Green Light

Energy crisis?

This phrase makes the nightly news every week. The rising costs of nearly everything, including food, gasoline and home energy, has become a slow, insidious flood of its own that shows no signs of receding during the long winter months ahead. Both presidential candidates produce sound bites saying they understand the challenges facing ordinary citizens. Each promotes his plan to help us cope with rising utility bills.

However, the election is still a month away, whomever wins won’t take office until the dead of winter and Congress will have to actually agree on a bill before any legislative help reaches the American people. Where does that leave us?

You might think that your home energy usage is just a drop in a very big bucket. But according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Home Energy Saver website, nearly 25 percent of the U.S. energy bill is attributed to households.

Closer to home

In fact, the site calculates the average energy bill for Iowa City homeowners at $1802/year (adding up energy used for heating, cooling, water heating, major appliances, small appliances and lighting). Sound about right? On the other hand, the average energy costs of an efficient Iowa City home are $897/year. Where does your home weigh in?

If you’re like most of us, you’re leaving a potential savings of $905 on the table each year.

Want to cut your energy bill in half? Then maybe it’s time to take a proactive approach to energy conservation and do your part to lower those worrisome bills. Websites are springing up right and left with helpful suggestions to lower your energy consumption.

With all these options, how will some homeowners might know where to start? How do you know whether your green investment will pay for itself?

Here’s a snapshot of energy saving tips for your home:

Starting Today . . .

  • Use Your Dishwasher (full loads only): The machine actually uses less water than doing dishes by hand, saving more than 2,000 gallons/year on average.
  • Keep Lamps Away From Thermostats: The heat produced can cause your furnace to run less than needed or your air conditioner more than needed.
  • Dust Light Fixtures: A heavy coat of dust can block up to 50 percent of the light output.
  • Lighten Your Home Décor: Pale colors on walls, ceilings and floors, and high-gloss paint reflect more light, so you can use lower wattage bulbs and delay turning on lights.Cover Up Your Cooking: Use lids on pots and pans to reduces cooking times.
  • Use Fans With Your AC: By circulating the air you can set the thermostat up to five degrees higher and maintain the same comfort level.
  • Clean Your Lint Trap: Lower your energy bill by cleaning your clothes dryer’s lint trap before every load to improve air circulation and cut down on energy-wasting drying time.
  • Don’t Overdry Clothes: Operating the dryer for an extra 15 minutes per load can cost as much as $34 per year.
  • Remember Your Computer: Enabling your computer and monitor’s power management features so they go into sleep mode when idle (no screen savers) can save from $25 to $75 each year in energy costs. Also, turn off computers and peripherals at night.
  • Think Old-fashioned: Use reel mowers, manual can openers, carpet sweepers, whisks and wooden spoons instead of electric mixers.

On Your Next Shopping Trip . . .

  • Switch to Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) Bulbs: They last 10 times longer than ordinary bulbs and use 75 percent less energy. You’ll save $40 over the life of just one bulb!
  • Install Dimmer Switches: Can’t or won’t go with CFLs? Use dimmer switches to shave a bit off an incandescent bulb’s energy use and makes the bulb last longer (Note: Most compact fluorescent bulbs can’t be used with dimmer switches).
  • Check Your Furnace Filter: A dirty filter can make your furnace and central air conditioner run harder, quickly reducing its operating efficiency and life span.
  • Winterize Your Home: Plastic sheeting and caulking on windows will cost about $50, but you can save two to three times that much in energy savings in just one winter.
  • Reduce Outside Lighting: Install motion sensors, photocell controls or timers so outdoor lights are only on when needed.
  • Get a Programmable Thermostat: This device can reduce energy bills by as much as $150 a year by automatically adjusting the temperature when you leave the house or go to sleep.

Long-term Payback . . .

  • Do Some Landscaping: Trees and shrubs can provide windbreaks and shade to help reduce your heating and cooling costs. Keep an eye out for tree giveaways and savings sponsored by local energy companies and conservation organizations.
  • Look for the Energy Star: Sometimes to save a lot, you have to spend a little. Energy Star-qualified appliances may cost a bit more than standard models, but they use 10 to 50 percent less energy and water, which means more money in your pocket year after year.
  • Check Your Ducts: Get your ductwork routinely checked for leakage, especially when installing a new heating and cooling system.
  • Upgrade Your Fridge: You should consider replacing it if it is more than 15 years old. New efficiency standards went into effect in 1993, and older units are typically two to three time more expensive to run than new ones.
  • Install a New Generation Attic Fan: Solar-powered attic fans exhaust hot air and help keep your home comfortable while reducing cooling costs.
  • Replace Old Windows: To keep heat inside during winter and outside in the summer, choose double-pane windows with an appropriate energy rating for our climate.
  • Consider Radiant Flooring: Unlike forced-air systems, radiant floor heating doesn’t blow dust and other allergens around. Thanks to warm water circulating in flexible tubing installed under the floor, heat radiates evenly up through the floor, providing quiet, even warmth while using less energy.
  • Reflect the Heat: Attic radiant barriers can help keep homes comfortable and reduce cooling bills. Made of a reflective foil, radiant barriers block the transfer of radiant heat from a hot roof into the attic.
  • Think Beyond Shingles: Cool roof products come in a variety of colors and materials (including ceramic or concrete tiles, metal and synthetic membranes) and reflect more of the sun’s heat, lowering the roof’s temperature by up to 100 degrees.

Audit: It’s not a dirty word

MidAmerican Energy understands conserving energy can be an intimidating task, and the company’s supplying experts so you don’t have to do it alone. In fact, with the Energy Advantage® program, you won’t even have to pay for it alone. The power company offers two options that help homeowners calculate the potential savings/costs of improving their property’s energy efficiency: HomeCheck® Online Audit or For Your Home.

The online audit asks you a series of questions about your home and then provides an appliance calculators to show you how much you can save by replacing old appliances; a comparison of your energy bills for the past year to the average home of similar size; and tips on how to make your interior lighting and heating and cooling system more efficient.

Your other option—and my personal favorite—is the on-site energy audit, available for any property that’s at least 10 years old. Here’s how it works: MidAmerican hires an independent energy specialist to make a personal visit to your home and give you a free energy assessment.

While the auditor’s there, he’ll also install a bunch of freebees to lower your energy cost right away, including:

  • A water heater insulation blanket
  • Six feet of water pipe insulation
  • Up to two low-flow faucet aerators
  • Up to two low-flow shower heads
  • A waterbed mattress pad (if you need one
  • Up to six energy-efficient light bulbs
  • A programmable thermostat (for only $30)

In addition to these immediate improvements, your energy auditor will also review the status of your insulation. If it’s not up to snuff, he’ll refer you to a local insulation contractor and estimate the cost of the work, the rebates you’re eligible for and the overall savings you can expect. And did I mention that MidAmerican will pay up to 70 percent of the instillation costs for basement insulation and 70 percent of any wall and attic insulation (maximum of $600 each)?

Auditors have noticed that more and more Iowa City households are buying compact florescent light bulbs and low-flow showerheads of some kind, according to energy expert Alan Dornick. But homeowners can do a lot more to lower their heating and cooling bills.

“We rarely see low-flow faucet aerators or pipe insulation on the hot water line. And approximately 80 percent of the homes need some kind of insulation work, either in the attic, side walls or basement.”

If your primary heating energy is supplied by MidAmerican, you can call 800-545-0762 to schedule your own energy audit. Don’t wait too long, though. As winter approaches and energy bills increase, appointments are likely to fill up quickly.

If all American homeowners made their homes more efficient, the Department of Energy estimates a national energy savings of $100 billion between 1998 and 2010. Not a bad drop in the bucket!

Website Resources:
U.S. Department of Energy’s Home Energy Savings Website
ENERGY STAR Website (a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy)
The U.S. Green Building Council’s Green Home Guide
MidAmerican Energy Company
Alliant Energy