by Phil Coleman
In Woody Allen’s 1977 masterpiece, “Annie Hall,” the lead character, Alvy Singer, introduces the film by comparing life to the dialogue between two old women eating in a familiar restaurant. One says “The food’s no good at this place,” and the other replies “Yeah, I know; and such small portions ….” Home heating shares some aspects with this parable: The house is always cold … and it’s so expensive!
So the question faced each winter is how do you keep your house comfortable and keep the winter heating bills down? The answers are probably much easier (and affordable) than you think. But first you have to sift through the myths and misconceptions that run rampant in the popular discourse on home energy. Let’s start out by eliminating the three greatest myths about what you should do to save money to heat your home.
First Myth, new windows:
Properly installed new windows, with double panes (and gas fills between), will reduce draftiness as well as conductive and radiative heat losses that make it uncomfortable to sit near them. This will save you significantly on your energy bill (though almost never as much as their purveyors claim). If you want new windows for aesthetic or comfort reasons, that’s terrific, but don’t expect to get an attractive payback. The windows will likely take a quarter to a half century to pay for themselves in energy savings. Beware, too, that the federal tax credit, once 30%, is now just 10%, and only covers “one size fits all” windows. These windows block entering solar radiation very much needed in the winter time due to a requirement, sensible only in warm climates, for low solar heat gain coefficients. N.B.: I’m considering replacing several windows in my house and plan to forgo that tax credit in favor of high SHGC windows that let me take advantage of the winter sun (I use blinds to reflect it in the summer).
Second Myth is geothermal:
a/k/a ground source, heat pumps (GSHPs, for short): For a typical residence in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, a new installation will run about $25,000, give or take roughly $5,000. A GSHP is an elegant system that takes advantage of the fact that the ground’s temperature is fairly constant, at approximately the average year-round air temperature, starting about six feet below ground. Consequently, instead of trying to purge heat into 95 degree outdoor conditions in air-conditioning mode or extract it from 20 degree conditions in heating mode (as the outdoor “condensing unit” of a conventional air-source heat pump does), your system is taking advantage of year-round ground temperatures in the low 50s. That’s the good news. The bad news is that all this will likely only result in $1,000 to $1,500 of savings each year for a standard Swarthmore residence with a typical heating and cooling profile. In other words, the simple payback time is approximately 15-25 years – hopefully within your lifetime, but not attractive. However, there are some caveats: Those savings figures assume that you currently heat with natural gas and cool with a typical electric system. If you’re heating with oil, which now costs about three times what natural gas does per unit of energy, your savings will likely be more in the $2,000-3,000 range, bringing the payback time down to the ten-year range. An incentive from PECO and a generous federal tax credit (of 30%) will make the system more economical still. So if you’re using oil, a GSHP system may well be an attractive investment. And better yet, if you’re living in an all-electric house (with an air-source heat pump or electric baseboards) and you can afford the up-front cost, absolutely, do it. But it just won’t make economic sense if you’ve got natural gas and a typical heating and cooling system.
Third Myth, solar photovoltaic panels:
A typical rooftop PV system of three kilowatts will cost you about $25,000 and produce maybe 3,500 kWh of electricity each year. At current electric rates, that’ll save you about $600 per year. In other words, the simple payback time is about 40 years, by which time, if you own a home in Swarthmore, you’ll most likely be (with all apologies) dead. There is a $2,000 tax credit available, as well as some incentives in Pennsylvania that can sweeten the deal (for the panels, not your life expectancy), but they’ve gone down recently, and even if restored to their highest levels, would still leave you looking at about a 10- to 15-year payback.
I intend no slight against anyone who has installed one of these systems, I just would never recommend them, at least to anyone in the 99% cohort; if you’re part of that 1% and want to get a system, more power to you (electrical, that is – not political: you’ve already got plenty of that).
Okay, enough with the naysaying.
The good news is that your winter energy bill is not an intractable monthly penalty and can be cost-effectively reduced. Here are five no- and low-cost things that you can do, starting this weekend, to cut your home heating bill by up to 15-20% (assuming you’re not doing any of them already).
1) “Fenestration” (windows, doors, and skylights) is a euphemism for poorly insulated, leaky apertures in your house. To minimize the losses from fenestration, here are some simple measures you can take:
• close your windows and doors (including storms) fully, and lock the windows (which tightens the air seal) – this will not only save energy but cut down on uncomfortable drafts;
• pull blinds and curtains closed at night … but make sure to open them in order to maximize sunlight coming in through (mostly south-facing) windows during the day.
2) Air sealing – caulking and weatherstripping – is another way to minimize air infiltration through fenestration and other areas of your house (e.g., joints between walls and other architectural features like counters or window trim). Swarthmore Hardware and Home Depot carry ample varieties of these simple products. Apply wherever you feel cold air coming through.
3) Programmable thermostats – get ‘em and set ‘em. They can be confusing and hard to program (don’t throw away the manual!), but if used properly – i.e., set back substantially overnight and when the house is vacant – can save you on the order of $200 per year. Regarding setting, bear in mind that most have a basic logic that each day consists of four periods – wake, leave, return, and sleep. They also permit single period and permanent overrides. Most good ones cost on the order of $50-100 and can be installed by your electrician for a similar bill. In other words, given the savings, payback periods are usually less than one year. N.B.: If you’re not programming your existing programmable thermostat because it’s too confusing (a very common problem and much of the reason that the EPA suspended its Energy Star t-stat program two years ago) and you can’t locate the manual, go on-line and use the manufacturer and model number to find and download it.
4) Basic equipment servicing:
• for forced-air systems, open and clear registers of obstructions and replace air handler filters monthly during peak season (December through mid-March);
• for hot water radiators, go to the top of the house, and use the key or allen wrench to bleed air out of the system;
• consider a service visit if you have a trusted mechanical contractor – they can check for proper combustion, along with fan or pump operations.
5) Kitchen behavior – think about the energy implications of your cooking routines:
• Stove top: Boiling water for pasta, vegetables, etc.? Drain it into a mixing or other bowl and leave on counter until it’s cooled to room temperature. Otherwise, you’re dumping that heat and humidity down the sink and instead paying again to generate it in your basement.
• Oven: Use gas before electric (e.g., toaster ovens) because the latter’s about five times more expensive for the same amount of heat. Then, when finished cooking, leave the oven door open to facilitate the heat coming into the house (and not being conducted out exterior walls). Stop pre-heating, which is warranted only for precision cooking like baking.
• Leftovers: Leave them on the countertop and only refrigerate once they’ve cooled down near room temperature. You get the heat directly in your kitchen without having to pay the refrigerator for the privilege.
And lastly, probably the best thing you can do to lower your energy bills in both summer and winter is to get an energy assessment of your house. Although this one’s not quite in the same low-cost category, through the Department of Energy-sponsored EnergyWorks program (www.energyworksnow.com) offered in the five-county Philadelphia area, you can now get an assessment for $150 – about $300 less than an unsubsidized price. All contractors in the program are certified and closely monitored for the quality of their work. And any improvements they recommend (such as additional wall insulation or a new condensing gas furnace) that you choose to pursue can be financed through a program-affiliated loan program for 0.99% interest. [Update: as of August 31, 2013, the subsidized energy audits have been discontinued, but financing is still available for qualified projects via the Keystone HELP program.]
Later in Annie Hall, Alvy Singer explains: “Everything our parents said was good is bad – sun, milk, red meat … college.” Similarly with home energy, beware the conventional antidotes for an energy-inefficient home: the best ones are cheap and simple.
Phil Coleman is President of aFewSteps.org and is an energy analyst with Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, an arm of the Department of Energy. He develops energy saving plans for Federal buildings.