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Energy Conservation: Our Greatest Resource, Part 7

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      Residential Energy Efficiency


In the last installments of this series we looked at energy savings in the transportation sector.  By taking simple steps, such as those already achieved in other countries, we could eliminate our addiction to foreign oil and put money in our pockets instead of Arab Sheiks.  We started with transportation as this is the largest sector that we have control over as individuals (at 28% of energy consumption in the US) and it is almost all petroleum.  In this installment we will look at residential energy consumption as it is the second largest sector that we have direct control over as individuals(at 22%).

The illustrations below show how we use energy in our homes and what the source of that energy is.[1]

Res charts

The good news is that the majority of energy used in our homes is natural gas which is abundant and inexpensive (at least as compared to oil) in the Northeast.  The bad news is that we have less motivation to improve energy efficiency.  The average American homeowner paid $2,535 for oil heat compared to $732 for natural gas last year.[2]  Our heating bills are higher in the Capital Region than the national average but we had an extraordinarily warm winter last year.  If you do heat with oil and have access to natural gas it is a no-brainer to convert to natural gas.  Besides saving money and reducing our dependence on foreign oil, natural gas reduces pollutants by as much as 84%.[3]

The best way to reduce your residential energy usage is to have a professional perform a comprehensive home energy assessment.  The ways to save energy in your home are too numerous to mention and are somewhat specific to your particular home and lifestyle.  NYSERDA  is an excellent resource for finding an energy auditor and has many programs to offset the initial cost of energy savings initiatives.[4] An energy assessment will pay for itself very quickly and you will benefit from energy savings as long as you own your home and your home will be more valuable if you sell it.  Nevertheless we will continue to explore obvious ways to save energy in your home in this installment of the series.

After heating, lighting and appliances consume the most energy in the home.  It is relatively easy to conserve lighting energy by using florescent or LED bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs.  CFL (compact florescent) bulbs are 4 times and LED bulbs can be 7 times more efficient than incandescent bulbs. Replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs will pay for itself in less than a year (assuming 3 hr/day usage).  There has been much propaganda about the possible danger of mercury in florescent bulbs, the truth is that we are exposed to much more mercury if you do to not use CFLs.[5]  This is because the extra electricity you waste results in more coal being burned to generate it which puts more mercury into the atmosphere (and onto our crops) than the tiny amount (less than 0.004 gram) that is in a florescent bulb.  This doesn’t even count the radiation and other toxins produced to generate the electricity you would waste.  Consider that “the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy’.[6]  This is especially important to us residents in the Northeast because we live downwind of coal fired power plants in the Midwest.  However, if you don’t want to use CFLs, really want to reduce energy & pollution and don’t mind a longer payback period, you should use LED bulbs.  The DOE estimates that we could save “approximately 190 terawatt-hours, or the equivalent annual electrical output of about 24 large power plants (1,000 MW electric)” by 2030 by using LED lighting.[7]

Efficient appliances can also save us a lot of energy, water and reduce pollution.  Using ENERGY STAR rated appliances can save as much as 50% energy and water.[8]  For example, a modern ENERGY STAR rated front loading washer not only saves energy and water but also detergent (and the resulting water pollution) and the faster spin cycle significantly reduces the amount of energy required to dry clothes.  Every appliance in your home is an opportunity to conserve energy, save money and reduce pollution.  NYSERDA is a treasure trove of information that you can use to save energy in your home.[9]

Even appliances and electronic devices that are not in use consume significant amount of electricity.  This is known as standby or vampire power.  Most things in your house that are plugged in and not turned on are still consuming power, especially if they are not ENERGY STAR rated.  This unnecessary waste accounts for 5-10% of total electricity consumption.[10]  If you need it occasionally put it on a power strip and turn it off when you aren’t using it. If you don’t need it unplug it. 

The graph below summarizes an unsurprising trend; our residential energy usage grows as our houses increase in size.[11]  The good news is that the era of the McMansion appears to be over as the size of new houses in the US (and the energy they consume) continues to decline from a maximum in 2007.

Res energy use vs size

Notice that residential energy consumption is falling off more rapidly than median house size.  This could be a sign of more efficient lights & appliances or maybe just common sense.  Maybe in an economic downturn people started turning off lights and other modern conveniences when they were not in use.  Perhaps we are beginning to realize that energy conservation is our greatest resource!

Another area of energy use we control is what we eat and how we eat it. See Nancy White’s, “Top Ten Ways to Save Food Energy.”

In the remaining installments of this series we will look at the remaining sectors of our economy: commercial and industrial.  So far we have taken simple steps to eliminate our addiction to foreign oil and save energy costs by as much as 50%.  Can we do the same in the commercial and industrial sectors?

Note: This series is based on a presentation I have given. I welcome opportunities to deliver it personally to groups of 20 or more. If your group is interested, please contact me through the Member email.

Dave Hauber is Director of Technology at Automated Dynamics in Schenectady, NY.  He has over 40 years of experience in advanced materials, composites, textile R&D, control systems, robotics, lasers, ultrasonics, and industrial automation.  BS Physics and MA Business. He lives in Troy, NY. He can be reached through Member email or commenting here.


[1] EIA Residential Energy Consumption Survey 2005


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