
savings will grow to $30.24 per month ($27 × 1.12). Then $33.87 ($30.24 ×
1.12), then $37.93, then $42.48, and so on. In this case, the payback is 44
months, down from 52 months.
Regardless of how high energy costs go, the amount that you’ll spend on
heating water is locked in at zero. This is a form of hedging. Here’s another
form, not quite as tangible but still very real: You won’t have to take shorter
showers or skimp on that bath, no matter how high energy costs may go.
This may be translated into peace of mind.
Goal: To increase your home’s value
Suppose you’re planning to sell your house five years down the road. If you
put in a solar water heating system, at that point in time the savings from the
new system will be $48 per month, or $600 per year. A home buyer will pay
more for the home when you sell it because of this built-in cost reduction.
How much more? The following factors come into play:
A lot of work is involved in installing a new system, and most buyers
don’t want to do it themselves.
Most home buyers take out a mortgage, and balancing monthly
payments with a fixed income is the game. Energy cost savings of $48
per month translate into $48 that can be spent elsewhere. A buyer could
get a larger mortgage, for instance. For $50 a month, after taxes, he may
be able to borrow an additional $14,000. Look at it this way: A potential
buyer looks at your energy-efficient home and the same home, minus
the energy-efficient system, next door. Your home costs them $48 per
month less. If you charge $5,000 more for your home, the buyer is still
ahead of the game if he is using a mortgage.
Giving a ballpark figure for how much appreciation you can expect is
impossible. In the best case, you may double your original investment after
five years. In the worst case, you may not get anything at all if the equipment
is old and obsolete. The most likely case is you’ll get around the same as new
equipment costs.
Replacing broken equipment
Doing nothing is not an option because now you have a broken washing
machine, dryer, gas fireplace, you name it. Now you must spend money, and
probably a good chunk of it. How much more do you have to spend for a new
energy-efficient system? Probably not much. Now is really the time to go for it.
Chapter 5: Making Tradeoffs That Work for You
Financing investments with a home equity loan
If you play your cards right, saving more on
energy costs than the payment on a mortgage
equity loan used to purchase energy-efficiency
equipment is common. You have no upfront cost
when you finance an investment because you
pay for the investment with the loan proceeds.
From day one, you can often save more than
you pay. Your cash flow is in the black.
An interest-only home-equity line of credit at 6
percent tax-deductible interest for $1,400 is only
$8 per month. That’s a net gain of $19 per month,
making the payback period for this scenario 74
months (1,400 / 19 = 74).
At some point the loan must be repaid; most
likely this will happen when the house is sold
or refinanced.
Suppose you borrow for the solar water heating
system that promises $27 per month in savings.
Blowing hot air: A whole-house fan
The investment: a whole-house fan. Equipment costs $350; installation takes
three hours and requires brains, ladders, and decent tools.
An energy audit determines that the fan will save $25 per month in airconditioning (AC) costs over a four-month summer period, while costing
only $10 per month to run. At $60 per year, the payback is around six years.
A whole-house fan offers other benefits, too: The house is a lot more
comfortable on the days when it isn’t hot enough to turn the AC on. And
there are more of these days, so the home is more comfortable most of the
summer. Plus the house smells better because whole-house fans ventilate
so well.
Investing in a full-scale solar PV system
Say you live in a 3-bedroom, 2-bath house with good roof exposure for solar
equipment. Your home is all electric and your average monthly electric bill
is $260. Energy consumption is 1,600 kWh per month. You had your home
audited and, through making smaller changes, you decreased the bill 15
percent to 1,360 kWh per month, or $221.
Now you decide to completely eliminate your electric utility bill and, in the
process, reduce your home’s carbon footprint to nearly zero. You find a 5kW
system that will do the job and costs $40,000 — a lot of money, for sure, but
you take into account the following:
Part I: Solving the World’s Problems from Your Front Porch
Once the system is in place, a TOU (time of use) rate structure will
apply. Plus, you believe you can use 90 percent of your electricity in
off-peak, lower-rate hours, and will therefore be selling most of your
solar production back to the utility at the top rate.
The warranty on the panels is 20 years, less for some of the other
equipment. Reliability is good on the brand chosen, which was not the
The state will give a rebate of $10,000 directly to the PV system contractor
so it’s not even billed to you, the homeowner.
All this brings your total out-of-pocket cost to $30,000. But you also qualify
for these credits and deductions:
The feds will give a $2,000 tax credit for the system, bringing the cost
down further to only $28,000.
You finance this with a tax-deductible equity loan at $140 per month.
This means that you’re immediately saving the difference between the
power bill you eliminated ($221) and the cost for the loan. In this case,
that’s $141 per month after taxes.
From day one, this deal is in the black.
Using 7 percent as the energy inflation rate, the payback is 11 years, but this
does not account for the fact that the value of the equipment is also rising.
With this factor included in the equation, the payback goes down to 7 years.
The potential savings in carbon footprint are 13,000 pounds per year.
Part II
Your Home
In this part . . .
his part is the bread and butter of the book. Get your
grungy clothes on, get out your tool box, and get to
work. I show you how to go through your home and make
a wide range of efficiency improvements guaranteed to
pay off in terms of lower utility bills. I show you how to
use less water, less electricity, less gas, and less labor. I
also show you how to make your home more comfortable
and save money at the same time. Finally, I tell you the
best ways to recycle.
You may want to skip directly to a chapter that most affects your own personal situation. Check the table of contents or the particular area you want to tackle, and then go
for it. Dummies books are all designed so that you can
read from beginning to end, or skip around as you see fit.
Chapter 6
Keeping Your Home Free
from Contaminants
In This Chapter
Steering clear of manmade contaminants
Detecting carbon monoxide in your home
Honing in on the hazards of Mother Nature
f course you want to keep your environment clean as efficiently as
possible, and the best way to do that is to avoid pollution and toxins
in the first place. You can control toxins and contaminants in your home by
keeping them out whenever possible and by preventing them from multiplying when they do manage to invade. Fortunately, you can do this easily and
effectively, but you must be armed with the necessary know-how.
In this chapter, I review a number of the most common sources of home
problems. I tell you how to detect them and what to do when trouble strikes.
Know your enemy and it shall be vanquished.
Getting Started with General Guidelines
As the other sections in this chapter explain, maintaining a healthy environment encompasses a lot of details, but some general rules are worth knowing
for starters, and most of them are easy enough to follow:
Get wise. Find out what kinds of things to avoid. Understand where
nasty little critters like to live and breed (carpets, anyone?). Pay
attention to things you can’t see with the naked eye. In particular, read
the warnings on labels that spell out precisely what the dangers are.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Ensure proper ventilation. Ventilation is essential to health. Getting it
can be tough sometimes, especially in the winter. But you don’t
necessarily need to open windows to ventilate your home. Chapter 13
gives you the details.
Store toxic materials away from the living quarters in your home.
The best place to keep them is in your garage. Many people store toxins
underneath the kitchen sink, but this is asking for trouble. Of course, the
best bet is not to store toxic materials at all. Buy small containers and
toss the empties out. This may be a little more expensive, but it makes
sense, especially if you have kids.
Pay attention to your cleaning products. A surprising number of
household cleaners are unhealthy. When possible, use environmentally
friendly cleaning supplies. Check out the following sources of green
cleaning information and products:
• Eco-Source:
• Household Products Database: www.householdproducts.nlm.
• Natural Choices, Home Safe Products, LLC:
• Seventh Generation:
• Sun and Earth, Inc.:
Avoiding Some of the Worst Offenders
We are surrounded by manmade chemicals, and most of them are quite
benign. Pesticides and food additives have helped people tremendously
(although insects and molds have a different opinion about this). Humans
live longer than ever before, and it’s largely because of the profusion of
modern chemicals in our diets and our medications.
If you want to know just how prevalent chemicals are, read some food
labels. They list things like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) or butylated
hydroxytoluene (BHT). The thought of consuming both of these chemicals
every single day may make you a little leery, but they’re actually making
you healthier.
On the other hand, a myriad of hazardous chemicals and contaminants can
cause diseases, rashes, coughs, colds, and a long list of other maladies. The
trick is to be efficient at sorting out the good from the bad. In this section, I
review some of the worst home contaminants, and what to do about them.
Chapter 6: Keeping Your Home Free from Contaminants
Fighting off formaldehyde
Around 10 to 20 percent of the population is highly sensitive to formaldehyde
gas, which evaporates (technically referred to as outgassing) from a wide
range of common household materials, such as
Particleboard used as subflooring and in shelving, cabinetry, and
Hardwood plywood paneling and decorative wall coverings
Carpets, draperies, furniture fabrics, and permanent press clothes
treated to resist mold and fire
Paints, shellacs, waxes, polishes, oils, and other coating materials
Glues and adhesives
Molded plastics
Insecticides, fumigants, disinfectants, deodorants, germicidal soaps,
and embalming fluids
Cosmetics, shampoos, nail hardeners, mouthwashes, and
Household cleaning products
Water heaters and gas ranges
Old mobile homes and prefab-style houses
Exposure to formaldehyde results in cold-like symptoms: coughing, runny
nose, sore throat, fatigue, vomiting, and nosebleeds. It can also cause
menstrual disorders, chronic headaches, and periodic memory lapses. To test
for formaldehyde, obtain a simple testing monitor (they cost between $25 and
$50; search for “formaldehyde monitor” on the Internet). You leave a vial open
to your home’s interior air for a specified period of time, and then cap the vial
and send it to a lab. The lab makes the appropriate measurements and then
mails you the results.
To avoid formaldehyde:
Paint over old plywood surfaces with a water-based sealant or
polyurethane varnish. Old kitchen cabinets are good candidates for
repainting, as are old paneling and particleboard.
Check before you buy. You can usually find out how much
formaldehyde a produce contains by consulting with the manufacturer,
who is required to supply this information.
Keep the air flowing. Formaldehyde is an airborne gas, so good
ventilation can alleviate the problem to a great extent. Dangers are more
acute in the winter months when homes are closed off.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
If you’re buying composite wood or agrifiber products, get them with no
added urea formaldehyde (look on the label, or call the manufacturer).
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) is the name given to a class of carbonbased gaseous contaminants emitted from a wide range of home products:
Solvents used in lacquers, adhesives, waxes, cleaning agents, cosmetics,
paints and paint removers, and leather finishes. Common names are
benzene, xylene, methyl collosolve, ethyl collosolve, methyl ethyl
ketone, and trichloroethylene (TCE).
Phenols found in household disinfectants, antiseptics, perfumes, mouthwashes, polishes, waxes, glues and, ironically, air fresheners. Phenols
are also a byproduct of combustion, so they’re more prevalent in winter,
when the windows are closed.
Aerosol sprays propelled by propane, butane, and nitrous oxide gases.
Permanent press fabrics, polyesters, and most synthetic materials.
Pesticides, disinfectants, pet collars, and plant food. Pesticides are by
far the worst source of contaminants in a home, and the chemicals last
for years. Particularly noxious are the chemicals used by pest control
companies, which spray heavy concentrations all around the outside of
a house and often right inside. These companies have an incentive to
make sure that insects don’t appear, and the best way to do this is to
use more than enough chemicals.
Electrical equipment containing PCBs. This material is used because it is
particularly fire-resistant. The problem is that when it’s exposed to fire,
some of it burns off. That’s why whenever an electrical fire involves a
utility company transformer, a special unit of the fire department is
dispatched with high-tech equipment to protect the firemen. The same
sort of contamination occurs in your home.
Avoiding VOCs
One of the easiest ways to avoid these chemicals is by not bringing them into
your home. To do that, read the labels on the materials you buy. By law,
manufacturers must list the contents of their products, particularly if
potentially noxious chemicals are in the mix. Some prime culprits that you
may want to include on your do-not-buy or be-careful-if-you-use list include
Chlorine bleach: A component of most household cleansers. Many
people use chlorine all the time without realizing it’s unhealthy. If you
must use it, make sure to allow for ventilation.
Chapter 6: Keeping Your Home Free from Contaminants
Oven cleaners: Particularly bad news as they outgas for a long time. Buy
an oven with a built-in cleaning feature, and when you’re using it, make
sure the ventilation is adequate. If you do need to clean your oven, use a
mixture of baking soda and water and spread it around the dirty spots.
Wait until it dries; then wipe it away.
Air fresheners: These don’t freshen air. They fool your nose into thinking the room is fresher. They don’t remove the odor-causing problem;
they simply overwhelm it with superior force. So now your room is completely full of swirling chemicals. Use an air-filter instead, or, better yet,
find out what’s causing the stink and get rid of it. Unless, of course, it’s
Uncle Albert.
Carpet: Particularly risky, especially if it’s old and dirty. In fact, carpet in
general is a bad idea for people who are sensitive to chemical exposures
of any kind.
Aerosol sprays: Avoid these like the plague. Most household products
that used to come in aerosol cans now come in misters, which are not
quite as convenient and fun, but are much better for your family.
Oil-based paints: Use latex paints instead. This makes life easier in a
number of ways, in addition to health-wise.
Art supplies: If you love to paint seascapes and gorgeous landscapes,
find out what sorts of chemicals you’re breathing. You’re right over the
work for extended periods, so even if the chemicals aren’t particularly
strong, you’re dosing yourself up more than you would with just about
any other hobby you can find. Make sure the area you work in is well
Ceramics: Especially ripe for airborne abuses. If you insist on making
ceramic artwork, do a lot of research before you partake.
Pesticides: Come on now, do you really need pesticides? Insects are
ugly — some have thousands of legs and eyes and furry little tentacles.
Many of them can sting and cause other problems, plus they fly around
and distract you when you’re watching television. But the fact is, when
you use pesticides you’re exposing yourself to the same chemicals that
kill the insects. Do you think you’re any more immune to the assault
than a bug? In fact, statistical studies have shown that the only difference between you and a bug is that you are bigger, although this may
not be true in Florida.
Any product that doesn’t list its contents on the label: Products made
outside the United States, for instance. Manufacturers in the United
States are required by law to list the contents of their products, but
manufacturers elsewhere may not have to follow the same rules.
Minimizing the risk
Despite your best efforts, chances are you won’t be able to purge your home
of all VOCs. In that case, you need to minimize the risk:
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Ventilation is imperative. Many noxious chemicals evaporate quickly,
so exposure is only temporary. Always use glues and solvents in
adequate ventilation. If possible, paint outdoors and leave whatever
you’re painting there until the paint is very dry.
Store paint, fuel, and pesticides well away from human habitats. Or
better yet, don’t store them at all. Buy what you need and no more. Even
containers that are sealed can still leak poisons. And admit it; when you
seal a paint can and store it, you rarely, if ever, end up using the
remainder. Most likely it just sits on the shelf until you move.
Wear protective clothing, safety goggles, and masks with appropriate
filters when necessary. Most of the stores where you purchase
potentially toxic chemicals carry the appropriate equipment and can
advise you accordingly. Work outside whenever possible.
Trust your nose; it’s smarter than your brain. In general, your nose
will tell you when something is noxious. Trust your senses, and when in
doubt, back off, read the label, open some windows, and start up some
fans. You can also do the following:
• If you have some item of indoor furniture that has a chemical
smell, seal it with polyurethane varnish.
• If your clothes smell really strong when you get them back from
the cleaners, find a different cleaner.
Alternatives to pesticides
To avoid pesticides, find other solutions.
Following are some suggestions:
Use steel wool to seal holes where insects
come into your home. You can also use
wood screws to cover holes.
Screen off openings and keep your doors
Get used to the little buggers crawling
around all over the place.
Traps work well for mice, and you can get
humane ones that don’t even harm the little
beasts. Or you can use the standard type,
which propel them into the next life lickety
Houseplants are prime culprits for the
growth of insect colonies. Banishing plants
from your home is tough because they
create such a nice ambience, so take good
care of them and pay attention. I’ve been
in homes where the plants were literally
crawling away, and the owners didn’t even
have a clue.
Termiticides are the worst chemicals of all
(probably because termites are the worst
bugs of all, except for spiders that suspend
themselves down from the ceiling right onto
your forehead when you’re sleeping). Keep
those inviting wood scraps away from your
house, especially underneath, near the
foundation. Keep firewood away from your
house. Hire professionals to get rid of the
termites, and take a vacation while they’re
at it.
Chapter 6: Keeping Your Home Free from Contaminants
Never eat food while working with chemicals. This just makes the
ingestion ten times worse. Also, never eat chemicals while working with
food — this is somewhat intuitive.
Never use paint stripper indoors without ventilation. Never. You may
just as well drink a gallon of gasoline while playing with matches to
accomplish the same end.
Asbestos has been used to provide heating and acoustical insulation and
fireproofing, to strengthen building materials and make them more durable,
to enhance the aesthetic value of a product, and even to make it easier to
clean. Unfortunately, it’s very toxic.
Finding asbestos
Around the home, asbestos fibers can be found
In gypsum wallboard, textured paint, joint compounds, and spackling
compounds in older homes (pre-1970).
In older homes in insulation used around pipes, as well as in the paper
wrapped around the pipe insulation.
In a lot of old appliances, which use asbestos for insulation. In particular, the seals around doors in old wood-burning stoves are almost
always made of asbestos. As they get old and crumbly, they’re almost
guaranteed to release fibers into the air.
In siding shingles and sheet flooring, especially in older homes.
In some kinds of floor tiles, particularly linoleum, which have asbestos
backing. This is not a problem until you decide to remodel and remove
the tiles.
Sprayed onto walls and ceilings for both decoration and insulation.
Spun or woven into textiles, blankets, curtains, ropes, and lamp wicks.
How can you tell whether you have an asbestos issue? It’s not easy, but if
you’re suspicious, finding out for sure may be worth the trouble. Consult
an expert (look up “asbestos” in the phone book). Or check with the U.S.
Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Center for Science in the
Public Interest.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Solving your asbestos problem
In the 1970s, asbestos was largely banned due to its correlation with certain
types of cancer and other diseases. But fortunately, asbestos is only harmful
when the fibers become airborne. Here’s what to do to make sure your
asbestos stays grounded:
Simply leave asbestos products alone. In particular, don’t gouge them
or tear them apart. It’s the same as with mountain lions: Leave them
alone and they’ll leave you alone.
Cover them. This is often better than tearing them out and installing
new materials. For instance, if you have a floor with asbestos, simply
install a new floor over that. If you have asbestos siding, install new
siding over it or paint it with a sealant type of paint (ask at your paint
store; a number of options are available). If you have asbestos insulation
on pipes and it’s starting to crumble, wrap it with a new coat of insulation and then paint that with latex. You’ll have much better insulation,
and you’ll have squelched the problem.
Removing asbestos
If you have to remove old asbestos products, the best bet is to hire a pro.
Find one from a local environmental protection agency. If you do the job
Dress appropriately. Absolutely get an approved asbestos mask from
your hardware store. Wear it more than you think you should. A hat is a
good idea, as well as clothes that cover all your skin. Plan on throwing
the clothes away when you’re finished. And use rubber gloves — this is
a real hassle, as your hands will sweat and you’ll lose most of your sense
of touch. Too bad; you just have to suck it up for safety’s sake.
Don’t forget your shoes. If you step on asbestos dust and then walk into
other parts of your house, you’ll spread contaminants for sure. Dedicate
a pair of old, throw-away shoes for the job and take them off when you
leave the work area. Once you’re done, throw them away.
Seal off the entire area and make sure it’s well ventilated. Before you
do anything with the asbestos, seal the area with a floor-to-ceiling plastic tarp and close the area off to other parts of your house. For ventilation in the work area, your best bet is to have a fan operating, which
refreshes the area with new air as well as carrying the dust-laden air out,
where it disperses and doesn’t present a problem.
Dampen the surfaces. Get a good plant mister and spray asbestos
surfaces down with water before you work. This prevents most of the
fibers from flying up into the air. Add some dish or laundry soap to the
water for an even more effective solution.
Don’t tear materials, and do not use a power saw. Use tin snips and be
Chapter 6: Keeping Your Home Free from Contaminants
Clean up asbestos dust by using a mop and throwing the mop away
when you’re done. An alternative is to use a vacuum with a special
asbestos filter. Don’t sweep with a broom.
Store discarded asbestos items in plastic bags and take it to a recycling
center. Don’t discard them in your normal trash. You’ll have to pay
extra to take it to a recycling center, but you should do it to avoid
exposing the sanitation workers to the very materials that you’re so
deathly afraid of.
Cigarette smoke
Cigarette smoke is full of hostile chemicals. If you smoke, you know exactly
what you’re doing to yourself and everybody around you, and I am not going
to nag like everybody else is doing these days.
But consider this new angle (okay, so I’m nagging a little, but not like everybody else): From an efficiency standpoint, smoking is about the worst thing
you can possibly do because not only are you introducing health hazards
into your home and everywhere else you go, you’re paying a hefty price for
cigarettes at the same time. What do you get out of smoking? (Okay, I used to
smoke; it was cool, and that first buzz is kind of dreamy. But this doesn’t last
long. And then it quickly turns into little more than an addiction.)
At the very least, go outside and hide behind the garage or something.
Burning Up with Combustion Products
If you have a gas-burning furnace, a wood-burning fireplace or stove, a gas
cooking stove, or gas water heaters (in other words, any type of combustion
device) in your home, you need to take extra precautions. This is also true if
you have an attached garage, where exhaust fumes may enter your home.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is an invisible, odorless gas that’s created by
combustion (like carbon dioxide [CO2], its more newsworthy cousin). In a
well-designed home, chimneys and vents carry these gases away.
CO alarms are simple, inexpensive insurance policies to warn you if CO gas is
building up in your home. They cost between $20 and $45, and work
essentially the same as a smoke detector: They emit a high, shrill squeal
when they detect high levels of the gas.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Buy an alarm, or alarms, that are UL-approved. You can get a digital type
that plugs into your home’s electrical outlet system and has a display that
tells you what the concentrations are in your home. Even though the level in
your home may be low enough for safety, you can see how the levels vary,
and many times you can use this information to solve problems before they
become extreme.
The best locations for CO alarms are near sleeping rooms on each level of
your home. Position them away from drafts and solvents, which can
inadvertently trigger a response.
If an alarm triggers, get everybody out of the house. Call your fire department
and tell them what happened; then do what they tell you. Don’t ignore an
alarm. Always find out why it went off, and solve the problem.
Natural Hazards
Unfortunately, manmade chemicals are not the only noxious chemicals you need
to contend with in your home. Mother Nature has a few of her own dirty tricks.
Slipping through the cracks: Radon
Radon can penetrate into a home when uranium is present in nearby soil or
rock, thereby introducing radioactivity into your home. Granite, shale, and
phosphate bedrock are the prime culprits, as well as gravel derived from
these materials. The hazards of radon are the same as with exposure to any
radioactive materials. Cancer is the worst.
Radon concentrates in basements where leaks through the foundation are
common. The EPA did random tests across the entire country and found that
up to 25 percent of all homes with basements are susceptible to radon
poisons in potentially dangerous levels. Many states require radon tests to
be performed when a home changes ownership.
The only way to know if a home is contaminated is to test, and a number
of inexpensive means are available, the two most common being charcoal
detectors and alpha-track devices.
Charcoal detectors: You can find these on the Internet by entering
“radon testing” into your browser. You place a charcoal detector in a
cool, dry spot in your basement for no more than a week. Then you seal
the container and send it to a lab. You need to repeat the test twice to
get a good result. The cost is around $10 to $25 apiece.
Chapter 6: Keeping Your Home Free from Contaminants
Alpha-track devices: These give better results than charcoal detectors,
and are recommended if your home fails the charcoal test. A strip of
special plastic material is exposed to the air in your basement; then you
send the plastic to a lab for analysis. Alpha-track devices require a
minimum of four weeks of exposure but cost little more than the
charcoal devices.
The good news is that, most of the time, radon infiltration can be contained
rather easily. Two solutions exist: You can stop it from getting into the house,
or you can dilute it once it gets in. When fresh air is imposed into a radoncontaminated region, the levels go down immediately. For ways to restrict
radon entry, consult a professional or see Chapter 7 on sealing your home. You
can also search the Internet for solutions. Enter “radon contamination” into
your search engine. At the very least, if you have a radon-contaminated
basement, seal the doorway between the basement and the ground floor of
your home. This is a good idea in general, as you will also be preventing other
airborne biological agents (keep reading) from entering your living area.
Operating in secret: Biological agents
Natural microscopic organisms include bacteria, viruses, fungi, molds,
mildews, and mites. Pollen is a collector of spores from seed-bearing plants.
All these can be either tracked in on shoes and clothing from the outdoors,
or simply fly in on the wings of chance. And all multiply indoors and can
cause irritations and illnesses.
The greatest source of nutrition for indoor microbes is the three or four grams
of skin that flake off of the average human body once every day. (Did you
know that most of the dust in your home comes from human skin?)
Symptoms of sensitivity include the usual retinue of allergic reactions: runny
nose, sneezing, watery eyes, sore throat, coughing, and upper respiratory
discomfort. Hives and rashes are also common. Flu-like symptoms can result,
including fever, chills, malaise, muscle aches, and chest tightness.
No easy-to-use kits are available to measure for microbe contamination. If
your family seems to suffer from any of the above ailments more commonly
when the house is closed up (and wet or humid), you should do a bit of
The first place to look? Wherever there’s water. Face it, water can be a big
problem. Especially when left standing or combined with just enough warmth
to create an oozy stew. Microbes love damp places. That’s why the biggest
front in your war on biological agents is in the marshes — wherever there’s
water. The following list tells you where to look and what to do to fix the
problems you may find:
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Wet carpeting is a virtual breeding ground for all kinds of nasty little critters. If you have carpet in your bathroom, replace it with vinyl or tile, and
make sure to seal the joints and edges extremely well. No carpet in the
laundry room or kitchen, either. If you have area rugs, wash them in hot
water occasionally or take them to the cleaners for thorough cleaning.
Clothes dryers are hot and wet, perfect for microbe propagation. Make
sure your dryer is vented well to the outdoors. If you have a leaky
washing machine, especially if it’s in your basement and it is perpetually
wet underneath, you have a microbe farm.
Clean all drains once a week with a strong disinfectant. Microbes love
the filthy, wet environment down in a drain. If you have a drain in the
basement that seldom sees water flushed into it, it’s a prime candidate
for a science-fiction movie.
Repair all leaks in the roof or plumbing system. Leaks generally result in
rotting wood or sheetrock. Not only does this cause contamination, but
it also depreciates the value of your home.
Repair leaky faucets. Every drop splashes and humidifies far more than
you’d guess.
Wet insulation materials are very fertile. If you have a leak in your roof
or siding, you probably have wet insulation, which doesn’t work very
well and encourages rot, mold and infestations.
If you have leaks in your grout, you have wet, oozing sheetrock
somewhere beneath. You can fix leaks in grout very easily with silicon
caulking. The clear stuff matches any decor.
Never allow water to pool, especially in your basement. Find and fix
whatever problem is causing the water to pool.
Fix leaky toilets. These are just asking for it. Not to mention the fact that
you’re going to pay a lot more than you need to when you have to fix
the rotted subflooring. And fuzzy toilet seat covers are simply nuts, if
you value your health. (I could make a number of good jokes here, but I
better not.)
Install a vent (See Chapter 13) or a window in your bathroom. An
enclosed bathroom with no ventilation equals microbe nirvana. You
need to let your bathroom dry out thoroughly. Failing a vent or window,
use a fan and keep the bathroom door open when not in use. Make sure
the joints and cracks are sealed well.
Moisture is essential for microbe propagation. Reducing the humidity in your
home is always a good idea if your family is sensitive to skin irritations. See
Chapter 8 for more details on how to keep the humidity low in your house.
Chapter 6: Keeping Your Home Free from Contaminants
Final Decluttering Tips
In an efficient home, there’s a place for everything, and everything is in its
place. Keeping a home neat and trim is not too different from keeping your
body neat and trim. The best results come from cutting down on excess
consumption. Here are sundry tips to get you going in the right direction:
Use the sun to clean and sanitize. Put cushions, sheets, rugs, clothes,
and so forth out into the hot sun. To find out just how well this works,
try putting a sweaty shirt in direct sunlight for a couple of hours. It’ll
smell like new.
Use stove vent fans. When grease mixes with dust in the air, it wafts
around your kitchen and sticks. Over time, it makes a big mess.
Avoid humidifiers, if possible. They encourage bugs and mildew.
Make sure to keep a good-sized, rough mat at each door. When you
come in, shed your shoes; put slippers by the door and change into
Keep your plants healthy. Healthy plants clean the air. Fake plants are
dust magnets, and they launch colonies.
Seal the garage floor. This makes for a cleaner garage, with less dust
buildup that would eventually make it into your home.
Wax wood. Doing so keeps moisture from permeating into the grain and
keeps the dust down.
Use a battery-operated vacuum. It’s easy, lightweight, low-power, and
you’ll use it more often because it’s less cumbersome. And make sure to
change your vacuum cleaner bag. Full bags leak like crazy and waste a
lot of energy to boot.
Clean curtains without washing. Curtains don’t need to be washed.
Instead, put them in a clothes dryer, turn the setting to no-heat, and
tumble the dust out of them in a matter of minutes.
Rent a high-pressure washer for exterior grime and dust. Your entire
house, inside and out, will be cleaner.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Chapter 7
Sealing and Insulating Your Home
In This Chapter
Locating and putting a lid on air leaks
Dealing with HVAC ducts
Getting the lowdown on insulation
Making the most of windows
ou probably spend more energy on heating and cooling than you do on
all the other energy-consuming functions combined. This means the
greatest potential for energy savings lies in finding ways to make your heating
and cooling efforts more efficient. In Chapter 8, I get into details about how
to make your heating and cooling equipment run better and how to choose
better equipment if you’re in the mind-set to invest. But in this chapter, I
show you how to seal and insulate your home.
Here is where you can find the biggest energy-efficiency improvements for
the least amount of cash and labor on your part. Most homes have problems
that can be fixed for $100 or less — in fact, sometimes all you need to invest
is a little time and labor.
Finding Leaks
By knowing where to look for heat loss, you can get a pretty good idea of
where to find the problem spots in your own home. Table 7-1 lists the energy
losses from heating and cooling equipment in a typical North American
home. (Note: The first table entry refers to heat escaping or coming in
through gaps. The other entries refer to heat moving through solid masses,
like doors, walls, and so on.)
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Table 7-1
Energy Loss in a Typical North American Home
Problem Area
Percentage of Total Energy Loss
Air leaks through gaps
Through doors and windows
Through floors and into basement
Through walls
Through ceiling
Table 7-1 gives you a rough idea of where to look for problems and the order
in which you should look for them. You can perform a leak test (as I describe
shortly) to find the biggest and worst offenders: air leaks through holes in
sheetrock and through hatches or trapdoors that lead into your attic or
basement. The next logical place to look for leaks is in your doors and
windows, and so on down the list.
Looking for cracks in your home
You can find a majority of leaks by simply taking a flashlight around your
home and looking with a keen eye. Here are some details:
Look at faucets, pipes, electrical wiring, and electric outlets. Cracks
often exist around the junctions where pipes fit through foundations and
siding. You can fix these with caulk (see the later section “Caulking your
way to Nirvana” for advice on caulking).
Check all interfaces between two different building materials. For
example, check where brick or siding meets the roof and the foundation.
Check where all corners meet and around the molding strips that are
commonly used in corners of walls and between walls and floors. And so
on. Plug all holes and voids with caulk.
Pay attention to where icicles develop. If they cluster around a particular location at your house, you have a leak somewhere above that’s
melting snow. It warms, drips down, then refreezes into icicles. These
are usually pretty good-sized leaks.
Look for cracks in mortar, foundations, siding, and so on.
Check for cracks and voids around exterior doors and windows.
Check storm windows for seal integrity. The interior window may be
well-sealed, but the storm window will work better if it’s also sealed
just as well. To work properly, storm windows must fit tightly into the
brackets. The way to ensure a tight seal is to check the weather
stripping materials commonly fit into the gaps.
Chapter 7: Sealing and Insulating Your Home
How heat moves
Heat is a form of energy. When a substance
gets hotter, the molecules in that substance
are moving faster, with more energy. When a
substance gets cooler, heat is moving out of
it into other nearby substances. The reason a
hot substance can burn your skin is that heat
moves very quickly in some cases.
Heat moves out of your home in the winter and
into it in the summer — exactly what you don’t
want. That’s why sealing your home is a good
way to improve your energy efficiency. So how
does heat move from one spot to another? Via
the mechanisms explained in the following
Convection: In convection, heat is either
transferred between a surface and a
moving fluid (be it liquid, gas, or even the air
itself), or it’s transferred by the movement
of molecules from one point to another.
As opposed to conduction (see the next
item), the hot molecules themselves move.
Convection causes hot air to rise while cold
air gravitates downward. Most people have
heard of convection ovens; these work
by using a fan inside the oven cavity to
move the air and cook food faster. Cold air
passing over a window removes heat from a
home through convection. Wind in general
causes a lot of convection loss. But all air is
moving because the molecules are always
moving, so even air that seems to be still is
capable of a lot of convection. That’s why
convection is the most common culprit of
heat loss in your home.
Conduction: In conduction, only the heat
moves, not the molecules. The material
remains static while the energy moves
through it. This is the analogous to billiard
balls, where kinetic energy is transferred
from one ball to another, without moving the
balls themselves. Heat can move through
window glass via conduction. Window
frames are also prone to conduction
heat loss (particularly aluminum or metal
frames), as are metal doors. And metal
pipes are great heat conductors, too.
Radiation: A hot object emits infrared
radiation, any form of light energy,
whether visible or not. The sun is a perfect
radiator. Fires radiate heat, some of which
you can see (a very hot fire glows white, for
example, and as it cools down the color
changes to orange, and then red) and most
of which is invisible. When you can’t see
the embers anymore but can still feel the
heat, the radiation is entirely infrared. In
fact, there is far more invisible radiation
than visible, but both versions are capable
of heating. When you put blinds over your
windows, you are keeping radiant heat from
entering your home. On the other hand,
when you raise the blinds to let in winter
sunshine, you’re inviting radiant heat.
Radiation is more of a problem in the
summer, when you want to keep your
home cool by keeping sunshine out than in
the winter when you’re trying to retain hot
air (assuming you live in a climate where
the temperature varies with the seasons).
In the winter, you generally seek as much
radiation heating as you can get.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Performing a pressure test to find air leaks
You can perform a pressure test on your home in rudimentary fashion. As I
state in Chapter 3, you can hire a pro to do an audit that includes a detailed
leak test, but you can do an easy one that’s 80 percent as effective. The best
time to do this test is when it’s cold outside and warm inside, although it will
work under any conditions if you have patience and tenacity.
To conduct a leak test, follow these steps:
1. Completely extinguish any fireplace fires.
Close the fireplace damper as much as possible.
2. Turn off your HVAC system and any furnaces.
If you have a gas water heater, turn that off, too.
3. Close all the windows and doors in your home.
Also make sure to close any skylights or vents.
4. Turn on all the exhaust fans in your home.
These are normally located in kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms.
If you don’t have any exhaust fans, aim a portable fan out a single open
window and turn it on. With the fans on, your house is depressurized, so
any leaks will be readily apparent.
5. Go around the house with a bowl of water, dip your hand in the
water, and move your wet hand around the area you’re testing.
You’ll be able to feel a leak, especially if it’s cold outside. Another way
to do this is with a stick of incense — when the smoke fluctuates, you’ve
found a leak. Or you can use a candle — in this case, flickering of the
flame indicates a leak.
Test the following areas and make a list of all the areas where you find leaks:
• Test your fireplace. If it’s leaky, you’ll be drawing in some stink. If
so, turn the fans off and inspect your fireplace to find out why it’s
so leaky. If you can, fix it. If not, forge ahead if the smell isn’t too
bad. If the smell is really bad, call a fireplace specialist.
Fixing air leaks around your fireplace is vitally important. You don’t
want to pull in air from your fireplace because it contains a number
of pollutants and volatile chemical compounds (see Chapter 6).
• Test windows, doors, molding interfaces, attic hatches, basement
hatches, and so forth.
• Get a ladder or a chair and check for leaks in overhead lights.
These are very common, but unfortunately a little more difficult to
fix if you don’t have good attic access.
• Check AC outlets and switch plates.
Chapter 7: Sealing and Insulating Your Home
6. After you’ve tested all the areas of your house, turn the fans off, and
then fix the leaks.
I get into details on how to fix leaks in the section “Fixing the Leaks You
Find” later in this chapter, but here’s an important safety tip that bears
repeating: If you find a leak in an outlet or switch, flip the main circuit
breaker off to turn the electricity off in the entire house before you fix
it. You’ll have to reset your clocks, but you’ll be alive to do it, so don’t
7. Once you’ve finished fixing leaks, turn the exhaust fans back on and
repeat the wet-hand routine.
Your house will be tighter now, and any remaining leaks will be even
more obvious.
8. Repeat the whole process until you’re satisfied.
Finding attic air leaks
Attic air leaks are quite common. Following is a simple pressurization test
that helps you locate air leaks in your attic as well as other air leaks through
your ceiling:
1. Completely extinguish any fireplace fires.
Close the fireplace damper as much as possible.
2. Turn off your HVAC system, any furnaces, and if you have one, your
gas water heater.
3. Close all the windows, doors, and any skylights or vents in your home.
4. Position a portable fan so that it aims into the house through an open
Now your house is pressurized (as opposed to depressurized).
5. Go into the attic with a bowl of water, dip your hand in the water, and
then move your hand around potential leak sites.
With a wet hand, you’ll be able to easily feel the air pushing through
from the inside of your house. Pay particular attention to these areas:
• The hatch you climbed through to get to the attic. See the later
section, “Weatherstripping,” for details on how to fix this.
• Recessed lights in the rooms below. Simply turn the lights on and,
from up in the attic space, look to see whether light is visible. If so,
you have a leak. You can fix it by buying a special kit at your hardware
store that fits over the light from the top and seals the space.
• Around chimneys. If your chimney flue is not sealed, you likely
have a leak here.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
The good news is that most attic leaks are straightforward, if not easy, to fix.
On the down side, most attics are a hassle to move around in, and some are
just plain dangerous.
If you climb into the attic to check for leaks or to fix things like leaks in your
overhead light fixtures, you’ll find out what it’s like to be a human pretzel.
Although you may not be able to avoid contorting yourself into all sorts of odd
positions, you can take these steps to keep the mess down and make your trek
up there more bearable and safe (attics are notoriously cold in winter and hot
in summer):
Do it in the morning when it’s cool.
Wear a lightweight, disposable coverall (from the paint department).
Wear a dust mask or particulate respirator.
Wear knee pads, which you can get at any hardware store.
Use a flashlight that clamps around your head and shines down onto
your work.
Plan ahead. Stage the job before you try it so you’ll know which tools
you need, and take the right tools up with you.
Be careful where you step. Otherwise, you may fall through the ceiling.
Fixing the Leaks You Find
When your windows are all open, your home is basically a part of Mother
Nature’s fantastic domain. When you shut your windows and doors, it’s
another matter entirely — unless your house isn’t well sealed. Some
windows, for example, let in a lot of air, even when they’re closed. Same with
doors. And electrical outlets can leak air as well, just as can the light fixtures
in your ceiling. Therefore, you can improve energy efficiency just by closing
up these gaps. In this section, I present some valuable tips on how best to fix
leaks. There are basically three kinds of fixes: weatherstripping, caulking, and
expandable foam. All three have their time and place.
When sealing any home, be careful about indoor air pollution and combustion
appliance back drafts. Back drafting occurs when the various combustion appliances and exhaust fans in a home have to compete for air because there simply
isn’t enough to go around. An exhaust fan may pull combustion gases back
into the living space, for example, in which case you want to make sure you are
ventilating combustion gases into the great outdoors rather than your home’s
interior. If your home burns fuel, you can avoid back drafts by making sure that
the combustion system has an adequate air supply. (One way to tell whether
your home is sealed too tightly is to note whether you get condensation on your
windows during the winter. If so, you don’t have adequate ventilation.) Go to
Chapter 13 for more information about how to adequately ventilate your home.
Chapter 7: Sealing and Insulating Your Home
Weatherstripping works great around doors and windows and where seals
can’t be made permanent (as with caulking). The trick is to get the right stuff,
and the best way to do this is to take a sample of the existing seal (if there
is one) to your local hardware store, where the salespeople will be able to
sell you the appropriate new material. Foam and wrapped foam (a layer of
vinyl or plastic wrapped around a foam core) are usually best and cheapest.
Whatever weatherstripping you buy, be sure to follow the directions on the
label. Here are a few other suggestions to make weatherstripping a breeze:
Make sure to measure how much length you need before you buy. And if
you end up with too little, don’t stretch the material: It’ll pull back over
time and come loose.
If you can, buy a kit to seal a door or window straight from the
manufacturer of that door or window.
The biggest culprits for air leaks are double-wide sliding doors, and the
seals for these usually are best purchased straight from the manufacturers
because they’re very specific to a particular style of door.
If you can’t buy the same type of weatherstripping (because it’s no
longer available, for example), have no fear. Weatherstripping is pretty
versatile stuff. You may need to use your imagination to figure out ways
to cut it to fit into strange spaces, in which case you’ll find that a good,
sharp box-cutting knife is just the thing.
Sometimes shutting a door or window right after weatherstripping has
been applied is difficult, but this usually tapers off in a week or two. If it
doesn’t, give it another week or two. If that doesn’t do the trick, get out
the ubiquitous box-cutter and hack away.
Most garage doors have a rubber seal on the bottom called an astragal.
These are expensive, but in some cases they can make a big difference
in your home’s comfort. If your garage is well sealed from the home, you
probably don’t have to worry about this seal. But if you get drafts or
your garage is perpetually cold, changing the seal may be worth it.
Expandable foam sealant
Expandable foam sealant is great stuff and horrid stuff, all at once. Via a long,
straw-like wand, you squirt a yellowish foamy liquid into tight spots where
there are air and insulation gaps. The foam expands and fills in the gap, and
then it dries, hardens, and solidifies. Very effective. The problem is that
expandable foam sealant sticks to everything, and nothing works very well to
get it off. So a bit of a mess can easily turn into a big mess, accompanied by
a lot of swearing and remorse (two things you want to avoid in the name of
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
If you’re going to use an expandable foam sealant, practice first out in your
garage, a barn, or an outbuilding before you try to fix anything inside your
house. You’ll quickly figure out how to work with it and how not to work, and
you can also get the swearing part out of the way, which is especially wise if
you have kids around.
Foam sealant works best for:
Leaks between jambs and wood: Remove the trim molding from around
leaking windows and doors, and you’ll often find an air gap between the
jamb and the frame wood. Squirt foam sealant in the gaps, wait until it
dries, cut off the excess with a sharp knife, and then replace the trim
molding. Many old houses benefit greatly from this simple, cheap fix.
Plumbing feed-throughs: Squirt foam in the gaps around plumbing feedthroughs (where the plumbing goes through exterior walls to the outside
Plumbing vent pipes: Squirt foam around plumbing vent pipes that pass
through your attic.
Small gaps in insulation: Squirt foam into any small gaps in insulation to
stop air leaks.
In general, if you can, use foam sealant instead of caulking because it provides both a seal and insulation.
Caulking your way to Nirvana
Caulking is fun. Squirting beads of thick, sticky goo just seems to resonate
with the human spirit. So get out your caulking gun, because caulk can be
used in a lot of places:
Around all exterior joints that may be in contact with water.
Around doors, windows, decks, frames, and anywhere wind can push
water in.
On horizontal surfaces where water may pool and seep in over time.
Wherever you think water can’t get in (because it can, and it will).
Around your teenager’s bedroom door (because heaven knows the trouble
a teen can get into when out of your sight).
When in doubt, caulk. Why not?
As fun as caulking may be, you still need to know a few fundamentals to make
the job easier. I explain these in the following sections.
Chapter 7: Sealing and Insulating Your Home
Getting the right tools
Buy a good caulking gun. A pro-style gun may cost $20, but it’s worth it,
especially if you’re doing a lot of caulking. Look for larger handles, a smooth
ratcheting action, pressure relief, and a hook on the end to hang on ladder
rungs or rafters. An attached wire that pokes a hole in the tube’s seal is
especially convenient.
Use good-quality caulk. Three types are available:
Acrylic (latex): Water-based and by far the most common. It skins over
(dries on the surface) almost immediately, so you can paint it within
minutes of applying (with latex paint, not oil-based).
Silicon acrylic: More flexible (and expensive). Use this type if you’re
caulking between two surfaces that may expand and contract with weather.
Make sure to get the kind that you can paint, if that’s what you intend to do.
Polyurethane: Performs better than latex but is much more difficult to
work with and clean up. Use it between concrete, masonry, bricks, or on
a surface that’s been painted by oil-based paints or varnish. Because it
has better adhesion, you may also want to use it on surfaces, such as on
roof lines, where a leak could be potentially costly.
All caulk is rated by years, but don’t use the amount of time you want it to last
as a guide; instead, buy the best stuff you can afford. Fifty-year caulk works
better than 20-year over the course of its entire lifetime. If you must use the
cheap stuff, use it where nobody will ever see it and where you need to simply
build up mass to fill a space or void.
Applying the caulk
The key to success is in the application. The idea is not to squirt as much
material into a joint as possible, but to lay a nice smooth bead across a joint.
Follow these steps:
1. Prepare the base by cleaning the surface to be caulked.
Dig out any old caulk with a putty knife or a 5-in-1 tool (you can get these
at a hardware store; ask the clerk in the paint department). If possible,
work some paint primer (latex) into the groove where you’re going to
squirt caulk. However, if you’re caulking surfaces such as concrete, brick,
or any other masonries, use “self-priming” caulk instead.
2. Run a smooth ribbon of caulk along the joint you want to seal.
Try to avoid laying down thick blobs of caulk, which tend to crack when
they dry.
3. Run your finger along the caulk and press it gently down and into the
joint; then wipe away the excess with a damp cloth.
Don’t use paper towels because they tear and fray, and watch out for
sharp little shards of paint or cracked materials that can cut your fingers.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Here are some suggestions for getting a nice, smooth bead:
If you’re a first-time caulker, practice in a place where mistakes can be
Cut the caulk tube ends at an angle to get a better beading action. You can
also cut the tube ends of several tubes to squirt out different diameters of
material, and then use the diameter which best suits the particular joint
you’re working on.
Don’t squirt a bunch of caulk into a wide gap because it simply won’t stick
in there when it dries (caulk inevitably shrinks and cracks when it dries).
Use foam backer rods (ask for these in your hardware store), which you
can jam into wide gaps between materials. Then caulk over the backer rods.
You can use painters’ masking tape to block off surfaces you don’t want
to get any caulk on, as well as to make nice, crisp, even lines.
To get into hard-to-reach corners and tight spots, tape a flexible drinking
straw onto the tip of your caulking gun.
Inspecting and Repairing HVAC Ducts
Most of the HVAC ducts in your home send heated or cooled air into the
house; one large duct is the return to the HVAC machine itself. All these ducts
need to be tightly sealed. Yet in almost every home I’ve been in, especially
older ones, the HVAC duct system has some big problems: shredded
insulation, broken junctions, holes chewed through insulation and ducts by
rats and mice, and so on.
Leaks in the ductwork are worse than air leaks in your house because the
ducts are pressurized, which magnifies the amount of air escaping through
cracks and openings.
Fortunately, duct problems are usually easy to find and fix (although gaining
access may be tricky). It’s amazing how many problems you can find with
just a flashlight and a quick glance. You can also turn the HVAC on, so that
the ducts are pressurized, and find leaks with a wet hand (refer to the earlier
section “Performing a pressure test to find leaks” for instructions). Follow
these bits of advice:
If the ducts aren’t well insulated, you can get a number of different kinds
of insulation sealing kits at hardware stores to do the job. Tell your
hardware clerk what kind of ducts you have (what they’re made of, how
they’re suspended, and so on) and he’ll help you find the right kit.
If the insulation around the ducts has any rips or tears, fix it. For this,
duct tape works well but may be a real hassle. Once again, ask your
hardware clerk what will work best.
Chapter 7: Sealing and Insulating Your Home
If the insulation is thin, you may want to build it up. You can add a new
layer directly over the old.
Many leaks occur at the junction between the ducts and the registers
that feed the air into your home. You can seal these with caulk.
When working with dusty ducts, wearing a good-quality dust mask is highly
recommended. You can get one at your hardware store.
Duct tape works wonders, but it doesn’t stick to dusty surfaces very well. If
you’ve got a dust problem, wrap the duct tape around and around and just
cover up the dust. It’s easier than trying to clean it off.
Insulating Your Home (Not Insulting It)
The previous sections in this chapter deal with things that are responsible
for convection losses, where warm (or cool) air escapes from your home.
The other way to experience unwanted heat loss is through conduction, and
that’s where insulation comes into play. A well insulated house is
comfortable and efficient, with just enough moisture in the air.
If your insulation is less than three inches thick, it’s probably worth spending
money to increase the R-value. If your insulation is over three inches, you
should probably spend your money on some other efficiency improvement.
Capacity to resist heat flow is called R-value. County building codes have
minimum R-values for homes, and you can check with them to find out what’s
right for your area. You can also get more information on insulation levels
from your local utility, who may come out and do a home energy audit for you
and check your insulation so that you don’t have to (they’ll usually do these
audits for free, and they know what they’re doing).
Insulation is generally an expensive fix that you should address only after
you’ve taken care of air leaks. So if you haven’t tested your house for air leaks,
refer to the earlier sections “Finding Air Leaks” and “Fixing the Leaks Your
Find”; then come back to this section.
Types of insulation
There are dozens of different types of insulation schemes, but for most
homes only a few are practical. The vast majority of homes use fiberglass
insulation, and most people have a good idea of what this stuff looks like
(cotton candy). In a distant second comes foam board, a type of insulation
that is generally used when a home is being constructed. If you’re remodeling
or improving existing insulation, you’ll probably use some form of fiberglass.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
The best bet is to discuss your plans with the salespeople at your favorite
hardware store and ask them what type of insulation is best for your application.
Owens Corning is the leading manufacturer of insulation. Visit its Web site at to determine the number of square feet of material
you’ll need to insulate an attic or a wall in your home. Also check out www.
The following sections describe the most common types of insulation, along
with the pros and cons of each.
Fiberglass, which is made of glass fibers, comes in at an R-rating of R-3 to 3.8
per inch (thickness). Fiberglass is by far the most common type of insulation,
and it is what you should use if you can. It’s readily available and comes in
spun rolls which you can easily cut and lay into place.
Pros: It’s low-cost, easy to install (once you get the hang of cutting and
placing it into the gaps), and can be pressed into place without the use
of glues or chemicals. It comes in standard widths and is available with
kraft paper backing, which also provides a moisture seal.
Cons: It’s very irritating to your skin and lungs and is susceptible to air
gaps. When you get big plastic bags full of it, and cut the plastic packaging
off, it expands to three or four times the size and is difficult to move around
and place.
Loose-fill insulation
Loose fill insulation is chopped fiberglass material that is “blown” into place,
as opposed to cut and fitted. It comes in at an R-rating of R-2.2 to R-4 per inch.
Pros: It’s low-cost and gives much better coverage in irregular spaces
where the one-piece fiberglass format doesn’t fit well. It can be poured
or blown into walls and odd spaces, which makes working with it much
easier than fiberglass.
Cons: It’s messy, and the quality varies even within the same lot. It can
shift or settle over time so that gaps may grow rather large. You can’t
use it for under floors without a complex web of nets, which are not
worth the hassle. Depending on the size of the job, you may need to rent
a special blower.
Extruded foam insulation
Extruded foam insulation is solid, rigid material made of the same type of
foam as a drinking cup. It comes in flat sheets, with an R-rating around R-5.2
per inch.
Chapter 7: Sealing and Insulating Your Home
Pros: It’s high-strength, easy to tack up, covers well, and works underground
and in wet basements. It’s good for covering a house, then tacking up siding
over it.
Cons: It’s very expensive and needs to be covered up with siding.
Sprayed urethane foam
Sprayed urethane foam is held in a metal container, under pressure, and then
force sprayed onto walls where it sticks. It comes in at an R-value between
R-6 and R-7.3 per inch.
Pros: It forms a tough, seamless barrier that seals well over all types of
surfaces, especially irregular ones.
Cons: It must be professionally installed, and it needs to be covered up.
Checking and fixing your
home’s insulation
Visually check insulation wherever you can. Most gaps will be readily evident.
Also look for spots where water has damaged insulation or spots where the
insulation is very thin. Small problems, like gaps or voids in your insulation,
usually occur around light fixtures and where somebody (like an electrician
or plumber) has been working and pushed it aside. You can fix these voids by
hand tucking some loose insulation into the gaps.
If you find your insulation wholly inadequate, you’ve got a big decision on
your hands. Putting in new insulation is expensive — the payback time is
going to be way out there. But if you don’t, you’ll continue to waste money and
leave a big carbon footprint.
If you’re on a limited budget and want to make the biggest difference for the
least cost, insulate your family room (or the room you spend the most time
in) first. In particular, if you don’t have any insulation under your family room
floor, adding insulation there is usually easy to do and doesn’t cost that much.
You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck.
The following sections outline the different areas to check and explain how to
remedy the problems you may find.
Insulation makes the most difference in the attic simply because heat rises. If
no heat can leak out of your home through the attic, your home will be very
well sealed.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
The easiest thing to do is have the insulation in the attic thickened. You can
do this yourself (use a dust mask at all times), or you can find a company to
come in and spray loose fill insulation. Unfortunately, when the insulation in
your attic is substandard, it’s most likely also substandard in the walls. See
the next section.
Completely seal up the attic for air leaks from the home before you apply
insulation because once the insulation is in place, taking care of attic leaks is
much more difficult.
Substandard insulation in your walls is not as easy to remedy as substandard
insulation in your attic. The best bet may be to simply put new siding on the
outside of your house. You can get good-looking siding with great insulation
properties, and at least when you spend money like this, you can accomplish
a visual remodel as well.
If you have a basement, check to see whether the ceiling is insulated. If
not, putting insulation in is a relatively easy job, probably even easier than
working in your attic.
If you need to insulate a basement, it’s usually best to use foam sheets and
then cover them with sheetrock. You can either glue the sheets directly onto
the concrete basement walls, or build a wall up with 2 × 4s, which will make
the room smaller.
Insulating old homes
In some old homes, it pays to blow loose fill
insulation into the walls. Normally this works
when the existing insulation is so poor that air
gaps are more common than insulation. Sound
absurd? It’s a lot more common than you think.
Some homes have no insulation at all, like the
old homes back east. Energy was so cheap (ah,
the good old days) that insulation was not costeffective.
Having a pro do an energy audit of your home to
get a second opinion is a good idea. If you decide
to go ahead, you’ll need to rent a blower, which
will come with detailed instructions. You’ll need
to cut a number of two- or three-inch-diameter
holes through your exterior siding so that the
blower head can get into each individual cavity
between the beams.
A better way may be to simply cover your home
with insulation sheets, and then cover that with
new siding. This way, not only do you get the
added insulation, but your home also gets a
nice facelift.
Chapter 7: Sealing and Insulating Your Home
Hot water pipes should be well insulated. It’s easy to see when they’re not.
You can also feel the pipes (after you’ve turned the hot water on in the house
for a minute or two) to determine which pipes are for hot water and which
ones are for cold. A number of easy options work well for insulating pipes,
the easiest being a three-foot-long foam section with a longitudinal slit. You
simply slide the piece over the pipe, and you’re in business. Ask about your
options at the hardware store.
Tips for applying insulation
Putting in insulation isn’t particularly difficult, but it can go more easily if you
keep a few things in mind.
With fiberglass insulation, wear a one-piece jumpsuit, along with a
face mask and gloves, and make sure ventilation is adequate before
you begin. You don’t want to breathe a lot of fiberglass dust, and you
don’t want to get it on your skin because you’ll be scratching up a
storm. Also, in old attics, the dust that collects on insulation can be very
nasty. Try not to disturb it, if possible.
Fiberglass insulation is itchy. Some versions come with plastic covers
to reduce the risk of itch – if you’re really sensitive, look for these.
Apply insulation carefully and evenly. Fill entire cavities, but be careful
not to cover up vents or other means for attics and basements to breathe.
When you come across electrical wires, arrange half of the insulation
in front of them, and half behind. You will have to tear the insulation
open, but this works much better than leaving big air gaps without any
material at all.
If you leave a gap unfilled, you’re wasting money. Filling only 80 percent
of a cavity prevents only 20 percent of the heat loss.
Always buy the right width and thickness to fill spaces. You don’t want
to piece insulation together to fit a space if you don’t have to, because
you risk creating air gaps. Still, you can press fiberglass insulation tight
into narrow gaps and cracks, and it will perform better than nothing at
all even though it’s compressed a bit. (Using expandable foam is best,
but this may not always be practical, and it’s not worth a lot of extra
Compressing insulation reduces its R-value. When you squeeze it down
to make it fit into gaps, you’re accomplishing the opposite of what you
intend. You’re actually reducing the effectiveness of the insulation. So
press it down only when necessary.
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You can get one-piece seals for plugs and switch outlets for about $4 a
dozen at your hardware store. Simply remove the plastic cover, set a
seal into place, and replace the cover.
If you have moisture problems in your home, you may want vapor
barrier facing on the insulation (it comes prefaced on some versions,
so look for that type when you buy). It doesn’t cost much more, and it
makes the insulation easier to work with to boot.
Use hedge shears to cut insulation, not a knife.
Working with Windows
Of all the investments you can make in your home, windows have the
potential to make the most impact. Not only do they provide insulation (and
sealing), but they also affect the aesthetic ambient like nothing else in your
home. But installing new windows is very expensive, maybe one of the most
expensive projects you’ll ever take on. A typical residential window costs
anywhere from $150 to $400, plus another $100 to $300 for professional
installation. And you can easily spend a lot more than this.
If you have very poor insulation in your home and you’re looking for the
biggest bang for your buck, you’re better off improving the insulation before
buying new windows. See the earlier section “Insulating Your Home (Not
Insulting It)” for details on insulation.
Do you really need to replace your windows? Answer these questions:
Are your windows single pane? This may not matter, or it may be a
huge factor in your energy bill. With homes in mild climates, the number
of panes doesn’t matter much. However, if you’re living in extreme
climates, single pane windows are almost always worth upgrading.
Besides, single pane windows are always old, and you can buy something better looking.
Are your windows old? Old windows can be especially problematic. If
they’re difficult to maneuver, you’re less apt to open and close them,
and you lose out on some of the ventilation tricks I detail in Chapter 13.
Simple, inexpensive solutions
for problem windows
If you have substandard windows (basically, any windows you don’t like or
aren’t performing well for you), you can always use blinds to help solve the
Chapter 7: Sealing and Insulating Your Home
problem. In this way, you also get a nice aesthetic effect as well. See Chapter
12 for more details on how to use sunlight to warm up a room.
You don’t need to change all the windows in your house to make a significant
improvement. One single, large window in a family or living room may make
a big difference in both energy efficiency and aesthetic beauty. Or maybe a
couple rooms’ worth of windows, like the breakfast nook, the living room, and
the family room, will do the trick. You can also put up heat-sealing cloth
barriers in the summer or storm windows in the winter, and both of these
solutions are much cheaper than changing windows.
Replacing windows
Before you replace windows, take your time researching all the options. Visit
some window stores and check out the different types, like wood, plastic,
fiber, and so forth (you’ll probably be confounded by the variety), and get a
number of bids. In particular, pay attention to the following:
Glass: Ask about different types. Some glass selectively filters sunlight
for UV; some has low-E coating and argon gas between panes.
Appearance: Does the style blend in well with your existing home
decor? Do the colors match your home, or are you going to be painting?
You can get windows that require paint so that they’ll match anything,
but you don’t want to because every five years you’ll have a big, tedious
job. (Painting windows is very time-consuming. You can’t just roller —
or even spray — it on).
Cleaning: Are they easy to maneuver so that you can clean them? A lot
of new window designs enable you to clean from the inside. This is particularly handy for second-story windows.
Operation: Are the windows smooth and easy to open and close? It pays
to invest in quality bearings and movements. No one wants to have to
remember a complicated schematic just to let in a little summer breeze.
Maintenance: Where are you going to get parts when you need them?
Warranties: The seal between double-pane glass inevitably gives out, so
make sure you understand who is going to pay for this expensive repair.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Chapter 8
Getting the Most Out of Your
Heating and Air-Conditioning
In This Chapter
Seeing what contributes to your comfort
Reducing your energy requirements the easy, cheap way
Getting the most out of your existing system
Determining when it’s time to get new equipment
ost homes have both heating and cooling systems. Together, these
account for a large portion of your total energy use. (To find out just
how much of your energy consumption is devoted to heating and cooling your
home, do a home energy audit. Refer to Chapter 3 for details.) In Chapter 7,
I show how to seal and insulate your house so that when you turn on your
heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, you can maintain a
comfortable environment with less energy. In this chapter, I give you general
advice about how to use your equipment more efficiently.
Note: This chapter doesn’t present specific details on how to tune up your
existing equipment for several reasons:
Far too many different types of systems are available — so many that
this book doesn’t have enough room to include even the most common
Many adjustments involve quite a bit of technology and require the
expertise of a pro.
Combustion systems are inherently dangerous, and you don’t want to
mess around with them. Call a pro instead.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Understanding Human Comfort
Human comfort is not simply determined by room temperature, but by a
variety of other factors as well, such as air movement, humidity level, and so
on. Yet most people still erroneously think that the best way to make a room
more livable is to set the desired room temperature on the thermostat. You
can do much better than this, of course, if you’re willing to learn some tricks
and change a few habits. This section explains the factors that affect how
comfortable a room feels and offers a few pointers on how to exploit these
factors so that you can use your HVAC less frequently and still maintain — or
even enhance — the comfort level in your home.
Getting air moving
In the summer, people like the feel of air moving over their skin. Just the
phrase “summer breeze” generates a cool sensation. Even a warm breeze on
a hot day can cool things down. That’s because it’s not air temperature that’s
important, but the actual temperature of your skin. Moving air removes heat,
so skin temperature goes down. Essentially, a breeze cools you by convection (see Chapter 7).
Fans move air and, in the process, cool you down. They don’t change the air
temperature (if anything, they make the air hotter), but their effect is still
pronounced. Fans, like breezes, cool by convection. You can make a room
more comfortable just by installing fans to improve the ventilation (see
Chapter 13 for details).
Don’t use fans when no humans are present, because all fans do then is heat up
the air. Fans do not cool a room; they just make the people in it feel cooler —
there’s a difference.
Helping or hindering: Humidity
On humid days, people feel much hotter than they do on less humid days,
even if the temperature is the same on both days. Why? Because humid air
doesn’t carry heat away from your skin nearly as well as dry air does.
For this reason, equipping your home with a dehumidifier that you use in the
summer can make the air feel much cooler. As an added bonus — and one
that’s particularly relevant to this book — dehumidifiers are much cheaper
to operate than air conditioners, so they save money. Conversely, in the
winter you want humid air because your skin can draw heat more readily
from it than from dry air. In the winter, people don’t want to feel moving air
from fans because that removes heat.
Chapter 8: Getting the Most Out of Your Heating and Air-Conditioning System
The lowdown on portable heaters
Portable heaters are heaters you can move
around to wherever you like. You see them
underneath people’s desks at work when
the boss is a miser. If your HVAC system isn’t
working consistently from room to room, a
portable heater may be just the thing.
But here’s what’s quirky about most of them:
They come with fans that move air over a
resistance coil. If the fan wasn’t moving the air,
the coil would get really, truly hot and probably
burn up, which is clearly not something you
want in your home (unless you want to collect
on your fire insurance). The fan also tends to
make you feel a lot cooler. So with traditional
portable heaters, a conflict exists between their
purpose (to generate warmth) and their design
(the inclusion of the fan, which cools you down).
The best bet is to use a radiative type of heater,
which uses parabolic reflectors with a heating
element at the focal point, or something akin
to this. These heaters spread heat by radiating
it rather than by convection, which is the way
a portable heater with a fan works. Radiation
heaters are also more efficient, and they feel
more natural because they’re supplying heat
the same way the sun does; through radiation.
Remember, though: Either type of heater is dangerous if used incorrectly, and in no case should
a portable heater be used around children.
Sweating is your body’s way of eliminating heat and cooling itself down. Many
people think the evaporation of sweat is the key, but that’s only a small part
of it. The truth is, water holds much more heat than air does; sweating is your
body’s way of expelling this hot water. In other words, the sweat itself cools
you down — if you can get it off your body (otherwise, sweating just moves
the hot water from in you to on you). That’s where evaporation comes in and
why humid days feel hotter than dry ones. When it’s humid, the air is already
full of water and simply can’t hold any more, so sweat doesn’t evaporate. It
just hangs around, making you feel sticky and hot. Contrary to the way it may
feel, you don’t actually sweat more on humid days.
The following sections tell you how to keep humidity levels comfortable
throughout the year.
In the summer
Use a dehumidifier in the summer. Keep the filter clean and try placing it in
different rooms to get the maximum effect. The best bet is to place it in your
family room (or wherever your family congregates the most). Other things to
keep in mind include:
Clothes dryers absolutely must be vented to the outside world. This is
the single biggest source of humidity in a home. If you use a clothesline
to dry things (like delicate garments) and you can’t put it outdoors for
some reason, put it in the garage, not inside the house.
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Install exhaust fans vented to the outside in all bathrooms, the
kitchen, and the laundry room. Use them when you’re showering or
cooking to get rid of humidity in the summer. You can even install a
humidistat to turn the vent fans on when humidity levels exceed a
certain threshold.
When you use a vent fan with the whole-house air conditioner on, crack
a window near the vent fan. The fan will draw its air from that location
instead of the cool air from the house.
Don’t put carpet in the bathrooms. It sucks up moisture and then
releases it all day long, producing a musty smell through the entire
house — which may be a good thing if you want fewer houseguests.
Don’t allow water to pool in your basement. Use a sump pump or find
another way to get rid of it.
Ventilate your attic and basement. This lets fresh air in and reduces
In the winter
Use a humidifier in the winter. This lets you decrease the load on your heating system (you don’t need to turn the heat on nearly as much to maintain
comfort levels). You can make a humidifier by simply hanging clothes to dry
in your bathroom (keep the door open).
In the winter, don’t use vent fans in the kitchen. You want both the humidity
and the heat that you generate when you cook.
Capitalizing on the chimney effect
Heat rises. That’s why your house doesn’t fill with smoke when you’re burning wood in the fireplace. When a fire is burning in your fireplace, cool air
from the room is drawn in and the oxygen combines with the biomass in the
firewood to create a flame. The heat from the flame moves up into the flue
and out the chimney (unless something is preventing it, like a home that is
too tightly sealed or a closed damper). Hence, the term chimney effect.
In the same way, hot air rises within the confines of a single room. The temperature of the air near the ceiling is always higher than that at the floor. If
you live in a two-story house, you may notice that the upstairs gets hotter
than the downstairs — that’s due to the chimney effect.
Heat rising is a passive effect; you don’t need a fan to make this air move.
Passive effects are the absolute best when you’re looking to maximize efficiency because they’re essentially free. To take advantage of them, you just
need to exploit physics. So how do you take advantage of the chimney effect?
In any of these ways:
Chapter 8: Getting the Most Out of Your Heating and Air-Conditioning System
Install ceiling fans. Depending on whether the blades push air up or
down, ceiling fans can move heat either up into the ceiling, thereby
making the ground level cooler, or move heat down (in the winter). By
using them to move the air in a room around, you can maximize the
comfort level (see Chapter 13 for more details on fans and ventilation).
Adjust your registers. During the winter, adjust the registers in your
home so that much more heat enters the downstairs than the upstairs.
Due to the chimney effect, the home will even out very nicely. During the
summer, do just the opposite: Open the upstairs registers and let the
majority of cool air enter there. Over the course of the day it will
gravitate down to the lower floors.
Going for the greenhouse effect
Why does a greenhouse get so hot when the sun is shining? The answer is
found in the greenhouse effect. Essentially, sunlight transmits through the
greenhouse’s glass walls and is converted into heat on the interior surfaces
of the greenhouse. The same glass that transmitted the radiation into the
greenhouse now serves to insulate that heat from getting back out into the
great outdoors. The same effect causes cars to get hot when they’re sitting
in harsh summertime sunshine. To take advantage of the greenhouse affect,
follow these suggestions:
Open all your blinds when you want to heat your home and the sun is
shining. Blinds prevent sunlight from entering, so you can’t exploit the
greenhouse effect when they’re drawn.
Blinds work very well for insulating, so close them whenever you
need to retain heat or cool air. In general, closing your blinds at night
is always a good idea. Close them on cold winter days, when the sun is
dull, to make your heater work more efficiently (by increasing the
insulation of your home).
Making more small changes
for even bigger benefits
One of the best ways to reduce your energy costs is with a programmable
thermostat. This is a great do-it-yourself project, and it costs less than $100,
in most cases. Find a unit compatible with the equipment you have in your
house. Consult your owner’s manual to find out what types are compatible,
call a heating and air specialist, or ask at your hardware store. Make sure to
get one with easy-to-understand instructions. Avoid thermostats that seem
complex to operate because that’s an indicator that the design just isn’t a
good one.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Available options on programmable thermostats include the following:
A reminder when it’s time to change the filter
The ability to automatically change programs between heating and
cooling seasons
A low-battery indicator
You can get as complex as you want, but in my book simplicity is always a
Most homes don’t need every room to be maintained at the same temperature.
In general, rooms where you don’t spend a lot of time or that tend to warm
up or cool down quickly (because of size or design) are good candidates for
blocking off. Bathrooms, for example, don’t need HVAC very much at all, nor
do laundry rooms. The following list shares advice on how to vary the temperature of different rooms:
To block off rooms, close the registers and the door. You can further
seal the room off from the rest of the house by laying an old towel
across the threshold at the bottom of the door. (Note, however, that the
thermostat that controls your system needs to be in a room that isn’t
blocked off!)
Use window air conditioners to cool rooms individually. A portable
air conditioner is much cheaper to run than a big, whole-house unit.
Perhaps you only need to cool your family room or a single bedroom
upstairs so that your sleep will be more comfortable.
You can easily heat a single room using portable heaters. If you set up
a couple portable heaters in your family room, for example, you may not
need to turn your whole-house system on at all.
Here are a couple other ways you can reduce your energy costs while maximizing your comfort:
Use your grill more. If possible, do all your summertime cooking outdoors.
Gas barbecues are the most efficient and convenient, which may motivate
you to cook outdoors more often.
Adjust the lighting. The human mind is subliminally sensitive to certain
sensory effects, one of which is lighting tone. A harshly lit room (bright,
silver, or yellow light) makes people feel hotter. A shady, dull room
makes people feel cooler. Candlelight makes people feel warmer. And so
on. I get into more lighting details in Chapter 9.
Chapter 8: Getting the Most Out of Your Heating and Air-Conditioning System
Solving Some of the Most Common
Inefficiency Problems
In order for any system to be efficient, it needs to be running well and
smoothly. Sometimes, though, problems creep up that can decrease the
performance of the system. This is certainly true of HVAC systems. If your
existing HVAC equipment isn’t working the way you think it should, here are
some of the most common problems that you can solve yourself.
If you have a combustion system, I recommend you have an HVAC pro inspect
and tune your equipment every few years. It pays, believe me, as these systems
are prone to carbon buildups and other soot issues that can drastically affect
their performance. Heat pumps can work nicely for a decade without being
serviced, as can solar water heaters, space heaters, and so on.
Window air conditioners for a single room
If you’re buying a window air conditioner, get
one with a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating
(SEER) between 10 and 17. The higher the rating,
the more efficient the air conditioner is. Check
with your utility company to see whether they
offer rebates for units with high SEER numbers.
They may have a list of recommended units you
can get at a discount.
You can also buy a stand-alone unit that sits on
wheels and move it around your home as you
see fit. You can use it in the family room during
the evening hours, and then push it into your
bedroom when you sleep.
When you install your air conditioner, put it in
the shade. The cooler it is, the more efficiently
it will run.
Fortunately, you can easily do the maintenance
Clean the fins, evaporator coil, fan,
condenser fins, and tubes. Be sure to unplug
it first, and don’t make a big mess. You can
use a jet spray to clean out the fins.
Air conditioners also have filters that
get clogged. You can replace these
inexpensively, or you may be able to
vacuum the dust and debris from the filter
Buy a cheap fan comb to straighten bent
fins. Using the comb to straighten the fins
out can make a big difference in the unit’s
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Restoring air flow
To work at their peak efficiency, HVACs need adequate air flow. That means
that the filters must be clean, and the airflow path must be unobstructed.
When air flow is obstructed, the machine basically uses up the same amount
of power but does less work for that power, and so it has to be on longer to
get the same job done. You waste energy, and your house is noisier to boot.
Following are some of the most common problems impeding air flow:
Blockage in the air ducts: Construction debris sometimes falls into the
ducts, as do kids’ toys, carpet segments or pads, and so on. Small items
are easy to remove (perhaps with the help of a small hand — the same
one that’s responsible for that Barbie doll being in there in the first
place). Larger items can be more of a problem; you may need to pull
the duct from the register either from underneath the floor, or from the
other side of the wall.
Blocked registers: Something may be sitting over a register, like
curtains, drapes, furniture, or decorations. You may not even realize
that the register is closed off. Or maybe the air is flowing freely, but it’s
headed in the wrong direction. You may be able to add a plastic
reflector to aim the air better into the living quarters.
Loose joints: To repair joints, use aluminum tape rather than duct tape.
Wear a face mask to protect you from the dust, or you’ll be sorry about
an hour later.
Dirty coils, fins, and filters: You can take the outer cover off of your
condenser unit and jet spray the fins to remove debris and crud buildup.
If you’re still not sure whether enough air is passing through, get your
system inspected.
A blocked return air path. A forced-air system can’t heat a closedoff room. You must crack the door open or cut an inch or two off the
bottom of the door so the air has a gap to move through. Louvers work,
but they’re difficult to use and neither cheap nor easy to install. If you
absolutely need to close off a room, look into a portable heating or
air-conditioning unit for that room.
Too many bends in the ductwork. When this is the case, air has a
difficult time passing through. Not only are you not getting much air
through the maze-like ductwork, but the air you are getting is expensive
(because the machine has to work harder to push the air through all the
turns). If you can’t change the ductwork, consider installing a portable
heater or air conditioner and simply closing off the inefficient ductwork
Chapter 8: Getting the Most Out of Your Heating and Air-Conditioning System
Repositioning the thermostat
Your system’s performance is governed by the location of the thermostat.
The temperature you set is maintained wherever the thermostat is located.
Sometimes systems work poorly because direct sunshine hits the thermostat,
resulting in a temperature reading that doesn’t accurately reflect the actual
temperature of the room. If the thermostat is located directly over a heating
duct or in a remote corner of the house, its temperature is not indicative of
the house in general. A well-designed system will have the thermostat near
the center of the home, usually near the air intake vent.
You can have your controller moved, and sometimes doing so is cheap and
easy. Or you may be able to find one that uses a remotely located temperature
sensor. This works well unless your kid takes it to school for show-and-tell.
When Your HVAC’s on the Blink
Something’s wrong. Your house isn’t staying as warm or as cool as it should,
even though you’ve taken steps to maximize your HVAC system’s efficiency.
What do you do? Well, if you’re like many people, you curse the Fates
(because these things tend to break down on either the coldest day of the
winter or the most searing day of the summer) and then call in the HVAC
repair pros. But before you do, make sure you really need their expertise.
Although some problems definitely need the attention of an HVAC expert,
other problems are relatively easy to fix yourself.
What to check before you call a repairman
You know that your wallet is going to take a hit as soon as you call in a pro.
So when your system is down, check out these things first. If you’re lucky,
you may just solve your own HVAC problem:
Check the thermostat and make sure it’s on. Fiddle with it, moving the
temperature up and down. Give it a little time, like an hour or so, because
sometimes there are fail-safes (timers, clocks, and so on) that go off.
Check breakers at your main panel. Often when servicemen are called
out, it’s not the HVAC that’s down, but the circuit panel, in which case
you’ve wasted money on a call. Many furnaces also have an on-off switch
somewhere on the chassis. Somebody (kids . . . ) may have flipped it off,
so check to make sure it’s on.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Change the filter. HVACs need flowing air to work properly. It’s
amazing how many times servicemen are called out only to discover
that the filter is totally clogged up. They don’t mind; they love to charge
$80 to change your filter. But you can do it for much less.
Make sure the gas is on. (Or if you have a tank, make sure it’s not
empty). Check all the valves by closing them and opening them back up.
This may not seem like it makes any sense, but valves can stick and by
opening and closing them you may be able to get the fuel flowing again.
Check to see whether the chimney exhaust flue is clear. This may or
may not be an easy thing to ascertain because many chimneys meander
back and forth, like an accordion. In other cases, you just plain can’t see
up into that dirty, black hole. If in doubt, call for service.
Make sure the line that drains water isn’t clogged. Many furnaces
drain off several gallons of water per day in heating season. If the line
becomes clogged and the water can’t drain properly, the furnace shuts
down due to a fail-safe switch. If the drain hose looks dirty, remove it, fill
it with a mixture of bleach and water (30 percent bleach to 70 percent
water), wait 15 minutes, and flush it.
Look for blocked or leaking ducts. The big ones going into the furnace
from the house/filter port are especially problematic. If you can get to
the ducts, you can usually fix them yourselves (see Chapter 7). Or you
may need to contact an HVAC pro (if you do, have them do a complete
Clean the outdoor equipment. Remove debris like leaves and twigs
from fins or intake and exhaust ports.
Symptoms that call for a pro
If your HVAC is exhibiting any of the following symptoms, you need the help
of a professional HVAC repairperson:
Short cycling, or going off and on a lot: When the thermostat is out
of adjustment or the internals are out of balance, a fail-safe shuts the
system off. Turn it off and get it repaired.
Irregular flame from the burners: This indicates a problem with dirty
burners or a cracked heat exchanger. The flame should be nice and
even over the entire burner surface. Many times you can tell at a glance
whether your burners are running optimally.
Chapter 8: Getting the Most Out of Your Heating and Air-Conditioning System
Different kinds of HVAC filters
The most expensive problem you can encounter
with your HVAC system happens when either
the filter or the fins get clogged up, in which
case your machine runs, but little or no air
passes through. Changing filters prevents both
filter and fins from clogging. When buying filters,
keep these things in mind:
Pleated paper filters have smaller porosity
(so they filter smaller particles), as well as
much greater surface area so they don’t get
clogged as fast. Use these if you only want
to change the filter every three months or
so. They’re worth twice the cost, if you
change them one third as often.
Fiberglass filters are woven and often blue,
and they’re the cheapest filters you can
get. If you buy them in bulk, they’re even
cheaper, and you’ll change them more
often as a result. These only screen out
debris that could damage your unit. Large
dust gets through, as well as mold, mildew,
toxins, and so forth. This may or may not
matter to you. If you open your windows
a lot, a high-tech filter on your HVAC input
isn’t going to change the average air quality
in your home enough to merit the extra cost.
Electrostatic filters get rid of smoke
residues, allergens, and asthma-causing
agents ($20 to $45 and up). Be aware,
however, that simply installing these
does not remove all particles from the air.
You need to use your system a lot to get
the effect. You also need supplementary
systems like air purifiers (see Chapter 13 for
more on ventilation).
Strange sounds like rumbling, clicking, and so on: These are okay in
hot-water or steam-heating systems, but in a furnace with a forced-air
system, they’re a sign of trouble.
Inexplicable illness in your family: You may have a combustion leak
somewhere in the system. Call a pro right away. Get a carbon monoxide
alarm right now and use it. Check out Chapter 6 for more on carbon
monoxide poisoning, or better yet, check with your doctor.
Sooty accumulations: Deposits usually appear near where the flame
is burning. A good clean burn leaves very little residue, and it appears
more brown than black. Sooty black grunge, on the other hand, is a sign
of incomplete burning — you’re not getting all the heat you could be out
of your fuel — and you’re paying for the inefficiency. Plus, you’re going
to have to clean the soot out of the system, which can be costly.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Buying a New System or Supplementing
the One You Have
If your HVAC system is old, it’s probably inefficient compared to newer
technology. You’re likely to be disappointed with your system’s performance.
Maybe it doesn’t cool the house well enough in the summer, or it’s on all the
time in the winter and the air isn’t hot enough when it comes out. Or perhaps
you’re getting tired of the twice-a-year service call, in which case you need
to add these costs to the payback analysis. Either way, if you’re like most
people, you may be considering changing your HVAC equipment.
If you’re thinking about replacing your current HVAC system, your best bet is
to call an HVAC service company and have them come out and analyze your
equipment. They can tell you how much better new equipment will perform
(although you should keep in mind that their motive is to sell new equipment).
Armed with this information, you’ll have a payback decision on your hands.
You’ll be saving a certain amount of energy per year, which you can translate
into cost by using your rate structure (see Chapter 3). What you’ll probably
discover is that, because HVAC equipment is expensive, you’re not likely to
get a payback in less than 20 years, which is a dubious investment.
Before you spend the big bucks, first try all the little things I present in this
chapter and in Chapter 7. If you still decide to change, take your time. Do
your research, and get at least three quotes.
Rather than replacing your existing HVAC, you can install supplemental
heating and cooling equipment. You can do this in all sorts of ways:
Take advantage of the sun. You can use the sun to heat your home,
and prevent it from doing so when you want to stay cool. Details are in
Chapter 12.
Improve ventilation: This chapter has all sorts of little tips about
getting the air moving in your house, and Chapter 13 offers much more
Incorporate alternative energy sources: A number of energy sources —
solar, stoves, biomass, and others — can supplement your current HVAC
system. All these are explained in detail in Part III. Before deciding that
you want to change your existing equipment, take a quick stroll through
this information. You may decide that you can solve your problem one
step at a time and save a lot of money.
Chapter 8: Getting the Most Out of Your Heating and Air-Conditioning System
One of the best bets is to install a stove in your family room or living room.
You can use the stove to heat the room locally, which means you won’t be
heating your entire home. This is inevitably cheaper, as long as you install the
right type of stove and use it appropriately. I did this in my home: I installed a
gas fireplace in the family room and it actually heats the entire home so well
that most of the time I don’t have to turn the whole-house system on at all. To
be honest, I can’t say that I saved a whole lot of money considering how much
the equipment and installation cost, but the home is a lot friendlier because
a fireplace flame is burning almost constantly in the most-used room in the
house. The aesthetics are much better, and the gas fireplace is a cinch to
operate. All it takes is the press of a button on the remote controller.
Hiring an HVAC Contractor
Whether you decide to replace your existing HVAC system with a brand-new
one or supplement the one you have with additional heating and cooling
equipment, you need to hire a contractor. Every contractor uses a standard
contract and follows approved practices. Contractors can
Obtain permits
Manage the schedule and get the parts when they’re needed
Deal with all the inspections, and assume responsibility for a failed
Solve problems quickly and efficiently
To find potential contractors, your best bet is to ask friends who have the
same kind of system you want to install for referrals (or warnings to stay
away, as the case may be). You can look contractors up with the Better
Business Bureau, or you can get information from state regulatory agencies.
The Internet contains a lot of referral sites, but beware — these may be paid
for by the contractors themselves. Enter the name of your city or county and
the kind of project you want to do.
Never use a family member or friend. You may think they’ll give you a better
price (they’ll probably be thinking they can charge you more since there won’t
be competitive bids) and better service (they’ll be thinking they can work
your job when it’s convenient because you won’t fire them), but the reality is
you’ll (both) probably regret it.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Getting bids
When hiring an HVAC contractor, always, always, always get multiple bids.
There’s a possibility that you may only be able to find a single contractor
who can do the job you have in mind. In this case, try to get some information
about how much the job costs in other areas so you’ll have something to
compare your bids against.
Always let contractors know you’re going out for competitive bids. Never
make a commitment of any kind when they first visit.
Comparing bids
After you get the bids, the problem becomes one of comparing apples to
apples. Choosing the contractor comes down to three things:
Cost: This may seem very important, but ultimately it may be the least
significant factor. Why? Many things can go wrong, and problems
generally add up to more cost. If you get a bid that’s much lower than
the other ones, beware. Your contractor probably doesn’t understand
what he’s doing, either technically or competitively. Or maybe you’re
getting a contractor with a much lower overhead rate. Why? Does he not
carry insurance? Is he working out of his truck, or off of his bicycle? Will
he be around in three months to provide warranty coverage?
Craftsmanship: Get referrals. Although this may not seem important, it
reveals experience and efficiency. How long has the contractor been in
the business?
Compatibility: Let’s face it. Some contractors are just dubious characters,
and some are living in a different universe than you and I. Having a good
relationship matters — a lot. Not only does it foster cooperation and
increase the likelihood that problems will be ironed out quickly and
effectively, but a contractor who doesn’t like you is simply not going to
go the extra mile for you (that’s right — it can go both ways). You may
get the work done as per spec, but extra time won’t be spent to get the
pipe joints just right. Or your phone calls won’t be returned until it can’t
be put off any longer. The bottom line is that you want a contractor who
is happy to answer the phone when he sees your phone number on his
Caller ID.
Make sure to ask about workmanship warranties. If the contractor is only
offering the warranty that comes from the manufacturer, beware. Ask about
bonding, insurance, licenses, and so forth too. If your contractor doesn’t like
these questions, beware. Good contractors are glad to hear these questions —
it means their shady competitors are being weeded out.
Chapter 8: Getting the Most Out of Your Heating and Air-Conditioning System
Interviewing a contractor
All the contractors you contact want the job, for the most money they can
get. Here’s how to wade through the quicksand:
Let the contractors do the talking during the interviews. If you’re talking,
you’re not getting information.
Ask the same questions of each contractor.
Ask them what problems they foresee.
Ask them whether they get their supplies from multiple sources. If
they’re stuck on a single system supplier, ask them why.
Ask them what conditions would merit the contract being tossed out.
You always have the right to negotiate, and they always have the right to refuse.
Sealing the deal
A contract should include prices as well as a schedule of events that can be
easily established and approved between the two of you. You also need to
specify the cash flow: when payment is due and how much it will be.
Never pay a contractor until the work is finished. The best bet is not to make
any payments at all until the entire job is finished.
Get everything in writing. Make it clear that throughout the entire project you
expect everything to be in writing. Any decisions or changes made will be in
writing only. E-mails are okay, but print them out and keep them in a file folder.
I shall repeat: Get everything in writing. It’s not that people are to be distrusted; it’s that verbal communication is like that children’s game Telephone,
where the message gets garbled each time it’s spoken. Writing forces clear
articulation (although some readers of this book might argue that point).
Working with a contractor
once the job begins
Once you’re on the go, you need to work with your contractor as effectively
as possible. Now is not the time to express doubt about your contractor’s
abilities. Now is the time to follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you
would have them do unto you.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Always be completely square and decisive. You may not want to
express disappointment about how a job is turning out, but you should
do so if that’s what you’re feeling.
Be friendly no matter what. Don’t get emotional. Problems happen. Be
cool when they do, and your contractor will be more honest with you
about everything.
Offer cold drinks. Make a cooler available. Go the extra mile.
Don’t forget the need for a restroom. Make it nice and easy, and keep it
Chapter 9
Lighting Your Home
More Efficiently
In This Chapter
Understanding the differences between various types of light bulbs
Considering the aesthetics of your lighting schemes
Calculating cost savings that you can achieve
Maximizing your efficiency with special light switches
he typical North American home spends between 8 and 10 percent of
its energy budget on lighting (not including the bulbs and equipment).
In any given night, the average home uses 32 light bulbs, including not only
lighting for rooms, but lighting inside refrigerators, ovens, and microwaves.
Most of these light bulbs are the standard, 50-cent, screw-base style using
a technology that has been around for over a hundred years. People have
spent the vast majority of their lives with Thomas Edison’s original brainstorm. But things are changing. A number of choices are available now that,
while more expensive, provide much better economics and performance
over the lifetime of the product. They also offer lower pollution, which is very
important to many people.
In this chapter, I show you how to review your lighting arrangements and make
sensible changes geared toward realizing payback. New lighting technologies
can be very expensive, and you may be better off spending the money on other
efficiency improvements. I show you how to make the right decisions. If you’re
interested in exploiting the sun for some of your home-lighting needs, head to
Chapter 12, where I tell you how to let the sun shine in!
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Picking the Right Light: Your Options
When you think of lighting, you may automatically think of Thomas Edison
and his incandescent bulb. In fact, you may be reading this very book by the
light of a bulb not too different from the one Edison first invented. But lighting
options have evolved over time, from natural light to firelight to candles to
incandescent bulbs to the energy-efficient products of today. Each has its
plusses and minuses when it comes to ambience and energy efficiency. In
this section, I review the most common light alternatives in use today.
The prevailing question is whether, by reducing the lighting component of
your utility bill, you can actually achieve better overall efficiencies. This
depends largely on why you’re using lighting and what sort of climate you
live in. There’s a fundamental notion that lighting is inherently inefficient, but
the story is not so simple. If your main energy issue is heating your home, for
example, burning inefficient light bulbs will simply mean that your furnace is
on less, so the process is not really as inefficient as it may first appear. In fact,
you could conceivably heat your entire home exclusively with old-fashioned,
inexpensive light bulbs. Plus, incandescent bulbs shed a nice, warm color that
has the psychological effect of making you feel warmer. The point is, you need
to understand how and when the new technologies should be used because
they’re not universal solutions, as some would have you believe.
Visit a good-quality lighting store to see all kinds of lighting options. Stores
dedicated to lighting have better displays and a broader range of products
than big hardware stores. The sales staff is also able to explain energy-efficient
products better.
Natural light
Natural light includes sunlight, firelight, and candlelight. Sunlight has been
around a lot longer than humanity, and it provides the overwhelming bulk of
our lighting needs. Sunlight has a very broad spectrum, or many wavelengths
of light — what most people think of as “color” (think of the colors of the
rainbow and you get the idea). Sunlight’s spectrum goes from ultra-violet,
which we can’t see, through the visible range (the rainbow colors), and on
into the infrared and far infrared, which are also invisible to the human eye.
Sunlight gets filtered as it transmits through the atmosphere, and that’s why
it can look very red in the morning and evenings. But mostly sunlight is white
and bright, creating a jaunty mood that people associate with the best of
Mother Nature.
Candlelight and firelight preceded all our fancy, electrical light bulb schemes.
Flames cast a rich tone of reddish hues and make people’s skin tone appear
deep and attractive. Candles are popular because of the benign, tawny tint
they cast on a room.
Chapter 9: Lighting Your Home More Efficiently
You can increase the lighting efficiency in your home by taking advantage of
these natural light sources. Following are some ideas:
Sunlight is the most efficient way to light your home because it’s free
and creates zero pollution. Sunlight also creates a specific mood, which
can’t be beat by manmade artifices. I go into a lot of detail on how to get
sunlight into your home in Chapter 12.
Candles don’t require any utility power. If you want to light your whole
house with candlelight, use natural beeswax candles with minimal
scent and lead-free wicks, and try to find the long-burning style, which
translates into less crud outgassed into the air in your home. Candles of
this type can light your house very nicely and save a lot of money. (You
don’t want to use regular candles to light your whole house. Doing so
can become very expensive, not to mention polluting.)
Don’t blow your candles out when you’re finished with them; use a
snuffer (a long handle with a cone shape on one end) unless, of course,
you like the look of wax-spray on your walls. Blowing out candles also
causes more pollution in the air than a snuffer because you’re blasting
the wick with oxygen (the snuffer is much gentler). Notice how much
less smoke a snuffer creates and you’ll get the picture.
If you want to light your home with firelight, let the kids play with
matches in the living room. Be sure to have the fire department, your
insurance company, Child Protective Services, and a good lawyer on
Old-fashioned incandescent bulbs
Standard-style (incandescent) light bulbs work by using electricity to heat
up a narrow, high-resistance filament until it glows very bright. The filament
is enclosed in a vacuum-drawn envelope (called the bulb) so that when
the filament glows, it doesn’t burn up from being combined with oxygen.
Incandescent bulbs cast a warm, reddish tint, especially when a dimmer is
used. You can get them in a thousand different configurations, and they’re
inexpensive and widely available. Their widespread use is not going to
diminish anytime soon, but the trend is toward other lighting sources simply
because incandescent bulbs are so inefficient (at least in terms of lighting;
they do make great heaters).
An important specification for a light bulb is how much light it puts out
divided by the amount of energy it consumes (an efficiency standard).
Incandescent bulbs are the worst of all lighting options in this regard: Most of
the energy an incandescent bulb gobbles up is converted into heat — nearly
90 percent. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t use incandescent
bulbs more efficiently.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
When considering light bulb efficiency, pay attention to the bulb’s intensity
and spatial focus. A round light bulb emits its spectrum pretty much in all
directions at once, while a laser beam, for example, is extremely focused on
a specific spot. A 10-watt gooseneck lamp with a highly focused reflector can
cast enough light onto the page of a book to make reading easy and comfortable
on the eyes. A 100-watt light bulb in a broadly emitting lamp, on the other
hand, may be so diffuse that nothing shows up clearly. So when you choose
incandescent bulbs, remember that higher wattage doesn’t necessarily mean
brighter light. Rather than buy the highest wattage you can find, buy the bulb
that’s labeled a floodlight. These are usually conically shaped and have some
reflective material on the inside of the glass envelope.
Halogen bulbs
Halogen light bulbs operate almost the same as incandescent bulbs, but with
a few small differences. Inside a halogen bulb is a peanut-sized glass envelope
that contains a tungsten filament and halogen gas (essentially, it’s a light
bulb inside of a light bulb). As the tungsten filament burns (the same way
an incandescent does), the halogen gas catches the tungsten molecules and
redeposits them back onto the filament, yielding a longer lifetime and better
lighting uniformity. Halogen bulbs also emit a whiter, brighter, and more
easily focused light, comparable to sunshine itself (this may or may not be a
goal you have in mind, but in my book it sounds like a good idea).
Halogen bulbs are good for reading because they’re easier on your eyes (due
to color, intensity, and so on). They’re also good for store displays or for artwork illumination where you want the light to have a color-neutral affect (and
let the artwork do its own talking). They work well outdoors because the
light is more noticeable. Although they may yield the same lumen output (a
measure of how much light a bulb emits) as an incandescent, the light works
better with the human eye, so the spectrum is more efficient.
Halogen bulbs burn hotter than regular incandescent bulbs, so you need to be
more careful how you handle them. If you use one for a reading light, you may
not like having the intense heat source next to your head. Or you may love the
heat source, if it’s a cold, winter night. Like incandescent bulbs, the overall
efficiency of halogen bulbs depends on whether you want heat.
Halogen bulbs can be much more efficient than incandescent bulbs because
they last twice as long. Use them in locations that are hard to reach, and
you won’t have to reach so far so often. You can also use them in locations
where you’re looking for more heat. Perhaps the most important advantage
of halogen bulbs, however, is their benign appearance, particularly when
dimmed. Having each bulb appear exactly the same may also be important in
track lighting. Incandescent bulbs tend to change over their lifetimes, while
halogen bulbs are very uniform (unlike you and me).
Chapter 9: Lighting Your Home More Efficiently
Flickering fluorescent bulbs
The wave of the future, fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) use a gas-filled tube
and a ballast with electronics. A high-voltage signal excites phosphors on
the inside surface of the bulb, which, in turn, emit light. The main difference
between CFLs and incandescent or halogen bulbs is that CFLs are far more
efficient because they don’t put out a lot of heat. A typical 15-watt CFL puts
out as much light as a 60-watt incandescent light bulb, meaning CFLs are four
times as efficient.
If you plan to replace an incandescent bulb with an equivalent fluorescent
bulb, in general, you can divide the wattage of an incandescent by four to get
the wattage needed for an equivalent CFL. But the best bet is to compare the
lumens, an actual measure of the light output (wattage is simply the input
power the bulb will take). Almost all light-bulb packages now include lumens
in addition to wattages.
CFLs are more expensive, although the gap is closing due to the fact that so
many more fluorescent bulbs are now being manufactured. The typical lifetime
of a CFL is around four times that of an incandescent bulb, and herein lies their
real benefit: They don’t need to be changed nearly as often, so the lifetime
costs are actually less than incandescent bulbs, making them cheaper in the
long term. One caveat: You should only use CFLs in fixtures that you use at
least two hours per day; otherwise, the extra cost and diminished appearance
probably isn’t worth it.
The fact that CFLs have much longer lifetimes makes them useful in hard-toreach places because you don’t have to change them nearly as often. If you
have a bulb that’s on a lot and hard to get to, use a fluorescent bulb.
CFLs aren’t without drawbacks. The chief one is that they tend to flicker like
a strobe light (this may or may not be noticeable). Plus, their light spectrum
(the color they broadcast) is often a bluish tint, which does not tend to
flatter skin tone or food appearance. However, new technologies that solve
these problems are becoming more common. Here are some other things to
be aware of about CFLs:
They can be dimmed, but only if you buy the right dimmers, and these
are not cheap. Plus, some people don’t like the pronounced flickering
that dimmers create.
CFLs don’t like very hot environments, where their lifetimes are drastically reduced. Don’t use them in enclosed spaces without ventilation
because they’ll heat up and grow old quickly, thereby negating the
longevity advantage.
CFLs often take a few minutes to reach maximum brightness. If you’re
shopping for a bulb and sampling the possibilities, allow some time for it
to warm up before you decide whether you like it or not.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Around 5 milligrams of mercury are contained in each CFL light bulb (big
bulbs have more, of course). Mercury is a very poisonous substance, although
5 milligrams isn’t much at all (about as much as the tip of a fine-point pencil).
The fact that CFLs contain mercury means you have to be particularly careful
when disposing of and handling these bulbs:
In most municipalities, you can’t simply throw a CFL into the trash; you
must handle it with special care. This boils down to an even higher cost,
which must be weighed against the efficiency gains you may realize.
Some options for disposing of CFLs include hazardous waste sites (most
accept CFLs, but some don’t) and stores that sell CFLs (many take back
old, used ones; IKEA, in particular, has gone out of its way to be
environmentally friendly). To find a suitable disposal option, contact
the U.S. Environmental Recycling Hotline (877-327-8491) or check out
Never send a CFL product to an incinerator, as the mercury becomes
airborne when the bulb burns.
Never use a vacuum to clean up a broken bulb; the mercury is aerated
into your home environment through the vacuum filter, which is too
porous to catch the molecules. Use a wet paper towel, and stick both
the bulb parts and the paper towel in a sealed, plastic bag.
Light-emitting diodes
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are extremely efficient — even more so than
CFLS — and they have incredibly long lifetimes. However, they’re much
more expensive than other lighting sources. At present, LEDs are used
where ultra-high efficiency or ultra-long lifetime are required, for instance,
in off-grid homes that run off of batteries or remote cabins that run off of
generators. In these applications, LEDs are actually cheaper in the long run,
despite their high cost, because they enable smaller batteries. (In off-grid
homes, the battery banks are the fundamental power source. Batteries are
very expensive, so smaller batteries are economically desirable). LEDs are
also used in stoplights (due to their ultra-high reliability) and in auto
Portable devices that use batteries also benefit from using LEDs. The
availability of LED flashlights and camping lanterns, as well as boat and RV
lighting systems, is increasing. You can buy LED-based light modules that
interchangeably plug right into existing screw-type light fixtures, but they
cost over $25. Furthermore, the light is thin and silvery, which is not the
friendliest hue. Before you buy LEDs, check them out at a lighting store
because light bulbs, like kids, are not returnable items if you’re not happy
with their performance.
Chapter 9: Lighting Your Home More Efficiently
Going for Efficiency without
Sacrificing Aesthetics
Lighting does more than illuminate. It also creates mood, or ambience. While
one type of light produces a warm, cozy glow, another type produces a harsh
glare. Either can be just the type of light you need or want, depending on
your lighting needs, the area you want to illuminate, and the mood you want
to create.
Most lighting is not for “seeing,” but for mood and for making your home
feel homier. By being imaginative — moving your lights around in different
setups and trying different light bulbs — you can probably find an optimum
configuration that takes less energy than you’re using right now without
sacrificing a thing. Here are some ideas for your consideration:
Find a style of lamp that creates the mood you want. The lamp is
usually more influential than the type of light bulb in creating a mood.
Lamps with dimmers are always good, and a lamp that focuses light lets
you use a smaller light bulb and attain the same effect.
You can find a lot of very interesting lamps at garage sales, often for less
than a dollar apiece. Be on the lookout for such a find. It can save you
money twice: on the purchase price and on the energy costs. The best
finds are gooseneck lamps with dimmers so you can focus the light on
your work and turn the intensity up and down as desired.
Avoid metal or heavy paper lampshades. Lampshades are very important
in terms of focusing and directing light. Many of them cut off most of the
light from a bulb. Look for ones that have the effect you want, but allow
most of the light through. Diaphanous films are best.
Vary the intensity of lighting as much as you can. Vary light bulb
intensities to create texture and depth in a room. Disperse the lights
around your house to highlight the good and ignore the not-so-good.
Vary wattage where you can: The higher the wattage, the colder the
light (bluish light “feels” colder than red; it’s a human perception thing);
the lower the wattage, the redder the light, and the friendlier the tone.
The wattage you choose depends on what you’re trying to achieve. A
number of smaller light bulbs distributed around a room makes for a
soft color and even lighting. Plus, lower-wattage bulbs have longer
lifetimes simply because they’re not being so stressed by heat.
Always use the smallest wattage possible. Experiment instead of just
plugging in what you have on hand. You’ll probably find that you can
use smaller bulbs in most instances. For example, a gooseneck lamp in
the bathroom that focuses in on your face gives you the lighting you
need and keeps wattage down.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Use lights creatively. For example, vary the lights on tracks; they don’t
all have to be the same type or wattage, nor do they all have to be
focused on the fireplace. A small spotlight on your favorite picture will
bring those colors into play in the room. A small, 10-watt picture light
can completely change a room for the better.
Try candles. Use them alone or in combination with electric lights.
You’ll get hooked, and you’ll save money if you do it right (see the
earlier section “Natural light” for details on what makes candles energy
Lower the lights before bed. Too much light right before bed creates a
bad sleeping mood. Start to dim the lights or turn them off well before
you retire. You’ll find yourself gently relaxing into sleep mode.
Use night lights. Having strategically placed night lights relieves you of
the need to flip every light switch on when you get up in the middle of
the night to go to the bathroom or nursery. Besides, blasting yourself
with light in the bathroom in the middle of the night wakes you up, and
it’s a proven fact that it takes you longer to get back to sleep than if you
simply use a very dim night light.
Make your lights do double duty where (and when) possible. CFLs have
a reputation for being more efficient than incandescent bulbs, but in certain
situations that’s not the case. In the winter, for example, incandescent
bulbs are more efficient than CFLs because they’re cheap and they help
heat your home (because of the heat they emit). In fact, they heat more
uniformly and also cast a warmer mood. They may be more efficient at
heating your home than your central heater or your stove.
Creating an outdoor “room” with light
Here’s a great way to leverage your lighting
investment to the hilt. Create a “room” in your
yard by strategically placing outdoor lights.
You can use solar lights, which can be moved
wherever you want, or you can use low-voltage lighting systems available at any hardware
store. (Low-voltages are safe, so anybody can
do the project without the need for an electrician.) You can also use torchlights, which are
like big candles.
Establish the room’s boundaries with lights:
Shine them on bushes or trees and that’s where
your eye will subliminally see a “wall.” Highlight
features like fountains, flower beds, furniture,
and so on. Use colored lights to vary the texture
and create moods and aesthetic spaces.
By doing this, you can achieve an effect that
makes your home seem larger, more spacious,
and certainly more in tune with Mother Nature.
Chapter 9: Lighting Your Home More Efficiently
Calculating How Much You Can Save
To make a long story short, your potential cost savings (and the payback of
installing a more expensive technology) are entirely dependent on how much
you use a light (the average number of hours per day). Obviously, the easiest
way to save money is to simply use less lighting; you don’t need to invest
in new bulbs. The minimum lighting you need to function is one light bulb
turned on per person in your home at any given time. (I don’t mean this to be
a lifestyle guide; I simply want to make a point.)
Of course, most people don’t restrict themselves to turning on one light
per person. In most homes, some light bulbs are literally on all the time,
particularly outside lights or garage lights. And someone who likes a bright
room may have every table lamp on as well as the book light he’s reading by.
Consider the lights you use. Do you really need all of them? You’d probably
answer no if you knew how much each one costs. Fortunately, lighting costs
are easy to calculate. Here’s how to determine how much you’re spending on
a particular light each month:
1. Figure out how many watt hours (Wh) the bulb is on per day by
multiplying the wattage by the number of hours the light’s on daily.
You can read the wattage from the light bulb. The value is expressed in
watts; 60-watts is very common. Then ask yourself how many hours you
typically use that light per day. Two hours? All day (24 hours)?
2. Multiply the total daily Wh by 30 to get the total Wh per month.
3. Divide the total Wh per month by 1,000 to get the total kWh.
Why are kWh important? Because your utility bill is calculated based on kWh.
4. To get your monthly cost, multiply your kWh by the amount the electric
company charges you per kWh.
Look at your electric bill to find out how much you’re being charged for
electricity. Fifteen cents per kWh is typical, but your rate may be a lot
higher. (See Chapter 3 for more details. In particular, if you’re on a tiered
rate structure, use the highest rate.)
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Here are some examples of calculations and the cost savings you may be able
to achieve by changing your lighting schemes.
A 60-watt bulb left on for an hour consumes 60 Wh, or .06 kWh per day.
Ten 60-watt bulbs in recessed lighting in your ceiling turned on for four
hours consume 2.4 kWh per day. At a rate of 15 cents per kWh, this
costs 36 cents a day. For a month, the total comes to $10.80, or $130 per
year. Add to that the cost of new bulbs, and you may be spending over
$150 a year to leave those overhead lights on every night. Is it worth it?
Calculations like this can be surprising.
A 15-watt CFL costs around $4, while a comparable 60-watt incandescent
bulb costs around 75 cents. For a light fixture that is turned on four
hours per day, at a cost of 15 cents per kWh, the CFL costs $3.24 per
year to operate. The incandescent costs $12.96 per year, for a difference
of $9.72. Going with the initially more expensive CFL is actually more
cost-efficient, easily paying you back the difference in original equipment
cost and saving around 130 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution.
Do you have an outside light that burns all night? If it’s 600 watts, it’s
costing you: 0.600 kW ×10 hours/day × 30 days/month × $.15/kWh = $9
per month, or $108 per year. You could add a motion detector, which
turns the light on only when something moves through the viewing area,
and save $100 per year while still having light whenever you really need
it. (See the next section for more on motion detectors.)
A 15-watt CFL bulb costs $3.00, whereas a 60-watt incandescent bulb
costs 50 cents. In a garage where the light is on all the time, a CFL costs
around $20 per year to operate, whereas an incandescent bulb costs
$80. However, if the CFL is put into a bathroom light socket that’s only
used for an hour a day, the annual cost difference is only $2.50, which is
the difference in the prices of the bulbs. (Plus, in the bathroom, the hue
of the CFL light is not very flattering.)
To calculate the savings you can achieve by installing a smaller bulb or a
different type of bulb, do this:
1. Figure out the wattage difference between the replaced bulb and the
new bulb.
Simply subtract the wattages: If you replace a 60-watt bulb with a 40-watt
bulb, take 40 away from 60.
Keep in mind that you may not be getting the same amount of light, or
lumens, when you change bulbs, but the cost on your utility bill depends
only on the wattage.
2. Figure out how many hours per year the light is on.
Multiply the number of hours the light’s on daily by 365.
Chapter 9: Lighting Your Home More Efficiently
3. Multiply the yearly value (Step 2) by the wattage difference (Step 1)
and then divide by 1,000 to get the annual kWh.
4. Multiply what you got in Step 3 by your electricity cost, in $ per kWh.
5. Compare this to the difference in cost of the bulbs. Also take into
account the expected lifetime of the bulb.
For an easier way to calculate how much you’ll save if you plug in different
types of light bulbs, go to For an online catalog
of energy-saving lighting options, go to
Using Clever Switches to
Reduce Your Bill
As earlier sections explain, you can use different types of light bulbs to
increase your energy efficiency, but a better option may be to use clever
switching systems that simply and automatically turn your lights off when
you don’t need them.
Motion detectors
Motion detectors are devices that switch light bulbs off and on when they
detect something moving in their field-of-view, basically the area where the
motion detector is set up to “look.” Motion detectors are the exact same
technology used in burglar alarms, except that they don’t trigger an alarm;
they simply turn on the light. Most motion detectors are integrated with a
timing switch, so when motion is detected and a light is switched on, it goes
off after a set amount of time (a couple minutes is typical — most devices are
adjustable for time delay).
Motion detectors offer all sorts of benefits, some relating to efficiency and
some relating to safety, but all relating to convenience. Burglars, for example,
hate being suddenly illuminated while they’re sneaking around. When a light
is simply left on, a burglar doesn’t mind so much; it’s when things suddenly
change that they get nervous and decide to vamoose. Mount a motion
detector light over a porch or on the side of your house where a burglar
is most apt to approach (like a dark garage side). Motion detectors aren’t
valuable just for their “gotcha!” effect, though. They turn on when anyone is
there, which can be helpful when a neighbor comes up to your porch for a
friendly visit, you pull into the driveway at night, and so on.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
You get the best return on investment when you combine motion detectors
with high-wattage lights, which are usually the kind employed outdoors. Here
are some options to consider:
Solar-powered outdoor floodlights with motion detectors: You can
mount them anywhere so you get light exactly where you want it, and
you don’t need an electrical outlet so you avoid the cost of outlet
installation. The unit includes a battery that is charged during high
intensity solar hours, and so the amount of available energy is limited.
At around $65, the potential exists for huge cost savings if you need light
in a remote location. Plus, you can move the lights around at will, which
you can’t do with a standard hard-wired light fixture.
One-piece outdoor systems: These include one or more motion
detectors along with light fixtures in one complete package. These come
in flood, decorative, and remote arrangements.
Motion detector switches: These fit right into the standard switch
socket you already have in your home. Whenever somebody walks into
the field of view, the light goes on for about 30 seconds. These are great
for utility rooms where your hands may be full of clothes or groceries,
and flipping a switch is inconvenient. They’re also good for basements
and attics.
Screw-base-style motion detectors. You install these between a light
bulb and the socket that the bulb would normally be screwed into. At
around $40 they’re not cheap and the payback isn’t very good, but they
may be just the ticket for a utility room or laundry room where your
arms are full of groceries or clothes and you can’t grapple around for
the switch. Go to to see a number of
popular arrangements.
Before you buy a motion detector, pay attention to the field of view, which is
the area over which the motion detector operates. With some units, you can
adjust the field of view; with others, it’s fixed. Getting one with an adjustable
sensitivity is best; you don’t necessarily want your lights to go on when a cat
crosses your yard (then again, maybe you do). When in doubt, save the
packing materials and receipt, and be prepared to buy something else.
Dimmer switches
Light dimmers are used for decreasing and increasing a light’s intensity.
Although they aren’t particularly efficient, the net effect of using them is that
you do use less energy. There’s another benefit as well: The bulbs on dimmer
switches last longer because they’re operating at lower temperatures. In
general, you get a friendlier, richer color, and you can vary the mood in a
room like nothing else.
Chapter 9: Lighting Your Home More Efficiently
You can change almost any light switch in your house to a dimmer switch, but
beware: You need to know a few basic rudiments about electricity before you
start poking around inside your electrical junction boxes. You need to understand the difference between the white wire, the black wire, and the green (or
bare) wire. The task isn’t difficult, but explaining everything you need to know
about electrical wiring is beyond the scope of this book. If you’re motivated
and want to give it a go yourself, keep the following advice in mind:
Before you do anything, the safest bet is to simply turn the main
breaker switch off in your house. You’ll have to do your work during
daylight hours or with a flashlight, but you won’t be able to shock yourself. After you do the work, make sure you cover the dimmer switch with
the faceplate. If you turn the main breaker back on and a circuit breaker
trips, you’ve messed up somewhere, at which point I recommend you
call in an electrician to find out what’s wrong and do the job right.
Ask for instructions and guidelines at your hardware store. Someone
there can probably tell you how to install a switch and show you the
actual hardware to use. When you’re getting instructions, make sure
you understand how to maintain the proper grounding scheme, which is
very important. You may need to be aware of local electrical codes, so
ask your hardware store clerk about those as well.
Another option is to refer to How To Fix Everything For Dummies by Gary
Hedstrom, Peg Hedstrom, and Judy Ondria Tremore (Wiley) for general
information and instructions on common electrical wiring jobs.
If you have aluminum wiring in your house (it’s shiny or dull gray, instead of
the usual coppery or orange color), don’t wire a dimmer yourself because
there are technical problems you don’t want to deal with. (Specifically, when
two dissimilar metals come into contact, the potential for corrosion exists.) So
when working with aluminum wires, call in a pro.
Whole-house lighting controllers
Whole-house lighting control systems basically switch all your home lights
off and on from a central console. For instance, you can turn off all your
lights from one location when you go to bed. Or when you enter your house,
you can turn on a certain preset number of lights so you don’t have to go
around and individually activate each light. Some can be turned off and on by
a timer. You can even get a system that you can call from a remote location
(though why you’d want to, I haven’t figured out).
If you program one of these contraptions for efficiency, you can achieve some
significant cost savings. For instance, you could turn all your lights off at a certain time of night. You could also turn lights on and off according to a clock so
that you capture exactly the right mood at different times of the evening.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Chapter 10
Watering Down Your
Water Consumption
In This Chapter
Figuring out what type of water to drink
Deciding whether your water is soft enough
Getting a fix on faucets
Using less water in the bathroom
Landscaping your way to savings
he minimum human requirement for water is only around four gallons
per day, and that’s for both consumption and cleaning. So how much
does a typical family (2 adults, 2 kids) use? Between 200 and 350 gallons of
water a day. That’s 73,000 to 128,000 gallons per year. Landscaping, swimming
pools, and spas take even more water. A small, working ranch may use over
270,000 gallons per year. Bluntly put, that’s a well of a lot of water.
In most homes, water has four main destinations: faucets, showers (baths),
dishwashers, and washing machines. In each case, water heating may be
required, which consumes around 20 percent of a typical home’s energy
costs. Other uses of water include outdoor irrigation, pools, spas, fountains,
and so on. This chapter tells you how to save in these areas.
The vast majority of homes get their water from the local utility, some with
metered rate structures, some not. If you’re not operating off of a water meter,
your water utility may give you a better monthly rate if you voluntarily go to
a metered rate structure. The utility will come out and install a meter, usually
free of charge. If you’re frugal, you can save money, and by having a meter
you’ll be more conscious of how much water you’re using.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Drinking to Your Health
Most of the water used in a home isn’t consumed. Instead, it’s used for tasks
like cleaning, watering, and so on. Yet many people today spend much more
money for water they drink than on water they use for these other purposes.
Why? Because our society is fixated on bottled and/or purified drinking
water, which is almost always a waste of money and resources, and generates
far more pollution than is necessary. In fact, evidence increasingly indicates
that drinking purified water may lead to health problems. So what’s the deal?
To help you sort out what you need to know about your water supply and
to give you ideas for reducing the amount of money you spend on drinking
water, I offer the following sections.
Wading through a flood of choices: Tap,
well, bottled, and purified
Most homes have a number of choices for their water sources. In this section,
I review the most common choices. Your best bet is to use the cheapest
source for each of your various applications. Most of the time, this is very
easy; simply use tap water.
Tap water
Most homes get their water from local utilities, which have stringent quality
requirements. In fact, federal standards for tap water are actually higher than
those for bottled water. In addition, most tap water already contains minerals
important to your health — minerals that some purveyors of purifier systems
and bottled water deliberately add to their products and charge you more
for. Bottom line: The government provides you with safe, healthy water,
without the hassle and expense of bottled water.
Local utilities are required to make public their testing process and results.
If you want to know exactly what’s in your water, call the customer-service
number on your utility bill and ask to be sent the data. There shouldn’t be a
charge for this.
Chapter 10: Watering Down Your Water Consumption
Well water
Some homes get their water from wells. Although these sources are
generally very good, they may not be the best source for drinking water
because contaminants do make their way into wells, and you may have
to pay for testing. Well water is especially prone to change over time. If
you have a well, you’re very likely getting the requisite minerals and other
natural components. But you may also be getting pollution and other
contaminants like dumped pesticides or other chemicals.
If you have a well, test it at least once a year; if your well fails a test, test more
often. Look in the yellow pages under “Water Well Drilling.”
Bottled water
Bottled water costs 240 to 10,000 times more than tap water. The costs
show up in bottling, packaging, shipping, retail, sales, advertising, and so
on. If you’re paying this price for bottled water simply because you think it’s
cleaner, you may want to consider these facts:
Quality isn’t guaranteed. Unlike the water provided by utilities, the
quality of bottled water isn’t regulated by the federal government. That
means when you buy bottled water you have no guarantee that you’re
even getting water that’s as good as your home supply.
“Enriched” may not provide enrichment. Some bottled water is
advertised as “oxygen enriched.” Absolutely no evidence exists to
support the notion that this does anything whatsoever to help you.
Transporting water is costly. Bottled water takes a great deal of energy
to transport to your store shelf. Think how far that water from the Italian
mountain lake has come, and then think of the pollution generated in the
process. It doesn’t matter that the water is cheap; the cost of pollution is
not reflected in the cost of a product (although this is rapidly changing).
America’s appetite for bottled water gobbles up more than 47 million
gallons of oil and produces one billion pounds of carbon dioxide per
year (that’s right — billion!).
Plastic bottles stick around for a very long time. It takes 1,000 years for
a plastic bottle to degrade in a landfill. You can recycle the bottles (see
Chapter 14), but if you don’t need them in the first place, recycling isn’t
the best answer. Not using them is.
If you want to use bottles of water because they’re convenient, use
reusable bottles. You can fill these up with tap water. Alternatively,
buy purified water at a grocery store that lets you bring in and fill up
your own bottles and charges you by the gallon.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Purified water
Many people use water purifiers, systems that in most cases remove
impurities but in some cases add minerals and other positive substances.
We humans don’t necessarily need perfect water. In fact, evidence suggests
that a pristine lifestyle leads to increased immune deficiency. Certain types
of minerals and bacteria are required by the human body to enable digestion.
And recent studies indicate that children raised on purified water are
statistically more likely to suffer from childhood diseases than those
brought up on tap water. The reason? The immune system needs to be
constantly exercised in order to achieve optimum conditioning (just like
muscles). Humans that live in sanitized, pristine environments don’t get the
necessary exposure.
Having said that, sometimes having a water purifying system is a good idea.
The next section explains how to tell when your water supply is problematic
and what you can do about it.
Getting the goods on suspicious water
In rare cases, you may actually have good reason to be suspicious of your
water source. Potential contaminants include pernicious bacteria, cysts
(parasites with protective coverings that make them very tenacious), heavy
metals, chlorine, sediment, poisons, and many more.
Signs of a potential problems
Signs that your water supply may be contaminated include
Age of your pipes: In old plumbing systems, some contaminants reside
right in the pipes and are very difficult to get out. If your city water
supply is pristine but you have an old home, you may still have a problem
because you’re running clear water through contaminated pipes.
Clarity: Although unclear water is not a sure indicator of contamination,
you should find out what the cause is. Most of the time it’s only minerals,
which isn’t a problem.
Poor taste: Bad tasting water may be a sign of a contaminant. But
determining whether the bad taste indicates a real problem or just
tastes different than you’re used to is difficult (it’s very common to go
into other cities and find that the water tastes poor, even though it’s
just fine). If in doubt, get your water tested.
Smell: The human nose is very sensitive. If your water smells bad, get it
tested (although a bad smell isn’t necessarily an indicator that it’s unhealthy).
Chapter 10: Watering Down Your Water Consumption
Testing options
If you’re suspicious about the quality of your water, the best bet is to get
your water tested. Here are your options:
Have your water tested by an independent company. Check the
Internet or your phone book for “Water Testing.” For around $100, you
can get a detailed analysis. (They send you a sterilized container; you fill
it and send it back.) You need to do every testing sequence twice, at
different times of the year, to get reliable results.
Have your water tested by a not-so-objective company. You can get tests
done by water purification companies (probably for free). But beware:
Their goal is to sell you water purification equipment or services. They
probably won’t tell you that humans do better with impurities in their
water supply. And — surprise, surprise — every water company that I’ve
ever talked to has assured me that their water is the best.
Test your water yourself. Although you can buy your own equipment
and test your water yourself, I don’t recommend it. First, it’s expensive.
Second, and more importantly, you probably don’t have the expertise to
interpret the results sufficiently. It’s best to trust the experts.
Purifying your drinking water
So you’ve decided to improve your drinking water. Two types of home-based
equipment are widely available:
Distilleries: Distilled water is boiled, and, in the process, the water
separates from the impurities. This type of purification is expensive and
energy-intensive, but it’s very thorough.
Filtration systems: Filtering involves forcing the water through some
kind of porous device that removes the impurities. Aerator filters that
attach to faucets are the simplest type of filter.
As you consider your water purifying options, look for a system that only
treats the water you plan to consume. After all, it makes no sense to filter
water for your shower or your dishwasher. In addition, make sure the system
targets the impurities you want targeted. Some systems only improve the
water’s taste and color. Others get rid of contaminants. Make sure you know
what your system does.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
It makes no sense to invest in purification equipment if you haven’t had your
water tested. Simply buying a filter because it sounds good is a waste of
money, although most filters are purchased for this very reason. Purification
equipment targets very specific types of contamination. Before you make an
investment, make sure the equipment you’re getting is designed to remove the
contaminant you’re interested in removing.
All systems take effort and maintenance. If you don’t want to hassle with water
purification, consider one of these alternatives:
Contract with a bottled water company. A bottled water company will
rent you a dispenser and come out twice a month to refill it with a big
jug of distilled or filtered water and do the regular maintenance. The
cost is around $8 per month. You can get dispensers that will heat the
water, which is more efficient than using your water heater but less
efficient than using your microwave.
Get a bottle with a built-in filter. This is the cheapest way to go, and you
only use this system when you need it. Fill the bottle with water from
your tap, screw the filter/lid on, and, when you drink, the water is filtered.
Three micron porosity is good for removing bacteria and giardiasis. This
simple scheme will satisfy most people’s desire to filter their water.
Mechanical filtration
Mechanical filtration occurs when water is forced through a porous medium,
like a screen or a chunk of carbon. These strainers use mesh with particular
hole sizes. The size of the holes determines the strainer’s porosity, which
is usually specified in terms of microns (a micron is one millionth of a liter,
on the order of size of mineral chunks). As you would expect, strainers with
finer porosity remove smaller-sized contaminants than strainers with higher
To get an idea about what type of porosity you need, you have to determine
what type of contaminant you’re trying to remove. Sediment filters, for
example, remove smaller particles like suspended dirt, sand, rust, and scale
(known as turbidity). Once again, filters are always very specific to the type
of material you are attempting to filter. Look on the filter label (or get on the
Internet and research a particular filter’s specifications) to see which types
of contaminants it’s good at filtering.
If you need a filter with a very fine porosity, it’s generally a good idea to
remove the biggest impurities by using a higher porosity filter first. Larger
porosity filters are generally much cheaper than smaller porosity filters (and
easier to clean), so by catching the big stuff first, your overall filter expenses
will be less.
Chapter 10: Watering Down Your Water Consumption
Making your own solar water purifier
Here’s a great project for the do-it-yourselfer.
If salty or contaminated water is left in an open
container, the water evaporates, leaving the
contaminants behind. If the water is heated,
the process speeds up considerably (this is
the basis for a distillery). Here’s a simple solar
water purifier you can build for next to nothing,
if you’re clever and good with tools.
Paint the box black to enhance absorption.
Tray with
water; black
or other
Reflection is easily accomplished with
aluminum foil, shiny side out.
Use sheet metal (the best option) or
wood for the enclosure. If you want to get
imaginative, find a good metal box and cut
a hole for the glaze cover.
You can make your system as cheap or
as expensive as you want. You don’t need
glazed glass; you can use plain old window
glass. You can get pieces of discarded glass
from window shops for nothing but a smile.
When the water evaporates, it condenses on
the glass window and drips down into the catch
trough. Tilt the catch trough just slightly and put
a bottle or other container underneath the low
end, and voilà! Purified water. (Large, efficient
versions of this device capable of purifying
hundreds of gallons a day are used in thirdworld countries.)
A system the size of a small stove can yield
up to three gallons of purified water on a
sunny day.
The first few times you use this device the water
may taste a little odd. Let the system “sweat” for
a few weeks and the bad taste will go away.
Here’s a little tip: When designing your unit,
make it convenient to fill the inner tray with
water. Position it by a hose, for instance. Then
you won’t have to carry water to your system.
Configure some kind of funnel through the
sidewall so you can pour the water right into the
tray without spilling. Make it so you can remove
the glazing top and clean out the tray, because
the contaminants are going to remain behind.
You’ll get a good idea of how mineralized your
tap water is when you see what’s left in the tray
over a period of time.
Activated carbon filtration
Carbon absorption filters are the most widely used because they offer high
performance at a low price. They remove many types of contaminants as
well as chlorine, but they don’t affect water hardness. Few carbon systems
work with lead, asbestos, VOCs (dissolved organics), cysts, and coliform, so
if these are your issues, carbon filters aren’t recommended. In fact, most of
the impurities that carbon filters remove are not the impurities that you are
targeting. In addition, carbon filters need to be changed frequently, and this
can be very costly.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Weighing in on water softeners
Some water is very high in mineral content.
This is termed hard water. Minerals can cause
scaling and buildups of white crud within
plumbing systems. Some people are also
sensitive to hard water. In particular, you can
feel the sediments in your hair when you’re
done with a shower. With hard water, you
get a sense that you’re never really all that
clean. But hard water doesn’t pose any health
problems, so installing a water softener is
always discretionary. People generally do
it only when the scaly buildup gets out of
hand — for instance, when valves begin to
fail and kitchen equipment gets so scaly that
nothing shines anymore.
Water softening systems simply remove mineral
deposits from the water by passing it through a
filtering mechanism. The vast majority of water
softeners incorporate a filter self-cleaning
cycle that uses salt pellets that you refill on a
periodic basis. (Bags of salt pellets cost around
$5 apiece and are widely available in grocery
stores. You’ll need a strong back to dump the 45
pound bags into your water softener — teenage
boys are excellent sources for strong backs.)
Water softeners are expensive. Plus the backwashing of water softeners wastes a lot of
water, and you need to have some means of
getting the backwashed liquid to go to a drain
(this results in salt buildup there, which can be
a problem in its own right).
You can install a water softener yourself, but
only if you’re competent with tools. Look for
features that make the periodic maintenance
easier, like a low hopper for feeding salt and
easy-to-understand digital programming
instructions. Also consider connecting the
softener to certain faucets only, such as those
in the kitchen and bath. You certainly don’t need
softened water outdoors or in your garage.
Reverse osmosis (ultrafiltration)
This method uses pressure to force water through a selective, semipermeable
membrane that separates contaminants from the water. Reverse osmosis
systems are very good at removing turbidity, asbestos, lead and other heavy
metals, radium and VOCs. But keep these things in mind:
Membranes are costly to replace. Most are capable of having the
membrane washed out (backwashing), but the membranes do
eventually need to be replaced, and this isn’t cheap.
They waste a lot of water. They use 3 to 9 gallons of water to get one
pure gallon. This is a dubious way to achieve efficiency.
Virustat filters
Virustat filters eliminate viruses from water sources in foreign cities or wild
streams. For the most part, these viruses don’t affect local folks because they
are used to them and have built up a tolerance.
Chapter 10: Watering Down Your Water Consumption
Caring for your filters
As the filter cruds up, its effectiveness diminishes, so when reading specs,
always remember that you need to change filters as often as the manufacturer
recommends or you may not achieve the required performance.
Also, as the filter gets older it traps impurities of all kinds, so it may actually
become a breeding ground for nasty little critters invisible to the naked eye,
making the problem worse, not better.
Directing the Flow of Traffic with
The typical home has six indoor faucets, and another four or five outdoors.
That gives you a lot of opportunities for improved efficiency. Just by making
a few changes in your faucets, you can use water more efficiently.
Some relatively easy changes you can make include
Using a two-valve faucet. A two-valve faucet is more efficient than a
single-valve type (where you move the lever around until you get the
right temperature). The latter inevitably wastes hot water.
Using aerator filters in the faucets. These filters add air and keep up
the pressure while reducing flow volume. Most of the time, people are
looking for greater pressure, not flow volume, from a faucet. In fact,
many building codes now require low-flow faucets because they make so
much sense (they save water without being inconvenient).
Of course, dealing with leaks is a great way to not only increase how efficiently
you use water but also to offset some other problems as well. Read on to find
out more.
Leaks: Money and energy down the drain
Leaky faucets waste water. A faucet dripping once per second can waste
2,000 gallons per year. Beyond just the waste factor, leaking faucets can also
cause increased health issues because mold and mildew just love damp
environments (see Chapter 6 for details).
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
In addition, a dripping faucet can humidify your entire house. In the summer,
higher humidity means less comfort. Do not underestimate this effect — it’s
much more pronounced than you may think (see Chapter 8 for more on how
to control the humidity in your home). So not only are you wasting water, but
also your house is uncomfortable and your air-conditioner is running more
(which means wasted utility costs).
The largest cost is the heat being wasted when hot water is drawn from your
water heater. If a faucet is dripping, it may be drawing hot water. If it’s
dripping very slowly, you may not even know it’s dripping hot water because
by the time that water has come all the way from your water heater through
the pipes to your faucet, it has cooled down. But heat is still being wasted.
If your water pressure is high, you probably experience dripping faucets,
especially outdoors where leaks are more likely to go unnoticed. High
pressure basically means higher force, which can push through questionable
seals. You can have a pressure regulator installed on your water system, but
it’s probably not worth the hassle. If you have high water pressure, you need
to be sure to provide adequate maintenance for your seals and gaskets.
Outdoor faucets are more prone to leakage than indoor ones because they’re
generally cheaper, plus they get beat up by the weather (constantly changing
temperature is hard on metals). Replace outdoor faucets that leak. This is
much easier than replacing indoor faucets, and anybody can do it with the
right wrench and patience level.
Obviously, the only way to deal with a leaking faucet is to fix it. Before you
tackle the job, though, keep these suggestions in mind:
Shut off all the water. Shut-off valves are generally found below sinks
and the like, but simply shutting the water off in your entire home when
doing plumbing jobs is a good idea. You can find a whole house shutoff
valve in the utility box either in front of your home or in your basement
(most of the time it’ll be right next to your water meter, if you have one).
Many homes also have an underground container near the roadway
(watch out for spiders when you stick your hand in).
Be careful to get it right. Make sure you understand what you’re doing
before you start, and make sure you have the right tools (and good
ones). To find out how to fix leaky faucets, ask at your local hardware
store. They have tons of experience with dripping faucets and usually
know the types used in your community. You can also find instructions
for fixing dripping faucets in How to Fix Everything For Dummies by Gary
and Pam Hedstrom and Judy Ondrla Tremore (Wiley).
Almost anybody can do plumbing, but if you don’t do it exactly right,
you have to do it over until you do get it exactly right.
Chapter 10: Watering Down Your Water Consumption
Take a picture before you start. Whenever you take a plumbing system
apart for repairs or maintenance, use a digital camera to snap shots
once in awhile so that if you forget where things go, you can look back at
the pictures. Once the job is done, delete the pictures (unless you want
to add them to your family collection).
Don’t feel up to the job? Then hire a plumber and watch him fix the leak. Then
next time you encounter a leaky tap, you can do the job yourself. (Of course,
watching a plumber work, you may decide you never, ever want to do
plumbing. Either lesson is worth the money.)
A few more tips for using water wisely
Beyond fiddling with the faucets and fixing leaks, you can do a few other
things to use water more efficiently:
Avoid using your garbage disposal. It requires a lot of water to run and
ends up filling the septic or sewer system far more than is needed. Get a
composter and start a little garden, or toss the waste into your garbage.
See Chapter 14 for more details.
Don’t waste cold water waiting for the hot. When you need hot water,
you generally run water down the drain until it shows up. Instead, put a
pot, bowl, or other container under the faucet while you’re waiting for
the water to get hot, and then use the cold water you collect for cooking,
ice cubes, or whatever. Just don’t waste it.
Don’t leave the tap running while you’re doing something else.
Whether you’re brushing your teeth or cleaning off the countertop, turn
the water off. It’s an easy habit to break, and you’d be surprised how
much difference it can make.
Savings in Showers and Baths
When you’re thinking about water consumption, you need to factor in two
things: heat and water. Heating water accounts for around 20 percent of the
power bill in a home, and showers and baths use 37 percent of that. That
means that around 6 percent of your power bill is dedicated to heating water
for your shower and baths. You can save in both areas.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Forget baths. They’ll become a thing of the past when energy rates get
high enough. You simply can’t take an economical bath.
Double up. Put the kids (appropriately aged, of course) into the shower
together. Or take a shower with your partner (I could make some wise
comments here, but I suspect I don’t really need to).
Use handheld showerheads. These focus better, allowing much less
water to do the job (if you think about it, most of the water flowing from
a showerhead is wasted). The downside is you have to hold them.
Avoid showerheads that “mist” the water. They humidify your home
more than anything, and the mist does no good at all. This is especially
inefficient in the summer.
Take shorter showers. Lingering in the heat is nice, but it wastes energy
because all you get out of it is, well, lingering in the heat. Find something
else to linger in.
Avoid things that make your shower a pleasant living quarters, like
radios, TVs, nice views, and so on. In order to be truly efficient, a shower
should be strictly functional.
Install a “greywater” recycle system on your shower and bath drain.
These systems basically recycle your home’s water. A tank is connected
to certain drains (usually everything but the toilet) and then a chemical
sanitizing process is performed that brings the water up to cleanliness
standards suitable for landscaping and even washing. The best systems can
clean water well enough to be consumed. Not only does greywater offset
the demand for treating water to the highest potable standard, but it also
may actually be beneficial to plants as it’s likely to contain nitrogen and
phosphorous. Installing one of these systems when building a new house is
a lot more economically efficient than retrofitting an existing house.
Water-wise, baths take 20 gallons or more of water, but a five-minute shower
takes around 10 gallons, making baths about twice as expensive as showers.
On the other hand, a shower can consume more water if you have an old-style
showerhead, which typically delivers 4 to 5 gallons per minute — quite a rich
and wasteful flow of water. To address this issue, the Energy Policy Act of
1992 set maximum water flow rates at 2.5 gallons per minute, so new houses
and new showerheads are almost always at or below this number. New
showerheads are designed to use less water and create more water pressure
so you aren’t aware that you’re getting less.
You can easily measure the flow of your showerhead. Simply get a pitcher
with gallons marked on the side. While you count one-Mississippi, twoMississippi, and so on, run your showerhead into the pitcher until you’ve got
one gallon. Divide 60 by your Mississippi count and you have your flow rate in
gallons per minute. As mentioned previously, 2.5 is the current standard, but
you can do better than this without sacrificing much quality.
Chapter 10: Watering Down Your Water Consumption
Solar showering
For fifteen bucks you can get a solar shower
that works great. You fill a dark-colored plastic
bag with water, hang it in the sun for an hour or
so, and then hang it up in a tree or whatever’s
convenient. You open the little valve and get a
nice, gentle flow of hot water, au naturel.
and you also need good weather, with plenty of
sunshine. But they work great after workouts
or by the swimming pool or spa. Once you try
it a few times you can easily get hooked just
because they’re so natural. If you’re into green,
this is a great option.
Of course, these are for particular locations
(outdoors mostly, although not necessarily —
you can heat one up outside and bring it inside),
And you can use one as a giant water bottle.
Very soothing.
Wasting Water in the Toilet
Toilets consume (a bad word, I agree) 45 percent of indoor water use, or
around 32,000 gallons per year for a family of four. A running toilet (one that
makes a constant hissing noise — you know what I mean), can waste up to
4,000 gallons of water per year. Fortunately, you can solve these problems, if
you’re willing to do a little dirty work.
Parts is parts
Many people hate the idea of working on a toilet because, well, it’s a toilet.
But if you’re going to work on your toilet, you need to know the difference
between one part and another. Trust me. Here’s how it all breaks down:
The tank: This is the part above the throne (uh yes, it’s called the
throne). The tank is perfectly clean. (In fact, the water in the toilet tank
is as clean as the tap water that’s filling it.) Fortunately, that’s where the
working parts are.
The water pipes that feed the tank: These come from the wall and
there’s always a valve which will shut off the water flow to the toilet.
The toilet bowl thingee: The throne itself, fit for a king, queen, prince,
princess, or toilet-trained house cat, as the case may be.
The plumbing system: This is the part that takes away whatever gets
flushed down. Obviously, this is the part that you don’t want to work on.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Easy ways to cut down on water usage
Following are a few tips for saving on toilet water:
At least for number one (man, I love euphemisms), don’t use the toilet at
all — go outside instead. You think I’m jesting? The birds and the bees
do it; are you better than them? (I remember a bumper sticker that was
common in California back in the 1980s during a particularly tenacious
water shortage: “If it’s yellow, be mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”)
Don’t use the toilet as a trash can; it’s very expensive compared to a
waste basket. Toilets are for butts, not cigarette butts.
If you put a couple quart bottles filled with water in the tank, each flush
will use that much less water. Bricks or rocks also work.
What to do when your toilet runs
If you’re toilet is running, you need to chase, er . . . I mean fix it. Fortunately,
finding the problem is almost always simple. The most common problem in
a running toilet is the flapper, which is a rubber disk that covers the hole
where the water enters the toilet bowl. These are so ridiculously easy to
change that anybody can do it. Go to your hardware store and ask the clerk
to show you how (they must sell a thousand of these things a day).
Every single hardware store on the face of the earth has toilet parts because,
well, every single home has a toilet or two. Some homes even have ten toilets.
Your hardware store clerk will be more than happy to explain in great detail
exactly how your toilet works and show you the parts. You can touch them
and play with them to your heart’s content. There are even clubs you can
You can completely rebuild the workings of most toilets with new parts that
will probably work better than the old for less than $60. A plumber will charge
a lot more than that, maybe on the order of hundreds of dollars.
If you have to work on the mechanisms in the toilet tank, first drain the tank
by turning off the shut-off valve (all toilets have a shut-off valve where the
water source comes out of the wall) and flushing. The tank will empty down to
an inch or two. Now you can work on the working parts.
Chapter 10: Watering Down Your Water Consumption
Updated toilet designs
Nothing is worse than flushing a toilet and looking back down to find that
it wasn’t 100 percent effective. (Okay, one thing is worse — when the toilet
clogs up and overflows all over the bathroom floor, especially when you’re in
somebody else’s house.)
The old standard technology in toilets simply uses gravity feed to rush the
water down into the bowl and carry away the waste products and any residue
left clinging to the toilet walls. This works well enough most of the time, but it
uses a lot of water, so less wasteful designs that accomplished the same thing
came into being.
Pressure-assist toilets
Pressure-assist toilets use much less water per flush and actually work better.
The water is held in the tank under pressure, and when you trigger the flush
lever it explodes down into the toilet bowl, thereby removing residue that may
otherwise cling. These toilets are costly ($250 apiece) and hard to fix, plus
they’re very loud so everybody in the house is going to know what you just did.
Most public facilities use pressure-assist toilets. If you’re considering a pressure
assist toilet, you can decide firsthand if you want this loud noise in your own
home by going into almost any public facility and sampling the wares.
Vacuum-assist toilets
Vacuum assist toilets suck waste right out of the bowl (which is sort of the
opposite of the pressure-assist method of blasting it out). They’re cheaper
than their pressure-assist counterparts and easier to fix. But the very idea is
also much ickier! Imagine being a vacuum-assist toilet.
Compost toilets
Compost toilets don’t flush at all. Hmm. You need to be a hearty soul to
consider these devices, but they’re very earth-friendly. They basically allow
the waste products to decompose in a specially designed chamber. At some
point, you can take the “materials” out of the “finishing drawer” and to
your landscaping (probably not your vegetable garden, unless you’re really
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Watering Your Landscaping
Ah, the great outdoors. Most people have some form of landscaping, and
many people have extensive landscaping, including a lawn, which is the most
water- and energy-intense form of landscaping you can imagine. In a yard,
you can conserve water through your landscaping choices and through your
choice of sprinkler. The following sections tell you how to use less water and
energy in your yard.
For green landscaping supplies, check out the following sources: (
Hobbs and Hopkins, Ltd. (
No Mow Grass (
TerraCycle (
Considering lawn alternatives
The one thing you can do to conserve the most water and energy is to get rid of
your lawn. Replace it with drought-resistant plants, and don’t water them much
(create a drought of your own!). You can also replace your lawn with native
plants that grow and thrive in your climate without need for additional watering
(above and beyond what Mother Nature provides). Barring that, you can
Set the height levers on your lawn mower an inch higher. Less heat will
hit the dirt beneath the grass, thereby allowing you to water less. And
longer grass chokes out the weeds much better than short grass, so you
won’t have to use herbicides.
Use a mulching mower, which helps fertilize the grass.
Taking energy efficiency to the limit
A toilet style finding widespread use in countries where water is scarce features a little
sink on top of the toilet tank. You wash your
hands and other sundry items in the sink, and
that water then drains down into the toilet tank.
When you flush the toilet, it’s not clean, pristine
water, but it hardly matters. This makes a lot
of sense because it’s so simple and effective.
Look to see more of these in the future.
Chapter 10: Watering Down Your Water Consumption
Picking the right sprinkler and watering
at the right time
If you need to water your lawn, all sprinklers are not created equal. Some
waste more water than they apply to the plants. And you can also control the
time of day or night you do your watering to gain better efficiency.
If you need to water an large area, use rotary sprinklers, which work
the best. Avoid misting sprinklers because all they do is mist water
into the air where it blows away into the neighbor’s yard. That may be
efficient for them, but that’s not really what this book is about.
Use drippers instead of broadcast sprinklers for isolated plants,
particularly when they’re surrounded by bark or other ground
cover that doesn’t need any watering at all. You may have to spend
more money up front on hardware, but you’ll save a lot of water and
your plants will be much healthier because they’re getting water right
where they want it — in their root systems. Plus, they’re fun do-ityourself projects because you get to play with all these little parts
that go very well together — at least in theory.
A drip system needs to be maintained. Check it once in awhile by turning
it on manually and making sure all the drippers are working.
Water at night or early in the morning. The sunshine will be less likely
to evaporate most of the water before it gets to where it’s used.
Use battery-operated valves. They save water by regulating the amount
that’s delivered. If you turn your system off and on manually, you’ll
forget about it. Battery valves can be set to open for a predetermined
period of time. These generally fit right onto the faucet for a good
mechanically rigid mount.
You can get small, cheap valves that you set for a number of gallons
instead of time. These work very well for gardens and when your water
pressure varies.
Use barrels under downspouts to catch rainwater. You can then use
the rainwater for other purposes. If you can, position the barrel in an
elevated position (for instance, set it up on some concrete blocks); then
simply use gravity feed when you need water.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Chapter 11
Pigging Out on Power with
In This Chapter
Comparing your appliance usage and costs to those of a typical household
Cutting back on the cost of heating water
Finding major ways to save with major appliances, both in and out of the house
Looking at Energy Star labels on new appliances
ncluding your domestic water heater, around 40 percent of your power
bill is consumed by your appliances, big and small. And just because an
appliance is small in stature doesn’t mean it’s small in energy consumption.
Understanding how much power your appliances consume is the first step
toward recovering from the rampant disease of appliancism. You can lower
your power bills by using your appliances more sensibly — or even better,
by not using your appliances at all. For instance, a great way to lower your
power bill is to set up a clothesline. As with all energy efficiency investments,
you need to take the bull by the horns.
Looking at Typical Appliance
Consumption Numbers
Aside from your HVAC system (which I cover in detail in Chapter 8), appliances
consume the lion’s share of power in your home. Some of the biggest culprits
in most homes are water heaters, washers and dryers, and refrigerators, which
are on all the time. There are exceptions, of course. Some homes have aquariums
that collectively steal the spotlight. Other homes have an old freezer in the
garage that cranks the kilowatts 24/7. Increasingly common are homes with
large entertainment centers, and these can gobble kilowatts with the biggest
and baddest of energy pigs.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
So what does the typical home spend per year on various electrical appliances?
Table 11-1 shows you how many kilowatts per hour (kWh) the average home
uses in a year and the annual cost (based on an electric rate of 15 cents per
kWh, which is pretty typical).
You can determine your own annual usage and cost by gathering your
electric bills, which show kWh used and your rate (see the next section for
details). If your rate is higher or lower than 15 cents, adjust it accordingly.
If you use gas or propane for your dryer, water heater, or stove, the annual
cost will be around the same as for electric.
Table 11-1
Annual kWh of Usage and Costs
for Various Appliances
kWh Used per Year
Annual Cost (Rounded
to Nearest Dollar)
Domestic water heater
Spa (pump and heater)
Pool pump
Washing machine
Waterbed heater
Clothes dryer
Electric cooking
Well water pump
Microwave oven
Home computer
Electric blanket
Note: When calculating how much you can save by cutting back on the usage
of your appliances, use your top tiered rate, not your average. Why: Because
when you cut back, the top tiered rate applies first.
Chapter 11: Pigging Out on Power with Appliances
The best way to determine an appliance’s
energy consumption is to make a precise
measurement, and the best device I’ve seen
for measuring appliance power usage is the
Kill-A-Watt, made by the P3 Company (www.; around $30).
Simply plug it into your wall outlet and plug an
appliance into it, and it will digitally monitor the
appliance’s power usage. It outputs the number
of kWh used in a given number of hours.
Unfortunately, the device doesn’t work for
220VAC appliances or for hard-wired appliances
like water heaters.
Analyzing Appliance Consumption
in Your Home
To find out how much an appliance costs per month to run, first estimate
how much time it’s on per day. Then determine how much power it consumes.
You can usually find this information on the label, but you may have to consult
the instruction manual or go to the manufacturer’s Web site.
Use this formula to estimate your monthly cost to run an appliance:
Wattage ÷ 1,000 × hours on per day × cost per kWh × 30days = total cost
per month
Say you want to know how much it costs you to run your washer, dryer, and
iron (assume that your rate is 15 cents per kWh):
Washer: You run your 900-watt washing machine for six hours a week.
(Figure your daily usage by dividing the number of hours the washer is on by
the number of days in a week: 6 ÷ 7 = .86). Here’s what you spend:
900 ÷ 1,000 × .86 × .15 × 30 = $3.48 per month
Dryer: Your clothes dryer uses 5,570 watts (that’s a whole lot). If you dry
clothes for six hours a week, you spend this much to dry your clothes:
5,570 ÷ 1,000 × .86 × .15 × 30 = $21.56 per month
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Iron: If you iron clothes with a 1,200-watt iron each morning for 15 minutes,
it’s costing you:
1,200 ÷ 1,000 × .25 × .15 × 30 = $1.35 per month
Add up these numbers and you can see that for the appliances you use to
keep your clothing clean and pressed, you spend a total of $26.40 per month.
If you put up a clothesline, you would save $21.56 per month (and around
1,748 pounds per year of carbon dioxide emissions). Plus, your clothes would
smell better and you could pat yourself on the back for doing your part to
save the planet Earth.
You can work this number stuff to death, but what you really want to do is
simply make sensible improvements in your efficiency. Start with your biggest
appliances and work your way down. Some appliances are easy to use less
often; others are harder to do without. It also makes sense to start with the
appliances you use the most. Just do your part where you can, and you’ll be
surprised at the difference it makes.
You can find out how much your old appliances are costing by visiting www. Click on Home Appliances and enter the year, size, and
other data for your old appliance. A calculator tells you how much your
current unit is costing, as well as how much you could save if you switched to
a new, energy-efficient model.
Keeping Water Heaters in Check
The water heater accounts for about 20 percent of the typical home’s power
budget. Dishwashers and washing machines use up to 80 percent of their
energy on heating water, and only 20 percent running the mechanical
equipment. The cost of taking showers and baths is almost entirely in the
cost of heating water.
Unfortunately, the typical domestic water heater is wasteful. It holds a
considerable amount of hot water, and when it’s not being used, heat seeps
out of the tank, which is sheer inefficiency. The best water heaters have thick
insulation, but some heat is still lost.
So what can you do to save on water heating costs? Follow the advice in the
following sections.
Chapter 11: Pigging Out on Power with Appliances
Making time stand still
Here’s an educational project. Try to get your
power meter to stand still. Find your meter
and note the spinning wheel and the numbers.
(These are kWh. When the utility people come
to read your meter, they read this number, then
subtract the number they read last month to get
your monthly consumption).
First, turn off the main breaker on your circuit
panel. If your meter is still spinning, you have
a ground fault, and you’re paying for electricity
that’s basically going through the earth beneath
your feet. This should not to be misconstrued as
generosity; have your utility company come out
and fix this right away.
If that checks out, turn the main breaker back
on and check to see how fast it’s spinning. Now
switch off every one of the individual breakers
in your box; the spinning should stop, once
Now start switching the individual breakers
back on, one at a time, and see what happens.
The panel should have a well-articulated legend
that tells you what each breaker is for: HVAC,
laundry room, upstairs lights, and so on. The
biggest switches (those with the biggest
numbers, such as 30 or 50) are for your HVAC
system and your clothes dryer. You may also
have a swimming pool pump or spa that’s on
a large circuit.
As you switch the individual breakers on,
you can see how much power each of the
individual circuits consumes. (Make sure each
appliance you check is turned on so that it’s
drawing current).
Here’s where things get interesting. You’ll
probably find a circuit that draws current even
when nothing is turned on in that room. In
particular, note that TVs, computers, DVDs, and
other digital devices draw current even when
they’re turned off.
You can take this a step further by plugging
in various small appliances like hair dryers,
portable fans and heaters, electronic games,
and so forth. You can see how fast the meter
spins for each of these. Some of these little
gadgets can make the meter look like the
Tasmanian Devil.
Paying attention to pipes
When you use hot water, not only do you drain the water you use from the
hot water tank, but all the intervening plumbing fills with hot water as well.
The amount of hot water trapped in your pipes can be significant, depending
on how you’re using the water and how far away the faucet or tap is from the
If you’re taking a bath, the amount of water in the pipes is small compared
to the amount in the tub, so you’re not wasting a lot of hot water (aside from
the fact that taking a bath is inherently wasteful compared to a shower). But
if you’re simply filling a cup with hot water, you’re leaving a heck of a lot
more hot water in the pipes than you’re actually using. You’re almost always
better off heating water in the microwave oven than drawing it from a tap.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
How much hot water are you wasting?
Here’s a little experiment you can easily perform
to demonstrate just how much hot water you
waste when you turn on your hot water faucet.
Get a large pitcher with measurement gradations. Hold it below your faucet and turn the hot
water on. Now measure how much water fills
the pitcher before you start getting hot water
from the tap. You may be surprised to find up to
two gallons or more have flowed through. This
means that there are now two gallons of hot
water sitting in your pipes, which is a big waste
because all it will do is cool down and release
the heat into your home’s environment.
A number of high-efficiency dishwashers heat
their own water for this very reason. Heating
locally is almost always more efficient. In addition, machines that heat their own water work
better because they can maintain the specific
temperature that they need.
Staying on top of maintenance
Regular maintenance goes a long way toward maximizing the efficiency
of your hot water heater. Like your HVAC system, you should have your
domestic water heater tuned up periodically (the gas version gets especially
gummed up). The following sections outline areas to pay attention to.
Draining the tank
Every four months or so, drain a quart of water from your tank. There’s a
valve near the bottom of the unit for this very purpose. Before you begin,
consider where the drained water is going to go. If the heater is in your
garage, you can broom the water outdoors. Otherwise, you may need a drain
bucket. Be sure the bucket is shallow enough to accommodate the valve.
The water you drain from your water heater’s tank can be very hot, so be
Draining a quart of water directly from your water heater’s tank prevents
sediment buildup, which affects efficiency. If you haven’t tackled this task in
years, you’ll be shocked at how much crud comes out.
Changing the heating elements
Change the heating elements in your electric water heater every few years
(most of them have two elements, one on top and one on bottom). Use a
stainless steel heater element if your old one is corroded. This makes the unit
operate more efficiently and avoids untimely failures.
Chapter 11: Pigging Out on Power with Appliances
When you buy the heater element, be sure to buy a special wrench head
that fits the element; ask the hardware store clerk to help you find the right
wrench. (You may be able to borrow one from a friend and save some money.
And if you don’t return it, you can save even more.) Note that sometimes
very old heating elements get stuck into place, in which case you can use
WD-40: just spray it on, wait a day and then give it another try.
Finding more ways to save
Beyond regular maintenance, you can do several things to make your water
heater more efficient. Temperature, timing, and insulation are all factors that
come into play.
Setting the water temperature lower
Most domestic water heaters are set at too high a temperature. Scalding
water is too hot. For each 10°F reduction in water heater temperature, you
can expect to lower your heating cost by 3 to 5 percent. You may find yourself dialing more hot water in your shower to get to the same comfort level,
but so what? The most common problem you may encounter if you lower the
temperature is that your dishwasher may not clean as well. You can usually
remedy this by changing to a detergent that requires a lower temperature
(read the label). See the section “Lessening the Load on Your Dishwasher”
for more information.
Using timers
Hot water heaters consume a lot of energy when they’re on. Most of them
aren’t on all that much, but when they are, they gobble power up. Use a timer
to turn off your hot water heater at night and during the day when you’re
gone. Specialty hardware stores sell special units for this purpose. The
salespeople can tell you how to install them.
When you’re away from home for extended periods, turn the hot water heater
off before you go. Either flip off the appropriate circuit breaker in your fuse
box or turn off the gas valve (in which case you’ll have to relight the pilot).
You may also be able to turn the temperature all the way down to minimum
and then turn it back up when you return.
Adding insulation
Insulate the storage tank with a specially-made blanket. Your utility company
may give you one free (call the customer-service number and ask). Or you
can buy one for $10 to $20 at most hardware stores. A tank that’s warm to the
touch is a clear sign that you’re losing heat and can save money and increase
efficiency by adding insulation.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Insulating your hot water pipes is easy, and a number of options are available.
The best is a long, cylindrical piece of foam with a slit lengthwise — you just
slide it over a pipe and you’re done. Don’t worry about corners and inaccessible
pipes — whatever you can cover helps increase efficiency. Another option is a
fiberglass wrap that you roll around and around the pipe and then cover with a
plastic tape material. This covers the pipe more completely than the slit foam,
but it’s a lot harder to install, especially if the pipe is close to a wall.
Considering a solar or tankless
water heater
Most North Americans (almost 55 percent) heat their water with natural gas.
About 38 percent heat water with electricity. (The few others heat with oil
and liquid petro gas.) However, two types of water heaters are increasingly
being used for their energy efficiency: solar and tankless water heaters.
Solar water heaters are the best from an energy-efficiency standpoint,
but the economics vary greatly from region to region and depend on
your power rates and rate structure. From a pollution perspective, you
can’t do better than solar. See Chapter 16 for details.
Tankless water heaters have no storage tank; they heat water as it is
being used. They are generally gas-powered because of the need for very
high, instantaneous power. They’re more expensive than conventional
water heaters, but if you don’t use much hot water, you can save big in
the long run.
Smaller units only work with a single tap or faucet at one time, so if
you’re interested in taking a bath while you’re doing the dishes, forget it.
Large-capacity units cost around $1,000 (a conventional unit costs only
$300). Units can save the typical family $100 per year, so the payback in
extra investment cost is around 7 years.
Tankless water heaters are especially good if you have a cabin or second
home that you don’t use that often. In this case, you won’t be continuously heating a big tank full of water while you’re gone. (And although
you could turn your water heater off if you’re going away for a long time,
if you’re like most people, you’ll forget. With a tankless water heater,
you don’t have to remember.)
Making the Most of Pools and Spas
Pools and spas can be very big expenses. They both require chemicals and
filters. By definition, a spa — a hot tub with a whirlpool device — requires a
heater. Many pool owners like to heat their pools, too. The following sections
tell you how to save money on these energy hogs.
Chapter 11: Pigging Out on Power with Appliances
Making your pool energy-efficient
If you own either an above ground or an in-ground pool, there are a variety of
ways to you can achieve the same performance at far less cost in energy as
well as chemical consumption. In my experience, most pool owners can do a
few very simple things and save big.
Optimizing operations
One way to increase how efficiently your pool runs is to do routine maintenance
and make a few changes for optimal operation:
Make sure all valves are working properly. If you have gate valves (the
kind that lets you dial in the amount of water flow you want), replace
them with ball valves, which are more efficient (ball valves are either
on or off, and when they’re on they impede water flow much less than a
gate valve). Make sure all ball valves are completely open or closed; it
doesn’t make any sense to adjust one to half open.
Keep the filter clean. A dirty filter loads the pump, which costs a lot more
in terms of power. If your filter is old, replace it. Cartridge filters are much
better than diatomaceious earth, which use a big cartridge full of loose
sediment filter material that’s difficult to work with and expensive as well.
Run your filter pump less. Most people run their pool pumps much
longer than necessary. Try running yours half as long as you do now and
see what happens. If you calculate how much it costs to run the average
pool pump, the hair on the back of your neck will stand on end.
Drain your pool in the off-season, and turn your pump off. If you can’t
drain your pool, you’ll have to leave the pump on because the water will
get so filthy you’ll need to drain it and change it. But you can’t drain it.
Install windbreaks around your pool. Convection losses from wind can
increase water evaporation 300 percent or more, which wastes not only
water, but heat as well. Windbreaks keep your pool warmer with less
Sealing in the heat: Solar pool covers
Despite the fact that the surface area of most swimming pools is large, very
little sunlight is converted into heat. Pool water is transparent (hopefully),
so sunlight simply passes right through. In addition, during the night, a pool
loses a lot of whatever heat it manages to store up during the day.
The cheapest and most effective solar heating system for your swimming pool
is a solar cover. A cover converts sunlight into heat, which then transfers into
water. Some covers are black for this very reason. But the most widely used
are made of inexpensive clear plastic that looks like bubble wrap. The air bubbles
work as insulation: Heat that goes in can’t get out. You can get a cover for
around 30 cents a square foot ($130 for an average-size pool).
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Why do these covers work so well? Because they do the following:
Prevent heat from escaping from your pool at night, when the air is
cooler than the swimming pool. You can easily lose four or five degrees
in temperature over the course of a cool night. If you use a heater to
heat you water, it doesn’t need to work as hard to maintain (or return
to) the set temperature. If you don’t use a heater, the retained heat just
make the water that much warmer.
Limit evaporation and retain heat. Each gallon of evaporated 80°F water
removes about 8,000 Btu (2.34 kWh) from the pool.
Reduce chemical depletion, which reduces cost and may be considered
a form of energy conservation.
Increase the temperature of an in-ground pool by 5°F for each 12 hours
of coverage.
You can extend your swim season a couple months just by using a
plastic cover. For example, in the Midwest you may be able to swim in
a covered pool from mid-April until mid-October, whereas a completely
unheated pool would only be usable from mid-May until mid-September.
You don’t need to cover your pool during the hottest months, which is
when people want to swim the most. Just fold the cover up and store it
whenever it’s not in use.
You don’t need to cover your entire pool to reap the benefits. If you have a
kidney-shaped pool, floating a rectangular cover over the pool will still help
Covers have to be placed on and removed from the water. Many kinds of systems are available to assist you in this process, some manual, some automatic:
Manual systems cost around $300. These roll up the cover, much like a
window blind. But you still have to pull the cover back out over the pool,
and you may have to get into the water first. In either case, cranking the
handle is not easy; women and children may have a hard time.
Automatic systems can cost over $1,000, and the installation is a bear.
But all you have to do is press a switch and voilà! The cover moves back
and forth of its own volition — at least in theory — all mechanical systems
are prone to failures.
As beneficial as pool covers are, they do pose certain problems:
Plastic pool covers: When plastic bubble wrap covers get old, they fray.
Plastic shards can get into the filter and may even cut the filter paper,
necessitating a new, expensive filter. Storing these covers in the sunlight
(when they’re not wet) also causes the plastic to degrade.
Chapter 11: Pigging Out on Power with Appliances
Any pool cover: Any pool cover can be dangerous! Anyone (particularly
a child) who falls into a plastic pool cover will get “wrapped” by the
cover, and getting out of this situation can be very difficult. Even automatic
covers, which extend across the water surface and are secured by
tracks, don’t entirely eliminate the risk of drowning. These fill with water
when it rains, and children have been known to fall onto the cover and
drown in the standing water.
Using a solar swimming pool heater
Certain energy expenditures, like driving, heating in the winter, lighting and so
on, are just plain necessary (although you can still reduce them). Other energy
expenditures — like heating a swimming pool — are entirely discretionary.
Strictly speaking, you don’t need to heat your pool — at least not in the summer.
You can even swim in the middle of winter without heat (talk about putting hair
on your chest!).
If you want to become more energy efficient, not only to reduce your costs
but also to reduce greenhouse gases, one of the best solutions is to use solar
energy to heat your pool. It’s the only solution that is completely free of
pollution. See Chapter 16 for details on solar swimming pool heaters.
There are other options for heating your pool, like natural gas heaters (these
are common) or electric. But these are so expensive that they shouldn’t even
be mentioned in a book on energy efficiency. You can save up-front money
on an electric or gas heater, granted. But the steroid-bound utility bills they
guarantee will quickly make your initial frugality seem foolish.
Getting into hot water with a spa
Spas are energy pigs, and you can’t do much about it. Old spas are far worse
than the new versions, which have excellent insulation and good covers. If
you’ve got an old redwood spa without a cover, throw it away now and buy
a new spa. Other than that, here are some tips for making your current spa
more efficient:
Always use a cover. You can waste 80 percent of the heat without a
cover. Covers are cheap if you buy an off-the-shelf size — you just have
to tolerate a little slop over the edges.
Insulate your spa. You can use a box of expandable foam insulation or
you can stuff batt insulation into the crevices. Either one makes a big
You can often get old insulation for free. Contractors who remodel
houses may let you scavenge their work sites to your heart’s content.
Who cares if it’s cruddy old stuff? It’s going outdoors, and nobody’s
going to see it anyway.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Run your filter less. You can probably run your filter cycle less often
than you think without sacrificing much quality. The vast majority of
pool owners could halve their filter on time, without apparent loss of
water quality. Give it a try. You may even be able to reduce it more.
Turn it off when you’re away. When you’re on vacation, empty your spa
and turn it off. If you time it right, you can make your vacation coincide
with water-changing time.
Turn the temperature down in the summer. Better yet, turn the heater
off entirely.
Washing and Drying without the Crying
The average washing machine wastes more energy than any other appliance
in the home. With due diligence, most households can save 50 percent on
operating costs and use 50 percent less water (including hot water, which
costs a lot more than cold) just by changing the way they do laundry.
Following are some practical tips.
Running hot or cold: Changing
water temperature
A great way to save energy doing laundry is to use hot water only when you
need to. Eighty-five percent of the energy used in washing is consumed by
heating the water. A lot of people simply run their machines on hot all the
time. You can easily save 25 percent on your washing costs by using cold
water most of the time — in particular, for the rinse cycle. Look on the label
of your detergent for the best ways to use cold water. You can also effectively
wash in cold water if you use detergent made for cold water. Check your
detergent label to find its temperature requirement.
Another way to save energy is to make every member of the household
responsible for cleaning his or her own clothes. You’ll see an instant decrease
in wash-load quantity, especially if you have kids.
Adjusting load size, water level, and cycle
When you wash clothes, use as little water as necessary to get the job done.
To that end, only wash full loads — it’s much more efficient, per item of
clothing, than partial loads. Always adjust the water level to the lowest
possible setting for the load size. For the smallest loads, use a mini-basket
insert that fits over the agitator.
Chapter 11: Pigging Out on Power with Appliances
You can also take advantage of the cycles your washer offers. If yours has a
pre-soak cycle, use it. Presoaking cycles save energy. They take more time,
but so what? Some washers also let you choose the speed of the spin cycle.
Faster spin speeds remove more water, resulting in less dryer time. If you’re
using a clothesline, faster, longer spins make your life much easier because
the clothes weigh less and pull the line down less.
Don’t use too much detergent. Contrary to what you may think, more is not
necessarily better, especially if it doesn’t get completely rinsed out. The
more detergent you use, the more you have to rinse.
Saving drying costs
Dryers use more power than every appliance save the washing machine and
refrigerator. Saving money with your dryer is easy.
Avoiding the dryer altogether
The best way to save money on drying costs is to use a clothesline — you
know, that thing in the backyard that your mother used when you were
growing up so long ago. Clothes dried outdoors smell much better, particularly
if they’re in direct sunlight.
The best clothesline style for most users is an “umbrella” arrangement (true
to its name, it folds up like an umbrella). You mount it into the ground and it
rotates, so you can set your laundry basket down and move the line around
as you pin clothes up. It features the most length of line for the least amount
of space, due to its spiraling structure. Retractable mechanisms are great.
I have a clothesline on my back porch, and when it’s not in use, the line
retracts so you can’t even see it.
To determine the best location for your clothesline, consider the following:
Convenience counts. If getting to the clothesline is a hassle, you’ll be
less apt to use it. Garages work well, and they’re usually right next to the
laundry. Open the garage door if you can. Otherwise, your garage will
get humid.
Air movement is helpful. A breezy spot with direct sunshine is ideal.
Not convinced fresh air can freshen clothes? Try this experiment: Take some
sweaty, smelly workout clothes and simply hang them up in direct sunshine.
Check them out a couple hours later — they may feel and smell better than
clothes you run through the washing machine.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Another way to avoid using the dryer is to hang clothes to dry indoors. A
quick, easy way to dry small loads is to simply hang them over your shower
curtain rod while you’re at work. You need some ventilation in your bathroom
or you’ll humidify your home, but maybe that’s what you want to do.
Timing is everything
If you time the use of your dryer just right, you can take the best possible
advantage of the heat it puts out. Consider the following tips to decrease
your drying costs:
Over-drying is hard on clothes, and it wastes energy. Like pasta, clothes
should be dried al dente (just enough).
Moisture sensors are much better than timed drying cycles (using a
timer makes no sense at all, if you think about it).
Cool-down cycles are the most efficient because the dryer heater
gradually shuts off and the residual heat finishes the cycle.
Dry two or more loads in a row, thereby taking advantage of the dryer’s
retained heat.
Taking care of your dryer’s ductwork
Dryers have vented pipes (around 4 inches in diameter) that lead outdoors.
The purpose of these pipes is to vent the hot air to the outside environment
(take that, Mother Nature!). To work most efficiently, this vent pipe needs to
be free of obstruction.
Clean the removable filter every time you use the dryer. Keep a small
waste bin by the machine so you can toss the coagulated lint into it.
Check your dryer ductwork. It may be clogged with years’ worth of
accreted crud, which causes inefficiency. New ductwork is cheap. You
can find it at any hardware store; ask the clerk for help.
Where your ductwork ends outside you’ll find a vent, often with a
flapping door that opens and closes when the dryer is on and off (to
keep birds and rodents out of the line). These often get dented and
smashed, thereby restricting flow and wasting money. If possible, just
get rid of the vent. Or replace the one you have with a better-working
You can buy a duct cleaner — a long, snaking wand with a big, bushy
brush head that you cram down the duct line — but for the cost, you’re
probably better off simply rebuilding the ductwork, assuming you have
easy access. Many ducts are built into walls, in which case you’re stuck
with cleaning.
Use the straightest, shortest duct possible. Ninety-degree bends cause
your dryer to work harder and longer to accomplish the same task. In
fact, most ductwork can be rebuilt to good advantage.
Chapter 11: Pigging Out on Power with Appliances
Keeping Your Cool with Refrigerators
The number-one way to save money with your refrigerator is to keep the
coils clean. On either the bottom or the back of your unit is a meandering line
of narrow tubing. Air is drawn over this tubing, and, over time, dust accumulates and clogs the flow, decreasing your refrigerator’s efficiency. You can get
special brushes that enable you to brush the collected dust off the tubes, or
you can simply use your vacuum cleaner.
Coils on the bottom of a refrigerator are harder to get to than those on the
back, although for the latter, you have to move your refrigerator out. You’re
likely to be shocked at how much dirt and crud accumulate behind your
refrigerator. This stuff causes health problems.
If your refrigerator is 15 years old or more, buying a new one is undoubtedly
cost-effective. Look for a top-bottom model rather than a side-by-side. The
top-bottom refrigerator arrangements use around 10 percent less energy
than their side-by-side counterparts. The payback on a new energy-efficient
refrigerator is less than five years.
Beyond buying a new refrigerator, you can do other things to make the
refrigerator you have run more efficiently. The following sections explain.
It’s what’s on the inside that counts
How you arrange your food, the temperature settings you select, and how
much ice buildup you have in the freezer all contribute to how well or poorly
your refrigerator works. Some advice:
Check the temperature. If your refrigerator allows different temperature settings for different zones, adjust the temperatures accordingly.
Recommended temperatures are 37–40°F for the refrigerator, and 5°F for
the freezer. Long-term freezer storage (deep freezers) should be set at 0°F.
Place a cheap thermometer in a glass of water in the center of the
refrigerator. In the freezer, place the thermometer between a couple
frozen packages. You can then check temperatures in different
locations and see how they compare.
Defrost the freezer. Ice buildup makes for inefficiency.
Eliminate overcrowding. When the air inside a compartment can’t
move, the machinery has to work harder.
Cover all foods in the compartments. Uncovered foods release a lot of
moisture and make the compressor work harder. Besides, if you don’t
cover the food, it’ll taste weird.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Close the door!
Keep your refrigerator’s doors closed as much as possible — an obvious
piece of advice, perhaps, but worth stating anyway. Of course, if you have
kids like mine, this admonition goes in one ear and out the other.
Tight seals are a must. If they’re tattered and leaking, you’re wasting up to 25
percent of the refrigerator’s energy (even more if your home is hot). If you
can’t change the seal, use some silicon sealant instead (the same kind you buy
for bathtubs and sinks works just fine). Follow these steps:
1. Spray Pam over the metal frame surface of the refrigerator where the
seal should be located.
2. Squirt the silicon over the seal.
3. Close the door and let the material dry.
One or two?
Operating one large refrigerator is much more efficient than operating two
smaller units. A lot of people have a refrigerator in their garage — usually the
one that used to be in the kitchen. You may not want to throw it away, but old
reefers cost a lot of money. That unit in your garage is costing you a lot more
than the new one. Is it worth it? What do you have in there, anyway? Drinks for
the kids? A whole pig? You can surely live without two refrigerators.
Lessening the Load on Your Dishwasher
Dishwashers use as much energy as clothes washers and dryers. Around 80
percent of this energy is consumed by heating the water — which means that
one way to maximize your energy efficiency is to reduce the amount of hot
water your dishwasher uses. Another way to save energy is to modify the
way you rinse your dishes and load the dishwasher. The following sections
Using less hot water
New dishwashers heat their own water, which is far more efficient than drawing
hot water from the water heater the way older models do. Keep this feature in
mind if you’re in the market for a new dishwasher.
Chapter 11: Pigging Out on Power with Appliances
Washing dishes by hand?
Believe it or not, a detailed scientific study was
performed to determine whether hand washing
or machine washing dishes is more efficient.
Hand washing a complete 12-piece setting of
dishes in a sink used around 30 gallons of water
and 2.5 kWh of electricity for water heating. An
automatic dishwasher used only 4 gallons and
1.5kWh of electricity. Not only that, but impartial
judges determined the dishes from the machine
were much cleaner. Hmm. Sounds like my kids
were doing the hand washing.
In addition, dishwashers get warm and heat your kitchen. In the winter, this
is fine. In the summer, it makes your air conditioner work harder. During
warm months, use the no-heat dry option. If your machine doesn’t have a
no-heat option, simply stop it after the rinse cycle, open the door, and let the
dishes dry that way.
In the summer, the dishwasher humidifies your house quite a bit. Get some
ventilation going to get that humidity out of the house, and you’ll feel cooler.
The temperature of the water from your domestic heater may affect the quality
of your dishwasher’s performance. If the water isn’t hot enough, your machine
will have a hard time doing the job. However, some detergents are rated for a
lower water temperature. (For more information on water heaters, refer to the
earlier section “Keeping Water Heaters in Check.”)
Changing the way you rinse and load
The key here is to minimize how much water you use. Here are some suggestions
to help you do that:
Rinse dishes as little as possible. In fact, just scraping off large chunks
of food without rinsing at all is often sufficient. Most dishwashers do a
good job of getting rid of caked-on, hard stuff. New models have special
cycles that steam-heat the crud and loosen it up.
Always run a full load. Your dishwasher uses just as much water to
wash a few dishes as a full load, so make the most of the water you use.
Try skipping the pre-rinse cycle on your dishwasher and using the
economy wash cycle. You probably won’t be able to tell the difference.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Eating Up Power with Stoves
and Microwaves
Depending on how much you cook in your home, energy costs for your stove
and microwave can be significant. There are a number of easy things you can
do to save costs, and in this section, I describe the best and easiest candidates.
Checking out efficient ovens
Some ovens (both microwave and conventional) are just plain more efficient
than others. Some have features that offer extra efficiency, and some are
more efficient even without the extra features.
Self-cleaning ovens: These ovens are more efficient because they have
higher insulation levels. What this means is that less heat is lost to the
outside ambient while you’re cooking.
Gas ovens with pilotless ignition: One of these ovens saves you 30 percent
over its lifetime, and the air in your home will be cleaner. With pilot lights,
some gas is always being burned (you can usually see the little blue flame
wavering near the burner). With a pilotless gas stove, a spark plug type
device ignites the gas each time the burner is turned on.
Convection ovens: Convection ovens incorporate a small, high-temperature
fan that moves the internal air in the oven compartment thereby bringing
more heat into contact with the food being baked. Convection ovens are
very efficient because they allow you to bake in less time, with less energy.
Use your convection feature if you have one.
Altering your cooking techniques
You don’t have to use a conventional oven to cook a hot meal. Sometimes the
following appliances can do the job more efficiently:
Toaster ovens: Use a toaster oven for small jobs. Small toaster ovens
(the kind that sit on your countertop) take much less energy than big
conventional ovens. And if you know how to use them properly, you can
get great browning effects. They don’t cost much, but you’re better off
getting a good one with an automatic timer and temperature controls.
Chapter 11: Pigging Out on Power with Appliances
Barbeque grills: Use your barbecue as much as possible in the summer.
From an efficiency standpoint, gas models are the best. Charcoal grills
waste a lot of energy (you can’t turn them off and on, as needed), plus
they put out far more pollution. Small propane barbecues work very
well and, contrary to what some people claim, they don’t make the food
stink. Burning petro-based charcoal is no different than burning petrobased natural gas.
Crock pots and portable pressure cookers: In the summer, put them
outdoors to save air-conditioning costs and lower humidity.
Even when nothing but a conventional oven will do, you can employ energysaving strategies like the following:
Bake dishes simultaneously. Try to fill your oven with a number of dishes
at the same time. This will lower the per-item cooking cost. If different
items call for different temperatures, relax; there’s wiggle room. Put the
items that need higher temperatures on the top rack, and items that need
lower temperatures on the lower rack (that’s easy to remember).
Don’t preheat. Let your food warm up with the oven. And turn your
stove off a few minutes before the allotted cooking time — the residual
heat will finish the process.
Don’t lay foil on racks. Foil obstructs the natural flow of heat.
Use glass or ceramic pans in the oven. The food cooks more efficiently,
and the texture is better.
Match the pan to the size of the heating element. This way, no heat
escapes around the edges.
Contain heat in the summer. Putting a lid on that boiling pot reduces
the amount of heat and humidity that’s released into the air. Rinse pans
out as soon as practical to cool them down.
Release heat in the winter. In cold weather, let hot pots and pans
release their heat into your home. Don’t rinse them out because that
washes the heat right down the drain.
Enjoying the Fine Life with
TVs and Computers
Although the new flat-screen televisions reduce power consumption, the
trend toward gigantic screens drives consumption right back up. Combine
a big screen with a big sound system, and your entertainment center may
be costing you an arm and a leg. Computers and their various components
and accessories constitute a similar category of common household energyeaters. What’s a modern man to do?
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
For starters, be aware that “off” doesn’t always mean what it implies. Even
when your TV, entertainment system, computer, monitor, DVD player, and so
on are sitting idle, they’re still drawing power. (Check out the earlier sidebar
“Making time stand still” to see this for yourself.) You can put a halt to this
energy drain by plugging these appliances into a power strip and turning the
power strip off when you’re not using them.
In the same vein, always use the power down feature on your computer, and
turn your computer off at night and on weekends. Remember, even in the
sleep mode, power is being wasted. Don’t forget to turn your printer off when
it’s not in use, too.
Some processors use a lot more juice than others. Do you really need all that
speed and power? Probably not, although computers have now taken over
the role that big muscle cars used to play for macho hard guys. Laptop computers use a lot less power than desktops, so if you can, opt for a laptop.
Old CRT monitors draw considerably more power than the new, flat-screen versions. They also put out a lot of extra heat, requiring more air conditioning in
the summer. So you may want to update (unless, of course, you’re looking for
heat in your home office, in which case you may want to keep your old CRT).
Buying New Appliances
Most of the time you don’t have a choice over whether to buy a new appliance.
The old one breaks, it can’t be repaired, and you come to the difficult conclusion
that it’s time for a funeral. Many people also decide that upgrading to a more
energy-efficient model is worth the investment.
Fortunately, the government has made your decision process easy for you
with the Energy Star program (yes, a government program that actually
works the way it’s supposed to — take advantage of this rare opportunity!).
The Energy Star is only awarded to appliances that significantly exceed the
minimum national efficiency standards, typically by 20 percent, and by as
much as 110 percent. Energy Star ratings apply to all major appliances, plus
HVAC systems, natural gas and oil systems, programmable thermostats,
and so on. Even windows are certified with Energy Star. You can easily find
the Energy Star Label on those products to which the standard applies (see
Figure 11-1).
Chapter 11: Pigging Out on Power with Appliances
Capacity: 23 Cubic Feet
(Name of Corporation)
Model(s) AH503, AH504, AH507
Type of Defrost: Full Automatic
Estimates on the scale are based
on a national average electric rate
of 7.9¢ per kilowatt hour.
Model with
energy cost
Only models with 22.5 to 24.4
cubic feet are compared in
the scale.
Model with
energy cost
Estimated yearly energy cost
Your cost will vary depending on your local energy rate and how you use the product. This
energy cost is based on U.S. Government standard tests.
How much will this model cost you to run yearly?
Yearly cost
Estimated yearly $ cost shown below
Cost per
Ask your salesperson or local utility for the energy rate (cost per kilowatt
hour) in your area.
Room Air Conditioner
Capacity: 5400 BTU/hr
(Name of Corporation)
Models 000XXX
Models with the most efficient
energy rating number use less
energy and cost less to operate
Models with 5300 to 5799
BTU’s cool about the same
Least Efficient
Most Efficient
Energy Efficiency Rating (EER)
This energy rating is based on U.S. Government Standard Tests.
How much will this model cost you to run yearly?
Yearly hours
of use
Estimated yearly $ cost shown below
Cost per
Figure 11-1:
An Energy
Star label.
$ 3
$ 9
$ 24
$ 36
$ 6
$ 48
$ 72
$ 9
$ 72
$ 96
Ask your salesperson or local utility for the energy rate (cost per kilowatt
hour) in your area. Your cost will vary depending on your local area rate
and how you use the product.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
The Energy Star label shows the product’s annual power consumption. Even
better, note the annual cost estimates based on different utility rates. On
these labels, the highest rate is 12 cents, which is somewhat anachronistic in
light of rising energy rates. But multiplying the costs based on your own rates
is easy enough. For instance, if you’re paying 16 cents, simply multiply the
result based on 8 cents by two.
You can easily compare different models of appliances using the Energy Star
labels. Simply compare the estimated annual costs. You can then compare
the difference in price with the difference in costs.
If you want to buy an energy-efficient appliance, buy one with an Energy Star
certification; it’s that simple. You can get super-duper-efficient models, but
they tend to cost a lot more than they’re worth. These are generally for the
off-grid crowd or those willing to pay any price to go green. For the most part,
if you buy an Energy Star model and use it efficiently, you’re doing very well.
Now if only the government would come out with an income tax form that
made as much sense as Energy Star. . . .
Playing it safe with combustion appliances
Nearly a third of water heaters and stoves (and
many refrigerators) use natural gas. These units
require a few extra precautions that are worth
All combustion equipment should be
installed and maintained by knowledgeable personnel. Electrical equipment
is inherently safer, and, as a result, it’s
cheaper because you can do most of the
maintenance yourself. With combustion
equipment, you assume some extra risks.
Install a carbon monoxide detector near the
Make sure your smoke detectors are working
Yellow flames always indicate that the gas
is being burned inefficiently, which causes
soot buildup, as well as wasted money.
If you see yellow flames, get a service
technician to tune up your system.
Combustion equipment always requires
appropriate ventilation (the reasons are
too complex for the scope of this book, but
trust me on this one). Read the instruction
manuals, and make sure that a qualified
service person not only installs the equipment, but also maintains it. If in doubt, opt
for the service call — your family’s life may
be on the line.
Chapter 12
Controlling Solar Exposures
in Your Home
In This Chapter
Taking advantage of sunlight to light and heat your home
Using inside and outside blinds for insulation and light control
Installing overhangs, awnings, and outdoor shades
Adding on greenhouses and sunrooms
unshine is free (at least until the government comes up with a way to tax
it). And sunshine is natural and amiable, so it should be used as much as
possible. In fact, most people do use sunshine, but not nearly as effectively
as they could.
Using sunshine effectively isn’t as simple as just letting the sun shine in.
Obviously, in the winter, you want both the sunshine and its heat in your
home as much as possible. In the summer, you want the sun’s light but not
the heat — two goals that are almost always at odds.
In this chapter, I show you how to heat your home in the winter and avoid
doing so in the summer. I show you how to light your home with sunshine,
and how to plan and build sunrooms that increase the value of your home
and provide increased living area at an efficient cost. (For much greater
detail on this subject, check out Solar Power Your Home For Dummies, also
authored by yours truly and published by Wiley.)
Lighting Your Home with Sunshine
The more you use sunshine to light your home, the less you need to rely on
artificial lighting. Using sunshine to your advantage also creates a kinder,
more inviting atmosphere. The following sections outline a variety of ways
to manipulate sunlight and reap all the benefits it has to offer. (For details
on how to deal with the heat factor, head to the later section “Heating Your
Home with Sunlight — Or Not.”)
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Planting a tree
By far the best way to control sunlight in your home is to strategically locate
deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in the winter) around your
home’s exterior. If you plant a single deciduous tree outside a southernexposed window, particularly a large window, you benefit in many ways.
In the summer, the leaves block most of the sunlight, leaving the room with
diffused, subtle, cool light. On a hot summer day, harsh sunlight makes you
feel even hotter, but shade creates a sense of calm and well-being, not to
mention relief. In the winter, with the leaves gone, direct sunlight enters the
room, casting the interior with warmth (due to the greenhouse effect), as well
as a bright, yellow tint that feels warm.
Making natural light more effective
You can make the most of whatever natural light is available to you. Here
are a number of clever ways to increase the effectiveness of sunlight in your
home’s interior spaces.
Putting up mirrors to enhance existing light
Position your mirrors in corners to broadcast light around the entire room.
In essence, mirrors magnify light. Two mirrors positioned catty-corner on
opposing walls work even better and make the room seem much larger.
Before you nail a mirror up permanently, try it out at different times of the day
to gauge its effect. If you want more effect in the morning than the evening, put
the mirror on an eastern-facing wall. Also keep in mind that mirrored closet
doors often work wonders to light a bedroom and increase its perceived size.
Using glass bricks to let light in
Cut some high holes through the solid walls of a dark hallway (it doesn’t
matter whether the walls lead to other rooms or outdoors) and put glass
bricks into the spaces so that light enters the hallway. Doing so not only
spreads light but also makes the hallway seem larger and less restrictive.
In fact, your entire home will feel friendlier and more open. Installing glass
bricks is a relatively straightforward and inexpensive do-it-yourself project
(ask for more details at your hardware store).
Using windowed doors
Instead of the usual solid wood doors, install French doors between rooms.
You can get French doors from most any building supply stores. Even if you
use curtains for privacy, the light will still shine through, and your home will
seem more spacious. You’re likely to find one location in your home that’s a
perfect candidate for a French door.
Chapter 12: Controlling Solar Exposures in Your Home
Don’t forget the front door. Glass panels can lighten up your entryway, and
guests will find them more inviting than a solid, impersonal mass of heavy
wood staring them in the face. Then again, maybe you don’t want to
encourage guests.
Getting rid of overgrowth
If vegetation is crowding the light through one of your windows, cut it back.
This is especially important with windows facing east, because morning
sunlight works much better than coffee, and it’s not a laxative.
Cleaning or tinting your windows
Spotless windows make a huge difference in the way a room feels. Cleaning
may not matter much in terms of the quantity of light coming in, but it
definitely enhances the quality, which may be even more important.
If your problem is that a room gets too much sunshine (or you want to
obscure a view to the outside without using blinds), apply window tinting.
Tinting comes in sheet tape form, and anybody can put it up (well, pretty
much anybody — it helps if you don’t have ten thumbs).
Decorating to make the
most of natural light
Decorating a room with light-colored carpeting and walls makes it seem like
there’s a lot more sunshine. Placing the right kinds of trinkets in the right
spots can also make a difference. Here are a few tips:
Hang stained-glass window decorations to create a splashy mood. The
decorations dominate the room when the sun shines in directly, adding
color, verve, and even some dynamics for a very low cost. You can also
use sparkling crystals and ceramic art pieces for the same effect. Sunny
breakfast nooks are ideal for spectral trinkets.
Whitewash dark trim molding. This simple trick makes a big difference.
Even in a room painted all white, dark molding can dominate.
Mount glass shelves on sunny windows and fill them with knickknacks. This has the subtle effect of making the room seem much
lighter. Glass shelves in a window can also block an undesirable view so
you don’t have to close the blinds. Your eye stops at the glass shelves
instead of the view beyond.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Installing skylights and solar tubes
For those of you with more advanced ambitions, skylights and solar tubes
can make a big difference in your home’s lighting for a relatively small
Traditional skylights are big, expansive channelers of sunlight, and the large
openings in your home’s ceiling will make a room bigger and airier, both
literally and figuratively. If you’re interested in skylights, consult with a
contractor unless you’re really good with tools and projects. You can find
remodel books that detail the tasks, as well as the parts, tools, and skills
Skylights are very expensive to install. If you want multiple skylights, consider
doing them all at the same time. Installing three or four skylights at one time
takes around twice as much time and money (rather than three or four times
as much) — food for thought when you’re deciding how many skylights to
Solar light tubes, also known as tubular skylights, are a less expensive
alternative. These let in natural light that varies with the clouds and the
weather. Solar tubes, which can be installed by just about anybody in half
a day for around $250, can have just as much effect as a traditional skylight
for around one tenth of the cost. (The typical price, uninstalled, is $200 for a
four-foot-long pipe. Extensions cost an additional $20 per foot.)
Here’s how a solar light tube system works: Sunlight is collected up on the
roof and transmitted down a shiny, silver pipe into a diffuser, which
broadcasts the light into the room below (see Figure 12-1).
Light Collector
Waterproof Flange
Solar Light Tube
Figure 12-1:
A solar light
tube system.
Interior Room
Chapter 12: Controlling Solar Exposures in Your Home
If you’re interested in solar tubes, keep these points in mind:
You can make most rooms bright enough to work in during daylight
hours, even in the winter. Large-diameter units (12 inches and more)
can output as much light as a dozen 100-watt light bulbs, at one tenth
the heat. Because they don’t produce as much heat you can use your
air-conditioner much less.
One of the best locations for a solar tube is a dark corner in the family
room, where the light will be well-used and have a dramatic effect. Solar
light tubes are also good for dark, isolated bathrooms. The natural light
is comforting, and you never have to flip a light switch during the day.
If you have a dark kitchen, a solar tube may be the perfect solution,
especially if a lot of people come and go during the day. The light switch
won’t be constantly flipped off and on.
The intensity of light changes quite a bit because solar light varies
with the clouds and weather. On a partly cloudy day, you can get a lot
of fluctuation as clouds move across the sun, making you much more
conscious of the outdoors.
The tubes themselves can drastically change the way decor looks. Be
prepared for a drastically different room because lighting is very
influential in terms of how a room “feels.” (I installed one in a bathroom
and had to start a big remodel the next week because the change in tone
simply made the old paint and tile colors look old and drab — okay, I
didn’t really have to, but my wife made me and she wears the pants.)
Also, the silver color imparts a certain “cool” mood. Some types of solar
light tubes come with filters for creating moods, but the filters cut out
light as well.
Installation isn’t easy (you have to go up into your attic space), but it’s
doable. When deciding where to install solar light tubes, always keep
the installation itself in mind. Just forget about installing these tubes in
locations where you can’t easily go: like shallow attic spaces or near the
edges of the attic. If you plan to install solar tubes yourself, heed this
• Don’t try to buy separate parts. Get a complete kit, with however
many extension tubes you think you need. Get an extra extension,
and leave it in the box for return if you don’t use it.
• The hardest part of the job is working in the attic space. Plan your
route up and over to where the work is going to be done, and
figure out how you’ll sit and stand once you get there. Also
determine what tools you’ll need.
• Cutting through a typical roof takes more than a toy saw.
Composite shingles eat jigsaw blades, so get extras. And take
precautions to seal against the weather on the rooftop. Solar
tubes come with detailed instructions for sealing; follow these
instructions carefully or you’ll be sorry. If there’s any possible
way for water to get in, it will.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Heating Your Home with
Sunlight — or Not
In addition to being a great light source, sunlight is a great source of heat —
which is wonderful when you want heat, but not so wonderful when you want
to stay cool. Fortunately, you can regulate how much heat the sun generates
in your home.
First, you need to understand the greenhouse effect. The best way to
describe how sunshine heats a home is to explain how a greenhouse works.
Sunlight enters the enclosed space through the glazing, or window material,
and then gets absorbed and turned into heat. The heat stays in the enclosed
space thanks to the glazing’s insulation properties (see Figure 12-2).
Glass, Plastic,
Fiberglass, etc.
Figure 12-2:
Thermal Mass:
Rocks, Concrete,
Water, etc.
You can enhance the greenhouse effect — and make your home warmer — by
increasing the transmissibility of the window and maximizing its insulation.
Double-pane glass works well for this, and a number of window coatings and
other optical tricks can also be used to good effect. Inexpensive plastic
materials that work well are available, although they tend to blur the view.
To maximize the heat generated, the space must be well-sealed to prevent
air leakage, although the greenhouse effect is often powerful enough to work
well even in relatively leaky environments. In fact, sometimes it works so well
that the heat is intolerable. (The greenhouse effect explains why your car
gets so hot when it sits out in the summer sunshine.)
Chapter 12: Controlling Solar Exposures in Your Home
So how do you reduce the greenhouse effect when you don’t want all that
heat? Easy. By controlling the amount of sunshine that enters your home.
Installing blinds and sunscreens
When you install blinds or shades, you control the amount of sunlight that enters
your home. An added benefit is that these things can also increase the beauty of
your home and, if you’re really smart (of course you are — you’re reading this
book), you can use blinds and shades to insulate, or maintain heat storage, as well.
Bare glass lets the sun enter freely. Using blinds or sunshades (and even
curtains) restricts the amount of sunlight that enters and, depending on how
they’re hung (whether on the inside or outside of the window, and how far
from the window), affects the insulation properties, as Table 12-1 outlines.
You can see your hanging options in Figure 12-3.
Bare Glass:
Sun enters freely,
modest insulation
Blind on the
Absorbs sun on
the inside
Cuts off light
insulation layer
Sunscreen tacked
outside window:
Blind hung outside
with an air gap:
Stops most
sunlight outside
Most sunlight is
Creates insulation
layer outside
No insulation layer
at window
Darker inside
Figure 12-3:
in the ways
to cover a
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Table 12-1
Window Covering Options
Type of Covering
Bare glass
Sun enters freely
Minimal insulation
Blind on the inside
Absorbs sun on the
inside; controls lighting and enhances
decorative qualities
in the room; may also
completely block view
and light
Creates excellent
insulation layer inside —
good for cold climates
and winter
Sunscreen tacked outside of window
Stops most sunlight outside; darker inside but
doesn’t obscure view
Creates insulation
layer outside; heat is
stopped outside so that
the interior of the room
is cooler; best for hot
Blind hung outside with
an air gap
Stops most sunlight
outside, but doesn’t
obscure view
No insulation layer at
window; maximum cooling effect, especially in
breezy locations
Hanging blinds: Inside or out?
When you hang blinds on the inside of windows, the sunshine comes in
through the window, strikes the blind, and gets converted into heat. The heat
is trapped in the air gap between the blind and the window and can get very
hot because of the greenhouse effect. Of course, heat is only desirable in
the winter. In the summer, you may have a cooler room if you just leave the
window uncovered and let the sun and air in.
To warm a room in winter: Contrary to what you may think, the best
way to heat a room with sunshine in the winter is not to open the blinds,
but to use special blinds that capture sunlight and insulate at the same
time. You can get interior blinds made to do just that.
To keep a room cool in summer: Interior blinds made for summer
reflect a lot of light back out the window. They are usually shiny and
white, at least on the exterior-facing surface.
Chapter 12: Controlling Solar Exposures in Your Home
Infrared filtering glass
You can get special glass that filters infrared light out before it gets into your home. In
fact, most of the sunlight’s heat comes from
light that is invisible to the human eye. Some
animals can see infrared light (like owls and
nocturnal hunters) but humans can’t see
it. Infrared filtering glass rejects up to 70
percent of the heat of sunlight, yet you can’t tell
the difference in the view because it transmits
visible light as well as a conventional window.
Solar screens and other sunlight-inhibiting
processes inhibit the view, and you may not
want this if your window is a centerpiece to a
home that features lavish views.
You’ll pay more for infrared glass, but it may be
just the thing.
To get the best cooling effect, allow for some ventilation between an
outside blind and the open window it covers. If you can’t do that, use
an outside blind that has a shiny, metallic exterior surface that simply
reflects all sunlight and doesn’t let any heat into the room at all. The
room will be completely dark, but this is desirable on a burning hot day.
To maximize the efficiency of an air conditioner: When your air
conditioner is on, it’s best to hang blinds so that they create as much
insulation as possible and banish sunlight. You can achieve this by
closing your interior blinds all the way. If you have outside shades,
all the better. The best scheme for a sunny home that uses a lot of air
conditioning is both solar screens (see the next section, “Putting up
sunscreens”) and interior blinds. The home will be very dark, but it
will also be much cooler.
Putting up sunscreens
Sunscreens, also called solar screens, are an inexpensive and effective way to
cool your home in the summer. They reflect a lot of sunlight — up to 90
percent — plus they create an insulation barrier on the outside. Most are
dark, heavy-duty, fabric screens with a tacky surface. Some are a flexible,
tinted plastic film. You can get sunscreens up to 8 feet wide, with unlimited
Only windows that get more than a few hours of direct sunlight a day are
worth sun screening. The best candidates are tall windows facing south, but
east and west exposures can also get very hot. With a solar screen tacked up
on the outside of a window, most of the sunlight is reflected before it even
gets to the window. The screen gets hot and an insulation barrier keeps that
heat trapped, but it’s all outside the window.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
You don’t want sunscreens in the winter, which means you need to mount
them in such a way that you can bring them down in the winter. Your
Use removable frames: You can buy frames for sun screens. Most are
aluminum. You can get them either preloaded with screens, or you can
load them yourself. They come in a range of colors.
Tack them up. The fastest and cheapest way to cover a window is to
tack the screen right onto the window frame. You don’t need anything
more than tacks, a hammer or a stapler, and scissors or a box cutter.
Just cut the screen down to a few inches bigger than what you need,
tack it up, and then trim it with scissors or a box cutter. In the winter,
just pull the screen down.
Roll them up like blinds. You can get automatic, electric controllers
so that, with the push of a single button, you can command every solar
screen in your home.
Sunscreens are easy to put up, and most people can do it themselves. Call a
screen shop direct for tools, materials, and installation advice. Easy-to-use
mounting hardware is essential. (For automatic sunscreens, you’ll need a
professional installation.)
Before you go the do-it-yourself route, ask the shop what they would charge to
install sunscreens for you. They can do a window in a few minutes, and their
bid for the entire job may not be much more than what you’ll pay for the
material alone.
You can expect at least a three-year lifetime with quality sunscreen, at
around 75 cents per square foot. For a 3-foot × 6-foot window, if a screen
lasts five years, the cost is only $2 per year (with the cheapest installation
method). If your climate is hot and sunny, there’s no question you’ll get good
payback on this small investment. Cheap screen bleaches out and looks
perpetually dirty — avoid it unless you like cheap and perpetually dirty.
Covering your windows
with exterior awnings
Awnings are great light shades because you can configure them in different
geometrical relationships and control the light over the course of a day. They
also drastically change the appearance of your home for the better. They add
shape and break up monotonous flat surfaces, and complement the color
scheme of your home’s exterior. Two common awning styles are the Venetian
awning and the hood awning (see Figure 12-4):
Chapter 12: Controlling Solar Exposures in Your Home
Venetian awnings allow sunlight in the winter, when the sun is low
in the sky, and block sunlight in the summer, when the sun is high.
Venetians also allow you to see out of the top of your window, and the
effect is much more open than that of hood awnings.
Hood awnings are more decorative. They can be made of nice fabrics
that match or complement the house. They work better in rainy climates
because they keep cold water off your windows. (You can lose a lot of
heat by water-based convection from rain.)
Side Views
Figure 12-4:
and hood
Venetian Awning
Hood Awning
Do-it-yourselfers can build very nice-looking wood slat awnings that can be
attached to most surfaces. You can buy designs over the Internet, but designing
them yourself is even more fun. You can paint them to match your house, and
you can use materials that last a long time. You can even devise an adjustment
scheme that allows you to raise or lower the pitch, depending on conditions.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Installing outdoor window blinds
Outdoor blinds, which are designed to cover windows from the outside, stop
the heat on the outside of the home. Plus in the winter, these blinds can act
as insulators. Outdoor blinds are usually made of vinyl. Some are prettier
than others, which may or may not matter to you. Import shops stock
different sizes of roll-up bamboo shades, often priced as low as $5 apiece.
You’ll probably have to throw these cheapies out after a single season, but so
what — they’re cheapies.
These blinds are also commonly used overhead for patios and porches
where late afternoon and evening sunlight can prevent you from using the
area. In this case, leave them up all day or your floor will heat up (concrete
or tile floors hold heat for a long time).
Most outdoor blinds have cords that you pull different ways, but if you don’t
want to raise and lower the blinds manually, you can find outdoor blinds that
retract automatically. Automatic retractable shades are available from
specialty suppliers. You can even find solar-powered retractors that work
with a hand-held remote controller.
Putting up radiant barriers
A radiant barrier is a sheet of thin material that looks like reinforced
aluminum foil. It’s tacked up beneath your roof joists or simply laid over
the insulation on your attic floor. It keeps a lot of heat out of your home,
but it doesn’t prevent your attic from getting warm in the winter (in the
wintertime, heat rises from your home, and it’s composed mostly of
convective heat so radiant barriers don’t have any affect at all).
The material itself costs around 20 cents per square foot. For a 2,000-squarefoot house, the material costs $400, and the payback can be very impressive.
In hot climates, radiant barriers cool the home down more than enough to
pay for themselves in less than a couple years.
To install a radiant barrier, you simply staple it into place, regardless of whether
you mount it overhead or lay it on the floor. (Make sure you have a good quality
stapler.) The design of your roof impacts how easy installation will be. Open
rafters are the best candidates; if you have complex trusses, forget it. Installation
is also a snap if your attic floor is open and easily accessible.
Even if you can only cover a portion of the rafters or floor, it’s worth it. Try to
cover an entire small area, rather than isolated spots in a number of different
Chapter 12: Controlling Solar Exposures in Your Home
Attics can roast you fast. They’ll heat to over 130°F, easy. Don’t kid yourself;
if it feels real hot, it can be dangerous. One way to stay safe is to work in the
morning, when things are cooler.
Cutting out summertime
sunlight with overhangs
Overhangs, which are solid constructions built over windows, can provide
both financial gain and aesthetic beauty. You can design an overhang to
visually complement your home’s roofline.
Here’s how overhangs work (see Figure 12-5): In the winter, sunlight can
enter the home because the sun is lower in the sky. If you have high thermal
mass floors (like concrete or tile), your home will heat up nicely. In the
summertime, when the sun is higher in the sky, the overhang stops any
direct sunlight from entering the home.
Summer Sun
Winter Sun
All 3 positions will work.
Position 3 also makes
for a nice porch roof.
Figure 12-5:
Light Colored Reflector
Sliding Glass Door
(or Window)
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Be sure the overhang you install changes your home’s appearance for the
better (the best looking overhangs mimic the pitch of your roof and use the
same materials). Before you nail an overhang up and make it permanent, try to
arrange it where it’s going to go and see what it looks like. Alternatively, take a
digital photo of the window and use a computer program to play around with
different ideas. You can find overhang designs in home plan books.
Garnering Sunlight with Greenhouses
and Sunrooms
There are two types of solar rooms: greenhouses and sunrooms. Greenhouses, which are either connected to your home or separate from it, can
help warm your home as well as provide inexpensive, delicious, highly nutritious food or beautiful and soothing decorative plants. Sunrooms, which are
always part of your home, add living space and square footage for a
relatively low cost, increase the efficiency of your heating and cooling efforts,
and brighten up your home’s ambience and decor.
A well-designed solar room can provide up to 60 percent of a home’s heating
in the winter, depending on the amount of sunlight available. Even in very
cold climates, a solar room can work efficiently. And particularly in a cold
climate, a sunroom can provide needed relief from the gray doldrums of
Most home additions cost more than your property value increases due
to the improvement. But with solar rooms, the variety of designs and the
reduced building restrictions make it possible to enjoy profitable
appreciations, especially if you do it yourself.
Deciding between the different
types of solar rooms
So which type of solar room is better: greenhouse or sunroom? That depends
on what you want to achieve and which type of room you prefer.
Greenhouses invite the maximum amount of sunlight and generally require
a glass ceiling or sloping glass walls. They are also very functional. They
need a water supply, their temperatures need to be regulated (the difference
between the hottest and coldest temperatures needs to be kept to a minimum, as dictated by the type of plants), they need adequate ventilation to
provide oxygen for the plants, and they need floors that can withstand water
leaks and mud spillage.
Chapter 12: Controlling Solar Exposures in Your Home
Sunrooms, on the other hand, are designed as extensions of your home’s
living space. You can leave them partially open to the outdoors, or you can
completely enclose them and put in carpeting and fine furniture. Because too
much sunlight is uncomfortable and sunrooms are meant to be inviting, they
generally have water-tight, solid roofs. They may or may not contain
skylights and vents, but both increase the livability factor.
In both types of solar rooms, most of the southern wall space is taken up by
windows or some other suitable glazing material. In addition, both greenhouses and sunrooms can increase a home’s privacy by providing a buffer
between the outside world and the interior spaces.
Building a solar room yourself
A do-it-yourselfer can design and build a sunroom or greenhouse at a
relatively low cost with relatively low risk. These rooms can be separate from
the house and, as such, don’t need electrical wiring or plumbing and don’t
require that you obey all the building code requirements that are unavoidable
inside of a home.
If you don’t want to have to apply for building permits or have the property
value reappraised (with the commensurate increase in property taxes), build
the sunroom against a house, but don’t actually nail the frame elements to the
home — in this case, it’s just a free-standing porch. (Keep in mind, though,
that if you ever sell your house, you can’t advertise your solar room as part of
your house’s square footage.)
If you plan to add a solar room to your home, kits are the best bets for do-ityourselfers. (Greenhouse kits made of plastic sheets instead of windows are
easy, cheap, and effective.) Fortunately, an entire industry is dedicated to
manufacturing and selling prefab kits that cost anywhere from a few hundred
dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can see samples in showrooms. It’s always best to touch things before you buy; photos are often
misleading and rarely reflect reality the way you expect them to.
Alternatively you can build your own custom design and use the same
materials (windows, framing, trim) as the rest of your house. If you have a
good imagination, you can find very cheap materials, particularly glass
windows and heavy beams. As much as a well-designed solar room can
enhance your home’s aesthetics, a poorly designed one can make your house
look awkward and uninviting. The following sections offer some practical tips
for creating a solar room you can be proud of and happy with.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Make very good drawings done to scale before you begin building (use
gridded paper and let one square foot equal one grid). Consider all the
angles and, if you can, draw some perspectives (from the street, for
instance). The more thought you give to the room’s appearance before
you start, the better the odds that your solar room will increase the
value of your home.
In cold climates, use between 0.65 and 1.5 square feet of double-pane
glass for each square foot of building floor area. In temperate climates,
use between 0.3 to 0.9 square feet for each square foot of building floor
area. Even if you can’t achieve these ratios, any amount of glass will
work to your advantage. Solar rooms are usually compromises between
the best physics and the best aesthetics and cost. In general, aesthetics
should win for sunrooms, while physics should win for greenhouses.
Always build your sunroom on a southern front. Put the absorbers and
thermal mass on the north side. Otherwise, your room won’t work to
maximum advantage. Also, try to use as many of your home’s existing
walls as possible, preferably on both the east and west ends of the
sunroom. These walls are already insulated, and they match the house.
The best location in your house is adjacent to the kitchen for attached
greenhouses, and adjacent to the living room or family room for solar
rooms. These locations afford not only the most efficient use, but also
the most use in general. Leaving the doors and windows open between
your house and sunroom lends a sense of increased floor space and size
to your home. (Building a solar room off your family room is the
cheapest way to increase the square footage of your home.)
Plant deciduous trees at the same time you build of your solar room.
They’ll cut back the sun in the summer and allow it all in during the
winter. Plus, the room will be much prettier with a view of some nice
trees. Partnering with Mother Nature brings a benign continuity to the
entire project.
Use the same materials that your home is made of, if you can. Otherwise,
don’t try to match at all — just do something that’s complementary but
totally disparate. Nothing mismatches more than an attempt at matching
that doesn’t quite cut it. For example, blue and orange match up much
better than orange and a slightly different shade of orange, which just
ends up looking cheap and classless.
Easy and straightforward candidates for solar rooms are existing porches and
decks that already have the basic support structures and flooring in place. All
you need to do is build up and around them.
Chapter 13
Breathing Homes: Ventilation,
Fans, and Air Filters
In This Chapter
Taking advantage of natural air movement
Using fans to move air wisely
Cleaning up the air you breathe
nless you live in a perfect climate where it’s never too hot or too cold,
heating and air conditioning make up the largest component of your
power bill. If you rely solely on your heater and your air conditioner to keep
you comfortable, then you’re missing a big opportunity for energy efficiency.
The key to comfort is air movement. By moving air appropriately through
your home, you can achieve a much higher level of comfort and save money
by using your HVAC system less, particularly in the summer. This chapter
tells you how.
Taking Advantage of Natural
Air Movement
A small amount of air movement increases convective cooling quite a bit,
which is why people like fans blowing when it’s hot in the summer. A fan can
make a room feel 5°F cooler, even though the temperature has not changed.
In the winter, winds make air seem much colder, an effect known as the wind
chill factor. People seek breezes in the summer and avoid it in the winter,
not because air movement changes the actual temperature, but because it
increases the rate of convective cooling. (Refer to Chapter 7 for a discussion
on how convection heating and cooling works.) That’s why ventilation is so
important to your comfort.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Each house has a natural ventilation scheme, which is influenced by the
following factors:
The prevailing winds, as determined by the weather patterns in the
climate in which you live
The chimney effect, which dictates that hot air naturally rises while
cool air settles
The vent patterns of your home, as determined by the location of
windows, doors, vents, and other openings in your home
Methods of heating and cooling that take advantage of these factors to
increase energy efficiency are known as passive methods. The most efficient
ways to move air always complement the natural ventilation scheme rather
than work against it. By understanding your house’s ventilation scheme,
you can exploit the prevailing winds and the chimney effect and optimize air
movement through your home’s vents. You can passively cool your house
well enough to avoid using your air conditioner on all but the hottest days.
Which way is the wind blowing?
Prevailing winds are the winds that are most common in your area. Wind has
both a speed and a direction, and both are important. Some areas have very
consistent prevailing winds, while other areas experience changes almost
daily. You probably already have a good idea what the prevailing winds are
where you live, but you can refine your understanding by paying more
attention. In particular, how do the winds change over the course of a day?
Over the seasons? (Typically, prevailing winds come from the southwest in
the summer, and the northwest in the winter.)
Prevailing winds dictate the arrangement of fans and window openings that
will work best in your house. Basically, you want to create a situation in
which you take most advantage of natural air movement as possible because
this comes entirely free of charge.
Figure 13-1 shows a typical situation. If all four windows are closed, there’s
no breeze in the house. If only one of the windows is opened, there’s very
little air movement in the house because air can neither enter nor leave. If
only windows 2 and 4 are opened, there is very little air movement because
the two open windows are at the same air pressure; the movement of the
Chapter 13: Breathing Homes: Ventilation, Fans, and Air Filters
breeze is precisely the same at each window. However, if windows 1 and 3
are both open, a good breeze moves through the house, entering window 1
and exiting window 3. If all four windows are open, you’ll get much the same
breeze as you do when only 1 and 3 are open.
Window 4
Figure 13-1:
dictate the
of air in your
Prevailing Wind
Window 2
You can use a fan to work with or against the prevailing winds, as Figure
13-2 shows. A window fan aiming into the house at window 3 works directly
against the natural ventilation scheme, and you may end up with no air
movement at all. But aim the fan out at window 3, and you enhance the
natural scheme. The same results can be achieved by mounting a fan in
window 1 and aiming it either inward or outward. If you set a fan in the
middle of the room with windows 1 and 3 open and with the fan facing
window 3, you enhance the natural scheme somewhat, but you can enhance
it even more by placing the fan right in the window.
The environment outside of the windows can affect the temperature of the air.
If a particular window has a nice big tree overhead and lawn beneath it, the
air being drawn into the house through that window will be cooler than that
which comes through a window situated over concrete in the direct sunshine.
In Figure 13-2, for example, a big tree over window 1 would have a cooling
impact on the breeze entering the house.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
This destroys the natural ventilation scheme
Figure 13-2:
fans to
the natural
This fan location enhances the natural ventilation scheme
Up, up, and away: Chimney effect
The chimney effect accounts for the way hot air rises. In a closed room, the
temperature at the ceiling is always higher than that on the floor. The
differential in air temperature between the two areas can be over 15°F. You
can achieve cooling, without any prevailing breezes at all, by arranging vents
in your house to take advantage of the chimney effect (see Figure 13-3).
Chapter 13: Breathing Homes: Ventilation, Fans, and Air Filters
Many different types of vents are used in houses, as shown in Figure 13-4.
Your home may or may not have these types of vents, but you can probably
add them if you see the need:
Ridge vent: Ridge vents work very well to ventilate your attic space
because they make maximum use of the chimney effect while also
exploiting prevailing winds. If you’re in a hot climate, these types of
vents are very efficient.
Roof vent: Whether roof vents are efficient or not depends entirely on
where you locate them on your roof. In general, you want to place a roof
vent on the downwind side of your home’s roof, as near the apex as
possible to exploit the chimney effect. These vents are easy to install
(ask a clerk at a large hardware store or building supply store about
your options), but you do need to rain-proof them.
Gable vent: Gable vents are simple to install. You can mount a big fan
inside the gable vent and push a lot of air (make sure to work in
conjunction with the natural air ventilation scheme, not against it).
These vents are usually much better than roof vents when it comes to
keeping rain out of your attic space. Plus you don’t need to leak seal
them with anywhere near the same integrity as a roof vent.
Soffit vent: These vents are common in almost all residential
constructions. The best way to ventilate your attic space using only
passive (non-powered) means is with a number of soffit vents with a few
strategically placed roof vents (or a ridge vent). Soffit vents don’t need
to be waterproofed because rain doesn’t get to them.
Whole house vent (with fan): These are the best way to ventilate a
house, providing the HVAC system isn’t on. Not only do you ventilate
your entire home, but you also ventilate your attic space with a whole
house vent. They make a lot of noise, but for the energy dollar you easily
get the most bang for the buck. If you’re reasonably skilled with tools
and projects, you can install one yourself (aside from electrical
connections, which may need to be done by a licensed contractor).
Kitchen and bathroom exhaust vents: These vents get rid of humidity
right at the worst sources in your home. In the summer, when you’re
cooking, always use a kitchen exhaust fan with a nearby window opened
(even if you’re running an air conditioner). If you take a shower in the
summer, always use a bathroom exhaust fan to get rid of the humidity;
otherwise, you’ll feel hotter and run your air conditioner more.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Roof Vent
Hot Air
Ceiling Vent
Figure 13-3:
moves air Open
through Window
your house.
Air Movement
Ridge Vent
Whole House Vent
(with Fan)
Roof Vent
Kitchen and
Exhaust Vents
Gable Vents
Soffit Vents
Figure 13-4:
Using vents
to move air
your home.
and Doors
Chapter 13: Breathing Homes: Ventilation, Fans, and Air Filters
Getting Mother Nature on your side
Here are some tips on how to open and close your doors and windows in
order to optimize the use of breezes to cool your home:
Leave interior doors open whenever possible. This allows for better
air circulation in your home. Even if you don’t end up increasing air
circulation, you still benefit because closed-off rooms are much more
prone to wet spots and microorganism breeding.
Whenever possible, open your windows. Surprisingly, many people
simply don’t think to open their windows. If you have multiple stories,
opening windows on different floors can increase the flow of breezes.
Experiment to see what works best. Unfortunately, what works best for
one wind direction won’t necessarily work for a different direction. But
most locales have prevailing winds that don’t often deviate.
When you want breezes through your home, open windows and doors
only on the windward and leeward sides of the house, and try to balance
the openings. Don’t just open every window you can. Experiment a little.
Add screen doors whenever possible. Then open your doors, just like
your windows.
Whenever you remodel, add some ventilation ports. Remove interior
walls whenever possible. Add skylights. Provide adequate clearance
beneath doors so that air can move out of a room.
To gain the most advantage in moving air, you need to manage solar radiation
entry into your home by using blinds and window coverings in conjunction
with opening and closing windows. Chapter 12 addresses sunscreens, window
blinds, awnings, and other shading methods.
Getting the Air Moving with Fans
Most homes don’t do a great job when it comes to ventilation. Most people
simply open windows and aim fans without rhyme or reason. A better idea
is to strategically place fans so that you achieve the desired effect in both
summer and winter. Some fans are better than others. What you want is to
achieve the highest efficiency at the lowest cost (including both operating
and equipment costs).
Unfortunately, achieving optimal ventilation year-round is a little tricky because
requirements in winter are usually diametrically opposed to those in the summer.
In the winter, you want to invite heat in and retain it as much as possible, whereas
in the summer you seek to banish heat. Most homes are designed to optimize one
season only, which creates problems in the other seasons.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
A wide range of methods are available for moving air. Passive methods, such
as exploiting prevailing winds and the chimney effect to cool your home,
are the subject of the earlier section, “Taking Advantage of Natural Air
Movement.” In this section, I look at active methods, including ceiling fans,
whole-house fans, and more. The next section, “I Need to Vent! Moving Air in
Your Attic,” delves into how improving ventilation in your attic can improve
air movement throughout your house.
If you operate a fan without sufficient outside ventilation, you may draw
combustion products, like smoke and carbon monoxide, into the living space
of your home. Gas heaters and water heaters put out carbon monoxide.
Always pay attention to where that gas is going. You may want to invest in a
carbon monoxide alarm.
Fan efficiency and operation
The efficiency of a fan is determined by calculating the amount of air it moves
divided by the power it consumes. Fans are rated for how much air they can
move in a given amount of time. The most common spec is cubic feet per
minute (cf/min). To find the proper size fan, calculate how many cubic feet
are in the area you want to cool (just multiply length × width × height), be it
your entire house, a room or the attic. Then buy a fan that’s about 20 percent
bigger than your calculations suggest.
To maximize a fan’s efficiency, you must set it up properly. Consider the
The air route: You need to consider the entirety of the airflow path, and
make it as straight and clear as possible. Long, meandering hallways
impede air flow much more than it may seem. Other efficiency-busters
include the following: aiming a fan directly at a wall, setting a fan near a
window that is only cracked open, and aiming a fan through a grate that
is coated with dust (but I didn’t really need to tell you that, right?)
A cowling: The most efficient movement of air occurs when a fan has
a cowling because a cowling, the metal ring around the outer diameter
of the fan blades, directs airflow (see Figure 13-5). If all you’re after is
some air movement in a closed room, a cowling isn’t so important. But
if you’re interested in moving a large quantity of air through your house,
it’s very important. Most heavy-duty work fans come with cowlings.
All fans are heaters. They dissipate power, which is given off as heat. If you
put a fan in a closed room, the air temperature rises — it’s a fact of physics.
The room may feel cooler because of convective cooling, but the temperature
goes up nevertheless. Fans used solely to stir air for convective cooling should
never be turned on when no humans are present. Leaving an oscillating fan on
all day long while you’re at work only heats your house.
Chapter 13: Breathing Homes: Ventilation, Fans, and Air Filters
A fan without a cowling loses
efficiency when air loops around
the outer edges
Figure 13-5:
A fan with
a cowling is
than one
A cowling prevents the
looping — moves much more
air for the same power
An enclosed window
with a cowling is the
most efficient
Thermostats are switches that open or close at a set temperature. They come
in handy when you set up a fan in a remote location, such as an attic. When
the attic reaches a certain temperature, the fan activates. When it’s hot in the
summer, you get ventilation. In the winter, the fan doesn’t turn on.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Choosing the right kind of fan
A wide range of fans are available at a wide range of prices. Choosing the right
unit for your needs will ensure you get the proper effect you’re looking for.
The most effective fans in your entire house are your bathroom and kitchen
vent fans. They remove tons of humidity, if used properly. Use them whenever you’re cooking or taking a shower in the summer. Crack open a small
window nearby and the fans will be very efficient, even if you’re running an
air conditioner. (Humidity in the summer is a back-breaker. It causes you to
turn the air conditioner on, and when that doesn’t feel like it’s working, you
run it even more. See Chapter 8 for details.) Following are the most common
types of household fans.
Box fans
Box fans are portable units you can move around as needed. Most have some
kind of cowling. Blade design also determines efficiency of air flow. You can
find fans that are impressively efficient, but keep in mind that paying extra
for a good fan may not be as worthwhile as simply using a smaller, cheaper
fan the right way in the first place.
The noise a fan makes is an important consideration. Cheap fans are loud and
clunky. Good ones make a smooth, even sound that may even be pleasing. The
larger the blades (not power, blade size) the slower the blades can move to
produce the same amount of air. If you have room, a large, lower-powered fan
is better than a small brutish one.
Window fans
Window fans come with a sheet metal mounting arrangement that fits right
into an open window and seals around the edges (a perfect cowling). Most of
these are very efficient.
The best way to move air in your house is by using a good window fan
mounted into the most appropriate window, probably upstairs on the downwind side of your house (aim the fan out the window). One small window fan
mounted properly can do the same work as a number of large fans scattered
about the house.
Exhaust fans
Exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens are important, but to ensure
efficiency you need to make sure you use them correctly. If you turn on a
bathroom fan without a bathroom window open, the exhausted air will be
drawn from the house, and outside air will be drawn into the house through
whatever openings are available (leaks in the insulation, open windows, and
so on). Also, you shouldn’t use exhaust fans when the HVAC system is
running, but if you do, open a small window nearby to control air movement.
Chapter 13: Breathing Homes: Ventilation, Fans, and Air Filters
Oscillating fans
Oscillating fans move back and forth and are used for convective cooling
only, a job they don’t do very well. To get the most convective cooling for the
least cost, get a small, stationary fan and aim it directly onto your uncovered
body. Position it close, so you get the most benefit from the air movement.
A big oscillating fan on the other side of the room is inefficient and may even
make things worse by stirring up hot air near the ceiling.
Ceiling fans
Ceiling fans can accomplish two things: convective cooling and reversing or
enhancing the chimney effect (see Figure 13-6). They may or may not bring
outside air into the house, depending on how your vents are set up.
Closed room:
Enhances chimney effect
Venting to achieve
maximum cooling
Figure 13-6:
Ceiling fans
move air
inside of a
Winter: Pulls heat from
ceiling, into room
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Ceiling fans work best when the fan blades are 7 to 9 feet above the floor
and 10 to 12 inches below the ceiling. You may need several in a large room.
Aesthetics are likely to dictate the size you choose, but keep in mind that the
bigger blades are quieter because they move more slowly and achieve the
same airflow. The maxim “You get what you pay for” is especially true for
ceiling fans. Cheap ones make noise, are inefficient, and don’t last long because
they have shoddy bearings. In other words, cheap ceiling fans are very
expensive, particularly if you factor in the time and effort it takes to install one.
Whole-house fans
Whole-house fans are mounted in the ceiling between a high point in your
house and the attic. They draw air through open windows, exhaust it up
through the roof, and cool the attic space at the same time. Whole-house fans
are never run with the HVAC on at the same time, and they’re rarely run in
the wintertime. But in the summer, when the outside air temperature cools
down at night, a whole-house fan works better than any other air movement
scheme. With a whole-house fan, you can open any window in the house and
get air movement in that room. Before you run out and buy one, here are a
few tidbits to consider:
In the winter, you need to cover a whole-house fan with some kind of
insulation or you’ll lose a lot of heat up into the attic. Some house fans
come with metal vents that automatically open or close when the fan is
on or off, but the insulation properties of these are very poor, and they
generally leak a lot as well. You can buy covers over the Internet, or
you can make a very effective cover yourself. (Cover your fan from the
attic side rather than the house side, where aesthetics are important.)
Alternatively, unplug your whole-house fan in the off season and simply
cover the whole unit (on top) with a thick, old blanket from a thrift
In the summer, turn the fan on when the sun goes down and leave it
on all night. When the sun comes up, turn the fan off and close all the
windows and drapes in the house to keep as much heat out as possible.
Rule of thumb: Use a whole-house fan only when the outside air is below
Whole-house fans make a lot of noise because they’re big and powerful;
because they’re mounted in a central location, you can hear the noise
throughout the house. To reduce the noise, mount your whole-house fan
on rubber gaskets noise. They also bring in a lot of dust and humidity.
If your attic is not vented well, a whole house fan will move very little air
for the amount of power it consumes. Go up into your attic and check
to make sure there are plenty of vents. If not, either make some or don’t
use a whole-house fan because it won’t be worth it.
Chapter 13: Breathing Homes: Ventilation, Fans, and Air Filters
I Need to Vent! Moving Air in Your Attic
Attics can get to be over 160°F in the hot summer sun. This heat migrates
down through your ceiling into your house. Even in the middle of the night, a
poorly ventilated attic stays very hot. If you can somehow manage to
continuously purge the air in your attic with outside air, your entire house
will be much cooler. This is especially true of old houses with poor
insulation. The following sections give you ways to move air out of your attic.
(You can also purge the hot air out the attic with a whole-house fan; see the
preceding section for details.)
Adding attic vents for greater comfort
Attics need to breathe properly. They’re usually built with vent systems
either right through the roof or up in the walls below the eaves. When
working properly, these vents let the hot air inside your attic escape. The
most efficient of the attic vents is the rooftop vent (refer to Figure 13-4). It
can be located right at the apex of the roof where the most heat collects due
to the chimney effect. Unfortunately, attic vents can get completely clogged
with dust. Dirty vents cause your attic to get much hotter in the summer. The
solution? Clean them out periodically.
If you only have a few vents and they’re in spots that don’t enhance prevailing
winds or the chimney effect, putting in a few more vents may be the answer.
Most houses, in fact, could use a vent or two near the top of the roof to
enhance the chimney effect. You can get inexpensive ones from most hardware stores, and they’re relatively easy to install.
Consider what the vents will look like from the street. You may want to locate
roof vents so they won’t be visible from the street level.
Using attic vent fans
Attic vent fans move air in your attic space only (as opposed to a whole house
fan, which moves air through both your home’s interior and the attic). You can
install an attic vent fan in a roof vent and move air through that vent. Or you can
install one in a gable vent, which is the most common configuration. Many attic
vent fans are activated via a thermostat switch. When the attic gets hot enough,
the fan comes on. In addition, most attic vent fans are covered up in the winter
to prevent natural ventilation and keep heat trapped in the attic space.
Installing an attic vent fan can be very expensive because you have to hire an
electrician to provide the requisite 120VAC power to the fan’s location and
install a switch where it can be easily accessed. Additionally, accessing the attic
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
space where the fan should be installed may be very difficult. Most electricians
are not monkeys, so you’ll pay if your attic space is a tough nut to crack.
A solar attic vent fan, on the other hand, can be installed anywhere and
requires no county permits or electrician labor. The fan will run whenever
the sun shines on the PV modules; this makes perfect sense because you
want the most air pumping when the sun is the brightest.
To determine where to put an attic vent fan if you decide you need one,
follow these steps:
1. Figure out your attic’s natural ventilation scheme.
Go up into your attic. Make a rough drawing of the attic’s layout,
including all vents and openings designed for ventilation vents.
2. Pick the best location for the fan.
In keeping with the rule to always enhance the natural ventilation
scheme, the most logical spot to put a vent fan is in the roof, with a
cowling around the fan. Also, always try to locate a fan downwind in
order to equalize ventilation throughout the attic.
3. Select the type of fan and size for your application.
Attic vent fans come in two forms, one-piece units and distributed units,
as described in the following sections.
One-piece unit
A one-piece unit (see Figure 13-7) costs around $270. Installation is very
simple; you don’t even need to go into the attic space. Simply cut a round
hole in your roof, pull the shingles back, slide the unit up under the shingles
and drop it into the hole. Seal for weatherproofing and you’re done.
Rain Cover
PV Module
Air Movement
Figure 13-7:
attic vent
fan units are
very easy to
Thermostat Switch
The unit will only come on when the set temperature is reached. However, in the
winter, air will escape through the unit and cool the attic space. It’s best to cover
the unit with a plastic tarp or something similar over the course of the winter.
Chapter 13: Breathing Homes: Ventilation, Fans, and Air Filters
A potential problem: The solar modules are fixed in place on the unit, and it
may be that the best location for your vent fan is not the best location for
collecting sunlight (if your solar modules aren’t getting good sun, the fan
won’t pump good air quantities). In this case, you need to go with a
distributed system.
A distributed unit
Buying separate components for a distributed unit, as shown in Figure 13-8,
costs much less than a one-piece unit — you can buy a separate 12VDC fan
powerful enough to do the job for around $100, and a PV module to run it for
another $130 — but the installation is more expensive and difficult. You will
need a hood of some kind over the fan to prevent rain from getting into the
attic or soaking the fan itself. You could potentially install the fan on a
horizontal surface, behind a grate, and avoid a lot of installation problems,
like cutting through a roof (which always entails the risk of leaks).
Air Blows Out
PV Modules
DC Fan
Switch Inside
Figure 13-8:
A solar attic
vent fan.
You can get better performance by tilting the modules to the west, because
you want the most air movement in the afternoon. Tilt the modules to peak at
around 2 p.m.
Strategizing Your Ventilation Plan
When opening windows, directing and installing fans, and installing or opening and
closing vents, always work with the natural ventilation scheme, never against it.
For instance, if you install a whole-house fan in the attic (refer to Figure 13-4), you
need to direct the air up into the attic, never back into the house.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Making the plan
To determine the best way to direct air through your house, follow these steps:
1. Draw a rough floor plan of your house.
Be sure to include all the windows, doors, sunlights, vents, fans, and so
forth. Draw your attic, with all the vents and openings.
2. Figure out what the natural ventilation scheme is for both inside the
house and the attic.
Use what you know about prevailing winds in your area and the
chimney effect. See the earlier section “Taking Advantage of Natural Air
Movement” for details.
3. On paper, note different combinations of doors, windows, and vents.
Determine how best to complement the natural ventilation to achieve
comfort without the use of active devices.
As you devise your plan, keep these tips in mind (see the earlier
section “Getting Mother Nature on your side” for more advice on how to
enhance airflow):
• Use smaller openings for the inlets and larger openings for the
outlets; this increases the speed of the breezes.
• Make the air move over as long a path as possible. Windows a few
feet apart don’t do much, nor does opening all the windows at the
same time.
• Air from cooler outside areas is best, but may not be practical due
to prevailing winds. Try to get air intake on the north side of your
home. If possible, get air intake from a shaded area — under a tree,
for instance.
• Not all windows should be opened or closed concurrently;
determining the best strategy ultimately boils down to trial and
• Determine a daily routine. What works best in the morning is rarely
what works best in the afternoon or at night.
4. Add fans to your plan to forcibly move air.
Imagine where one single fan would work the best, in conjunction with
windows and doors. How big does that one fan need to be? One small
fan in the right location can easily produce more comfort than a huge
fan in the wrong spot.
5. Put your plan into action.
Chapter 13: Breathing Homes: Ventilation, Fans, and Air Filters
Accommodating seasonal variations
What works in the summer for cooling is almost always diametrically
opposed to what works in the winter for warming. In the summer you want
your attic vented as much as possible. But in the winter, you want your attic
to retain as much heat as possible. Some means of opening or closing vents is
needed to optimize for both seasons.
For instance, you may have a roof vent for purging hot air in the summer. But
in the winter, you’ll want to cover this vent up. Using a heavy plastic garbage
bag with duct tape works well, but the neighbors may start a petition, so use
your common sense.
Look into installing a thermofor. A thermofor is a compact, mechanical, heatactivated device that opens windows, skylights, greenhouse vents, and so on
at a certain temperature, adjustable by the user. No electricity or power is
required, so it can be mounted anywhere. Multiple units can be configured
to open heavy windows and vents. These are very handy for attic vents and
windows where one single opening makes a big difference in the entire house.
And you don’t have to make special arrangements for winter versus summer
because it’s all automatic.
Venting in summer
In the summer, without the AC on, windows and vents can be opened and
closed at will. You want maximum, cool breeze through the house, hopefully
from a window that’s under a big tree so that the air is cooler. You also want to
maximize the breeze in your attic, which is usually accomplished by locating a
vent at the highest point in the attic (to capitalize on the chimney effect).
In the summer, when the AC is on, you must close all windows. The best bet
is to close all window coverings as well, to increase insulation and prevent
solar heat from entering the house. But you also want to consider how heat
will move in your house when the air conditioner is on. If you can arrange a
fan to blow air over your body while the AC is on, you can turn the temperature
of the AC down and get the same comfort effect, so small fans are always a
good idea in an air-conditioned house.
Holding heat in during winter
In the winter, close all windows. Prevailing wind is not a factor inside the
home, although it still is in the attic. You want to direct the heat to where you
live in the house the most, probably the kitchen and family room. You also
want to close off the attic space in order to retain heat up there.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Evaporative coolers
In the western United States where humidity
levels are low, evaporative coolers offer very
economical performance. They use around
one-fourth the energy of a conventional airconditioning unit, and don’t require toxic chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or other refrigerants.
They cool air by drawing warm outside air over
a wet filter pad (they need a source of water).
The water evaporates from the pad to reduce
the air’s temperature. A fan circulates the
moist, cool air into the room and pushes warm
air out through open windows. Portable roomsized units start at $100.
Perhaps the best bet is to buy a PV-powered
unit that operates only when the sun is hottest in
the sky. These don’t cost a dime of utility power
(nor emit an ounce of pollution), and they’re
easy to connect because you don’t need to tap
into your home’s electrical system. They work
hardest when you need them to work hardest
(there’s a certain poetic justice in this).
Improving the Quality of
Your Home’s Air
Getting the air going in the right direction isn’t the only goal. You also want
to make sure that the air your family breathes is clean and healthy. For the
most part, Mother Nature will take care of the details for you. But in some
rare cases, you may need to filter your air. You need to understand exactly
what you’re trying to accomplish in order to filter your air efficiently.
See Chapter 6 on indoor pollution sources. Many of these relate to air quality. If
your family is having health issues, you may find the culprit and a solution there.
Air filters
The notion that the way to clean indoor air is to close windows and use an
air filter is wholly mistaken. Once again, Mother Nature is far wiser than man
and his meager inventions. The best way to condition your home’s air is to
keep a fresh supply of outside air moving through. But if you can’t open your
windows, or if it’s simply too cold or too hot for good ventilation, an air filter
is the only solution.
Active air filters work on much the same principle as water filters: they filter
the air as it comes into your home. They are also very specific to the type of
substances that you need to filter. For instance, if you need to eliminate
pollens, you use a filter specifically designed to filter pollen. If you need to
eliminate cigarette smoke, there are filters made for this specific purpose.
Chapter 13: Breathing Homes: Ventilation, Fans, and Air Filters
Filtering through the options
There are three types of active filters in use:
Mechanical filtration methods use filters and move air by means of
fans. Very simple. Filters can be made of anything from paper to tightlypacked fibers. You can put different types of filters on your HVAC input
Electrostatic precipitation transfer filters (whew) impart an electrical
charge to particles in the air. The air then passes over an electricallycharged plate that works somewhat like a magnet to pull pollution from
the air. Hmm. Sounds good, but unfortunately it doesn’t work as well as
it sounds. At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, the problem here
is discrimination. Some particles simply don’t want to be charged up.
Negative ion generators form a high voltage field across air, thereby
ionizing it (I could write an entire book on this, but let’s just leave it at
that). Charged particles then attract airborne particulates. In theory this
sounds viable because of all the big words, but in practice, these
generators don’t work very well, so don’t waste your money unless you
like science fiction movies an awful lot. Negative Ion Generators Run
Consumer Reports (a very reliable information source in print and online at recommends mechanical filtration with HEPA
(high efficiency particle arresting) filters. No, these don’t pull particles over,
read them their rights, and then haul them off to jail. They punch them in the
gut and leave them to rot.
Pollen, which causes hay fever, is the most common airborne irritant.
Unfortunately, active air filters do very little to prevent pollen in a home (notwithstanding the elaborate claims you hear on infomercials). So don’t waste
your money on filters for pollen. Take hay fever medicine instead.
A word about size
In general, the larger devices are more effective because they move more air
and have larger filter surfaces. If air doesn’t enter the filter, it isn’t filtered.
Puny little things like ionizers and plug-in style electric devices should be left
on the store shelves where they will do just as much good, without
consuming energy in the process. And those little devices sold in grocery
stores called air fresheners? They do just the opposite; they load your air
with synthesized chemicals that make your air smell a certain way.
Getting the most from your air filter
If you find yourself in the market for an air filter, keep these tips in mind:
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Get a filter that’s quiet. No matter how good it may be, if it sounds like a
garbage truck coming up the street, it won’t get turned on.
You absolutely have to change filters, and they generally aren’t cheap.
Old filters may even make your air worse because they can serve as
breeding grounds for all kinds of insidious microbes. Imagine what an air
filter is holding after it has been on for awhile — it catches everything
in a room’s air. Not only does it capture microbes, but it also captures
microbe food.
Air filters are often hard to find. Look for them at a surgical supply
house or medical supply store.
If your doctor prescribes a filter for you, you may be able to get your
insurance company to pony up. Good luck with that.
Natural ways to improve air quality
You can do a number of things to keep the air in your home clean. Most of
them don’t require much, if any, effort at all.
Grow houseplants
Houseplants are by far and away the best way to filter indoor air. Spider
plants, for example, love to gobble up carbon monoxide and dioxide, and
they’re easy to grow. In fact, they’re so prolific you’ll have a thousand little
baby spider plants in no time, whether you like it or not. And elephant ears
and heartleaf philodendrons absorb formaldehyde, benzene, and carbon
monoxide. Not only can some types of plants reduce certain forms of
airborne contaminants, but they can also convert carbon dioxide back into
Be aware, however, that poorly maintained plants can provide excellent
breeding grounds for bugs and nasty little critters so small you can’t even see
them. If you want plants, be prepared to take care of them.
Change vacuum cleaner bags
Change your vacuum bags often; old ones leak, making a real mess of your
air. You may be sucking up crap from the floor, but a leaky or full bag just
redistributes it around your home. The best vacuum is a whole-house unit
where the filter is located in your garage. Keep in mind, though, that these
things are energy pigs, so you need to decide which goal — energy efficiency
or clean air — is more important to you.
Chapter 14
Reusing and Recycling:
Play It Again, Sam
In This Chapter
Using less of everything
Reusing materials and containers
Recycling when all else fails
eusing and recycling may not be strictly cost effective because both
require extra labor and time on your part, and you don’t often get
anything in return aside from the knowledge that you’ve helped the environment. Nevertheless, recycling makes sense for our society as a whole, and
that should be enough motivation.
For the most part, your recycling regimen will be dictated by what’s available
in your community. Some cities have no recycling at all. Some have extensive
programs that include free containers (often these are different colors for
different materials, like cans, bottles, newspapers, and so on.) You’ll need to
do some research to find out what kind of recycling your utility system offers.
But regardless of your community’s standards, you can make an impact on
your own, and that’s what I get into in this chapter.
Keeping a Record of What
You Throw Away
If you haven’t already done it, the best way to begin your endeavor is to keep
a detailed record of exactly what you throw away. You don’t need to do this
for more than a week or two, because it’s not the details that you’re interested in as much as a general idea of how much, and what, you throw away.
Most people are surprised and somewhat dismayed at the results.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Get a few sheets of paper or a binder, and keep records in the following
Aluminum cans
Glass bottles
Plastic bottles
Food and scraps
Grocery bags and other store bags
Plastic bags and wrapping materials
Everything else, including the kitchen sink
You don’t need to weigh these items, and you don’t need to be precise in
terms of quantities. The point is to simply pay critical attention to what
you’re tossing out. You want the big picture, not the details of each paint
After you’re done, consider how much of this stuff you really needed to
throw out. How much could have been reused or recycled? Even more to the
point, why did you buy it in the first place? Do you like garbage?
As you put together your waste-reduction game plan, remember that the
most effective solution is three-fold. You want to tackle things in this order:
Reduce the amount of “future” trash you bring in or buy.
Reuse as much as you possibly can.
Recycle whatever is left over.
The following sections examine each of these strategies in more detail.
Using Less of Everything
When you’re trying to cut down on waste, the first order of business is simply
to use less of everything from the get-go. If you don’t buy those popular kids’
lunches of prepackaged crackers-bologna-cheese-and-snack, for example,
you won’t have all that packaging to throw away. The most important way to
decrease the amount of trash you throw away is not to bring it into your home
in the first place. You can decrease the amount of trash you generate by
Chapter 14: Reusing and Recycling: Play It Again, Sam
Being aware of the packaging of the things you buy. Less is more.
Stopping trash — read, junk mail — from finding you.
Opting for non-paper items when possible
The following sections offer some practical tips on how to use less of everything around your home.
When you recycle and reuse, you’ve already conceded. After all, you have
trash you have to get rid of. When you don’t use at all, you’ve won the game.
Avoiding over-packaged products
We live in a world where packaging is, unfortunately, largely dictated by a need
to prevent shoplifting. How exasperating when it takes five minutes to remove
a simple little gadget from layers and layers of protective wear. You can insist
on buying products that are minimally packaged. If enough people did that,
market forces would work to convince manufacturers to hold things down.
You can also buy in bulk, and bring your own packaging materials with you.
When you go to the grocery store, take along the bags that you took home
last time. When you buy vegetables, get them from roadside stands and use
your own bags, or don’t use any bag at all.
Eliminating junk mail
If you’re like most people, nearly every day you receive junk mail: solicitations and flyers for products and services you have no interest in. You toss
them into the trash immediately after opening them, if you open them at all. If
you want to minimize the junk mail you get, you can stop it by writing a letter
to the following address, stating that you don’t want to receive any junk mail:
Mail Preference Service
Direct Marketing Association
P.O. Box 643
Carmel, NY 10512
Or, for a few bucks, you can take care of the matter online at
This service is similar to the “Don’t call” registry that prevents phone solicitors from bothering you at home, only it affects junk mailers. After you contact the registry, your mailbox will be much lonelier, and you’ll be tossing out
a lot less junk.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
To set the tone for this section and demonstrate
how to think outside of the box, here’s a curveball for you. The Bugzooka is a humane way to
get rid of pesky bugs in your home. It looks and
sounds like a kid’s toy, but it’s very efficient, and
fun to boot. You push a big plunger into a plastic
tube and a spring is activated. You aim the end
of the plastic tube near an insect, and when
you pull the trigger, the offending pest is gently
sucked (well, okay — I wouldn’t want to be
sucked into a plastic chamber like this, but I’m
not a bug) into an enclosed chamber. You can
study his feelers and thousand little eyes once
he’s in there, although you probably won’t want
to. Then you free the lucky little bugger outside
where he can mingle and breed with like kind.
Let this be a metaphor. (Get a Bugzooka from
Here are other ways to reduce the amount of junk mail you receive:
Don’t list your address in the telephone book. A lot of junk mailers get
their data from this source.
Don’t deal with book, DVD, CD, or similar clubs. They send way too
much junk mail. If you find a particular mailer loading you down, write to
them and tell them to stop.
Trimming the paper mountain
Junk mail, discussed in the preceding section, is only a part (albeit a large one)
of the paper problem most people have. Newspapers, bills, grocery bags —
you can reduce the amount of trash by cutting down on these things, too.
Read the newspaper online. All you have to do is look at how much
newspaper you discard each week to see how much paper waste you
can eliminate simply by adapting this habit.
If you need a paper version of your newspaper (I admit it: I don’t want to
read my newspaper online; I want to spread it out over the kitchen table
in the morning and sip a cup of coffee while I wince at all the bad news),
then share it with a like-minded neighbor or two. Whoever gets it last
tosses it into the recycle bin.
Pay your bills online. If your bills still come in the regular mail, pay
online to save envelopes and stamps. Even better, request that your
bills be sent to you online. Many companies offer this service, and it
eliminates the paper waste entirely.
Use only one credit card instead of many. You’ll save paper (think of all
the bills and offers you can avoid), and you’ll also keep yourself out of
Chapter 14: Reusing and Recycling: Play It Again, Sam
Use fabric grocery bags and bring them with you to the store. No more
tossed out grocery bags. Look for them at, or
many grocery stores now sell them at the checkout lanes.
If you do need to use the bags from the grocery store, ask for paper,
because plastic bags take a hundred years to degrade in a landfill. Some
communities are banning plastic bags outright for this reason.
Use a digital camera, store your photos on disk, and view them online.
Save the prints for those that you want to display or put in a scrapbook.
(The photo process uses a lot of chemicals, not to mention paper.)
Don’t use disposable diapers. The number of diapers in landfills is truly
amazing. Buy cloth. You can clean and reuse them yourself (parents
have been doing it for thousands of years), or you can hire a service
that will come to your home to pick up “used” diapers and drop off
fresh ones. Either option is cheaper than buying disposables; both
are also a lot better for the environment. (And, yes, it’s also a lot ickier,
but take my word for it: Things are going to get a lot worse when the
kids hit 13.)
Use cloth towels instead of paper ones and durable plastic containers
instead of plastic wrap, aluminum foil, or other disposable sealants. A
lot of trash comes from meal prep and storage.
Reusing Saves More Energy
than Recycling
Okay, you can’t always avoid using something in the first place, so the next
best thing is to reuse whatever you can. If you can’t reuse it, making it available to others is just as good. The following sections list some helpful guidelines on how to extend the usefulness of items.
Making use of old stuff
Who says something has to be new to be good or useful? A lot of items can be
reused, either for the same purpose for which they were originally intended
or a slightly (or drastically) different purpose. Here are some examples:
Glass jars: The glass jars you get food in can be reused to store other
foods in place of plastic containers. You don’t throw the jars away, and
you don’t have to buy containers at all; it’s a twofer deal. Make sure to
save the lids.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Packing pellets: You know those really irritating little peanut-shaped packing pellets that you get whenever the UPS truck comes by? Store them
somewhere, and then when you send a package, reuse them. They don’t
weigh much, but they last a million years in a landfill. Whoever invented
these things should have to eat some for lunch.
Paint: Nobody ever uses all the paint for a project. When you have four
or five odd gallon containers that are half full, mix them together and
use the result to paint closets, garages, basements, barns, kids’ rooms,
and so forth. Paint is a real landfill nightmare, so why not use it up this
way instead? Think of it as an adventure.
Old towels: Cut old bath towels into smaller towels for use with messes
in the kitchen and elsewhere. These are good for lots of cleaning tasks
and dirty jobs: polishing shoes, drying off pets, washing cars, and so on.
You can do the same with old T-shirts and old cloth diapers, too.
Table scraps: By composting the food you didn’t eat, you eliminate the
need for fertilizers and expensive soil treatments, and you save a lot
of unnecessary landfill. You can buy composters which work very well
and make the job clean. Or you can compost in a hole in your backyard,
which is the best way to go for sheer quality. Dig a hole, and toss your
food scraps into the hole (avoid fats, but most everything else is fine).
Get some slack lime and toss in a cup once in awhile. Stir occasionally.
Within a couple months, you’ll have good, loamy potting soil for your
landscaping needs.
Finally, one incredibly cost-effective way to reuse most anything is to
“borrow” it from your neighbors. This is best done at night, and you should
probably wear a mask or something in case they wake up and catch you in
the act. Run away, but don’t let them see you going back into your own home.
Composting toilets — for the die-hard composter
Composting toilets don’t flush. They use a
process called “rapid aerobic decomposition.” They feature a “holding” tank where the
wastes go to decompose. Around 95 percent of
the “material” that goes into a compost toilet
ends up venting out as water vapor or gases.
That’s good to know, isn’t it? But relax; these
toilets don’t smell, or they shouldn’t if they’re
working right.
After the process is complete, you’re left with
a dry, fluffy, odorless material in the “finishing
drawer.” You can put this stuff on your fruit trees
or ornamental plants (to be perfectly honest, if I
found out somebody was using this on their fruit
trees, I would politely refuse a dinner invitation,
but that’s just me).
If you’re in an apartment, forget it. If you’re
squeamish, forget it. In fact, you must be a dedicated advocate of the green philosophy or you
can just forget it. For some reason, once I have
produced “waste products,” I wish for them
to exit the premises as quickly as possible. I’m
sure I’m not alone in this irrational phobia.
Chapter 14: Reusing and Recycling: Play It Again, Sam
Buying used
You can find a lot of good deals — and a few steals — by shopping for used
goods. Consider these things:
Clothing: Buy your clothes used. You can find a lot of new clothes in
used clothing stores. Many people buy clothes that they fully intend to
wear, but never do. Eventually these clothes find their way to a charity
because the owners simply can’t throw away new clothing. And even
if the clothes have been worn a few times, so what? In the same vein,
donate your obsolete clothes to charities or sell them to resale stores so
that somebody else can benefit.
Building materials: You can reuse a lot of old building materials. Look
at places like demolition sites and old dumps. Ask a remodeler for bathtubs, sinks, and such. Some contractors are delighted to have you come
and haul this stuff away for them. I once found a guy who was about to
pay $500 dollars to have a big, demolished redwood porch hauled away.
I took $200, and for the next couple years, I had more wood to build outbuildings than I knew what to do with. I saved thousands of dollars, not
to mention some nice, healthy trees.
Sports equipment: Play It Again Sports has over 300 stores across the country. They’ve been very successful selling used sports equipment for a lot
less than the new stuff, and most people don’t even notice the difference.
Face it; that new set of golf clubs you paid $1,000 for turned into a used set
after your first round of golf. And it didn’t even improve your game like you
told your wife it would when you were trying to justify the big bucks.
Great places to find used but useable items are garage sales and swap meets
(otherwise known as flea markets, where hundreds of vendors gather to sell
used stuff). Many times you can find new stuff that sat on somebody’s shelf for
years before they decided to sell it for $5. You can find good household appliances, tools that are usually in great shape, clothing, kids’ toys, books, and more.
Avoiding disposable products
Many things are manufactured to be disposable: razors, batteries, cleaning
brushes, dinnerware, and more. A great way to eliminate all the waste produced by using something only once or a few times before tossing it in the
trash is to use things that are meant to be reusable. Many items fall into this
category (regular dinnerware, for example, instead of paper plates, and cloth
dishrags rather than paper towels), but a few things deserve special mention:
Rechargeable batteries: They may cost more initially, but they save you
(and the environment) in the long run. Here are the economics: Alkaline
batteries cost around $1.00 apiece (for good ones) and they produce
around 2,000 mAh (milliamp hours) apiece. Then you toss them out.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Rechargeable batteries cost around $12 apiece, and a good charger
costs around $35, but you can charge a battery 2,000 times. The conclusion: non-rechargeables cost around 22 times as much. And this doesn’t
even take into account the environmental impact of discarded batteries.
The best bet of all is to get a solar recharger, in which case you’re getting all your battery power from the sun.
Reusable coffee filters: You can get reusable coffee filters that are easy
to use. (An added bonus? Coffee grinds are perfect for composting.)
Reusable furnace filters: You simply wash them out when they get filled
with dust. They cost more upfront, but they’re a lot cheaper in the long run.
Christmas trees: Here’s one of my favorites. Don’t kill a tree this holiday
season. If you buy a live tree, plant it when the season ends — in your
yard, or maybe even in a public park so everybody can benefit. Or buy
an artificial tree — no sap, no danger of burning the house down, and no
cost (after the first year). They’re better than you may think.
Donating to others
If you no longer need something and can’t think of a creative way to reuse it,
pass it along to someone who can.
Donate old furniture to charities. Most will come to your home and pick it
up. You can probably save some tax dollars if you write this stuff off, but
get a receipt and don’t push it too far, or you’ll get audited and indicted (in
America, these are often one and the same in the finest tradition of capitalism). Your best bet is to take some digital photos of your donations and
store them on your computer, just in case the IRS questions your magnificent
sense of benevolence.
Lions Club International collects old prescription glasses and distributes
them in third-world countries. Imagine if you didn’t have your glasses at all;
now imagine how somebody in a third-world country will feel if they’re given
a pair. Let there be light!
Fixing rather than throwing away
When something goes on the blink, don’t toss it and buy new. Instead, fix
it whenever possible to cut down on your consumption and reduce waste.
Check out How To Fix Everything For Dummies by Gary and Pam Hedstrom
and Judy Ondrla Tremore (Wiley). If you can’t fix it yourself, take it to a
repair shop or hire a professional. Better yet, keep your equipment in good
shape and you won’t have to fix it as often.
Chapter 14: Reusing and Recycling: Play It Again, Sam
Household surfaces that have seen better days can be given a new life, too.
You can resurface bathtubs, old stoves, and countertops so that they look
brand new.
Recycling the Right Way Saves
Everybody Energy
In 2005, over 80 million tons of paper were recycled, but that’s only a small
fraction of all the paper that gets used. Americans also go through 4 million
single-use plastic bottles every hour, yet only one in four gets recycled. So
what stops folks from recycling? Mainly inconvenience. Thus, the best way to
make recycling a reality is to set up a system that’s convenient and easy
to use.
For everyday recyclables (paper, plastics, glass, and so on), put bins in the
kitchen, if you can. You’re more likely to use a handy receptacle than an outof-the-way one.
Break down boxes and crush aluminum cans so that you don’t build up a pile
that takes a lot of room. You can get a can crusher that makes the job a lot
easier than squashing them under your boots (or on your forehead), although
the latter may be more fun.
Aside from the more obvious candidates for recycling, here are some important items to recycle:
Laser toner cartridges: These are full of resins and poisons, plus they
take a lot of energy to manufacture. Insist on recharged cartridges when
you buy, and hand your old ones in at the same time. Look in the yellow
pages under “Computer Supplies” to find a store that sells recycled cartridges and takes in old ones.
Appliances: These can almost always be recycled. Call your trash collectors and they may pick them up right at your door. Or you can donate
them when the new equipment is delivered (most appliance stores have
active recycling programs — they get some money for the old stuff, but
more power to them).
Old batteries: Even the rechargeable ones can be recycled, which makes
a lot of sense. For information on recycling batteries, including those
from laptops, cellphones, camcorders, and the like, visit Rechargeable
Battery Recycling Corporation at A number of large
national stores serve as battery drop-off sites, including Lowe’s, Sears,
Best Buy, Home Depot, Radio Shack, Office Depot, Target, and Wal-Mart.
Part II: Reducing Inefficiencies throughout Your Home
Books: You can recycle old books, especially the trashy novels without
any redeeming literary features (these are the ones that people want,
which gives you a good indication of where our society is headed). You
can also recycle For Dummies books, but in my view, people should
always buy brand-new ones. In fact, people should buy five or six, just in
case they run out.
For more information on recycling options, check out The Freecycle Network
Part III
Putting Alternative
Energy Sources to
Work for You
In this part . . .
ost people use utility-provided power for their
homes. This includes electrical as well as gas
(such as propane, natural gas, methane, and so on). Yet
there are a lot of alternative energy sources that you can
take advantage of. Do it right and you can save money and
make your home more comfortable at the same time.
In this part, I show you how to choose a wood stove, help
you decide what types of wood to burn, and tell you how
to burn them. I tell you all about solar power, which is a
very good alternative energy source that’s becoming more
and more common as the costs come down. Radiant heating systems, biomass heating systems, and geothermal
also provide excellent opportunities that you may want to
consider. They’re covered here, too.
Chapter 15
Burning Desires:
Wood and Gas Stoves
In This Chapter
Looking at the various types of stoves
Maximizing heat circulation
Maintaining a safe environment when using stoves
our HVAC system is your home’s biggest consumer of energy. Most
HVAC systems don’t operate very efficiently, even if their workload is
minimized. HVACs are big machines, and they take a lot of power. All is not
lost, however. By using a stove, you can minimize the HVAC system’s “on”
time and utilize energy in your home more efficiently. (Because of the energy
drain of most HVAC systems, however, remember that a 50 percent efficiency
improvement is about the best you can expect.)
Some stoves are better than others, of course, in terms of energy efficiency
and/or pollution. In this chapter, I take you through the various stove options
and present their pros and cons.
Most of the heat that you generate with a whole-house furnace is wasted on
empty rooms and spaces. Which means that heating just the part of your
home that you and your family spend the most time in is more efficient than
whole-house heating. If you heat without using electric utility power for blowers and air movement, you’re operating even more efficiently. Stoves provide
for localized heating, and if you design your system the right way and use it
properly, a good stove can heat an entire home as well.
Open Fireplaces: The Granddaddy
of Them All
When many people think of heating with fireplaces, they picture a fire crackling in an open hearth. They should also be picturing a huge waste of energy
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
and money. Open fireplaces are absolutely the worst choice for efficient
heating. Why? Because they draw cold air into the home to feed themselves
and, due to the chimney effect (refer to Chapter 8), most of the hot air they
generate goes right out the chimney. Here’s how, in a grim nutshell, these
fireplaces work (see Figure 15-1):
1. You start the fire. This process usually entails kindling, matches, and
some “blowing” to get things going.
2. You open the damper. If a cooking vent or bathroom vent is on in your
home, or if the HVAC system is on, cold air may rush down the chimney,
creating a backdraft and causing smoke to waft out into your living space.
3. As the chimney effect kicks in, the smoke begins to rise up the chimney,
and the fire grows hotter and brighter. Orange flames, the norm, mean
the wood isn’t burning very efficiently. In fact, flames of any kind are inefficient because the wood is not burning very thoroughly. (Efficiency is in
direct contradiction to romantic ambient, when it comes to a fireplace.)
4. Because fire needs fresh oxygen, the fire in your fireplace is now pulling up to 500 cubic feet per minute through windows and air leaks in
your home. If somebody opens a door to the outside, cold air will rush
in because the pressure in your home is less than it is outside (if not,
the chimney effect wouldn’t be working). This air ends up going up the
chimney once it’s heated in the fire.
Smoke exhaust
Cold air drawn in
Figure 15-1:
An open
Chapter 15: Burning Desires: Wood and Gas Stoves
The end result is that your home is actually getting colder, not hotter. The
only part of the home that’s getting hotter is right in front of the fire, and this
is exactly why people like fires so much. There’s no denying the romantic element. But at what price?
If you just can’t live without the romantic open flames or you’re stuck with
what you’ve got, you can achieve better efficiency with these tips:
When lighting your fireplace, open a door or window nearby so that the
rush of air a fire takes before it settles down to a more static state will
only move through a small portion of your home. Once the fire settles
down, close the door or window.
Burn hot, blazing fires because the combustion is more thorough. Don’t
burn little fires (although at some point your fire will need to burn out,
so you’ll end up with a little fire anyway).
Use andirons to lift the logs above the floor so that during the burn cycle
the hot cinders fall down onto a bed of coals and burn better and more
Glass doors limit the amount of air being pulled through the home,
but they also limit the amount of heat radiating back into the room, so
they’re pretty much a wash in terms of efficiency.
Close the damper as much as possible. When you’re not burning a fire,
close it completely. This is a hassle, granted, but it makes a big difference.
When the damper is open, air will be drawn down the chimney whenever
a vent fan or the HVAC system in your home is turned on. Not only does
this result in cold air, but it could also mean a big stink and unhealthy air.
Surveying General Categories of Stoves
In this section, I move from open fireplaces to what is referred to as a
“stove.” These differ by being enclosed in a specially designed burn chamber
so that you can achieve much more efficient combustion (by controlling the
burn temperature) plus much more efficient dispersion of the heat into your
living space. Stoves are made to burn a wide variety of fuels, and the type
that homeowners choose depends mostly on availability and cost.
Free-standing stoves simply sit in a corner of your room, without walls or
bricks surrounding them. An insert fits into an existing open fireplace slot (a
very good way to go from poor efficiency to good efficiency while still using
the expensive decorative elements of your existing fireplace).
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Before deciding what type of stove you want to install in your home, check
with your county building department for requirements, specifications, and so
forth. These may make a big difference in your decision on which type is best
for your particular application. Also, check with your insurance company;
they probably have some dictates you need to follow as well.
Comparing open- and closed-vent systems
There are two important types of venting systems: closed vents and open
With an open-vent system, shown in Figure 15-2, air is drawn from the room
and used for combustion, and then the exhaust is vented up the chimney.
An open-vent system (see Figure 15-3) is always less efficient than a closedvent system, because the air used in combustion is inevitably drawn from the
great outdoors through cracks and leaks in your home’s envelope (thereby
making the home colder). In a closed-vent system, air is drawn from the outside and vented back to the outside.
Figure 15-2:
An openvent stove
Air draw from room
Chapter 15: Burning Desires: Wood and Gas Stoves
Air draw from outside
Figure 15-3:
A closedvent stove
Closed-vent systems are safer than open ones. Naturally, you want to seal
your home to a high degree in order to make your heating efforts more efficient (see Chapter 7). However, in doing so, you may cause a carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide hazard with an open-vent system. Or you may cause
oxygen depletion, because the fire is competing with the human inhabitants
for oxygen, and the fire is generally greedier. This problem is particularly
dangerous because people don’t know when they’re being starved of oxygen;
they just pass out.
If you have a stove that draws room air for combustion, crack open a window
nearby. Instead of having cold air drawn through your entire home, the combustion air will come from that open window. Radiant heat will still work its
way throughout the room in which the stove is located.
Looking at free-standing
stoves and inserts
Aside from open- and closed-vent systems (see the preceding section), stove
types sport another distinction: They can be either free-standing or inserts.
A free-standing stove sits in the room proper, whereas an insert is made to fit
into an existing fireplace slot.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Free-standing stoves are inherently more efficient than inserts because, all else
being equal, more of the generated heat makes it into the living space. Depending
on the space they are mounted into, some inserts are completely surrounded
by brick and mortar and do a very poor job of getting heat into the living space.
Most of it goes up the chimney. Still, an insert is much more efficient than an
open fireplace, and if you have an open fireplace, you’re not likely to be installing
a free-standing stove because then you’ll have a big, unused fireplace.
If you’re starting from scratch, installing a free-standing stove with a vent system
is a lot cheaper than building a fireplace, not to mention the efficiency advantages. On the other hand, free-standing stoves take up more of your home’s
square footage, are an eyesore, and are more likely to cause burns. In the
summer, they’re just plain superfluous sitting there looking black and bulky.
Using a Wood-Burning Stove
Wood-burning stoves are the most common stove simply because wood is
available virtually everywhere. Because the supply of wood is self-replenishing,
it has the further advantage of being renewable. Wood-burning certainly has
the most tradition on its side, so more equipment is available, as well as a
wider range of raw wood resources to choose from.
Burning wood to heat your home has several pros:
The operating costs are fairly low if you have a ready source of firewood. In fact, the out-of-pocket expense can be zero, aside from the
expense of whatever you use to chop down trees. With little more than
an axe and some elbow grease, you’re in business.
A wide variety of heating appliances are available at literally any price
you can pay. You can find old stoves for next to nothing, and they work
well enough.
No electricity is required. Fans are an exception, but they’re always
The fuel supply is sustainable. And if burned properly, the impact on the
environment is very low.
Trees convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, so a live tree actually mitigates
global warming. But a dead tree left to rot on the forest floor releases as much
carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a wood stove that burns the same
amount of wood. (The difference is that wood left to rot on the forest floor
does so slowly, releasing its carbon over a period of years, and from day to
day the outgas level doesn’t change much.) The upshot is that if you burn
wood from a downed tree, you’re not contributing to global warming at all.
Still, burning wood does cause a lot of smoke, and some communities ban
wood-burning altogether, particularly when pollution levels are high.
Chapter 15: Burning Desires: Wood and Gas Stoves
If pollution is your concern, insist on burning either dead trees or doomed
trees (those that have been removed for building developments or other similar reasons). Don’t use trees that have simply been cut down for burning. If
you do, insist that a new tree be planted in its place.
Of course, using a wood stove to heat your home has cons as well as pros.
On the downside are the following considerations:
Wood-burning stoves can be very dangerous if they’re not installed
You need a lot of dedicated storage space to store the wood you intend
to burn.
Heavy physical labor is required in chopping, transporting, and stacking
wood. And whenever you need wood indoors, you have to tote it in and
place it very carefully into the burn chamber.
Wood stoves create a dirty home environment, with dust and stink.
There are a lot of ashes to clean up, and this is a dirty, stinky process
that inevitably makes a mess of your home.
Burning wood properly (to get the most efficiency) requires you to pay
attention to the process and continually manipulate the wood stack as
well as the damping levels.
Wood stoves require chimney maintenance. Burning wood creates
creosote gunk on your vent or chimney liner, and this can catch on fire
if you’re not diligent. Softwoods are much worse in this regard than
The potential for pollution is high if you don’t use your wood stove
properly (you don’t maintain the proper burning temperatures, for
example, or you don’t keep the stove cleaned out).
Use of a wood stove may increase your fire insurance premiums. You
must tell your homeowner’s insurance agent that you have a stove (they’ll
probably ask). In many cases, they’ll come to your home to inspect the
installation. If things aren’t as they should be, your insurance company
may refuse you or give you a set amount of time to get it up to code.
Wood-burning stoves are banned in some areas. In other areas, burning is
banned on particularly dirty air days. In these areas, utilities generally offer
rebates and subsidies to convert to cleaner systems. Check with your local air
resources board.
Types of wood stoves
In producing new clean-burning stoves, manufacturers have taken one of two
routes: one that uses a catalytic combustor and one that causes more complete combustion.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Older wood stoves had efficiency ratings of 40 to 50 percent, but today’s certified stoves boast efficiencies of 70 to 80 percent. As the efficiency goes up,
the pollution a stove creates generally goes down (for one thing, when efficiency is high you burn less fuel; for another, when you burn fuel much more
completely, there are fewer pollution byproducts). If you’ve got a leaky, old
stove, it’s always a good investment to upgrade.
Check the efficiency ratings of the stoves you’re considering, because they
may vary quite a bit.
Some wood stoves incorporate a catalytic converter (see Figure 15-4), which
burns off smoke and fumes that would otherwise exhaust or drift up a chimney.
The catalytic converter consists of a honeycomb-shaped substrate coated with
a catalyst, usually a precious metal such as platinum or palladium. When the
smoke passes through the honeycomb, the catalyst lowers the smoke’s burning
temperature, causing it to ignite. The result is a more efficient burn, less smoke
up the chimney, and less pollution. Most stove manufacturers now offer catalytic
models in which the combustor is an integral part of the stove. It is also possible
to retrofit some older stoves with converters.
Catalyst combustion.
Bypass baffle
Figure 15-4:
Chapter 15: Burning Desires: Wood and Gas Stoves
Starting a fire in a catalytic stove is more involved than doing so with a conventional stove. You have to open a bypass damper when you either start or
reload a fire. The damper directs the combustion gases directly up the flue
(bypassing the catalytic element) until the temperature is high enough (350°F
to 600°F) to get the combustor kicked into gear. This process is referred to
as lighting off. A catalyst temperature monitor is normally included to let you
know when to move the damper.
Catalytic stoves require a lot more maintenance than their conventional
counterparts. The catalytic convertor needs to be changed periodically.
Otherwise, you could actually end up with a very inefficient fire. These types
of stoves are more expensive, and probably not worth the cost unless you
put a very high premium on pollution.
Burning the right wood
The efficient use of a woodstove is almost always predicated on your source
of wood. If you have your own trees that you can cut down and process,
great. Or maybe you live in a wooded area and a ready supply of cut firewood
is available from local vendors. Very rarely is transporting wood a long distance cost effective, which means you’re limited to the types of wood that
are indigenous to the area you live in.
Some types of woods are better than others for burning. Two factors determine the suitability of a given wood: whether it burns well and generates
heat, and what kind of mess it makes in the process.
Hardwoods are almost always better than softwoods for burning because you
get a lot more Btu per unit weight and volume, which means a lot less work
on your part per Btu generated. Hardwoods also deposit less creosote in your
chimney and vent system, making them safer and cleaner for the environment.
Some people are suckers for the fact that softwoods are so much cheaper than
hardwoods, but in fact, hardwoods are much more cost effective. Check out for a calculator on different types of firewood and the Btu you can expect from them.
Any wood you burn must be properly seasoned, or dried out (wet wood
smokes a lot, won’t burn at a hot temperature, hisses and pops and may be
dangerous, and puts a lot of crud into your vent system). To season wood,
split logs as soon as possible into the size that will fit into your stove and
stack them in a dry spot for 6 to 18 months. Pile the wood so that air can circulate. Hardwoods take longer to dry than softwoods do. Humidity and temperature also affect drying times.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Although burning hardwood is better than burning softwood, the latter isn’t
out of the question. Some things, on the other hand, should never be burned
in a wood stove:
Green wood: Green wood is freshly cut from a live tree. It will smoke
like crazy and stink and probably won’t burn very thoroughly. Plus, a
lot of water will steam out of it, resulting in sparks when you open the
door to the burn chamber. How can you tell whether wood is green? See
whether it’s brittle — if so, it’s not green.
Although you shouldn’t burn green wood, you can buy green wood in
late spring, when prices are very low because demand is down. It will
dry over the hot summer months and you’ll save money. In fact, if you
can, buy a whole gob of green firewood at the same time and you’ll get a
great discount.
Garbage, plastic, foil, or any kind of chemically treated or painted
wood: They all produce noxious fumes, which are dangerous and polluting. If you have a catalytic stove, the residue from burning plastics may
clog the catalytic combustor.
Trash (paper or plastic): Paper wastes tend to make a very hot fire for a
short period of time, encouraging the ignition of any creosote deposits
in your stovepipe. And synthetic wastes, such as plastic wrappers, produce acids when they burn. Acids make for a very short stove lifetime.
Manufactured logs (like Duraflame): This is extremely dangerous.
They burn too hot and can cause a fire when you open the door. I am an
expert on this warning; one of the most startling things I’ve ever experienced in my life occurred when I opened a woodstove door while a
manufactured log was burning, and the flames literally shot out into the
room. I feel lucky to have only paid for this stupidity with my eyebrows.
Burning the wood right
The actual burning process inside your stove represents the biggest factor in
safety, efficiency, and convenience.
In the firebox, avoid placing pieces of wood in parallel directions,
where they may stack too closely. Always try to get some air movement
between pieces of wood.
Adjust the burning embers periodically with a poker to keep your fire
burning properly. Unfortunately, there are no rigid guidelines; learning
to use your stove optimally takes practice. Just play around with it.
If you’re looking for the most heat fast, vary the position of the wood to
maximize the exposed surface area of each piece of wood. If you’re after
a long-term burn (overnight, unattended) minimize the space between
the pieces.
Chapter 15: Burning Desires: Wood and Gas Stoves
Only use wood properly sized for your stove’s fire chamber. Smaller
pieces burn faster and hotter.
Always keep the door closed when attending to the fire — when the
door is open, too much oxygen enters the burn chamber.
A good technique for producing a relatively clean, long burn (overnight) is
to load your stove with a mixture of partially seasoned and well-dried wood
about half an hour before bedtime. Leave the damper open to give the fire a
good start; then damp the strongly burning blaze down for the night.
Maintaining your wood stove
Maintaining a wood stove means having the chimney swept. This entails
going up onto the roof (or wherever the vent terminates at the top) and forcing special brushes down that clean away the built up creosote and tar.
Buying wood
If you don’t have your own supply of wood, either
from your own trees or a friend or relative who’s
happy to let you have firewood in exchange for
clearing the dead trees from their land, you’ll
need to buy your firewood. Fortunately, you can
find it just about anywhere. Unfortunately, you
have to watch out for a few things:
Firewood is usually sold in cords. A cord is a
nice, even stack 8’ high x 4’ wide x 4’ deep,
or a volume of 128 cubic feet. Only thing is,
it’s never stacked nice and neat so you can
rarely tell just how much firewood you’re
actually getting. You often see filled pickup
trucks sitting in grocery store parking lots
with a sign advertising the cord price. You
agree to buy, they follow you home and dump
the wood in your yard, and you stack it and
find it’s not really a cord at all. So now what?
You want to pick a fight with Paul Bunyan?
The best bet is to buy from a reputable supplier; get a reference, if possible.
The length of the wood is important. Many
people make the mistake of measuring the
opening of their wood stove’s door and then
ordering the wood cut slightly smaller. This
doesn’t work because the workers cutting the
wood don’t measure it (they aren’t making a
whole lot of money off this deal, and it’s hard
work, so cut them some slack). You’ll get
pieces that are too big, and then what are you
going to do with those? So allow a margin of
about 20 percent when you order the wood.
Don’t buy firewood that’s been sitting on the
bottom of a huge pile for a couple months
or more (especially in bad weather). It’ll be
covered in mud because the rain washes all
the dirt and dust off the wood piled above it.
Your burn chamber will then fill with dirt and
mud, in addition to the usual ashes. This is
heavy, stinky, and inefficient.
Here’s a little tip: A good way to save money in
what you spend on firewood is to split the logs
yourself. Then you can buy about any size logs
you want (and save a lot of money to boot). You
can get special splitting tools (most tool rental
places have them available), or you can work
your butt off with an old-fashioned axe.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
A stove that is not damped excessively (and that has a well-designed chimney of
factory-built, insulated pipe) may not need a sweep for an entire season. On the
other hand, even a comparatively well-installed system could need cleaning as
often as every two weeks. Your stove’s instruction manual will provide explicit
instructions on how to tell when cleaning is needed and the best way to go about
it. After installing a new stove, be sure to check the stovepipe for creosoting
every two weeks until you become accustomed to the heater’s behavior. (Any
deposits over 1/4-inch thick indicate that the pipe needs attention.)
You can monitor the accumulation of creosote and other deposits in your
stovepipe by tapping on the sections with a metal object. Once you’re used to
the ringing sound that a clean pipe makes, the dull thud of a dirty one will be
It’s a good idea to have your stove system inspected by a pro at the beginning of each burn season.
To monitor the operation of your wood stove, check the exhaust coming out
of the chimney. You should see the transparent white steam of evaporating
water only — darker, opaque smoke will be just slightly visible. The darker the
color of the exhaust, the less efficiently your stove is operating.
Heating with a Gas Stove
Many homes have propane or natural gas supplies for cooking and heating both ambient air and domestic water. This is a safe and consistent form
of energy, and it’s cheaper than electricity, though not nearly as cheap as
wood-burning. You can use propane or natural gas to power a stove, and the
results can be very rewarding.
For the most part, the safety, installation, and chimney/vent maintenance
details are the same as with wood stoves. You don’t need to worry about
creosote buildup nearly as much, because gas burns more efficiently and
consistently than wood. When your gas stove is installed, it will be fine-tuned
to burn according to the manufacturer’s specifications.
Here are the pros of using natural gas stoves. Many people are switching
from wood to gas for all these reasons:
All you do is flip a switch and you’re generating heat. No logs to tote, no
fires to start.
You can maintain temperature with a thermostat-controlled switching
system, so you can achieve much better consistency than you can with
a wood stove. In addition, gas stoves usually come with very effective
blower systems for distributing hot air.
Chapter 15: Burning Desires: Wood and Gas Stoves
The gas company (or utility) delivers the gas to your home. In most
cases, you contract with a supply company and they come to your home
periodically and fill up your tank. You don’t worry about a thing (except
paying the bill).
Cleanup is much easier: You don’t have any ashes to sweep up and
hardly any creosote builds up in the vent system.
The pollution numbers are very good compared to wood stoves. In
regions where wood stoves are banned, gas stoves are almost always
You can get either open flame style units, which look quite a bit like a real
fire with the new aesthetic improvements in logs and ashes, or you can get
completely enclosed units that offer better efficiencies and more utility.
Most units can be used without electricity, which means that, if you lose
power, your stove is still good to go.
Of course, as with anything, using a gas stove also has some cons:
Some units need electricity. Blowers always do.
Gas stoves aren’t cheap compared to other alternatives in terms of both
fuel expense and installation costs (in fact, they’re usually more costly
to install), and gas may go way up in price, making this option even
more expensive.
The flame, although real, doesn’t seem as real as that of a wood stove.
If you feel a fire just isn’t a fire without the smell, sound, and changing
flames, then you’ll probably be disappointed with a gas.
Enclosed units prevent roasting marshmallows.
Looking at Electric Fireplaces
Electric fireplaces and inserts are mostly for show, and they can do a pretty
good job of that, if you can buy into the concept and suspend your disbelief.
They’re inexpensive (no plumbing, no vents, no hassles — just plug and play),
and you can get a complete unit that you simply set against a wall, plug in, and
voilà. Who’s to begrudge a little romance to those in apartments and condos?
Most electric fireplaces come with heaters and a fan so that you can also get
them to heat a room for about the same price as an electric space heater. But
keep in mind that you’re using a lot of electricity to do little more than put on
a show, and if your utility is providing you with coal-fired electricity, you’re
also creating pollution.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Although many people truly like their units, you may get tired of yours long
before its lifetime has expired. So before you talk yourself into an electric fireplace as a substitute for the real thing, visit somebody who already has one
and check out the way it looks and works.
Electric fireplaces offer the following plusses:
They have zero emissions (at least locally; the power company is still
spewing forth to provide your electricity).
They can be installed anywhere.
New technologies make the fire look somewhat real.
They’re movable. You can move one from room to room, and take it with
you if you move to a new home. You can even sell it in a garage sale.
On the negative side, you have the following:
Fake-looking fires.
No electricity, no bananas; when utility power is out, you’re shivering.
Fuel costs are very high — $45 per M/Btu.
Deciding Which Stove Is Right for You
As the earlier sections make clear, when you make the decision to supplement
or replace your home’s heating with a stove, you have these choices: a wood
stove, a gas stove, or an electric fireplace. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Before you make your decision, however, you should consider what
factors determine the efficiency of any stove: things like how the stove generates heat, the amount of space it’s capable of heating (and how you can extend
that if necessary), and how you can use your existing chimney or vent system,
if you have one, with your new stove or, if you don’t have an existing chimney,
what it would take to build the necessary venting apparatus.
How does the stove burn and heat?
In gas stoves, combustion can be tuned to a high degree, and the stove will
always work the same way because it’s a closed process that doesn’t require
intervention (plus the fuel is very consistent). On the opposite extreme are
wood stoves, which vary in performance for a number of reasons:
The wood composition and quality varies quite a bit. Even if you buy the
same species, such as oak, and the wood is cut from trees in the same
forest, the variations are tremendous.
Chapter 15: Burning Desires: Wood and Gas Stoves
Wood is often piled high, and the stuff on the bottom gets muddy. This
affects combustion quite a bit, not to mention the mess it makes.
Stoves vary. The same wood burned in different stoves will combust
Over the course of the burn cycle, raw wood turns to ashes. Ashes build
up and change the dynamics of the combustion process.
Weather can affect how a stove burns by changing the way the chimney
draws. If your home is oriented just right, you may experience severe
back drafts on windy days.
Once the heat is generated in the stove, the next issue to contend with is how
the stove gets the heat into the room. With some stoves, most of the heat is
lost up the chimney. Other types of stoves are very efficient at channeling the
heat into a room.
After the heat is in the room, how that heat is utilized makes a big difference
in your comfort (Chapter 8 has more details on comfort). Heat rises, so in
a large, open room the ceiling will be much warmer than the floor. This is a
waste, unless the occupants are living near the ceiling (for instance, if you are
living in an inverted gravity zone where things fall up instead of down).
How much area does the stove cover?
In deciding which type of stove is best for your needs, your first order of business is to decide how much of your home you want to heat with a stove. If all
you want to heat is a single room, your options are simple because you don’t
need to move air in a complicated fashion and you can buy a small stove. If
you’re planning on heating a number of rooms or an entire home, you need to
figure out how you’re going to move the warm air from the stove to the adjoining rooms. When it comes to moving air, you have several options:
Ceiling fans: These are a cost-effective way to reduce fuel bills and even
out temperature variations. If your home has high ceilings or an open
loft, most of the heat will rise to those areas and eventually migrate out
through the roof. A well-placed fan will move this hot air back down into
your living spaces (Chapter 13 offers more suggestions on how to move
air through your home).
Ecofans: Ecofans offer a very efficient and effective way to move the hot
air your stove is generating. An Ecofan (check out
or enter “Ecofan” in your search engine) exploits the simple laws of thermodynamics to move a fan blade without the use of electricity or external power. You set the fan on top of your stove and after it gets hot, the
blade spins and moves up to 150 cubic feet minute (cfm) of air. Ecofans
cost over $100, but over the long term they’re a lot cheaper than using
ceiling fans, and they can make your wood stove up to 30 percent more
effective (I said effective, not efficient) by distributing the hot air.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Your HVAC fan system: Most HVAC furnaces (the kind that use forced
air) have a switch setting that allows the blower to run without having
the heat on (Fan Only is a common label). If you run your HVAC system
in this mode, it will distribute the heat generated by your stove throughout your entire home.
Smoking out vents and chimneys
You may or may not have a fireplace in your home. If you don’t, you’ll have
to install a chimney or vent system from scratch. If you have an existing fireplace, it may or may not be suitable for the stove option you want to install.
The best bet, of course, is to alter the existing infrastructure as little as possible, but this may not be practical or safe.
A properly designed chimney (or vent system) is a prerequisite for any safe
stove installation. For example, the flue must be made of a suitable heatresistant material and it must be separated from combustibles by a specified
distance (see county codes and installation specifications for a particular
Rules regarding masonry chimneys used to vent a stove state that they must
be lined — usually with clay flue tiles, which should be mortared at the joints
with refractory cement and separated from the stone, brick, or block work.
The interior surface shouldn’t show signs of chipping. Likewise, the exterior
masonry and joints should be sound. Unfortunately, the likelihood of an existing chimney meeting all these criteria is not very good (if you’re in doubt,
have an expert come in and take a look). If the chimney is deficient because
it’s too large, lacks a liner, or is in poor repair, you have these options:
Bring it up to snuff (relining and so forth). If you choose this option,
letting a pro do the job is highly recommended.
Abandon it. For about the same cost as relining, you can install a factory-built, insulated metal chimney. This is a good idea because technology has improved quite a bit, and you’ll be getting better performance
along with better safety.
Install a new stovepipe in an existing chimney. This is probably the
best option of all because not only does it eliminate the problem of the
deficient chimney, but it also gives you the option to look into a closed
system (a stove, in other words).
When using a fireplace chimney for stove exhaust, the entry to the
fireplace must be sealed, or, if the connector joins the flue above the
fireplace, the chimney must be plugged below the point of junction. This
precaution not only prevents burning embers from cascading down into
your fireplace (and onto your floor), but also maintains the proper draft.
Chapter 15: Burning Desires: Wood and Gas Stoves
Most county regulations prohibit the passage of stovepipe through any floor,
ceiling, or fire wall without special feed-throughs. You may, however, pass
your pipe through either a wall or a floor/ceiling if you use a factory-built
insulated chimney. If you don’t have a suitable masonry chimney, this expensive venting option is your only choice.
Abiding by Safety Guidelines
Stoves obviously pose a lot of dangers. With any type of stove, you can start
a fire, create smoke hazards, or get burned badly. To avoid potential danger
and the legal liabilities that may come with it:
Make sure you know and follow the safety and operation guidelines outlined in your stove’s instruction manual. If you don’t have an instruction
manual, get one online or contact the stove’s manufacturer.
Contact your county building department to find out what the applicable
codes and guidelines are in your area. If you don’t follow code and
you cause a fire or other danger, you could have an insurance claim
denied or even find yourself in legal limbo if there’s collateral damage.
Call your homeowners insurance company and ask them what type of
requirements they have for stoves. Many insurance companies will insist
on coming out to your home so they can inspect your stove firsthand.
(So many stoves have been installed inadequately that they can’t just
take your word for it.) Sometimes the insurance company’s standards
are stricter than the county’s, and you may find your insurance canceled
or your rates increased if you don’t mind your p’s and q’s.
If you’re buying a home with a stove, have it inspected by a pro before
you take possession of the home (or before you make an offer). If it’s
substandard, deal with this problem upfront. Ask the sellers to make
things right. They’ll have a hard time refusing because they’ll take on a
lot of liability if they do. Have the chimney inspected as well. It may be
coated with creosote, or it may not be up to standards.
Don’t install any type of stove yourself. A whole host of details go into
the installation of a stove, and failure to pay attention to any one of
them can lead to a safety problem. For that reason, I don’t include installation instructions for stoves in this chapter, and I strongly recommend
that you hire a pro. Although it’s true that many novices install stoves
themselves, the reality is that if you do have a problem, the consequences could be huge. You may pay big time, or even worse, somebody
could die. Nothing is worth that risk. I’m one of the most qualified do-ityourselfers on the planet, and when I needed a gas stove installed, I had
nothing to do with it aside from watching and learning.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Keep in mind that the fuel you burn in your stove is just as combustible
while it’s in storage as it is when it’s in the combustion chamber. If you
have a gas tank, it could literally blow up if abused. If you have a wood
pile, it’ll burn very hot and fast if you’re not careful. Always consider
fuel storage while you’re designing your stove system.
Always make sure to have adequate smoke alarm coverage in your
home, and make sure to keep the batteries fresh in every smoke alarm.
You should also consider installing a carbon monoxide alarm. It’s always
better to be safe than sorry.
Chapter 16
Shining a Light on Solar Power
for Your Home
In This Chapter
Using the sun to power your water heater
Getting the lowdown on PV systems
Powering pumps and motors with solar energy
rom a pollution standpoint, solar power is the most energy-efficient investment you can make, hands down. Sunshine will always be free. Solar power
equipment, however, can be expensive and isn’t suitable for climates that don’t
get enough sunshine. Government subsidies play a big role in solar power, but
they vary with the political winds. The most definitive factor in determining the
viability of solar power is local utility rates; if yours are high, solar energy may
be just what you’re looking for because the financial efficiency is good. When
all the factors are working for you, an investment in solar energy can be much
better than an investment in the stock market.
In this chapter, I cover the most popular solar investments, and I present some
guidelines on when and where solar power is a worthwhile investment. For
more details, consult my book Solar Power Your Home For Dummies (Wiley).
Supplementing Your Domestic Hot Water
Heater with Solar Energy
Around 20 percent of the typical home’s energy budget goes toward heating
water. With a solar water heater, you can offset around 70 percent of this
cost. You can’t offset the entire water heating function, because solar energy
is unavailable at night and in bad weather conditions. Thus, a backup source
for heat is a necessity.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Over 20 different types of water heating systems are available, but some are just
too expensive (high-tech evacuated tube systems work well but cost too much,
although that’s bound to change because they are the best technology), and
others are too cheap — they don’t offer enough performance to overcome the
sacrifices. The following sections outline the most common types of systems.
Before you invest in any system, make sure you understand the factors that dictate which type of system is best for use in your home. These factors include
Climate, in particular, freezing weather and exceptionally hot
weather. If you live in a cold climate, you know about water freezing and
bursting pipes. But did you know that too much heat can be every bit as
damaging as too much cold? Boiled pipes burst just like frozen ones. If
you live in a cold climate, make sure the system you get is one that minimizes the potential for freezing pipes. If you live in a very sunny climate,
make sure the system you pick can deal with the heat.
Desired water temperature. How hot is the water you are looking for and
what time of day do you need it? Some systems take longer to heat water
than others (any system without a secondary reservoir takes longer to
heat). Those that include backup heating (electrical or gas powered) will
always have hot water on hand, but your utility costs may be more.
Quantity of hot water produced. How much hot water does your family
use, and when do they use it? To calculate how much hot water you
need, measure flow and multiply it by the amount of time you and your
family spend in the shower. If you also use a lot of hot water for laundry
and dishes, add about ten gallons per load. (See Chapter 2 for details on
measuring your water flow.)
An ICS batch system
An Integral Collector System (ICS), as shown in Figure 16-1, is the simplest and
cheapest, although its suitability is limited to mild climates (with very little
freezing and not too much hot weather). This type of system is passive — it
doesn’t involve any pumps — and is normally plumbed directly between the
cold water supply and the water heater, making the plumbing job easy and
straightforward. An ICS batch system provides a simple and effective way to
preheat water for your existing domestic water heater. Because you’re putting
hot water into your standard domestic hot water heater, you hot water heater
doesn’t have to work so hard. (If the water in the ICS system isn’t heated, the
domestic heater does what it would normally do.)
A 3' x 8' ICS unit holds 30 gallons of water. Collected Btu (the amount of heat
that the collector actually captures and converts to heat in the water) are
22,000 for an average day in North America. (The average household uses
around 10,000 to 15,000 Btu per person per day.) Larger units are also available: A 4' x 8' unit holds 50 gallons of water and can collect 30,000 Btu per day.
Chapter 16: Shining a Light on Solar Power for Your Home
Supply Pipes
to Roof
Water Supply
Figure 16-1:
A batch
heater Hot Water
supplementary system.
Drain Valve
Water Heater
For the smaller unit, expect to pay around $1,700 for the collector, plus the cost
of pipes, hardware, and labor for installation — around $2,400 is typical. The
larger unit costs around $1,900, plus installation. Complete kits are available that
include all the valves plus the collector and its associated mounting hardware.
If you’re willing to change your habits, the use of an ICS batch system can
reduce the energy workload on your conventional water heater to around
ten percent. For instance, if each member of the family showers at a different time of day, the batch collector can heat up again between showers. If
you take your shower in the afternoon, when the midday sun has heated the
water in the tank, your residential heater will have very little work to do. You
can run your dishwasher in the late afternoon instead of in the morning, too.
But before you run out and buy an ICS batch system, consider these things:
Freezing is a big problem because the collector holds the water being
heated (although big batch collectors can withstand longer freezing
conditions than less bulky systems). The system has manual drain
valves that you can use to drain the water when freezing is a possibility
for more than a day or so. You use the bypass valve to bypass the solar
collector and revert to normal operation.
Too much heat can be a problem. The collector can burst if the water
gets too hot. It’s best to drain the system when conditions are extremely
hot and sunny.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Drain valves need to be located outside (where there is safe drainage),
and they may look exactly like hose faucets. You may want to consider
some kind of locking valve that requires a key to open. Whatever you do,
make sure children can’t open them and get scalded.
The tempering valve, which prevents scalding water from entering your
household plumbing system, is critical. It mixes cold water with the
heated water from the collector when the collector water exceeds a certain temperature.
You can always find out how hot the water in the collector is by sampling from the downstream drain valve. Another good idea is to install
an in-line thermometer.
A full collector can weigh upwards of 500 pounds. Even empty, it weighs
a lot. So give some serious consideration to how you will lift the collector up onto your roof or wherever you plan on mounting it. (Roofing
companies have cranes for lifting heavy weights; you may need to
hire one for an hour.) And make sure your roof can support the weight
when the collector is full. You don’t want to find out the hard way that
it can’t.
A drainback system
A drainback system is an indirect, active, closed-loop system. It’s indirect
in that the liquid being heated in the collector is not the water that you
actually use in your home; the heat is transferred via a heat exchanger that
moves the heat from the collector liquid to the household water supply. It’s
active in that it includes an in-line pump. Figure 16-2 illustrates this type of
Although much more expensive to install than ICS systems, drainback systems are an excellent choice for most climates, except those that receive a
lot of snow and get very cold. They’re the best choice in hot climates. The
advantage is that the danger of freezing is minimal.
Drainback systems are designed so that the fluid drains by force of gravity.
Sometimes pipes sag and the low points retain some water, which can burst
the pipes during freezing weather. To avoid such a scenario, make sure to
adhere to the installation guidelines.
In a drainback system, a controller reads the two temperature sensors and
then determines when fluid should be pumped through the collector. When
the pump is turned off, the fluid in the collector and feeder pipes drains back
into the drainback tank (such a clever name).
Chapter 16: Shining a Light on Solar Power for Your Home
Solar Thermal
Hot Water Load
Figure 16-2:
A drainbackstyle solar
water heater
Cold Water
Water Heater
Solar Storage Tank
Most manufacturers offer complete kits that tell you everything you need to
know about these systems and that work very well — if you stick with the
plan. Following are a few facts worth knowing about drainback systems:
You can use fluids other than water in the closed-loop heat exchanger
circuit, but water is best because it’s cheap and doesn’t degrade when it
gets hot.
To eliminate the risk of freezing pipes, you must mount the pipes so
that they all have a slope and mount the collector so that it drains completely, too.
Copper pipe with a minimum diameter of 3⁄4" works best.
The pumps consume energy, thereby decreasing efficiency. However,
if you use a PV cell (see the later section “Solar PV Systems: King of the
Energy-Efficiency Hill” for details), this isn’t an issue.
A closed-loop anti-freeze system
Closed-loop anti-freeze systems, shown in Figure 16-3, are far and away the
most widely distributed type of system in the world because they work in
almost any climate. Most new solar homes features closed-loop anti-freeze
systems because they’re low risk and very effective. I would recommend
them for most applications. Keep in mind, though, that they’re expensive and
not entirely problem-free.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
PV Panel
Solar Thermal
Hot Water Load
Figure 16-3:
A closedloop
solar water
Cold Water
Heat Exchanger
Water Heater
Solar Storage Tank
A special water heater tank incorporating a heat exchanger is used with one
or more flat plate, roof-mounted collectors. Glycol, or some equivalent antifreeze fluid, fills the collector and routing pipes. A controller measures the
temperature in the collector fluid, as well as the temperature in the hot water
tank. When heat is available for transfer, pumps are activated to move the
collector fluid.
A typical system costs around $5,500 installed (see Chapter 4 for details on
the type of tax breaks and rebates you may qualify for), and complete kits are
available. Although installation of the parts is no more difficult than for other
systems, charging the closed loop can be tricky. If you don’t do it right, you
can damage the system and get inefficient performance.
If you’re considering a closed-loop system, keep these things in mind:
You can mount the flat plate collectors in almost any configuration. The
closed loop is always full of fluid, so the pump pressure requirements
are much less finicky than those of a drainback system (explained in the
preceding section). In addition, the collector can be mounted at a great
distance from the exchanger.
The pump can be very small, with very little head pressure, translating
to lower power and better efficiency. Running these types of pumps off a
PV panel increases efficiency even more. (At night, when there’s no sunlight to power the PV panel, there’s no hot water to be pumped anyway.)
Chapter 16: Shining a Light on Solar Power for Your Home
The major limitation is the tendency of the anti-freeze fluid to degrade
over time, resulting in inefficiency and the buildup of deposits on the
interior walls of the pipes and collector. Periodic servicing of the fluid is
a must. Because injecting new fluid into the system has to be done just
right, it usually needs to be done by a qualified serviceperson.
The best way to prevent the fluid from overheating is to make sure the
closed loop is circulating at all times when it’s sunny out. You can get
scalding hot water in your domestic tank, and a tempering valve is critical.
You need to use copper pipe because it’s the only material that can
withstand very high temperatures.
Make sure the copper pipe is well insulated if there’s a chance that children might touch it. The pipe can get extremely hot.
Solar PV Systems: King of the
Energy-Efficiency Hill
In one fell swoop you can completely offset your electric utility bill and generate zero pollution. Millions of photovoltaic (PV) systems are being installed
all over the world, and the costs are decreasing due to economies of scale.
But PV systems are not for everybody because they require a considerable
upfront investment.
There are two basic types of systems: intertie, which work in conjunction
with the utility grid, and stand-alone, which require batteries and other special support hardware. Here, I focus on the intertie systems because they
comprise the vast majority of installations.
Seeing the advantages of a PV system
The two biggest advantages of having a PV system are reducing pollution —
you can literally erase over 40,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year by going
with a solar PV system — and saving money.
Net metering and why it’s sooo good
Net metering means that you can sell your excess power back to the utility
company. Under most net-metering laws, utility companies must pay you the
same retail rate they charge their own customers for power.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Net metering is great for PV system economics because every solar system,
whether PV, water heating, or another type, has a certain maximum capacity.
Maximum capacity depends on a number of things: the size of the system,
the orientation and location of the solar collectors, and how much sunlight
is available. On a cloudy day, system capacity is much less than on a sunny
day. On a hot summer day, the capacity can be very large. The point is, solar
systems don’t put out consistent power from minute to minute, day to day,
or season to season. Some days you get way more than you need; other days,
not so much.
With a PV system tied in to the grid (as opposed to a stand-alone system),
you can use as much power as you need, and your PV system merely contributes whenever it can. Picture it like a bank. You put money in during the day,
when the sun is shining, and then later on you can make withdrawals. What
you don’t use is all sold back to the utility.
In some regions, solar PV is even more advantageous because the utilities
have what’s called time-of-use (TOU) rate scheduling, where electricity rates
are highest during peak usage time (from noon until 6 p.m.). The rate during
this period can be over three times the rate at off-peak times. The timing is
perfect for solar PV systems because they generate a majority of their power
during peak time (remember, by law, the utilities must pay you the same rate
they charge for power, so at peak time they must pay you peak rates).
Solar PV is an investment tool, but you must change your power usage habits
in order to capitalize on the advantage. The harder you work your investment,
the better it pays off.
Government subsidies
Government has a vested interest in promoting solar power because of its
overwhelmingly positive environmental impact, as well as the desirable
political impact of energy independence. The best way to promote solar
power is to get more people to invest in it, and the best way to do that is to
subsidize it. Subsidies, rebates, and tax breaks are widespread and becoming
more prevalent with each passing day. In some parts of the country, the total
discount on a system can be over 50 percent.
Protecting yourself against future rate increases
All investments require you to predict the future. If you think energy costs are
going to rise quite a bit, solar energy is a very wise option. Your power bills
won’t increase no matter how much energy costs rise. This is a very powerful
form of portfolio management called hedging, where you not only get a good
return on your investment but also ensure that regardless of what happens in
the future, your investment will still pay off. In fact, the more energy costs rise,
the better your original investment in solar will turn out to be.
Chapter 16: Shining a Light on Solar Power for Your Home
When energy costs rise, those with solar power will still be able to use the
same amount of energy. Those without will be scrambling to conserve or to
buy solar equipment (which makes yours more valuable). You ensure not
only financial security but also lifestyle security when you invest in solar
Increasing property values
Your property value can increase by more than the cost of your original solar
PV investment. Not only will you save on monthly power bills, but you’ll see
an almost immediate appreciation in your home, in many cases, equal to or
greater than the cost of your equipment.
Understanding the basic parts
of every solar PV system
An intertie solar PV system, shown in Figure 16-4, is actually very simple,
despite its high cost. The collectors collect sunlight and convert it into a raw
electrical signal. Wires transmit this signal down to the inverter, which converts (why it isn’t called a converter is beyond me) the power to 110VAC that
is useable in your home. The meter is used so the power company can ding
you, of course. And switches are there for safety purposes. The following
sections explain the important parts of a solar PV system.
PV Modules
Figure 16-4:
A solar House
intertie PV
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Ground-mounted systems are more expensive than roof-mounted systems
because they require concrete posts and special frames. On the other hand,
you can orient the panels any way you want, so the extra cost may be offset
by increased production.
Install a smaller system than you think you need, and allow for the possibility of future expansion by buying an inverter big enough to accommodate the
panels you may add in the future.
PV panels
PV panels, which comprise about 60 percent of the system’s cost, are the
single biggest expense. They take up the most space as well. For most users,
finding the space for the panels is the hardest part of the investment because
it’s critical that they get a lot of sunshine. This depends quite a bit on the orientation of your roof.
Different types of panels are finding their way onto the market. The technologies aren’t important to you, but the configurations may be. Some panels are
flexible, and some can be mounted directly over tiled roofs. Some panels are
being made into roofing shingles. Most of the new technologies are going to
need some maturation to compete with the tried-and-true flat panels. It’s best
to avoid new technologies until they’ve proven themselves.
Be sure to check the warranty and the manufacturer’s reputation and longevity. Most PV panel warranties are for 20 years, but beware: Panels degrade
over time. System warranties specify a percentage of original power output
over time, say, 80 percent after 20 years. Inevitably, your system will put out
less and less energy.
Inverters are the next biggest expense. Inverters take the low-voltage, highcurrent signals from the PV panels and invert them into 120VAC, which is
directly compatible with grid power. Inverters cost around 50 cents per watt,
or around $2,500 for a typical installation. Options include monitoring functions, safety features, expandability ports, and so on. The most popular feature is a digital display that tells you exactly how much power your system
is producing.
Disconnect switches and more
Disconnect switches are of critical importance and need to be mounted
within easy reach. Every member of your family should know exactly how
to turn the PV system off for safety reasons. Power meters are usually provided by the utility company when they come to your house to inspect
your system and connect it to the grid. Wiring, conduit, and connections
Chapter 16: Shining a Light on Solar Power for Your Home
to your household’s main fuse box are minor expenses, but comprise a big
chunk of the labor for installation. You want the installers to hide the conduits, if they can.
Getting the PV system installed
The installation of a PV system involves the following steps:
1. Perform an energy audit.
Some states require an energy audit before you can buy a solar system.
California is making this a requirement if you want to collect their sizable rebate. Why? It’s not really in the interest of your contractor to
help you reduce your power consumption before you buy a PV system
because that means they’ll be selling you a smaller system. But the payback is much better if you save money by conserving prior to buying a
big PV system. The cheapest energy is that which you never use. Plus,
using as little power as possible is in society’s best interest.
2. Decide on a PV system and how to finance it.
You must collect cost and performance estimates for PV systems,
including the following:
• PV system costs, lifetimes, expansion potentials, warranty, and
so on. The best bet is to call contractors and have a preliminary
conversation about these issues. They’re familiar with all the
rebates, subsidies, and tax credits available because they help
them sell systems.
• The physical setup. How much roof space will a system take up?
Do you have a suitable roof, facing approximately south? What
condition is your roof in? Will any work need to be done before
you install the system?
• Rate structures. Find out which structures you qualify for once
the equipment is in place. Your current structure may not be applicable anymore, and you may have options to choose from. Can
you change structures later, if you don’t like the one you’re in? Can
your utility company change structures on you later? You could
find yourself in a real bind if you install a system under a certain
rate structure, only to get a nice letter from your utility informing
you that they’re changing your status.
• What is the payment schedule for the investment? You usually have
to make a down payment (typically $1,000) at contract signing. Then
you pay approximately half the remaining balance at the beginning
of the installation, and the other half after the system is in place.
• What are your financing options and costs?
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
3. Choose a contractor.
Talk to as many contractors as you can. Get them to come to your home
and look at your situation in some detail (they can’t give you an accurate quote until they do; any phone quotes are only approximations).
4. Review the contract.
After you choose the contractor, a contract will be written up. Be sure to
pay attention to the following:
• What guarantees are included in the contract?
• Exactly what are you buying? A pile of installed hardware, or a
system guarantee?
• Under what conditions is the contract voided?
• Can you pull out? You usually have three days to change your
mind — if they don’t tell you this, ask.
5. Wait for approvals from the county building department and any subsidizing agencies to begin installation.
Expect this to take up to six weeks or more.
6. Have the system installed (and inspected).
Installations typically take a couple of days. The county inspectors will look
at your system and certify it. The utility company is very concerned with
your system because you will be feeding potentially dangerous power back
into their grid. If utility employees are working on the grid nearby and your
system isn’t working properly, they could get a nasty shock.
7. Have the utility company come out with a meter and connect you to
the grid.
When everything is ready, the utility company will install a new power
meter and officially hook you up. Now you’re in the power-generating
business, and you can brag to all your friends.
8. Bone up on how to operate your system.
Your contractor needs to walk you through the entire system and
explain the hazards and proper operation. You should be aware of
potential problems and how to identify them. At this point, you can
watch the display on your inverter cranking out numbers. Your contractor should explain exactly what the numbers mean.
9. Submit paperwork for final rebate payments, if necessary.
Rebates are not payable until the system is in place and working properly.
If your contractor is receiving the rebate directly, you don’t need to do
anything. If you’re receiving it, you will want to get it as fast as you can.
Chapter 16: Shining a Light on Solar Power for Your Home
Powering Pumps and Motors Directly
PV panels can be used to directly power DC electrical motors (no batteries
required). If you don’t have access to electricity, this can be very useful. If you
simply want to cut back on pollution, this is a good way to make a contribution.
Supplying water with a solar pump
Solar water pumps can be located anywhere sunshine is available. All water
pumping systems include a few basic components (see Figure 16-5):
A reservoir: If you want to run water to your house, the storage reservoir should be located above the house so that when a tap is opened,
gravity provides the water pressure to the faucets.
A faucet: Crank the handle, get water.
A switch: To turn the system off and on. If there is no water to be
pumped, you don’t want to run the pump dry or it will burn up.
A submersible DC pump: A submersible pump goes down into the water
supply and has the advantage that it is always primed, that is full of
water. (Without the water, the pump would burn out.)
A water supply: The water supply can be a well or a creek/river, lake, or
other body of water.
PV Modules
Figure 16-5:
water with
solar power.
Water Supply
DC Pump
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
In order to specify system size, you need to make the following calculations:
Daily water usage, in gallons. Calculate both average and maximum usage.
Available sunshine, in average hours per day. If having water available at all times isn’t critical (that is, if you can tolerate a few days of
drought), the reservoir may be smaller. If you need water all the time
and sunshine is inconsistent, you need a larger reservoir, along with
larger PV modules so you can fill the reservoir on sunny days.
Difference in vertical height between the top level of the water source
and the output end of the pump hose. This number is called the pump’s
head pressure.
Considering a solar pool pump
Swimming pool solar-powered pumps are expensive upfront, but once
installed, you never have to pay another cent to power your pool pump.
Conventional pool pumps, on the other hand, are relatively inexpensive
upfront, but they cost a lot to run. In particular, if you have a solar swimming pool heating system and a large-scale solar PV system on a TOU rate
structure, running a conventional pump system in the afternoon, when the
sunlight is available for heat (you have to run a pool heating system in the
afternoon; otherwise, it won’t provide any heat), is very expensive. In the
long term, you’re better off with a solar pump system.
The more sunshine you get, the more the pool pump runs. This works nicely
because pool utilization hours are usually determined by the amount of sunshine as well.
Using Wind and Water for Solar Power
Like solar collectors, windmills and hydropower generators are powered by
the sun, but in an indirect manner. Windmills and hydropower generators
both generate voltages with spinning turbines. The concept is very simple.
When you apply a power source to an electric motor, the shaft spins. If you
manually spin the shaft of an electric motor, on the other hand, its two wires
will output power. The physics work in either direction. Turbines are simply
electric motors run backwards. Inverters are required (just as with solar PV
panels) to convert the raw voltages from the rotors into usable power.
Wind and water may be available at any time of day or night. Wind, however,
can come and go from minute to minute. Water resources generally don’t
vary much over the course of a day but they can vary over seasons. They’re
also subject to droughts when no power may be available at all for extended
Chapter 16: Shining a Light on Solar Power for Your Home
periods. The good news is that you can get rebates and subsidies for wind
and water power just as you can for PV systems and water heating systems.
They’re all solar power and are grouped together in this regard.
Blowing with the wind
A wind turbine, shown in Figure 16-6, looks like a small airplane with a huge
propeller, which is basically what it is.
Rotating Joint
Figure 16-6:
A wind
The pros and cons of wind power
Wind power has several advantages. It can be generated anytime, day or night.
Wind is available almost everywhere, in all climates. In many of the worst climates, it’s very powerful. In some locations, wind is virtually a constant (magnitudes may vary, but output is always available). Because wind speeds vary over
terrain, you can find locations on your property that provide maximum potential. Ridge lines, coastlines, and the tops of barren hills are the best candidates.
Wind power has its disadvantages, too:
Extremely high wind conditions may destroy or damage a unit (turbines
need a minimum amount of wind to begin working, but they don’t need a
Obstructions like trees, houses, barns, and so on all affect wind speed.
And because wind direction varies, obstructions in one direction may
or may not be important in other directions. The best bet is to stay
well away from all obstructions, although this may not be possible. And
finally, precisely because wind is variable, you definitely need batteries.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Mounting is a bear. In general, the higher the unit, the more capacity it
will output. A height of 100' is considered optimum, and that’s a long
way up there. The mounting must have a tremendous amount of integrity because of the torques that need to be withstood.
The installation is the tricky part. Hire a pro. If you don’t know what
you’re doing, you could literally be killed trying to install a wind turbine.
Rotors are noisy and obtrusive when they’re spinning. The bigger the
blades, the more power they generate and the noisier they are. They also
attract a lot of visual attention and may clutter up a placid environment.
Available sizes and cost
The smallest turbines (6' rotors) sell for around $1,000, not including installation (tower building and raising, wiring, and so on). They output 400 watts
of power at 28 mph (this is a pretty good wind) and can withstand winds up
to 110 mph. You can use these numbers to get an idea of how many kWh per
day you can expect, on average; then you can devise a battery bank accordingly. A turbine with a 15' rotor produces 3.2 kW at 28 mph for around $8,000,
including installation.
Tower costs vary depending on height, but a typical tower kit for a small turbine with a height of 50' runs around $700. The higher up, the more effective;
but the higher up, the more expensive as well.
Using water for your power needs
A hydropower system is basically the same as a wind system, except the turbine is spun by water pressure instead of air movement. There are two basic
kinds of hydropower systems; submersible systems, which are inserted down
into moving water such as a river or a creek, and stationary systems, which
use water pressure. Hydropower dams are all stationary systems; the deeper
the dam, the higher the pressure and the more power available).
Consider these things if you’re interested in water power:
You don’t need batteries (although they do make the system work
better). You can assume your hydro generator output will be pretty
constant, at least from hour to hour. Over the course of a year, you may
have major variations.
You can install a water system of virtually any size power output if your
water source is big enough. If your water source is small, power outputs
will fluctuate quite a bit and may be zero for extended periods or during
Chapter 16: Shining a Light on Solar Power for Your Home
You can generate power day or night, in any weather (freezing may
cause problems, but the right design can usually prevent this).
Hydro systems have very long lives, are relatively trouble-free, and
require very little maintenance. But the upfront costs are expensive, particularly for stationary water systems.
Complex electrical system designs and mounting schemes are difficult
with water pressures pushing all the time. This is not a trivial system
design to tackle, although do-it-yourselfers can safely do it if they’re
patient and willing to make multiple adjustments until the best arrangement is finalized.
Heating Your Swimming Pool
with a Solar System
Swimming pool heating is one of the most common uses of solar energy. The
idea is simple: A solar collector is set out in the sunshine and the swimming
pool filter pump system is used to move water through the collector and into
the swimming pool. A minimal system can cost less than a few hundred dollars and works reasonably well. The cost for an average full-up system (roofmounted) runs around $4,000. That’s a lot of money, but compared to using
electricity or gas it’s a good investment because the energy is free, not to
mention environmentally friendly.
Getting started with a simple setup
The simplest system for heating your swimming pool uses a single solar
panel (see Figure 16-7). If you use a pool cover in conjunction with the solar
panel, you can raise the pool temperature up to 15 degrees.
Your pool system already includes the pump, controller, and filter, along with
PVC pipes that route the water flow. You simply break into the PVC line after
the filter (never before), and run a couple of flex hoses (or PVC, if you prefer)
to the solar collector panel, which can be laid out on the ground or set against
a hill (or other support) to achieve some angular tilt toward the sun.
Solar collector panels are sold at most pool supply stores. You can get a 4' x
20' panel for around $200. Flex hoses cost around $15 apiece. Adaptors are
sometimes necessary.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Solar Panel
Figure 16-7:
A simple
pool solar
Direction of Flow
Here are some tips to run the system for best results:
Place the solar panel where it will get the most sunlight when the pool
pump is running. The more sunshine, the more heat into the pool.
Adjust the pump run time to match maximum sunlight conditions.
Running the pump longer will result in more heat in the pool.
You can use two or more solar panels. The best bet is to configure them
in parallel, as shown in Figure 16-8. This configuration offers the water
multiple channels, reducing the overall water pressure while heating the
same amount of water.
Figure 16-8:
solar Input
Chapter 16: Shining a Light on Solar Power for Your Home
Going the whole nine yards:
A complete system
The entire system for a typical swimming pool solar system, shown in Figure
16-9, includes quite a bit more than the simple starter system described in
the preceding section. In addition to the parts that come standard with traditional pools (pump, filter, the pool itself, a bunch of screaming kids, and so
on), it also has collectors to collect sunlight and convert it into heat, valves
to control the flow of water and determine whether the pool system is using
the solar heating components or is simply in bypass mode, and a motor valve
that measures the temperature of the pool water and determines whether
heat is needed or not (if the day is cloudy and cold, or it’s raining, it’s hardly
worth expending the extra energy it takes to run the solar heater).
Roof Through–Flange
Motor Valve
Figure 16-9:
A complete
pool system.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
For these systems, the solar collectors are almost always mounted on your
roof. A slight downward tilt is necessary to facilitate draining during the purge
cycle. When the controller deactivates the motor valve, the vacuum breaker
allows the system to purge itself of liquid. This is important for two reasons:
You don’t want water in the collectors at night because it will cool down,
and when you first activate the collectors the next day, you’ll dump cool
water into your pool. This is obviously at odds with your goal.
Purging the water ensures it won’t freeze up and burst the pipes or
Manual drain valves are used to deactivate the system in off seasons or
during maintenance. The check valve prevents water from flowing backwards
through the pump and filter.
You can buy a complete kit if you want to install one of these systems yourself. (Kits are always highly recommended, even if they cost a little more.)
Chapter 17
Radiant Heating Systems
In This Chapter
Understanding how radiant heat works
Radiating heat through your floor for maximum comfort
Working with masonry heaters
adiant heating can be much more efficient than conventional heating
means, like forced air and stoves. Radiant implies not so much a method
of generating heat as distributing that heat. You can use an electric heater, a
gas heater, or geothermal or solar methods to equal effect with radiant heat
systems. In this chapter, I go through the basics of radiant heating methods.
The most prevalent way to use radiant heating is through coils embedded
into the floor. These can be either electric heating coils or narrow diameter
tubes for the transmission of water or other liquids. The upfront costs of
these systems are higher than conventional heating means, but the operating
efficiency pays back in both increased comfort levels and lower energy costs.
Masonry heaters, which are very similar to stoves, have very high thermal
masses, and their combustion chambers (usually for wood fuels) are very
carefully controlled to achieve up to 90 percent efficiency. They work on the
radiant heating premise, and I touch briefly on the pros and cons of heating
your home with these heaters in this chapter as well.
Radiating Heat with Radiant
Heat Systems
Radiant heat works by warming the surfaces in your home, as opposed to
simply warming the air (as conventional heating systems do). The result is a
much more stable and comfortable ambient:
Radiant heat doesn’t use moving air, which has a cooling effect (see
Chapter 8), to warm things up. For that reason, you feel warmer in a
radiant heated room at the same temperature as a forced air heated
room. Radiant heat is also more efficient because it doesn’t use big
blowers (motors always take a lot of energy to run).
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Radiant heat doesn’t dry out the air. In fact, it doesn’t change the
humidity of a home’s air. (Humid air feels warmer; dry air feels cooler.)
The chimney effect isn’t as pronounced with radiant heat as it is with
other forms of heat. A radiant heater generally releases heat near the
floor (most new systems are actually installed in the floor), so the heat
naturally rises up to the people in the room.
Radiant heaters tend to heat everything in a room. When they’re
installed in a floor, you can literally walk barefoot on a tile floor in the
middle of the coldest winter day and still feel perfectly comfortable.
Radiant heating is much more comfortable in general. People who have
lived with radiant heat never want to go back, and they notice the difference in comfort quite a bit when they visit hotels or other people’s
homes where forced air systems are operating.
Radiant heat systems can achieve a greater warming effect with less
energy than forced air heaters because the thermostat can be set
lower. If you have a forced air heater, you have to offset the cooling
effect of moving air by setting your thermostat a few degrees higher.
This effect is real, not just a matter of perceived comfort. A radiant room
can actually be a few degrees cooler and feel better at the same time.
Obviously, this means you use less energy.
With a radiant heat system, each room can have its own separate temperature controller. You can shut entire portions of your home off from
heat or turn unused rooms way down for big savings. And the temperatures that you set in individual rooms will be very well maintained, in
spite of weather conditions or any other variations.
Radiant systems provide cleaner air quality, and they don’t use filters.
They don’t blow air around and stir up dust.
The drawback of a radiant system is that it takes much more time to heat a
room (by the same token, once the room is warmed it takes a lot longer to
cool off). By contrast, when you come into a cold house and turn on your
forced air system, you get immediate hot air. If you want, you can stand over
the vent and warm yourself very quickly. Not so with radiant heat.
Old-Style Radiators
Many old buildings use radiators set up in the corner of each room. These
are big, bulky, heavy metal grids through which hot water or steam is
pumped. They get very hot, and they’re very noisy (clicking, sighing, groaning, sizzling, and spitting). A big water boiler is located in the basement, and
tons of pipes and plumbing components are required. Old time radiators are
vestiges of the past and inefficient to boot because pipes always leak heat
into the surrounding air.
Chapter 17: Radiant Heating Systems
Thermal mass in the sunshine
You can effect radiant heat with solar power
by building a sunroom or greenhouse. See
Chapter 16 for more information, or check out
Solar Power Your Home For Dummies (another
Wiley book authored by yours truly) for a lot
more details.
The idea is simple: Let the sun heat a thermal
mass (like a concrete floor or a heavy barrel
filled with water) during the day, and then at
night let that heat radiate out into your living
space. The effect can be very dramatic, and if
you combine this with the fact that you also get
some aesthetics, it’s worth looking into.
Overhangs (structures built over windows to
control the amount of sunshine that enters
at different times of the year) are particularly
useful for modulating this effect. See Chapter
12 for more details about overhangs and other
solar exposure controls.
A number of outdoor boiler systems are very popular in remote areas that
work well with these types of radiators, and they’re a cinch to install. I merely
point out here that these systems are still available, and if you want to use
them, you can get the equipment very cheaply (used, especially) and they
work well. Note that I didn’t say great. If you’re really serious about using
radiant heat, radiant heat floor systems are much better.
Radiant Heat Floor Systems
Radiant heat floor systems are probably the most common form of radiant heat
used nowadays, for a number of good reasons. The idea is very simple. You heat
your floor with a grid of coils installed underneath the floor (see Figure 17-1).
Types of radiant floor heaters:
Electric or hydronic
Radiant heat floor systems can use either electric or hydronic (liquid) heating elements:
Electric systems: Electric systems are not as efficient as hydronic ones,
but they’re still more efficient than forced air electrical systems. Plus, a
radiant heat electric system is much easier to install and maintain.
Hydronic systems: With a hydronic system, you can use any number of
sources for the heat. The most common source is a water heater that’s
essentially the same as a domestic water heater. But solar heaters are
also common, as are geothermal ones.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Output line
Figure 17-1:
A radiant
heating grid
under the
Input line
The more thermal mass in the floor, the better these systems work. So tile (or
a similar product) is the best floor covering material. You can also use vinyl
(make sure it’s rated for the application) and laminates. If you use wood, you
need to be careful how it’s installed because the heating and cooling cycles
will make the wood expand and contract. Float floors are the best bet for
wood. Carpet also works, but it’s not as efficient at transferring the heat into
the room, and you need to make sure that the carpet is rated for the application (be sure to get the proper backing material).
Installation tips
Basically, a radiant heat floor system goes beneath the floor surface. You can
build one up on an existing floor and then add a new layer of floor above the
radiant elements, or you can remove the existing floor surface and start at
the subfloor level.
Not all floor surfaces are conducive to radiant heating, so make sure to check
at your floor dealer. Tile works the best, and vinyl is a no-no. Wood floors are
alright, but they tend to expand and contract over time and this may cause
warping. Most manufacturers will specify whether their floor surface works
with radiant heating.
Chapter 17: Radiant Heating Systems
If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, installing an electric system is much easier than
installing a hydronic one. Not a lot can go wrong with an electric system, and
if something does go wrong, it’s pretty easy to fix. With a hydronic system, a
lot more can go wrong, and it’s often a bear to repair. Also, with a hydronic
system, if you put the floor covering in place and something goes wrong,
you’ve got a potential disaster on your hand when the liquid seeps out. This
can be a real mess. Not so with an electric system.
If you’re remodeling and need a heater in a basement or an add-on room,
using electric radiant heat in the floor can be very inexpensive compared to
other options. When you’re adding space to your home’s interior that needs
to be heated, you generally can’t just tap into the existing whole-house HVAC
system because it was designed with a specific capacity in mind, namely the
size of your existing home. Tapping in could render the whole-house system
incapable of doing the job adequately. Your HVAC system may not be able
to keep up on the coldest winter days, despite being perpetually on. You can
install a radiant floor system without tapping into your existing HVAC and
have a more comfortable, efficient room to boot.
Heating Up the Joint
with Masonry Heaters
Masonry heaters are designed for very hot fires in their combustion chambers
(typically over 1,300°F). The heat passes through a series of baffled chambers
called heat exchangers, which draw the heat from the air and transfer it into a
dense, solid material. The heat is then radiated slowly and passively into the
living space of your home. The heat is just as slowly absorbed into the walls,
floors, ceiling, furniture, and, eventually, into the people in the room. The ambience is very comfortable, and nearly everybody who has ever experienced a
masonry heater’s effects swears by them.
Masonry heaters have a tremendous amount of mass, which in practical
terms translates into very consistent, even performance. Even when doors
are momentarily opened to the outdoors on a cold day, the home does not
feel much different because it’s not so much the air that’s warm, but the
entire home.
Although the initial costs of masonry heaters are high — expect a minimum
of around $8,000, not including what it takes to beef up your foundation or
chimney work — they’re very efficient. Efficiencies of masonry heaters can be
up to 90 percent, which is truly impressive.
The following sections explain what you need to know about masonry heaters.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Like a conventional wood stove — but not
In some ways, masonry heaters are like wood stoves in that they burn wood
and radiate heat. But there are important differences:
Masonry heaters need to have their combustion cycle more carefully
controlled than wood stoves do because the fire is so much hotter.
Opening and closing doors is more critical. Except during fueling, the
doors remain closed with most units. Some allow for the door to be
open, but then the fire is more like a conventional fireplace and the efficiency is diminished.
The amount of heat a masonry heater generates is controlled by the
amount of wood burned (not the amount of oxygen added to the burn
chamber, as with conventional stoves). The burn temperature needs to
be highly controlled, and varying the oxygen varies the temperature.
You can use most any wood to good benefit — and less of it than you’d
use in conventional stoves — because masonry heaters extract Btu
extremely efficiently from the wood. (The fuel used in masonry heaters
is thinner in diameter because more air circulation is needed between
the pieces of wood).
A masonry heater takes a long time to heat up to its steady state operating temperature. With conventional stoves, the heating effects take
hold in just 15 minutes. But with a masonry heater, you need to plan
ahead. If you come home from a few days away, your home won’t heat
up for hours. On the other hand, you can go to bed at night when your
masonry heater is working full bore, and when you wake up in the morning your home will be nearly the same temperature.
Masonry heaters can be used in many locales where other types of
stoves are banned due to air pollution. Because they burn wood so thoroughly, the pollution impact is minimal.
Despite all the ways masonry stoves differ from conventional stoves, they do
share a few of the more irksome characteristics:
You need a source of firewood (although some masonry heaters are
coming onto the market now that use other fuel sources).
Burning wood is labor intensive, regardless of how efficiently you do it.
They tend to be dirty to operate. Around the unit you may notice a coating of soot (true with all wood stoves!)
Chapter 17: Radiant Heating Systems
Installing masonry heaters
The biggest issue with masonry heater installation is the weight. These heaters are too heavy for a single person to move into place. In fact, the larger
units may take a forklift, which is why they should be installed while the
home is being built. Some units come disassembled, which makes installation much easier (if you know how to assemble things, that is). In general,
installing masonry heaters is similar to installing a heavy wood stove. Refer
to Chapter 15 for more details on installing wood stoves, in particular, the
chimney and venting requirements.
The biggest factor in terms of a masonry heater’s effectiveness is its location.
It should be in the center of your home, preferably in a large room. If it’s not,
you’re sacrificing potential efficiency. Masonry heaters work best in homes
with open floor plans, where the heat can spread throughout the entire living
space, slowly and evenly. In fact, most masonry heaters are installed in new
home construction, where the home design is centered on the masonry
You can’t put one on a floor unless it’s built to support a lot of weight.
Masonry heaters have a tremendous amount of thermal mass, which translates into a lot of mass, period. Your existing fireplace pad may not be suitable
for a masonry heater. Although you can install a masonry heater yourself, I
wouldn’t advise it. Better to hire a contractor who knows all the ins and outs.
For more information about masonry heaters, go to the Masonry Heater
Association’s Web site at You can get kits, or you can
find contractors who will do the whole job for you.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Chapter 18
Heating with Biomass Stoves
In This Chapter
Understanding the pros and cons of burning biomass
Checking out the various stove and fuel options
Plunging into the use of animal poop
iomass is a generic term for many different types of materials provided
by Mother Nature. Strictly speaking, wood is biomass, and if you really
want to get nitpicky, oil is probably biomass. For our purposes, I restrict
the discussion to corn, wood pellets, leaves, and poop. These are the most
common biomass products simply because the supply of raw materials are
the most prevalent. You may find local biomass products that are cost effective in your own area, and not in others. Don’t despair, however. You can still
get a good idea of the basic pros and cons of using biomass fuel by reading
this chapter.
Using Biomass for Fuel
In a nutshell, biomass is organic material (plants and animal waste) used
for fuel. Examples of commonly used biomass fuels are corn, wood pellets,
straw, certain types of grasses, and autumn leaves. And, not to put too fine a
point on it, poop is biomass, too.
Strictly speaking, wood is biomass. But in this book, I separate wood from
other biomass products because most other sources treat wood and biomass
as distinct entities, even though they aren’t. To help you avoid any confusion,
I’m going to stick to that convention.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Compost piles: Biomass at work
A compost pile is an example of biomass at work.
You throw garbage and any old organics you
have lying around into a special hopper, and the
decomposition process creates heat by breaking down the materials. You can use the final
product any number of ways, including fertilizing
your landscaping and burning in a stove. For
that matter, burning autumn leaves is a biomass
combustion process (although it’s probably best
to just call it “burning leaves” if you don’t want
people to think you’re a nerd).
Here’s what you need to know about burning biomass:
Biomass can be a very clean-burning fuel or a very dirty-burning fuel.
Knowing what you’re doing is the key to success. Do it right, and you
can burn biomass more cleanly than you can burn wood and most other
options as well. Do it wrong, and burning biomass can create a lot more
pollution than most other options.
The market for biomass is completely different than the market for
firewood. The decision on whether to burn wood or not is predicated
largely on whether you have access to firewood (and on which types
of wood supplies are in your area mainly because wood is expensive to
transport across large distances). Many biomass products, on the other
hand, are commonly transported long distances, so this same restriction
doesn’t apply. Wood pellets, for example, come in compact bags that
can be stacked on pallets and moved easily. Also, because the energy
density is high, you get more bang for the buck.
Biomass products, like wood pellets, are processed and bagged, and you
generally take delivery of pallets with a forklift setting them down neatly
into your storage area (unlike wood, which is usually quite a tangled
mess; see Chapter 15). As a result of the processing and bagging, the
energy density of most biomass products is much greater than wood, so
you need less storage space.
Biomass is generally easier to work with than wood in terms of carrying the
fuel from storage to the stove and loading your stove’s combustion chamber.
Wood is usually very dirty to deal with, but biomass rarely is (unless you’re
dealing with poop, which goes into a dimension beyond dirty).
Chapter 18: Heating with Biomass Stoves
Getting the Lowdown on Biomass Stoves
Biomass stoves and furnaces are designed to burn biomass fuels. In appearance, biomass stoves are similar to wood stoves, and they transfer heat the
same way. But biomass stoves are set up to burn at different temperatures
and may require more or less oxygen in order to gain the highest efficiencies.
Biomass stoves also come with hoppers that feed the raw materials into the
fire; you can’t simply stack a pile of wood pellets and burn it the way you’d
stack wood in a wood stove.
Biomass stoves are generally more efficient than wood-burning stoves
because they take much less labor, and biomass combustion processes are
well-controlled (like masonry heaters — see Chapter 17). Very little babysitting is involved. These stoves have automatic augers that feed the fuel into
the burn chamber. You simply load a very big hopper, and the fuel feeds
down into the fire only as needed. You can control the feed rate by means
of a thermostatically-controlled switch, and you can mount the thermostat
either by the stove or in a remote location.
Just as with wood stoves, there are a large variety of biomass stove types,
too many to cover in a single chapter, in fact. Your best bet is to research
your local area to see what works best for your particular needs. Ask at stove
shops, and if possible, find somebody who has a stove and ask about it (you’ll
probably get a more honest answer this way than at the stove store).
Your decision on which type of biomass to use is generally dependent upon
which types of biomass are available in your area. The Midwest favorite
seems to be corn stoves. In the Northwest, you find a lot of pellet stoves (pellets are made of byproducts of lumber processing, like bark, sawdust, twigs,
and so forth). Economics of both equipment and fuel cost are the deciding
factors. If you’re concerned with the environment, keep in mind that biomass
is sustainable and less polluting than both electric power and fossil fuel
power, so it’s a wise choice even if the cost is the same.
At some point, there will be more biomass stoves than wood stoves simply
because the supply of good wood is going to dwindle, whereas biomass (especially poop) is literally everywhere. Processed biomass products can be made
of so many different raw products, in virtually any state of quality, that they
will overtake wood as the number one means of stove combustion.
You can buy a very cheap biomass-burning stove and get inefficient performance, or you can spend a lot and get excellent convenience and efficiency.
Regardless, burning biomass is almost always safer than burning firewood.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
You can heat your entire home with a biomass furnace installed in your basement. Or you can heat a single room. How you plan to use your stove determines the size and operation of your equipment. Well before you buy any
stove, ask at the stove shop what your options are and then go home and consider the details, as well as how you’ll implement them once you get going.
Burning Up with Pellet Stoves
The main operational advantage of pellet stoves is that they’re very easy to
use. You fill the hopper with manufactured pellets and the rest of the process
is largely automatic. A thermostat keeps the temperature at a preset point,
and an auger feeds material into the combustion chamber so that you don’t
have to worry about it. You can fill the hopper once a day or even less often
if it’s not too cold out, and your home will stay at the set temperature. Pellet
stoves can usually burn different types of materials as well, such as corn, coir
fiber (from coconut husks), and nutshells. With very little work, you can get
an even, consistent heat source.
Many types of pellets are made from byproducts of other lumber processing
ventures, like sawdust and ground wood chips. Some pellets are even made from
corn stalks (usually wasted since they have no nutritive value) and nut hulls, or
from other crops like switchgrass. (Too bad they can’t make pellets out of politicians, other purportedly organic entities with little or no intrinsic value.) Pellets
are like recycled products, and even better for the environment because of it.
Outdoor boilers: The next worst thing
Outdoor boilers are a species of combustor
appliances. As their name implies, these are
positioned outside of your home and, as such,
are exempt from Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) emission standards. When used
properly, they work well. They’re inherently
safer than stoves and other heating appliances
that are located inside because if something
goes wrong (either a fire or smoke hazard), it’s
outdoors where it won’t matter (okay, maybe it
will, but not as much, and maybe it will be the
neighbor’s problem, not yours).
Outdoor boilers are advertised as capable of
burning nearly any kind of fuel, and that’s true.
You can even toss in some poop and it’ll burn,
although you can only imagine what the smoke
might smell like. But the real question is how
efficient outdoor boilers are and how much they
pollute. The simple fact that they work doesn’t
mean they’re a good idea.
The efficiency and cleanliness of any combustion process is a function of temperature and
other controlled parameters, such as oxygen
supply. Although an outdoor boiler may burn
just about anything, as advertised, a jack of
all trades is always a master of none. These
devices rarely offer any kind of precision combustion, so they take up far more fuel than
they’re worth. You may save some money on
upfront costs, but in the long run you’ll pay.
Chapter 18: Heating with Biomass Stoves
Growing trees the fast and furious way
Certain species of trees grow very fast, such
as poplars and mulberries. In the future, there
will be large farms and cooperatives that plant
nothing but these types of trees and other fastgrowing biomass sources for use in heating.
This is an interesting environmental issue
because Mother Nature doesn’t often favor
the fastest-growing plants. They are not the
strongest or heartiest, so there’s a certain antiDarwinian undertone in all this. Of course, the
same may be said for the hyper-expansion of
human presence enabled by vaccines and
other technological advances. Perhaps when
Mother Nature decides to eradicate the pesky
human infestation she’ll also get rid of our bioengineered monstrosities as well.
In a nutshell, here are the advantages of burning pellets for heat:
The operating costs are low. Pellets have a high energy density, and the
stoves take very little power to run.
Pellets are renewable and produce the lowest emissions of any solid
fuel. Wood pellets, like wood (see Chapter 15), are neutral in terms of
their effect on global warming because wood left to rot on the forest
floor creates as much carbon dioxide as wood burned in a stove. And
pellet combustion in a biomass stove is controlled much more accurately than wood combustion in a wood stove, so the combustion is
more thorough and the efficiencies are much better. In addition, most
of the industrial companies that manufacture pellets replenish the trees
they cut down to make pellets.
If burned properly, pellets can be very clean and efficient. Smoke is
minimal, and the burn is clean enough with pellet stoves that you often
don’t need to vent the exhaust all the way up the chimney, so installation is easier and cheaper. There is also less creosote, which is safer for
the home and cleaner for the environment. (No matter how cleanly pellets burn, though, cleaning out the ashes is a filthy job.)
Pellets are easy to store and handle. Pellet storage requires only
around a third of the space that wood requires, so if you’re space is
limited you may want to consider this option. Bags come in 40-pound
sizes (and up, but you need to be burly enough to lift them). Another
plus is stored pellets don’t attract the spiders that firewood does.
Venting is easier with a pellet stove than with most other stove types.
You need only a stainless steel vent pipe run to the great outdoors.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Of course, pellet stoves also have a few disadvantages:
Most stoves require electricity, although you can get battery-operated
Combustion gases pose a danger, as is the case with any burning process.
Your insurance rates may increase when you install a stove of any
kind in a preexisting home. Make sure to call and find out.
Burning, Not Popping, Corn
Corn is the second most popular biomass fuel because it’s so readily available in many parts of the country. To be effective in combustion, corn must
be very dry (unlike the stuff you eat). Corn can also be very cheap and clean,
if you have a ready supply of quality product.
Prices fluctuate across the country, and, as you would expect, corn is cheapest in the Midwest where it’s grown the most. (I grew up in the middle of
Illinois, and corn was not only a fact of life, but in the late summer it was
pretty much all of life.) You can buy dried corn directly from a farmer, or you
can buy processed sacks of it that are easier and cleaner to handle (and a lot
more expensive as well). If you’re a corn farmer, you can heat your home for
nothing at all. And if you like to eat small rodents, you can get plenty of free
meat in the deal.
Other grains also work in essentially the same fashion as corn. Wheat, barley,
rye, sorghum, and soybeans can be dried and burned at low cost and with
low environmental impact. As with corn, this is really a question of access.
People in cities don’t burn soybeans simply because they can’t store soybeans and don’t have a ready supply.
The bright side of burning corn
Like other types of fuel burned in biomass stoves, corn can be a very consistent heating source because the stoves use automatic feeds and large hoppers. It’s also very clean burning and low on the pollution scale. Burning corn
and other grains offers these advantages as well:
It’s the cheapest renewable fuel (at least for the time being). However,
with the price of ethanol (which is made of corn) increasing, the cost of
raw corn also increases.
Its environmental impact is very minimal. Corn grows fast and furious
and is perhaps the best renewable energy source on the planet.
Chapter 18: Heating with Biomass Stoves
Simple venting requirements allow for inexpensive installations. A short
stainless steel pipe run is sufficient, and this makes corn burning possible in many applications where wood burning is impossible.
You can make whiskey out of the same corn that heats your home, and
that has warming properties all its own.
The downside of burning corn
Burning corn creates some unique problems that non-corn burning homeowners don’t face. If corn weren’t so cheap, not nearly as many homes would
use it for heating, all things considered:
Storing corn takes up more room than storing wood pellets because
the energy content of corn isn’t quite as good as that of wood pellets.
In other words, you have to burn more corn to get the same amount of
heat that you’d get from pellets.
Corn has a limited lifetime, unlike other fuels. It may rot, or rats may
eat it before you can burn it — a problem you have to address proactively or risk being overrun. Talk to somebody who has a corn stove or
burns corn before you decide to take the leap. What you’ll hear is that,
although you may be able to control the problem, you can never really
eliminate it.
Your home will have a sweet smell, not unlike popcorn. Whether this
sounds like a good thing or a bad thing to you, people with corn stoves
get used to the smell and seem to like it. (An alternative that avoids this
olfactory dilemma is a big furnace in the basement, rather than a stove
in the living space.)
You have to buy a stove entirely dedicated to burning corn. In some
regions, these stoves are very rare, and servicing can be hard to find.
Other Biomass Uses You Probably Aren’t
Interested In (For Good Reason)
Horses and cows each produce from 10 to 16 metric tons of manure per year,
depending upon pasture conditions and the amount of organic litter used for
bedding. That’s a lot of manure. You can stack it clear up to the sky, if you’re
so inclined. Compost a delectable stew by tossing in some garbage, waste
straw, cane stalks, and pretty much any other organic material you can find,
and what do you have? A rich mixture of dense fuel. In other words: Poop is
biomass fuel. If you burn it right, you can get a lot of heat (this is not too different from the way English burn peat).
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
The joy of cooking: Making your own methane
You can convert cow manure into a very
energy-dense gas by building a special fermentation processor. The malodorous raw
material is pumped into a digester silo where
it is heated to 95°F, at which point fermentation is activated. Anaerobic microorganisms
break down the organic matter to produce a
gas that’s two-thirds methane and one-third
carbon dioxide. The odor is similar to rotten
eggs. The gas inflates a large plastic storage bellows. Methane is drawn off into a
combustion-powered generator to produce
electricity, which can be used to power nearly
anything. All you need is a big pile of cow poop,
but that’s not hard if you have a bunch of cows.
In fact, it’s unavoidable.
I do not include details on burning manure in this book, but I will tell you that
you need a special burn chamber, and it needs to be stationed outside. You
need heat exchangers and other equipment to bring the heat (and not the
potential smell) into your home.
You also need processed poop (although, if push comes to shove, you can
just toss some poop into an open fireplace and it’ll burn pretty well).
Chapter 19
Geothermal Energy: Straight
from Mother Nature
In This Chapter
Understanding the pros and cons of geothermal heat pumps
Evaluating air-source and ground-source heat pumps
ne of the cleanest and most efficient heating and cooling solutions
comes straight from good old Mother Earth herself. You can use air,
ground, and water as sources of heat rather than burning fuels or using electricity (which almost always derives from burning fossil fuels). Electricity is,
in fact, dirtier than other energy sources because it’s so inefficient.
In this chapter, I give you a lowdown on how heat exchangers and heat
pumps work; then I take you on a brief tour of how and why you may want to
exploit geothermal sources of energy. In a nutshell, they’re one of the more
expensive energy options in terms of initial investment, but in the long run,
they’re cheaper because their operating costs are so low. At the very least,
they pollute less compared to other options.
The (Very) Basics of Geothermal
Heating and Cooling
The majority of heating in the modern world is done by means of combustion. Gas heaters are combustion-driven, as are stoves of all kinds. Electrical
power is used to drive a lot of HVAC systems, but ultimately that power is
usually derived from fossil fuel combustion (although some electric power
is nuclear, some is hydro, and so on, a majority is derived from combustion). Geothermal energy, on the other hand, uses pumps and compressors
to move heat from here to there. No combustion takes place, and no internal
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
components get really hot, as opposed to electric furnaces, in which very hot
grids transfer heat to the air moving over the grids. In addition, geothermal
systems can save you between 30 and 70 percent on your monthly utility bills.
Seeing how geothermal energy works
Here’s how a geothermal system works: The temperatures three to four feet
below ground stay pretty much the same all year long, unlike outdoor air
temperatures, which can fluctuate a great deal. The temperature remains
stable at this depth for a couple of reasons: First, the earth absorbs nearly
half of all the heat energy that hits it from the sun. Second, heat from the
earth’s core works its way toward the surface. The good news for you is that
you can take advantage of this phenomenon with a geothermal ground-based
Geothermal ground-based systems circulate a water-based solution through a
loop system that’s buried underground. With one piece of equipment (admittedly complex) you can heat and cool your home and provide some or all
your home’s hot water, too.
A geothermal air system, on the other hand, takes advantages of the fact that
air, regardless of its temperature, still contains some heat. A “heat pump”
simply moves heat from the outside environment into your home, or vice
versa. This works in both directions; you can both heat and cool a home,
using a geothermal system.
During a heating cycle: In either ground- or air-based systems, the fluid
circulates through the loop, extracting heat from the ground or air. Then
this heat is sent to the geothermal unit, where it’s compressed and delivered to your home via your normal duct work or through a radiant heating system.
During a cooling cycle: In a ground-based system, the heating process
(explained in the preceding bulleted paragraph) is simply reversed:
The unit removes heat from the home, circulates it through the ground
where it’s cooled by the ground temperatures. For an air-based geothermal system, the unit exchanges the heat in your home for the lack of
heat in the air, thus cooling things down. The air expelled from an airbased heat pump can be much hotter than the ambient, outside air.
Don’t worry about where the heat comes from in the first place. The answer
to the question “How do you get heat and cold where there is apparently
none?” is pretty complicated, and to understand it, you need to know quite a
bit about thermodynamics, a branch of physics that deals with the interaction
between energy and work, and the laws associated with them. Even people
Chapter 19: Geothermal Energy: Straight from Mother Nature
who are really smart in physics and study it in the best colleges in the country
don’t completely understand it, so don’t feel bad that you don’t either.
Looking at heat pumps
At the heart of geothermal processes are heat pumps, which basically move
heat from one location to another. When you use a heat pump to generate
heat, you move heat into the region where you want it (namely your home).
When you use a heat pump to cool your home, you’re basically just moving
the heat out of your home, into the great outdoors. Moving heat out is the
same as cooling.
There are two distinct types of heat pumps: air-source and ground-source.
They use the same basic equipment, but have different means of effecting the
heat exchange. As a result, their practical operations are markedly different:
Air-source heat pumps are the kind you see in stand-alone HVAC systems. They use ambient air to heat or cool a refrigerant contained in a
compressor system. They are especially suitable in moderate climates,
as they perform both heating and cooling functions with reasonably
good efficiency.
Ground-source heat pumps are very similar to air-source heat pumps,
except they use the earth as their heat exchange medium. They are
more efficient than air-source pumps because the earth is much more
consistent in terms of temperature. Note: Geo-exchange is the common
name for ground-source heat pumps. It’s just a matter of terminology,
but you’ll see both terms (geo-exchange and ground-source heat pumps)
in use. Look at the GeoExchange Web site: for
installers, equipment, and so on.
Water (lakes, streams, and so forth) can also be used as the exchange
medium, but this is rare because water temperature changes more and water
is harder to access than earth (plus very few people have a ready access to
a suitable supply). Therefore, I don’t bother including information on watersource heat pumps here.
The beauty of both air- and ground-source heat pumps is that they can work
in reverse. They are capable of both heating and cooling because the process
is essentially the same, except backwards. This makes for a more financially
efficient investment in equipment.
Advantages of heat pumps
Heat pumps have their share of pros and cons. On the plus side, heat pumps
tout the following characteristics:
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
They offer steady, even heat and cooling. Fluctuations in temperature
are fewer compared to traditional combustion equipment, and this
increases comfort.
They take up less space than traditional combustion equipment
because of their two-for-one advantage (they can both heat and cool).
Plus, there’s no need for a chimney or venting system because there’s
no combustion (they still may use ductwork to distribute the heat, but
radiant systems are more common because they are a natural partner).
There aren’t any fuel storage requirements, either.
They’re safer and cleaner than other options. They don’t create on-site
air pollutants like smoke, carbon monoxide, and so forth. Nor do they
create ashes or creosote. No combustion occurs, and none of the components become extremely hot.
Disadvantages of heat pumps
On the downside, the following cons apply to heat pumps:
They require more maintenance than some other options. Systems
require a number of parts, and heat pumps are more complex that combustion systems. If you look inside an air-source heat pump, you’ll see
what looks like the space shuttle.
They require electricity — sometimes a lot. This not only affects energy
efficiency, depending on how you’re getting your electricity (nuclear
source, combustion source, and so on) but it also means that in a power
outage, you’re stuck.
They’re slow to respond. They work best in steady-state conditions. If
you come into a cold home and turn a heat pump on, it will take awhile
for the house to heat up.
Absolutely no romantic element is involved. Unless, of course, you
love the high-tech complexity of the space shuttle.
Considering cost and payback
Heat pumps offer lower operating costs than most other options, and they
can operate at efficiencies greater than 400 percent. This simply means that
for each Btu of energy expended on moving heat from either land or air, four
times more heat energy is extracted. This does not mean that the heat is free,
however, and cost efficiency is the real question. Nor does it mean that pollution efficiency is better than it is with most other options.
Chapter 19: Geothermal Energy: Straight from Mother Nature
After running the compressors and pumps and accounting for all the other
inefficiencies that heat pumps entail, the overall efficiency is better than
most heating processes, and this is why heat pumps are attractive. But the
equipment is very expensive. Heat pumps are complex pieces of equipment
with many more options for Murphy to exploit (unlike, say, fireplaces).
Deciding Whether an Air-Source
Heat Pump Is Right for You
Air-source heat pumps are widely used in mild climates where the units don’t
have to work inordinately hard. In very cold climates, you probably want a
combustion heater that can crank out hordes of Btu in a short time. But if
you’re in a mild climate, an air-source heat pump is probably one of your
best choices. They connect to the existing ductwork, like any other heater
or air-conditioner, and they accomplish both heating and cooling in the
same package (refer to the earlier section “The (Very) Basics of Geothermal
Heating and Cooling” for details). It’s rarely the case that an air-source heat
pump is used with a radiant heating system, but it can be done if you decide
it’s worth the extra cost (which it may very well be; see Chapter 17 for more
details on radiant systems).
As you consider an air-source heat pump, keep these things in mind:
The heat source, which is air, is free and limitless. No increase in energy
costs will ever raise the price of air.
Although air-source heat pumps require an expensive upfront investment in equipment, they’re the least expensive type of heat pump to
install. And because installation is relatively easy, you can get a wider
variety of qualified installers to give you a bid. Competition is always a
good thing.
Air-source heat pumps for a residential home cost more than other
options for heating and cooling. The payback comes in terms of lower
power bills.
The technology is mature and getting better all the time. You can rest
assured that if you get new equipment, the quality will be good in terms
of both design and implementation.
Air-source heat pumps are better for some climates than for others. If
you live in a climate that requires heating and cooling in approximately
equal amounts, an air-source heat pump is a viable option. If you need a
lot more heating than cooling, a stove system is a better bet (with portable air conditioners, if need be). In moist, cold weather, air-source heat
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
pumps don’t do very well and the efficiency suffers. You may need some
backup heating means if the temperature is less than 10°F for more than
eight hours.
The best bet is to use a gas stove in conjunction with an air-source heat
pump. The heating cycle of a heat pump is less efficient than the cooling cycle, and a gas stove (or other type of stove) has the advantage of
allowing you to heat locally. This is inherently more efficient than a heat
pump that powers your entire home.
Air-source heat pumps can be very noisy — fans make noise with most
HVAC systems, but when you add the compressor you get some real
rock ’n’ roll.
Air-source heat pumps need abundant electricity. If your power goes off,
you’re not heating or cooling.
Deciding Whether a Ground-Source
Heat Pump Is Right for You
The effects of the seasons are nonexistent about six feet underground (I
suppose this has some interesting implications for cemeteries). In northern
states the ground stays at a consistent temperature of around 50°F, which
is a lot warmer than the air aboveground in the winter months. In hotter climates, the ground can be as warm as 70°F year-round.
Ground-source heat pumps take advantage of the constant temperature
within the earth to heat and cool your home. But the capability comes at a
price: Expect your system to cost $8,000 to $15,000, and a lot more if your
ground situation isn’t conducive. (By comparison, a conventional forced-air
system costs around $7,000 for a typical home).
Ground-source heat pumps are very expensive because they require extensive piping systems. These systems allow maximum contact with the earth
that’s used for the heat exchange. You need some land to work with, and you
need to be able to dig some complex wells or trenches.
The most common options are open- and closed-loop piping systems and vertical and horizontal piping systems:
Chapter 19: Geothermal Energy: Straight from Mother Nature
Open- and closed-loop piping systems: An open-loop system, shown in
Figure 19-1, uses existing ground water, while a closed-loop system has
its own dedicated fluids and the heat is moved via exchange. Your contractor can tell you which system is best for your area. In many areas,
the ground water is pretty crummy (because of mud, minerals, salt, and
other reasons) and therefore unsuitable for open-loop systems.
Discharge pipe
Figure 19-1:
Well water
Vertical and horizontal piping loop systems (shown in Figures 19-2
and 19-3): Horizontal systems are easier to install but don’t work as well
as vertical systems, which require deep holes very similar to those used
for water wells. Horizontal systems also require a lot more land; if you’re
pinched for space, you need to go vertical.
In general, the economics of using a ground-source heat pump are not good
unless you use a lot of heating and cooling. If you’re in a climate that requires
a lot of heating in the winter and a lot of cooling in the summer, then the
amount you’ll save on your power bills will eventually pay back the very high
initial cost of installing a system.
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
Figure 19-2:
Verticalloop piping
Figure 19-3:
piping loop
Chapter 19: Geothermal Energy: Straight from Mother Nature
Choosing a design
The design and installation of the ground-source heat pump are very important. The ground has to be suitable and the system itself has to conform
to the availability of heat — you may need a much bigger system if your
ground is not at the optimum temperature. Your main criterion for selecting
a manufacturer and specific type of system should be performance. Look
for the Energy Star seal, in particular. Also look for the Air-Conditioning and
Refrigeration Institute (ARI) seal of approval.
Shy away from a new system that has not proven itself over time. It may sound
great in theory, but then so did New Coke. There are already too many risks
inherent in the proposition to bite into another that you don’t have to.
Ground-source heat pumps are better for new homes than existing homes.
The systems are so extensive that retrofits are difficult, and you may end up
making compromises that you don’t want to make.
Hiring a qualified installer
Not very many contractors are capable of installing these systems. So when it
comes to hiring a contractor, make sure your contractor knows exactly what
he or she is doing. If you can, use a contractor certified by the International
Ground Source Heat Pump Association (IGSHPA — www.igshpa.okstate.
edu). And get references. Let me state this in stronger terms: If you have a
problem with an air-source heat pump, it’s right there where you can get to
it to work on; it can be worked on or even exchanged if things go really awry.
The same can’t be said of an ground-source heat pump. With a ground-source
system, once it’s in the ground, it’s nearly impossible to get to. If something goes
wrong with your piping and the contractor who installed it has vamoosed,
you’re in for a world of hurt.
If you don’t have some competition in your area, watch out because you may
end up paying not just a lot (the normal amount) but a whole heck of a lot.
You may also end up with an unreliable source of servicing and maintenance.
Many ground-source heat pump customers complain that they can’t get
prompt service. If you don’t have a backup system for heating, this could be
very problematic.
If your climate is very cold in the winter and mild in the summer, using a
ground-sourced heat pump with a radiant heating system in your floor is
a great combination because you can simply heat water directly, and this
heated water is then pumped through the floor grid of the radiant system. You
can also use that hot water generated by the ground-source heat pump in your
domestic supply, thereby killing two birds with one stone (although killing
birds is probably not strictly in sync with the green mantra). Radiant heat is
Part III: Putting Alternative Energy Sources to Work for You
very quiet, and in combination with the quiet ground-source heat pump, your
home will be virtually silent and without moving air. (Note: If you use a forcedair duct system, you need extra equipment — which costs more — to convert
the hot water into hot air, as well as to move the hot air through the ducts.) Be
aware, however, that using radiant heat in your floor doesn’t work very well
for cooling in the summer.
Getting a rundown of pros and cons
While ground-source heat pumps offer some advantages, there are also quite
a few disadvantages. Keep both in mind as you decide whether investing in
one is right for you:
The ground is always available as a heat source. It’s even more consistent than air. But — and this is a biggie — ground-source heat pumps
require specific ground characteristics, including water content, mineral
content, iron content, and so on. A neighbor may have a ground-source
heat pump in operation, but that doesn’t automatically mean you can do
the same.
Ground-source heat pumps are just as good at providing you with
domestic hot water as providing you with heating and cooling. Most
installations are a combination of functions, and this is smart efficiency
A ground-source heat pump is very expensive upfront, but once the
system is installed and running, the operating costs are extremely low. In
fact, ground-source heat pumps offer the lowest life-cycle cost of any heating system options, and this includes the expensive upfront investment.
Pollution is extremely low, as is environmental impact. An added bonus
is that ground-source systems make hardly any noise at all.
If you want to completely ignore your system (a viable sentiment, so
don’t deny it if you feel that way), you may want to look elsewhere. A
ground-source heat pump needs routine maintenance, and you need to
keep an eye on how your system is working because problems are usually subtle rather than catastrophic, at least initially. If you totally ignore
your foundering system, it’ll get to the catastrophic point, and then you
may as well just sign over your firstborn.
If something goes wrong with your piping system after it’s in place, finding the problem will be very difficult and very expensive to fix. And at
the end of its life, the underground piping system basically needs to be
torn out and redone in its entirety. This ain’t cheap.
Ground-source heat pumps need electricity to operate. No electricity, no
heating or cooling.
Part IV
Efficiency When
You Buy, Build, or
Sell a Home
In this part . . .
f you don’t live in an energy efficient home already but
want to, you have a three options: buy one, build one,
or convert one. Any of these options requires you to make
wise decisions because you can’t rely on anybody else to
make them for you. This is especially true when many
energy efficiency technologies are unproven.
In this part, I show you how to decide between buying an
existing energy efficiency home or buying a conventional
home to convert into an efficient home. For those of you
inclined to build an energy efficient home from the ground
up, I show you what to look for in potential home sites
and tell you what you need to know about energy efficient
design and orientation.
Chapter 20
Looking at Community Solutions
to Energy Efficiency
In This Chapter
Seeing what constitutes a green community
Gauging the advantages of energy-efficient communities
Taking a back-to-nature approach
ifferent types of communities have different attributes that can make
becoming energy efficient more or less accessible. With the interest in
green living on the upsurge, many cities and states have taken steps to make
themselves havens for environmentally conscious citizens. But maybe you
don’t want to live in a community at all. Perhaps you want to join a commune
or you’re interested in going off-grid, or back to nature. Each situation has
its pros and cons, though more cons are associated with going it completely
The best communities are those that dedicate their fundamental philosophies to going green, and more and more of these are cropping up all the
time. In this chapter, I review the ways that you can benefit from different
types of community structures.
Checking Out the Characteristics
of Green Communities
Green cities promote environmental policies geared toward making it easier
for their citizens to be kind to Mother Nature. Public transportation is readily
available, in order to reduce pollution, for example. In addition, subsidies and
tax advantages are easy to get from cooperative city councils, and building
departments demand certain energy efficiency features to be built into new
homes and retrofits.
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
So how can you distinguish between truly green cities and posers? The characteristics outlined in the following sections are indicators of municipalities
that take energy efficiency and pollution reduction seriously.
Most newspapers are now available on the Internet. You can quickly check out
a community by reviewing the real estate ads in its newspapers. If you find no
mention whatsoever of parks, rivers, energy efficiency, and the like, you can
conclude that the community in question doesn’t place much emphasis on
green living. You can also get a good feel for how much homes are going for
and how much you’ll have to pay each month to live in the community. Find
out whether a good number of solar and/or energy-efficient homes exist in the
community, and check out the difference in prices between these homes and
conventional ones.
Air quality
In an effort to improve air quality, over 250 cities have committed to conforming to the Climate Protection Agreement, which encourages cities to
reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent from 1990 levels. (For
some cities, the reduction would be a lot more than 7 percent from current
levels because the levels have been rising since 1990.) Some of the best cities
include the following:
San Francisco, California: California is one of the best states, with more
conservation measures and actual mandated environmental standards
than any other state in the country. San Francisco epitomizes how these
measures can be implemented in a community.
Portland, Oregon: Portland is very green. The city has a tremendous
number of trees and supports energy-efficiency efforts at the household
level. Community spirit is active, which helps a lot.
Austin, Texas: The capitol city of Texas, Austin supports heightened
awareness of green initiatives.
Boulder, Colorado: Boulder has long been a leader in the green movement, and the city’s historically environment-friendly infrastructure
gives it a head start over most cities. Public transportation is very easy
to access.
Cincinnati, Ohio: Cincinnati has significant property tax abatements for
all LEED certified buildings (Leadership in Energy and Environmental
Design, a very important licensing agency for building design). This
encourages sustainable development.
Chapter 20: Looking at Community Solutions to Energy Efficiency
Other cities that have outstanding records for encouraging clean air and
water and widely available public parks and open areas are Eugene, Oregon;
Chicago, Illinois; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Honolulu, Hawaii.
A list of the top 10 green cities is put out annually by National Geographic’s
The Green Guide, which affords consumers information about a wide range of
green issues. Check out
The EPA maintains an Air Quality Index ( that assigns relative scores for ozone and particulate matter. Take these scores with a grain
of salt, not because they don’t matter, but because they don’t give the whole
story. Some cities with poor scores are endeavoring to improve their air quality with widespread public programs; focusing only on the score and not the
direction the city is going can give you an incomplete picture. In fact, cities
with poor air scores have more incentive to fund and sponsor improvements,
so you may find that they offer more subsidies and support.
My hometown of Sacramento, California, has some of the worst air quality
scores in the nation, yet California is the best state (at this writing) for promoting and funding energy-efficiency investments, and Sacramento is home
to an impressive number of energy-efficiency and solar companies.
Air quality is more important to some people than it is to others, and it varies
over the course of a year. So use your judgment when reading the Air Quality
Index numbers.
Public transportation
Commuting is a big factor in finding an energy-efficient community. An automobile driven 12,000 miles can easily emit more carbon dioxide per year than
a comfortable home. In general, cities that take green living seriously provide
good public transportation, which enables citizens to save a lot of energy on
transport costs. Public transportation is also much less polluting than having
thousands of cars on the road, so everybody’s air quality benefits.
Some cities, like Chicago, make public transportation easy and convenient
across the board. You can literally go anywhere in Chicago by way of bus,
train, or subway. But cities like Los Angeles have relatively nonexistent
public transportation networks (aside from their world-famous cacophony of
crowded freeways). You may or may not want to use public transportation,
but the fact that it exists in a workable state says a lot about a city’s general
attitude. Check a city’s public transportation by using it — or trying to, as the
case may be.
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
Utility structures
When you check a city’s utility structures, take the following into consideration:
Where does the city get its energy? Is it nuclear? Derived from coal
plants? Driven by hydropower?
How much pollution per kWh does the city’s utility generate? The
average number of pounds of carbon dioxide per kWh is 2. Anything less
is good. Any community that gets power from a nuclear reactor will be
way below the average.
How much does power cost? The fact that power is expensive may be
a good thing, even though it costs more. Expensive power means that
efficiency investments are more cost-effective, and efficient homes are
worth more because they’re cheaper to live in. And when power rates
are high, the community is likely to be cleaner because less power is
Is a tiered rate structure utilized? Tiered rate structures allow residents
to use as much or as little power as they want, but the rates penalize
At any rate, power rates are going to be rising for everybody, and there’s no
telling how much. It’s impossible to get information on how utility rates may
move in the future, but you can find out how much rates have risen in the
past. If they’ve been consistently going up 10 percent per year, you can safely
bet that they’ll keep moving the same way. On the other hand, if they haven’t
risen at all, a massive increase may be in store.
Check out a community’s utility rates by going online to the Web sites of the
various utilities. You can check the online yellow pages under “utilities” to
find the names — and sometimes even the Web addresses — of a community’s utilities. You can also check out and www.eere. for lists of cities that promote and subsidize the
use of alternative energy.
Recycling programs
Check out a community’s recycling programs. Recycling is possible for
any household, but it helps if your community has set up a formal regimen
whereby recycling is centralized and encouraged. When this is the case,
the costs of transportation and processing are borne equally by all citizens
through utility bills. Recycling that makes financial sense is a much better bet.
Chapter 20: Looking at Community Solutions to Energy Efficiency
The better communities provide recycling containers that you set out on the
street with your regular trash. The best provide different containers for different types of recycled materials — for instance, aluminum and metal, plastics, newspapers, and boxes. Some communities even remove lawn clippings
and organic refuse.
Water supply
A city’s water supply is critically important for a number of reasons. First, it
must be pristine and clean. Otherwise, you’ll have to buy drinking water or a
filter system. Some cities have grungy-tasting water, and even though it may
not be harmful to your health, it still makes you feel grungy.
Second, some cities simply don’t have enough water. You can conserve, but
if too many hands are reaching into the pie, costs are likely to rise, as is the
amount of pressure to reduce usage even more. Consider whether a city is a
candidate for severe droughts (most western cities are). Find out what happens when a drought occurs. If the city forbids watering lawns, for instance,
you may have an expensive problem on your hands.
Find out whether the community has installed water meters. If so, homeowners are a lot more likely to use less water. In communities where water
meters don’t exist, the people have absolutely no incentive to use less water.
Unfortunately, politics can enter into the equation. In California’s central
valley, there is a constant tug of war between farmers and cities over who
gets water rights. These water wars affect development, and the cost of
homes rises because supply can’t meet demand.
Housing designs
Home designs in green communities are ultra-efficient, with solar exposures
and strategically planted deciduous trees. Homes feature thick insulation,
double-pane windows, window coverings, automatic awnings for hot summer
days, solar attic vent systems to purge hot air from attic spaces, whole-house
fans, and solar light tubes in all kitchens. Skylights are used as much as possible, along with passive solar heating and cooling arrangements.
Some communities specifically demand sustainable housing designs. The U.S.
Green Building Council (USGBD) runs a program called Leadership in Energy
and Environmental Design (LEED) that sets criteria for what constitutes
green building. These criteria include things like
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
Insulation properties in the walls and ceilings.
The design and placement of windows in a building (called fenestration),
which affects not only the insulation properties but also the availability
of solar lighting and heating.
The type and operation of any HVAC systems.
Use of water resources and on-site means for conserving water.
Installation of any solar energy systems.
Visit (the ubiquitous Energy Star!) for a list of builders familiar with the LEED tenets.
Miscellaneous factors
Check out a city’s parks by visiting them. Are they well maintained, indicating
a laudable degree of civic pride? Or are they crime-ridden and dirty? Parks
may very well be a metaphor for a city’s civic stance.
In Chapter 4, I address government incentives for energy-efficiency investments, which include rebates, subsidies, and tax deductions. Check state
and local government’s Web sites for information regarding energy-efficiency
issues. Most municipalities at least pay lip service to environmental issues,
and some of them actually mean what they say.
This old house
One of the best ways to practice efficiency is
to buy an old home and refurbish it. This takes
far fewer resources than building a new home
from scratch, and it saves a lot of infrastructure
costs as well. Many cities are experiencing a
renaissance in their older neighborhoods as
younger families move into dilapidated homes
and invest both time and money in refurbishing.
Older architecture seems to offer a lot more
character and charm than the newer, massproduced style of buildings. Nothing is as cool
as an old brick wall in your living room.
The problem with a lot of older homes is that
they have poor insulation (most have singlepane glass windows) and failing plumbing
and electrical systems. You may need to completely gut an old home in order to make it
more energy-efficient. On the other hand, most
older homes have open fireplaces, and you can
install a newer, energy-efficient insert cheaply
and easily. See Green Building & Remodeling
For Dummies by Eric Corey Freed (Wiley) for
more details.
Chapter 20: Looking at Community Solutions to Energy Efficiency
Urban sprawl: The bugaboo of modern society
or the answer to mankind’s dreams?
Urban sprawl fragments wildlife and Mother
Nature’s natural designs. Low-density housing developments take far more resources per
dwelling than high-density city habitats. And
the public transportation options are severely
limited, meaning most people own cars and
use them quite a bit. Infrastructure systems such
as water, sewer, trash, and electricity all have
to be stretched out, meaning more resources
are required to deliver these services to
Cities easily provide more opportunities for
energy efficiency. High-rise housing affords
no opportunity for landscaping and the water
usage that goes along with it. Community
housing structures have common walls, so
the energy used per resident is lower. Water,
sewer, and trash require fewer resources per
resident. The list goes on.
The reality, however, is that people are constantly leaving the dense housing of the cities
for the more spacious lifestyles of the suburbs.
The quality of life is often much better, and the
elbow room is essential for certain types of
mental health.
Roughing It by Going Off-Grid
Being off-grid means not being connected to a public utility for your electrical
power. This also usually means that you’re not connected to gas, water, and
sewer utilities. If you’re thinking about going off-grid, keep these things in
The cost of bringing utility power in is prohibitive. If you’re off the
beaten path, you can usually get the utility company to bring power in,
but you have to pay for the long line lengths and poles, trenches, and so
on. This can sometimes cost over $100,000.
You don’t have any utility power available, period. Going off-grid
seems to be a romantic notion, but it’s not necessarily the most efficient
way to go. If you don’t get much sunshine or have enough wind or water
to make alternative energy sources viable, being efficient and pollutionwise off-grid is very difficult.
Understanding your off-grid options
You have choices when you go off-grid. If you want to rough it, you can use
propane. It works well for heating, cooking, and refrigeration. Wood stoves
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
are popular for remote houses and cabins because a supply of firewood is
usually readily available. But at some point you’re going to want to plug in
your television, and then your choices are more limited.
Gasoline- or natural gas-powered generators
Gasoline- or natural gas-powered generators are inexpensive and can put out
a lot of power, when needed. But they’re noisy, cumbersome, and smelly, and
they pollute quite a bit. If you’re out in the middle of nowhere, a gas generator is inherently contradictory to the peaceful coexistence you have chosen.
Off-grid solar power systems
Off-grid solar power systems (including hydropower, wind power, and PV
systems) provide electrical power, but it’s relatively expensive. Using PV
electrical generating systems connected to the grid (intertie) enables you
to sell your excess generating capacity back to the utility and therefore
use 100 percent of your system’s productive capacity (Chapter 16 has the
details). Conversely, when you install an off-grid solar PV system, you don’t
get anywhere near 100 percent utilization, plus you need batteries, charge
controllers, and more. All this extra equipment is expensive and maintenance
From a pollution standpoint, using an intertie PV system does the world more
good because more usable power is generated. Each kWh of energy you generate with an intertie system offsets that much energy from the grid — it’s
a one-to-one relationship. This is not true of an off-grid system. A lot of the
potential energy generation is wasted because it’s not used (if you’re on
vacation, generating capacity is completely wasted). And batteries are inefficient, so you waste energy in that regard as well.
Stand-alone systems are generally subject to rebates and subsidies, just like
intertie PV systems and hot water systems. See Chapter 4 for details on how
to research this subject.
Realizing the ramifications
of going off-grid
Going off-grid takes commitment and knowledge. You need to understand
what you’re doing with an off-grid system; you can’t just plug and play. So
before you sign on, give careful consideration to the following facts:
Chapter 20: Looking at Community Solutions to Energy Efficiency
Going off-grid takes work. It means you have to take care of batteries,
monitor system performance, and adjust your habits on a daily basis,
depending on how much power your system is generating.
Going off-grid is expensive. In general, off-grid PV systems cost at least
twice as much per kWh as intertie systems and take ten times more
attention on your part.
You have to deal with the spent batteries. No big deal, you think? Think
again. Batteries are disposable waste nightmares because they’re so
full of nasty chemicals. Carbon dioxide is an important pollution culprit
these days, but it’s not the only one. Ground water pollution is a growing problem. Waste management is expensive and increases everybody’s
tax burden. If you aren’t very savvy with your batteries, their lifetimes
can be atrocious. So the pollution problem is increased not only by the
mere use of batteries, but even more so by ignorant use of batteries.
Conservation measures are required with off-grid systems. Although
conservation is integral to the beginning of any efficient lifestyle, it’s
even more important with off-grid systems because the economics dictate it. The best way to start is by building an energy-conserving house,
with maximization of solar potential (see Chapter 21). Efficient appliances and personal habits are also a must.
Most banks will not touch an off-grid home. You may not be able to get
a first mortgage, and second mortgages are even more prohibitive. If you
ever want to sell your house, being off-grid will drive away 99 percent of
potential buyers, and the higher cost of a mortgage, if one is even available, will be reflected in a lower selling price. If you have a choice, being
off-grid is not an investment at all — it’s a discretionary luxury.
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
Chapter 21
Building an Energy-Efficient
Home from the Ground Up
In This Chapter
Finding the right lot for your energy-efficient home
Drumming up your new home’s design
Getting into the specifics of materials
Biting the bullet and getting started
f you can do it, starting from scratch is the best possible way to go with an
energy-efficient home. You have the world at your fingertips, and you can
design your new home to your heart’s content. You can buy energy-efficient
appliances and light fixtures, and you can install an energy-efficient HVAC
system, including geothermal or solar power.
If you think you can’t afford it, keep in mind that building an energy-efficient
home costs no more than building a conventional home. Add the fact that
your energy bills will be dramatically lower, and a “green” home can actually
costs less on a monthly cash-flow basis.
But building from scratch is also a demanding process, full of unanticipated
surprises — some good, some bad. (To get an idea of the difficulties as well
as the rewards, read Building Your Own Home For Dummies, by Kevin Daum,
Janice Brewster and Peter Economy [Wiley].) This chapter gives you the basic
information about building an energy-efficient home from the ground up so
that you know what to look for, what to think about, and what to expect.
Picking a Spot for Your New Home
Perhaps the most fun part of building your own home is choosing a building
lot. You probably already know the region or city you’re going to be building
in. You may even have narrowed it down to a particular neighborhood. As
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
you scope out possible home sites for your energy-efficient home, remember
that location means more than just a nice neighborhood. All the things you’d
consider if you were building a traditional home still apply — neighborhood,
landscaping, size of lot, and so on — but you need to be aware of a few other
factors, too, as the following sections explain.
Evaluating local building
codes and regulations
As you consider various locations for building an energy-efficient home, you
need to find out whether the local building codes support such a project in
the first place. Unfortunately, some communities are behind the times and
don’t have laws and codes that are accommodating. Here’s how to get the
information you need.
Contacting the local building department
Contact the local building department at the county headquarters and discuss your plans with a representative to find out exactly where this community stands. Some go out of their way to be supportive and charge smaller
fees for energy-efficient homes; some can supply you with the names of local
builders that can help you out; and some even subsidize energy-efficient
While you’re at it, get a feel for how onerous and expensive the building process is going to be:
Ask whether energy-efficient homes have been built in your area and in
your particular neighborhood.
Ask how much fees and permits will cost — you may be shocked to hear
the answer. Some communities want to restrict growth, and one of the
ways they do this is by charging astronomical fees for new homes. If this
is the case, you may want to consider another community or consider
buying an existing home and converting it into an energy-efficient home.
Contacting the local homeowners’ association
Contact the local homeowners’ association or read through its charter. Many
local association bylaws contain bans against solar panels because they’re
ugly. Even though these restrictions are probably illegal, you may want to
abide by rules against having solar panels in public view by orienting your
house so that the panels face south but are not visible from the street. This
requires the front of your home to face north.
Chapter 21: Building an Energy-Efficient Home from the Ground Up
I know of one installation where the homeowners decided to put the solar
panels off to the side of their house so that they wouldn’t be able to see
them, but their neighbors could. A neighbor sued and was joined by the
homeowners’ association on the general grounds of violating the “visual
appearance” clause. The association won because the judge found that the
homeowner himself was declaring the panels visual blights by the mere fact
that he didn’t want to look at them. Everybody lost a lot of money — even the
winners — and that’s the bottom line. When it comes to rules, work within
them, and don’t be stubborn.
Talking to experienced local contractors and other homeowners
Find local contractors with experience building energy-efficient homes.
They’ll be able to answer a lot of your questions very accurately and may be
able to show you energy-efficient homes that they’ve built, giving you good
ideas for your own home. You may also be able to talk to the homeowners.
Real-life experience is ten times better than anybody’s theory.
Measuring the energy-efficiency
potential of a lot
A key characteristic of energy-efficient homes is that they use solar power
(which also encompasses water power, wind power, breezes, landscaping,
thermal mass, and so on) as much as possible, particularly the passive components like lighting and ventilation. You have to be a lot fussier about your
lot when you build a solar home, not only because you may use domestic hot
water supplements (refer to Chapter 16), but also because the solar philosophy relies heavily on natural lighting and heating capacities. (See my book
Solar Power Your Home For Dummies, published by Wiley, for more details.)
With solar power, orientation becomes a critical factor. You want to choose
a building site that lets you orient your house with a good southern exposure
for PV panels and water heating collectors, as well as for windows, sunrooms,
and living spaces. On some lots, this is very difficult because of the street orientation and the location of trees and other shade-makers.
As you scope out building sites, ask yourself the questions posed in the following sections. The answers let you get to the heart of just how appropriate
a particular lot is for your energy-efficient building plans.
Keep notes on how each possible building site stacks up. For each site you
evaluate, jot down the answers to the questions outlined in the following sections. If you keep your comparative analyses of the various location options
consistent, you’ll have an easy reference to help you make your final decision.
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
What are your solar exposures?
Solar exposure is key to energy-efficient construction. What latitude are you
in? What is the sun’s path over the course of a year at that latitude?
For each site, stand in the middle of the lot and plot the sun’s course. (You
may have to do some guesswork about what the situation will be from a rooftop or a porch that hasn’t been built yet.) Different spots on a lot have different solar exposures and different shading issues. Look for deciduous trees
and try to envision your house with those trees on the southern exposure,
but not shading solar collectors on the roof. Try to avoid cutting down trees.
Although you can plant trees, they won’t rival natural, healthy, indigenous
trees for a long time.
What are the prevailing winds like?
Prevailing winds are critical (see Chapter 13 for ventilation and cooling
issues). Natural breezes are absolutely free and can make a major difference
in the comfort of a home. Look for locations where breezes are magnified in
the summer by hills and terrain. In the winter, you want natural brush and
landscaping to diminish cold winds from the north.
What’s the water situation?
Water rights and drainage are important. Try to find out whether any water
problems exist; check with the county building department or the local water
utility. The last thing you need is to move into your home and discover that
the water supply is foundering. If city water isn’t available, do you need a
well? If your neighbors have wells, are they producing? A well can be good or
bad: You won’t have a water bill, but you’ll need expensive equipment, and
you may need to filter the water.
You also need to determine the natural drainage of the property. Some locations for a home simply won’t work unless you radically alter the property’s
contour (which goes against the green mantra). How much water will your
property require? Are you going to landscape? How much water will that
require, and will it affect drainage?
Pay attention to the landscaping of the neighbors. If you scrimp on waterdevouring landscaping, your neighbors may frown upon your maverick ways.
Better to know now than to find out too late.
What are the future plans for the area?
Don’t forget to determine what may happen in the future. Is a shopping mall
planned next door five years hence? How about a freeway? Or an airport? To
find out about these kinds of things, ask your realtor and your county building department. For that matter, hang around the local coffee shop and see
Chapter 21: Building an Energy-Efficient Home from the Ground Up
what’s what. Make friends with the waitress by giving a nice big tip. Next time
you go in, ask for some local gossip. It could save you a lot of money and
aggravation in the long run.
Designing Your Home
When most people build their own homes, they follow these two steps: First,
they look through books of home designs and find one they like. Second, they
go out and find a lot. When you build an energy-efficient home, you reverse
these two steps, finding a lot first and then designing your house. Why?
Because each lot will support a different style house, with a layout that maximizes views, breezes, landscaping, and so on. So your house design should
be a function of the lot. Don’t commit to a particular house design and then
insist on finding a lot that will bear it out.
Design your home on a twelve-month basis. Consider all the different seasons.
Size matters: The littler, the better
The smaller the home, the better the potential for energy efficiency. A
smaller house uses less building materials, is cheaper to maintain, requires
less HVAC capacity, and uses less energy.
When you build an efficient house, keep it small and appoint it well. If you
think bigger is always better, remember that large houses can seem small,
and small houses can seem large. The key is the design. You can make a
small house every bit as spacious as a large house by doing the following:
Avoid long, wide hallways.
Combine utility functions like laundry and storage.
Put in less bathroom space (make bathrooms tall rather than wide for a
spacious effect).
Combine the living room and family room into one central great room.
Add a nice sunroom off the living area.
Place windows where you can get good, unimpeded views to the outdoors.
Orienting the house on the lot
When it comes to plotting out where and how your house will sit on the lot,
keep these points in mind:
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
Make sure the long axis of the house runs east to west. This creates the
greatest southern exposure. The front of the house can face either south
or north. Up to 20 degrees off true south works well enough.
Ensure that the roof has maximum sun exposure. Roof exposure is
critical for locating solar collectors, although you can plan on ground
mounting if you have enough room. Mounting on the roof is usually best
because it gives you better immunity from shadows. Plus, the panels
can be hidden more easily by means of clever design. Ground mounting
requires wire runs (trenches dug where long lengths of thick gauge wire
will be buried — an expensive component), and hiding the panels usually entails shading issues, making the process more difficult. You do
not need to locate all your solar panels on one expanse of roof, although
visually this is usually more tenable.
Deciduous trees work well on the western and southern exposures. A
house often feels much nicer in the morning with direct sunshine, so try
to keep eastern shading to a minimum. Eastern kitchens are more congenial because you avoid hot afternoon exposures, while ensuring a bright
morning wake-up call. A southeastern breakfast nook is ideal.
Hillsides work very well for providing insulation via earth berms
and half basements. Hillsides facing south are the best bet because you
can get two floors’ worth of good sun exposure while enjoying northern
Figuring out a floor plan
The floor plan of a home can impact its energy-efficiency capabilities. Whether
you build a large or a small house, a few general design principles apply:
Go with a central design. Central designs, in which the home is oriented
around a central nucleus, work much better than houses with wings,
which are difficult to heat and cool and require more maintenance.
Design your house with heat movement in mind. Open airways, for
example, make a house seem more spacious, as well as ensuring natural
air movement. Avoid long, meandering hallways and rooms with odd
angles and high, unventilated ceilings. Basically, you want to exploit the
chimney and greenhouse effects, and optimize the movement of natural
breezes by venting appropriately (all of which are explained in detail in
Chapter 13).
Place rooms in such a way as to maximize the positives and camouflage the negatives. For example, a western exposure is typically hot
and uncomfortable in the late afternoons and evenings, so putting the
garage on that side of the house creates a buffer. Or perhaps the view
from one side of the house is unattractive, in which case the garage
should go there. You can also achieve a buffer from cold winter winds
Chapter 21: Building an Energy-Efficient Home from the Ground Up
by placing the garage on the windward side of the house. Likewise,
family rooms generally work best on a southern exposure because that’s
where your family is likely to spend the most time and get the most benefit from solar potential. Use screened-in porches to shade windows on
the east and west sides of the house.
Consider time of day versus room usage in your layout. Are you in a
home office all day? Do you want to wake up in the sunshine? A kitchen
on the eastern front is nice. A master bedroom on the northern front
stays cooler, quieter, and darker.
Arrange your windows strategically. Sunrooms and windows are
always best on the south side, where they can take advantage of the sun
exposure. By contrast, the light on the northern side of the structure is
cold and dull; windows on that side don’t allow any heat from the sun in
but do let heat escape out. So put closets, bathrooms, laundry rooms,
and other such rooms, which can tolerate poor lighting and smaller
windows, on the north side. By reducing windows on the northern exposure, you can increase insulation.
Use overhangs deliberately. Energy-efficient houses always have welldesigned overhangs over the windows, porches, and doorways, particularly in the family room.
Incorporating energy-efficient technology
When you build a home from the ground up, you have the perfect opportunity
to incorporate not only building designs that increase your energy efficiency,
but you can also include energy efficient appliances and other add-ons:
Non-electrical lighting: Use solar tubes, reflectors, orientations of
windows to maximize sunlight entry, and so on. Celestories (windows
located high up in a room, generally facing southward) can provide both
heating and lighting over the course of the year.
PV panels and solar water heaters: Go to Chapter 16 for details on solar
panels and Chapter 11 for info on solar water heaters.
A gas, wood, or other type of stove: Put it in the family room where
you can use it to provide the vast majority of your heating needs (particularly is your home is centrally designed). Most of the time you don’t
need to heat your entire house. In the same vein, portable room heaters
and air conditioners are much cheaper to operate than a whole-house
HVAC system.
Features with more thermal mass. The more thermal mass, the more
consistent the temperatures in the house. Slab floors are best for this
reason. Solar rooms with concrete floors and masonry walls work well.
Big stone fireplaces with winter exposures to sunlight also work well in
conjunction with overhangs.
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
Going beyond conventional styles
You can use nontraditional home construction methods. Check out Green Building &
Remodeling For Dummies by Eric Corey Freed
(Wiley) for a range of home building styles
that can offer far greater energy efficiency
than conventional styles. Here are some of the
options you may want to consider:
Straw bales: Just like it sounds, a house
made of straw bales (like that of the three
little pigs, although I’m not trying to imply
anything here). Features excellent insulation
properties and inexpensive construction.
You’ll probably have a tough time finding a
contractor who knows the ins and out.
Adobe: Sun-dried bricks; inexpensive, low
energy to make.
Rammed earth: A technique that uses earth,
or dirt, to create incredible insulation levels.
You will probably have a tough time finding
a contractor; look on the Internet.
Cob: A method by which you can create odd
shapes and contours with natural elements.
Good insulation, inexpensive, kind of zany.
Pneumatically impacted stabilized earth: A
method that uses good old Mother Earth for
insulation and stability.
Structural insulated panels: Prefab panels
made of Styrofoam sandwiched between
plywood. You can build a very solid, wellinsulated home from these panels at low
cost. Look to see a lot more of these in
the future because they take less invested
energy, which is the amount of energy consumed in the manufacturing process.
Insulated concrete forms: Thick walls
with incredible insulation levels. The home
stays very comfortable in both hot and cold
weather, and the utility bills are low. But
the cost of construction is high because
the method is so new.
Choosing Your Materials
After you define the general design of your house, it’s time to specify particular materials and equipment. When choosing equipment, always pay
attention to the lifetime of the product, not just the initial cost and energy
consumption. Having to replace the equipment in a few years is hardly
Construction materials
In this book, the context of energy efficiency is geared predominantly toward
the consumption end of things — in other words, the energy it takes to make
your home work. But energy is also required in the building process and in
the manufacture of the building materials that go into your home. Consider
the following ways of minimizing your energy usage:
Chapter 21: Building an Energy-Efficient Home from the Ground Up
Making your own lumber
Just like your distant forebears, you can cut
down your own trees and make your own
lumber. Fortunately, the process has drastically
improved since the Paul Bunyan axe technique.
Now you can buy special rack and rail systems
that let you fell a tree, set up your equipment
right there on the ground next to the tree, and
cut precise depths and widths of lumber. You
need to dry the wood properly in a kiln, but
that’s not difficult.
A neighbor of mine cut some oaks down and
hand-carved them with a chain saw. He used
them to construct the big frame members for a
barn. Talk about character! He built not only a
functional barn but also a lasting legacy.
An alternative is to hire somebody to turn your
trees into lumber at a cost that’s competitive
with commodity lumber. If you have a number
of trees on your lot that you need to fell, this
may be a very cool option. Imagine living in
your home knowing that the lumber came from
that very spot. If you’ve got an old maple or oak
tree that needs to come down anyway, you can
have it turned into lumber and make some really
classy furniture out of it.
Use recycled building materials whenever possible. Many, especially
recycled wood products, are available.
Use products manufactured near your construction site. Doing so minimizes transportation costs.
Don’t use solid woods. Laminates and veneers save rain forests and
look like solid woods. The synthetics are made of recycled plastic containers (like milk containers) and last much longer than real wood. Plus,
you don’t need to paint them with nasty chemicals, and they won’t warp
or chip.
Use indigenous materials whenever possible. This includes using rocks
from your own property for landscaping purposes, if feasible.
Use roofing shingles that are reflective and provide good insulation.
Unless, of course, you’re looking for a hot attic in the winter more than
cooling in the summer. In either case, consider how you’re going to vent
your attic in both the summer and winter. Radiant barriers in the attic
space, for example, are much easier to put up during a home’s construction than after the fact. And the material is relatively inexpensive considering the potential benefit. (For details on these barriers and other ways
to insulate your attic, head to Chapter 7.)
Avoid aluminum framed windows, which conduct too much heat, and,
at the very least, specify double-pane windows. You can get triple-pane
windows, as well as special windows with gas insulation between the
panes, but the cost goes up markedly.
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
The aesthetic quality of your windows determines the value of your
house to a large degree. Spend some extra money for nice-looking
frames, grids, and special functional features. At the very least, you want
windows that are easy to operate because you’ll be opening and closing
them a lot.
Energy-efficient systems and appliances
Obviously, an energy-efficient home is tricked out with energy-efficient appliances and systems. Following are the highlights of interior appointments of
an energy-efficient home. You can find out more about these by going to the
respective chapters within this book:
Window blinds, awnings, and sunscreens: These provide visual appeal
while providing insulation and preventing sunshine when you don’t want
it. After all you’ve been through, don’t skimp here because these have
a huge impact on how efficient your home is. They can literally make or
break the ambience of a house. See Chapter 12 for the lowdown.
Flooring: Tiles have more thermal mass than wood, which means they
hold much more heat energy (if left in the sun, they will stay warm long
after the sunlight is gone). They also cost less, last longer, and require
less maintenance. Both tile and wood are infinitely better than carpeting
for a variety of reasons, as explained in Chapter 6.
Insulation: A well-insulated house is a more energy-efficient house.
That’s why your insulation should be as thick as you can afford.
Heating and cooling: To make your HVAC as efficient as possible, use
the smallest HVAC system you can and, if necessary, supplement or
replace it with energy-efficient alternatives. Chapter 8 discusses ways to
maximize an existing HVAC system; Part III has a whole host of ways to
supplement it.
Ventilation options: How well air moves through a house has a lot to
do with how comfortable that home is. Think about installing ceiling
fans, an attic vent fan controlled by a thermostat switch, and/or a wholehouse fan. You can find information on all of these in Chapter 13.
Appliances: If you’re building a home, chances are you’re buying heating and cooling equipment, lighting, and at least some new appliances.
Always opt for the most energy-efficient models you can afford. See
Chapter 11 for more info.
Plumbing: Use as few sinks as possible, and keep the piping runs as
short as you can. (Head to Chapter 10 for ways to decrease you water
Chapter 21: Building an Energy-Efficient Home from the Ground Up
Swimming pool pump: If you’re building a swimming pool, consider a
solar-powered pump. It’s expensive upfront, but you’ll never have to
pay a cent for pump power. A solar pump can provide even greater efficiency if your house is in a region with time of use (TOU) metering. See
Chapter 16 for the lowdown on solar systems for swimming pools.
A word about installing PV systems
When you decide to use a PV system, you have to determine whether to
install it during construction or after.
Your initial thought may be to install it during construction, but that may not
be the smartest move. Why? You can’t know how much energy your house
requires until you’ve lived in it for a year or so because your energy consumption will depend on your personal habits and how the house interacts
with weather patterns.
Installing it during construction: If you install a PV system during construction, you run the risk of getting more power than you use. If your
system is intertie (connected to the grid, which the vast majority of systems are), which it definitely should be if you have the option, you won’t
get anything back from the utility if you provide them more power than
you use (see Chapter 16 for more details on intertie systems). In other
words, you’ll be spending more than you need to and getting no benefits
for the additional expense.
Installing it later: The problem with waiting is that it prevents you from
financing the PV system as part of your new house. You may be able to
get an equity loan, but the terms won’t be as favorable as if you simply
wrap the PV financing into the original home loan.
Your best bet is to wait a year or so before you install your PV system. Design
the layout so that you can install your system easily when it’s time: Leave
room near the fuse box for an inverter and switches. Make the roof pitch and
construction optimum for PV panels.
If you decide to install the system during construction, estimate your energy
needs and install a system that’s smaller than you think you will ultimately
need. You can buy an oversized inverter (the part that changes the raw electrical signals from the panels on your roof into useable household power) so
that, after a year or two when you know more precisely how much energy you
need, you can simply put in a few more solar panels. (Chapter 16 has more
details on PV systems.)
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
Pounding Nails: What to Know
When Construction Begins
So construction is set to begin. You’ll be happy to know that building an
energy-efficient house isn’t much different from building a conventional one.
You don’t need a contractor who has built energy-efficient homes before. The
passive aspects of good energy-efficient design are part of the architectural
plans, so any contractor should be able to do the job properly. The construction process is the same, too. Installing energy-efficient equipment isn’t any different from installing other equipment. Any competent contractor can do it.
As you watch your home grow from the ground up, keep these general
points in mind:
Be patient. Building a home is a major project, probably the biggest one
you’ll ever undertake. Expect the whole project to take at least a couple
Don’t count on your home being completed by a certain date because it
probably won’t be. It will take on a life of its own, just like your kids. You
think you can program them the way you want, but they outgrow your
controls and become their own beings.
Be prepared to compromise. Insisting on perfection is impractical and
unnecessary. You can make design adjustments to accommodate inevitable compromises.
Hire a good general contractor. In most states you can be your own
general contractor without a license, but going this route isn’t a good
idea, even if you know what you’re doing and have the time and organizational skills to pull it off. (Many people who have decided to go it
alone have regretted it simply because the project takes so much time
and energy.)
Building homes is the livelihood of contractors and, as a result, they’re
very conservative about committing to big jobs. They have all, unfortunately, seen potential jobs go away at the drop of a hat, and they’ve
been left in a lurch. So never treat your new home project casually.
Your decisions can have major consequences for others, and you have a
responsibility to proceed with respect for the magnitude of how you are
influencing other people’s lives.
Chapter 22
Buying and Selling an
Energy-Efficient Home
In This Chapter
Appraising and buying existing energy-efficient homes
Looking for a conventional home to transform into an efficient home
Selling your energy-efficient home for the most profit
he bulk of this book is dedicated to defining energy-efficiency projects
you can do in or around your home. But perhaps you’re interested in
moving into an existing efficient home where everything has already been
done for you. Or perhaps you want to move into a conventional home suitable for energy-efficiency updates that you plan on either installing yourself
or contracting out for. Maybe you’re looking to sell your energy-efficient
Whether buying or selling, your goal is always to get the best deal you can.
With conventional homes, maneuvering for the best deal is a well-defined
game played by the buyer, the seller, and both agents. But things gets a
little trickier with an energy-efficient home because the market is relatively
untested, and things are changing fast. You need to understand how energyefficiency technology, like solar technology, the price of homes in your
area and how different stoves and heating and cooling systems play with
the market in general. If you’re selling an energy-efficient home, your tasks
include educating potential sellers. Finally, because energy-efficient homes
generally cost more than conventional homes, you need to understand how
to put a number on this difference. In this chapter, I give you all the information you need.
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
Buying an Existing Efficient Home
If you want an energy-efficient home, you can build your own (Chapter 21
explains how), but that’s a long, arduous task. An easier and generally less
time-consuming solution is to buy an existing efficient home.
Unfortunately, not a lot of energy-efficient homes are out there — at least not
today. This situation will change quite a bit in the coming years, but for now,
if you want an efficient home, you’re going to have to look hard for one, and
you may be disappointed with what you find. Restricting yourself to buying
an existing efficient home will probably mean making some big compromises
on the type and style of home you want.
When looking for existing energy-efficient homes, heed the maxim “Let the
buyer beware.” If you find an energy-efficient home that you’re interested in,
you need to make sure the equipment is sound and does what it’s supposed to
do. The following sections tell you how to evaluate an energy-efficient home.
If you live in an area where solar communities are springing up, count your
lucky stars and head there to take a look. These communities are designed
for energy efficiency and environmental friendliness. All the homes, designed
by professionals who know how to make solar systems work to their fullest
potential, feature both passive and active solar power. Energy-efficient equipment like HVAC, water heating, and so on is standard fare. In addition, most of
these communities include special recycling centers to ensure minimal environmental impact.
In most states, real estate law clearly states that if a piece of equipment is
attached to a house, it’s part of the house. Doors are part of a house, whereas
refrigerators are not. In theory, all solar equipment is part of the house, but
this is often misunderstood, particularly with regard to swimming pool systems, which sometimes end up going with the seller to his new house. If you
buy a home with energy-efficient equipment already installed, make sure to
get in writing exactly what equipment is staying or going. Otherwise, you may
be in for a nasty surprise on moving day.
Evaluating just how energy efficient
a home is (or isn’t)
In addition to the usual pest, roof, and other inspections normally done for
a real estate transaction, you need to have energy audits and solar potential
inspections if you’re thinking about buying an already existing energy-efficient
home. Specifically, you need to evaluate how energy-efficient the home is,
Chapter 22: Buying and Selling an Energy-Efficient Home
identify the kind of energy-efficiency (especially solar) equipment it has, and
determine the condition of that equipment.
Energy-efficiency equipment increases the maintenance responsibility of
any house. You need to know what you’re doing and how to use the equipment, even if it’s all in perfect working order. Unfortunately, because energyefficiency concepts are relatively new, most realtors and market professionals
don’t thoroughly understand the ins and outs. So it’s up to you to arm yourself
with the information you need to understand exactly what you’re getting into.
Taking a quick look
A relatively quick look-see can tell you quite a bit about how effective the
energy-efficiency features of a home are:
Look at the home’s orientation and landscaping. Is it situated in such a
way as to maximize the solar exposure? Are deciduous trees in the right
spots? Refer to Chapter 21 for information on the importance of orientation and landscaping.
Check out the home’s electrical, HVAC, and water heating systems.
What type of HVAC does it have and how old is it? (If it’s old, over fifteen
years, you’ll probably have to replace it.)
Check the major appliances. A central vacuum (in which the vacuum is
located in the garage and special PVC pipes run through the house so
that all you have to do is plug in the wand to vacuum wherever you are
in the house) is a plus.
Evaluate the home’s layout. Some designs are more conducive to
energy efficiency than others (refer to Chapter 21 for details).
Pay attention to the windows. Check for overhangs and awnings
over windows. Are the blinds strictly decorative, or do they also have
Check for thermal masses. Thermal masses are things like concrete
floors and walls, tile floors — any mass that holds a lot of heat. Are they
arranged so that they catch sunlight during the day, which results in
better heating efficiency at night? Are they being used effectively both
inside and outside the house?
In addition to your quick look-through, you also may want to conduct an
energy-efficiency audit — not just for the energy-efficient equipment, but for
the entire house. (Chapter 3 gives more details on energy audits) You can
have this done as part of the usual due diligence, or you may want to pay for
it upfront before you start getting serious about the house.
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
Perusing the power bills
Ask to see the power bills for the past year. If the seller doesn’t have them,
he can easily get them from the utility company. If you can’t get any power
bills, something is wrong. The vast majority of efficient home owners are
proud to show off their power bills.
If, in examining the bills, you notice that some monthly bills are unusually
high, it could mean that the efficiency equipment was broken at that time.
Ask why the bill blipped, and take warning if the answer doesn’t jibe with the
seller’s claims of how often the equipment went down.
Looking closely at the efficiency equipment
Look for energy-efficient technology. For example, are solar tubes showing on
the roof? Skylights? Solar panels? Do they look new or old? Once you know
the type of equipment, get the following information:
Where the equipment was purchased and who installed it: Are these
companies still in business, and if not, why not? If it’s a do-it-yourself
job, have it checked out by a pro, or, if you’re a do-it-yourselfer and
know what to look for, check it yourself.
Whether local building department permits were obtained for the
equipment: If not, why not? A permit implies that a building inspection
was performed, which ensures that the work was done to code. Without
a permit, the work may be substandard, although not necessarily. The
point is, the risk becomes yours. You may want to insist on the seller
getting the necessary permits, although they’re going to balk because
it’s a big hassle.
Warranty information and records regarding system performance and
maintenance: How much time is left on the warranty? Ask whether the
warranty is transferable (this is important). Have any warranty repairs
been done? If so, pay attention to what went wrong. If several warranty
repairs have been done, beware — especially if the warranty is about to
Manuals: You want the original manuals that came with the equipment.
You may be able to get these on the Internet, but a conscientious owner
(the kind you want) should have them. Read through the manuals, and
you’ll understand the equipment and what it’s going to need by way of
maintenance and repair.
System use vs. system capacity: Determine how much equipment is
being used versus its maximum capacity. If there’s a solar water heater,
how much of its capacity is being used to offset the current power bill? If
Chapter 22: Buying and Selling an Energy-Efficient Home
the solar water heater is capable of outputting twice as much energy as
it currently is, is this important to you? If your family is bigger, you’ll use
more hot water, and you’ll probably use more energy in general. This
may or may not be reflected in higher energy bills.
Personal habits enter into these calculations, so temper what you find
with a consideration of how the seller’s energy usage may differ from
your own.
You can easily check a PV system by looking at the power output on a sunny
day near solar noon. First, check the panels and see how far off the optimum
angle they are. Then simply read the digital meter on the face of the inverter.
This will be the maximum amount of power you can expect to get out of the
Anticipating changes and repairs
Before you reject or accept an existing energy-efficient home, you need to
determine what kinds of changes you’d want to make to improve the home’s
energy efficiency and what kinds of repairs may be just around the corner.
Then you can decide whether these tasks are ones you’re willing to take on.
Some questions to ask include:
Can the systems be expanded? For instance, is the inverter larger than
its current output power? If so, PV panels can be added. A hot water
system can usually be expanded by adding more collectors.
Could you get more out of the equipment by making a few changes?
Are there trees shading the collectors that you could cut down to get
more productivity? Are the collectors dirty and unkept? Are vicious little
creatures like raccoons nested somewhere, jealously guarding their
Does the roof need to be replaced? You’ll get a roof inspection as a
matter of routine. If the roof needs to be replaced and it contains solar
equipment, you’ll have to pay to get the equipment dismantled first, and
then reassembled after the new roof is in place. Solar power won’t be
produced during this period, either.
If there’s a net metering agreement, does it carry over? What is the
rate structure going to be? If it’s not going to be the same as the one in
place the last few years, the utility bills that you get are going to be different. Can you change the rate structure if you want?
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
Determining the value of an
existing efficient home
If you like the home and everything seems to be on the up and up, you’re
ready to make an offer. An energy-efficient home costs more than a comparable conventional home, most of the time. To determine what’s reasonable,
you need to know what a comparable conventional home would cost and
then add the value associated with the energy-efficiency equipment.
You should be able to get an accurate estimate on how much a conventional
home is worth from your realtor. The tricky part is determining the value of
the efficiency equipment. Why? Because to do so, you really have to determine two values: the value to you (what you’re willing to offer for the house)
and what a bank will value the property at. Some banks are completely ignorant of energy efficiency and may not add any value at all for efficiency equipment, while others understand its value (see Chapter 4 for more on financial
Here are some things to do and consider as you try to determine the value of
an energy-efficient home:
Try to get what realtors call “comps” — the recent sales prices of comparable homes in the same local area. Gauging a home’s value this way
may not be completely accurate, but it’s the best place to start. At the
very least, you’ll find out how buyers are operating. If no value seems
to be placed on energy-efficiency equipment, you’re in luck as a buyer
(though this is bad when you’re selling).
Figure out how much it would cost to have a contractor come in and
install all the energy-efficiency equipment that is already in place:
Be sure to include not only the equipment but the installation labor
and any other costs as well. A solar home’s equipment should never be
worth more than this amount, although buzz can sometimes send values
higher. Plus, do-it-yourself projects are more difficult and a lot of people
simply don’t want to do them, so they’ll pay more for equipment that’s
already in place.
Compare energy bills for the efficient home versus a comparable
conventional home. How much less are the energy bills? View this as a
monthly payment on a second mortgage, and then determine the loan
balance that would result in that monthly payment. Realize that you can
buy more house when you don’t have a monthly utility bill. The key to
an energy-efficient home is having more money each month to do things
other than pay utility bills.
Chapter 22: Buying and Selling an Energy-Efficient Home
If you think power rates are going to go through the roof in the future,
an efficient home is worth more. Keep in mind that past records are fine
and dandy, but it’s the future that counts. Energy-efficient homes not
only cost you less in energy bills, but they will also see less increase
when rates go up. When you buy into energy efficiency, you’re insuring
your future against severe cost jolts. This is worth something, although
it’s very hard to enumerate.
Determine how much it’s worth to you to mitigate pollution. See
Chapter 5 for a method of enumerating this rather intangible issue. The
bottom line is that we’re all going to be paying to accomplish this laudable goal.
Call your homeowner’s insurance agent and ask about solar equipment and how it might affect your insurance rates and terms. If the
equipment has not been inspected and permitted by the local building
department, bring this up. Ask about any odd construction techniques,
like rammed earth. Some insurance companies won’t insure this kind of
dwelling because state law mandates them to build an identical house in
the event of a claim. It may be impossible to get an identical house if the
one you’re looking at is an oddball (geodesic domes, watch out!).
As you would with any house, think about how long you anticipate
living there. If you’re going to be staying for a long time, you don’t need
to worry about selling a home, only about buying it. If you’re going to
be living in the area for a short time, you should be as concerned about
selling as you are about buying.
Maybe the most important question to ask yourself is whether you would buy
this house if it were exactly the same structure, but without any efficiency
equipment. How much you would pay for it then? How much you’re willing to
pay comes down to how much you want the house. That’s the bottom line.
Your realtor is going to have to help you come up with a competitive offer,
which is far beyond the scope of this book.
Buying an Existing Home to Upgrade
There are good reasons for buying an existing conventional home and installing energy-efficiency equipment yourself, as opposed to buying a completed
efficient home:
You have a lot more options. In some areas, efficient homes are a real
rarity and you may not even be able to find one that’s for sale.
Your equipment will be brand new with a full warranty. Because homeowners rarely install expensive equipment right before they sell, the
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
equipment on existing efficient homes is usually older, which can mean
more maintenance and less efficiency.
New equipment is always better than old because technology is always
improving. Plus, your improvements may qualify for subsidies or tax
incentives; see Chapter 4 for details.
If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you can install equipment for much less
than a professional contractor. That means the value you place on
some types of efficiency equipment will be less than what a seller is
probably going to demand for a completed home. You will know the
equipment better, and you won’t have to trust a seller’s claims of performance. Keep in mind, though, that you may be able to get a guarantee of
performance when you buy an efficient home. When you do the installs
yourself, there are no guarantees of any kind, or at the very least, they
are hazy.
You can install equipment as the need arises, timing your efficiency
improvements in ways that most benefit you. This is especially important if you finance the purchase of your home with a first mortgage,
which won’t include your equipment improvements. This means you’ll
have to find another way to pay for your upgrades. Doing them a little
at a time is one option. Another is getting an equity loan, but ultimately
this will cost you more (in monthly payments) than simply buying a
completed energy-efficient home and wrapping all the extra value into
one first mortgage.
You may be able to demand that some improvements be done before you buy
an existing home. Perhaps you can get a seller to install some solar or other
energy-efficiency equipment as a condition of sale. If a water heater is shot,
perhaps you can demand a solar water heating system be put in its place, for
If you’re going to buy an existing conventional home and install your own
efficiency equipment, you need to carefully and accurately evaluate its suitability. Here’s a checklist:
Read Chapter 21 on designing and building an efficient home from
scratch. When you’re looking at a prospective home, compare its features with the ideals expressed in Chapter 21.
Make a list of all the efficiency investments that will work in your
new home; then estimate the costs for doing each project, based on
the construction and layout of the house. This is relatively easy for
active solar energy, like PV and hot water, and for installing things like
fireplaces and stoves, where you can get a good idea of the cost by
simply talking to a local retailer. But it’s going to be tougher for passive
features, those built right into the home’s design, such as skylights and
Chapter 22: Buying and Selling an Energy-Efficient Home
window orientation. You’ll probably find that moving walls and cutting
into ceilings isn’t really worth the cost, given the potential savings on
your power bills. Passive solar is much easier to design and build into a
home than it is to modify a home for.
To figure out where the most egregious energy sinks are so that you
know what you’re facing and can prioritize your improvements, get a
professional energy audit, if possible. A seller may let you do one, but
it’s a tough request to make before an offer is on the table. Inspections
are normally done once an offer is made and accepted.
Evaluate existing energy equipment for potential improvements. Is the
HVAC old? Perhaps you can demand that a new one be installed. How
about wood stoves or gas stoves? Attic vents?
Installing energy-efficient equipment on any home usually entails tearing out
some existing equipment and forking over the money for new equipment. You
should have a good idea of what you want to do in your new home, and some
idea of the price of the upgrades.
Selling Your Efficient
Home for Big Bucks
You want the most you can get for your efficient home, of course. To get top
dollar, you need to know what buyers look for when they’re in the market for
an existing energy-efficient home. The first section in this chapter, “Buying an
Existing Efficient Home,” goes into detail on what buyers should look for. As a
seller, here’s what you need to know:
Keep good records of everything. If you can’t validate your energyefficiency claims, your systems may be worthless. Or even more
detrimental to your cause, you may cast yourself as untrustworthy in
general — why else would you be making claims that you can’t back up?
Find a realtor who knows efficient houses, and how best to offer
them for sale to the market. You want to capitalize on “buzz” — in this
regard, some market strategies work and some don’t. The right realtor
will let the right buyers know you’ve got an efficient home for sale.
Target the right market. At present, most people have no clear idea
what energy efficiency means, beyond the fact that utility bills will (or
should) be lower. These people are not likely to pay you more for your
energy-efficient home than they would pay for a conventional home.
As energy rates rise, this will change, out of necessity. But one thing is
Part IV: Considering Efficiency When You Buy, Build, or Sell a Home
always true of marketing: You need to reach the right buyers to get the
best price. Shotgun approaches (blasting at the whole world and hoping
you’ll hit something) is almost always unproductive.
Price the house correctly. You’re going to price your energy-efficient
home higher than a conventional home, and rightly so. But if you don’t
reach the right market, your home won’t sell, and then you’ll have a
reputation in local realtor circles for trying to sell an overpriced home.
Realtors see overpriced homes as a waste of time, and they don’t bother
showing them. The initial entry of a home onto a market is the most
important time because realtors lose interest in a house that doesn’t
sell. Even if you subsequently lower your price, they still won’t get as
enthused as they will with a house that’s new on the market and priced
The bottom line: Always be square with everybody all the time. People know
when you’re playing games.
Part V
The Part of Tens
In this part . . .
very handy, good looking, information-packed For
Dummies book ends with quick reference lists to help
you along. The lists here are packed with information on
some of the best and easiest ways to become more energy
And because this is the last part of the book, I’ve allowed
myself the liberty of letting loose — a tendency my editor
did her darnedest to keep in check. If you don’t find this
part as entertaining as I do, blame her: She ruined all my
Chapter 23
Ten Best Energy-Efficient
In This Chapter
Getting the greatest effect for the least moolah
Creating a more comfortable home environment
I don’t like work, even when somebody else does it.
— Mark Twain
A penny saved is a penny earned.
— Benjamin Franklin
hese twin sentiments pretty much sum up this chapter. The best energyefficiency tips are those that are easy to do and give you the best payback. The crème de la crème is achieving both.
Installing a Programmable Thermostat
For $40 to $150, you can install a programmable thermostat to automatically
control the temperature of your home. (Some thermostats can also control
the humidity — a good option if you want to ensure a comfortable environment.) The trick with a programmable thermostat is to minimize the amount
of time the system is turned on when you’re not home. If you’re at work all
day, you can turn off your HVAC system, or at least raise the temperature in
the summer and lower it in the winter, while you’re away and then program it
to turn back on a short time before you’re due home.
If you’re on a peak rate schedule, a programmable thermostat can save you
even more because you can avoid using your HVAC during peak hours.
Part V: The Part of Tens
Payback of your original investment only takes six months to two years. You
would be hard-pressed to find any other type of energy-efficient investment
that works so well.
Chapter 8 has lots more information on what you can do to save money on
your HVAC system.
Sealing Your Home’s Envelope
Most leaks in ductwork and heating and cooling vents are very easy to fix and
take little more than a few twists of your wrists. Some, like the ones in your
attic or basement, are very difficult to get at. The worst culprits are leaks
around windows. But every leak costs a lot because it allows cold air to enter
your home in the winter and hot air to enter in the summer.
To fix leaks, you generally need nothing more than caulk and weatherstripping, two of the least expensive fix-it products made. Some window leaks may
require that you buy special seals, but these are generally harder to find than
they are expensive.
If you spend less than $100 on materials like caulk and weatherstripping, you
can easily save this much in one year’s time. Plus your home will be more
comfortable, with fewer drafts and temperature fluctuations from room to
Another way to seal your home’s envelope is fill in the gaps in your insulation. This investment takes an initial cash outlay, but you’ll unquestionably
save on heating and cooling bills, and your home will be more comfortable
to boot. Most insulation investments pay back in around two years. Your
home will also be worth more because you can show a prospective buyer
your smaller utility bills, and they’ll factor this into their offering price. Go to
Chapter 7 for more on insulating your home against drafts.
Sealing the Ducts in Your HVAC System
If the ducts in your HVAC system aren’t properly sealed, you’re wasting a lot
of hot or cold air that could be better spent warming or cooling your home.
Although sealing these ducts can be a hassle — you may have to climb into
the attic, crawl around underneath your ground floor, climb ladders, or twist
yourself into the shape of a pretzel — you won’t spend much money, and
you’ll get an incredible return on the money you do have to spend.
Chapter 23: Ten Best Energy-Efficient Investments
The first thing to do is survey what needs to be done. Inspect all the ductwork: Turn your HVAC on first because a lot of the leaks will be very obvious
with a simple glance. Check for smaller leaks by using the wet hand technique described in Chapter 7.
To fix leaks in the ductwork, tape them where you can. If insulation is falling
off (a very common problem), tape it back up. Given how cheap and effective
this fix is, the payback can be less than a month.
Always wear a dust mask when working with ducts (say that fast, five times).
Installing a Flow Constrictor
Shower Head
A flow constrictor is very simple: It’s just a washer with a hole of a preset
size that you install inside the shower head. The smaller the hole, the lower
the flow, and bigger the hole, the greater the flow. For a measly $15 and up,
you can easily save that much in a couple months just by installing a low-flow
showerhead (or as it’s so fashionable to say these days, a Lo Flo showerhead). You don’t need to sacrifice the quality of your showers, either. You
save tons of water, but even better, you save tons of heat energy, and that
costs a lot more than water these days.
Lo Flo heads are simple to install:
1. Unscrew the old head.
You may actually need pliers for this, but go ahead and give it a try
before you trudge all the way down to the garage.
2. Take the old head with you to the hardware store and buy a goodquality, Lo Flo head that you like the looks of.
Take the old head because there are different sizes of mounting threads,
or different types of mounting schemes. Also, get one that can be
If you have problems with mineral deposits in your water, buy a cheap
head because it won’t be long before it gets all gummed up with crud.
3. Screw the new head on.
You don’t have to trudge all the way down to the garage for pliers
because if you use the rubber gasket that’s provided, you don’t have to
screw the darn thing on very tight in order to get a good seal.
Part V: The Part of Tens
Note: If you have a solar water heater, you don’t have much incentive to save
hot water. You’re better off watching an old movie on the telly.
For more ways you can reduce your water consumption, go to Chapter 10.
Insulating Your Water Heater
Feel your water heater. If it feels warm to the touch, that means heat is leaching out, and instead of warming your water, it’s warming the air — uselessly.
So wrap an insulating blanket around your water heater. The payback will be
around two years.
Insulating blankets, which cost around $20 to $30, are easy to install (just
read the instructions that come with the blanket) and easy to find (they’re
about as common as thumbtacks). Measure the dimensions (diameter and
height) before you go to the hardware store. (You may want to call before
you go and make sure they have them.)
Wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt because insulation can make you itch a
lot, and that takes more energy than you want to expend.
Head to Chapter 11 for other things you can do to increase the efficiency of
your water heater and a plethora of other home appliances.
Plugging In Fluorescents
Traditional incandescent bulbs give off a lot of heat as well as light. In the
summer, or when it’s warm, you don’t want the heat because it just makes
your air-conditioner work harder. So in warm climates fluorescents are more
efficient than incandescents. Installing a fluorescent bulb in place of any light
bulb in your home that’s on for more than a couple hours a day will pay back
in around one year.
Unless the light fixture is on a high ceiling, screwing in a fluorescent light
bulb should be easy. Plugging in fluorescents is also a good idea for fixtures
that are hard to reach. You’ll save labor and aggravation in the long run
because fluorescents last a lot longer than incandescent light bulbs, so you
won’t have to climb that ladder nearly as often.
Go to Chapter 9 for more on lighting your home more efficiently.
Chapter 23: Ten Best Energy-Efficient Investments
Installing Motion Sensors
Install motion sensors (described in Chapter 9) in your garage or in closets
and basements. You won’t have to reach your arm up and flip the switch
(which saves a lot of effort, especially if your arm is very large). And when
you leave the space, the light will go off by itself. It’s always good when
things happen by themselves — that way not only do you not have to expend
energy, but you don’t have to think about it, either.
Motion sensors are also a great idea for outdoor security lights, which otherwise tend to be on all night long. With a motion sensor, the light comes on
when something trips the sensor and goes off again automatically.
Putting Insulating Sleeves
on Hot Water Pipes
You may have to reach over your head or go down into your basement or
crawl space, but fitting elongated sleeves of foam insulation over hot water
pipes makes a big difference.
First, measure the diameter of your pipes, then approximate the length you
will need. At the hardware store, they’ll fix you up for cheap. Fitting this stuff
around the pipes is actually kind of fun because nothing can go wrong. You
don’t even have to cover the entire pipe; any little bit will help. There are
very few things you can do in this life where nothing can go wrong, but this
is one of them. Well, I guess you could put the insulation on cold water pipes.
But it’s still fun.
Changing HVAC Filters
on a Routine Basis
If your HVAC filters are dirty, the machinery has to work much harder, and
your utility bill goes up very quickly. So change the filter whenever it gets
clogged with dust. How can you tell? Most of the time all you have to do is
listen. A dirty filter sounds like it’s whistling.
Part V: The Part of Tens
If you buy filters in bulk, you can get them for less than $5 apiece. Also, when
you buy them in bulk, you’ll have them handy and you’ll be more apt to
change them when it’s time.
The expensive filters, usually advertised as electrostatic, aren’t worth the
extra money you pay unless you’ve got some health issues that require you to
buy these more expensive filters.
Tuning Up Your HVAC System Regularly
Properly maintained mechanical systems work better and more efficiently
than systems that haven’t been maintained. So tune up your HVAC system
every few years. You can pay a pro to do this — it’s worth the hundred dollars or so it costs because a pro knows how to get things working as efficiently as possible. (Be wary, however, of being sold something you don’t
need, in which case the payback will be dubious.) Alternatively, you can tune
up your system yourself if you have an instruction manual.
If you’ve got a combustion system, I don’t recommend tackling this task yourself unless you’re an experienced do-it-yourselfer. Combustion systems are
tricky to adjust, and they carry the potential of explosion if you do something
drastically wrong. If you’ve got an electric system, the job is a lot easier and
Chapter 24
Ten Ridiculously Easy
Energy-Saving Tips
In This Chapter
Getting a free lunch after all (sort of)
Impressing your spouse for the least amount of effort
Taking the easy route to energy efficiency
ome energy-saving solutions are ridiculously easy — so easy, in fact,
that you may not have thought of them. Or if you did think of them, you
may have thought that easy is the equivalent of ineffective. Au contraire. This
chapter offers ways you can become more energy-efficient with very little
work and little, if any, cost.
Turn Down the Thermostat
Lower the temperature in your home in the winter and raise it in the summer.
Consider that most humans who have lived on Earth throughout the course
of history have not even had access to air-conditioning, and heating was
spotty at best. They survived just fine. So can you.
Close Doors and Dampers
Close the fireplace damper when the fireplace is not in use. If you don’t, the
warm air (which you’ve paid for in your heating bills) just gets sucked out
the chimney. It’s amazing how many people don’t do this, and it’s easy. Just
make it a habit.
Part V: The Part of Tens
You can also close off unused rooms and unused ducts. At a minimum, close
the doors — even better, close the register.
Lower the Temp on Your Water Heater
You can save a lot of money by simply lowering the temperature on your
domestic water heater. Most homes have the temperature set too high; 113°F
is hot enough. See Chapter 10 for more details.
Use Your Microwave
If you need hot water, use your microwave oven instead of using the stove
or letting the water run from the tap until it’s hot enough to satisfy you. The
microwave uses a lot less energy than the stove, and filling the water pipes
with hot water from heater to tap just to get a cup doesn’t make much sense.
The microwave is a more efficient alternative for most cooking chores, too.
Steaming vegetables, warming leftovers — even boiling water — takes less
energy in a microwave than it does on a stove top or in an oven. Using
the microwave also reduces the amount of heat that gets released into the
room — definitely a consideration during the hot months when you’re trying
to stay cool.
Clear Kids’ Toys Out of Radiator Vents
Many radiator vents have obstructions on the inside. Kids drop their toys;
animals drop their toys; that remote controller you can’t find has fallen down
in there. Or maybe a chunk of carpet fell in when you were remodeling. All
you have to do is pull the vent cover off, get a flashlight, bend over, and look
down inside. Removing obstructions makes a huge difference in the efficiency
of the HVAC operation, and makes the room much more comfortable to boot.
Use Warm or Cold Water instead of Hot
By simply using warm or cold water instead of hot, you can increase your
energy efficiency and save money:
Chapter 24: Ten Ridiculously Easy Energy-Saving Tips
Wash clothes in cold water. Using warm or cold water in your washing
machine can save quite a bit of energy. About 75 percent of the time you
don’t need hot water. Although this may not work for the dirtiest loads,
it works just fine for most. Detergents especially made for cold-water
washing help, too. So give it a try, and see what comes of it. The worst
that can happen is you have to run the clothes through again on a hotter
cycle. But you’ll probably find that most of the time it doesn’t matter.
Flush the garbage disposer with cold rather than hot water. The problem here is that most of the time when you turn your hot water on, you
have to wait awhile for the hot water to arrive from the water heater.
During this time, hot water is actually filling up the pipes between the
heater and your disposer. This heat is then wasted. Even worse, in the
summertime it ends up warming your home. If your air conditioner is on,
it has to work harder. You lose in every way.
Lock Closed Windows
Leaks in your home’s envelope are one of the biggest causes of inefficiencies, and can cost quite a bit of money in terms of energy bills. If you simply
lock your windows and doors when you close them, you’ll improve the seal.
Granted, this isn’t a real big deal, but every little bit helps.
Do All Your Laundry at Once
Never do a partial load of laundry; it wastes energy. Fill up the machine. Even
if the machine has a switch that adjusts for smaller loads, it isn’t nearly as
energy-efficient as washing a full load.
Always dry loads consecutively in your clothes dryer to take advantage of
residual heat. When your dryer is cold, it takes a considerable amount of heat
just to warm the machine up.
Clean the dryer filter before every load. Doing so is easy and makes a huge difference in terms of energy consumption.
Part V: The Part of Tens
Skip the Dishwasher Drying Cycle
Believe it or not, you don’t have to use the drying cycle on your dishwasher.
Your clean dishes will dry very nicely, thank you, if you simply open the
machine up, especially in the summer.
When it’s very hot, use a fan to exhaust the humidity out of a nearby open
window. Aim the fan out the window so that the humidity is sucked right out
as soon as possible.
Plant a Tree Where It Counts
For around $30, you can buy a small deciduous tree in healthy, vigorous condition. Plant it in front of your big picture window so that it shades the summertime sun and allows for sunshine in the winter.
Depending on how fast the tree grows, payback is between five and ten years,
which may not be rapid but is one of the best ways to increase your energy
efficiency. You can’t do any better than planting a tree in your yard.
Chapter 25
Ten Best Solar Investments
In This Chapter
Identifying the best money-making propositions in solar power
Making your house look a lot better
Creating a more comfortable home environment
n my estimation, solar power is the best way to invest in energy efficiency.
Your personal situation dictates the type of solar investment that’s best
for your own home, but there are some projects that stand out for being sensible and practical, in both monetary and aesthetic terms. In this chapter, I
give you my list of the ten best solar investments, based on my own personal
experience, as well as feedback from many others who have worked with
solar energy.
Using solar energy to increase efficiency doesn’t always require solar technology or equipment. Many times, it just requires that you take advantage of the
sunshine that comes naturally into your home and yard.
PV Systems
Photovoltaic (PV) systems are the grande dame of solar investments and are
going to experience hyper growth over the coming years. You can get a feel
for just how much humans impact the environment when you realize that,
on average, economically active Americans are responsible for nearly 40,000
pounds of carbon dioxide per capita. You don’t need to be a politically active
environmentalist to come to the conclusion that we need to do a lot better.
Nor do you need to believe in global warming.
PV systems offset the most carbon pollution because so much inefficiency is
inherent in our electrical power grid. For each kWh of energy you create with a
PV system, you are saving five or six times that much utility-generated power,
most of which comes from coal-fired plants in North America. PV systems
allow for tremendous environmental leverage, and that will never change.
Part V: The Part of Tens
Strictly from a monetary standpoint, PV systems are becoming increasingly
competitive, and as energy rates rise, they will eventually become extremely
good investments. For more information on PV systems, head to Chapter 16.
Solar Swimming Pool Heaters
The average swimming pool costs around $20,000 to install. It takes up a big
chunk of your back yard, and requires a lot of maintenance. Swimming pool
chemicals are expensive, and you have to measure the water all the time
for chemical balances. Chlorine and sunshine tend to eat pool equipment,
particularly the plastics that are so common, so equipment lifetimes are limited. You need to clean the filter periodically, and occasionally you need to
empty the pool out and start over, which makes a big impact on your water
bill. The bottom line is, a swimming pool is quite a luxury item, probably the
most expensive luxury you will ever purchase.
If you’re going to put this much time and energy into a pool, one of your goals
is likely to be extending the swim season as much as you can, and that means
using a pool heater. When you install a heating system on your swimming
pool, simply put, you can use your pool three or four times more than without a heater. The water will be much more comfortable, and you’ll be able to
swim over a longer season.
Of the kinds of heaters available — propane, electric, and solar — go for the
solar heater. From a pollution standpoint, a solar heater is ideal (zero pollution) compared to the sinful alternatives (propane and electric). After the
initial investment, solar heaters are also less costly to operate: Try nothing
compared to what you have to pay to power a propane or electric heater.
And although you can extend your swim season with a non-solar heater, keep
in mind that the cost of heating the water will rise as the temperature falls.
Solar Water Heaters
Solar water heaters, when properly designed and installed, are great investments. Most people can afford a few thousand dollars for a solar water heater
system without taking out loans. You can find do-it-yourself kits that work
with existing water heaters, so you can keep your investment down in that
way as well.
You can install a very simple batch-type system. Kits are available that allow
you not only to do the installation yourself, but also to build the collector
yourself. Alternatively, you can find designs for nominal fees and build the
entire system completely from scratch for less than a few hundred dollars.
Chapter 25: Ten Best Solar Investments
A big benefit of a solar water heater is that you never need to conserve on
hot water, regardless of how high energy rates go. From a pollution standpoint, water heating typically comprises around 18 percent of your power
bill, so you can save exactly that much from your carbon footprint.
If you are on a tiered rate structure, a solar water heater cuts into the most
expensive part of your power bill first. For example, if you save 18 percent of
the electrical energy you use, you may be able to save closer to 30 percent of
your total power bill (see Chapter 5 for more details).
PV systems are more popular than solar water heaters, but new plastics have
been developed that are going to change this. Look for new technologies, and
you’ll find one that is ideal for your own application.
Solar Yard Lights
For very little cost, you can put a whole range of fun and interesting lights
around your yard. They charge during the daylight hours, and they come
on at night. You’ll be surprised at how little sunlight they need, given the
amount of light they put out.
Unlike low-voltage systems, which require very thick gauge wires that you
need to run around your yard, solar lighting is as simple as one, two, three.
And if you don’t like the way things look, changing the layout is as simple as
four, five, six.
Try both the static lights and the little, changing-color decorative lights. You
can get a whole range of different mounting schemes, so you can put them
My experience is that solar yard lights don’t need to be in any direct sunlight
at all. Put them under a tree and they’ll work. And you can get a light that has
a PV panel connected to the light itself by means of a wire, so you can put the
PV panel in direct sunlight, and the light under your porch roof.
Window Blinds
Windows are a major source of heat transfer. In the summer, windows let in
too much heat energy. In the winter, windows allow a lot of heat to escape.
Your house would be much more energy efficient if there were no windows at
all. But this is absurd. After all, windows attract a lot of attention (they break
up walls, which are monotonous) and they’re a source of natural sunlight.
Part V: The Part of Tens
The eye is naturally drawn to a window, particularly a big window in your
family room or living room. The solution? Put in window blinds that have
good insulation.
Window blinds make a big difference in the overall tone of your home. With
the right blinds, you can significantly reduce heat transfer as well as reflect
most incident sunlight. The functional effect is dramatic. The aesthetic effect
is even more so, if you choose the right ones.
The best candidates for window blinds are large windows in family rooms and
living rooms. They’ll give you the most bang for the buck. Go to Chapter 12 for
details on how to use blinds and other window covering for energy efficiency.
By judiciously using overhangs, described in Chapter 12, you can make your
home more comfortable and save on your power bill at the same time. By
shading your southern windows appropriately, you can increase the natural
lighting in your home in the winter, when you want as much light as possible,
and decrease it in the summer (lots of light makes you feel warmer).
A well-designed overhang over a porch or sunroom minimizes temperature
variations. Nobody likes a home where the temperature swings wildly over
the course of a day. And temperature variations tend to make materials swell
and shrink, which causes cracking and premature wear.
Overhangs are very reasonable do-it-yourself projects. You don’t need electrical or plumbing experience. Rarely do extraordinary weight requirements
entail the use of a professional engineer. And if you keep things modest, you
don’t need to get a county building permit or permission from a neighborhood association design committee (who would probably love your proposed project anyway).
Sunrooms let you increase the usable square footage of your house cheaply,
with maximum functional effect. They also allow you to use the natural heat
from the sun to heat your home, which is very energy efficient. A sunroom
can be added onto an existing home for far less cost than a conventional
room. You can put in nearly any size room you want, and do-it-yourself kits
are straightforward and well-designed. You can build one out of aluminum,
Chapter 25: Ten Best Solar Investments
wood, or even plastic corrugated materials that cost very little. You can also
put in any number of windows you want. You can install a wall of windows, or
just a few. You can incorporate a concrete floor (for maximum thermal mass)
or you can use an existing wooden or synthetic deck.
If you do it right, you can build a sunroom without getting a building permit
(forego electric power and don’t connect it rigidly to your house). If you insulate it well, you’ll have a family room for about one-fifth the cost of adding a
conventional room to your house. Go to Chapter 12 for details.
Swimming Pool Covers
Okay, I can hear the howls of indignation over this one. Swimming pool
covers are a big hassle. But for the amount they cost compared to what
they can save, they’re actually a great deal. Swimming pool covers basically
accomplish the same thing that solar pool heaters do (see the earlier section
“Solar Swimming Pool Heaters”) but cost about 3 percent as much.
If you’re in a climate where you don’t need a pool heater over the course of
the summer, you can extend your swimming season a month or so at both
the beginning and end of the season by using a cover then and only then.
Retracting mechanisms are available that work well enough to prevent you
from hating your cover because you have to fold it up by hand every time
you want to use the pool. The cheapest manual retractors cost around $300.
You can install an electric retractor, but then you’re starting to talk about the
kind of money you spend on solar water heaters, so you may as well put in a
solar water heater instead.
Solar Attic Vent Fans
Solar attic vent fans are an easy do-it-yourself project with potentially big
results. If you’ve ever gone into your attic space on a hot summer day,
you know what real heat is all about. It can get so hot that it’s dangerous.
Temperatures over 160°F are not uncommon.
All that heat stays up there all night, and it tries to go through the insulation
in your ceiling, down into your house. Most homes have passive, natural
venting schemes designed into the attic space, but older homes didn’t really
give it much thought, and newer homes tend to solve the problem with
increased R-values of insulation. Imagine getting that heat out of the attic.
Part V: The Part of Tens
A properly designed solar attic vent fan can move a lot of air (see Chapter 13)
over the course of a day. The system works hardest when you want it to,
when there’s a lot of hot sunshine. You don’t need to run expensive household electrical power up to the fan’s location (the electricity comes from a
low voltage PV panel instead), which means you can install one just about
anywhere you want, and without worrying about codes or inspections or
building permits.
As a do-it-yourself solar project, installing a solar attic vent fan is ideal because
you get to use some PV panels, which is fun (if your definition of fun is cool
hardware). You won’t get any electrical shocks from the low voltages that PV
panels provide (compared to the high voltages used in conventional house
wiring), and the tools required are minimal. You can do a project in a single
day, and you can learn a lot about your house by studying the layout and
functionality of your attic.
For a few hundred bucks, you can do something really nifty and make a big
Okay, landscaping isn’t strictly solar, if what you’re looking for is technology
that grabs sunlight and makes it go to work in a constructive way. But we
don’t always need to grab photons and train them to get the most benefit out
of the sun. Landscaping is the hands-down winner as the best solar project
because you get so much in return:
Planting hearty, healthy, happy, deciduous trees in the right locations
around your house gives you cooler summers and warmer winters, but
most of all, you can look out your windows and be reminded of why you
care so much about the planet Earth.
Planting bushes, shrubs, and trees as windbreaks allows you to enjoy
natural breezes in your home, without the sound of whirring fan blades
to remind you of technology.
Plants create oxygen out of carbon dioxide, the modern bugaboo of environmentalism. If there were enough trees in this world, global warming
would not be such an imposing issue.
Putting in landscaping yourself gets you outdoors and exercising.
There’s a certain simplicity to digging a hole. It’s about as close to
nature as you can get, and that in itself is justification.
acrylic (latex) caulk, 97
activated carbon filtration, 143
actual energy costs, 22–23
adobe homes, 308
aerator filters in faucets, 145
aerosol sprays, 79
aesthetics, 66
air circulation, 108
air filters
electrostatic precipitation transfer
filters, 211
mechanical filtration, 211
negative ion generators, 211
optimizing, 211–212
overview, 210
size of, 211
air fresheners, 79
air movement
in attics, 205–207
evaporative coolers, 210
with fans, 199–204
flow, restoring, 114
natural air movement, 193–199
ventilation plan, 207–209
vents, 197
air quality
air filters used to improve, 210–212
in green communities, 292–293
houseplants used to improve, 212
natural ways to improve, 212
vacuum cleaner bags changed to improve,
Air Quality Index, 293
air route of fans, 200
air-source heat pumps, 281, 283–284
alpha-track devices used to test for radon, 84
amenities and energy usage, 32
analyzing efficiency, 12
buying new, 174–176
combustion appliances, safety for, 176
computers, 173–174
cost of running, calculating, 157–158
dishwashers, 170–171
dryers, 167–168
Energy Star program, 174–176
materials for an energy-efficient home, 310
ovens, 172–173
overview, 155–156
pools and spas, 162–166
recycling, 221
refrigerators, 169–170
televisions, 173–174
washing machines, 166–167
water heaters, 158–162
appreciation, 65–66
art supplies, 79
finding, 81
overview, 81
removing, 82–83
astragal, 95
attic vent fans
distributed unit, 207
location for, 206
one-piece unit, 206–207
overview, 205–206
air leaks, finding, 93–94
home energy audit, 47
insulation, 101–102
vents in, 205
attitude, importance of, 6
Austin, Texas, 292
hood awnings, 187
overview, 186
Venetian awnings, 187
back drafting, 94
bank accounts, energy efficiency investments
compared with, 66–67
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies
borrowers not customers of, 60
overview, 60
risk, concern with, 60
rules and procedures for, 60
barbecue grills, 36, 173
basement insulation, 102
bathroom exhaust vent, 197
baths, 147–149
disposal of, 299
overview, 37
recycling, 221
battery chargers, 37
bends in ductwork, checking for too
many, 114
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), 76
BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), 76
bids for HVAC contractor, 120
bio-energy products, 36
biological agents, 85–86
biomass, 18, 271–272
biomass stoves
corn, burning, 276–277
manure, burning, 277–278
overview, 273–274
pellet stoves, 274–276
wood stoves compared, 273
and greenhouse effect, 111
outdoor blinds, 188
overview, 183–184, 310
as solar investment, 337–338
where to hang, 184–185
blockage in air ducts, checking for, 114
blocked or leaking ducts, checking for, 116
blocked registers, checking for, 114
blocked return air path, checking for, 114
books, recycling, 222
borrowers not customers of banks, 60
bottled water, 37, 139
Boulder, Colorado, 292
box fans, 202
breakers at main panel, checking, 115
Brewster, Janice (Building Your Own Home
For Dummies), 301
British thermal unit (Btu), 21
broken equipment, replacing, 70
Bugzooka, 216
building an energy-efficient home
designing your home, 305–308
location, choosing a, 301–305
materials, choosing your, 308–311
tips for, 312
building department, contacting the
local, 302
building materials, buying used, 219
Building Your Own Home For Dummies
(Daum, Brewster, & Economy), 301
butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), 76
butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), 76
buying a conventional home to upgrade,
buying a new HVAC system, 118
buying an existing efficient home
changes and repairs, anticipating, 317
equipment, looking over, 316–317
evaluating energy-efficiency of home,
overview, 314
power bills, looking over, 316
value of home, determining, 318–319
visual inspection, 315
buying new appliances, 174–176
buying used items, 219
Canada, energy use by, 20
candles, 37, 124–125, 130
carbon footprint, 43–45
carbon monoxide (CO), 83–84
carpets, 79
acrylic (latex) caulk, 97
applying, 97–98
overview, 96
polyurethane caulk, 97
silicon acrylic caulk, 97
tools for, 97
types of, 97
ceiling fans
and chimney effect, 111
overview, 203–204
used with stoves, 239
ceramics, 79
CFLs (fluorescent light bulbs), 127–128
changes and repairs, anticipating, 317
charcoal detectors used to test for radon, 84
chimney effect, 110–111, 196–198
chimney exhaust flue, checking, 116
chimney options for stoves, 240–241
China, energy use by, 20
chlorine bleach, 78
Christmas trees, reusing, 220
cigarette smoke, 83
Cincinnati, Ohio, 292
cleaning products, using safe, 76
cleaning windows, 105, 179
closed-loop anti-freeze system, 247–249
closed-loop piping system, 285
closed-vent stove system, 229
clothes dryers as source of humidity, 109
clothing, buying used, 219
clutter factor, 64
CO (carbon monoxide), 83–84
coal, 18, 22
cob homes, 308
coffee filters, reusable, 220
combination rate structures, 35
combustion appliances, safety for, 176
combustion processes, 20
combustion products, 83–84
comfort. See human comfort
compost piles, 272
compost toilets, 151, 218
composting, 218
computers, 173–174
conduction, 91
conservation, efficiency compared, 11
construction materials, 308–310
consumer loans, 56
asbestos, 81–83
biological agents, 85–86
carbon monoxide (CO), 83–84
cigarette smoke, 83
combustion products, 83–84
formaldehyde, 77–78
microbe contamination, 85–86
natural hazards, 84–86
overview, 76
radon, 84–85
volatile organic compounds (VOCs), 78–81
contaminated water
signs of, 140
testing for, 141
contract with HVAC contractor, importance
of, 121
contractor, hiring a, 312
convection, 91
convection ovens, 172
corn, burning, 276–277
cost of energy usage
data on, collecting, 36–37
example for, 39–43
month-by-month estimations, 37–38
rate structures, 33–35
of electricity, 21–22
equipment, 63
fees, 63
inexperience, 64
installation, 63
interest, 63
of lighting, 131–133
maintenance, 64
of off-grid living, 299
permits, 63
refuse, 63
of running appliances, 157–158
safety, 64
taxes, 63
warranties, 63
for wind power, 258
costs (nonfinancial)
clutter factor, 64
habits, changing, 64
how-it-looks factor, 64
how-it-smells factor, 64
inconvenience, 64
cowlings, 200
cracking, 14
cracks in your home, finding, 90
creative use of lighting, 130
credit card, using only one, 216
crock pots, 173
current systems, getting greater efficiency
from your, 15
damper, closing fireplace, 331
data on cost of energy usage, collecting,
Daum, Kevin (Building Your Own Home For
Dummies), 301
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies
decluttering, tips for, 87
decorating to enhance natural light, 179
deductions, 66
DeGunther, Rik (Solar Power Your Home For
Dummies), 177, 243, 265, 303
dehumidifiers, 36, 108, 109
Department of Energy (DOE), 58
Department of Housing and Urban
Development (HUD), 58
designing your home
floor plan, 306–307
nontraditional home construction methods,
orientation of home, 305–306
overview, 305
size of home, 305
technology, incorporating energy-efficient,
digital cameras, 217
dimmer switches, 134–135
dimming lighting, 130
dirty coils, fins, filters, checking for, 114
disconnect switches, 252
drying cycle, skipping, 334
hot water, using less, 170–171
loading, 171
overview, 170
rinsing dishes, 171
disposable diapers, 217
disposable items, avoiding, 219–220
disposal of CFLs, 128
distilleries, 141
documentation to verify energy savings, 65
DOE (Department of Energy), 58
donations, 220
closing, 332
opening interior, 199
refrigerator door, keeping closed, 170
double duty use of lighting, 130
drainback system, 246–247
avoiding using, 167–168
ductwork for, 168
length of time for drying clothes, 168
overview, 167–168
ducts in HVAC system, sealing, 326–327
ductwork for dryers, 168
ecofans used with stoves, 239
Economy, Peter (Building Your Own Home For
Dummies), 301
EEMs (Energy Efficient Mortgages), 58
effectiveness of sunlight, increasing the,
analyzing, 12
becoming more efficient, 15–16
conservation compared, 11
current systems, getting greater efficiency
from your, 15
defined, 9
financial efficiency, 9–10, 11
labor efficiency, 9–10, 12
overview, 9–10
pollution efficiency, 9–10, 11
replacing existing systems for greater,
supplementing existing systems for greater,
electric fireplaces, 237–238
electric radiant heat floor systems, 265
electrical cars, 26
electrical energy
coal used in production of, 22
cost of, 21–22
disadvantages of, 26
improving efficiency of, 25–26
sources for, 25–26
electrical grid inefficiencies, 13–14
electrostatic filters, 117
electrostatic precipitation transfer filters, 211
embodied energy, 27
energy costs
actual energy costs, 22–23
overview, 21
raw energy costs, 21–22
energy efficiency
defined, 9
overview, 10
energy efficiency investments
analyzing, 62–67
bank accounts, comparison with, 66–67
costs, 63–64
future price fluctuations, shielding yourself
from, 62
gains, estimating, 65–66
options that work for you, choosing, 62
overview, 61
payback, determining time needed for, 63
real-world investment scenarios, 68–72
risk, dealing with, 62
setting, 61–62
stock market, comparison with, 67
time, value of money over, 67
Energy Efficient Mortgages (EEMs), 58
Energy Policy Act of 1992, 148
energy sources
biomass, 18
coal, 18
combustion processes, 20
geothermal energy, 19
hydropower, 18
import electricity, 19
natural gas, 18
non-combustion processes, 20
nuclear energy, 18
overview, 18–20
petroleum products, 18
solar power, 19
wind power, 19
Energy Star program, 174–176, 296
energy storage, 13
energy usage
amenities and, 32
cost of your, 33–38
overview, 23–25, 30
in typical North American home, 30
in your home, 31–32
energy-efficiency contractors, researching
your subsidy options with, 55
energy-saving tips
damper, closing fireplace, 331
dishwasher drying cycle, skipping, 334
doors, closing, 332
hot water, using warm or cold water instead
of, 332–333
laundry, doing full load of, 333
locking closed windows, 333
microwave, using your, 332
radiator vents, clearing obstructions from,
temperature on water heater, lowering, 332
thermostat, turning down, 331
trees, planting, 334
costs, 63
in existing efficient home, 316–317
monthly cost of, determining, 38
value of, 65
equipment vendors, financing through loans
by, 59
equity loans, 57
evaluating energy efficiency of home, 314–317
evaporative coolers, 210
exhaust fans, 110, 202
expandable foam sealant, 95–96
experienced local contractors, talking to, 303
extruded foam insulation, 100–101
fabric grocery bags, 217
Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage
Association), 58
air route of, 200
box fans, 202
ceiling fans, 203–204
choosing, 202–204
cowlings, 200
efficiency of, maximizing, 200–201
exhaust fans, 202
oscillating fans, 203
overview, 199–200
types of, 202–204
whole-house fans, 69, 204
window fans, 202
Farmer Mac, 58
aerator filters in, 145
leaks in, 145–147
overview, 145
tips for efficiency, 147
two-valve faucet, 145
fees, 63
Feynman, Richard (physics lecturer), 17
fiberglass filters, 117
fiberglass insulation, 100, 103
filters. See also purifying your water
air filters, 210–212
caring for, 145
changing, 116, 329–330
dirty filters, checking for, 114
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies
filters (continued)
home energy audit, 48
mechanical filtration, 142–145, 211
filtration systems, 141
financial efficiency
defined, 9–10
overview, 11
financing through loans
consumer loans, 56
by equipment vendors, 59
equity loans, 57
government-subsidized energy-efficiency
loans, 57–58
supplier loans, 57
by utility companies, 59
finding leaks, 89–94
firelight, 124–125
electric fireplaces, 237–238
home energy audit, 49
open fireplaces, 225–227
firewood, 27, 36
fixing items, 220–221
fixing leaks, 94–98
flat rates, 33
floor pan, 306–307
flooring, 310
fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), 127–128, 328
formaldehyde, 77–78
foundation and structural elements, 46–47
Freddie Mac (Federal Home Mortgage Loan
Corporation), 58
Freed, Eric Corey (Green Building &
Remodeling For Dummies), 296, 308
free-standing stoves, 229–230
full-scale solar PV system, investing in a,
furnace filters, reusable, 220
fuse box, 49
future plans for area, 304–305
future price fluctuations, shielding yourself
from, 62
gable vent, 197
aesthetics, 66
appreciation, 65–66
deductions as, 66
footprints, 66
lower monthly utility bills, 65
overview, 65
rebates, 66
salvage, selling, 66
subsidies, 66
junk mail, eliminating, 215–216
over-packaged products, avoiding, 215
paper products, cutting back on, 216–217
recording what you throw away, 213–214
using less of everything, 214–217
garbage disposal, avoid using, 147
garbage service, 33
gas is on, checking that the, 116
gas ovens with pilotless ignition, 172
gas stoves, 236–237
gasoline-powered generator, using a, 298
geothermal energy
in cooling cycle, 280
cost of, 282
as energy source, 19
heat pumps, 281–282, 283–288
in heating cycle, 280
how it works, 280–281
overview, 279–281
payback from, 282–283
geothermal wells, 26
glass bricks in hallways used to enhance
sunlight, 178
glass jars, reusing, 217
glass windows, 105
global warming, 19, 44
government assistance
home-operated business advantages, 53–54
manufacturers’ rebates, 54
net metering, 54
overview, 51
property tax increases, protection from, 53
rebates, 52
researching, 55–56
subsidies for PV (photovoltaic) systems,
tax credits, 53
tax-deductible home-equity loans, 55
types of, 52–55
government-subsidized energy-efficiency
Energy Efficient Mortgages (EEMs), 58
financing through loans, 57–58
home energy ratings, 58
overview, 57
Green Building & Remodeling For Dummies
(Freed), 296, 308
green communities
air quality in, 292–293
housing designs in, 295–296
overview, 291–292
parks in, 296
public transportation in, 293
recycling programs in, 294–295
utility structures in, 294
water supply in, 295
greenhouse effect, 44, 111, 182
greenhouses, 190–192
greenwashing, 66
greywater recycle system, 148
ground-source heat pumps
advantages of, 288
choosing design of, 287
closed-loop piping system, 285
described, 281
disadvantages of, 288
horizontal piping loop system, 285, 286
installation, 287–288
open-loop piping system, 285, 286
overview, 284–286
vertical piping loop system, 285
habits, changing, 64
halogen light bulbs, 126
hard water, 144
healthy environment
cleaning products, using safe, 76
contaminants, 76–86
decluttering, tips for, 87
guidelines for, 75–76
toxic materials, storing, 76
ventilation, ensuring proper, 76
chimney effect, 110–111
how heat moves, 91
portable heaters, 109
from stoves, 239–240
from sunlight, 182
heat exchangers, 267
heat pumps
advantages of, 281–282
air-source heat pumps, 281, 283–284
disadvantages of, 282
ground-source heat pumps, 281, 284–288
overview, 281
heating elements, changing, 160–161
heating, ventilation and air conditioning
system. See HVAC system
Hedstrom, Gary (How to Fix Everything For
Dummies), 135, 146, 220
Hedstrom, Pam (How to Fix Everything For
Dummies), 135, 146, 220
high energy bills, reasons for, 39
hiring a HVAC contractor, 119–122
home energy audit
attic, 47
filters, 48
fireplace, 49
foundation and structural elements, 46–47
fuse box, 49
heating and cooling system, 48
inspection for, 46–49
insulation, 48
overview, 45–46
plumbing, 47
professional audit, 49–50
windows, 48
home energy ratings, 58
home equity loan, financing investments
with a, 71
home-operated business advantages, 53–54
homeowners’ association, contacting the
local, 302–303
homeowners in area, talking to, 303
hood awnings, 187
horizontal piping loop system, 285, 286
hot water
in dishwashers, 170–171
using warm or cold water instead of,
wasting water while waiting for, 147
hot water pipes, fitting insulating sleeves
on, 329
houseplants used to improve air quality, 212
housing designs in green communities,
How to Fix Everything For Dummies
(Hedstrom, Hedstrom, & Tremore), 135,
146, 220
how-it-looks factor, 64
how-it-smells factor, 64
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies
HUD (Department of Housing and Urban
Development), 58
human comfort
air circulation, 108
chimney effect, 110–111
greenhouse effect, 111
humidity, 108–110
overview, 108
portable heaters, 109
programmable thermostats, 111–112
varying temperature in different
rooms, 112
clothes dryers as source of, 109
dehumidifiers, 108, 109
exhaust fans used to remove, 110
overview, 108–109
in the summer, 109–110
in the winter, 110
HVAC contractor
bids for, comparing, 120
bids for, getting, 120
contract with, importance of, 121
hiring a, 119–122
interviewing, 121
overview, 119
working with, 121–122
HVAC (heating, ventilation and air
conditioning) system
air flow, restoring, 114
bends in ductwork, checking for too
many, 114
blockage in air ducts, checking for, 114
blocked or leaking ducts, checking for, 116
blocked registers, checking for, 114
blocked return air path, checking for, 114
breakers at main panel, checking, 115
buying a new, 118
chimney exhaust flue is clear, checking, 116
dirty coils, fins, filters, checking for, 114
ducts, inspecting and repairing, 98–99
electrostatic filters, 117
fan system used with stoves, 240
fiberglass filters, 117
filters, changing, 116, 329–330
gas is on, checking that the, 116
illness in family, calling a repairman
for, 117
inefficiency problems, solving common,
irregular flames from burners, calling a
repairman for, 116
loose joints, checking for, 114
materials for an energy-efficient
home, 310
outdoor equipment, cleaning, 116
overview, 31–32
pleated paper filters, 117
repairman, calling, 116–117
repairman, what to check before calling,
short cycling, calling a repairman for, 116
sooty accumulations, calling a repairman
for, 117
strange sounds, calling a repairman
for, 117
supplementing your existing, 118–119
thermostat, checking, 115
thermostat, repositioning, 115
troubleshooting, 113–117
tuning your, 330
water line is clear, checking, 116
window air conditioners for single
room, 113
hydroelectric generators, 26
hydronic systems, 265
advantages of, 258–259
overview, 18, 256–257
ICS (Integral Collector System) batch system,
illness in family, calling a HVAC system
repairman for, 117
import electricity as energy source, 19
improving energy efficiency
with electrical energy, 25–26
with invested energy, 27–28
with renewable forms of energy, 27
with sustainable forms of energy, 27
incandescent light bulbs, 125–126
inconvenience, 64
electrical grid inefficiencies, 13–14
HVAC system, 113–115
overview, 13
transportation inefficiencies, 14
inexperience, 64
infrared filtering glass, 185
inserts, 229–230
inspection for home energy audit, 46–49
costs, 63
ground-source heat pumps, 287–288
masonry heaters, 269
PV (photovoltaic) systems, 253–254
radiant heat floor systems, 266–267
insulated concrete form homes, 308
applying, 103–104
in attic, 101–102
in basement, 102
checking, 101–103
extruded foam insulation, 100–101
fiberglass, 100, 103
filling in gaps in, 326
home energy audit, 48
loose-fill insulation, 100
materials for an energy-efficient
home, 310
in old homes, 102
overview, 37, 99
in pipes, 103
for pools and spas, 165
R-value, increasing your, 99
sprayed urethane foam, 101
types of, 99–101
in walls, 102
water heaters, 161–162
and windows, 104–105
Integral Collector System (ICS) batch system,
intensity of lighting, 129
interest, 63
Internet, researching your subsidy options
on the, 56
interviewing HVAC contractor, 121
inverters, 252
invested energy, 27–28
ducts in HVAC system, sealing, 326–327
fluorescents, 328
hot water pipes, fitting insulating sleeves
on, 329
HVAC filters, changing, 329–330
HVAC system, tuning your, 330
insulation, filling in gaps in, 326
leaks, sealing, 326
low-flow showerheads, 327–328
motion sensors, 329
programmable thermostat, 325–326
irregular flames from burners, calling a
repairman for, 116
Japan, energy use by, 20
junk mail, eliminating, 215–216
kerosene, 36
Kill-a-Watt (P3 Company), 157
kilowatt hours (kWh), 21
kitchen exhaust vent, 197
labor efficiency
defined, 9–10
overview, 12
lamp style, 129
lampshades, 129
lawns, alternatives to, 152
overview, 38, 152, 340
sprinklers, 153
time of day for watering, 153
laser toner cartridges, 221
laundry, doing full load of, 333
lawn tools, 36
lawns, alternatives to, 152
Leadership in Energy and Environmental
Design (LEED), 295–296
attic air leaks, finding, 93–94
caulking used to fix, 96–98
cracks in your home, finding, 90
expandable foam sealant used to fix, 95–96
in faucets, 145–147
finding, 89–94
fixing, 94–98
overview, 89–90
pressure test used to find, 92–93
sealing, 326
weatherstripping used to fix, 95
leasing energy-efficient equipment, 59
less of everything, using, 214–217
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies
light bulbs, 37
light-emitting diodes (LEDs), 128
candles, 124–125, 130
cost of, calculating, 131–133
creative use of, 130
dimmer switches, 134–135
dimming, 130
double duty use of, 130
firelight, 124–125
fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), 127–128
halogen light bulbs, 126
incandescent light bulbs, 125–126
intensity of, 129
lamp style, 129
lampshades, 129
light-emitting diodes (LEDs), 128
motion detectors, 133–134
natural light, 124–125
night lights, 130
options for, 124–128
outdoor room created with, 130
overview, 123–124
reducing cost of, 133–135
sunlight, 124–125, 177–181
wattage, 129
whole-house lighting control systems, 135
line losses, 13
load size for washing machines,
adjusting, 166
loading dishwashers, 171
loans to buy energy-creating equipment, 37
local building codes and regulations, 302–303
location for your energy-efficient home
building department, contacting the
local, 302
experienced local contractors,
talking to, 303
future plans for area, 304–305
homeowners’ association, contacting the
local, 302–303
homeowners in area, talking to, 303
local building codes and regulations for,
measuring the energy-efficiency potential of
a lot, 303–305
overview, 301–302
prevailing winds, 304
solar exposures, 304
water rights and drainage, 304
locking closed windows, 333
loose joints, checking for, 114
loose-fill insulation, 100
low-flow showerheads, 327–328
lumber, making your own, 309
costs, 37, 64
pools and spas, 163, 165–166
water heaters, 160–161
windows, 105
manpower, 28
manufactured logs, 36
manufacturers’ rebates, 54
manure, burning, 277–278
masonry heaters
installation of, 269
overview, 267
wood stoves compared, 268
materials for an energy-efficient home
appliances, 310
construction materials, 308–310
flooring, 310
HVAC system, 310
insulation, 310
overview, 308
plumbing, 310
PV system, installing a, 311
swimming pool pump, 311
ventilation options, 310
window blinds, awnings, and
sunscreens, 310
measuring the energy-efficiency potential of a
lot, 303–305
mechanical filtration
activated carbon filtration, 143
filters, caring for, 145
overview, 142, 211
reverse osmosis (ultrafiltration), 144
virustat filters, 144
metered rates, 33
methane, 278
microbe contamination, 85–86
microwave, using your, 332
mirrors used to enhance sunlight, 178
month-by-month estimations of
energy usage, 37–38
monthly cost of equipment, determining, 38
mortgages for off-grid living, 299
motion detectors, 133–134
motion sensors, 329
multiple refrigerators, 170
NAESCO (National Association of Energy
Service Companies), 50
National Association of State Energy
Officials, 58
natural air movement
chimney effect, 196–198
optimizing, 199
overview, 193–194
prevailing winds, 194–195
natural gas
cost of, determining, 36
as energy source, 18
natural gas-powered generator, using a, 298
natural hazards, 84–86
natural light, 124–125
natural ways to improve air quality, 212
negative ion generators, 211
net metering, 54, 249–250
new equipment costs, determining, 37
night lights, 130
non-combustion processes, 20
nontraditional home construction methods,
North American home, energy usage in, 30
nuclear energy as energy source, 18
nuclear power plants, 26
off-grid living
batteries, disposal of, 299
cost of, 299
gasoline-powered generator, using a, 298
mortgages for, 299
natural gas-powered generator, using a, 298
options for, 297–298
overview, 297
ramifications of, 298–299
solar power systems, 298
oil-based paints, 79
old homes
insulation, 102
refurbishing, 296
old-style radiators, 264–265
online bill payments, 216
online newspapers, 216
open fireplaces, 225–227
open-loop piping system, 285, 286
open-vent stove system, 228
operating windows, 105
orientation of home, 305–306
oscillating fans, 203
outdoor blinds, 188
outdoor boilers, 274
outdoor equipment, cleaning, 116
outdoor room created with lighting, 130
outgassing, 77
output work, 11
oven cleaners, 79
ovens. See stoves
overgrowth, cutting back, 179
overhangs, 189–190, 338
over-packaged products, avoiding, 215
packing pellets, 218
paint, 218
paper products, cutting back on, 216–217
parks in green communities, 296
payback, 1, 63
pellet stoves
advantages of, 275
disadvantages of, 276
overview, 274
permits, 37, 63
pesticides, 79, 80
petroleum products as energy source, 18
photovoltaic systems. See PV (photovoltaic)
amount of water in, 159
insulation, 103
pleated paper filters, 117
home energy audit, 47
materials for an energy-efficient home, 310
pneumatically impacted stabilized earth
homes, 308
pollution efficiency
defined, 9–10
overview, 11
polyurethane caulk, 97
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies
pools and spas
insulation for, 165
maintenance for, 163, 165–166
overview, 162
solar pool covers, 163–165
solar swimming pool heater, 165
portable air conditioners, 36
portable heaters, 109
Portland, Oregon, 292
power bills, looking over, 316
power generator, 36
power lines, 26
power meter, 159
power transmission grid, 22
pressure cookers, 173
pressure test used to find leaks, 92–93
pressure-assist toilets, 151
prevailing winds, 194–195, 304
professional audit, 49–50
programmable thermostats, 111–112, 325–326
propane, 36
property tax increases, protection from, 53
property values, increasing, 251
public transportation in green
communities, 293
purified water, 140
purifying your drinking water
distilleries, 141
filtration systems, 141
mechanical filtration, 142–145
overview, 141–142
solar water purifier, 143
PV panels, 252
PV (photovoltaic) systems
advantages of, 249–251
disconnect switches, 252
government subsidies for, 250
installation, 253–254, 311
inverters, 252
net metering, 249–250
overview, 249, 335–336
parts of, 251–253
property values, increasing, 251
PV panels, 252
radiant barriers, 188–189
radiant heat floor systems
electric systems, 265
hydronic systems, 265
installation of, 266–267
overview, 265
types of, 265–266
radiant heating systems
advantages of, 263–264
masonry heaters, 267–269
old-style radiators, 264–265
overview, 263–264
radiant heat floor systems, 265–267
radiation, 91
radiator vents, clearing obstructions
from, 332
alpha-track devices used to test for, 84
charcoal detectors used to test for, 84
overview, 84
testing for, 84–85
rammed earth homes, 308
rate increases, protecting yourself against
future, 250–251
rate structures
changing, 65
combination structures, 35
cost of energy usage, 33–35
flat rates, 33
metered rates, 33
overview, 33–34
simple rate structure, 34
tiered structure, 34
time of payment, 34
time of use (TOU) structure, 35
unit costs, changes in, 34
raw energy costs, 21–22
real-world investment scenarios
broken equipment, replacing, 70
full-scale solar PV system, investing in a,
home equity loan, financing investments
with a, 71
overview, 68
solar system, supplementing an existing
water heater with a, 68–70
whole-house fan, 71
rebates, 52, 66
rechargeable batteries, 219–220
recording what you throw away, 213–214
appliances, 221
batteries, 221
books, 222
laser toner cartridges, 221
overview, 221–222
programs in green communities, 294–295
reducing cost of lighting, 133–135
door closed, keeping the, 170
multiple refrigerators, 170
overview, 169
temperature settings for, 169
refuse, 63
registers and chimney effect, 111
renewable forms of energy, 27
repair costs, 37
calling a, 116–117
what to check before calling a, 115–116
replacing existing systems for greater
efficiency, 15–16
replacing windows, 104–105
Residential Energy Services Network
(RESNET), 58
reusing items
building materials, buying used, 219
buying used items, 219
Christmas trees, 220
clothing, buying used, 219
coffee filters, reusable, 220
disposable items, avoiding, 219–220
donations, 220
fixing items, 220–221
furnace filters, reusable, 220
glass jars, 217
packing pellets, 218
paint, 218
rechargeable batteries, 219–220
sports equipment, buying used, 219
table scraps, 218
towels, old, 218
reverse osmosis (ultrafiltration), 144
ridge vent, 197
rinsing dishes, 171
risk, 60, 62, 79–81
roof vent, 197
rules and procedures for banks, 60
running toilet, fixing a, 150
R-value, increasing your, 99
Sacramento, California, 293
safety, 64, 241–242
salvage, selling, 66
San Francisco, California, 292
screen doors, 199
sealing your home
caulking, 96–98
expandable foam sealant, 95–96
HVAC ducts, inspecting and repairing, 98–99
leaks, finding, 89–94
leaks, fixing, 94–98
weatherstripping, 95
self-cleaning ovens, 172
selling your energy-efficient home, 321–322
septic tanks, 33
sewer service, 33
short cycling, calling a repairman for, 116
showers and baths, 147–149
silicon acrylic caulk, 97
simple rate structure, 34
single pane windows, 104
sink-topped toilets, 152
size of home, 305
skylights, installing, 180
soffit vent, 197
solar attic vent fans, 339–340
solar exposures, 304
solar investments
landscaping, 340
overhangs, 338
PV systems, 335–336
solar attic vent fans, 339–340
solar swimming pool heaters, 336
solar water heaters, 336–337
solar yard lights, 337
sunrooms, 338–339
swimming pool covers, 339
window blinds, 337–338
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies
solar light tubes, installing, 180–181
solar panels, 11, 27
solar pool covers, 163–165
solar pool pumps, 256
solar power
off-grid living, 298
overview, 19
solar power used to supplement hot water
closed-loop anti-freeze system, 247–249
drainback system, 246–247
ICS (Integral Collector System) batch
system, 244–246
overview, 243–244
Solar Power Your Home For Dummies
(DeGunther), 177, 243, 265, 303
solar PV systems. See PV (photovoltaic)
solar screens. See sunscreens
solar showering, 149
solar swimming pool heaters, 165, 336
solar system
to hedge against rising energy costs, 70
to increase your home’s value, 70
to offset higher charges in a tiered rate
billing system, 69
to reduce your carbon footprint, 69
to save money, 68
water heater, supplementing an existing,
solar system for swimming pool
complete system, 261–262
overview, 259
simple setup for, 259–260
tips for, 260
solar water heaters, 162, 336–337
solar water pumps, 255–256
solar water purifier, 143
solar yard lights, 337
sooty accumulations, calling a
repairman for, 117
space heaters, 36
spas. See pools and spas
spectrum, 124
sports equipment, buying used, 219
sprayed urethane foam, 101
sprinklers, 153
state agencies, 58
stock market, energy efficiency investments
compared with, 67
alternatives to, 172–173
ceiling fans used with, 239
chimney options for, 240–241
choosing, 238–241
closed-vent stove system, 229
convection ovens, 172
ecofans used with, 239
free-standing stoves, 229–230
gas ovens with pilotless ignition, 172
gas stoves, 236–237
heating with, 239–240
HVAC fan system used with, 240
inserts, 229–230
open-vent stove system, 228
overview, 172, 227–228
safety guidelines for, 241–242
self-cleaning ovens, 172
tips for saving energy with, 173
venting systems for, 228–229
wood-burning stoves, 230–236
strange sounds, calling a repairman for, 117
straw bale homes, 308
structural insulated panel homes, 308
subsidies, 66
blinds used to cool a room in, 184–185
humidity, 109–110
ventilation plan for, 209
whole-house fans used in, 204
awnings used to cover windows, 186–187
blinds, 183–185, 188
cleaning windows to enhance, 179
decorating to enhance natural light, 179
effectiveness of, increasing the, 178–179
glass bricks in hallways used to
enhance, 178
greenhouse effect, 182
greenhouses, 190–192
heating your home with, 182
infrared filtering glass, 185
lighting your home with, 177–181
mirrors used to enhance, 178
overgrowth, cutting back, 179
overhangs used to block, 189–190
overview, 124–125, 177
radiant barriers, 188–189
skylights, installing, 180
solar light tubes, installing, 180–181
sunroom, 190–192, 338–339
sunscreens, 183–186
tinting windows to reduce, 179
trees used to control, 178
windowed doors used to enhance, 178–179
sunrooms, 190–192, 338–339
overview, 183–184
putting up, 185–186
supplementing existing systems for greater
efficiency, 15–16
supplementing your existing HVAC system,
supplier loans, 57
sustainable forms of energy, 27
swamp coolers, 36
swimming pool covers, 339
swimming pool pump, 311
table scraps, 218
tank, draining the water heater, 160
tankless water heaters, 162
tap running, not leaving the, 147
tap water, 138
tax credits, 53
tax preparer, researching your subsidy
options with, 55
tax-deductible home-equity loans, 55
taxes, 37, 63
technology, incorporating
energy-efficient, 307
televisions, 173–174
temperature on water heater, lowering, 332
temperature settings for refrigerators, 169
for contaminated water, 141
for radon, 84–85
programmable thermostats, 111–112,
repositioning, 115
turning down, 331
tiered rate structure, 34
time, value of money over, 67
time of day for watering landscaping, 153
time of payment, 34
time of use (TOU) rate structure, 35
timers for water heaters, 161
tinting windows to reduce sunlight, 179
tips for saving energy. See energy-saving tips
toaster ovens, 172
compost toilets, 151
overview, 149
parts of, 149
pressure-assist toilets, 151
running toilet, fixing a, 150
sink-topped toilets, 152
updated designs for, 151
vacuum-assist toilets, 151
water usage, tips for decreasing, 150
tools for caulking, 97
towels, reusing old, 218
toxic materials, storing, 76
transportation inefficiencies, 14
trash runs to dump, 36
trees, 178, 334
Tremore, Judy Ondria (How to Fix Everything
For Dummies), 135, 146, 220
troubleshooting HVAC system, 113–117
two-valve faucet, 145
ultrafiltration, 144
unit costs, changes in, 34
United States, energy use by, 20
updated designs for toilets, 151
urban sprawl, 297
utility bills, 35–38, 65
utility companies
financing through loans by, 59
researching your subsidy options with, 55
utility structures in green communities, 294
vacuum cleaner bags changed to improve air
quality, 212
Energy Efficient Homes For Dummies
vacuum-assist toilets, 151
value of home, determining, 318–319
varying temperature in different rooms, 112
Venetian awnings, 187
ensuring proper, 76
options, 310
stoves, venting systems for, 228–229
used to minimize risk of volatile organic
compounds (VOCs), 80, 81
ventilation plan
creating a, 208
overview, 207
seasonal variations, accommodating, 209
for summer, 209
for winter, 209
bathroom exhaust vent, 197
gable vent, 197
kitchen exhaust vent, 197
ridge vent, 197
roof vent, 197
soffit vent, 197
whole house vent (with fan), 197
vertical piping loop system, 285
virustat filters, 144
visual inspection, 315
volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
in aerosol sprays, 79
in air fresheners, 79
in art supplies, 79
avoiding, 78–79
in carpets, 79
in ceramics, 79
in chlorine bleach, 78
in oil-based paints, 79
in oven cleaners, 79
overview, 78
in pesticides, 79
proper equipment used to minimize
risk of, 80
proper storage used to minimize risk of, 80
risk of, minimizing, 79–81
ventilation used to minimize risk of, 80, 81
walls and insulation, 102
costs, 63
for windows, 105
washing machines
cycles, choosing, 167
load size, adjusting, 166
overview, 166
water level, adjusting, 166
water temperature, changing, 166
water consumption
bottled water, 139
contaminated water, 140–141
faucets, 145–147
greywater recycle system, 148
hard water, 144
hot water, wasting water while
waiting for, 147
for landscaping, 152–153
overview, 137–138
purified water, 140
purifying your drinking water, 141–145
showers and baths, 147–149
tap running, not leaving the, 147
tap water, 138
toilets, 149–151
well water, 139
water heaters
heating elements, changing the, 160–161
insulation, adding, 161–162
lowering water temperature, 161
maintenance for, 160–161
overview, 158
pipes, amount of water in, 159
solar water heaters, 162
supplementing an existing, 68–70
tank, draining the, 160
tankless water heaters, 162
timers for, 161
water level of washing machine,
adjusting, 166
water power. See hydropower
water rights and drainage, 304
water softeners, 144
water supply in green communities, 295
water temperature
lowering, 161
in washing machine, 166
wattage, 129
weatherstripping, 95
well water, 139
Western Europe, energy use by, 20
whole-house fans, 71, 204
whole-house lighting control systems, 135
whole-house vent (with fan), 197
wind generators, 26
wind power
advantages of, 257
costs for, 258
disadvantages of, 257–258
overview, 19, 256–257
size of turbines for, 258
window air conditioners for single room, 113
window blinds. See blinds
window fans, 202
windowed doors used to enhance sunlight,
appearance of, 105
cleaning, 105
glass types, 105
home energy audit, 48
and insulation, 104–105
maintenance of, 105
opening, 199
operating, 105
overview, 104
replacing, 104–105
simple solutions for problem, 105
single pane windows, 104
warranties for, 105
blinds used to warm a room in, 184
humidity, 110
ventilation plan for, 209
whole-house fans used in, 204
wire runs, 306
wood for wood-burning stoves, 233–234, 235
wood pellets, 36
wood-burning stoves
advantages of, 230
biomass stoves compared, 273
disadvantages of, 231
maintaining, 235–236
masonry heaters compared, 268
overview, 33, 230–231
types of, 231–233
using, 234–235
wood for, 233–234, 235
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