Mike Rogers sees it all too often: Homeowners want to reduce their high energy bills, so they immediately order new windows.
This is the wrong approach, says Rogers, vice president of Irvine, Calif.-based GreenHomes America, which conducts energy audits for homeowners. New windows actually do little to lower home energy bills. Homeowners who want to create a truly energy-efficient residence should instead look toward their attics, ductwork and crawlspaces, the areas where hot and cool air is usually lost.
"It's not sexy, but if you can keep forced air, whether you're cooling your home or heating it, from escaping through your attic or ductwork, you'll have a tremendous impact on the amount of energy your home consumes," Rogers says.
Lowering energy bills isn't always about investing in the latest technology or the trendiest green home products. Owners can often make the biggest impact with a less glamorous approach.
Here are six decidedly low-tech ways to transform your home into a model of energy efficiency.
Insulation: There's nothing glamorous about insulation; just ask anyone who's struggled to install the fluffy, pink stuff in their crawlspaces. But homes that are not well-insulated will lose heat in the winter and cool air in the summer. This results in air-conditioning units and furnaces that work too hard, consuming too much energy as they do so. That's why Scott Carr, division manager with Standard Energy Solutions, a division of Rockville, Md.-based Standard Solar, recommends that homeowners make sure their entire house is properly insulated either with the help of a professional or on their own. This includes the attic and crawlspaces.
"Most people have a lot of voids in their insulation," Carr says. "These are the areas where air is leaking in and out of the building. You spend a lot of money to condition the air inside. You're wasting that money when the air is just leaking to the outside."
Ductwork: Folks might not like spending time in the attic, but many homes consume more energy than they have to because ducts traveling through the attic (and the basement) are leaking hot and cool air.
Rogers says 25 to 30 percent of the air moving through ducts actually leaks. Homeowners can remedy this problem this by regularly inspecting air ducts for leaks or loose joints, then repairing these weak spots.
Avoid duct tape, however. Instead, Rogers says to rely on a compound known as "mastic," a goopy paste found at hardware stores. By smearing this paste around joints and leaky ducts, homeowners will take a big step toward lowering energy bills.
Efficient appliances: The right appliance, whether it's a dishwasher, refrigerator or hot water heater, can make a dramatic impact on home energy bills. Always look for the Energy Star label when buying a new home appliance. The Energy Star seal of approval indicates a product is considered energy-efficient by the federal government.
Bruce Harley, technical director of Conservation Services Group, which helps homeowners reduce their energy bills, says consumers should purchase appliances with the best energy efficiency ratings they can afford. The payback for the extra amount of money homeowners spend will come quickly as their energy bills shrink, says Harley, whose firm is based in Westborough, Mass.
Harley also recommends homeowners avoid waiting until their furnace, refrigerator or hot water heater breaks before buying a replacement: That often results in a panic buy. Instead, homeowners should schedule regular heating and cooling checkups by HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) technicians. When these checkups determine a machine is no longer operating efficiently or is nearing the end of its lifecycle, start shopping around for a replacement.
"If your furnace breaks the day before Thanksgiving, something that seems to happen a lot," Harley says, "you'll usually end up with whatever the service person has in the back of his truck, and that might not be the most efficient appliance."
Exterior envelope: Homeowners might be surprised at the number of small holes in their attics that let the air inside a home leak outside. These faults in a home's exterior envelope can suck the energy efficiency right out.
"We've seen openings in people's attics where you can stick your arm through or even crawl right through them," Harley says.
The challenge is that many homeowners don't visit their attics unless they have to. That's not surprising since most attics, as Harley says, are "nasty places." But homeowners truly worried about energy bills should either tour their attics themselves or hire a contractor to find and patch the holes in it.
Light fixtures: Lighting can also play a major role in reducing a home's energy bills. Carr recommends homeowners install energy-efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs, better known as CFLs, throughout their residences.
A CFL bulb can save more than $40 in electricity costs over its lifetime, according to Energy Star, and each bulb uses about 75 percent less energy than do standard incandescent bulbs. They also last up to 10 times longer. And these bulbs aren't hot; Energy Star officials estimate CFLs produce about 75 percent less heat than standard bulbs do, which can ease cooling costs.
Home energy audit: No one likes to get audited by the IRS. But an audit from an energy consultant? That can actually save you money.
Carr's company specializes in energy audits of residential homes. Company employees inspect the home both inside and outside, looking for everything from leaky air ducts to missing insulation to furnaces long past their prime.
The goal is to tell homeowners exactly what steps they can take to boost their home's energy efficiency and lower their energy bills.
Such an audit can turn up surprising news.
"Homeowners might realize that a room in their home never seems to get cold in the summer or hot in the winter," Carr says. "But they won't know it's because their ductwork has been damaged or because there's a hole they didn't know about in the attic. An energy audit can find these problems for homeowners and tell them how to fix them."
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